By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Translation ‘Completely Shaped My Career’Tuesday night’s (October 30) Words Without Borders Gala and Globe Trot in New York City is special for the fact that the non-profit—dedicated to “cultural understanding through the translation, publication, and promotion of the finest contemporary international literature”—is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
As announced by Publishing Perspectives, the evening includes the presentation by Deep Ellum’s Will Evans and Atria Books’ Rakesh Satyal of the Ottaway Award to Chad W. Post, long a central figure in the translation community and publishing industry of the United States. The honor is named for James H. Ottaway, vice chairman of tonight’s event and the first chairman of Words Without Borders.
Previously named recipients include Jill Schoolman, Barbara Epler, Sara Bershtel, the late Carol Brown Janeway, and Drenka Willen.
“Oh man, it’s impossible for me to imagine a scenario where I’m like, ‘We have more than enough readers and listeners!'”Chad Post
Since 2007, Post has directed Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. Under Post’s direction, Open Letter has published more than 100 books from at least 44 countries and in 26 languages.
Post is also the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog, podcast, and review site that promotes literature in translation and has generated a number of related projects, including the Translation Database and its Best Translated Book Awards, among the most prestigious awards for international literature.
Ahead of tonight’s festivities, Publishing Perspectives put several questions to Post, and we started by asking about the origins of his interest in translated literature.
‘An International Fiction Section’
Chad Post: There are really three things that led to my translation interest, the first being my attempt to read “Continuity of the Parks” by [the Argentinian writer] Julio Cortázar in a college Spanish class. I remember working my way through this and thinking, “Either my Spanish is way worse than I think it is, or this is one of the coolest stories ever.”
After graduating, I went on a Cortázar bender, which lead to reading a ton of other Latin American writers who I never encountered in college, and this culminated in my organizing an “International Fiction” section at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina.
At that time, I was really into the Oulipo—especially all the Queneau books from Dalkey Archive—and ended up getting a fellowship to work for Dalkey. That became a full-time job, one that included traveling to probably a dozen different countries to learn about different literary scenes. If Cortázar didn’t already have me hooked, these experiences—and the books that I found—completely shaped the rest of my career.
Publishing Perspectives: Having become the de facto repository for what understanding we have of the States’ status in terms of literary translation, what sort of funding support has materialized—or not—for your Translation Database?
CP: The Translation Database was something I started after a conversation with Eliot Weinberger about the infamous 3 percent statistic. That number has floated around for a while, but never with any granular detail. Since I’m both a data nerd and a bit of a masochist, I decided to try and track down every first-time translation of fiction and poetry for 2008.
It was a painstaking, difficult process getting it started, but the results were fascinating, and I wanted to keep going so that we could see how this part of the industry evolved over time.
It’s been an incredibly useful resource for talking to funders, doing research on what’s being translated, etc., but it’s never been funded directly by any foundation. It’s now at Publishers Weekly, which has helped covert it into a database that any and everyone can search and get instant results.
PP: With your expanded operations—the press, the podcasts—are you seeing the response you wanted? How well are things going with these efforts?
CP: Oh man, it’s impossible for me to imagine a scenario where I’m like, “We have more than enough readers and listeners!”
We’ve had great sales success with some of our books—Zone, Death in Spring, The Physics of Sorrow come to mind—and great critical success with those and others—Chronicle of the Murdered House, Dubravka Ugresic’s books, etc. But I still dream of someday seeing one of our books on The New York Times bestseller list. Or, more realistically, seeing some random person on a New York subway reading one of our titles. That’s something I’ve been waiting for for years.
In terms of the podcast, I’m always amazed by the number of people at AWP [the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual event) or other conferences who come up and say things like, “I knew that was you, because I recognize your voice from listening to Three Percent!” That’s hugely gratifying.
And given how well some of the books featured on the Two Month Review have been selling thanks to that podcast, we’ve decided to keep it up—with Open Letter titles and ones from other publishers—indefinitely.
It’s incredibly fun to produce, very gratifying to read a few books a year in this slowed-down, compulsive way, and totally evergreen. My dream is that five years from now someone will discover Mercè Rodoreda and listen to all of our episodes on her as if they were part of the world’s longest book club or something.
PP: There’s an idea that people in the United States might be prompted to reach out for translations in an effort to counter isolationism and find connections that we’ve rarely seemed to need more than now. Is there such an impulse out there?
CP: Possibly. I don’t have any hard data, although there’s the cliché that people are more interested in international literature in times of a repressive administration, or a war. But that’s all anecdotal, and for much of 2016 and 2017, I saw a bit of the opposite—people not reading at all because there were more important things to be doing.
It’s a tough situation for anyone who wants to bring sanity back to the world, yet derives a lot of pleasure from sitting in a room alone reading a story.
There is great value in learning about the world, in empathizing with various international viewpoints and characters, and in learning new ways to think about and describe one’s experiences, but at the same time, we’re besieged with crazy, and should be standing up to it through protests and community building.
I can’t fault anyone who says that they put aside reading to help refugees, and wouldn’t fault anyone who took a few hours off every day to get lost in an amazing novel.
‘So Many New Presses Doing Translations’
PP: Which brings us to the galling 3-percent question, of course. Not that we can ever know for sure what percentage of all read and/or bought content is in translation, we like to think that more Americans are reading translation. From where you sit, are there signs of progress?
CP: Definitely. Average sales of individual titles in translation probably hasn’t changed that much, but in the aggregate, more booksellers are promoting translations, fewer people are “scared” of them, and many, many more authors and books have broken out in recent years than in the past. Ferrante, Knausgård, Bolaño, and Steig Larsson, obviously.
With so many new presses out there doing translations, and so many more options and ways of reaching different readerships, I think the audience is expanding at a steady clip. It also helps that there are so many new translators, new programs in translation, new journals and sites—it’s an exciting time to be involved in this part of publishing.
PP: And to build on that trend, what do we need to see happen in publishing now?
“More booksellers are promoting translations, fewer people are ‘scared’ of them, and many, many more authors and books have broken out in recent years than in the past.”Chad Post
CP: More support for nonprofit publishers to focus on audience development instead of simply production.
Even going beyond translations, but to the literary scene itself, a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires could throw a bit of “pocket change” (like, say, $5 million a year) at the 10 to 20 best nonprofits in the country and the literary scene would change overnight.
We’re all taxed, resource-wise. It’s hard to get really smart people to stay in the field, and our marketing capabilities are a fraction of what the commercial presses have.
More funding for these presses and more communication between these organizations could change everything.