“We Don’t Want to Publish the Estonian Jonathan Franzen”: Three Percent’s Chad W. Post
These days, a fatalistic refrain echoes around the publishing industry: there are more writers now than readers. The sentiment doesn’t bode well for American books, much less for works in translation. But scan the past years’ collection of best sellers and a number of international titles jump out: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, almost anything by Roberto Bolaño, and Haruki Murakami is as close to a celebrity as a writer can come. It’s evident that Americans readers do have a thirst for some translated literature. The only question is how to lead them to the water to drink.
Chad W. Post has carved out an important space for international literature. He is the publisher at the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books, which publishes ten titles in translation each year. He also edits, blogs, and reviews books for Three Percent, bringing attention to international literature that might otherwise be overlooked. In the following interview, Post discusses the landscape of international literature, the impact of his organization’s work, and his hopes for the future of translation and world literature.
Since its launch in 2007, how has Three Percent impacted modern and contemporary literature in translation?
We’ve been a part of the growing tide of publications that have helped bring attention to great voices from around the world, in a way that demonstrates to readers that translation isn’t scary, that reading a book from Romania can be fun. In a practical sense, we’ve become a leading outlet for book reviews of international fiction coming out from smaller, university presses. We created the Translation Database to quantify and track all original translations available to American readers. Most importantly, we launched the Best Translated Book Award, which has brought significant attention and prize money to works in translation.
What does translated international literature bring to American readers, that they might not have had access to otherwise? What might Americans still be missing out on, since only a small percentage of the literature published each year is translated?
The main thing it brings is a sense of the new. International literature can help revitalize a literary scene by presenting it with new topics, new structures, new styles, and new ways of writing about life. Without it, American authors end up repeating each other in predictable, MFA-sanctioned ways. No one wants that.
I received a call from The New Yorker a few weeks back in which the reporter admitted that no one in the newsroom had ever even heard of Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano. I had. A lot of people I work with have. But not the writers at one of the most influential publications in America. I’m not sure we need to focus so much on what we’re “missing” due to the paucity of translations, but how the books that do make their way over to America go “missing” in the bookstores and critical conversations.How do you select the books that you feature on your blog? Are you looking for any criteria in particular, besides the fact that a work is translated?
That depends. In terms of reviews, we try and match up interesting sounding books — “interesting” in the broadest sense possible — with reviewers who are excited about particular titles and want to present them to readers. When it comes to my own writing on the blog — like my monthly translation previews, which, granted, are equal parts creative joke-making on my part and genuine previews of forthcoming titles — I pick out the books that I personally want to read. These are usually strange books, books translated by people I respect, authors I’ve heard of and either love or want to discover, titles that others might pass on by. I have to admit that over the past year of writing up these previews, I’ve never had a hard time finding ten translations that I want to feature in a given month. More often than not, I’m cutting out books that deserve a plug. And this goes back to the earlier question—we need to pay more attention to what we have available.
What is the state of translated literature in 2014? Would you still agree with the assessment that only three percent of international literature is translated? Who is reading it?
It’s probably less than three percent, depending on what you count as a “book.” If you include self-published works (of translation and not) then the percentage of translated works published in America is probably like .001 percent. But of fiction and poetry, we are right at that three percent figure.
Are more people reading international literature? Maybe. I’d like to hope that everyone’s efforts have resulted in more translations being stocked in stores, more readers being willing to take a chance on something from a foreign country, etc. But most likely, literary readers — who read all forms of literature regardless of original language — are reading deeper. Finding books that may have passed by unnoticed a decade ago, and finding other readers to share their thoughts with.
Have you noticed any thematic trends in the international literature that’s come out in the past four years? Anything that indicates these books speak to global concerns?
Aside from the popularity of Scandinavian crime? Which is interesting because it points to the fact that people aren’t afraid of international literature as long as it’s a form with which they are familiar. More likely that they’re afraid of “difficult” books, whether they are written in English or Estonian.
One thing that I find interesting is how many unique, incredible Spanish-language authors are coming out these days. Sure, this is a post-Bolaño thing, but at the same time, I think editors are finding that there’s a wealth of great Spanish-language material deserving an English readership. Because of the interest and focus on international literature, editors are in a much better position to find books from all corners of the world. This enabling of editors is a trend that I like.
As a publisher, do you ever experience anxiety about the amount of international literature the American reader might never see?
Are there great books readers don’t currently have access to? Sure. But I’d rather talk about what we have, about all the new presses starting up (New Vessel! Deep Vellum!), and about new books we should all be reading. Sure, I’d like more things to get translated, but I think the best path to accomplishing that is to get more readers reading and talking about the books that are available.
What are some of the biggest challenges literary translation publishers/presses face?
Money and coverage, which all comes back to money. Here’s a perspective for you: an average translation from a non-Big Five press (or even from a big press, because with the exception of Murakami, books don’t sell very well), will sell about 1,000 copies. How can we adequately compensate the artists involved—the author, the translator—with such modest sales? Grants make all the difference for a press like ours, but it would be great if this number were closer to 3,000 or 5,000. But how do we get there?
Book coverage is at all all-time low in America and even the biggest of publishers complain about the difficulties of getting a book to break out.
Aside from compensating translators, I really want people to read our books! I’m publishing them because I think they’re phenomenally good and I want to share that. With, like, 20,000 readers!
What are some of the biggest challenges translators face?
Money is still an issue, although in a different way for translators. They’re frequently working a full-time job in order to get the money so that they can translate. The world we live in doesn’t benefit artists as much as it could or should.
The other problem I think they face is breaking into the field and getting editors to notice their work. Granted, an editor will jump at a spectacular book with good sales potential, but frequently these come to us via translators. Publishing is a personal business. The more people you know, the better off you are with getting your work noticed. That’s tough, but places like ALTA, like Words Without Borders, and all the new translation programs (like the one I’m involved with here at the University of Rochester) are trying to fix that.
Which languages have you found are difficult to find translators for? Has this changed in the last five or ten years?
I think any number of African and Indian languages are at the top of this list. And I don’t think that’s changed at all over the past decade. In a lot of other languages that you’d suspect — Icelandic, Chinese, Korean, Estonian — there are a number of excellent translators working in these languages and connecting up with American publishers. But there aren’t nearly as many Tamil, Swahili, Urdu translators.
We were excited to read about the five books that are forthcoming from Open Letter Books. Could you tell us about the process of selecting these books for publication? How did Open Letter learn about these books, and why did the press choose to publish them?
We chose the ten books we do a year from a mixture of translator submissions, submissions from agents and authors, and research we do on our own. There are some authors we’ve been supporting for years (Juan José Saer, for example), other projects that get us excited (A Thousand Forests in One Acorn), or specially funded initiatives (like our forthcoming “Danish Women Writers” series). Our editorial staff, which, well, is actually just me and Kaija Straumanis, decide on the titles based on a few different factors: how much they interest us, whether it fits our list (we can’t do all Spanish-language books in a season), and how accessible the project is (if another publisher is planning on doing it, we’ll generally back off).
We will be sharing excerpts from Street of Thieves and In Praise of Poetry, two of Open Letter’s forthcoming books, on Sampsonia Way’s website. Could you talk briefly about the process you went through acquiring, translating, and publishing these books?
Enard is one of our main authors — we did Zone a few years back, quite successfully — so we were really psyched to get the rights to this new, amazing work of his. Charlotte Mandell is a pro, so her translation came through on time, and it was almost perfect. We received a number of pre-publication starred reviews for this, and now that it’s hitting the bookstores, I hope we’ll get even more attention.
The editor of our poetry series is Jennifer Grotz, who is a poet, translator, director of the translation program at the University of Rochester. She evaluates fully translated manuscripts and chooses one a year for us to publish. Sedakova is a huge deal in Russia and the translators who worked on this are highly respected. That made her decision pretty easy. Getting attention for poetry is like finding a mountain in Estonia. So that part is a bit of a crapshoot. We try and get the book into the hands of all the poetry taste-makers and hope they spread the word.
Open Letter’s website states that you search for works that are “extraordinary and influential.” What is extraordinary and influential about the books you are publishing this year? Is there anything that particularly distinguishes them from books Open Letter has published in the past?
I think our aesthetic has been pretty consistent throughout our six years of publishing. All of our books are well-crafted, interesting, enjoyable reads, some of which fill in gaps in knowledge about a particular aesthetic/literary scene (like Macedonio Fernandez’s Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel)) and others are more of-the-moment, like Street of Thieves. Exceptional is sort of a code word for unique. We don’t want to publish the Estonian Jonathan Franzen. We want to publish the future Estonian Nobel Prize winner who is adding something to the world literature conversation. Obviously, you never know what the future holds for these books, but man, I read a ton of stuff, and I think our list is in the same category as other great publishers of translation, like Archipelago, New Directions, and Dalkey Archive Press.
What does the future hold for Open Letter and Three Percent ?
A growing readership. More books that win awards. Expansion of the Best Translated Book Award to include other categories. Open Letter After Dark, our ebook-only series. Books that readers carry around with them for years, pushing on all of their friends. That’s what I hope for.