When it comes to publishing Russian translations, no one has done it longer—or more successfully—than Peter Mayer. During his tenure as chairman and CEO of Penguin, from 1978 to 1997, the publishing house launched a series of Russian classics that any budding bookworm should read from cover to cover or purchase for his or her library. Then 10 years ago, Mayer, as president and publisher of Overlook Press, acquired Ardis, a small press with a large list of Russian literature in English. This continued effort in translating and publishing Russian works saw Mayer honored with a Distinguished International Achievement Award at the 2011 Big Book literary prize ceremony in Moscow.
"PW" catches up with the tireless publisher for a quick chat on Russian books and authors, and more.
You have been publishing Russian authors in English for a long time. In your opinion, what has changed in the Russian book scene in the U.S. or U.K.?
I have not seen any momentous changes, but the efforts being made by Russian literary agents and various cultural and governmental organizations certainly suggest a growing interest in Russian books. Alexander Mamut's new Russian Bookshop within Waterstones' London bookstore is another healthy sign. I would like to think that the terrific efforts that "PW" and the Read Russia committee are putting in to highlight Russia—since it is the focus country at the upcoming BookExpo America—would lead to more Russian books being published in the Anglo-Saxon markets. But we need more book reviews, more bookseller support, and more readers interested in the present non-Soviet country with its rich literary heritage.
How about sales of Russian works?
Translations from any language as a general rule do not perform well in any English-language market. I do not think the Russian situation is particularly different from, say, the Italian situation. Of course, there are always exceptions. At Overlook/Ardis, our Russian titles are relatively modest sellers, but some of them are steady and growing.
What are your thoughts about Russian translators and translation quality?
There are probably no more than 10 really good translators out there that serious publishers can use. When it comes to translation quality, it's not a question of accuracy but of nuance, especially in fiction. The prose has to read fluidly in fiction, and this is a completely different issue from literal accuracy.
Do you remember the first Russian title that you published?
The first one at Penguin—not counting the Russian classics—was Anatoly Rybakov's "Heavy Sand." That was in 1979, I think.
And , how are Overlook and Ardis doing?
Both lists are healthy, but it would be hard to argue that publishers larger than Overlook would be interested in Ardis's list from a commercial point of view. Ardis has grown mainly because we continue to publish more titles—it is probably the most famous name in the world for publishing Russian literature in English. But sales per title are not large, and Overlook's involvement in Ardis and Russian literature in general is a main part of a cultural thrust. It is not easy!
What titles are you working on now?
We will be publishing paperback editions of Ludmila Ulitskaya's "Daniel Stein, Interpreter" and Olga Slavnikova's 2006 Russian Booker, "2017." Also, we have recently acquired Slavnikova's new novel, "A Light Head." We have also obtained the rights to Muireann Maguire's "Red Spectres," an unusual collection of Russian gothic stories that have never been translated before. J.A.E. Curtis's collection of Mikhail Bulgakov's personal writings, "Manuscripts Don't Burn: A Life in Letters and Diaries," will be made available in paperback. We are rushing to get eight out-of-print Ardis titles off the press and ready for the Read Russia Festival at the BookExpo.
There are so many Russian authors, classics and contemporary, out there. How do you determine which to translate and publish?
We acquire Russian works with the help of a strong network of readers of Russian—both here and in Russia—plus agents, of course. It is always a gamble to agree to publish something one has not yet read oneself.
And how do you promote them?
We organize bookstore events besides producing brochures and attending academic conferences focused on Slavic literature. We target those outlets that seem to specialize in foreign literature, particularly Russian literature, and we work as best we can with the cultural side of various Russian organizations including the consulate in New York. There is always a large turnout whenever we organize events for visiting Russian authors…
Most people that show up are usually Russians who have immigrated to the U.S., many of whom have already read the books in Russian and just want to meet the authors.
You are one of the advisory committee members of Read Russia 2012 Festival. What are your hopes for the event?
I obviously hope that Americans, not only those involved in the BookExpo but especially readers interested in foreign literature, particularly Russian literature, will attend the festival. I hope that the BookExpo America and Read Russia committees manage to reach out to the media and throw the spotlight on the terrific efforts the Russian government is making to build an appreciation for Russian culture and literature. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and the Internet will best spread the word, aside from BookExpo attendees interested in the subject. Most of the people who go to BookExpo have specific jobs to do at their company stands, although undoubtedly they will spend some time at the Read Russia pavilion. The Read Russia campaign is certain to draw much attention. A lot of effort has gone into it so far.
Is Overlook/Ardis planning any special campaign in conjunction with the festival?
We would go out of business if our modest-sized company spent a large part of its time and funds on our Russian, or any foreign literature, program. Mostly we will market the individual Russian books that we will be publishing throughout 2012, with each book having its own publicity budget and plan. Historically, foreign literature has not brought in big money, but some of the titles we publish have commercial potential. Our publicity department has certainly been knocking itself out in the past two years engaging with many Russian organizations and academic institutions in order to bring attention to Overlook/Ardis's strong thrust in this area. We probably have the best connections of any publisher in this small but growing area. Our stand at the BookExpo America will definitely have many more Russian books than it otherwise would have.
Are you reading any particular Russian author right now?
As I do not read Russian, I am only able to read those that have been translated, which are usually books that we are working on at a particular time. But I am just now reading some of the stories that will appear in the Read Russia anthology, which we will have ready for the BookExpo.