In May 2012, a struggle began at Archipelago Books, the Brooklyn-based not-for-profit press specializing in literature in translation. This September, it ended with the publication of the sixth and final English-language volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a behemoth of a novel that became a literary phenomenon in the author’s native Norway and abroad and that blurs the lines between series and single work and fiction and memoir.
The press first published Knausgaard in 2009; that novel, A Time for Everything, was received quietly. But My Struggle, which shares a title with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, had a lot of buzz around it from the start. Jill Schoolman, Archipelago’s publisher, attributed some of the book’s “instant success” to critic James Wood’s piece on the first installment in the New Yorker. “Because of who he is, because of what he said about it, his taking it seriously and really loving it, I think a lot of writers paid attention,” Schoolman said. “A lot of things started happening after that.”
To date, Archipelago has sold around 50,000 copies of the six volumes of the novel, the bulk of which were in hardcover. After the second volume, the press sold paperback rights to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Schoolman called the press’s relationship with FSG “a great partnership.” Archipelago initially published the first volume in paperback, but after those sold out, Schoolman said, “we did a Kickstarter to raise money to do a hardcover first volume, so we could have the whole set.”
Archipelago was founded 15 years ago by Schoolman, fresh out of Seven Stories Press, and is one of a number of literary outfits that has its offices in the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. In the press’s first year, Schoolman and one employee, the translator Chi-Young Kim, released four books (then distributed by Consortium), with the ambition of doing six to eight books per year thereafter. At that point, Schoolman said, around 70% of the Archipelago’s books were translated classics and the rest were contemporary. Today, Archipelago’s full-time staff of three—Schoolman, associate editor and publicist Cian Dinan, and editorial and development associate Emma Raddatz—publishes 15 to 16 books per year (distributed by Penguin Random House), with the help of interns and designers; contemporary translations account for 70% of its output. The press also has a children’s imprint, Elsewhere Editions, which publishes two to three books per year.
When considering a new book, Schoolman puts great emphasis on both author and translator. Once she publishes them, they’re added to a stable that is, well, remarkably stable. “At this point, there’s a small group of translators that we’ve probably done five to eight books with each,” she said. “Although we’re always working with new translators too.”
Among the latter category are Maureen Shaughnessy, the translator of Argentine writer Hebe Uhart’s The Scent of Buenos Aires, and Andrea Rosenberg, who translated Colombian author Tomás González’s The Storm. Each volume is its translator’s first book with Archipelago, and The Scent of Buenos Aires was the first translation into English of any work by Uhart, a prominent Argentine author who died this October. “Then,” Schoolman added, “in certain cases, like with Bill Johnston, who translates from the Polish, we’ve done around eight books—he’s brilliant, transcendent.”
Johnston, for his part, likes working with Archipelago. A renowned translator, he’s worked with a number of other presses, including Dalkey Archive, Grove Atlantic, Harcourt, and New Directions. “Translators are typically a rather modest breed,” he said. “Most translators I know tend to be rather self-effacing, and they want their translations, in a sense, to be invisible.”
That isn’t the case, Johnston added, at Archipelago: “Jill personally goes through every single text and makes really good editorial suggestions, but it’s not a case that she goes through and corrects it and moves on—it becomes a conversation. In a sense, it’s an unusual, collaborative, dialogical approach, and I find it very conducive to doing good work.”
Though Knausgaard’s Struggle may be over for Archipelago, his time with the press is not: it will publish a book of essays, America of the Soul, and his first novel, Out of the World, in translations by Martin Aitken, in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Aitken also worked on the sixth volume of My Struggle and published another translation with Archipelago this year, the National Book Award–longlisted Love, by Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik. And his translation, from the Danish, of A Change of Time by Ida Jessen is due in spring 2019 from Archipelago, too.