When Two Lines Press, the San Francisco–based publishing imprint of the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), was founded in 2013, the U.S. market for translated literature was fairly narrow. “It used to be that every few years there was a breakout hit in translation—Bolaño, Knausgaard, Ferrante—and then everything else was largely ignored,” said Two Lines editor-in-chief CJ Evans. “One of the most heartening things about translation now is there are so many translated books that do well.”
But as interest in translated literature grows, small presses like Two Lines, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this September, are eager to introduce new international authors to Anglophone readers. “We constantly ask ourselves about the kinds of books we want to publish,” said executive director and publisher Michael Holtmann. “We’ve got a bit of a contrarian streak, and we take pleasure in surprise.” Since its inception, Two Lines has prioritized fresh voices from languages other than French and Spanish, which are by far the most frequently translated into English; its backlist includes titles translated from Arabic, Czech, Finish, Macedonian, Swahili, and Thai.
Evans believes that some of today’s best writing is being done in languages other than English but is struggling to reach a bigger audience “because of the cumbersome machinery that brings a book from one territory to another.” To help smooth that path, Italian translator Olivia Sears founded the Two Lines literary journal as a venue for writing in translation in 1993, and then launched CAT in 2000. (Two Lines journal is still run under the auspices of CAT.) The mission of CAT, which is based out of San Francisco, is to champion literary translation through events, advocacy, and educational programming. With Two Lines Press, CAT puts its principles into practice by directly nurturing the work of translators and bringing that work to readers, Holtmann said. Because the press is part of CAT, a nonprofit, its operating budget comes from donations, grants, and book sales.
Two Lines publishes three to four titles each spring and fall, and one to two titles each winter. The press is distributed by Publishers Group West and its list comprises 52 titles to date. Its bestselling titles include On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney; Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costam; Mina by Kim Sagwa, translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton; The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole; and Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump, which will be reissued in a 10th anniversary edition in the fall.
Despite its small seven-person staff, the press’s publishing aims are ambitious. In 2020, Two Lines launched its Calico series, which publishes collections of translated writing unified by a single theme; previous themes have included speculative Chinese-language fiction and queer Brazilian literature. The series publishes two new books per year, and will release its ninth edition, Through the Night Like a Snake—a collection of Latin American horror stories—in March 2024. “Each Calico edition is a snapshot of writing in translation that speaks to our current moment, a way for you to discover your favorite new writers, and a turn away from the static anthology in favor of a literature in flux,” said series editor Sarah Coolidge.
“Translation publishing has come a long way in the last decade,” Evans said. “The next decade is about how we as a community work to widen and make messy and improve translation publishing—from acquisitions to contracts to credits to employment to marketing to sales.”
Holtmann also sees Two Lines playing an important role in the next decade of translation publishing. “I want Two Lines Press to do our part, however humble, to transform the literary landscape,” he said. “We want to be leaders in the field. It’s not enough to publish excellent translations.”
Echoing Evans’s concerns about the brass tacks of translation publishing, Holtmann emphasized the press’s commitment to “inclusive, sustainable business practices” and to doing right by translators. “We’ll always offer competitive rates and terms, we’ll always offer translation copyright, and we’ll always put translators’ names on the covers of our books,” he said.
Literary translators like Christina MacSweeney, who has translated five books for Two Lines, feel uniquely supported by the press. She began working with Two Lines in 2016, when she was invited to translate Elvira Navarro’s novel A Working Woman. “It’s always a positive sign when an editor knows your work well enough to match you with an author,” MacSweeney said. “From the very first, I was deeply impressed by the support I received throughout the process of getting the novel into print.” Even as a freelancer, MacSweeney feels “part of the Two Lines team,” and even recommends new authors to add to the Two Lines list.
Author Jazmina Barrera, whose last three books MacSweeney has translated for Two Lines, feels the press makes “a rare and fundamental contribution to bibliodiversity.” “It is evident to me the strong relationship they cultivate with translators, independent bookstores, other independent publishing houses and reading promoters,” she said, and taken together, these efforts “strengthen the bonds between all the actors of the publishing ecosystem.”
“There is still far to go to properly represent international literature in the U.S. publishing marketplace and to value the incredible work of translators,” Evans said. He envisions a future in which translated literature can thrive on its own terms. “When books from many different languages, different publishers, different styles, can all find their audience—that to me is a healthy publishing culture.”