Publishing trends come and go, and most books have short lives before they fade from the shelves and eventually from memory. But for publishers that specialize in translation, literature is a long game.
“We’re always trying to find works that will be taught in colleges and become lasting,” says Declan Spring, v-p, senior editor, and director of foreign rights at New Directions. He paraphrases a quote from Ezra Pound, which James Laughlin, who founded New Directions at the advice of Pound, always prized: “Any book worth anything takes a couple of decades to become successful.”
With this idea in mind, PW spoke with Spring and other editors about their strategies for getting—and keeping—their works in translation in front of the reading public.
New Directions, Spring says, has evolved from being “essentially a backlist publisher” to one that makes an impact with its frontlist. By way of example, he cites fresh translations of classics by Clarice Lispector, as well as works by newer authors such as Yoko Tawada, a Japanese German writer whose work New Directions has been publishing in translation since 2002.
Spring credits the success of the publisher’s frontlist in part to a large newsletter subscriber base and close friendships with independent booksellers, including City Lights in San Francisco and McNally Jackson in New York. Their support will be key for big fall titles such as Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark (Oct.), translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, and The Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild by Mathias Énard (Nov.), a sprawling story of reincarnation and European history translated from the French by Frank Wynne. Énard is “such an important writer for us,” Spring says. “As we publish each book, the audience builds more and more.”
Long-term investment in international literature is paying off, publishers say, thanks to an expanding market. “We’ve had a resurgence of interest in world literature and in voices from around the world for a good long while,” says Jenna Johnson, editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where translations have always been central to the catalog. “Americans are increasingly sophisticated about watching, say, a detective series from Denmark,” she adds, so it makes sense they’d be open to literature from abroad, too.
At FSG, there’s a focus not only on an international conversation but on what Johnson calls a “conversation across time and a timelessness.” One example is Termush by Sven Holm (Jan. 2024), translated from the Danish by Sylvia Clayton, a work of apocalyptic science fiction first published in 1967; Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer will supply a foreword. In all its acquisitions, Johnson says, FSG looks for literature that “couldn’t have been written by anyone else.”
In September, FSG is releasing David Diop’s Beyond the Door of No Return, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, which PW’s starred review called “a captivating generational epic.” Johnson says the novel’s focus on the “collective history and interconnections” of Senegal and France puts it in dialogue with Diop’s debut, At Night All Blood Is Black, translated by Anna Moschovakis. When PW profiled the author in its fall 2020 “Writers to Watch” feature, acquiring editor Jeremy Davies said the book had first been described to him as a “very strange, very literary book that wasn’t very commercial.” After it won the International Booker Prize the next year, hardcover sales spiked, and a paperback release has since sold 11,000 print copies.
A high-profile award can be huge for a work in translation, perhaps none more so than the Nobel Prize. In 2021, French author Annie Ernaux’s books sold about 4,300 print and e-book copies, according to Seven Stories, her U.S. publisher. She won the Nobel Prize the following year and sales shot up to 84,300 print and e-book copies for 2022; she’s on track to best that in 2023.
Dan Simon, founder and publisher of Seven Stories, calls the Nobel win a “watershed moment” for the press. It’s also a testament to three decades of investment in the international market and in the careers of authors including Ernaux, whom he’s published since 1992.
The publisher’s latest Ernaux release, September’s The Young Man, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer, was already in progress before the Nobel announcement. It’s a fresh work from the author, having pubbed in France in 2022, and chronicles an affair Ernaux had in her 50s with a man who was 30 years younger. After the Nobel announcement, Simon says, “we worked with Gallimard in France, Annie’s primary publisher, and Fitzcarraldo, our partner in the U.K., to jump-start a half dozen new and previously untranslated Ernaux works.” These will pub over the next three years.
Supply and demand
HarperVia, an imprint of HarperOne, is a relative newcomer to the translation field. It released its first title in fall 2019, not long before the pandemic kept people away from bookstores. But the lockdown period also drove people to Netflix and its international content, says HarperVia founding president and publisher Judith Curr. “Hearing new languages and seeing new places got people interested in the rest of the world.” The imprint had an early hit in 2020 with Almond by Won-pyung Sohn, translated from the Korean by Sandy Joosun Lee, after K-pop superstars BTS recommended it to their army of fans.
Curr takes a different approach with translations than she did at Atria, which she launched in 2002. Books by international writers like Fredrik Backman were packaged to look like other commercial fiction, without a prominent translator credit. At HarperVia, she says, “it would be counterintuitive not to put their names on the cover.” She adds that readers have a greater appreciation for novels like Maud Ventura’s My Husband, released earlier this year, when they know they are translated, in this case by Emma Ramadan, from the French. Recognizing how My Husband’s “Frenchness adds to the story” makes it more than “just another unreliable and twisted narration.”
HarperVia’s commitment to publishing authors from outside the U.S., mainly in translation, has given it the credibility required to land writers like Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian. His Grey Bees, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk and published by Deep Vellum in 2022, won the inaugural National Book Critics Circle prize for translations. In March, HarperVia will publish Dralyuk’s translation of Kurkov’s The Silver Bone, a mystery set in 1919 Kyiv.
At Archipelago, a small publisher that began exclusively publishing translations in 2004, editor and director of publicity Sarah Gale has seen an increasing willingness on the part of the media to embrace books that originate overseas. But, she says, it remains difficult to get reviews and other coverage for “minor” books that aren’t grappling with “obviously relevant” themes.
To counteract this, Archipelago directly engages with readers, and Gale credits founder and publisher Jill Schoolman for “always thinking about new ways to reach people and get the books into their hands.” For a subscription fee, the press’s sustaining members each receive one new book a month, and Jillian Kravatz, the company’s membership director, coordinates events around the country with those members in mind.
Archipelago’s handful of editorial staffers all read every manuscript under consideration, which Gale finds energizing. When they commit to a book, it’s because they believe they’ve found something that’s missing from the culture. She describes it as hearing a “voice piercing through”—one that captures a sense of both the writer and the translator.
One such title, she says, is Argentine writer Sara Gallardo’s 1958 novel January. Archipelago is publishing the first English-language edition in October, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle and Maureen Shaughnessy. The book is about a young woman who becomes pregnant after being raped and considers whether to have an abortion. Gale calls it “one of those books that’s so good that it’s understood in Argentina to be what everyone should read from an early age.”
Norton imprint Liveright is at the forefront of publishing the classics. This year’s releases have included new translations of Thomas Mann, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Norton, meanwhile, will release Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s The Iliad, from the ancient Greek, in September.
The Wilson translation, which favors accessibility over the refined poetry of a Robert Fagles translation, has become something of a lightning rod on X (formerly Twitter), where the translator and fans of her hit 2017 translation of The Odyssey (250,000 print copies sold) drew the ire of classicists who prefer Fagles. Liveright editor-in-chief Pete Simon, who edits Wilson, hopes the discussions will help readers wrestle constructively with issues of translation theory. “It certainly hasn’t hurt advance sales,” he says, and adds that people are drawn to Wilson’s translations of Homer for their “contemporary cadences” and their willingness “to be experienced as something living,” rather than put on a pedestal.
Liveright also publishes contemporary authors, and in January will release Forgottenness by Tanja Maljartschuk, translated from the Ukrainian by Zenia Tompkins. The narrator deals with a series of mental health maladies while reflecting on her family’s history and Ukrainian independence, and the book came about through close collaboration with Maljartschuk, Tompkins, and senior editor Gina Iaquinta, whom Simon credits with having a great eye for international authors.
Tompkins is also the translator of The Ukraine by Artem Chapeye, a story collection Seven Stories will publish in January 2024. Chapeye, a soldier in the Ukrainian army whose title story was published in the New Yorker in 2022, has been sending edits to Simon in between stints on the battlefield.
The Ukraine and other forthcoming works in translation are poised to do what translations do best: broaden readers’ perspectives and offer windows onto other parts of the world.
All print unit sales per Circana BookScan except where noted.
Note: Annie Ernaux's sales history has been updated with figures from her U.S. publisher, Seven Stories.
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