from the other world,
Hiss of night rain.
Someone’s going there now.
The two are sure to meet.
Ko Un’s poem perfectly illustrates to me how translated works help us cross the divide between cultures to get to where “The two are sure to meet.” But these days that divide sometimes seems wider than ever. Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise that translated works make up only three percent of the books published in the U.S. each year.
Of course, serious readers everywhere took note of Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, of which Malcolm Jones in Newsweek said, “Heaney’s own poetic vernacular—muscular language so rich with the tones and smell of earth that you almost expect to find a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his lines—is the perfect match for the Beowulf poet’s Anglo-Saxon.” And Oprah’s Book Club made literary rock stars out of the husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose translations of Russian novels, in particular those by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, have given new life to great stories. But Heaney and Pevear/ Volokhonsky have translated classics. Where are the translations of contemporary works?
Enter New Vessel Press.
Founded in 2012 by Ross Ufberg and Michael Z. Wise, NVP is an independent publishing house specializing in translation of contemporary foreign literature. Ross and Michael first met by accident at a spelling bee in which Michael’s son was a participant and Ross was the pronouncer. Subsequent conversations led them to discover their mutual love of European literature, which they could read in the original French or German (Michael) and Russian or Polish (Ross). Ross explains, “Over the course of our friendship we’d discuss books we’d read in other languages and the only way to share them with each other was to translate them into English.” Michael adds, “The press was born out of that love of books.”
Both Ross and Michael share backgrounds inspiring the belief that reading about foreign culture enriches our lives and offers avenues to understand the world. Both of them are writers who have lived abroad. Ross, a Ph.D candidate, is also a translator. Michael, an editor, is a former foreign correspondent. But they don’t consider themselves missionaries of internationalism. Ross cites Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Nobel Prize speech: “The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social and political ideals.” Indeed, their mission, reflected in the name New Vessel Press, Ross explains, is simply to bring “great books, great stories, to hungry readers.”
Michael and Ross generously agreed to discuss issues of foreign translations in general and their publishing house in particular with Readers Unbound.
I asked Ross about his statements “It’s [translation is] one of the world’s oldest art forms” and “We believe that literary translation is both craft and art, enabling us to transverse borders and open minds.”
CK: I definitely understand the “craft” side of this statement, but could you explain to our readers how translation is art?
RU: In the same way that literature, the writing of novels or poetry, is an art – that’s the way literary translation is an art as well. The translator uses a combination of skills acquired through training and practice, and imagination and creativity harnessed through reflection and – again practice, to create a mirror image. One can argue about whether translation is more craft than art, or vice versa – but don’t we say, when we see masterpieces of tile work or masonry, that an object built by “craftsmen” is a “work of art?” I don’t believe these two categories – craft and art – can be so handily separated or even distinguished.
Creating such a mirror image means more than changing words from one language to another. Emily Williams, in “The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America,” writes, “All translation poses a challenge as it depends on the extent of shared assumptions between the source and target culture.”
CK: Michael, could you and Ross briefly discuss some of the challenges of translating culture as well as language?
MW: We’re looking for good stories that often convey a different sensibility or a different way of being in the world. Translation is never simply a matter of finding equivalent words but transmitting a sensibility and a way of expression that reflects authorial intent and cultural differences. Many times we use what has been called “stealth gloss” translation, where background and meaning are discreetly woven into the text and respecting the original intent and context, but Milena Michiko Flašar, who wrote I Called Him Necktie in German (her mother is Japanese and her father is Austrian), included a glossary of Japanese terms in the original which we retained in an edited form in the English version.
RU: And isn’t that—translating culture—really the challenge that we all face, no matter what we’re reading, what language it was in, where it was written? No one person’s way of understanding the world is exactly the same as the next person’s. We do a disservice to ourselves if we imagine that reading translation requires some unusual radical leap of the imagination. Radical leaps of the imagination are a requirement for reading all literature. That is why it is not unusual to take a leap of imagination when reading in translation. Yes, reading literature in translation is a way of finding out about different cultures and peoples and ways of thinking. But that’s what all literature is about, actually.
Publishers, and indie authors as well, face a brave new world when it comes to connecting to readers. Marketing money will always be available to promote memoirs by the likes of Keith Richards or the next guaranteed best seller by James Patterson. But vanishing are many of the familiar paths to publicity: print newspapers and magazines, book review sections in those newspapers that survive, and handselling in local book stores. Instead, today’s readers often turn to other sources for their next favorite book: on-line reviews in Amazon, Goodreads, and blogs such as Readers Unbound.
CK: Michael, you have written that your biggest obstacle is marketing, and I imagine every other publisher says the same thing, although your chosen field may have greater – or at least different- obstacles to surmount. What solutions have you come up with?
MW: We’re working hard to connect our books with readers, by trying to find advocates for them. We believe passionately in every book we publish and doing whatever we can to convey that excitement to others through social media postings, readings and reviews. Although New Vessel Press books are sold in bookstores across the country, and there’s been some resurgence of independent booksellers, we’ve even created our own “pop-up store” now and then on a heavily trafficked part of Broadway on the Upper West Side, where there’s a remarkable dearth these days of bookshops and people are hungry for our wares.
CK: In a follow-up question, these days authors are asked to do more of their own marketing. How have your foreign language authors handled this challenge?
MW: We’ve been fortunate to have been able to bring two of our authors to the United States for appearances here – Shemi Zarhin came last fall for appearances relating to the release of his novel Some Day with assistance from the Israeli Consulate, and Milena Michiko Flašar, author of I Called Him Necktie, participated in the Festival Neue Literatur in New York last February. But it’s true that most of them aren’t able to be in the US, so Moldovan author Vladimir Lorchenkov did an op-ed piece for The New York Times about the political-economic realities that led him to write his novel The Good Life Elsewhere. Other authors have done q-and-a’s that have been published online.
To alleviate the need to raise a large amount of capital to start a new publishing house, Michael and Ross originally considered printing e-books only. Then they decided to add POD (print on demand) books. Michael elaborates.
MW: I wish capital wasn’t necessary to publish good literature, but it sure helps. We originally envisioned New Vessel Press as an e-book only company in part since that required lower overhead, but we ourselves love print books and are committed to good design and layout on paper. We’ve been very fortunate to work with an incredibly talented graphic designer, Liana Finck, who gives our books their very special look. We’re no longer doing print on demand, and have switched to larger print runs since all our titles are available through Consortium Book Sales & Distribution at booksellers throughout the United States. At the moment, our sales are roughly 40 per cent digital and 60 per cent print. [See website for on-line store.]
In the two short years NVP has been in business, it has published a remarkable assortment of books, both fiction and biography, from France to Poland, to Moldova, to Argentina, and more. Recently named October Book of the Month by the German Book Office New York, Who Is Martha? by Marjana Gaponenko tells the story of a 96-year-old ornithologist from Odessa who spends his final days in Vienna’s grand Hotel Imperial, living it up in a luxury suite, making new friends, savoring Viennese cakes and musical performances.
And Ross and Michael are having fun. Michael says, “I never imagined myself in the business of taking books to stores and urging staff members to read them, but this brings together all my passions—language, literature, travel—and I’m having a great time.”
CK: What have been some of the highlights of your publishing adventure so far?
MW: Discovering new authors and meeting many of the amazing people from around the world who are involved in writing and publishing literature.
RU: And when we meet a reader who says they saw a New Vessel Press book in a bookstore and bought it, read it, loved it, passed it on – that’s perhaps the most gratifying feeling of all. That after all is why we started a publishing house.
CK: What plans for the next couple of years most excite you?
MW and RU: Hunting for more great books, literary non-fiction as well as fiction, and building a recognizable and growing collection of works that will entice readers to check out each new title from New Vessel Press. And the hope is always that our books work their way into the culture, become a part of the conversation that this country, and the world, is having.
(Note: For related articles posted in this blog, please see J.S. Epstein’s article “Book Distribution—The Only Constant Is Change,” Stephanie Stoecker’s review “The Tie That Wears the Man: Choking Conformity in I Called Him Necktie,” and Crystal Klimavicz’s “The Art of Selling Your Book at Signings.” )
Do you like to read translated literature? What are some favorite titles? What unique appeal do these books have for you?
Thanks for the interesting read! I read a _lot_ of translated literature in high school and college. I remember realizing that William Weaver was a great translator because some of my favorite books were by two very different authors – Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino – and he had translated those voices so seamlessly into English. Other greats that have stuck around in my head: CK Scott Moncrieff/Terrence Kilmartin and Richard Lattimore (although the new Robert Fagles translations of Lattimore’s stuff are very lyrical and compelling!).
I didn’t hear the complaints that American literature is “too insular” until recently… and I didn’t know what they were talking about until I read a lot more American fiction;)
Thanks for the comment, Stephanie.
Recently I was thinking about all the “great” literary works we study in school–Homer’s epics, the Greek tragedies, The Divine Comedy, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, the French existentialists, even Beowulf and the Bible. Yep. All translations.
And certainly writers from around the world haven’t stopped creating wonderful stories and poetry, but we see only a smidgeon of what they produce. So hats off to NVP for helping to bring more great stories to American readers.
Such an interesting post, Chris. Thank God for people like Wise
and Ufberg for bringing books to us in translation and opening
new worlds. What a gift.
Thanks, Susan. Thinking about translated literature makes my feet itchy to do some traveling! Sigh.
We have just read Who is Martha? and found it fresh and exciting and have now ordered I called him Necktie. We are also like Readux Press based in Berlin and publishing small books in translations from Swedish and German.
We live in Australia. The Internet is a wonderful thing.
Thanks for your comment. Ross and Michael are making a great contribution to literature.
You’re right–the internet is a wonderful thing! We’re based in Atlanta, GA.
NYT Book Review liked your post so much they piggybacked on your idea last week :-).
Most influential translated work in my reading life has been Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. And of course, Babar the Elephant. Let me not forget the Nicholas books. I must be drawn to translations from French.
I tried to read the unabridged version of Les Miserables and gave up, but there’s a quite nice abridged version by Riverside Press ( I think).
Thanks for the note, Deb!.