The latest edition of The Question Project talks to publishers Jody Medland, Gerrit Brand and Giacomo Falconi. Working with books and authors from all over the world in England, the Netherlands and Italy, I was intrigued to investigate what makes them choose a particular title for translating. What is special about that specific story that makes them invest so much to this level of commitment.
Every writer I know is seduced, even if secretly, by the idea of having his / her work translated. I suppose the thought of being read by as many readers as possible is rather appealing. Maybe this is even more visible in countries like Brazil, where Education policies are nearly non existent and authors of literature and their books seem to engage with fewer and fewer people every year, making writers doubt the value of their own craft.
I think, on the other hand, most writers are aware that having their books translated and published in other countries doesn't necessarily mean open doors to a successful international career as an author.
So, the question is:
as a publisher what type of book (or even writer) are you interested in translating and how can you make sure you give all writers a fair chance when most names and books that cross countries or are heard of are titles published and marketed by big publishing companies?
GIACOMO FALCONI (Italy)
As a young publisher, I’m not interested in a specific “type” of book (novel, collection of short stories, biography, travel essay, etc.), what I’m looking for is a spark of singularity. If an author can surprise me with a twist of originality in his/her style, an odd imagination or a reversal of literary clichés he/she will get my attention. However, singularity by itself does not make a good book. The quality of the writing is paramount, and it has to be a page-turner too.
I’m also interested in establishing a contact with the author, I like to get in touch with him/her on social medias and/or arrange a meeting if feasible. Generally, the singularity I’m looking for is not limited to a writing style, but it emerges in personality too.
Regarding the “fair chance” that I should give to all writers, my books are available only in digital format, which means that they are addressed to a limited audience – a bunch of die-hard readers –especially in a country like Italy, where approx. 60% of the population does not even read a book in a whole year. My potential readers are looking for something different from the standard selection that they can find in a bookstore chain.
Considering the huge number of low-quality e-books released every day, the only way to promote writers fairly is ensuring the highest possible quality of the final product, starting from the book itself and enhancing it as much as possible with an accurate translation, a sensible editing, a captivating title and a catchy cover.
Name: Giacomo Falconi
Language you wish you could speak: Basque
What book are you reading now: Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
Authors that are not yet translated but should be: Victor Heringer, Horacio Cavallo.
A successful career for a writer is: to succeed in finding his/her own voice.
A successful career for a publisher is: to succeed in adding some drops of diversity in a sea of literary conformism.
Books you wish you could have translated: Saramago’s Blindness, Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Mutis’s The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll.
Any advice for writers who wish to have their work translated? Don’t write trying to please your possible reader or publisher. Please yourselves!
JODY MEDLAND (United Kingdom)
The truth is, as a small to medium sized publisher, the worry isn't that you won't find work of a good enough quality to translate, but that you'll spend an awful lot of time on the practical and creative side of the translation only to struggle with sales. There are no guarantees in publishing, and when you take on a translation, you're taking on many more challenges than you are with a standard release.
Firstly, can you adapt the work so it stays faithful to the original version whilst also appealing to the new market? This can be much tougher than it sounds. Secondly, how well known is the author in the new territory? If they're not well known at all, then it can actually be harder selling their work than it is to sell a book from a new author. It's due to the extra complications and financial risks that I think most publishers only consider big titles.
Quite simply, if the work has won prizes or sold a million copies, it's much less of a risk to publish it. If not, a publisher is possibly better off releasing a brand new title. For instance, there are many strong writers I've met who aren't yet published in English, but until I'm confident I can sell their work in significant numbers, it wouldn't be fair for me to do the translation.
Name: Jody Medland
Language you wish you could speak: Italian
What book are you reading now: Le Belle Sauvage / The Book of Dust
Authors that are not yet translated but should be: Elana A. Mugdan
A successful career for a writer is: Making a living from writing alone
A successful career for a publisher is: Connecting writers with fans who would never have otherwise seen their work.
Books you wish you could have translated: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series by Stieg Larsson.
Any advice for writers who wish to have their work translated: Reach out to publishers of books you most admire to see if they'll consider translating your work. And if you have an agent, work closely with them to systematically work your way through your shortlist until you get a "yes."
GERRIT BRAND (Holland)
As a (small) publisher I realise that the big names in the literary world are already being published by the big publishing companies. So what I am looking for are niches. Writers who are less known in general, writers who don’t appeal to a big audience. And of course we are looking for quality.
That’s why I am now publishing someone like Sam Shepard (well known actor but never very popular as an author, at least not in the Netherlands), or Jaroslav Rudiš, a young Czech writer who is quite popular and lives in Germany. But his writing is not for broad public.
There are so many foreign writers out there that are worth being translated and published in the Netherlands. The difficulty is that it’s not easy to make money with small editions. You have to sell in big numbers to survive as a publishing company. That’s why it is not possible to give all writers a fair chance. But fortunately there is also non-fiction that sells in big numbers (if you are lucky).
Name: Gerrit Brand, publisher (Nobelman publishing; nobelman.nl), writer (gerritbrand.nl)
Language you wish you could speak: I already speak quite a lot of languages: besides my own language, Dutch, I speak: English, German, French, Portuguese, Swedish, and more or less Spanish and a bit of Arabic. But there are always wishes: I would love to be able to speak fluently Arabic.
What book are you reading now: I am reading De oroliga by Linn Ullmann. I am reading it in Swedish. I think it will be out in English soon. Linn Ullmann is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman (the famous Swedish film director) and Liv Ullmann (the Norwegian movie star). I got interested in the book because of my interest in Bergman and his movies. The book is very good, it’s a moving report of the relationship that Linn Ullmann had with her famous father and mother. Very well written.
I am also reading Blindness by Henry Green. Green is a so called writer’s writer. What he does as a writer is very interesting. I’ve read most of his novels but hadn’t read Blindness yet. It was lingering in my book case for years. Finally took it out to read it.
Authors that are not yet translated but should be: Well, I guess you refer to authors that should be translated into Dutch in my case. One of them is Sam Shepard. We just published his last book Spy of the First Person in the Netherlands and we will translate more. We will also translate João Almino into Dutch. His novel Enigmas da primavera will be published by us next year. Of course there are more books that should be translated. For ex. Ninho de cobras by Lêdo Ivo.
A successful career for a writer is: A writer is successful when his books are published and read in his homeland/language. Of course more successful would be if his books are translated into other languages. And the biggest success would be if he/she could make a living of writing literature. But only a few people make it. The rock stars in literature. It’s like in the music scene, so many people make music (write) but only a few become famous.
A successful career for a publisher is: When his company makes so much profit that the people who work in the company can make a living from it.
Books you wish you could have translated: You’re asking for my favourite writer I guess, one that is already published by others. Let’s name some: Cormac McCarthy, Guimarães Rosa, Machado de Assis, Dalton Trevisan, etc
Any advice for writers who wish to have their work translated: Try to find an agent. But of course it’s not so easy, because you have to find someone who can read the original language.
Publishing and writing is a struggle. But we’re all in it together.
Who makes THE QUESTION PROJECT:
Nara Vidal is a Brazilian writer.
She has published a number of children's books, short stories and novel.
Nara is behind Capitolina Books, an online bookshop that specializes in contemporary Brazilian literature.
She has also curated the children's literature festival Canalzinho in London and Paris and has been a guest speaker in Book Fairs such as The Cheltenham Festival, Flipoços and Joinville.
Nara was awarded the Maximiano Campos prize in the short stories category and the Brazilian Press Awards for her work literature. She can be contacted via email on firstname.lastname@example.org