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New Literature from Europe 2014 [Weekend Work Getaways and then Some]

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of heading down to NYC for the 2014 New Literature from Europe festival, which primarily took place at the slightly Escherian, but beautiful Austrian Cultural Forum NY building. Even if you don’t read beyond this point, let me just say that this was a great festival, short and sweet, but packed with great panels and authors, and for my part I want to thank the organizers as well for their efforts.

My main purpose was to go to support our Bulgarian contingent, in this case Georgi Tenev, author of Party Headquarters, forthcoming from Open Letter 2015 and translated by Angela Rodel. But it was also great to get down to New York, see some familiar faces, pick up conversations started at the last festival/trade show/conference, talk a little business in person, visit some of the bookstores that carry our titles, etc. (Oh, and also eat all the free charcuterie and sample various Hungarian and Romanian wines.) At times it’s smaller-scale festivals like these that are the best places for publishers and readers alike to come together and learn more about foreign cultures and their literatures, and to hear snippets of what will probably be some of the best pieces of literature you could ever come across.

Chad usually does posts like this, and he might do a massive, mind-blowing one once he gets back from his literal Trip around the World, but for now, you have me, and that’s that. I like traveling to NYC for the weekend, or for the week, be it for work or to indulge my mother’s joy of Amtrak travel, and of course, each time you visit NYC you’re bound to discover or wind up someplace you’ve never been before, intentionally or unintentionally. You’re also less likely to get lost in the process with each return, such as this trip, where I didn’t screw up once while in transit someplace. On the subway—I mean I didn’t screw up on the subway. In terms of walking, I inverted building numbers and location names more than once within the first eight hours of being back in the city and probably made some passersby wary of my recurring presence.

Before heading over to the opening event and reading, I made my way to the still relatively new Albertine, a 99.9% French-only bookstore (titles published in French originally, translations into French, French authors published into English) just down the street from MoMA. The bookstore is in no way convenient to just “pop by,” unless you’re in the area already or have multiple things to do in said area (like check out MoMA, or a sandwich shop nearby that I’m told sells their creations at half-price not long before closing up for the night to clear out that day’s stock. WHY HAVE I NOT BEEN TOLD OF THIS SANDWICH HEAVEN BEFORE.), but even that considered, it’s well worth the subway ride and walk—or bus, if you’re into above-ground public transportation. Nowhere will you find the selection of French literature and translations that Albertine carries, and nowhere, probably, will you see this many wall sconces (not my original observation, but I agree).

The main reading Friday night was held at the Austrian Cultural Forum, and featured authors Davide Longo (Italy), Nicol Ljubić (Germany), Susanne Scholl (Austria), János Háy (Hungary), Georgi Tenev (Bulgaria), Lucian Dan Teodorovici (Romania), Magdaléna Platzová (Czech Republic), and translator Philip Boehm (who read from his translation of Polish author Hanna Krall), with a great introduction by New Directions Publisher Barbara Epler. (Julia Deck [France] and Linda Coverdale did their portion of the reading back at Albertine.)

The readings were all wonderful and showcased a nice range of literary subject matter and, as you can tell from the paragraph above, a good range of countries represented. Also worth mentioning was Barbara’s introduction to the readings, in which she made a point to thank not only the authors for their work, but their translators as well, and those publishers (Open Letter Books among them) who continue to bring out literature in translation to enrich the literary world. Barbara had also prepared a double-sided printout that for everyone that had a huge (though not, as she apologized, fully comprehensive) list of publishers that do publish literature in translation, as well as literary magazines/journals, and even a handful of foreign literature centers that work to promote literature and its translation. This list was a pleasant and touching surprise, and hopefully informed those in attendance that there are more than just a few publishers in the United States and elsewhere working their asses off to bring readers amazing world literature, and publishers who want to keep bringing that literature to readers for decades to come. HOPEFULLY. More on this topic in a few paragraphs.

Saturday was a full day of panels, but started off with brunch at the Hospoda Bohemian Beer Hall, which is another cool venue (with delicious breakfast sausages) that I hope everyone is able to one day visit, be it for the restaurant, or for an event that would take place in the Czech Center’s upper floors. Make fun of us Eastern Europeans all you want for our love of Bon Jovi, our at times still outdated sneakers, but the one thing you can never take lightly (nor can we) is the sense of hospitality ever present when we welcome others into our spaces/homes. Which in the case of the Bohemian Beer Hall may be amplified by the cafeteria/beer garden-like interior and its brick walls, wood floors, and picnic-table seating.

While the full list of Saturday panels is available here, the one I do want to briefly touch on—and for a few reasons—is the final one, “Buried Secrets,” a “panel whose theme is untold truths hidden beneath the surface,” paneled by Magdaléna Platzová, Lucian Dan Teodorovici, and our very own Georgi Tenev, and moderated by Siri Hustvedt. Over the course of the panel and through questions asked by the audience after, we got to hear what authors from their countries these writers considered influential on their own works, as well as what it meant to write in a post-Soviet environment and how they thought what and how they wrote would be different had they not grown up or lived in such times and political situations. As someone who grew up reading and being taught about largely occupation-period and post-Soviet Latvian literature, I found the similarities interesting, both in terms of what writers are writing about, and how they see themselves or are perceived as writers in their countries. If I remember correctly, Lucian explained that he felt free and comfortable in Romania as a writer, because there was no pressure to write anything specific or anything that might be considered “great” since Romanians didn’t really read Romanian books anyway. Whereas I find that thought frightening, for him it was a built-in sense of security and release, as he considered he didn’t have any expectations to live up to and could just write what his heart desired to write.

Anyway, all of the authors presenting at this year’s festival are wildly intelligent people, with so much thought and process that goes into their writing, and proved to be equally wonderful to chat with afterward in a less on-the-spot setting. More information on all of them can be found at the Festival website here, and only three of the nine works represented have not found English-language publishers. Which brings me to my own version of a rant.

Before kicking off the panel, moderator Siri Hustvedt made a little plug for translated literature and the translators themselves, but then said something along the lines of “unless major publishers start publishing literature in translation, our lives/experiences as readers will be sorely lacking/start to deteriorate.”

Um . . . excuse me?

I want to give Hustvedt (whose latest novel was published, surprise surprise, by Simon & Schuster) the benefit of the doubt (also considering both she and her husband, Paul Auster, translate), that her wording or intent was, well, misworded or ill-communicated, but . . . It was hard not to feel a little offended at that sentiment, and not just because there she was, moderating a panel of authors at a weekend-long festival in part (and on some level) made largely possible by the work and efforts of not only indie/non-profit/small, but fiercely- and well-respected publishers of literary fiction in translation. Was the takeaway here that we should all sit around calmly while the Random Penguins of the world find some time between their Harry Potters and Jodi Picoults to publish the Jakov Linds/Marie NDiayes/Jenny Erpenbecks and save us all?

For once I had to outright agree with some of Chad’s rants about how unforgivable it is that small publishers are so frequently being belittled or crapped on, if even unintentionally, by people who seem to think that, “If it isn’t one of the Top 5 Houses publishing it, it doesn’t count.” Because every year, month, week, day, hour, second spent by people like us to help foster and bring brilliant world literature to a broader readership SHOULD count. It DOES count. And if you can’t see that it does, then you are part of the problem. If Murakami is your only go-to for contemporary literature in translation, then you are part of the problem. If you think that literature in translation “can only be saved” if taken under the wing of some goliath of a publisher, then you are part of the problem. If you are a reviewer at any of the “big” review outlets only reaching for the FSG/Penguin/HMH/etc. logo-stamped books in translation because you think that’s probably “safer,” then you are part of the problem. My god, are you ever part of the problem.

I want to look at a small facet of that problem—small, because there are so many ways to look at and approach this specific issue (like, next time someone asks you to recommend them a book, recommend a translation, in a tiny Pay It Forward act, because readers can be held equally responsible for promoting the books they love). But for now let’s go back to that list I mentioned Barbara Epler brought to her introduction. Keeping in mind her disclaimer that the list was not, unfortunately, comprehensive, there are eighty-six publishers of literary translations listed on the front side of her handout. Eighty-six. Yes, that list includes the FSG/Penguin/HMH/etc.-type publishers, but they are far outnumbered by the rest. And (again, benefit of the doubt) yet, we’re supposed to hedge all our bets, hopes, and dreams on these Major Presses to help save our literary lives from deterioration? The hell?! Alright, yes, I can buy into the fact that, much like small-press fans look for their beloved small-press logos and covers in store, readers who “stick” to the Major Presses probably do the same thing, to an extent. Maybe. But instead of taking a kind of misdirected angle of championing literature in translation via the graces of Major Presses, how about redirecting and supporting those presses that are already publishing literature in translation, have been doing so for years/decades and will continue to do so no matter what, and (financial aspects aside) without many of the probable obstacles or restrictions or aspirations of Major Presses (though it would be hilarious, our The Last Days of My Mother will likely never end up as a “20xx Box Office Smash Movie Time Hit of the Summer,” or as a 10-part miniseries on Fox or HBO—nor did we care about that when signing it on).

That said, it doesn’t make it easier that many of the mainstream sources that could potentially help these hard-working presses gain some additional recognition seem to always be dropping—or just never picking up—the ball. For example, in the New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2014” list, a mere eight out of 100 are translations (if I missed one, I apologize). And the number of times you see Knopf, Simon & Schuster, FSG, Scribner, Random House, etc., show up is basically the entire list. There are, of course, exceptions, and it’s good to see that. But come on! And the most notable books in translation include, what?: Murakami, Knausgaard, Ferrante. Not necessarily bad choices, but depressingly obvious ones.

Let’s move on to a similar, but slightly more tailored list: Book Riot’s A Great Big Guide To 2014’s Must-Read Books from Indie Presses. This list is far friendlier, as the title may indicate, toward indie presses and presses such as Open Letter that publish literature in translation. Except that Open Letter isn’t on there—which hurts, but not everyone can make every list. Or can they?

While Book Riot’s list is comprised of excellent titles (though, as someone pointed out on Facebook, only one translator is named—J.M. Coetzee, and probably only because of his Nobel Prize), I found it interesting that the list includes 41 presses (impressive), as well as multiple titles from each of these presses. Which makes me wonder about the presses not present on the list—did the list maker(s) really not like any of Open Letter’s books this year? Of Bellvue’s? New Vessel’s? Wakefield’s? Hispabooks’s? Does the list-maker even know of these and other presses left off the list? I guess “left off” is a strong phrase, but still. And hey, I’ve said it before, at least our friends at Biblioasis made the list this time around.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering why someone doesn’t make a year-end list that would include the largest number possible (or at least a healthy portion) of indie presses working with literature in translation, along with one book published by that press during the relevant year. It can’t be that hard, let’s say, to come up with a “50/50: Fifty Titles in Translation from Fifty Presses” list (DIBS that title is mine). So, Sunday, six hours into my eight-hour Amtrak trip back up to Rochester and with one free Buzzballz Tequila ‘rita in my system, I started one of my own, beginning with naming presses. Within a few minutes, I had almost forty presses publishing literature in translation written down, off the top of my exhausted, slightly buzzed head. “It’s like these listicle writers aren’t even trying,” I thought to myself. And then, “Oh, wait.”

Are they even trying? Maybe the downfall of these lists (and by downfall I mean “weaknesses perceived”) was that one person was trying to come up with all the information on his or her own. Maybe one person can’t feasibly read books from every press out there—though that doesn’t seem like a reasonable explanation. Out of the nearly forty presses I was able to name without looking at Barbara’s list for help, I can admit that I haven’t yet had the time or pleasure to read books published by a handful of them (for which I am sorry)—but the point is, I am aware of these presses and of what they have published.

It can be easily argued at this point that, as someone who now works in the publishing world, I have more daily access and exposure to these presses (see the stacks of review copies next to my desk for proof) and the authors they publish, and as a result a better working knowledge and awareness of them. Sure, fine. Yet, what about all the “indie press fans” all the indie presses and their authors get at AWP and MLA, and BookExpo, those readers who once read one Polish author translated into English and now Must Have All the Things that Are Polish Books in Translation? Those readers who, flabbergastingly, sometimes know more books than we do? People in the publishing world are not, clearly, the only ones aware of the other presses around them. What about all the Flavorwire and Buzzfeed and Book Riot listicles about year-end book lists that we all see slutted around our Facebook news feeds? What gives . . . ?

Among the many ways that literary translation and the publishers who bust balls can and should be lauded, supported, and promoted by the numerous sites that pride themselves on their monthly and year-end lists, it might be worth their time to consider—nay, START adding some parameters to these lists, such as, in the case of the 100-title list, “No publisher can appear more than twice,” which would already limit the list to 50 publishers minimum, and broaden that scope. Publishing houses play limitation games like this on a daily basis. (Open Letter, for one, is careful to keep its combined seasons for a given year well balanced in terms of author gender, country represented, book length, etc.) So, in the spirit of maintaining that translated literature doesn’t have to wait on Major Presses for anything: I’m going to take on my own challenge and put together our own Three Percent year-end book list: 50 translated titles from 50 presses. I bet I could even do it on two Tequila ‘ritas. (Do friends let friends drink and make lists?) And I bet it won’t even be that hard.

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