When it comes to the representation of lesser-known countries and their literatures, I’m clearly one to have a personal bias toward pitching anything Latvian to the world at large (moment of self-promotion: Open Letter Books will be publishing the English translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s novel High Tide in fall 2013), but the fact of the matter is that the problems behind spreading the love of translated literature—be it an issue of finding translators, publishers, or readers—applies to any small country that’s trying to introduce itself to the English-speaking literary market (and also applies to the translation and publishing of foreign literatures in general). So it was much to my delight that an article titled “Unchain My Language!” popped up on Euronews.net a few weeks ago showcasing Latvian author Inga Žolude, one of the 2011 European Union Prize for Literature winners.
The video and transcript of the interview were prepared by Euronews.net’s “Generation Y,” who traveled to Latvia (FATHERLAND!!!) to talk with Žolude, as well as her translator, Suzanne McQuade, and others involved in the Latvian literary and publishing industry on the topic of Latvian literature in translation. In addition to lauding Žolude’s accomplishments as a young writer, the article touches on the difficulties of getting foreign literature published abroad, especially when that literature is being written in languages largely unspoken outside its respective country’s borders.
While it’s not entirely clear why the good people of Generation Y (and their endearingly questionable use of video graphics) came to pick Latvia as their destination, their choice was a good one, and the interview gives Žolude and the other interviewees the opportunity to make some excellent statements and observations on literary translation and its finer points. And though they ultimately bring up topics that are often discussed in the world of literary translation, the importance of these topics cannot be stressed or repeated enough.
Generation Y traveled to Riga to meet Inga Zolude, a 28-year-old Latvian writer, who was one of the winners of the European Union Prize for Literature last year.
“I think there should be an interest in Latvian literature because Latvian Literature is unique, it is different and specific, it’s very high quality literature. I hope that the time when it is fully discovered on a bigger scale is approaching,” she says.
That is what this is all about. The European Prize for Literature aims to promote the circulation of books in a continent where the diversity of languages is often a barrier.
In addition to the video, Generation Y also linked to translation samples of Žolude’s work, the English sample of which you can find here.
I think the translated letters/articles pretty much speak for themselves, but I’ll try and contextualize this as it goes along . . . Here’s the basic setup: Zvaigzne ABC decided to publish an anthology of contemporary Latvian writers as part of its “School Library” series. So far, so good. (Maybe. Pay attention to that “School Library” tag.) But in a
traditional dick publishing move, they didn’t treat these authors with any sort of respect and totally screwed with their work.
Here’s a post by Inga Žolude, which was the first piece to point out some of the issues:
Kilbloka wasn’t around when shame was being doled out. After Vija Kilbloka [Ed. Note: Kilbloka is the Chairman of Zvaigzne ABC] dug herself a hole by saying Latvian literature has no influence, no good authors, no good works, and that it’s no surprise no one’s buying books, after her lovely compliments, which insofar as I understand are also addressed toward me, today I received a notice from the Zvaigzne ABC publishing house stating one of my stories was to be included in the “School Library” series anthology Newest Latvian Short Stories. Fantastic! But:
1) No one asked me if I wanted my story to be included. No one even told me about it. And the question of whether or not it’s ethical for them to send me this kind of email after some Prada-clad Satan has doused me in sewage? I have to overlook all of that because I’m some kind of Übermensch?
2) There is neither a contract, nor information on the royalties I’d receive for the publication. It could be because they don’t have to inform or pay authors if the book is being published for educational purposes. Excuse me?! What??? Vija Kilbloka’s office publishes this book of contemporary literature, makes a profit off it, but I get nothing? Why? Tell me—why?
3) My story, which was published in my short story collection Mierinājums Ādama kokam by Dienas Grāmata in 2010, was attached to the email. The story had been “corrected” by the work elves at Zvaigzne ABC, and the accompanying letter read: “Corrections I’d like to make to the text are marked in blue; these you can approve of or not, and you can include notes as to why you’d like to leave the respective section as is. The spots marked in red are things I’ve edited or would like to change, but haven’t decided on the best version prior to hearing back from you.” [emphasis mine] Wait. I’m sorry. I have to explain to you why I don’t want to change certain spots in my text??? Did gravity, all sane logic, etc., just cease to function tonight? I don’t have to explain myself to anyone! I’ve written my version, the only version, and never before have I heard that I have to provide some outsider with better versions to choose from.
I’d like to call the attention of the Latvian Authors’ Society AKKA/LAA and other institutions that develop incomplete laws and regulations to this situation and the issues related to authorship, copyright, and royalties, because appears that these concepts don’t exist in this specific case and can simply be ignored.
This kind of thing always pisses me off, whether it’s from a Latvian publisher, or one closer to home. And it extra pisses me off when there are no consequences . . . when publishers take advantage of some system to benefit themselves at the expense of the writers/translators who actually generate the value in this relationship . . . I carry grudges about this sort of thing for years.
In this particular case, thirteen of the best Latvian writers of our time decided to sign a petition. Here’s a news story about it from Kulturasdiena.lv:
Writers deny Zvaigzne ABC permission to publish their works in anthology of short stories
“. . . Taking into consideration the approach and (non)collaboration in the preparation of the anthology, we do not consent to having our stories used by Zvaigzne ABC in putting together its anthology of new short stories,” several well-known Latvian literati announced on Kulturasdiena.lv.
The statement, which was signed by Inga Žolude, Andra Neiburga, Jānis Einfelds, Gundars Ignats, Nora Ikstena, Gundega Repše, Maira Asare, Inga Ābele, Pauls Bankovskis, Māris Bērziņš, Dace Rukšāne, Osvalds Zebris, and Juris Zvirgzdiņš, voices the authors’ frustrations regarding the deceitful attitude of publishing house Zvaigzne ABC while preparing its Newest Latvian Short Stories anthology. In the letter, the authors also state they do not consent to having their works published in the anthology.
The following is a reprint of the statement released by the authors.
The preparation of a certain book has caused numerous whirlwinds of discussion over the past few days. As well as a spattering of emotions, impassioned statements, and anonymity (see Inga Žoludes article Kilbloka wasn’t home and, particularly, the comments thread below it).
The preparation of Zvaigzne ABC’s Newest Latvian Short Stories anthology reflects wonderfully their unacceptable and deceitful approach. Dismissing the ability of Latvian writers to produce commercially successful works and simultaneously putting together an anthology of the newest short stories (which, according to Zvaigzne ABC Board Chairman Vija Kilbloka’s opinion on contemporary Latvian literature, will most likely be a commercial flop) is strange, to say the least.
And yet, why spit in the well from which we draw our water—it’s all the same, whether we drink it or use it to water our gardens. Shouldn’t we be spitting only in the Coca-Cola and Fanta wells, which have been drilled, branded, and sent into the global market by someone else? The situation in Latvia is such that, in the creation stages of a book, it’s much easier to let authors, other publishers, book editors, and proof-readers for original works pick themselves off, and watch from the sidelines to see which creative shrubs die off, which ones grow lush, and which ones yield the sweetest fruits. And then secretly pluck them and stash them in your own basket.
Does a status as a potential commercial flop justify the publisher’s actions toward the authors and texts to be included in their anthology? It’s possible this is a particular publishing business know-how move—to kick off production by weeding through the texts, making corrections in blue and red, and then informing the authors thereof as pure fact, instead of entering into agreement with the authors on using their works, discussing respective terms, etc. A number of the authors whose stories are set to be included in the potential collection haven’t even been notified. It’s hard to imagine that communication would be such a big problem, especially in this digital age where everyone is just a few clicks away—Facebook, Draugiem.lv, Twitter.
Maybe the “know-how” is Section 19 of the Copyright Law, which states the permissible uses of a work without the author’s consent or without remuneration for the purposes of educational or research materials. And the magic words are “School Library” or (in this particular context the sarcastic slogan)—“Need a book?” What’s more, Section 19 also permits the use of a work without consent or remuneration in the cases the work is parodied or caricatured.
True, for some, Latvian literature stops at Ezera, Blaumanis, or Poruks. For others, Latvian literature might only be the forgotten black-and-white portraits of Latvian authors hanging on the wall of some long-forgotten classroom. For others still, Latvian literature has yet to begin. The Latvian film industry has at some time started (or not started) for each of us in a similar manner, as have Latvian theater, classical, and popular music. Opinions and reviews can differ, and that’s what makes life interesting. But a disregard for something cannot be an argument for high-mindedness.
And so, taking into consideration the approach and (non)collaboration in the preparation of the anthology, we do not consent to having our stories used by Zvaigzne ABC in putting together its anthology of new short stories. Additionally, it would be commercially more profitable to delay the publication of an anthology until a time when Latvian writers will have analyzed what readers want, what a book has to be in order for people to buy it, and once writers start to take into consideration the codes necessary for getting people to read.
Signed: Inga Žolude, Andra Neiburga, Jānis Einfelds, Gundars Ignats, Nora Ikstena, Gundega Repše, Maira Asare, Inga Ābele, Pauls Bankovskis, Māris Bērziņš, Dace Rukšāne, Osvalds Zebris, and Juris Zvirgzdiņš.
What’s worth noting here is this: “Section 19 of the Copyright Law, which states the permissible uses of a work without the author’s consent or without remuneration for the purposes of educational or research materials.” So to get this straight, this publishing company disses contemporary writers, then uses their stories for free to create a “school anthology” that’s likely to sell pretty well . . . That’s one way to up your profit margins.
Zvaigzne ABC did reply to the petition, agreeing to let these authors back out:
In response to the request of several Latvian authors to exclude their works from the upcoming Zvaigzne ABC anthology Newest Latvian Short Stories, the publishing house Zvaigzne ABC announced to Kulturasdiena.lv that it will respect the authors’ wish to not be published in the collection.
As mentioned before, Latvian authors Inga Žolude, Andra Neiburga, Jānis Einfelds, Gundars Ignats, Nora Ikstena, Gundega Repše, Maira Asare, Inga Ābele, Pauls Bankovskis, Māris Bērziņš, Dace Rukšāne, Osvalds Zebris, and Juris Zvirgzdiņš signed a letter voicing their frustration regarding the deceitful approach taken by Zvaigzne ABC in putting together its anthology on the newest Latvian short stories. The authors also denied their consent to have their stories published, additionally stating that a number of authors whose stories were set to be included in the collection weren’t even informed thereof.
Zvaigzne ABC representative Vineta Tropiņa explained that literary critic Guntis Berelis was approached in advance to put together the collection, as well as to write its introduction. The project was launched with authors he had chosen, each author being informed of this fact in writing or by phone. Tropiņa emphasized that, until this past Friday evening, June 8, the majority of authors had responded positively to the publisher’s offer. This changed after Inga Žolude’s blog post on Kulurasdiena.lv, and a few others only reacted Monday, June 11.
Tropiņa went on to say that, in the specific case of Inga Žolude’s short story, there were nine places in the text with suggested changes: a few punctuation errors, as well as a suggestion to italicize colloquialisms and profanity. “For example, the word pizģec, which we chose not to italicize this time per the author’s request.” Other authors were offered similar suggestions of this nature. “We’d like to point out that we purposely used the words ‘offered suggestions’, since the editor invited the authors to come in and discuss the best possible solutions,” Tropiņa explained. She also noted that Zvaigzne ABC has a long-standing cooperation with Latvian Authors’ Society AKKA/LAA, from whom the publisher purchases the license. AKKA/LAA is also in charge of handling the respective distribution of royalties for the authors.
The Newest Latvian Short Stories anthology is to be published for the new series “School Library”, which continues the tradition of the already popular series “Need a Book?” and is intended for schoolchildren. There are already three works published within the “School Library” series: Regīna Ezera’s Zemdegas, Illona Leimane’s Vilkaču mantiniece, and Knuts Skujenieks’s poetry anthology.
The “editing” thing is always a bit touchy, and could be interpreted in a variety of ways. To me, using these works without remuneration for the authors is just totally wrong. If only publishing companies had better morals . . .
There are more questions to ask about this—like, how many authors were they planning on including? Thirteen backing out sounds pretty damn significant—and other observations to make about the Latvian publishing world as a whole, but I’ll leave that to Kaija.
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