Storytelling is and always will be a powerful expression of humanity's ability to reflect upon itself and to connect the disparate parts of its whole. And though slippery tongues divide us more firmly than they ought, language persists as a barrier to our education about one another, and ourselves. Imagine a world in which important literature — Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf" and "Siddhartha," or any of Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry — remained closed to anyone who did not know the language of the writers. The University of Rochester's nonprofit, literary translation press, Open Letter, is one of only a handful of publishing houses in the world dedicated entirely to increasing access to world literature for English language readers, and is contributing to our awareness of future classics.
It all began in 2007, when publisher Chad Post and two others in the publishing industry — E. J. Van Lanen, who now lives in Berlin and has his own press, Frisch & Co.; and Nathan Furl, who manages Open Letter's design and production — moved to Rochester from Illinois. The University of Rochester was interested in starting a translation program for undergraduate and graduate students that would give them experience in learning how to translate as well as connect them to the publishing world. Students intern with the press, learn how books move from manuscript to published form, and how they are produced and sold throughout the world.
By January 2016, Open Letter will have published 75 titles in fiction and poetry. It publishes more books per year than any other of the small handful of domestic companies that focus strictly on translated books, and it receives a lot of national attention. Earlier in July, the National Translation Award released its 2015 Longlist in Prose, and four of the 12 named are from Open Letter.
Open Letter produces 10 translated titles per year, and hosts featured foreign authors and translators during its annual Reading the World Conversation Series. Comedian, writer, and former mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr, visited Rochester this past April as part of this series. The organization also manages Three Percent, a website based at the university, named after "the famous statistic that only three percent of all books published in America are translated from other languages," Post says. It serves as a comprehensive blog about the industry, international literature, commentary on book culture, and reviews of translated books that receive mention nowhere else.
Because of the work involved, Open Letter's first book wasn't published until September 2008, but Three Percent launched in the summer of 2007. By the time Open Letter had its first publication on shelves, Three Percent was "one of the most trafficked international literature websites that there was," Post says. "That's grown exponentially over time."
Three Percent has also expanded to include a Translation Database, which keeps track of every original work of fiction and poetry that receives its first translated published edition. So this wouldn't include a new translation of Dostoyevsky, Post says, only works that haven't been translated and published in English before.
"I can tell you how many books were translated from Arabic in the year 2010 ... this information exists nowhere else in the world," Post says. In effect, the site is constantly sourced. Within one recent week, both the New York Times and The Atlantic called Open Letter to request data.
This fall, the database will expand to include information on whether the authors and translators are male or female. "Seventy-one percent of the books published from 2008 onward in translation are written by male authors," Post says. "Which is astronomically high, probably higher than the normal book industry."
Open Letter's numbers are more balanced, at about 45 percent female authors. "We try to make it as close as possible, but it's not perfect," Post says.
Out of the database, Open Letter launched The Best Translated Book Award, which is the largest award for international literature in the country. The 2015 fiction winner was "The Last Lover," by Can Xue (translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen and published by Yale University Press), and the poetry winner was "Diorama," by Rocío Cerón (translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong and published by Phoneme). "Thanks to Amazon, we get $20,000 in cash prizes that are given out to the best work of fiction and poetry from the previous year," Post says.
The translators and the authors each receive $5,000 as a prize for winning, "which, for the poetry, is generally more than they've ever been paid for any poetry translation or book," he says.
In addition to working with a handful of students in the academic program — about five graduate students and a dozen undergrads — Open Letter works with a network of professional translators in many different languages who are based all over the world. Some of the translators they work with are former students, including Will Vanderhyden, whose translations of Marguerite Labbe and Rodrigo Fresán are to be published by Open Letter.
Translation is far more complicated and artful than the impression many people might have, which is why technology will never put literary translators out of work.
"I think the main misconception the general public has is that people translate word-for-word — that they look at what the original French text says, for example, and they translate that word into English," Post says. "That's not at all how it works. You're basically trying to capture a style."
Another impression the general public has of translators is "as scholars hunched over dictionaries in dark libraries," says Katherine Rucker, a Rochester-based translator who graduated in 2014 from the program at UR and works for Language Intelligence. "But nowadays there are also a lot of vibrant, creative people who aim to advocate translation as an art form that doesn't have to be limited to academia. People who are passionate about the same things tend to gravitate toward one another, and Rochester actually has a pretty sizable community of translators and readers, so there are plenty of ways to connect with other translators and work collaboratively."
The phrase "lost in translation" irritates Post. "It sort of hinders everything in this negative way, rather than looking at everything positively in the sense that you're not going to be able to read a book in Icelandic in your life if it's not translated. And that is a pure gain for you, as an English reader, that you now have access to this Icelandic book."
Translators deal more with larger, more tectonic ways of looking at a book: asking questions such as how does the whole structure work; how does the paragraph work; and how does the voice work? They discern "what is special about how that author put together their art, and how can that be translated into English," Post says.
"Every reader comes to a book with his or her own mindset, ideals, and experience, and that can really change the book's impact," Rucker says. "With all the subtleties of language that go into translation, there are all sorts of opportunities for implying different shades of meaning — and the translator can only choose one at a time."
Rucker says that most of her challenges with tricky phrases actually come from trying to get the right tone and voice — for a scene with two lovers yelling and fighting, for example. "Whether the phrase is something the narrator or a character is saying, there's always a particular voice that they'd use to say it, with their own unique vocabulary," Rucker says.
This is especially common with words or phrases with literal meanings that aren't as natural in English as it is in the source — like cursing or insults. "I usually find it helpful to come back to harder phrases like that once I've worked on more of the piece and have a better idea of how each character "sounds" in English," she says. "Reading it out loud and with other people helps, too."
Post and Open Letter's editorial director, Kaija Straumanis, together make decisions about which titles will get published. Many foreign presses serve as agents for foreign authors and mail pitches to Open Letter.
"We work with readers and get sample translations to try to figure out if a book is right for us," Post says, but sometimes translators themselves serve as agents and bring a sample of something they're working on to the table.
"They send us a ton of work — samples, things they've been working on," Post says. And working directly with specialized translators is key, "because they know how to explain why a certain book is important to a country's literature, or how it fits in with the books we publish."
Open Letter attends the American Literary Translators Association conference every year (Open Letter actually hosted the conference in Rochester in 2012), at which about 350 professional translators are present.
The decision to publish a book is based on the translator's information and Open Letter's judgement, "which is generally guided by the idea of finding books that are stylistically unique and are adding something valuable to book culture," Post says. "We're not just publishing for the media sales over the next few months, but thinking about, once we get all these books together, 50 years from now people will look back and that book will still be an important book that helped guide the conversation of literature in some way."
Other factors play into the decision, such as grant availability and if the rights are accessibly priced. Open Letter also tries to balance the variety of voices represented each year, and not publish, say, 10 Latin American translations all in a row.
Post handles the publishing activities and a lot of the marketing of the books, and teaches three classes within UR's academic program, which functions like a publishing internship with a lecture-based aspect.
Open Letter prints between 3,000 and 5,000 copies of any given title, "and our best-selling books are into the 3,000 numbers," Post says. Their goal is to keep the books in print indefinitely so that readership keeps expanding to new audiences, and over the course of 10 years, they might sell a total of five or six thousand copies.
This may sound like small potatoes, but keep in mind that if any book sells 6,000 copies in one week, it makes the Best Seller list. That's not a lot, especially when compared to music sales, for example. This is directly tied to the way we consume media — books, unlike TV, films, and music, take time to absorb, and there are more than 30,000 new titles coming out annually, not all of which have the most influential marketing machines pushing them out into our attention.
One of the ways Open Letter competes is with the cohesive, stylishly-graphic and beautifully-hued cover designs (by art and operations director Nathan Furl), which look fantastic solo or all lined up together on a book fair table. Because, let's face it, we frequently do judge books by their covers.
Post says there is a growing movement, even among the larger publishing companies, in finding good works outside of American literature — which sometimes has to do with following patterns of popular response to certain works. After the success of Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series, big publishing companies sought out other Scandinavian crime writers.
"There's also been a shift again to interest in Latin American and Spanish writers," Post says. "These things tend to be cyclical."
Though there are a lot of great writers in the Asian and Middle Eastern countries, their works don't tend to make their way into translation in a significant way, Post says. "A lot of publishers are seeking things from the Arab world, but there hasn't yet been a moment where there's 15 titles coming out and everyone's talking about it."
Post says this is in part because their publishing systems are organized so differently from those in the West, they don't have foreign rights sales — which leads to rampant piracy in some cases — and their publishers don't send catalogs to American publishers the way that German, French, Czech, Polish, and others do. "If you want to find out about a book written in Arabic by a Lebanese writer, you essentially have to go to that writer in that place, and get that book from them," Post says.
His impressions aren't unfounded — Post has traveled to the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, and others, in pursuit of Arab authors. The publishers are not motivated to sell the books to American and European publishers, he says, because they know how small of an audience there is for translated books. (Remember, that three percent thing?)
"For them to go to the London or Frankfurt Book Fair, to set up meetings, to produce catalogs — all of that cost and time and effort would result in maybe one book sale," he says.
In addition, there are issues with censorship in some of the countries in the Arab world, and books don't always make it across borders.
It's logical to wonder if publishing censored art in America, which already has contention with parts of the Arab world, might sprinkle gasoline on an existent fire, but Post says that's not a major concern. But on our end, some publishers do practice what he calls "economic censorship," in which they make the arguably unfair assumption that if the contents of the stories are too foreign — the names too difficult to pronounce, the places and situations without prior context in the readers' minds — their audiences won't buy the books. This arguably keeps a population of people foreign, and raises questions about the responsibilities of purveyors of art.
"This is kind of worse, in my mind, than worrying about an international incident," Post says, "assuming your readers are too dumb to figure out the author's viewpoints on the world, and cutting them off from the experience."
"Rock, Paper Scissors" by Naja Marie Aidt, translated from the Danish by K. E. Semmel
While trying to fix a toaster that his recently deceased, criminal father left behind, Thomas discovers a wad of cash, setting into motion a series of events that plunges him into a shadowy underworld.
"I met Naja in Iceland at the Reykjavík International Literary Festival back in 2009, and have been in touch with her off and on ever since," Post says. "At that point in time, she had published mostly poetry, along with a couple short story collections. We hadn't yet launched our poetry series at that point, but when I found out she had written a novel, I jumped on it. The book is brilliant — very much a page-turner, with a mysterious package driving the plot and very well-drawn characters, all flawed in interesting ways—and is a real step up for her, aesthetically speaking. The guy who translated it, K. E. Semmel, is actually from Rochester, so this is another book with solid local connections."
"The Things We Don't Do" by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
A set of short stories that consider love, lechery, history, mortality, family secrets, therapy, Borges, mysterious underwear, translators, and storytelling itself.
"Neuman was featured in Granta's special issue on 'Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists,' which was where I first encountered his work. (Besides his being praised by Roberto Bolaño, which goes a long way.) Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published his first two novels — 'Traveler of the Century' and 'Talking to Ourselves' — but following his visit to Rochester to participate in the Reading the World Conversation Series, he asked if we would publish his story collection, which I am thrilled to be doing."
"Rochester Knockings" by Hubert Haddad, translated from the French by Jennifer Grotz
A chronicle of the rise and fall of Rochester's infamous mediums, the Fox Sisters, shedding light on the context that birthed the Spiritualist Movement.
"The French publisher of this book is someone we've worked with on a number of occasions, and when [Grotz] first got this manuscript in, she sent it to us immediately, both because Haddad was a writer we had considered in the past, but also because it's about Rochester! Jen Grotz — poet, translator, director of the literary translation program at the U of R — read it, loved it, and offered to translate it. Such a brilliant book, and Open Letter really is the perfect home for it."