Discussing the Importance of International Literature with Open Letter’s CHAD POST
By Tyler Malone
Three percent, three measly percent–that’s how much of the American book market is made up of books in translation. To make matters worse, according to the website Three Percent (run by Chad Post, Open Letter Books, and the University of Rochester), “that figure includes all books in translation–in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%.” To be a literate and literary society, we can’t continue to be so insular. There are countless great pieces of literature in the world, and without the benefit of quality translations produced by skillful translators, Americans would be stuck only reading English-language writers. Who would want to live in a country that had no access to the works of Kafka, Borges, Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky, Gombrowicz, Tolstoy, Camus, Euripides, Goethe, Verne, Gogol, Homer? All writers who did not write in English, but who made a profound impact on American literature nonetheless (doing so through translation). And the list of great writers from around the world goes on and on–and, more importantly, the list keeps growing as the minutes, days, and years scurry on.
While there are always new Kafkas and new Borgeses around the globe, many of these contemporary writers’ works–and often their complete oeuvres–aren’t available in English translation in America. It’s not difficult for any observant reader to notice the unfortunate fact that there’s a strange hesitancy in the general American public to read books in translation, a theme picked up on in the translation panel during the recent 2012 PEN Writers Festival. It’s as though because something inevitably gets “lost in translation” (which I’m willing to concede), it’s better to avoid altogether books whose original languages we cannot read fluently (which, sadly, for most Americans is every book not in English). This is ludicrous. The worry shouldn’t be about what is lost in translation, but what is lost when there is no translation. How many hundreds, thousands, of exquisite works are we missing out on because of our collective disinterest, and by extension, because of our publishing industry’s sole focus on profits and dividends (at the detriment of the publication of literary fiction as a whole, but especially those contemporary masterpieces from other countries around the globe)?
Chad Post, once an Associate Director at the Dalkey Archive (a personal favorite press of mine), and now the founder and director of Open Letter Books (which amazingly focuses solely on works in translation), is fighting the good fight on the front lines of this war. While it may seem like a losing battle to many, and though there is–and likely always will be–too many foreign gems lost or overlooked, I for one am grateful to have Mr. Post out there finding great books for us from every corner of the globe, great books that should not go unnoticed.
Tyler Malone: I know you worked at the Dalkey Archive for a while. As the “Reading Markson Reading guy,” I’ve always been a big fan of Dalkey for being the one publishing house willing to put out Markson’s landmark Wittgenstein’s Mistress (after its monumental 54 rejections). How did you transition from Dalkey to starting Open Letter? What was the impetus behind that move?
Chad Post: It’s a long story, but basically, the opportunity came along to start a new press at the University of Rochester that would be focused exclusively on international literature and tied into the U of R’s developing translation programs. Obviously, I love foreign literature and the issues surrounding the art and craft of translation, so this was perfect for me. And who wouldn’t jump at the chance to start a new press? It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
TM: What is the modus operandi over at Open Letter? Do you have a specific mission statement?
CP: To publish and promote interesting works in translation from around the world. This is over-simplifying a bit, but in some ways Open Letter is the publishing aspect and Three Percent represents the promotional aspects of our mission. I’m truly dedicated to the idea that a nonprofit should do all it can to better the part of the world that it’s related to. And for us that means helping spread a love and appreciation of international writing and the art of translation. As a result, I’m as excited about our activities like the Best Translation Book Awards that bring attention to non-Open Letter titles. At the same time, there’s probably no better feeling in publishing than when a book you’ve been obsessed with for a few years comes back from the printer and you can hold it, reread it, and finally share it with all your friends.
TM: So your Three Percent blog is named after that abysmal percentage of books in translation. Tell me a little bit more about Three Percent.
CP: Basically, Three Percent is the place where we can interact with readers who are interested in literature and publishing in an exciting, non-traditional way. The book reviews are great, since a lot of these books go unnoticed, the Best Translation Book Award is quickly becoming an influential award, and the daily posts are a great place to highlight interesting translation issues, as well as explain the publishing world to those not in it. (And the rants are probably the release I need to stay sane.)
TM: The American book market is notoriously terrible at publishing literature from other nations. Why do you think this is?
CP: There are a number of reasons, and a lot of different ways to present these various issues depending on what specifically you want to emphasize. Not to be too brash or confrontational or whatever about it, but the main cause is the capitalist belief that money is more important than culture. Once you start down the path of maximizing profits for shareholders, you start cutting all unnecessary costs (paying translators, marketing books that won’t earn back their advances) and focusing only on what can make you the most money (books that are “entertainments” that appeal to the largest possible audience). It’s elitist to say so, but a lot of the time, the books that make publishers the largest profits are the books that are tolerably mediocre. They’re entertaining, but ephemeral. The books with the greatest impact tend to take “too long” to read or are “too difficult.” That doesn’t make the 1% any cash in the short term. Follow that financial reasoning to its natural extension and a strange book from Hungary remains unpublished in favor of a totally middlemind piece of forgettable MFA fiction.
TM: I couldn’t agree more. So, since we’re obviously like-minded on the issue, here’s my softball question to take as your chance to make a plea. Why is it important to make literature from around the world available in translation here in the States?
CP: The more artistic voices available to readers and writers the better. A healthy translation culture helps to ensure that the literary world in the U.S. keeps renewing itself and evolving and expanding. And as stupid as it might sound, it’s important that readers have as many options available as possible. I don’t want to be limited to reading Jonathan Franzen and his derivative followers for the rest of my life. That would make me hate books. Sorry, that’s not much of a plea for international lit, but it’s the truth. I love variety and exploration, both of which are automatically part of reading international literature. And I don’t think I’m the only person who feels that way.
TM: Open Letter entered into the e-book world last year, to both praise and criticism, especially about pricing. What are your current thoughts on e-books and e-book pricing?
CP: E-books should cost $9.99 at most. And publishers should get better at modulating e-book prices at various times–upon release, to spark backlist sales, to celebrate a new book from a legacy author, etc.–instead of following the traditional model of naming a price and keeping it at that level for years and years. That’s dumb and outmoded. And for all my dislike of self-publishing (more the books that are published than the idea and practice of it), those people have proven that publishers are a bit myopic (Brooklyn-opic?), and that when it comes to e-books, pricing really matters.
TM: I recently attended the PEN World Voices Festival’s panel on translation, and I’m curious from your perspective, what goes into a good translation? It’s a precarious thing. There’s so many things a translator must attempt to carry across. So what are the criteria you use to judge a translation?
CP: This is such a tough thing to unpack. And every attempt to explain it just leads to more and more and more questions and comments. Keeping it simple, yet enigmatic, a translation should capture the special something, the overarching “style” of an author’s prose and structure, that makes an individual book unique.
TM: Part of the panel discussion focused on whether the general public, or at least general readers, wanted to know that something was translated. This seems very important to the Open Letter project. One of the panelists suggested it was better not to highlight the translator’s name, and especially not to put it on the cover, because readers generally want to believe that what they are getting is straight from the author, not something filtered through another person. I have a hard time figuring out where I stand on this line of reasoning. I think the speaker may unfortunately be correct, in a way, that readers (and society in general) are obsessed with the idea of one man/woman, one genius, behind a text, and so from a financial standpoint, the less you highlight that “these aren’t the actual words of the writer you think you’re reading,” the more people might be apt to read. But at the same time, this sort of taboo about translation is puzzling and frustrating. Can’t we just appreciate literature in translation as literature in translation and love it in spite of whatever complications the whole practice brings to the table? What are your thoughts?
CP: We don’t live in 19th Century Germany. Let’s try applying this logic to another art form for a second: “I don’t like movies that include the name of the screenwriter and director on the DVD box. Viewers want to believe that this piece of art came straight from the actors.” That’s a dumb example, but I think it’s a dumb argument. We live in an era of overwhelming amounts of information. In most every situation we want to know more, or at least know where we can go to get to know more. In what other situation do we like having some piece of information–one that can add to, or inform, or not, our experience–withheld from us in hopes that a corporation can increase its profits? Not to make this political or anti-corporate, but I feel like that argument is based in the long-standing belief of corporate publishers that their readers are retarded. And that’s insulting. The whole argument is insulting. Sorry, but fuck that.
TM: Ha! No need for apology, this is precisely the sort of response I was hoping I’d elicit from you with that question. From the marketing standpoint, I see what this publisher was saying, but the whole idea behind it leaves me feeling a bit icky.
CP: I want my books to have all possible metadata like that out in the open. I am probably weird, but Open Letter will always include the translator’s name on the front cover–because we think readers are smart enough to deal with something that’s not nearly as exotic or weird as certain book people make it out to seem.
TM: Since we’re talking about the PEN World Voices panel, I want to discuss a piece you wrote recently in which you criticized the festival for only having 33% of their writers from non-English-speaking countries, and for not bringing any New Directions or Open Letter writers. Can you talk about some of the changes you’d make to the festival if you were in charge?
CP: Man, that article has a whole list of them. Mainly, I’d like to see the festival return to its roots and be more openly about promoting international authors in unique, interesting ways. Not by bringing in overexposed local authors and slipping in a foreigner, but by foregrounding the international and bringing something to the masses that they can’t get most every night of the week. Also, make it shorter, with a more logical schedule, and with a central location that can actually connect authors and translators and readers instead of existing as a circle jerk for publishing people.
TM: Furthering this line of questioning: in a parallel universe, you’re the head of the festival, what is one panel you’d make and what writers would be on it?
CP: Contemporary Giants: Javier Marías, László Krasznahorkai, António Lobo Antunes, and Michel Houellebecq. It would be great to hear them all talk about what they’re trying to do with their writings, and which young writers they think people should be reading.
TM: Very nice, I’d certainly attend that panel. You’ve been publishing books at Open Letter Books for something like four years now. You’ve published amazing literature from all over the globe. Gun to your head: favorite book in the Open Letter catalogue?
CP: Scars by Juan José Saer. (Though my favorite changes often.)
TM: Who are some of your favorite writers overall past and present?
Julio Cortázar. William Faulkner. Thomas Pynchon. Raymond Queneau. Harry Mathews. Virginia Woolf. Georges Perec. António Lobo Antunes. Clarice Lispector. G. Cabrera Infante. Philip K. Dick. David Mitchell. Nicholas Mosley. Nathalie Sarraute. Dubravka Ugrešić. Robert Walser.
Chad Post is the director of Open Letter Books.
Chad Post interviewed by Tyler Malone
Written and Edited by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Chad Post
Design by Marie Havens
Photography Courtesy of Chad Post