Publisher Spotlight: Open Letter Books
There’s a commonly held belief in the literary world that Americans do not like to read books in translation. So ingrained is this idea that many translators who I have heard speak publicly state that the translator’s name is often left off the cover, lest the public realize that what they have in their hands is not originally written in English.* Other countries do not seem to have this problem, most likely because they are not of the privileged whose language is the most widely spoken.
If the above is to be taken as true, that Americans do in fact have a bias against books not written in their native tongue, why is this? Do we feel we won’t be able to relate to the story? The characters? Do we feel removed from the author? Personally, I enjoy translated literature and, before understanding what it was, never gave it much thought–it took a friend in college to point out that I was not reading the original Tolstoy. Unfortunately, this leaves me unable to answer these questions; I can only pose them for others to think about.
What I would like to do, however, is highlight an excellent publisher championing this underdog of the literary world: Open Letter Books. Open Letter is a non-profit publishing house run out of Rochester University and funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Along with the publishing side, which releases 10 books a year–a mixture of contemporary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and older titles, largely from Eastern Europe and Latin America–Open Letter runs the website Three Percent. The name comes from the percentage of books published in the US that are works in translation. In addition, they also host the annual Translated Book Award, which considers titles from both large and small publishers across the United States.
If that weren’t enough, Open Letter publisher Chad Post and Tom Roberge, Publicity and Marketing Director of New Directions, host a podcast where they discuss news of the day, mainly that which affects literature in translation, as well as books of note. Having faith in both their tastes, I often walk away with a few more books on my list.
Aside from publishing stellar books, Open Letter, to those familiar with them, are known for having some of the best covers in the business. Once you’ve seen a handful they become easily recognizable, both on display tables and on the shelf.
Open Letter has subscription service where you can pay for either 6 months or a year worth of books. During that time, a newly released title shows up on your doorstep every month. While you’re waiting for that first book to arrive, here are two I recommend.
Karaoke Culture by Dubravka Ugresic
Dubravka Ugresic’s 2011 essay collection Karaoke Culture was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist in criticism and the German edition won her the Jean Améry Award for Essay Writing. Not to be mistaken for a fan of karaoke, Ugresic explains that uses the term as an “awkward” metaphor.
“In the text that follows we’re interested in the human activities in which an anonymous participant, assisted by new technology, uses an existing cultural model to derive pleasure. … The models are most often drawn from popular culture (television, film, pop music, computer games), but some belong to what was one considered ‘high culture’ (film, literature, painting).”
While some of the essays touch on Eastern European politics, one does not need to be familiar with the history to appreciate what is being said; just as one does not need to be familiar with every band or sports figure Chuck Klosterman profiles, an appropriate comparison (I believe) if there is one.
Ugresic’s writing, regardless of topic, is entertaining, a combination of poignant observations of everyday objects to humorous asides: “For three things signified opulence in Yugoslavia: coffee, detergent, and cooking oil.”
In an interview with BOMB magazine, when asked about living through the war in (former) Yugoslavia, Ugresic said, “Everyday life around me changed and became threatening; when reality became morally and emotionally unacceptable, I spontaneously started to protest. At that time the genre of essay seemed to me the most appropriate literary form for expressing my thoughts, my anger and my despair.”
I highly recommend Karaoke Culture to any Klosterman fan who also wields a subscription to The Nation.
18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev
In 18% Gray, Bulgarian-born novelist and playwright Zachary Karabashliev tells the story of Zack, a living, breathing casualty of a failed marriage. One night Zack leaves his southern California home for Tijuana and comes back with more than he bargained for. With nothing left to lose he takes off for New York City where he has a friend who might be able to help. As he heads east, his passion for photography is reignited and he captures the country’s landscape on film; much of the world he passes is considered through his lens.
18% Gray is a dark novel about regrets, mistakes, and things that can’t be undone.
Go ahead and prove conventional wisdom wrong, Americans do enjoy translated literature. They just need the right publisher to show them how.
*Disclaimer: Although I work in publishing I am not privy to cover design decisions. All information I have regarding translators’ names on books comes from panel discussions I’ve attended, all of which have been open to the public.