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‘Bridge that distance:’ How Bay Area organizations and publishers are amplifying global literary voices in the U.S.

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FEBRUARY 01, 2019

In 2018, I visited a record number of bookstores. Some of them were local — I browsed the shelves of Moe’s Books as an almost meditative practice amid the stress of final exams and found myself wandering into Mrs. Dalloway’s on the occasional weekend afternoon. The majority of my bookshop visits, however, occurred in Buenos Aires during my summer abroad. In fact, the office where I worked was next door to one of the most well-established bookstores in the city.

While there, I found it fascinating that, in addition to the titles by the most widely adored Argentinian authors, books by any of my favorite American authors were just as easily available. Before returning home, I purchased a copy of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” in Spanish, and my roommate bought a translated collection of her favorite books by John Irving.

I’d never previously considered why it wasn’t just as easy for me to find the works of some of my favorite Argentinian authors in the U.S. — at least, not in English. I couldn’t pass along a translated copy of Sara Gallardo’s “Pantalones azules” for my friends to pore over as I did, and I would have little luck finding a copy of any work by Selva Almada, widely considered to be one of the most prominent feminist literary voices in Latin America. I’m grateful that I speak enough Spanish to read these works as they were originally published — otherwise, there’s little chance that I’d be able to read them at all.

Bar graph showing number of translated books published in the U.S. in the last 10 years

In fact, works of translated literature make up a shockingly small percentage of all published titles in the United States. According to the translation database developed by Open Letter Books founder and publisher Chad Post, in 2017, only 753 of approximately 300,000 books published per year in the U.S. were newly published works in translation. The numbers have revealed little positive growth; that’s nearly 100 fewer books than were published the previous year. It’s a troubling phenomenon that Post coined the “Three Percent Problem,” a reference to the approximate percentage of books in translation published in the U.S. annually in 1999. Now, a decade later, that number still stagnates at about 4 percent.

Improvise, translate, overcome

Although foreign literature remains a small fraction of the works published for American audiences, 2018 saw many works of international literature rise to the cultural foreground in the United States. The National Book Foundation introduced a new category to the National Book Awards for the first time in more than two decades: the translated literature prize. Italian author Elena Ferrante’s best-selling novel “My Brilliant Friend” premiered as an HBO miniseries. Karl Ove Knausgård and Haruki Murakami have become household names within the U.S. literary mainstream.

I couldn’t pass along a translated copy of Sara Gallardo’s “Pantalones azules” for my friends to pore over as I did…

And luckily, efforts to promote translated and international literature are growing in fervency, especially in areas outside of the industry’s traditional capital, New York. Beyond its rich history as a literary landmark, the Bay Area has undoubtedly proven itself to be a pioneer in its work to change the industry — to promote diversity, amplify underrepresented voices and draw much-needed attention to foreign literature.

To book enthusiasts, the vibrancy of the local literary community offers a distinct appeal. It’s what drew publishers Adam and Ashley Levy to establish their independent, not-for-profit press in Oakland — Transit Books, founded after the two left New York behind, opened its doors in 2015 and exclusively publishes works of translated and international fiction.

“There’s a lot of excitement and momentum around international literature in the Bay Area,” Ashley Levy said. “It kind of felt for us like exactly the right place to get this started.”

Adam Levy explained that the “seed” of the project was a desire to close what they have observed to be a gap in readership among American audiences — “to bridge that distance between those people who are really eager for new kinds of literature” and people less willing to embrace a more multilingual and globalized literary landscape.

Starting small

But it’s not just American readers who may be reluctant to expand the scope of their reading list. The Levys were compelled to step away from the publishing scene in New York after becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the corporate industry’s risk-averse strategies. Ashley Levy referenced “Kintu” by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, an overnight literary sensation in Kenya that was rejected by mainstream U.S. publishers after being deemed, as Ashley Levy put it, “too African for a Western audience.” The book was later picked up by Transit and has since sold successfully in the States, garnering substantial attention and praise from a wide collection of U.S. readers.

Situations like this have convinced the Levys that the stereotype of American insularity in regard to literature is just that — a stereotype. They argue that much of the problem lies instead in the fact that many publishers underestimate American audiences.

“I think there is that concern that works in translation or international literature won’t find the same readership,” Adam Levy said, “but I think the risks that we have taken in trusting our readers that they’re going to notice what’s special and important about these books has paid off.”

He went on to explain that the nonprofit mission of the press — as opposed to the profit-attentive book market — is what compels them to take these risks. This is true for a number of noteworthy independent publishers breaking ground across the country: Archipelago Books, Graywolf Press and Deep Vellum Publishing, to name a few.

“Kintu” by Ugandan author Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi … was rejected … after being deemed, as Ashley Levy put it, “too African for a Western audience.”

Jack Boulware, one of the founders of San Francisco’s annual independent literary festival Litquake, expressed gratitude for the work of small publishers to provide a platform for international voices: “I’ve found that often, those sorts of stories that get published by these translation presses are stuff that you would never see published in the United States otherwise,” he said. “I love that those stories are able to be read here, that we have that option to read them.”

World’s the limit

This past year, the festival’s international event series “Words Around the World” featured writers from across the globe — from South Africa to Nigeria — giving audiences the opportunity to get to know the diverse literary talents beyond our borders.

In an event titled “A Sense of Place,” Icelandic author Ófeigur Sigurðsson took the stage alongside Brazilian author Carol Bensimon. Sigurðsson’s most recent novel, “Öræfi: The Wasteland,” received critical acclaim after it was first published in Iceland in 2014. The English translation was debuted by Deep Vellum Publishing in September 2018.

Boulware explained that Sigurðsson’s style veers from what many audiences in the U.S. might be accustomed to encountering in domestic literature. Besides the distinctive, and likely unfamiliar, setting — the story takes place in rural Iceland — the entire narrative takes the form of a medical report. Boulware argued that this departure from “traditional (North American) storytelling” can provide a critical learning experience for readers who have yet to encounter works by foreign authors. Translated works have played a major part in carrying new styles and genres across the globe — translations of Gabriel García Márquez’ “100 Years of Solitude” played a major part in introducing magical realism to audiences outside of the Spanish-speaking world.

Cherilyn Parsons, the founder and executive director of the Bay Area Book Festival, made a similar claim: “Reading international literature does require a bit more effort on the part of the reader,” she said. “Of course, it also offers rewards beyond what domestic literature would offer.”

Parsons mentioned differences in semantic structure and cultural references — barriers that readers might initially find challenging, but can also make these narratives incredibly refreshing for American audiences.

Last April, the Bay Area Book Festival included a range of captivating international authors in its lineup, including award-winning Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, highly regarded Norwegian short story writer Gunnhild Øyehaug and Danish author Sara Blaedel, who wrote an internationally best-selling crime fiction series.

“Of course, (translated literature) also offers rewards beyond what domestic literature would offer.” — Cherilyn Parsons

According to Parsons, the panels featuring foreign authors have been some of the festival’s most highly anticipated events. Its “Nordic Noir” session, which offers a glimpse into the world of chilling and captivating thrillers from Northern Europe, has historically been one of the festival’s most well-attended author panels.

Translation in progress

“It’s always exciting to me to see the audiences that come out for these kinds of conversations,” said Michael Holtmann, publisher and executive director at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. He served as a moderator for an event at last year’s festival that featured Japanese author Matsatsugo Ono, whose book “Lion Cross Point” was published in translation by Two Lines Press, the center’s small press dedicated to publishing exclusively books in translation. The crowd at Matsatsugo’s panel last April was standing-room only, which Holtmann didn’t find entirely surprising. He said it speaks to the rising interest and enthusiasm for global literature that can be found among readers in Bay Area.

The center was born out the of the literary journal Two Lines, which sought literary voices from around the world and provided a platform to share these works with English-speaking audiences. Now a multiplatform nonprofit organization, the center continues to work through this mission while also recognizing and celebrating the work of translators, whose talents and contributions often go unrecognized.

“We have an emphasis on celebrating literary translation because of the way in which we feel it enriches culture,” Holtmann explained. “You see these different relationships, perspectives, different kind of atmosphere in literature, different points of view.”

Author María Sonia Cristoff and her translator, Katherine Silver at the American Bookbinders Museum
Author María Sonia Cristoff and translator Katherine Silver. / Courtesy Adam Levy and Ashley Levy

When publishing a book for the first time in English, Holtmann emphasized the importance of paying due credit to the translator. The individuals within these positions play a critical role in communicating the message of the work, all the while navigating the difficulties of language transition — everything from differences in vocabulary to cultural references and the pacing of phrases. He pointed to the work of Katherine Silver, a Berkeley resident who has expertly captured the voices of renowned Spanish-speaking authors such as Horacio Castellanos Moya and Julio Cortázar. She worked closely with Adam and Ashley Levy in the process of translating Maria Sonia Cristoff’s memoir “False Calm,” a riveting portrayal of life in Patagonia that was published by Transit in October.

“There’s always that consideration for the true complexity of what goes into bringing a book from one language into another, how to stay loyal to the original text as much as possible,” Ashley Levy said. For the Levys, working alongside the translators has been one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of publishing translated works.

And as many avid readers of international literature can confirm, books by foreign authors stand out among the ranks of domestic literature in the U.S. The Levys want readers to reach for their books with the understanding that these works can provide a sort of learning experience, one that offers its own distinctive appeal.

A ‘literary ecosystem”

But these efforts to advocate for translators and international author cannot come to fruition without collaboration and commitment across organizations. In fact, the community of Bay Area publishers and booksellers has worked to foster what Holtmann called a “literary ecosystem.” In addition to sponsoring events at local literature festivals where publishers of similar genres become acquainted with one another, Holtmann mentioned working closely with other local presses like Transit Books to market the foreign works they’re publishing. Litquake and the Bay Area Book Festival rely on their partnerships with these independent publishers to bring participating authors to the stage and to highlight a wide variety of global voices to the larger public.

Event "Words Around the World," 2017
Event “Words Around the World,” 2017. / Courtesy Liam Passmore

These organizations also partner with local independent bookstores, many of which make a point to feature diverse literature and foreign authors. Brad Johnson, owner and manager of East Bay Booksellers, said the store — through its colorful displays, staff recommendations and hosted events — aims to “incite enthusiasm” for translated and international works.

For “Women in Translation Month,” East Bay Booksellers added to its collection of international literature with a timely display featuring translated titles by women from around the world. The next month, it partnered with the center to host Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel, author of the internationally award-winning novel “After the Winter.” Before she made her English-language debut, Nettel had been recognized as one of the the most prominent young authors in Latin America.

Johnson considers small bookstores like East Bay to be “places of discovery” where booksellers can encourage customers to reach for books that can expand their interests and broaden their global awareness. When deciding which books to stock, he said the store often trusts the guidance of small publishers and other independent bookstores, as well as staff picks.

“I think small publishers like ours do a really good job of creating local community around the works that they publish and around the kind of literature that they’re trying to bring into the world,” Ashley Levy said. “I think that there still remains a lot of work at the national level in terms of bringing that conversation to a wider audience.”

A book by its cover

For the Levys, bringing attention to international literature means ensuring that their books get into the hands of reviewers and circulate in major media outlets. Oftentimes this is challenging for small presses, whose funding limitations can limit the amount of resources they can put toward marketing and publicity efforts. Moreover, the uphill battle of changing popular perceptions of translated works is just beginning.

“I think a lot of readers are accustomed — because of the ways a lot of international literature has been marketed in the past — to think of translations as being static things. We’re not used to seeing the names of the translators on the cover. … We’re not used to seeing a kind of foreignness in them and thinking that that’s OK,” Adam Levy explained.

He underscored the importance of recognizing the work of the translator and as well as the author’s cultural background, going on to say that these details are what contribute to the fullness of the story and provide critical context.

In an article for the center’s blog, Johnson further emphasized the importance of changing the way the literary community frames translated literature: “To regard translation as a niche interest not only does it a disservice but also highlights an isolationist escapism that I want no part of,” he wrote.

Yet Johnson also suggested that the climate around translated and international literature has indeed changed in the last decade — what was once a limited selection has begun to expand, as foreign titles slowly seep their way into the mainstream book market. But there’s still a long way to go.

The good fight

There’s reason for hope, however. I was ecstatic to discover that I could get my hands on translated copies of Samanta Schweblin’s “Fever Dream” and Pola Oloixarac’s “Savage Theories” — books by award-winning Argentinian authors who opened my eyes to a new realm of literature, one that in its transcendence revealed to me just how much more I have to learn, how much more to read.

Boulware made a similar argument. He said meeting these authors at festival events and engaging with their books opens an unequalled opportunity for global engagement: “You’re learning every sentence,” he said. “You’re learning something new about the world.”

…the uphill battle of changing popular perceptions of translated works is just beginning.

And in the current political moment, the work of small publishers to diversify the literary market is especially crucial. Parsons warned against letting U.S. audiences fall further into “contraction mode,” explaining that although the Bay Area has proven itself to be a landscape open to diverse literary voices, across much of the country, this isn’t the case.

“International literature is very important as a tool of civilization, in sharing ideas and experiences, and of course opening pathways of understanding between people, which we need more than ever,” Parsons said.

Part of the effort to circulate global literary voices involves expanding the sphere of influence of these local organizations. Holtmann pointed out that many of the “quieter things” happening in the local book community have the potential to make a broader impact on U.S. literary culture. Historically, this has always been the case — from the beatniks to Berkeley’s own Joan Didion, the Bay Area has continued to foster a community of literary trailblazers. Now they are at the forefront of efforts to increase diversity and support global voices in the literary scene.

And according to Holtmann, the motivation for transforming this landscape isn’t hard to find: “It’s so much more exciting to me as a reader to encounter a perspective that’s different from my own that may challenge me,” he said. “I think that’s how we grow as individuals. … I think it’s how we grow as a culture, community, society.”


Contact Molly Nolan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mollyrose_nolan.

FEBRUARY 03, 2019