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Interview with translator Antony Shugaar

Antony Shugaar, picture by Chad van Herpe

I first came across Antony Shugaar’s work as a translator in the magnificently translated novel, The Catholic School by Edoardo Albinati. It has been translated from Italian to English. It was an extraordinary translation. I was reading English but with the rhythm and cadences of Italian without massacring any language in the process. Instead it made the thrill of reading a translated work so much richer as it was so easy to get into. Perhaps having a husband who shifts smoothly between English and Italian made it easier for me to recognise this truth. The utter joy of being able to appreciate translated literature from the very first page is inexplicable. It is the rare translator who is able to achieve this feat of being able to convey the beauty of the original language in the destination language.

Then I came across his essay “Loss, Betrayal, and Inaccuracy: A Translator’s Handbook” ( 19 Feb 2014) I loved. I made extensive scribbles in the margins of the hard copy while reading it and kept saying, “yes, yes, yes!” There are so many points he raised that interested me. 

Translators put in all the hard work and make literature available in other languages. There is so much variety. Without being a translator myself, I find I “judge” the quality of translations. Very peculiar space to inhabit. I judge based predominantly on the basis of “readability” of the destination language. Obviously not being familiar with the source text or language it makes it difficult to ascertain whether the translation is accurate or not. Yet there is something in “uneven” or “poor” translations that sets my teeth on edge. With a poor translation I find that there are texts I seem to be hitting my head against the wall for the clunkiness of text. There is no rhythm and it is tough to read. This is probably what Antony Shugaar refers to in the “dialect problem” — “the reductio ad absurdum of translation. There are workarounds, but basically, when a translator runs into this kind of issue, she simply leaves it out. And the reader is none the wiser.” 

Another of his recently translated books that I have read is Telephone Tales by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Valerio Vidali and published by Enchanted Lion Books. 2020 marks Rodari’s centenary. A pivotal figure in children’s writing in post war Italy. He introduced nonsense verse into children’s poetry. He wrote over 25 children’s books. In 1970 he was awarded the Hans Christen Andersen Award as an author, the same year that Maurice Sendak received it for illustration. The wacky, brightly coloured, deceptively simple looking illustrations accompanying the stories are a perfect match for the zany imagination that Rodari unleashed upon the children. Incredibly Antony Shugaar manages to capture in his English translation the rhythm of nonsense verse that is subtly passed off as prose in stories such as “The War of the Bells”. As always, brilliantly translated and easy to read.

I wrote to Antony Shugaar after reading The Catholic School. He very kindly replied. Subsequently he also agreed to be interviewed for my blog. The following is the result of a lovely, long correspondence we had discussing various aspects of translation.

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Antony Shugaar is a writer and a translator from the Italian and the French. He’s translated dozens of articles for the New York Review of Books and close to forty novels for Europa Editions. He has translated many novels that were awarded Italy’s highest literary award, the Strega Prize (the 2011 winner, Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People, Resistance Is Futile, by Walter Siti [2013], Francesco Piccolo’s Wanna Be Like Everyone [2104], Ferocity, by Nicola Lagioia [2015], and the 2016 winner, The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati). In the realm of Italian noir, aside from some of the work of Gianfranco Carofiglio, he’s also translated books by many of the leading figures in the field: Massimo Carlotto, Sandrone Dazieri, Maurizio de Giovanni, the late Giorgio Faletti, Antonio Manzini, and others. He’s received two National Endowment of the Arts fellowships. He translated two books in the W. W. Norton Collected Works of Primo Levi, published in 2015.And his translation of Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado was shortlisted for both the PEN and the ALTA Italian translation awards. He has translated TV series and movies for HBO, Netflix, and Amazon.

  1. What prompted you to become a professional translator?

I forget the name of the professor who said it, but the great translator Richard Howard quoted the line in a lovely essay he wrote many, many decades ago in a book on translation published by University of Texas Press: “No one ever set out to become a professional translator.” That may no longer be true, but it is a wise and wry observation. Languages are such vast and demarcated pools that any attempt to breach the levees separating them almost feels like a rash and ill-advised act. Certainly, comparative literature studies these huge inland seas and “compares” them, but the act of channelling one into another seems to violate some sort of taboo. So there’s a secret thrill to cutting a hole in the wall and letting water out of one reservoir and into another… an act which can be dangerous. The word “rival” comes very much out of the lore of riparian law and the banks of rivers… (in linguistics, “p” and “v” are close neighbours, as the two conjoined words “separate” and “several), in turn connected to “sever”, clearly show). A friend of mine told me a folk etymology that I believe is illustrative. My friend is from a land of canals and rivers, near Venice, a place of flooding and dam-building. He tells me that a “rival” is someone who lives on the opposite river bank. If a river’s level rises dangerously to flood state, he is the first to come over to YOUR side of the river and dig a hole at the top of YOUR levee. Because if YOUR side of the river floods, then HIS doesn’t. That being said, I think it’s clear why there is an age-old suspicion of the act of alchemy and magic that accompanies translation. It seems intrinsically DANGEROUS to unleash the uncontrollable elements of nature that cause floods. Language groups are also known as linguistic reservoirs. I compare translation to time travel. In fact, the classic quote about foreign countries compares them to other times. And rarely do people complete the famous sentence with its second half, separated by a semicolon: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So I became a translator for a couple of reasons, ostensibly to earn money while living in a foreign country, and therefore in order to stay there. But also because it felt like an act of magic, and also a way of sharing with others of my own language the things I was seeing in this amazing new place where I lived. If I travelled to the past, I would certainly want to be able to share my experience with those of the present. The same of course is true for the future. Italy always felt like a mix of past and future to me, blended into a startlingly vivid present. I could say more about the details of how I started, and would be glad to. Suffice it to say that it involved doing translations via Telex, a now-antiquated means of communication that used a huge and clumsy keyboard and a long yellow strip of paper with holes punched into a bizarre and fragile arabesque of meaning. More information on those years in the Italian Alps working as a fledgling translator will happily be provided upon request. 

2. You make a powerful statement with “there are no untranslatable words, there are untranslatable worlds. My job is to build bridges from them to where we live.” So what does it take to become a professional translator?

I should start by pointing out that an editor added the concluding phrase about bridges from one world to another. To my mind, that add-on was optimistic and pat, and not entirely unwarranted, but it wasn’t part of what I wanted to say. I’m not such a positivist, and I definitely feel that there’s an enormous reservoir of lost meaning in the whole process of translation. But then you can hardly help but look around right now at the shambles of our society and wonder if loss isn’t just a standard part of any human interaction. That said, I would probably want to ally myself with the fantastic theorist of translation, Jorge Luis Borges, and say that there are actually no untranslatable worlds, but a full translation of certain sentences might require a multi-volume encyclopaedia to translate them. I’d hearken back to my early years in Italy, when I went to a café in Perugia, where I was studying, and sat down with an espresso at a small table. So far, perfectly translatable. But then I looked out and realized that there was the high-pitched musical sound of hammers tapping on chisels and chisels biting into stone. I looked closer and realized that there were four or five workmen seated on low wooden benches, laboriously shaping large grey stone slabs that formed part of the road surface. These slabs were perhaps a pietra serena, a Tuscan grey stone very similar to the bluestone used for sidewalks in, say, Brooklyn. The crew were all wearing work clothes, possibly the jumpsuits or overalls typical of Italian manual labourers. Certainly, I remember, they wore ingeniously folded hats made out of that morning’s newspaper. The slabs of stone they were working on must have weighed a hundred pounds. The chorus of hammers on metal sounded like something out of Italian high opera or a Japanese abstract composition. Hard to say which. Now if this scene were described in Italian as a “road repair crew,” without any additional description, how could I claim to have translated it accurately? This is an endless problem in translation. Someone opens a door and walks into a restaurant. Well in America by law that door opens outward, to avoid the danger of a panic in case of a fire, with people crushed against a door that cannot be opened inward. I’ve often wondered why Italian doors in public facilities open inward, and I’ve come up with a bit of a joke about it. Since cars park on the sidewalk in Italy, a door that opened outward might easily be blocked by a too-large car parked too close to the building’s facade. Not as unreasonable as it sounds, especially in my early days in Italy. Sometimes these patterns or customs are established and then left in place. William Weaver, a great translator from the Italian who is, sadly, no longer with us, used to say that the hardest word to translate out of Italian is “buongiorno,” a Swiss-Army-knife of a word that has all kinds of subtle aspects to its use and is decidedly not equivalent to “good day.” The Italian “portone” is often translated as “front door” or “street entrance” but neither of those terms really describe the richness and articulation of the “portone” as a filter, a diaphragm, and a scrim between the inner world of the Italian “condominio,” or community of apartment dwellers, and the outside street and sidewalk. The door itself is a double panel, massive thing, large enough for a horse-drawn carriage to drive through and into the courtyard. Often the building in question actually was built when horse-and-carriage was the prime conveyance. You can often see narrow ruts running across the sidewalk and past the doorman’s booth and on into the courtyard. There is usually a small pedestrian door cut into one of the large panels. When the large doors are closed, of course, this door can be buzzed open by any of the inhabitants of the “palazzo.” When the doors are open, there is the entire rich declension of interactions with the doorman or doorwoman. To translate portone with “front door,” like an apartment house aluminum-and-glass door seems impossibly reductive. I could go on. There are window systems called “miradors” in Spain that reach their high point in the Atlantic coast city of La Coruña. Just google “miradors” and “La Coruña” and start scrolling. They’re amazing structures designed to allow light and wind to be calibrated as elaborately as the suit of sails on a clipper ship at the height of the mariner’s art. The windows can be set at an angle, just so, and sunlight can be modulated with precision. To call that a “bow” or “bay window” is to miss and to overlook a world.

3. Which was the first translated book you recall reading? Did you ever realise it was a translation? How you do assess /decide when to take on a translation project? How would you define a “good” translation?

I’m going to take the three questions as a prompt for a somewhat independent “riff.” Please bear with me, and I imagine this feels a little bit like herding cats. I will gladly address some of your questions about more specific matters but I’d like to range a little freer on the “metaphysics” of translation.

I did not know about this latest interaction between Cervantes and Rushdie through the person of Edith Grossman[i]. It is almost ironic (as if there were a ghost hand at play) that I sent you a photo of a mirador in La Coruña with a comment on how it resembled Indian vernacular architecture (with a possible British intermediation) two days ago, when we are now talking about a Spanish author and his gnomic influence on a British-Indian novelist and essayist. But there you are. I cannot comment on this interaction and I confess I haven’t read either of the books in question, Quichotte or Grossman’s rendering of Don Quixote. I can say that Cervantes is the source of one of my favourite quotes (we can discuss the detail on this) on translation, saying that a translation is like looking at the reverse of a Turkish carpet, where you see the knots and the warp and weft, but only indistinctly. He specifies, as I recall, that this is true of vernacular languages, not the great classical languages of Latin and Greek. I’ve never quite understood that distinction. Also, I love that Sciascia references a line from Don Quixote in his understanding of the origins of Mafia culture. “Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side.”[ii] It is quite a brilliant reference: something about how a gentleman doesn’t pry into other people’s business. And of course the Spanish influence on Southern Italian culture is enormous, a result of long centuries of occupation, a Bourbon dynasty ruling over the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with its tradition of “¿si hay algo que se puede hacer porque te preocupes y si no hay nada que se puede hacer porque te preocupes?” But especially the role of Spanish culture in the south is the result of roads vs. ships: it was so much faster to sail from Spain, or from North Africa, than it was to take an ox cart from, say, Switzerland…. In short, those links are buried in the geographic structure and the physical anthropology of history. That is a theme that I return to often, in my thinking and my understanding of translation: physical anthropology. And the sheer experiential nature of translation.

After this long and laborious windup, let me however come to Cervantes and translation. I think it is very significant that Rushdie, who is so much about the magic of words and the spark of imagination in the vast grim fields of life as it is lived, should have failed to grasp Don Quixote in one translation and then instantly see it in another. A strong argument for the constant retranslation of classics, but also a reason to think about exactly where the spark of the new style and insight in Grossman’s version comes from. And the answer, as in all things related to translation, in my opinion, is sort of diffuse. Like life, like writing itself, the source of inspiration and success in translation isn’t codifiable. Translation theorists are always talking about “strategy” in translation[iii], and that’s a very fine thing, but to me the important thing is tactics. Expedients and jury-rigged solutions are the only way that I really make my way forward in translation. People sometimes forget the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is an overarching plan for an undertaking, tactics are the way you solve individual snarls and knots in the work. Isaiah Berlin talked about the hedgehog and the fox: the hedgehog knows ONE thing and the fox knows a great many things. Wisdom versus cleverness? Perhaps, but I think it goes deeper than that.

In any case, the reference to Don Quixote is this. There was a great philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago who died recently. His name was Hilary Putnam. I haven’t read his work, I honestly have only read his obituary and then done some further online research into his background. He had a philosophical theory called the “Twin Earth thought experiment”. The basic idea was that in this scenario there are two planets identical in every way except for one detail. The word for water describes two very slightly different versions of water. Every other aspect of water is the same. I’m guessing that whatever taste water has is described with the same adjectives, even if the reference is to something slightly different. When I read about that thought experiment — Twin Earths — in Putnam’s obituary, my scalp tingled. Perhaps it was mentioned in the obituary, or perhaps I learned it as soon as I read the Wikipedia article about him, but his father was Samuel Putnam, a prominent translator whose Don Quixote is still considered one of the best ever done (and perhaps was the version that Rushdie found wanting in college… I’d love to know[iv]). Hilary Putnam grew up in France, I read, and must have talked frequently with his father about his work.

Where does the instinct to translate come from? Is it inherited? The late great Anthea Bell[v], translator of many things but to my mind, especially, the Asterix comics[vi], to such great effect in English if not American culture, was the daughter of a man who regularly constructed the Times of London’s crossword puzzles. Ann Goldstein[vii], the translator of Elena Ferrante, was for many years the head of copy at The New Yorker, a magazine that has been America’s window into cosmopolitan culture in so many ways. William Weaver was a gay conscientious objector from Virginia who drove ambulances in the war and was injured, only to recover in the palazzo of a noted Italian writer. Life experience is certainly part of it, experience of the mind, also.

But in particular it must be the experience of the mismatch between the life experiences of cultures and the mental experiences therein. What do I mean by that? Well the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis posits that a language SHAPES your experience of the world. Maybe so, maybe not, but I think when you go into a different culture and you start to see the books they know and the books we know and how those two libraries fail to map equivalently, then you are just tempted to pitch in and say: my fellow anglophones NEED to understand this one formative work. There’s a chunk missing in their mental lives. This is certainly true of Dante. Ann Goldstein came to translation by reading Dante. So did I, in some ways. In fact, I studied Dante early and it had a huge influence on my understanding of the basic nature of Italian, the way in which it performs its mimesis. I’ve written something about that early experience and I can dig it up and send it to you if you like. But my point here is that there’s a kind of theatrical, dramatic tradition in Dante that traces its roots back (to Virgil, obviously, and to Apuleius perhaps?) but then, not as far back, to the Song of Roland and the Arthurian saga, and forward to Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso and then, of course, to Cervantes. My point, here, however, is the richness of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which was a beloved work, I know, to Ezra Pound (and that’s a can of worms I’m not going to touch), but also an amazingly prescient piece of writing for the present day. 

In the great epic poem “Orlando Furioso,” Ariosto plays freely with minds, imaginations, and language. One knight, Astolfo, manages to fly to the moon on a hippogriff, where he finds the great knight Orlando’s wits (yes, he lost his wits) in a bottle and returns them to him. Even better, the sorcerer Atlante (I think called Atlantes in English transliteration) builds a castle of dreams in which he hopes to imprison Ruggero to keep him from meeting his fate as predicted by a soothsayer. Ruggero and all the other great knights and ladies are lured into this castle of dreams where each of them constantly sees, fleeing from them, their heart’s desire (in Ruggero’s case, the lady Angelica). Is this not an amazing model of what would become the internet. Even better: as these heroes and heroines stumble around in utter futility pursuing will-o’-the-wisp phantasms, they crash into each other, becoming increasingly angry and accusing each other of having STOLEN the objects of their desire. Did Mark Zuckerberg read this poem in his time at Harvard? I’ll tell you who DID read it and loved it during his time at Yale. James Jesus Angleton, the great and paranoid counterintelligence operative at the CIA who was the inspiration for many of John Le Carré’s novels. Angleton in fact founded a student literary magazine called “Furioso” during his time at Yale, and apparently reached out to Ezra Pound to ask him to become an adviser to the magazine. Angleton, by the way, is perhaps best known for his quote about espionage, calling it “a wilderness of mirrors.” To quote from an essay by John Kimsey, “It was Angleton who first used the phrase ‘a wilderness of mirrors[viii]‘ to describe the looking-glass logic of counterintelligence work.” Well, I think that Italians have this amazing artefact in their culture to understand the Internet, while we do not. Perhaps we have the works of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace instead. 

I don’t think that the reference to halls of mirrors is entirely amiss when it comes to translation. Think of The Third Man, and the ending in the Hall of Mirrors. That’s about espionage in a meeting spot between two warring empires, speaking profoundly different languages. The translator’s work is very much like that, trying to glean meaning from an often ambiguous text. And the question of the “dialect problem” comes into it very adroitly: I believe that dialect is a like a sheet of transparent glass inside a hall of mirrors. Do you remember that specific trick in the halls of mirrors of your childhood? You learn to navigate your way through the mirrors, warned by the sight of your own approaching reflection, but the blank sheets of glass trick you. No reflection and so you walk into them. Well, dialect is like that. It is part of the text, and so invisible in translation into English (or whatever target language you are working in). How do you render it? Do you simply use ungrammatical speech? Then how do you deal with the fact that the sonnet is a verse form invented in Sicilian dialect by the Holy Roman Empire Frederick I? If not he, poets at his court. But I have heard that it was the emperor himself who took part in the invention. Or that Benedetto Croce, one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, loved to speak in his native Neapolitan dialect? The late William Weaver, who translated Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco, asked the question, as you’ve read in my VQR piece, “To translate Gadda’s Roman or Venetian into the language of Mississippi or the Aran Islands would be as absurd as translating the language of Faulkner’s Snopeses into Sicilian or Welsh.” Weaver asks the reader, therefore, “to imagine the speech of Gadda’s characters, translated here into straightforward spoken English, as taking place in dialect, or a mixture of dialects.” He declared the problem to be unsolvable[ix].

Like one of the heart’s desires vanishing around a corner in Atlante’s castle, in other words. 

It really makes me wonder if Italian culture somehow understands the ultimate futility of certain ideological pursuits because of its rich literature of love, yearning, and folly. Is that why they were able to see the madness of doing anything in a time of pandemic other than hunkering down and wearing masks? Is that why they were successful and we Americans, allegedly hard-headed and pragmatic about the Real World, have failed so abjectly, so terrifyingly? 

Do you know the hilarious anecdote about J.M. Austen and Sydney Morgenbesser at Columbia University, my alma mater (well for journalism school, I took my masters at the Graduate School of Journalism)? From a NY Times article about Morgenbesser.

Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humour and preternaturally agile mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale — in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story that it is — was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in the 50’s, Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, “Yeah, yeah.”

4. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator? 

I really don’t know. I very much taught myself the art of translation, to the extent that I know it. But then I would have had my doubts about the teaching of creative writing. I remember learning from Professor Pietro Scarpellini at the Università per Stranieri that when Perugino and other great artists of the Renaissance were small boys and apprentices in the bottegas where they learned their craft, they were all set to grind minerals and roots and all the other sources of pigments of their day. They would work grinding pigments as long as there was daylight. Working in natural light, they developed a great sense of what the natural spectrum of colours were and how pigments could emulate or reproduce those colours. Having done that work for countless hours from the age of 5 to the age of 12, they worked in colours with an intuitive sense of balance and composition. Perhaps that’s a way of teaching. I know that a great deal of my experience as a translator was translating anything: technical documents, advertising, legal agreements, you name it. And I learned from making mistakes. One of the most wonderful cheat sheets for me is always seeing badly translated material. An experienced translator can look at a badly translated piece of English and almost conjure up the original source language, for me, Italian. It’s like I can see the writer’s original intention from the missteps and false friends in the bad translation.

5. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in a project? 

It depends. If it’s a well written text by an interesting writer, the pro is a sense of elation and the con is the exhaustion of channelling such intensely gripping text. If it’s a badly written text by a dull writer, it’s like the experience of being trapped in a compartment with an unwelcome motor mouthed travelling companion. It’s excruciating. Luckily I haven’t had anything like that experience for a long, long time. There is the wonderful liberation of completing the translation, though. That’s always memorable.

6. How do you tackle the “dialect problem“? 

Well, the first thing is that it’s a very difficult thing to do. Is dialect best rendered as some variant English accent? That seems very specific. It’s a question of WHAT dialect is. Some translators treat it as if it’s just people speaking ungrammatically. They render it with comically broken English, which dialect most decidedly is not. What’s the old joke? A language is a dialect with an army and a navy? If that’s so, then how is a dialect really any different than someone unexpectedly speaking, say, German inside a book written in Italian? You can use subtitles or else you can use other literary tricks and conventions. In movies about World War II POW camps, the enlisted German soldiers always speak English with a heavy “Choyman” accent, while the officers speak English with an Oxford accent with just the finest razor’s edge of German inflection. Very class-based.

I’ve done both things, the outright Brooklyn dese-and-dose and the incorporation of the actual words in dialect with the literary equivalent of subtitles, that is, a rendering of the dialect in English, in quotes inside parentheses. Two different critics had diametrically opposing views of what I’d done. One, missing the point, complained about the annoying presence of “the original Italian” in the text. I had explained my process in a translator’s note, but the critic must have missed that. Another critic hailed the authenticity of bits of dialect embedded in the English.

I’m going to quote from the review, by Gabino Iglesias. As an author of “barrio noir,” Iglesias may have had a more perceptive eye for the different levels of linguistic depth I was trying to encompass:

“Lastly, there is one more element that separates this novel from most contemporary crime fiction: language. It seems like Saviano worked hard to achieve a balance between Italian and dialect, and translator Antony Shugaar surely added a bit of explanation to the narrative in his translation. The result of this is a story that carries with it the rhythm and linguistic identity of its source, the unique turns of phrase, sayings, terms of endearment, and even insults of lower Naples. Most of it is offered also in translation (sometimes unnecessarily), but there are passages in which there is no direct translation, although the words used are understandable in context. This use of language adds a layer of authenticity to the text and keeps readers deep in the culture of the place.”

One other rule that I try to follow is that if the author uses X amount of dialect, then I reduce that one-quarter X or perhaps even less. No text in translation will bear as much dialect as the original. I’m not sure why, but having cooked the recipes many, many times, I’ve learned to reduce the quantity of that particular ingredient.

  1. When is it best to involve a “living author” in the translation process? For instance, how often did you need to work with Albinati regarding this translation? What are the challenges (if any) of translating a “living vs dead” author? 

I was both impressed and chastened by the very sharp and intuitive eye that Albinati showed. Even though his English is not fluent, he very perceptively came up with critiques of many areas where I had misread his intent, the underlying bones of message. The subtlety of a novelist’s instinct for meaning and nuance is an interesting early warning radar system. We spent days dealing with fine subtleties of meaning that I had misconstrued. Later Albinati wrote a widely read and discussed article in Italian, published in “Corriere della Sera,” which he opened with the statement: “I wrote ‘The Catholic School,’ but I had never read it. Until I read it in English. And it leads me to your next question…

8. You refer to the great paradox of “faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language” in your 2014 essay. How does a translator grapple with this paradox or is it subjective? 

I am NOT a novelist, but I am a writer. I think that above and beyond the sort of hands-on training I alluded to when I talked about apprentice artists in the Renaissance grinding pigments as children, there is a native interest in the working of language—words and connotation and the linguistic equivalent of “body English” in the manipulation of units meaning, from particles to words to sentences and paragraphs—that is a fundamental prerequisite for language.

There are little oddities of language, little ghosts in the machine, that I see as hints at how the larger structure works. Take the expression, “You have another think coming,” as in, “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another think coming.” Roughly half the people in the United States, from the articles on the subject that I have seen, actually believe that it’s: “Buddy, if you think that, then you have another thing coming.” That makes no sense to me, but the “think coming” makes no sense to the other half of the population. And if you look at the history of the term (using the nGram Viewer, a very useful historical tracker of any term you care to put into it, and one I highly recommend), you find that “think” and “thing” are almost exactly the same age. People have been using BOTH versions for as long as the phrase has been around. And, of course, because “thing” backs up to the hard C in “coming,” there is no real difference in the pronunciation. When speaking, Person A can say “thing” and Person B can hear “think,” and no one is the wiser.

That’s a perfect metaphor for what happens in translation. However, I choose to treat dialect, it’s accepted by the reader. I mentioned the past being a different country above. Well, dialect is a piece of the fabric of a given country. Another such element, which I’ve been encountering more and more in the translations I do out of the Italian, is a listing of “Do You Remember? moments from Italian pop cultural history. Things from the 1970s and 1980s: Large “beach marbles” about the size of a billiard ball, that Italians would large along tracks scooped out of the sand in races not unlike a bocce game. Banana seat, high-handle-bar bicycles. Portable record players that you inserted a 45 rpm record into for teenage dance parties. Italian versions of Silly Putty, Play-Doh, and numerous other games. Again, units of meaning and sentiment that cannot just be substituted with their approximate American or British equivalents.

As mentioned above, Isaiah Berlin spoke of the fox and the hedgehog. The strategy with respect to dialect and to pop culture and to all manner of cultural artefacts and touchstones has to be this: try to be true to the original. Try to respect your reader’s intelligence and mental agility. Try to make your text read as if it was written by the imaginary person your author would be if they had been born and brought up speaking and writing English, not Italian or French or Spanish (even if they then would NOT have written the book in question).

Then, the tactics become very fox like: Anything you can use, any contrivance or subtle explanation or mode of speech. Be inventive!

I do my best to take that approach. Am I always or even sometimes successful? Well, I hope I am. But I’m keenly aware that the outcome is always, inevitably, a partial failure.

But I comfort myself with Wallace Shawn’s great, philosophical line from “My Dinner with Andre.”

I’m just trying to survive, you know. […] I mean, uh…ahhh… I live my life. […] I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list! I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning!

 I’m a translator, dealing on a regular basis with these knotty, tricky, almost metaphysical questions of meaning and style and questionable equivalency. I’m paid to do it. And it keeps my mind constantly occupied with what I find to be intensely interesting issues of language. I feel like a translation is like Schrödinger’s Cat, possibly alive and possibly dead as long as it sits unopened in that box. If you take the translation and you read it carefully against the original (either the day after it’s published or 200 years later), then you may discover that the cat is either dead or alive. But if you leave the black box carefully untouched, and you enjoy that cup of cold coffee in the morning, and you enjoy what good has been with the text, then translation is a pretty wonderful thing. After all, Wallace Shawn, who spoke the lines above, is also a translator. As it happens, from the Italian.

Let me close this very long interview with another quote, from an article that Michael Cunningham wrote for the New York Times. It was about translation, and the translators of his books into other languages, from the English.

I encourage the translators of my books to take as much license as they feel that they need. This is not quite the heroic gesture it might seem, because I’ve learned, from working with translators over the years, that the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper.

Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire.

It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work.

The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation. A translator is also translating a work in progress, one that has a beginning, middle and end but is not exactly finished, even though it’s being published.

I think this is one of the wisest and most rueful comments I have ever read about the enterprise of translation and, taking a step back, the enterprise of writing, thinking, and feeling about human life. I think that this quote is, perhaps, a very small but dazzlingly brilliant cathedral made of fire.


[i] I heard this in an interview Rushdie did with Razia Iqbal in London for Intelligence Squared. ( https://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/an-evening-with-salman-rushdie/ , Aug 2019) This happened because a few years ago to commemorate the 400 years of Shakespeare and Cervantes, the UK indie publisher And Other Stories published a fantastic volume of commissioned short stories. These stories were to pay homage to these two great writers and renowned names had been asked to contribute. Rushdie wrote the preface and it remains one of my favourite introductions.

Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes I read slowly. I have not finished it but editors and writers whose work I truly admire swear by its magnificence. Here is one of her more recent interviews, published in Asymptote, Sept 2019.   

[ii] “I would venture to swear,” said Don Quixote, “that your worship is not known in the world, which always begrudges their reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labours. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected! Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristóbal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jáuregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original. But tell me, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?”

[iii] Our 10 yo daughter, Sarah, is being taught French in school. So Jacob is teaching her French at home. Jacob is a polyglot and fluent in English, Hindi, Italian, French and smattering of German. But it is about the “tactics” you speak of that he is employing. His pronunciation and vocabulary in every language is accurate. So he wants Sarah to learn accurately too. She is obviously stumbling in some French pronunciations. So he makes her write the French word, then to get the right pronunciation, he makes her write the spelling in Hindi as it is a phonetic language and then the meaning in English. It is incredible how fast the little girl is picking up French!

For a couple of years now Sarah asks translations of words in different languages without realising how significant this fact is. She takes it for granted that this is how it is in every household.

Jacob often tells her that if you learn a language correctly, you learn about a new culture.

Antony Shugaar replied:

Very nice, and congratulations. Sounds like Sarah is heading in an interesting direction. I have a nice, similar teaching trick. It is very difficult for English speakers to hear the crucial distinction between single- and double-consonanted proununciations in Italian. Anno versus ano. But it is possible to hear it in English and then apply it in Italian. “Anice” has a single “n”. Un-nice has a double n, if pronounced carefully in English. For “l” – Alice versus pill-like. “Hammett” is a single “m” but the ridiculous and improbably construction, “ham meat,” that’s a double m. It makes it easy for English speakers to hear the double. Then they know not to say “Ho 21 ani,” instead of “Ho 21 aNNi.”

[iv] Quite likely since the Putnam translation seems to have been published in 1949 and was considered the best in those days. Having said that it, it seems there were two more translations published in quick succession. These were by Cohen (1950) and Starkie (1957). Ref:  https://franklycurious.com/wp/don-quixote-english/

Antony Shugaar replied: “Nice. In the Italian Asterix, there’s a very nice translator-invented joke (works only in Italian). Tapping his head, Asterix (and others) frequently like to say. “SPQR: sono pazzi questi romani!” – These Romans are crazy.”

[v] When Anthea Bell turned 80, many celebrations were planned across UK. The following was posted on FB (2016). I found it fascinating that an obituary for her former husband also gave the origins of her career as a translator of Asterix. Take a look.

Her father, Adrian Bell, the first cryptic crossword creator for The Times.

Anthea Bell married Robert Kamm, a fellow student at Oxford. Kamm’s father, George Kamm, was a founder-director of Pan Books. Kamm’s mother, Josephine, was a biographer and YA lit writer too. “Robert Kamm’s first job was with the National Book League, now known as the Book Trust, and in 1957 he married fellow Oxford student Anthea Bell. He moved to Brockhampton Press in Leicester in 1960 where he was editorial director and played a key role in the publication of the Asterix books, whose humour and original French jokes had previously been deemed impossible to translate. That task fell to his wife and a fellow translator and the first three titled were published in 1969.He spent 12 years at Brockhampton before a two-year spell as a senior education officer with the Commonwealth Secretariat, touring Commonwealth countries, discussing books and exploring the possibilities there for publishing for children. During the time he was at Brockhampton he chaired both the Children’s Book Group of the Publishers Association and the Children’s Book Circle. From 1963 to 1976 he was also a consultant to various international organisations including Unesco.” (http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-antony-kamm-publisher-author-historian-and-cricketer-1-1503632#ixzz49pIyI1rf  )

Robert Kamm divorced Anthea. He remained in publishing including being the director of children’s literature at OUP. Where he met his second wife who outlived him. She was Eileen Dunlop, a biographer and children’s writer and one of his authors.

Anthea Bell’s brother is the well-known BBC correspondent, Martin Bell.

One of Anthea’s sons is Oliver Kamm, a left-wing politician and banker.

[vi] Speaking of translations of Asterix comics, you may like to see this article on my blog of the comics being translated into Hindi: http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/asterix-speaks-hindi-now/

[vii] Seen this brilliant article on Ann Goldstein published in the New York Times?

[viii] A word/phrase that now seems to be embedded in everyone’s psyche while talking about counterintelligence work etc.

Antony: Yes, but coined by Angleton. Whose father was from Idaho, rode down into Mexico with Black Jack Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa, the same expedition on which Ambrose Bierce lost his life, and brought home a beautiful señorita, James Jesus Angleton’s mother. Then, working for the National Cash Register company (the same company that made defective voting machines used in the 2000 election), he took wife and son to live in Rome, under Fascism. There is a short history of the corruption and decline of the American republic. It all, inevitably, ends with the OSS being replaced by the CIA. All that makes perfect sense to me.

[ix] This is a big problematic area in Indian literature. Translations from various regional languages are being made available in English and it is a minefield. There are texts in English that are a nightmare to read as the translators insist on making the dialects visible to the English reader. And there are others who completely scrub the dialect out but also do not provide a translator’s note to say that the author relies on dialects to provide a texture to the novel + give the social context of their characters. It is all so complicated and an extremely sensitive topic in Indian literature. Broaching it with translators, authors, and editors is an extremely sensitive topic.

Indo-French Collaboration: Paris Livre 2020 and New Delhi World Book Fair 2022

Picture by Arpita Das, Founder-Publisher, Yoda Press

On the morning of 11 November 2019, Christine Cornet, Attachée Débat d’Idées et Livre, Institut français India/Embassy of France, invited a few of us Indian publishing professionals to address the visiting delegation. The aim was to give the French visitors a bird’s eye-view of the Indian book market with specific aspects highlighted such as regional language publishing, literary prizes, and literature festivals.

I had been invited to address the gathering on the publishing market of India. I chose to dwell on the characteristics of the publishing market in India along with some important points to consider from the point of view of the French publishers.

In March 2020, India will be the “Guest of Honour” at the Paris Book Fair and in January 2022 France will be the “Guest of Honour” at the New Delhi World Book Fair. This reciprocal invitation for this collaboration was announced during the official visit of President E. Macron in India in March 2018 when he met Prime Minister N. Modi. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. As a run up to this event, the French Book Office invited a delegation of journalists and cultural experts to visit India and meet publishing professionals. The delegation consisted of journalists and cultural experts: Eve Charrin (Marianne and Books), Gladys Marivat (LiRE magazine), Lorraine Rossignol (Télérama), Sophie Landrin (Le Monde correspondent for India and South Asia — Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives), Catherine Fruchon (Radio France Internationale and editor-in-chief/ host of the show Littérature Sans Frontières ), Christian Longchamp ( Artistic advisor and playwright, and co-programmer of the annual multidisciplinary festival ARSMONDO, Opéra national du Rhin, Strasbourg), Sébastien Fresneau ( VP Book and Entertainment Events at Reed Exhibitions France and General Manager of Livre Paris, the Paris Book Fair) and Néguine Mohsseni ( Press Attachée, Institut Français, Paris).

Here are some of the salient points of the roundtable.

Indian Book Market

India is geographically deemed as a sub-continent. It is large. Politically it is a federal structure with a centre and state governments. The population is over 1.3 billion people. 22 languages are recognised officially by the Constitution of India and English is not one of them; instead it is the lingua franca. Interestingly language spoken changes ever so slightly every 20 kms, making it impossible to consider India as a homogenous book market as there are so many languages and scripts to consider.

The Indian publishing industry consists of multiple players. There are publishing agencies like the National Book Trust and the Sahitya Akademi (the organisation for literature) that were established by the government, soon after Independence in 1947. Apart from these the well-known multi-national players exists and a number of independent publishers. Of late the self-publishing market is a growing segment that has resulted in a lot of people getting their works published and new vendors are being established.

Bookselling happens through brick-and-mortar stores as well as online such as Amazon and Flipkart. Online retail allows many customers/readers to access books from Tier 2 and 3 towns which was not possible earlier. According to Nielsen BookScan, the estimated value of the Indian book industry is approximately US$6.3 billion. It has been more or less at this position since the last Nielsen report of 2015. This is for various factors, most immediate being – GST (July 2016) and demonetisation (Nov 2017). Despite this the book market in India is undoubtedly growing and there is a book hunger. Again this is for multiple reasons, some of them being that more than 60% of the Indian population is under 35 years age, making it young, mostly literate[1] or still studying, so in need of text/books. The K-12 segment constitutes the largest segment of the Indian book market as 50% of the population is below the age of 25 years old. The next segment of interest would be the trade list that consists of MBS (Mind, Body, Spirit) children’s literature, women writing, literary fiction, general fiction (mythology, historical fiction, fantasy, romance, commercial fiction etc.) narrative nonfiction (history, biographies, commentaries, memoirs etc.), cookery books etc. The children’s literature market cannot be ignored for in the past decade it has grown phenomenally. This is not just for the school textbook market but for leisure reading. Some of the factors contributing to its growth have been the presence of school book fairs, literary weeks in schools and writing retreats for budding authors, initiatives started by Scholastic India and now adopted by many other players. Also the insistence of many schools to include supplementary readers and/or books for leisure reading alongside the prescribed curriculum. Also, ten years ago, one of the most popular book festivals for children called Bookaroo was established. Since then it has spread not only to other parts of the country but overseas too. The reading public in this country is growing and this is obvious by the rapid rise of piracy with many of the print editions available at vendors holding large piles of poorly published editions to sell at crossroads and temporary stalls seen on pavements.

Book fairs are very popular too. Unlike some of the international book fairs where the focus is also selling of rights, most fairs in India function as retail outlets. A book fair becomes an occasion for customers to throng the stalls buying their supply of books. The customer profile could vary from individuals, families to institutions browsing looking for titles amongst the front and backlists and often scrummaging through at the remaindered/second-hand bookstalls too. The biggest of these is the New Delhi World Book Fair but then there are many regional book fairs organised too.

A major contributing factor to the book hunger in this country has been the extraordinary growth in popularity of literature festivals beginning with the mother of them all – “Jaipur Literature Festival”. It is organised over a period of five days in January and has many parallel sessions with domestic and international speakers. This model has been emulated across the country with versions of it springing up. Apparently more than 80% of the half million visitors that visit JLF are below the age of 29 years old. This demographic seems to be more or less consistent for other litfests in the country with more and more of the young visible in the audience.

Advancements in digital technology have enabled readers/writers to access books from overseas, participate in online discussion groups, access literature on their phones/pen drives/ebook readers etc. And those that like reading the ebook, then purchase the print copy too. Increasingly it is happening in many scripts.

An indication of the robustness of the publishing are also the increasing number of business conclaves. Four of the prominent ones are the CEOSpeak Over Chairman’s Breakfast organised jointly by the National Book Trust and FICCI (Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce), PubliCon organised by FICCI, Jaipur Book Mark organised by Jaipur Literature Festival and Jumpstart organised by the German Book Office.

Apart from this there are many literary prizes, including specific ones focused on children’s writing, women’s writing, fiction, debut authors, translations etc that have been launched. Some are very lucrative, even awarding the translator, handsomely.

All said and done, the Indian book market is really many markets within a market!  

French Book Market

The French book market is smaller but equally robust. Some of the key characteristics are its Fixed Book Pricing, its protection of the brick-and-mortar stores from online players like Amazon and the prominent book fairs like Paris Book Fair. Also publishing translations of World Literature into French.

Indo-French collaboration

The French Book Office’s presence in India has helped foster Indo-French collaborations in the book industry. From sponsoring visits of Indian publishing professionals to France for specific book-related events and vice versa to actively promotes translations and publications of French authors into Indian regional languages under the aegis of the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme (PAP Tagore). French books translated in 2018: 75 titles including 1/3 supported by the Embassy of France. In addition to this the French Institute recently established the Romain Rolland Prize that translates French literature into a regional language. Apart from this consistent soft diplomatic initiative with the active cross-pollination of literature and cultures, the Institut Francais in New Delhi, now facilitated the crossed invitation from the governments of France and India regarding the book fairs. India is the guest of honour at Paris Book Fair 2020 and France will be at the New Delhi World Book Fair in 2022.

A great literary feast awaits the literary communities in both nations!


[1] According to the Census of India, the definition of “literate” in India is that person who can sign their name.

17 December 2019

Vera Michalski-Hoffman’s keynote address at Jaipur Bookmark, 25 Jan 2019

The Jaipur Bookmark is a business conclave held during the Jaipur Literature Festival. In fact it begins a day before the litfest is inuagurated. It is a fantastic space for publishing professionals to congregate from around the world and discuss new trends and share ideas and experiences. On the third day of the conclave, Friday 25 Jan 2019, I moderated a session on “Indies vs Giants”. The scope of the discussion was: “Independent publishers with lower overheads are finding their niche position in the publishing industry around the world, even as publishing giants are consolidating their positions. This session talks about creative risk taking and the tools brave, new publishers adopt.” The panellists were publishers Vera Michalski-Hoffman (Libella group), Karthika VK ( Westland/Amazon), Jeremy Trevathan (Macmillan), and Anna Solding (Midnight Sun Publishing). Vera Michalski-Hoffman also delivered the keynote address and with her kind permission it is reproduced here.

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L-R: Anna Solding, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Vera Michalski-Hoffman, Jeremy Trevathan, Karthika VK

Born in Basel, Switzerland, in a family with Swiss, Russian and Austrian roots, Vera Michalski-Hoffmann spent her childhood in France, studied in Spain and has a degree in Political Science from the Graduate institute of International Studies in Geneva. She established a foundation named after her late husband, The Jan Michalski Foundation for Literature and Writing to actively support literary activities in different countries. She is now the publisher of the Libella group that comprises the following imprints: In France: Buchet/Chastel, Phébus, Le temps apprivoisé, les Cahiers dessinés, Libretto. In Switzerland: Noir sur Blanc, with a new line called Notabilia, Editions Favre. And in Poland: Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc. She also acquired The Polish Bookshop in Paris. 

Vera Michalski’s tremendous work in supporting literature with the establishment of Libella group and it’s acquisitions of fine independent publishing firms have ultimately benefitted the fine stable of authors as is noticeable with World Editions and it’s recent expansion plans.  “The group is unique in its total financial independence and the diversity of its editorial production: French and foreign literature, travel stories, essays, documents, music, ecology, illustrated books and creative hobbies. Priority is given to quality, especially to the quality of writing.” 

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I thought that I would focus my speech on the specificities of Libella, being neither a giant nor obviously an Indie so that this case study of an untypical small publishing house evolving into a publishing group publishing in 3 different languages could form a sort of starting point for our discussion.

Let me tell you the story of how this independent group came into existence by a succession of launching new imprints and acquiring existing ones and what fields it covers now, naturally mentioning the Indian or Jaipur connection when appropriate. Forgive me for not respecting a strict chronology for it is a complicated story unfolding in different territories.

The whole story started in 1987 in Switzerland when my husband and I opened les éditions Noir sur Blanc, a niche publisher aiming at bringing mostly Polish and Russian authors to the  French-speaking market (France, Belgium, Quebec, Switzerland) and covering both fiction and non-fiction. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall so not that obvious. Later we covered other fields, like narrative history and published quite a few Jaipur regulars such as William Dalrymple, Giles Milton, or Anthony Sattin. We now bring out as well illustrated books mainly about drawing and photography. A total of over 400 titles.

We soon decided that it was important to publish in Polish as well and opened a Polish branch in 1989 where we started by introducing famous international authors into Poland that were then still unpublished. Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller, Paul Auster, to name just a few. We published Umberto Eco’s novels and brought out detective stories with a travel angle. The likes of Donna Leon, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and Andrea Camilleri were unknown then. We have published so far well over 500 books in Polish.

Still in Poland but later, in 2002, Wydawnictwo Literackie, one of the  most literary publishing houses founded in 1953  under communist rule and still state owned, came up for sale in the frame of privatization. We stepped in. That magnificent company’s list and backlist never cease to amaze me. Let’s mention just a few names: Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Claudio Magris, Alice Munro, and Orhan Pamuk. Not to mention the best of Polish literature with names such as Olga Tokarczuk, recent winner of the Man booker International,Witold Gombrowicz, or Szcepan Twardoch.

In the year 2000, in Paris, we had acquired Buchet/Chastel, a literary publisher established in 1929, a well-regarded publisher of fiction. This allowed us to touch French literature which we were very keen to do, alongside some significant international authors. Buchet had been the publisher of Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence Durrell, or Henry Miller to mention just a few names. However, in 2000, Buchet /Chastel was well past its glory. People called it “La belle endormie” in reference to the famous tale Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, but remembered the iconic bright orange covers.

It made for a real challenge to bring it back to the forefront of literary life. We hired editors for the different lines we wanted to exist: French literature, world literature, non-fiction. We then took a good look at the impressive backlist and decided what directions we wanted to keep. The founder of Buchet /Chastel, Edmond Buchet was a keen musician and a rather good pianist. He had made friends with a number of famous musicians among them Yehudi Menuhin. He published quite a few books about music. We decided to maintain that line. We opened new fields and started an environmental series. France was then not very receptive to these topics, the field being covered mostly by very politicized books on the verge of pamphlets, on marginal topics. Nobody was focusing on important issues and providing objective material, food for thought so to speak, which we aimed at doing. We decided as well to keep the famous orange covers that people remembered modernizing them by using a different cover paper and different typo. Because we all know that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water! Sometimes there needs to be a sort of continuity. Over the years, we published quite a few Indian writers, in fiction and non-fiction, among them our biggest success was Tarun Tejpal, (The Alchemy of Desire). Our list boasts as well with Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger), Suketu Mehta, Rana Dasgupta, Gurcharan Das, Pankaj Mishra etc.

Shortly before 2000, we had acquired les éditions Phébus, a house founded in 1978, with an excellent reputation especially in foreign literature and stories of great explorers, or rediscovered classics, as Alexandre Dumas’s Le Chevalier de Saint Hermine. Phébus had created a paperback imprint a few years before under the name Libretto, now a very important part of the Libella group.

In 2003 we opened a brand new field, drawing, and started publishing big format soft cover beige albums typeset in a classical elegant way and printed on quality paper under the name Les Cahiers dessinés. The aim was to bring back drawing to its rightful place as one of the important disciplines of art alongside painting or sculpture. We now have more than 100 titles in our backlist and some books sold quite well, like Alberto Giacometti’s Paris Without End.

Photography is represented in the Libella group by 2 imprints: Photosynthèses which was started from scratch in 2013 in Arles, in the south of France, (the first book published in 2014 was Lou Reed’s Rhymes). Every book is considered unique and different formats co-exist in the list. They are printed with the utmost care. Libella acquired editions Robert Delpire, founded in 1951, when the founder chose to retire a few years ago. We are gradually opening the list to new authors while remaining careful not to alter the excellent image the house has enjoyed in the past with famous authors such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, or Robert Franck. Under these new circumstances, we reacted quickly when the gallery adjoining the Delpire office became available. We relabeled it FOLIA, a name that seemed to reconcile book and image, and produce now 5 exhibitions a year showing both our authors’ work and others whose work fits into the concept. The aim is to show photography with a literary angle.

Another line in Libella needs to be mentioned, practical books under the imprint Le Temps apprivoisé, a part of Buchet Chastel  when we acquired it. We decided to keep it in spite of a relative distance to the main part of the catalogue and a sector fragilized by the competition with internet sites and cheap books produced by the giants able to have huge print runs.

One recent development is very important to me. In 2016, World Editions joined Libella and we now publish in English a small list of 8 books a year under the motto Voices from around the globe. The office is in Amsterdam. The idea is to help interesting books, often from peripheral languages, to get access to translations and the world market in an age where translations, expensive as they are, tend to stick to mainstream authors and main languages leaving some authors alone.

In between, in 1991, we had intervened in order to prevent the closing of the Polish Bookstore established in Paris since 1833.This very well located shop, then selling mostly books in Polish or translated from Polish. It is now a very active general bookstore. It welcomes any kind of literary event in a part of Paris where books have sadly given way to clothes in spite of the fact that it was home to most publishers until recent years saw a consolidation of the industry bringing about the need for bigger office space that the old district of St. Germain des Prés could not offer. This happened recently as a result of the consolidation in the publishing industry, most small literary publishers had to leave the area to move in with their respective groups often located outside the historical centre of town. The bookstore and the gallery became an important part of our publicity and ensure an improved visibility in Paris.

I believe I gave you the general picture of Libella, a confederation of small almost niche mostly literary publishers, publishing in 3 languages out of offices in Lausanne, Paris, Arles, Warsaw, Krakow, Amsterdam and New York.

In spite of our relatively small size, we have a certain complexity, publish over 300 books a year. So where do we stand? Let our discussion clarify that point.

12 Feb 2019

“The Journey Of Indian Publishing” by Jaya Bhattacharji Rose

I recently contributed to How to Get Published in India edited by Meghna Pant. The first half is a detailed handbook by Meghna Pant on how to get published but the second half includes essays by Jeffrey Archer, Twinkle Khanna, Ashwin Sanghi, Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha, Ravi Subramanian et al.

Here is the essay I wrote:

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AS LONG as I can recall I have wanted to be a publisher.  My first ‘publication’ was a short story in a newspaper when I was a child. Over the years I published book reviews and articles on the publishing industry, such as on the Nai Sarak book market in the heart of old Delhi.  These articles were print editions. Back then, owning a computer at home was still a rarity.

In the 1990s, I guest-edited special issues of  The Book Review on children’s and young adult literature at a time when this genre was not even considered a category worth taking note of. Putting together an issue meant using the landline phone preferably during office hours to call publishers/reviewers, or posting letters by snail mail to publishers within India and abroad, hoping some books would arrive in due course. For instance, the first Harry Potter novel came to me via a friend in Chicago who wrote, “Read this. It’s a book about a wizard that is selling very well.” The next couple of volumes were impossible to get, for at least a few months in India. By the fifth volume, Bloomsbury UK sent me a review copy before the release date, for it was not yet available in India. For the seventh volume a simultaneous release had been organised worldwide. I got my copy the same day from Penguin India, as it was released by Bloomsbury in London (at the time Bloomsbury was still being represented by Penguin India). Publication of this series transformed how the children’s literature market was viewed worldwide.

To add variety to these special issues of The Book Review I commissioned stories, translations from Indian regional languages (mostly short stories for children), solicited poems, and received lovely ones such as an original poem by Ruskin Bond. All contributions were written in longhand and sent by snail mail, which I would then transfer on to my mother’s 486 computer using Word Perfect software. These articles were printed on a dot matrix printer, backups were made on floppies, and then sent for production. Soon rumours began of a bunch of bright Stanford students who were launching Google. No one was clear what it meant. Meanwhile, the Indian government launched dial-up Internet (mostly unreliable connectivity); nevertheless, we subscribed, although there were few people to send emails to!

The Daryaganj  Sunday  Bazaar where second-hand books were sold was the place to get treasures and international editions. This was unlike today, where there’s instant gratification via online retail platforms, such as Amazon and Flipkart, fulfilled usually by local offices of multi-national publishing firms. Before 2000, and the digital boom, most of these did not exist as independent firms in India. Apart from Oxford University Press, some publishers had a presence in India via partnerships: TATA McGraw Hill, HarperCollins with Rupa, and Penguin India with Anand Bazaar Patrika.

From the 1980s, independent presses began to be established like Kali for Women, Tulika and KATHA. 1990s onwards, especially in the noughts, many more appeared— Leftword Books, Three Essays, TARA Books, A&A Trust, Karadi Tales, Navayana, Duckbill Books, Yoda Press, Women Unlimited, Zubaan etc. All this while, publishing houses established by families at the time of Independence or a little before, like Rajpal & Sons, Rajkamal Prakashan, Vani Prakashan etc continued to do their good work in Hindi publishing. Government organisations like the National Book Trust (NBT) and the Sahitya Akademi were doing sterling work in making literature available from other regional languages, while encouraging children’s literature. The NBT organised the bi-annual world book fair (WBF) in Delhi every January. The prominent visibility in the international English language markets of regional language writers, such as Tamil writers Perumal Murugan and Salma (published by Kalachuvadu), so evident today, was a rare phenomenon back then.

In 2000, I wrote the first book market report of India for Publisher’s Association UK. Since little data existed then, estimating values and size was challenging. So, I created the report based on innumerable conversations with industry veterans and some confidential documents. For years thereafter data from the report was being quoted, as little information on this growing market existed. (Now, of course, with Nielsen Book Scan mapping Indian publishing regularly, we know exact figures, such as: the industry is worth approximately $6 billion.) I was also relatively ‘new’ to publishing having recently joined feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia’s Zubaan. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. Email had arrived. Internet connectivity had sped up processes of communication and production. It was possible to reach out to readers and new markets with regular e-newsletters. Yet, print formats still ruled.

By now multinational publishing houses such as Penguin Random House India, Scholastic India, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins  India, Hachette India, Simon & Schuster India had opened offices in India. These included academic firms like Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Springer, and Pearson too. E-books took a little longer to arrive but they did. Increasingly digital bundles of journal subscriptions began to be sold to institutions by academic publishers, with digital formats favoured over print editions.

Today, easy access to the Internet has exploded the ways of publishing. The Indian publishing industry is thriving with self-publishing estimated to be approximately 35% of all business. Genres such as translations, women’s writing and children’s literature, that were barely considered earlier, are now strong focus areas for publishers. Regional languages are vibrant markets and cross-pollination of translations is actively encouraged. Literary festivals and book launches are thriving. Literary agents have become staple features of the landscape. Book fairs in schools are regular features of school calendars. Titles released worldwide are simultaneously available in India. Online opportunities have made books available in 2 and 3-tier towns of India, which lack physical bookstores. These conveniences are helping bolster readership and fostering a core book market. Now the World Book Fair is held annually and has morphed into a trade fair, frequented by international delegations, with many constructive business transactions happening on the sidelines. In February 2018 the International Publishers Association Congress was held in India after a gap of 25 years! No wonder India is considered the third largest English language book market of the world! With many regional language markets, India consists of diverse markets within a market. It is set to grow. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2017, Livres Canada Books commissioned me to write a report on the Indian book market and the opportunities available for Canadian publishers. This is despite the fact that countries like Canada, whose literature consists mostly of books from France and New York, are typically least interested in other markets.

As an independent publishing consultant I often write on literature and the business of publishing on my blog … an opportunity that was unthinkable before the Internet boom. At the time of writing the visitor counter on my blog had crossed 5.5 million. The future of publishing is exciting particularly with neural computing transforming the translation landscape and making literature from different cultures rapidly available. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being experimented with to create short stories. Technological advancements such as print-on-demand are reducing warehousing costs, augmented reality  is adding a magical element to traditional forms of storytelling, smartphones with processing chips of 8GB RAM and storage capacities of 256GB seamlessly synchronised with emails and online cloud storage are adding to the heady mix of publishing. Content consumption is happening on electronic devices AND print. E-readers like Kindle are a new form of mechanised process, which are democratizing the publishing process in a manner seen first with Gutenberg and hand presses, and later with the Industrial Revolution and its steam operated printing presses. 

The future of publishing is crazily unpredictable and incredibly exciting! 

3 Feb 2019

‘Kitty’s War’ review: War in the gunj

My review of Daman Singh’s novel Kitty’s War has been published in The Hindu Literary Supplement. It is online on 4 August 2018 and is in print on 5 August 2018. Here is the original link and the review is c&p below. 

Katherine Riddle alias Kitty lives in a sleepy railway junction town in eastern India called Pipli. Her widower father, Terence Riddle, is a British railway man. Kitty, who works as a school teacher, returns home ostensibly for the summer break but more to decide her future as she nurses a broken heart for her high-school sweetheart, Jonathan, an Anglo-Indian.

They were engaged to be married except that as assistant mechanical engineer Jonathan is extremely busy. His billets-doux speak less of his love for Kitty than of the battles taking place abroad. Once home, Kitty either mopes around with her nameless tribal Ayah and the cook Latif or seeks the company of her old friends, Dan, Pat and Jimmy.

Kitty’s War is set in the 1940s against the backdrop of the Civil Disobedience movement in India, the Blitz in London, the Pearl Harbour attack, the siege of Leningrad, and the Japanese invasion of Rangoon and subsequent pouring in of refugees into Calcutta.

The events of the novel are seemingly untouched by World War II except for passing references to bogies being acquired or trenches being dug.

While the war is upturning hierarchies outside Pipli, in this town, the class lines between the British, Anglo-Indian and Indian communities are clearly drawn. Yet these people who have nothing in common with each other socially are united in their anxiety for relatives stuck in conflict zones.

For instance, the father of assistant station master Chuckerbatty, Dan’s uncle, and the Ayah’s son are all working in Rangoon. Kitty is affected by the war because of Jonathan in particular, but also because it metaphorically throws all her future plans into disarray. But Kitty knows her mind and makes her choices.

Kitty’s War is an atmospheric novel — the historical details are seamlessly woven into the plot. There are levels of oppression — of native Indians by the British, of the powerless by the moneyed class, of women by men.

It is where choice becomes paramount — not only for Kitty but also for Indians and the British, who must make vital decisions in these last years of the Empire.

To buy on Amazon India: 

Print

Kindle 

Kitty’s War; Daman Singh, Tranquebar/ Westland Publications, ₹350

Book Post 3: 22-28 July 2018

On Dalit literature – recent publications

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants Among Elephants and Baburao Bagul’s When I Hid My Caste are some of the recent publications of Dalit literature published.  Interestingly the writers come from different parts of India and different religions but because they share the same “caste” of being a Dalit, their experiences of life and anguish at the shocking social injustice they have witnessed is similar.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir was launched in USA in 2017 to  great critical acclaim for being an unusual piece of writing documenting the horrors of Indian society even in contemporary India. Although Sujatha Gidla has been living in New York for many years and yet the searing pain at the injustices faced at being an “untouchable” or a Dalit in India are unforgettable. Her memoir about her family who despite being Christians faced social ostracism. Once she left for America she was eager to know more about her origins and began to record the testimonies of her family particularly her uncle Satyam. There is an extremely powerful moment in the book when she quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after Indian Independence was achieved. ‘A short, chubby dark boy …had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” It is a question that remains to be answered many decades after Independence was achieved. ( Read an extract published in the Literary Hub)

When I Hid My Caste by Baburao Bagul (translated by Jerry Pinto) is a collection of short stories that were previously published in the Marathi literary magazine Navyug. The editor of Navyug Shirish Pai “confesses in her introduction to the Marathi edition of the book that she used to experience joy mixed with fear in anticipation of a Bagul story. The joy came from knowing it would be a good piece of fiction; the fear came from not knowing what the content would be.” This collection of very powerful and unnerving short stories are disturbing to read in English that one cannot help but wonder how powerful must they be in Marathi where possibly even the dialects used are evident. Four stories stand out  — “Prisoner of Darkness”, “Streetwalker”, “Revolt” and “When I Hid My Caste” —- that hopefully will be anthologised in other volumes focused on Indian literature.

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir attracted worldwide acclaim quickly becoming of those “must read” books featuring on many reading lists. Undoubtedly it raises some very sharp issues that continue to plague Indian society where casteism unfortunately still prevails yet Ant Among Elephants is not half as gracefully written as some other notable Dalit memoirs. For instance  Y. B. Satyanarayana’s My Father Baliah, Bama’s Karukku or even  Daya Pawar’s Baluta. But of the books discussed so far the recently released When I Hid My Caste stands out for the grittiness of storytelling evident even in the English translation where interestingly the sub-castes of Dalits are mentioned. There are graphic details of the violence and the horror that the Dalits continue to experience. It is hard to distinguish reality from fiction for many of the stories included in the volume seem to resonate the news published regularly in the media about regular atrocities against Dalits.

These are books that are valuable additions to the landscape of Dalit literature that is fortunately becoming richer and richer with every passing year as newer translations or original writings in English are being made available for a larger audience.

Do read!

Buy Ants Among Elephants ( Print and Kindle

When I Hid My Caste ( Print and Kindle

My Father Baliah ( Print and Kindle

Karukku ( Print

Baluta ( Print and Kindle

Book Post 2: 15-21 July 2018

Last week I announced that I am going to post every Monday a list of all the book parcels I have received in the past few days. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 2 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

23 July 2018

“Sexographies” by Gabriela Wiener

According to the  biography posted online renowned Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener (Lima, 1975) is author of the collections of crônicas Sexografías, Nueve Lunas, and Mozart, la iguana con priapismo y otras historias. Her work also includes the poetry collection Ejercicios para el endurecimiento del espíritu. Her latest book is Llamada perdida (2014). She writes regularly for the newspapers El Pais(Spain) and La República (Perú). She also writes for several magazines of America and Europe, such as Etiqueta Negra (Perú), Anfibia (Argentina), Il corriere della Sera (Italy), S. XXI (France), and Virginia Quarterly Review (United States). In Madrid, she worked as editor of the Spanish edition of Marie Claire. She left the magazine in 2014 to work on her first novel.

Restless Books will be publishing Sexographies in May 2018. It has been translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Adcock and Lucy Greaves. This is a form of reportage that is like none other. A collection of brutal essays written in the first person that are impossible to classify in any genre. The writing breaks all known norms. It is perhaps preferable to say that the focus of every essay determines the style of writing whether it is  “infiltrating the most dangerous Peruvian prison, participating in sexual exchanges in swingers clubs, traveling the dark paths of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the company of transvestites and prostitutes, undergoing a complicated process of egg donation in Spain, and participating in a ritual of ayahuasca ingestion in the Amazon jungle“. A truer book blurb was never written when Sexographies is described as “an eye-opening, kamikaze journey across the contours of the human body and mind”.

Included in Sexographies is Gabriela Wiener’s profile of Isabel Allende. It is a brilliantly illuminating conversation-cum-profile of an older woman writer. Isabel Allende is almost venerated by the younger one, Gabriela Wiener, and yet they are able to understand each other as individuals, women, and writers. They meet on International Women’s Day. Gabriela Wiener notes that “Bolano called her an escribidora — a prolific and bad writer. Making fun of Isabel Allende isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s part of Latin American literary folklore.” She goes on to observe that “The novelist, after all, is a traditional woman who was brought up to be a good girl, and who worked to free herself through literature.” Meanwhile Isabel Allende acknowledges that she has a fair amount of criticism hurled at her but she takes it in her stride as she takes her success. She realises she is often under the critical scanner for the simple fact “I sell books.” Isabel Allende’s life’s philosophy is to strike a balance between frivolity and depth; she says “Since then I haven’t stopped being feminine, sexy, and a feminist. It can be done.”

Here is an excerpt from the essay “Isabel Allende Will Keep Writing from the Hereafter”published with the permission of Restless Books. ( Publication date: May 15, 2018. Contact Nathan Rostron, Editor and Marketing Director: nathan@restlessbooks.com )

*******

Allende is an easy target for the canonizers of novels. It’s possible that not many of her critics are willing to admit that the virulence of their attacks are based on prejudice: she’s an upper- class woman who used to write a feminist column for a fashion magazine in the 1970s. At the age of forty, without any academic training, she started publishing novels, made autobiographical fiction her signature, and her books started flying off supermarket shelves. In a world where the stupidest things tend to be the most popular, sales of fifty million copies can only arouse suspicion.

But put yourself in her shoes: try having the surname Allende in Chile, going into exile, getting divorced, bringing up children, dedicating yourself to journalism, and writing novels. She was part of a generation of Latin American women who juggled all these things at once, and yet managed to triumph under the long shadow of the Boom—a movement that didn’t really contain a single woman writer, only incredibly loving wives who kept everything nice and comfortable so that their husbands could finish their books and win that Nobel Prize.

Try writing from the bottom tip of the American continent about emotions and sex instead of tunnels and labyrinths. Now try to sustain a literary career over three decades with unwavering success. Try, moreover, to produce as many well-written novels as she has. Because Isabel Allende’s books are well-written: there is a voice and an imagination. Isabel Allende builds her stories around simplicity. She occasionally succumbs to cheapness, lace, and frills, but her expression is founded on the richness of family stories, everyday comedy and drama, and the intimate knowledge of a feminine universe, as in The House of the Spirits. In Eva Luna or The Infinite Plan, being colloquial and inventive makes her prose even more personal and confessional. Her books reveal history through memory and reclaim sex so that it belongs to the home and not to poets of the body. In Paula, perhaps the best of her books, she describes a man’s suffering in the presence of his comatose daughter’s body. In it, the consciousness of being human reaches levels that Allende’s language cannot match.

We know the outcome of Allende’s adventure: few have built such a solid relationship with their readers, a relationship based on something mysterious and addictive that they find in her pages and which defies any logic outside itself. Isabel Allende isn’t Virginia Woolf, she’s not Clarice Lispector, and she’s not Alice Munro; but neither is she a bestseller à la Dan Brown with his simple-minded esoteric vision of the crime novel. And yet he isn’t criticized half as often as she is.

What’s the sell-by date of a popular writer after the publication of their last hit? At this women-only conference I’ve heard names I hadn’t heard for years: Laura Esquivel and Ángeles Mastretta, for example. And the first thing I thought was “they’re still alive?” Yesterday I saw Mastretta, the author of commercial bombshells such as Tear This Heart Out and Lovesick, gliding down the corridors of the Palacio de Bellas Artes with her dramatic cheekbones, her carefully coiffed hair, and her fragile movements, and it was like stepping back into the eighties. On Wikipedia, I discover that she’s carried on publishing books. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the books of these three women were labeled “women’s literature,” a kind of derivation of “true literature” with sugary, sentimental additives of which Allende is the highest-profile proponent. Following its initial golden years, “women’s literature” seems to have fallen out of favor, and Allende alone has remained a bestseller. After the success of Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel took refuge in a mansion in the outskirts of Mexico City, tried out being a member of parliament, and now facilitates workshops and publishes books in the style of 12 Steps to Happiness. Years after that enormous cocoa feast, Allende wrote her own book about sex and cocaine: Aphrodite, a book where cooking recipes lead to love (also known as the kind of book that immediately banishes you from the annals of literature with a capital L).

Gabriela Wiener Sexographies ( translated by Lucy Greaves and Jennifer Adcock) Restless Books, Brooklyn, 2018. Pb. pp. 

2 May 2018 

 

 

Katherine Rundell “The Explorer”

Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer is about four children who crashed in the Amazon jungle. They do their best to figure out the jungle and how to survive till they come across a cranky explorer. He is as surprised as they are about each other’s existence in the jungle. Nevertheless he takes charge and rather gruffly guides them on what to eat and what not to eat in the jungle. It is he who ultimately helps the children leave the jungle and return home for which they are eternally grateful.

The Explorer as with the novels Katherine Rundell writes is inspired by a historical fact. It becomes the basis of her fiction for young adults. For this particular novel it was the British geographer and explorer Peter Fawcett who was an artillery officer “with an astonishingly tough constitution and enough moustache for three men.”

He spent much of his life in search of what he called the City of Z, a city he imagined as richly sophisticated and peppered with gold. 

In 1925, shortly after crossing the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary river of the Amazon, he and his two companions disappeared. He was never heard from again. 

Katherine Rundell has an eye for incredible detail in the storytelling making the action and landscape come alive on every page while at the same time the scrumptious illustrations are a bonus. In The Explorer it is the tiny details of jungle life, the behaviour of sloths, what kind of beans are appropriate to eat or not, descriptions of the river bank and the foliage — all ring true and understandably so, given the amount of research Katherine Rundell puts in for every book.

There was so much to look at; so much that was strange; so much that was new and vast and so very palpably alive.

The trees dipped down their branches, laden with leaves broad enough to sew into trousers. He passed a tree with a vast termite nest, as big as a bathtub, growing around it. He gave it a wide berth. 

The greenness, which had seemed such a forbidding wall of colour, was not, up close, green at all, Fred thought. It was a thousand different colours; lime and emerald and moss and jade and a deep dark almost black green that made him think of sunken ships. 

Fred breathed in the smell. He’d been wrong to think it was thick, he thought; it was detailed. It was a tapestry of air. 

The story itself about the children coming together on this adventure is so beautifully done wherein the individual personalities remain distinct but ever so slightly as the story progresses they also bond as a team. It is a triumph in storytelling for young adults — they who are at the cusp of adulthood but not too far from childhood and love imaginative storytelling. Hence it is absolutely wonderful that The Explorer won the Costa Book Awards 2017.

Katherine Rundell The Explorer ( Illustrated by Hannah Horn) Bloomsbury, London, 2017. Pb. pp.

2 May 2018 

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