Open Letter was founded in 2007 as the University of Rochester’s literary translation press. It aims to bring world literature to English readers as well as provide an opportunity for the university’s translation students to learn about the publishing process. Open Letter releases ten books a year, translated from languages and countries across the globe. The press also runs the Three Percent website, a platform for discussing contemporary literature in translation. The site is regularly updated with articles, reviews, and podcast episodes. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to publisher Chad Post over Skype about changes in the literary translation industry and some of the Open Letter titles he’s excited about.
Sarah Moses (SM): I’d like to begin by asking you how Open Letter got started.
Chad Post (CP): Open Letter got started back in 2007 when I came to the University of Rochester from Dalkey Archive Press with a couple of other people that had been working at Dalkey as well. The idea was that the University of Rochester wanted to put together a literary translation program for undergraduate and graduate students, and as part of that wanted there to be a practical component that would be publishing a high-quality line of books that would bring attention to the program and to the university, and also be providing a lot of resources for students so they could intern; they could learn how a book gets edited; how it gets published; why it gets published and some other book does not; and how to market and promote translations, as well. So reaching as wide a range of people as possible and being able to understand the business side of things to go along with the theory of translation stuff and the practice of having to do a full-length translation. Because here at the university, in the translation program for master’s students, your thesis is a full book-length translation that should be publishable. The way that it’s most publishable is if they work with us and learn that component of it rather than just being in the classroom and being disconnected from the actual community. So we were brought in to be that kind of bridge and a sort of connection.
The first book came out in September of 2008. We set everything up in the beginning of 2007, but we knew that it would be a year before the actual books came out and everything was in place.
SM: Can you tell me a bit about the Three Percent website?
CP: Three Percent, the website, started in late June of 2007—so a year before the first book came out—as a way of starting to get more attention paid to literature in translation; to build that community as well, and sort of set the path for a place where we could start talking about what we were doing as a publishing house, in addition to what we were doing as an altruistic website.
SM: How many of you are there at Open Letter?
CP: There’s three full-time people that work in the office. There’s myself, Kaija Straumanis does editorial stuff, and Nathan Furl who does art and operations, designing all the books and doing everything else related to that. We all kind of chip in on a variety of things like marketing and publicity.
We do have interns, but they’re usually set up during the school year as part of a class so they do specific activities and have lectures rather than being in the office twenty hours a week. But in the summertime we do have interns that come and work thirty hours a week doing publishing stuff. Usually it tends to be things that we need done but also some additional more fun, weird projects. Since our ten-year anniversary is next year, I want to put together an e-book of samples from every single one of the first one hundred books. So the summer intern will be able to put that together and get it published or get it produced as an e-book that can be downloaded on our website.
SM: Since Open Letter and Three Percent were founded, what changes have you seen in the publication of literature in translation?
CP: It predates 2007, but for a long time there’d been this decline in interest in international literature. Back in the sixties and seventies there weren’t that many books translated, but big publishers would do translations that were notable and were basically for prestige reasons alone. Then there was the boom, and the boom altered that a little bit by having commercial successes and giving people an optimism that you could make money doing international literature. Then it declines for a while, I believe based mostly on the acquisitions and the consolidation of the publishing industry and the focus on pure bottom-line numbers mixed with a sort of prejudice that books in translation wouldn’t really sell very well. That prejudice, that people just weren’t interested, ran throughout publishers, booksellers, reviewers. I’ve said this a million times, but there is an article, I believe it’s 2003, in The New York Times, on foreign fiction, that’s entitled, “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction.” It was basically a whole article about how no one cares. I think it had been that Imre Kertesz had won the Nobel Prize and like, “No one knows who this is, no one cares; Hungarian literature’s boring; international literature’s boring. So there’s really no point to it.”
I think since that time because of Open Letter, Words Without Borders, Asymptote coming as a second wave of this, we’re kind of at the tail end of the first wave and beginning of the second wave of organizations that are doing things to raise awareness about international literature and what books are out there that aren’t being translated, the importance of that, the value of translations—all the kinds of things that add to book culture. Although two years ago when Modiano won the Nobel, there was another article in The New York Times that was like, “Americans, unaware of international literature.” It was basically the same article, but it was slightly different: there was one paragraph that was different. The one paragraph that was different said, “Over the past ten years, there have been a number of successes, like Bolaño, Knausgård, Ferrante, Per Petterson.” There have been a number of international successes that they could point to. So there is opportunity for international literature to be commercially successful in addition to being something prestigious. I think the conversation shifted a little bit in that regard. I believe that the booksellers and people who review or talk about international literature—about literature generally—are more open and more aware and more excited by books in translation.
I just gave a different interview a couple months ago about this where I was arguing that we shouldn’t try to ghettoize international literature and translations as being super separate. Most translations tend to be high works of literature because of the nature of the small presses that are publishing these books. They tend to want to do important books and not thrillers, not romance novels, not things that are like, “Who cares, in five years no one’s going to remember this book anyway; it’s just like popcorn.” They’re investing these resources and, because they’re not going to make money and are doing this out of a passion for literature, they tend to do high literary works—pure literature. And the readership for pure literature, be it written in English or German or Hungarian or Japanese or whatever, is pretty small. But if we can appeal to that audience as a whole—instead of being like, “Oh, are you a reader of translations?” saying, “Are you a reader of literature?” Dividing those readers is not useful because we’re still talking about the same sorts of books. In comparison to Dan Brown. That’s a difference. But within that realm, it’s pretty much overlapping. I think that the booksellers and the people that are tastemakers, who are reading a lot of literary works from American writers or British Writers or whomever, are reading more and more books in translation that fit into that world and are making that more a part of their conversation.
Even though I don’t think sales are any better at all, for the most part, or that the percentages are going to change that much over time, I think there’s at least a little bit more awareness and openness to that idea, so there can be a couple of books that take off. At least you’re not publishing purely into a void anymore. There are people you can talk to who will care versus ten years ago quite frequently you could publish a book and literally no one would care. Maybe five booksellers would read it and you would sell three hundred copies and that would be it. So it’s better than that!
SM: How do you discover books in other languages? How do you decide which ones are right for Open Letter?
CP: It’s a mixture. Most publishers will say the same thing. We get a certain number of books that are pitched to us by foreign agents or publishers or the authors themselves sometimes. Those that we get from book fairs—like The London Book Fair or Frankfurt or just from catalogues or people sending us information is one component. And then there’s a group of books that we get from translators who are telling us about books that might fit our list that aren’t new. Most of the agents and the foreign rights people are promoting what came out last year. The translators are promoting what came out twenty years ago that never got translated but that they think is important and makes sense for our list. And then there’s the ones that you just research and find out about or come across in one way or another by just being aware of what’s out there and what general trends in literature are.
At one point in time we sort of had an editorial board but it was dysfunctional in the sense that it was mostly people from the university and they can’t meet very often because they’re doing other things and they’re not really locked into the publishing side or the business side of things; they’re doing things in a different time, at a different pace, and have different sensibilities of looking for books that can be taught in classes versus books that can be sold to bookstores. So we sort of abandoned that and it’s more a conversation between myself and Kaija on the books that we decide to do, and with Nate at times as well. When interns are here, we’ll have editorial meetings where we go over a set of books. So we make the decision in house.
We tend to look for authors that we can support over a long period of time—so a number of books by that particular author—and books that seem to be doing something that’s unique or that’s not just another variation on a similar book that exists either written in English or in translation, but that somehow adds something to the conversation. So if a book seems very redundant in some ways or just like a book, it’s less likely to appeal. But a lot of times, too, we like to work with that translator; we like to work with that publisher; or that author. Decision-making is by no means ever logical, in any situation. It’s never that clear. So there are a lot of personal elements that come into it, the same way that they do for any publisher.
SM: What would you say makes an Open Letter book?
CP: I think it’s that they tend to be unconventional in a stylistic sense; structurally they’ll be weird. Children in Reindeer Woods is a good example. It’s basically a war book with no war that sort of upends the idea of war and what that would be. We’re doing another Icelandic book that I’m proofreading right now that’s crazy like Ulysses is crazy. It’s manic and insane and you have to figure things out. There’s a lot of punctuation issues—where punctuation’s missing; there’s invented words; there’s all these styles jammed together. That would be one extreme of things—more, not experimental, but strange, unique, structurally and stylistically different.
We do a lot of Latin American books, a lot of Spanish-language books; books that are more devoted to not just being a story—they’re not just a story to entertain. There’s something more going on generally with language but also sometimes with the characterization.
It’s easier to say what we’re not. We’re not doing books that have immediate commercial appeal and little else than that. We’re not doing books that are solely political or socially motivated. We’re doing things that are more in the realm of the artistically daring.
SM: Can you share a few titles you’re excited about or that have been successful?
CP: There’s a bunch. One that I’ve always been really excited that we did is The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernández, which is subtitled The First Good Novel. I knew about that book for years and I’d always mention it as a book that would be cool to get published but it had never been translated and there was no way to do it. I mentioned it on a panel in Iowa and it just so happened that one of the people in the audience was doing her thesis on Macedonio Fernández’s essays. It wasn’t this novel, it was essays, but she knew the estate and she knew the book and she knew everything. So she ended up translating it for us and I was very thrilled and wanted this book to do well and it is our third or fourth bestselling book ever. So that’s really cool and really important.
Another one that sort of fits that is Mercè Rodoreda. We’ve done three of her books: War, So Much War; Death in Spring; and her Selected Stories. Death in Spring was one of our first books and it’s our second bestselling book ever, and she continues, each time we bring out a new book of hers, to get more and more fans, more and more attention, bigger reviews. She was our first book that was on NPR; she was in Harper’s. She’s one of the foundation authors. As a female writer from Catalonia, working in a smaller language, as a woman, but one of the most respected authors in all of Europe by people who are aware of books in Europe, she’s a huge addition to our list, and who we can continue to publish. There’re a few more books of hers that we hope to do.
The same goes for Dubravka Ugrešić, who won the Neustadt Prize recently. She was the first author we published, and we’re planning on doing one of her books for our tenth anniversary. I think her voice and her acerbic wit and her way of dealing with being in exile and with what it means to be a European and how Europe functions is even more valuable now in a political sense than ever before. She’s also a very foundational Open Letter author. If you read her books you get that sense of anger and satire and rage, and her sort of ranting style, and her humor. She is very Open Letter, to go back to your earlier question, she’s a good touchstone for that.
A book that’s coming out soon in May is called The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán. We’re going to be doing three of his books. The Invented Part is amazing: it’s huge; it’s ambitious; it’s just filled with stuff in the way of the grand books of the Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace era. He’s sort of part of that group of writers. These books are encyclopediac and big and ambitious and woolly. But it’s also one of the most moving and amazing books that we’ve ever published so I’m really excited about that. It doesn’t come out until the middle of May, I believe.
SM: Are there any other forthcoming titles that you’d like to mention?
CP: We have another book by Bae Suah, the Korean author. We published a book of hers, A Greater Music, last fall. We’re doing a collection of short stories, which will be really exciting, especially because there’s not that many short story collections from Korea. There’re novellas and novels, but short stories are not a form that most people write in in Korea, so that’s pretty unique. It’s coming out in the fall. Suah is someone that we hope to continue to build an audience for and to be able to expand her readership greatly. She’s really interesting, but slightly less commercial than Han Kang, and also a lot better, but for those two reasons not the same sort of audience.
Sarah Moses is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared in chapbook form, as well as in various journals, including Brick and TNTR. Sarah divides her time between Toronto and Buenos Aires.
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