Frances Riddle: Can you tell us a little bit about how New Directions got started?
Barbara Epler: We were started by James Laughlin in 1936 and he had gone to study with Ezra Pound; he was bored at Harvard and went to study with Gertrude Stein first and then with Ezra. And J.L. always wanted to be a writer. And Pound, seeing a rich kid, probably had an idea, and he said “No, you’ll never be a very good poet, why don’t you do something useful and go home, finish Harvard so that your parents will give you money, and start a publishing company.” Or assassinate the reviewer he hated at the Saturday Review of Literature. But do something useful. So J.L. came back and when he was still in college started New Directions. J.L. passed away in 1997 but he created a trust so that we could not be bought or sold but we have to stay the same size. He didn’t believe in the capital growth thing which I think is correct—that’ll kill a literary company. And we have to publish books of the same quality.
FR: Quality literature is your trademark, your list of authors includes several winners of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize. But what does great literature mean to you, how do you know when something that comes across your desk is a New Directions book?
BE: J.L. meant avant-garde literature, experimental; he was not interested in anything that repeats itself. So he would very much approve of Clarice Lispector or César Aira. We look back towards that founding idea. J.L. also quoted Gertrude Stein, “When do you know when something’s really new? You hear a bell ring.” And he would say you could feel the top of your head lift off. That’s a true feeling. When I read Keith Ridgway, this really great Irish writer, you’re like how does he do that? Something extra-dimensional, something incredibly beautiful, something that’s pushing boundaries in different ways—that’s what we hope to find—or just something unique like A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero which we’re bringing out this winter. It’s so subjective when you think about what you’re looking for. I think at this level of literature, it’s an art. You’re looking for the best art you can find, the most exciting. And that means a lot of different things.
FR: And you don’t limit your search only to what’s written in English. Have translations always represented a significant percentage of the New Directions catalogue?
BE: From the beginning, J.L. grew up with both Dudley Fits, who was his teacher and who taught him the Classics and also introduced him to Pound. And Pound and Dudley Fits both believed that there’s one world and there’s one world literature. So you need to know everything. And that it’s very possible to know everything. And so he was the first publisher of Borges and Neruda and Sartre, and it goes on and on. And so that was from the beginning, in 1936, and now we do about thirty-five to forty new books a year.
A lot of our business is keeping in good shape the backlist, which is enormous, but in front-list poetry, about a quarter of it is translated. We have a very strong set of English-language poets like Michael Palmer and Susan Howe and Nate Mackey, Bernadette Mayer. This is their home and we want there always to be room for them. But then alongside that, we publish poets in translation as well; we’re doing Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert. But then in fiction, which is two-thirds of our list, it’s at least 75% translation.
FR: Are you optimistic about the future of literary translation?
BE: This is going to sound really Pollyanna, but things have gotten better recently. A huge thing that supports us is the independent bookstores and their enthusiasm for this kind of book. Not all bookstores. But the good independent bookstores have really seen a rebound, the ones that survived, and they’re actually doing really well and new ones are opening. So that’s really good news for a place like New Directions.
I think it’s really clear that there hasn’t been a better time for translated literature here. If you look around, in the last fifteen years, you see Archipelago, who found Karl Ove Knausgaard, Europa, who found Elena Ferrante. There are exceptions of course: FSG taking on the terrific Maylis de Kerangal, or Riverhead with Álvaro Enrigue, or Penguin with Alejandro Zambra. But chiefly translation starts with the little publishers.
You see, for example, The New York Review of Books Classics doing more and more original books in translation, and then there’s Deep Vellum and there’s Ugly Duckling; I’m so fascinated by Chad Post at Open Letter. There are so many small adventuresome houses and they’re doing the most interesting books. The other side of the coin is that they kind of function as talent scouts for the big corporations and there’s nothing you can do about that. But there have never been so many interesting presses or so many young people doing it themselves; it’s amazing how much stuff is coming out.
And, at least in my experience, going to a César Aira reading or a László Krasznahorkai reading, the people who are turning up are largely in their twenties and thirties. There’s a huge generational shift towards interest in books from around the world. Maybe because we’ve fucked the world up, or because what’s going on in America right now isn’t so great, so you’ve got to look outwards when you’re faced with that. There are plenty of great English-language writers but by and large foreign fiction is more interesting, for me, and for many.
And another thing I want to mention which I think is really good for translation in America is the PEN/Heim Award which was an endowment originally left anonymously by Michael Henry Heim. And when I’ve been one of the judges I’ve found great things. So now with this award in American literature, there’s this pretty trustworthy body of eight judges and they can say these fifteen or these dozen are really exceptional translations, give it a gold seal, and I’ve seen some of those get picked up by the big houses. Which is another positive thing for translation.
FR: And for you guys here at New Directions, what are the biggest challenges of publishing translations?
BE: It’s extremely helpful, when a country has the funds to do it, that they not only help pay for the translation but they facilitate us bringing the author over. That’s huge. With Aira, we brought him over and we did a tour and I swear that had a lot to do with the fact that he gets all these stars and awards. So that kind of cultural support is really important. And also publishers, especially in the Spanish-speaking world, have got to give up on the idea of the five-year license. I think it should be at least fifteen years. We’re investing in the translation and you need time, especially if you believe in the author and you want to do more than one book. There’s no reward. There’s no cheese down the end of that tunnel if you only have the book for five years.
FR: Can you talk about some of the recent or forthcoming titles we can be on the lookout for from New Directions?
BE: Oh, there are so many that I’m excited about. Rafael Chirbes just passed away unfortunately but he’s considered the greatest Spanish writer of the twenty-first century and of the financial crisis. And he wrote a book called On the Edge in this total take-no-prisoners series of monologues. It’s polyphonic but there’s a main voice and his name is Esteban and he’s both a victim of the corruption of the town but he’s also been corrupt himself and he knows it. So he’s in this double torture because he’s ruined the family factory by trying to over-expand and then invest in these developments but now since the bubble burst he’s in debt. But he’s also purloined the family’s money from his senile father, it’s a horrible mess. And these other voices come up and they have their own horrible stories.
There’s one about a woman who has two kids and she has to become a prostitute to keep food on the table, and you thought that was awful and then you hear her husband’s story and his self-justifications. And over all of that there’s Chirbes with a voice that is really lyrical and weirdly kind of suggests this hope which is when you really are punished the worst. It takes you on the edge and over the edge. And then, on a happier note, we’re doing this great book called Is That Kafka? which is a highly-illustrated compendium of ninety-nine facts that overturn the stereotype of Franz as sort of a version of Gregor Samsa. That in fact he was not this miserable wretch with no sex life and no happiness. It’s done by Reiner Stach who’s the author of the huge three-volume biography of Kafka, and these are his outtakes of little particular nuggets that he loves about Kafka. For instance, Kafka famously couldn’t lie, but he cheated on his exams. He loved beer. He wrote a proposal for a book with Max Brod about how to travel on the cheap. The floorplan of his home apartment was exactly the same as Gregor Samsa’s. He loved to buy gifts for children. Just these really wacky things, touching things, but it has a lot of flair. And there’s a book by Yoko Tawada who I really love who writes in Japanese and in German, this one’s from German, about polar bears who live in a circus but they also write books. And we’ve got another César Aira book coming out; we’re doing three more Clarice Lispector novels that haven’t been in English before. We have new books coming from Tanizaki, Dag Solstad, László Krasznahorkai, Julio Cortázar, Bei Dao, Kawabata, Fleur Jaeggy, Mathias Enard, Jenny Erpenbeck, Proust, Ahmed Bouanani, Osama Alomar, Romain Gary, Abdelfattah Kilito, Fernando Vallejo, Dunya Mikhail and Eka Kurniawan. So much, busy, busy. I’m all excited about everything.