Meet the Publisher: Phoneme Media’s David Shook on Translations from Underrepresented Languages

I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations.

Phoneme Media is a nonprofit company that produces books in translation into English and literary films. Based in Los Angeles, the company was founded by Brian Hewes and David Shook in 2013, though it wasn’t until 2015 that the press began publishing on a seasonal calendar. To date, Phoneme Media has put out over twenty titles of fiction and poetry, and is particularly interested in publishing works from languages and places that don’t often appear in English. Many of their books are accompanied by short films that take on different formats, from video poems to book trailers, and have been shot around the world. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, spoke to David Shook over Skype about publishing translations from underrepresented languages and some of the titles he’s excited about.

Sarah Moses (SM): How did Phoneme Media start?

David Shook (DS): It came about basically because of my own work as a poet and translator. In my own travels—when I was working in community-based development, mostly in East Central Africa and Latin America—through relationships, through friendships with writers, in places like Burundi and Equatorial Guinea, and writers working in indigenous languages in southern Mexico, for example, I was just encountering all of these writers that I felt deserved to be read in English, that would contribute something important to our literary dialogue and that couldn’t find homes in terms of publishers here in the United States and in the UK, too, for a couple of reasons. The first being the lack of translators working in those languages and familiar with those regions, and the second was the fact that these books were somewhat outside the purview of even the publishers who specialized in translation—some great publishers. I think of Open Letter, for example, which has largely focused on literature from European languages, which I also think is incredibly important, but something like a book of poetry from Isthmus Zapotec, or the first translation from the Lingala—a novel we’re preparing to publish later this year would definitely be a bit outside their wheel house.

SM: How do you find translators for languages like the ones you’ve mentioned?

DS: Well I think our reputation is such that, despite having been around a comparatively short time, we’re often approached by translators working in more unusual languages. Our translation from the Uyghur, for example, by Jeffrey Yang, and the author is Ahmatjan Osman, who was exiled in Canada, was exactly that situation. Jeffrey brought the translation to us because he knew of our editorial interests. In other cases, like our book of Mongolian poetry, I was alerted to its existence because the translator won a PEN/Heim grant. And I do read widely, both in search of writers and of translators, who I think are important. For example, a place like Asymptote, which I read regularly with an eye toward acquisitions. I mean when we acquired, for example, this novel from the Lingala, the translation was a huge issue because there are very few, if any, literary translators from the Lingala, so I actually auditioned a few Congolese translators before finding this husband-and-wife team, Sara and Bienvenu Sene, who did a really great job. They’re really literary translators, whereas most of the translators I’d auditioned were technical translators or interpreters. And it’s pretty spectacular, considering I think English is their fourth language. I think a big part of my work is scouting out these translators and also encouraging a new generation of translators to go out into the world and find interesting books. I’m very proud that we’ve published many first-time translators on Phoneme Media.

SM: So you’re reading widely in different languages and trying to figure out what might be of interest to Phoneme Media. I’m wondering how you decide what to publish both in terms of poetry—because poetry makes up a lot of your catalogue—and fiction.

DS: I think it’s hard to describe exactly the qualities that get me and our editorial board really excited, but I think we have a real commitment to languages and places and cultures that aren’t well represented in the English-language literary landscape. I think we’re very excited about languages that are very little translated.

A lot of our books also have a tie-in to current events. Last year we published our first graphic novel which was written by two French brothers and translated by Olivia Taylor Smith, and it’s actually about three Black Panthers who were held in solitary confinement in Louisiana; however, Woodfox, the last to be released last year, about the time the book came out, was held in solitary for forty-three years.

We hosted a reading in LA for Mohsen Emadi, an Iranian poet who happened to be here by coincidence—he’s exiled in Mexico during the roll-out of the travel ban. So a lot of our books feature exiled writers, feature writers who are working to preserve their own languages, writers who are engaging with the wider world and current issues. I think that eye toward the wider world is definitely something that we look for editorially. Then an eye toward places and languages that aren’t represented in English.

SM: In addition to publishing books, you also produce literary films. I’m wondering what that entails and how it relates to the works you put out?

DS: Yeah of course. I grew up in Latin America, mostly in Mexico City, so I grew up with subtitles, love subtitles. I realized early in my translation career that subtitles were a great way to introduce people to literature, because they allowed people to hear the texture of the original work, while reading it simultaneously, which I think is really cool and something that we’ve not really taken advantage of in the literary translation world.

In terms of the films we produce, they’re primarily short films and there’s a range. I’d say for the most part they support and occasionally extend our books, as in the case of what I call paratextual films, which we’ve done with Mario Bellatin, that kind of extend and subvert the content of his novels that we publish. And we release one short film about fifteen minutes which each of his books that we publish.

And then we’ll produce short video poems that I see more as supportive or supplementary media to our books of poetry. Especially in cases like our Isthmus Zapotec books, or some of our indigenous Mexican languages, where most people initially might not even know these languages exist, let alone what they sound like, or that they’re not at all related to Spanish.

So really I think our interest in film and our use of film is part of our understanding of the book in the larger media landscape. It’s an important part of what we do and something we hope to develop as we grow. Right now most of our time is spent producing our books. But we do continue to produce films, and we produce some one-off films, too. I recently made a few video poems when I was in São Tomé working on a personal translation project, which you can find on our website.

SM: Moving back to books, I’m wondering if you can tell me a bit about the challenges of publishing translations—besides finding translators from some of the more obscure languages.

DS: Obviously there are considerable financial challenges. I do think we’re living in a very good time for publishing translations. There’s a very committed core audience, like readers of Asymptote, for example. But publishing a translation is often more expensive than publishing a book originally written in English, because translation, and especially if you’re paying your translators fairly, something that Phoneme has aspired to do since the beginning, is not cheap, nor should it be.

Then in terms of marketing outside that core demographic of translation enthusiasts, it’s a matter of thinking creatively and positioning books . . . I don’t generally find that too many are turned off by the idea of a book being a translation, but I think we do have to consider that our titles compete with books originally written in English and how we pitch them to readers, in terms of their importance and their belonging to a wider dialogue that’s happening.

SM: Could you share a few titles that you’re particularly excited about?

DS: Yeah of course. One is this book called The Conspiracy by Israel Centeno, translated by Guillermo Parra. It came out in March. The author is from Venezuela, but he was exiled after publishing this book, actually. It’s a sexy literary thriller and it’s about a failed assassination attempt on a leader not unlike Hugo Chavez. It was published [in Spanish] the same week as a failed assassination attempt on Hugo Chavez, unfortunately for Israel. And it’s the second novel with our imprint, City of Asylum Pittsburgh, which is a nonprofit that helps exiled writers get on their feet here in the United States.

In terms of fiction, I’m really excited about our August title, which is called Croatian War Nocturnal, translated by Sebastian Schulman—our first translation from the Esperanto, which is pretty remarkable, and Spomenka Štimec, the author, is from Croatia. The book is a fictionalized memoir in missives basically written while she was hiding in bomb shelters during the aerial raids in the Balkans in the ’90s. So that’s a book I’m really excited about.

And it terms of poetry, I’m really excited about a book called Futureman by David Avidan, translated by Tsipi Keller, and that is our July book. David Avidan is from Tel Aviv, but if you ask him if he’s a Tel Aviv poet, he’d say no, I’m a galactic poet. He’s also a spectacular filmmaker. One of his masterpieces—his failed masterpieces—is called A Message from the Future. It’s a feature length sci-fi film from the early 1980s that takes place in eight languages, and that is—I think the technical term is bat shit crazy—and is available entirely on YouTube, so do check it out.


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