Book*hug is an independent Canadian publisher based in Toronto. Since 2004, the press has been committed to bringing underrepresented voices into print and to pushing the boundaries of what literature can be. Book*hug’s first title was translated from the Danish and the press has gone on to publish numerous Scandinavian works in translation alongside French Canadian titles. Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, sat down with co-publishers Hazel Millar and Jay MillAr, to chat about their interest in works that take a risk, how translation fits in with what they’re doing as a press, and a few of the titles by French Canadian authors that they’re excited about.
Sarah Moses: How did Book*hug get started?
Jay MillAr: The first book that we ever published was a translation. The Toronto International Festival of Authors always has a country of focus and in 2004 it was Denmark. A focus of the festival that year was on Denmark and there were all these writers coming to Toronto that didn’t yet have books translated in English so the assistant to the director was calling publishers and asking them if they would consider applying for money from the Danish Arts Council and then producing a book in English by one of the authors coming to the festival. I was working at Coach House Books at the time but they didn’t want to do it so I asked if it would be okay if I did it with my imprint, BookThug, which was at that time more or less a chapbook press. They said sure, go ahead, so I applied for the money and received a grant to cover the translation of a book called Pencil of Rays and Spiked Mace, selected poems by Niels Lyngsø, which was translated by Gregory Pardlo, an American poet who had been living in Denmark for some time and was interested in translation.
So we put this book out in time for the festival and then right after that we were invited to Copenhagen for a translation rights fair that they were hosting. We went and we met all kinds of Danish writers and publishers and we bought a novel by Karen Fastrup, called Beloved of My Twenty-Seven Senses, and since then we’ve published a number of Danish and other Scandinavian authors in English. That’s how we got started as a trade publisher.
We really had no idea what it would all lead to. I didn’t understand that if you publish a Scandinavian author in English it’s like front-page news in the country—it’s a big deal. And it was just exciting. We’re all Nordic countries so there were mild connections there. It was just really fascinating to dip our toes right away into other cultures. Even if the difference between Denmark and Canada isn’t massive. But we didn’t know the language and it was fascinating to go and see Copenhagen and to learn more about Danish literature.
SM: How did you select the books you published by Scandinavian authors without being able to read the original languages?
JM: With Niels’s book, we could tell that he was working in an experimental way because he was doing a lot of poems that were designed—he was using layout in a way that was almost like visual poetry. We saw a copy by chance of a book that he’d just done called Morfeus, which was his newest book to come out in Denmark. It was a book produced with no beginning or end; it’s actually bound with little silver rings. It’s this huge square book and it’s in a slipcase with these jellyfish on the outside. He’d invented this character and done all this crazy design work so I could see that there was something interesting about it. And then they had given us some sample translations by Gregory, so we had something to go on. Often, that’s the key.
Hazel Millar: So in that case it was an instinct that this was an author that would be at home in our catalogue. But it was a bit of a leap in that we only had a couple of samples to go on until the entire translation was complete. And then we realized we were right on about the instinct.
SM: When you say that you felt the author would be at home in your catalogue, I wonder in what ways. What would you say defines your catalogue?
HM: It’s certainly changed from that time to now in 2018. In the early days of the press, we were (and we probably still are) an experimental press: a press that’s always interested in literature that’s experimental. So at that point in time, looking at Niels’s work, it felt very evident that it was a good fit for us. I would say that our curatorial or editorial style has changed over the years. I mean we’re still interested, certainly, in experimental literature, but more than just that.
JM: We realized that we were interested in risk. So in the early days, that had a lot to do with the kind of poetry conversations that were going on at the time: the relationship between form and content, and how you experiment with that, how you play with the genre itself. Early novels that we published were sort of toying with the parameters of the genre itself. So we were interested in a formal experimentation. But over the years we have come to realize that risk is a bigger conversation and that there are works that are risky for other reasons, whether it is political or whether it is because the author is outside the centre, so to speak—they’re speaking from other places. So in a way translation fits in well with what we’re doing. To be an anglais or English publisher in Canada and go to Quebec to find work that’s not part of English literature is already outside of the mainstream. And then if you go to other countries that are outside Canada it’s totally outside.
SM: How do you discover books by French Canadian authors?
HM: In a variety of ways. Our Literature in Translation Series has been active now for a number of years. I would say in the very beginning we were learning about projects because translators were coming to us specifically to pitch books. That still happens, absolutely. We’ve developed some terrific relationships with translators we’ve worked with and we tend to work with them again and again—we trust them and they know what we’re looking for. So that’s still a very active way for us to find translation titles.
But we’ve also developed good relationships with several French Canadian publishers. So we’re in touch regularly, sending each other our catalogues or a title that we have in mind for them or vice versa—there’s a lot more direct touching base with publishers.
Each year I attend the Salon du Livre in Montreal. The Canada Council sponsors a Translation Rights Fair, which is a one-day fair where English- and French-language publishers come together and all day long meet with each other and pitch titles back and forth. And then I also attend the international book fairs in London and Frankfurt. I certainly meet with French Canadian publishers there, but also international publishers because we’re always looking for titles from anywhere in the world, provided that they’re a good fit for our list. And also there’s the desire to sell rights into those territories.
SM: Could you share a few translations of books by French Canadian authors that you’re excited about?
JM: We’re very excited about the two books that we just put out in the spring. One is the first book in a trilogy we bought by David Goudreault. In French it’s called La Bête à Sa Mère, but we translated the title as Mama’s Boy. It’s an interesting book because David has created this really despicable main character. We don’t know what his name is, but he’s narrating the book, and he’s a misogynist and a sexist and a bit of a racist—he’s a troubled person, and a drug addict. But he’s also a product of the foster care system so there are reasons for this. It’s really this story about a man who wants to reunite with his mother. And he thinks he knows where she is. So it’s this quest to find his mother.
HM: Despite the fact that he’s a very unlikable individual, he’s very complex and multi-layered and has a lot of empathy. It comes through more and more as the book progresses and you can’t help but root for him and want him to have this relationship with his mother. It’s surprisingly tender.
JM: This was a book that was brought to us by a translator, JC Sutcliffe, who just said it was a book she thought we should pay attention to. We did and we started looking into it and she did a sample translation so we were able to dip our toes in and then thought, yeah, let’s do this.
HM: The trilogy is interesting in that it’s kind of a phenomenon in terms of book sales—all three of them have been on the bestseller list and David has become a big name in Quebec literature. He’s also the most charming and delightful individual—the antithesis of his own character. So we thought it would only make sense to acquire all three and put the entire trilogy out in English as well. Our anticipation is that by the time Canada is the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt in 2020, the entire trilogy will be available in English and French and it will also have been published in France. We’re just hoping that will bring more attention to the stories.
I also wanted to mention two titles that are very dear to my heart. A couple of years ago we had the honour and privilege of publishing Vickie Gendreau’s novel Testament. Vickie passed away shortly after the publication of this very auto-fictional novel in which she is writing her last will and testament. She was very young—about twenty-five years of age—and had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. But she was able to write this book before leaving the world and it’s an incredibly powerful and brave and raw and punch-in-the-gut but unbelievably beautiful book.
We had many translators recommend it to us early on before Vickie’s passing. But the project was also very near to the heart of the original French publisher, Le Quartanier, and it was very painful for them to sort of entertain the notion of selling it into English—or any other language. So we approached them a number of times and at one point they finally said, “Okay, we’ll talk with you. You’re the only publisher in English we feel could do the right job for this book.” So it became very important for us to make them and Vickie’s family happy. In Montreal, we launched it in the same venue that the French book had been launched in—this beautiful bookstore that also plays a cameo in the book. Vickie’s mom came and some of her other family and very dear friends were there and everyone said Vickie’s somewhere right now just having a big party. So that was the most special way to come full circle with that project—to have that night where we could launch with those people as well as new readers that were introduced to the work.
And then this past year, we were so fortunate that a book we published, Lectodôme in French, but Readopolis in English, by Bertrand Laverdure, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation. So our translator, Oana Avasilichioaei, won the GG and we got to go to Ottawa last year with her and have a big celebration. That was a special night.
JM: It was special to win that because the book is all about Quebec literature. The main character is a reader for a Quebec publishing house and his job is to read literature. He’s a total snob about it and he’s trying to find the lost literature of Quebec, so you get this huge history lesson of Quebec literature in this book. So we kind of thought it was the perfect book to win the translation prize for Oana’s great translation.
SM: Would you say it’s difficult to publish translations in Canada? What are the challenges you face?
HM: I think there are a lot of things that play into it. I do think that there is interest from readers, perhaps not all readers, but there are definitely readers interested in literature in translation. We love literature in translation! It’s a big reason why we as publishers want to put these books into the world. But Canada is a pretty small market overall, and we have very limited book coverage here—it’s shrinking all the time, in newspapers, in any kind of media, and the coverage that is given is predominantly to Canadian authors and, more specifically, English-language books.
JM: And beyond that, it’s predominantly given to books that end up on the Scotiabank Giller Prize list or books that are part of CBC’s annual “battle of the books” competition, Canada Reads—those are the two things that truly guarantee book sales in this country.
HM: So it’s hard when you don’t necessarily have those partners—or whatever you want to think of them as: other parts of the industry that kind of help support it and really point the book towards readers. We do everything we can internally but it can be limiting when we don’t have a lot of media who put support behind translation projects. We’re lucky that in Canada we have a lot of literary prizes—there’s no shortage of literary prizes—and thankfully the Governor General’s Literary Award has a prize for translation. So that’s one really fantastic source of recognition.
JM: They actually recognize translation as an artistic practice. Aside from the John Glassco Prize, which is only for a first translation, I don’t think there’s another prize in Canada that focuses specifically on translation. A translation can end up on the Giller list—as it has before—but it’s not really celebrated as a translation; it’s celebrated as an English language book. The conversation around translation is curious. And we don’t really understand why the public is a little resistant to translations, which is why the multinational houses don’t even put the name of the translator on the cover—they hide the translator’s name a little bit. Whereas we want to support the translator as much as we support the author. That’s really important to us.
HM: We would never publish a book in translation and not include the translator’s name clearly on the cover. We fully recognize the art that is translation. But we have had this discussion with some other publishers and their fear is that it will turn the reader away if they know up front that they’re reading something translated from another language. I don’t understand this thinking at all.
JM: Maybe they feel there’s a cultural barrier of some kind—something that they wouldn’t understand about the book. It seems odd to me though.
HM: To me that’s one of the incredible things about reading. You can read stories from other places that are not part of your lived experience. It’s magical.
Hazel Millar is the Co-publisher at Book*hug, an award-winning independent literary press based in Toronto. An avid reader, Hazel is rarely without a book. She is the current Chair of the Board of the Literary Press Group of Canada, and she also sits on several other publishing advisory boards and committees. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Jay MillAR, aka, the other half of Book*hug Press, and their two sons, and a very cool calico cat named Tess.
Jay MillAr is the Co-publisher at Book*hug Press, an award-winning independent literary publishing house. Founded as a trade publisher in 2004 Book*hug Press strives to provide a platform for literary fiction, poetry, drama, literature in translation and non-fiction that explore the possibilities of what literature can be and do. Jay has also been involved in the Canadian literary community for more than 25 years as a writer; his newest collection of poetry is I Could Have Pretended to Be Better than You: New & Selected Poems. He lives and works in Toronto with his wife Hazel, who is the other half of Book*hug Press, and their two sons Reid and Cole.
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