In some respects, it may seem like the international book industry is booming. Considering the recent successes of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, it seems like there’s never been as much demand for books in translation in the United States. But this is misleading. According to some estimates, as few as 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are written in a language other than English. Michael Reynolds, however, wants to change that.
As editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, Reynolds has done a lot to promote international literature. One of Europa’s primary missions is “to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets.” But last year, Reynolds started a new initiative called Bookselling Without Borders, which started by sending a bookseller to a book fair in Frankfurt, Germany. This year, Bookselling Without Borders is expanding, having partnered with more publishers. It has also launched a Kickstarter to send more people to Europe and Mexico in the coming year to find more underrepresented writing. To learn more about Bookselling Without Borders, I spoke with Michael Reynolds over email about the initiative, international publishing and the roadblocks to translation.
BABBEL: Why Bookselling Without Borders? As in, why is it important that booksellers, in particular, be sent to explore international publishing?
REYNOLDS: Booksellers are an essential conduit between books and their readers. And booksellers tend to hand sell — that is, to recommend what they have read and what they have heard other people talk about and recommend to them. Our hope is that by bringing U.S. booksellers to the international book community — by which I mean authors, publishers, translators, agents, as well as other booksellers and many other figures — they’ll hear about books that, a few years hence, will be out in the American market, and they’ll be more likely to read them, talk them up, recommend them.
If we want more diverse voices in the book market here in the United States, we need to be sure that booksellers are aware of, articulate about, and somehow connected to those new voices or the cultures from which they come. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Our hope is that booksellers will come back from these experiences with an active interest in the books being written and published in foreign markets, as well as the reasons why they’re being published.
BABBEL: In the past few years there have been a few breakout international literary stars, like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, the latter of whom was published by you. Do you think these examples make it more likely for other international authors to be translated?
REYNOLDS: Yes, I do. For better or worse, publishing is a somewhat conservative (with a small “c”) business; it tends toward replication rather than risk. So, success of the kind you mention will encourage other publishers to take more chances with works from abroad.
I like to think that among publishers — certainly indie publishers and some of the better corporate imprints — and others in the industry, there is also a growing sense of the deeper significance and importance of publishing truly diverse and global voices at this particular juncture.
BABBEL: What do you think is the greatest barrier preventing more books from being translated?
REYNOLDS: Monolingualism in the publishing industry. Closely followed by the imperatives of empire, which are not terribly conducive to giving a damn about what’s going on in the far reaches of the empire. Closely followed by the above-mentioned conservatism.
BABBEL: Is the demand for international literature increasing?
REYNOLDS: I think there are those who are interested in reading translated fiction because it does offer a different perspective; it reflects a different experience of life, and they are interested specifically in that, perhaps more now because there is a rival insularity on the rise in America. Then there are readers — I don’t mean to suggest these categories are completely distinct — who realize that reading a work in translation means encountering a different voice, stylistically speaking, that narrative construction, point of view, prosody, the “deep work” that all creative writing does on the reader, is probably different. And that the experience of reading differently, in this sense, can really have a profound and positive effect. Then, there are those who don’t really care that a work is in translation; they just want a good story. Increasingly, however, this kind of reader is realizing what an incredible wealth of great stories and great writers there is beyond the borders, and so they’re keener than ever to read these writers.
I think we need to “normalize” the publishing, translation, selling and reading of work in translation going forward. While it is discussed to death, it remains a rarefied endeavor, and thus an activity for the few rather than the many.
BABBEL: Who are some of the up-and-comers in the international book community right now?
REYNOLDS: That’s very difficult to answer because — and this, too, is very much the point! — the international book community is so vast; there are fully mature, florid book industries in dozens and dozens of countries around the world. That’s also something that we want booksellers to encounter in a real way. Very often, especially if you’re in the New York publishing bubble or subject to its whims and obsessions, there’s a tendency to feel that the American book industry is the be-all and end-all. That’s just not true. The American industry is a very robust, savvy, globally important one. But there are also different ways of thinking about books, about publishing, about book retail, about writing and reading, and many of these ways of thinking are being applied to great success in overseas markets.
That said, there are a few I can think of off the top of my head (and apologies for all those smashing new up-and-comers I’m going to forget and kick myself for doing so in five minutes). The realities that most interest me in the international community are those that demonstrate global thinking, an appreciation for diversity and specifically bibliodiversity, exchange, open debate, and forward-thinking: the people behind the incredible Tribuk and the newly invigorated Salone Internazionale del Libro Torino in Italy; Tom Kraushaar of Klett-Cotta and Jonathan Landgrebe of Suhrkamp in Germany; Jacques Testard of Fitzcarraldo Editions and the beautiful disruptors at Canongate in the United Kingdom; Transit Lounge in Australia. The list is very long. This is a bite-sized taste. There are new and/or exciting publishers popping up and all kinds of initiatives with courageous, innovative people behind them, all over the place. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention my bosses, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, the publishers and founders of Edizioni E/O, not to mention Europa and Europa UK; what they’ve done is really quite remarkable.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.