From Slovenia to Spain: The Peter Owen World Series
By Susan Curtis-KojakovićJuly 28, 2017
SUSAN CURTIS: I’d like to ask you about the project’s name. North American readers will think of the World Series as something not exactly literary, but this is the moniker Peter Owen Publishers chose for a new initiative to promote translated fiction that you and Istros Books are publishing together. Since the idea for the series originally came from you, can you tell us how the name was chosen and a little more about your aims?
SIMON SMITH: In truth, it started out as a working title — with a somewhat cheeky nod toward the baseball — but in the end it just stuck, as it seemed to work. As a series that focuses on world literature, it is appropriate. For 66 years, Peter Owen and the publishing company that now lives on in his name has concentrated on bringing the best translated fiction to the widest possible audience. A typical publishing year might see us releasing individual titles from Norwegian, Korean, Polish, and French authors. It occurred to me — and our new CEO, Nick Kent, agreed — that establishing a series in which we concentrated on one country or region at a time would rationalize things and allow us to focus our somewhat limited marketing firepower better. We decided to concentrate on contemporary works by living authors, as diverse as possible, and over time create, we hope, an interest in the series as a whole rather than just in individual seasons. Who knows, there might even be collectors out there who just can’t wait to add the latest trio to their library. We can but dream …
As you remember, I brought Istros Books into this project at an early stage with the suggestion that we launch the initiative with three novels from Slovenia. At this point, Peter Owen had commissioned three titles from Spain that were already in progress. Since Slovenia is a small country, of only two million inhabitants, with a relatively obscure literature, were you concerned that the readership might be too small for the launch?
I suppose we went for a soft launch of sorts, but there were a number of solid reasons for kicking off the World Series with a lesser-known literature. Istros has such good connections in the Balkans and could source the books we needed — each one different and special — and the Slovenians were delighted that we had chosen them for the debut selection and were very supportive. It is still a little unusual for an Anglophone publisher to bring out one book in translation from the Slovene, let alone three, but then that’s one of the main reasons we started the series in the first place, to publish good books wherever they come from. The body of translated literature in English is full of titles that originated in larger languages, particularly French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Chinese — and that’s all fine. We have published works from all of these languages in the past and continue to do so. But languages with a shorter reach, such as those from the Baltic states and the Balkan countries, as well as Malta, all of which we will be visiting over the next year or so, are equally deserving. Publishers in Anglophone countries are berated endlessly over the amount of literature in translation in English — from whatever source language — compared with what is published in other language zones (certainly in terms of percentages of overall output, though actual numbers don’t look quite so bad), and we’re also told that most literature in translation pulls a minority crowd anyway (chicken or egg?). So, to get back to your question, we don’t really distinguish between potential readerships according to original language, which might sound a tad naïve or idealistic, but there you go … From a PR perspective, the novelty factor of publishing the Slovenian season also helped attract press notices — which, thankfully, were uniformly favorable — and helped spread the word about the World Series in general.
Of course, since I have now been running Istros for nearly six years, I know how difficult the market can be, but I also have a firm group of allies who are interested in fiction from the Balkan region and support the work I do. Although publishing three books in translation at the same time is a risky business, I was convinced of the quality and variety of the Slovenian season: Dušan Šarotar’s Panorama, an experimental Sebaldian novel of migration and displacement; Evald Flisar’s Three Loves, One Death, a satire on the paradoxical nature of freedom in a post-communist society by one of Slovenia’s most established authors; and Jela Krečič’s None Like Her, which brings social philosophy and the problems of the Y generation in Slovenia to a YA audience. I think the range of the works helped to attract reviewers. On top of this, it was a great advantage to have the Peter Owen distribution network available to me, which has meant sales in continental Europe and North America, something I’ve not had before.
Yes, but the risk paid off, as Dušan Šarotar’s Panorama (brilliantly translated by Rawley Grau) in particular earned a lot of praise and was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. All three sold respectably, which raises the profile of the series and keeps us motivated for the current season two (Spain) and forthcoming season three (Serbia), the latter of which we are working on now and which will be launched in autumn 2017 in the United Kingdom and in spring 2018 in the United States and Canada.
Being part of the World Series is a great opportunity for me as a publisher to branch out into regions and countries beyond my usual area of expertise, while still charting the course of Istros across Balkan lands. Working on the Spanish books has meant that I have had to explore new avenues for promotion and work with new people, like the Cervantes Institute and the Spanish embassy here in London. Of particular interest to me was Julio Llamazares’s novel Wolf Moon, which dealt with the issue of Republican veterans of the Spanish Civil War hiding in the mountains, hunted down by General Francisco Franco’s Guardia Civil. Having lived and worked in ex-Yugoslavia for many years, as well as having published literature from there that deals with the conflicts of the 1990s, I was fascinated with the parallels that could be drawn — and not a little horrified at how long it takes a society to heal itself after such turmoil and bloodshed. But this is what good literature is about, evoking empathy and highlighting the parallels in each of our stories, regardless of nationality or geographical location. And this leads me to my next question. How do you feel about the role of literature in translation in a post-Brexit Britain? Do you think we have a greater cultural imperative to bring out literature that builds bridges?
That’s a much bigger question than I feel qualified to answer. However, following last year’s EU referendum — certainly from what you read and hear in the arts media — you do get the sense that readers of literature in translation, publishers, booksellers, and journalists covering the arts appear for the most part to express support for an outward-facing United Kingdom. But then, it could be argued that it’s a pretty liberal crowd all in all, so no surprises there, really … However, if literature actually does build bridges, and if our six books a year help in even a small way to contribute to that, then all to the good.
Before moving on, we should also mention the other Spanish titles.
Sure, we have two excellent award-winning books: Nona’s Room, a collection of stories by the much-feted short-fiction writer Cristina Fernández Cubas, and Inventing Love, a dark tale of stolen identity and urban mid-life ennui by José Ovejero. Along with Wolf Moon — as with the Slovenian season — we have presented three very different writers and three very different works in the hope that we can give a little taste of the variety that is out there in any given literature.
Looking forward to the Serbian season, again I really tried to show the breadth of literature on offer by selecting a diverse collection of equally compelling narratives from contemporary writers. Perhaps the most obvious choice is Filip David’s The House of Remembering and Forgetting, which deals with the Holocaust in Serbia and, on a more philosophical level, the virtual impossibility of living in our daily reality while maintaining an awareness of so much trauma. David, like the Croatian writer Daša Drndić, draws upon a mixture of factual texts, personal anecdote, fiction, and reportage to create a literary collage that attempts to approach these huge themes. And then, to balance that out, you have Dana Todorović’s quirky, deeply humanistic tale of personal redemption, The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth. I was particularly drawn to this, since Dana, being half-American and having lived for long periods outside the country, is rather an outsider on the Serbian literary scene and writes in a very witty, unpretentious way that I found utterly charming. The third book is Mirjana Novaković’s Fear and His Servant. Do you want to say something about it, since you’ve just finished editing it?
Set in Serbia in the first half of the 18th century against a backdrop of the ongoing conflicts between the Ottoman Empire and Austria, the Devil and Princess Maria Augusta of Thurn and Taxis relate their individual, unreliable versions of a tale of vampires and political intrigue. It’s very funny but also quite an intellectual text — in a good way. If you need to brush up on your Balkan history you’ll learn something about the period and Serbia in particular — though we are warned in the epigraph that “what the novel can’t stand is history.” Take that as you will …
The other thing I think readers might be interested in is how much planning and time it takes for a series to come together and the logistics involved.
Anyone who works for a small independent publisher could write volumes on the complexities, frustrations, and panic attacks — and moments of exhilaration — that accompany their attempts to manage, produce, and publish a series of any kind in a professional manner with limited staffing and resources. We are currently working about two years ahead — and that’s a lengthy lead-in for us — to make sure that we get everything in place. Three books being published simultaneously twice a year, on top of our regular output, is new to us and a headache to coordinate — and we are also working with a number of outside agencies as well. But, in the end, it isn’t rocket science and just takes a bit of admin.
And how about a sneak a sneak preview of what 2018–’19 has in store?
We have one title from each of the Baltic states lined up for a spring 2018 release in the United Kingdom (autumn in North America), to tie in with their star billing at the 2018 London Book Fair — We All Fall Down by Kai Aareleid (Estonia), The Green Crow by Kristīne Ulberga (Latvia), and Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis (Lithuania) — after which we move south to the Levant and then Turkey (contracts are all currently under negotiation for these, so no names yet). Then, who knows where? Subject, of course, to post-Brexit visa requirements …
Susan Curtis-Kojaković set up Istros Books in 2011 to promote and publish the literature of Southeast Europe and the Balkans; a region much neglected in the English-speaking world. She is both director of the company and the chief editor.
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