The Catalan Paradox, Part IV: A Conversation with Chad Post

May 26, 2019   •   By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

CHAD POST IS one of the most tireless advocates for literature in translation. Post is a writer and the publisher of Open Letter, a leading press in international literature in translation. Open Letter recently instituted a rigorous five-year plan to publish one Catalan book each year, becoming a press to watch for those interested in Catalonian culture. 

Among the press’s Catalan titles are two of my personal favorites: Mercè Rodoreda’s War, So Much War and Death in Spring. Both novels showcase Rodoreda’s chilling, explosive voice and her gift for writing sentences that are tender and dark in equal measure. Largely set Barcelona and the surrounding province of Girona, her novels and short stories blend the real with the surreal in their exploration of violence, domestic life, womanhood, and adolescence. Born in Barcelona in 1908, Rodoreda went into exile during the Spanish Civil War, living in France and Geneva. She later returned to Catalonia, where she lived in Romanyà de la Selva until her death in 1983. The Fundació Mercè Rodoreda and Espais Escrits offer maps of literary routes that cover the writer’s childhood neighborhood, the sites featured in her most famous novel (The Time of the Doves), and her home in Romanyá de la Selva. She is considered one of Catalonia’s most prodigious writers and is among the best Mediterranean women writers of the 20th century.

I spoke with Chad about his interest in Catalonia, the state of translation in publishing today, and how he discovered the authors he loves.


AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: What draws you to Catalan literature? Are there particular narrative styles and motifs in Catalan literature that you think appeal to English-language readers?

CHAD POST: Given that Quim Monzó and Mercè Rodoreda were the first two Catalan authors I ever knowingly read, I’m not sure how one couldn’t be drawn to Catalan literature!

I’m not a scholar, but as a reader, I could immediately see these books are doing something unique with storytelling and structure. Quim’s stories seem so normal in some ways, and yet the collections as a whole have a curious sort of patterning to them, and many of the stories have unexpected twists that say something honest about the human character.

Rodoreda’s Death in Spring and A Broken Mirror are perfect novels in my opinion.

[In Catalan literature], there’s a sort of freedom, a willingness to play with form that really appeals to me. For instance, The Adventures and Misadventures of the Unknown Yet Remarkable Joan Orpi by Max Besora, which Mara Faye Lethem is currently translating for us. This is another structurally wild book, that seems a bit unhinged in a way (the founding of a new Barcelona in South America, UFOs, et cetera), and which is right up my alley. I like books that take big swings.

Given the responses to the books we’ve done so far, I think that English-language readers are excited by the blend of ingenuity and emotional earnestness found in these books. To be honest though, I’m not sure if this is particular to Catalan literature, or one of the reasons why so many young booksellers are interested in international writers, or English-language writers who are stretching the ideas of what fiction can look like. It’s a great time to be an engaged, curious reader of fiction — so many new presses bringing so many new voices to the reading public, and the overall conversation among authors (writing in any language) seems more vibrant nowadays than, say, a decade or two ago.

How did you discover Mercè Rodoreda and Quim Monzó? Could you describe the reception of their work in America?

I found out about both of them during an editorial trip to Barcelona in 2006. These sorts of trips — which many countries around the world tend to sponsor — are absolutely invaluable. I had heard of Monzó from Robert Coover a couple years earlier, but I didn’t have context for understanding Catalan literature, its history, or what made it unique. Having the opportunity to visit Barcelona, meet with the Ramon Llull Institut, talk to editors, critics, translators, and authors — that both provided a larger context and sparked my reading interest. Some of the first books I read when we were setting up Open Letter were the old versions of Rodoreda’s books that Graywolf and University of Nebraska had published. Which is how Death in Spring ended up being one of our first titles.

Both have been very well received in America, but especially Rodoreda. Death in Spring had a couple printings in hardcover and a few more in paperback. This is partially due to Jesmyn Ward recommending it on NPR, and to John Darnielle’s constant invoking of her as one of the greatest writers of all time. Monzó was referred to in a review as “the best writer you’ve never heard of,” and with each title we release, their impact and readership grows and grows. A year or so ago, we started the Two Month Review podcast to talk about “difficult” books in a fun and illuminating way, and one of our most popular seasons was when we did Rodoreda’s Selected Stories and Death in Spring.

Do you think the fact that Catalan was outlawed for much of the 20th century in Spain has affected the number of translations available in English from the Catalan? What are some of the challenges in pitching or acquiring a novel written in a stateless language? Has the current geopolitical crisis in Catalonia influenced publication and translation trends?

I’ve been writing a series of posts on Three Percent about literature from Spain, looking at statistics of which books are translated from Castilian Spanish, Galician, Basque, and Catalan.

Spanish is obviously the most popular, but then, with the other languages, there’s almost always a press or two who are doing the bulk of the translations. Such as Small Stations for Galician, or Open Letter and Dalkey Archive for Catalan. I think the history of Catalan and the current political situation have captured the attention of booksellers and readers, but maybe not the publishers yet. For publishers to really take notice, we need a Catalan Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Then you’d see a rush of Catalan books coming to market.

The Open Letter website lists literature from Spain and Catalonia separately. Given its diversity as well as its history of censorship, what are some of the challenges of advocating for the literatures and languages of the Iberian Peninsula?

I am interested in getting Basque and Galician authors on to our lists. By contrast to Catalan and Spanish literature, it feels like there’s almost no information available about contemporary Basque or Galician writers.

One of the biggest challenges of publishing books from the Iberian Peninsula (that aren’t written in Spanish) is the general unfamiliarity of American readers with the other languages and cultures. In a way, this should work as an advantage — readers should want to know about other cultures! — but it doesn’t always work that way. Without any framework for Galicia (short of knowing that Santiago de Compostela sometimes plays in La Liga’s top division), a lot of readers are gun shy about picking up a book from a Galician author. They want comfort, not uncertainty. Unless a book is being talked about by everyone, it’s tough to get them off shelves. And the book review media could always do a better job of highlighting books from unique presses and parts of the world.

What does the process of securing permissions and rights look like? Do you actively seek out translators working from the Catalan, or do you wait for them to pitch you? Are there Catalan organizations that help with funding and facilitating business logistics?

Fundació Ramon Llull, the Catalan culture organization, provides info on a certain number of titles a year — some of which appeal to us — and do offer funding and assistance in making connections with Catalan presses, agents, et cetera. A number of translators bring us recommendations as well, which is extremely helpful. And then, through visits like the one last September — or through meetings at the London Book Fair, New York Rights Fair, et cetera — we uncover a certain number of books on our own. Depending on the origin of the project, we’ll either acquire the rights and then approach translators to see who might be interested in the project, or acquire the rights with the translator already in mind. One thing that can’t be overstated is how much personal interactions and serendipity play in all this. We might be pitched a book one year and pass on it for any number of reasons, only to come back to that same author five years later with a new sample and new eyes and suddenly we’re signing on all their books. As efficient as people would like publishing to be, it really isn’t.

Generally speaking, how and when do editors decide that something is worth being translated? What are the factors that inform whether or not you think a book might have a broad readership in English?

There is a sort of calculus in how we make our decisions: Is someone at the press willing to go to the mat for a particular book? Is there funding available for the translation? Does it add something to our catalog, like being from a language we haven’t worked in, or providing a different perspective? What is its sales potential? We’re more than happy to do a great book that we know has limited sales potential, but then we will always try and surround that publication with a couple of titles that have a much higher ceiling.

It’s so difficult to pin down what qualities help a literary book to have a broad audience. With more commercial books — or thrillers — it’s a bit easier to evaluate. There are certain elements in individual books that one can analyze as being more or less likely to reach a large audience, but even so, there are metatextual elements that really end up positioning or framing a book’s success. That’s what I’ve been obsessed with for years — the quality of a book itself is never the sole explanation for whether or not it reaches a wide audience. There are so many other factors that shape how readers initially respond to it, from the idea that the press bringing it out is “cool” and trustworthy, to the cover design, to initial responses from respected literary voices, to how many bookstores are displaying it. In addition to editors doing a great job with the text, you need a lot of other things to get a book to truly break out — especially if we’re talking about a translated book from a small press.

How might Europe’s current political and economic tensions influence translation trends in the coming years? And how might translations influence the circulation of ideas across national borders and the canonization of great works of literature in the future?

Most of my research and articles generally look backward — at trends, at the changes that have taken place in the market — in part because I’m not sure how valuable the statistics I’ve gathered for the Translation Database are at projections. But, assuming no one will hold me to these predictions, I’ll say here that I think we’re going to have a turbulent period for translation over the next few years. Funding for translations is always unstable, and if you eliminate any part of it, the number of books published will dip. (This feels somewhat likely, especially if there’s another recession.)

At the same time, the barrier to entry for publishing is relatively low, and the generation of literary folks hitting their 30s and wanting to start up their own press — one with an international focus, since they’ve always lived in a global world — will increase, opening up the possibility for more translations coming to market, from talented, creative individuals who are smart about how to attract attention for their publications. (We’ve already been seeing this with Transit and Deep Vellum and New Vessel.) Throwing a wrench into all of this though is the consolidation of the publishing landscape and the difficulty of finding sales and funding necessary to sustain the industry. Translated titles don’t tend to sell very well (with rare exception), which is why so many presses dedicated to this tend to be nonprofits. Without a more organized approach to increasing funding for nonprofit publishing, it’s easy to envision Minneapolis being a haven for these presses, and everyone else barely scraping by. There are also a few major things going on behind the scenes in terms of the distribution of books from small and independent presses that may take a toll on these publishers for the next couple years. Hopefully it’s all cyclical though.

Are you feeling more optimistic about the future of literature in translation in America compared to 10 years ago when you first started?

Yes and no. I think there are more readers for translations than there were before, but I don’t feel like there are more readers overall, which is a much larger concern. The revitalization of independent bookstores is huge, but I think we’re still at one-third the number of stores in 2000. I think I’m optimistic about the way in which booksellers, readers, critics, and academics respond to translation as a practice and translated books in general, but I’m wary about the macrostructure of the book industry as it relates to this particular niche.


Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Call Me Zebra.