Episode Seven: Bright Futures
When Adam Freudenheim took over Pushkin Press in 2012, he did so with the aim to start a imprint that focused on children’s books in translation – something he felt passionately about after seeking new and inspiring titles for his own children. That imprint is now something that sets Pushkin apart from other publishers, but with an impressive list of literary titles translated from over twenty-four languages, children’s lit isn’t the only thing that makes Pushkin a significant presence in the realm of translation.
In this, the final episode of Season 1 of our Think in Translation podcast, Adam discusses the translations that most excite him, how he and his colleagues at Pushkin discover new works of translation, and what he sees as a key value of translated literature: how it works to connect us with new voices and ideas. He also remarks on translated fiction’s growing popularity. Indeed, translation is currently having a moment, and we predict a bright future!
The Think in Translation podcast is a literary podcast series featuring international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books accessible to all readers.
Thank you to everyone who has listened to our first season! We are hoping to release Season Two sometime in autumn 2018. For updates please subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or check back here!
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You're listening to Think in Translation, a literary podcast from Vagabond Voices in Glasgow.
The series is made up of conversations with international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books more accessible.
This is the final episode of the season, but the second season is planned for the autumn of 2018. For more information you should check out the show notes.
This week's guest is Pushkin Press's Adam Freudenheim. He talks about publishing translated children's literature, how they find the books they end up translating, and the impact of the Man Booker International Prize.
I’m Adam Freudenheim. I’m the publisher and managing director of Pushkin Press, which is an independent London-based publisher.
My favourite translations, in a way, are probably the ones that I read when I was a teenager, like a lot of people, because they made such a great impact on me. But what’s kind of funny about that is that I don’t really remember who the translator is which is kind of embarrassing given where I’ve come and what I’m doing today. I would really probably say Dostoevksy above all, because I read... In quick succession I read Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamozov, and The Brothers Karamozov is the one that really stayed with me in particular, but I’ve read and continue to read translations all the time – not just for work but in my regular day-to-day life, so it’s hard to pick a favourite translation, but those are certainly among the most memorable.
I read Dostoevsky when I was sixteen/seventeen, and I have gone back... I went back in college to some of the shorter work, but not the longer ones, and perhaps like a lot of people I don’t really want to reread at the moment books that – not just books in translation, but books from my, you know, teenage reading years that made such an impression on me ’cause I’m worried that that impression and the memory I have of them will be changed if I were to reread them now – often for the worse I think from people I have talked to about things that they’ve reread from their teenage years. So I prefer to keep that memory that I have in my mind and the kind of impact that they had on me then with me.
I think there’s something interesting that when you read things... It’s like the... Is it Confucian that thing about, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Even if you think the book is terrific, any book that you read in a different stage of your life, is going to affect you differently, and I think that can be true even of something you read a few weeks or months later, let alone, you know, several decades later. You’re a different person, so even if the work hasn’t changed, but what you’ve read and what you’ve lived and experienced has changed you, and so you’re going to respond differently to the book.
So when I took over Pushkin Press in 2012, one of the reasons I did, and the ideas I had in mind, was to start a children’s imprint and precisely to focus on children’s books in translation. And this happened – though I wasn’t a children’s publisher at the time, I’d done a couple of children’s books at Penguin when I was running the Penguin Classics, but I have three children, and I was very aware looking at their books and what they were reading, and just trying to find books for them, of just how few books there were available in translation for them. And it seemed like aside from a few obvious classics such as Pippi Longstocking or Emil and the Detectives, or Asterix and Tintin, and stuff, that most children’s books – and particularly the contemporary books that I would find for them – would never be in translation. There was virtually nothing.
So I set up Pushkin Children’s Books precisely to fill that gap, and I still think it’s something that makes us stand out and is quite unusual. There are a couple publishers who focus on it as well around the world, but not that many, and some of them have followed us. And it’s particularly when you get past picture books that things change.
I mean with picture books because there aren’t very many words, it’s actually a fair number that are translated. And sometimes you’re not even aware that they’re translations. But with middle-grade and teen and YA titles, there’s far less translated. So that’s something that we’re trying to change.
I think it’s interesting with children’s literature how much of an influence English children’s literature or British children’s literature, and then more laterally, American children’s literature, has had an effect everywhere in the world – and I don’t just mean Harry Potter, I mean long before that. From Beatrix Potter on really, and E. Nesbit etc. But there’s sort of... I think it has influenced lots of different cultures and so, the children’s literature that you read from elsewhere is often... It’s not to say that it’s imitative, but quite a lot of it I think has been influenced by British and American antecedents, and so that kind of, in a way makes it more accessible, rather than it being problematic.
But I think, we’re trying to publish children’s books from all sorts of languages. We’ve published books across our list from about twenty-four languages – not quite that many on the children’s list, but still from probably ten or twelve languages. And I think that sometimes you might notice things that are very distinctive to a particular culture and that can be part of the appeal, or it can simply be that it’s a very good story, well told. And that’s the thing that makes it appealing to us.
I’ll give you two recent examples and they’re quite nice because we do publish a lot of classic... modern classics on the children’s list just like we do on the adult list, so we have quite a few successful books from the last sixty/seventy years – the most famous and successful of which is The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. That’s our bestselling children’s book and continues to be one of the bestselling ones every week, and that’s from the early 1960s but we translated it into English for the first time about four and a half years ago. But more recently, last year in the autumn we published an amazing Swedish children’s book called The Murderer’s Ape, which is by Jakob Wegelius, translated by Peter Graves, who teaches at Edinburgh. And it’s an extraordinary book. It’s really amazing. It follows this gorilla called Sally Jones, who can’t speak, but can do everything else that humans can do, and is just an incredibly well-realised character, and this is a good example of a book that though it’s Swedish there’s nothing Swedish about it in the sense that you’d... You would be surprised to learn that the author and illustrator are Swedish, because it’s set mainly in Lisbon and it’s in Portugal between the first and second world wars, and involves this gorilla travelling around through the Mediterranean and to colonial India and back again, and it’s an adventure, and it’s very, sort of influenced, I would say, by Tintin and by Indiana Jones, and it’s just great fun and really really smart and well written and page-turning and fantastic.
And then from the other side of the world we’ve got an amazing Japanese book called The Beast Player, which is the first of two books in a series that we’re publishing, and we just published this a few weeks ago in early March of 2018, and we’ve already had a really strong response to it. And it’s sort of the opposite in the sense that it’s very... It feels very Japanese. The author is an anthropologist by training, and so it’s set in a kind of – what feels like, I don’t think it really is, but what it feels like to a Western reader, I think it feels like a medieval Japanese world. But it’s a really extraordinarily realised fantasy world of someone who learns to play or tame beasts... That’s kind of hence the title.
Both these books, you know, from Sweden and Japan are just completely different but in their ways absolutely extraordinary, and I really feel excited that we’re able to bring them to readers in the UK and the English-speaking world.
I think one of the interesting things about reading books in translation, particularly when you’re younger, is that you’re not really aware of it being in translation. I don’t think many children would know that Pippi Longstocking was in translation for example, and I think that is... Oddly I think that’s even more, you know, going be particularly true of something like Tintin... I mean we’ve said “tahn tahn”... “tin tin” as you call it... I mean... I think as a child myself it was only at a certain age that I kind of made... that the penny dropped for me and I realised that this was, you know, that this was the Belgian cartoonist’s work, it just hadn’t really occurred to me.
And I don’t know I think... I’m not sure it’s... You know it’s an interesting kind of maybe divide in the translation world to some extent – or the publishing of works in translation... which is, how much attention you draw to the fact that something is in translation, how relevant is that? And I think that it depends on the reader. You know, some readers are interested in reading books in translation. Sometimes they might be really interested in reading things from a particular place, a particular language, a particular culture. And other people just want to read a great book, no matter where it’s from. So, I think I fall into the “great book” category generally speaking I would say, and that’s not to say that there aren’t certain cultures and languages whose books I seek out, but I think that in general that’s not the overriding thing for me, which is why I think we’ve ended up publishing, and continue to publish books from so many different languages at Pushkin, because we don’t have access to all those languages ourselves obviously, we have to rely on advisors and translators who recommend things to us, or other publishers etc. But that’s partly because we’re really interested in good stories wherever they come from.
So, sometimes we – as in the case of Japan, say – we’ve ended up publishing a lot of Japanese literature, and it is true that I have a lot of, you know, an interest in Japan, and the same is true of Russia, particularly of, kind of, mid-twentieth-century Russian literature. I think it’s a really rich scene. But on the other hand we publish things from Iceland and from Finland and from Germany and France and Italy and Portugal and Brazil and Syria, you know, the list goes on. And it’s not necessarily because I have a particular interest or we as editors at Pushkin have a particular interest in those cultures or languages, but more that we’ve come across stories that just seem particularly exciting and inventive and important, and that’s why we’ve decided to translate them.
People always ask how we find the books to translate – especially when they know that we don’t know the source language. ’Cause obviously if we do, and we do know French and German, and at various times we’ve had people working at Pushkin who know Italian and Russian, of course when you have access to the original language, that’s a terrific way of doing it, and the best of all, you read it yourself. We also do, it must be said, read books that are translated from other languages into those languages. So we have discovered books from, say, Hungarian, that are translated into German... Cause it’s a very common thing that there’s a lot more translated from Hungarian into German, say, than Hungarian to other languages. Likewise the French for whatever reason translate a lot from Japanese, so quite a few of the Japanese books that we publish we’ve discovered through French.
But beyond that, how we get the recommendation varies greatly. So some of it is publishers, editors at international publishing houses that I’ve gotten to know over the years and whose taste I rate, and so I kind of follow up recommendations that they make of things that they’ve published or they’ve heard about or they’ve read themselves. So that’s one way. Translators are hugely important, and you develop that relationship in different ways with people. Sometimes it can be that they translate... That they recommend something and end up translating it for you, and before you know it they’re translating more books for you and you just trust their judgement. That has happened to us. But it also sometimes... You know, we have one translator who does a lot of reading for us and hasn’t actually translated anything for us it just happens that they haven’t been available, but their reports are so good, and so much have a sense of how the book will land in English, that I really trust their judgement, so that’s something that, you know, comes across.
And then, you know, you do your own reading and follow leads that might be a footnote in an article or a mention that someone makes – some writer that you admire or like... I mean, I think it’s like the way that all our reading just works in English. It doesn’t work so different in translation either because you’re reading people who have read other things that you haven’t read and you follow their recommendations, so... There are lots of different ways that we find the books that we decide to translate.
In terms of who we get our recommendations from, another source which is important for us and I think a lot of publishers is literary scouts, which is something that people might not know about who are outside of the publishing world, and these are people whose professional job, you know, is set up entirely to find out about and follow the trends and what’s working in a particular country, or countries. They read the local language etc., and then they have a range of foreign publishers that they recommend books to. And this has existed for a long time in terms of people being scouts for America to the rest of the world, but more recently over the last decade or so it’s become more and more common that you’ve got people who are, you know, who are trying to recommend things from Spain or Germany or Italy or whatever to people in those, you know, in other countries. So the role of the literary scout is a really interesting one.
They are themselves often very good readers, so we have literary scouts for some of the territories that we publish from – not all by any means because we’re a small independent, but they’ve been very helpful too and we’ve found books from both German, Spanish and Italian through those readers, those scouts. And sometimes of course through the network that they create – because they don’t represent just one publisher, but many publishers in different countries – so of course it creates a network of publishers who are talking to each other and learning about the things that they’re publishing, and that’s a really interesting thing I find. And there’s been an exciting kind of new relationship for me at Pushkin over the last few years.
A lot of people talk about whether translation’s having a bit of a moment. I certainly think that it is, relative to where things were, you know, as of five or ten years ago. Even to just when I took over Pushkin six years ago, there was much less competition around the books that we were looking at, and that has changed. So I think just on that anecdotal basis I can tell you that there’s more interest, but I would even say that there... You know when I look at how many translations are being published, I think there’s more and more being published, certainly in the adult side. I mean we talked about children’s books already, but I think there’s not as much happening in the children’s area, though slowly but surely, but there is a lot more happening on the adult side. And perhaps what’s most interesting about it is that it’s not limited to one genre. You know, I think for a long time as everyone knows there was a whole sort of Scandi-noir thing following the success of Stieg Larsson’s books, you know, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc. For about three or four years any – particularly Swedish – but any Scandinavian crime book would get translated into English and to many other languages for a probably five-year period or more. And that’s changed now and I think that what’s happening is that people are looking at lots of different countries.
So, it’s coming from lots of different languages, and also different genres. So you’ve got narrative nonfiction, you’ve got more sort of commercial fiction, you do have crime fiction still of course, it’s still popular, and you have literary fiction as well. So it’s a really interesting time to be working in this area.
It’s worth mentioning in this context I think the Man Booker International Prize, which has been around for a long time, but only a couple years ago shifted to being an annual prize for a single book in translation, as a kind of parallel to the main Man Booker Prize for fiction, which is only for a book in English. And I think that just the simple development of this fact that you’ve got the, you could argue the most important literary prize for a single book, that exists in the world, and that it’s now not just looking at English books, which it has been doing for nearly fifty years, but now also looking for a book in translation every year. And again, it can be... It includes... You know it’s still literary, so it’s a work of literary fiction, but it does include short stories, can be submitted as well. And from any language at all. And the only rule as I understand it is that the author has to be alive, so that’s to, you know... They’re obviously trying to avoid... There’s a lot that gets translated or retranslated both of classics and things of people who’ve died, so that’s the only thing that that they’re limiting it, but I think that the fact this prize exists at all is an indication of the growing, kind of, popularity, if that’s the right word, or spread of books in translation in the English-speaking world.
When I’m asked to predict things I find it very difficult. I think if I had a crystal ball then I would be a much more successful publisher than I am and I think every publisher probably feels that way. It’s very difficult to see what’s happened until there’s a kind of, you know, sufficient number of books out in that area, and then you suddenly recognise it for what it is. So I’m not really sure. I mean I guess if I had to kind of put myself out there I would say that, following the success of the books of Knausgård, you know his six-volume My Struggle series, and though they’re not quite the same but I think there’s also an element of, you know, autobiographical storytelling in Elena Ferrante’s books, there does seem to be a lot more kind of autobiographical, auto-fiction the French call it, you know, books coming. And much more of an acceptance of that among English-speaking readers. I think that’s probably the real change, you know, these are books that have been around for a while in other languages, but they haven’t tended to be successful in English, and I think that’s changing, and it’s quite interesting.
As in all these areas, of course there’s some great stuff and there’s some kind of less-exciting books. But that’s true in any area, in any genre. But I’m sure we’re going to see more of that all the time. And you see more of it in English in fact too, so it’s no surprise that there’s so much of it being translated as well.
We live in a global world, you know, which... And I think that you’d be shutting yourself off if you weren’t open to different voices from different places. And it’s really... I think inevitably you learn a lot about just how interconnected the world is actually by reading books in translation because in general what’s striking to me is how much contemporary translated literature is influenced by things that are going on in the English-speaking world and that’s kind of the, you know that’s... For better or worse, that is the case. We live in a world where things are very interconnected and so, you’re really missing out though if you don’t engage with and read books and works in translation too.
Thanks for listening to Think in Translation.
This show is made possible by the support of The Space and Creative Scotland
For more information about Vagabond Voices and Think in Translation, including blog posts exploring translation from various angles, visit vagabondvoices.co.uk
Our music, “Puid Metsa”, is written and performed by Matthew Hyde and his Quintet.
The show is produced and edited by Alex Blott.