Bringing Translated Classics into the Future

I went to London Book Fair with the intention of sitting and listening to all the wise publishers talk, keeping my ears open for something to help me bring all my crazy dissertation ideas into a neat little plan. The Literary Translation Centre had many interesting talks, where they discussed promotion of translated fiction and the issue of prejudice against minorities both inside and out of the country. But with my combined interest in the digital medium, the talk ‘Translating Conrad’ had me sold.

Chair Dr. Stanley Bill introduced the three speakers Dr. Magdalena Heydel, Jacek Dukaj and Catherine Anyango, having translated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into words, visual art and digital art, respectively.

The conversation started off saying how classic authors were limited to their ways of expressing their ideas, and today we have technology to bring these classics into a new generation and a new medium. Stories like Heart of Darkness, where Conrad packed visual impressions into words, have a lot of emotions to play with, opening the argument of using visual technology and art to express the story.

Catherine Anyango’s illustrations were especially powerful, and as I remember the story, a true way of expressing Conrad’s vision. But an argument we need to be aware of when translating into another art form is: is it a translation or an interpretation?

Catherine Anyango turned the words of Conrad into images and illustrations by playing with colours and moods mirroring the story, and she specifically mentions the ethical issue of who owns the narrative, something she says to have stayed true to in her translation. The visual could help and compliment the text where the words might not make as strong an impression as they ought.

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I was brought back to my undergraduate studies as Dr. Magdalena Heydel started talking about her translation of the text into polish. The discussion of what is British literature and where does Conrad fit in, she started with an important point to make: Conrad, as a polish man, was not a polish writer. Dr Heydel opened up the interesting question of whether there is a difference in a writer writing in their second or first language and whether that affects the easiness or difficulty in translating someone’s words. She said compared to Conrad, Virginia Woolf writes just as complex sentences, but she is more difficult to translate into Polish.

Further, Dr. Heydel talked about the difficulties and challenges when translating a classic text into another language for a modern reader. She decided to remove the archaic style in her translation, and she spent a lot of time picking the appropriate words to trigger the same emotions Conrad’s words does.

Another challenge she talked about was how social and cultural language has changed since Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness. The challenge of classic texts is the words that we no longer use. Dr. Heydel took a risk by analysing what Conrad meant with his chosen words and translated those into Polish words carrying the same meaning in Conrad’s time period. How does one translate a classic text for a modern reader, without changing what the author meant?

This is near to impossible as one would have to know the author’s thoughts behind the text was, and a translator may end up changing the author’s views by changing a word. The translator then has the power to make the author more or less racist depending on which words they use in the translation.

This discussion raised a question for me: Are we supposed to translate classics based on what we know of the author (racist, feminist, etc.) or should we focus on it as a stand-alone text?

Tonje H.

Twitter: @tonjehefte
Instagram: tihefte

#LBF17 – Translation from Outside the Metropolis

This year, as part of my studies on Edinburgh Napier University’s MSc Publishing course, I attended The London Book Fair for the first time. Now in its 46th year, LBF defines itself as ‘the global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels,’ and is therefore a crucial event in the publishing calendar for professionals and students alike. The sheer scale of the fair is incredible, both programme-wise and geographically, and can be borderline overwhelming for first time attendees, but also presents great opportunities for learning and networking.

This post will not review or recap the fair in its entirety, but will instead focus on my favourite seminar of the 200+ that were on offer for visitors. As I read a lot of translated fiction and am hoping to write my dissertation on minority language publishing in the UK, I spent a lot of my time at LBF at the Literary Translation Centre, which featured a stellar programme of events by speakers working in the translation field. The seminar that interested me the most was ‘Translation from Outside the Metropolis,’ where the focus was on the underrepresentation of a ‘variety of national voices and perspectives’ in contemporary fiction and media. In the same way that white and middle-class authors are an overwhelming majority over BAME and working-class counterparts in contemporary Anglophone publishing, urban voices tend to dominate English-speaking literature to the detriment of regional and rural voices and identities. The panellists were tasked with discussing this issue in specific relation to translated works.

The discussion was chaired by Theodora Danek, Programme Manager of English PEN’s ‘Writers in Translation’ programme, and the panel comprised voices from three different stages of the writing process: Alys Conran, a Welsh author and creative writing lecturer; Mary Ann Newman, literary translator and expert on Catalan literature and culture; and Ra Page, founder, CEO and Editorial Manager of Manchester-based Comma Press. All three spoke eloquently and in some detail about the challenges facing translated fiction in the UK, and specifically about the lack of voices from outside major cities being translated into English.

Alys’ views were of particular interest to me as Welsh is one of the Insular Celtic languages I am planning to focus my dissertation on; it was fascinating, if a little disquieting, to hear her speak about the difficulties she faced getting her latest novel published. ‘Pigeon’ was released in 2016 and thrived immediately in Wales, but took longer to start gaining any traction in the English market. She eventually released English and Welsh editions simultaneously through Parthian Books, but beforehand was told by more than one publisher that her story was ‘too Welsh’ to succeed in the English market, and that the rural stereotypes of Welsh culture and writing would make the book to difficult to market. Ra, speaking as a publisher, thought this a ridiculous position to take. An author and book’s background and origin, while being useful in flavouring the text, should never be the be-all and end-all for marketing a book. The example he offered was that if Comma was to release a book of Polish short stories translated into English, merely targeting Polish immigrants and second-generation Poles as a target market would be absurd; the market simply isn’t big enough. A book’s content is more important than its background. If a novel or short story is of good enough quality, its provenance should not matter and it should be able to connect with readers regardless of regional heritage or allegiance.

Ra emphasised that publishing companies should be more prepared to take risks when importing fiction into English and commissioning from abroad, as Comma itself has done with books like Hassan Blasim’s ‘Iraq + 100.’ He also earmarked the English short story as a particularly and predictably urban, even London-centric, format, and contrasted it with Ireland’s tradition of quality rural short stories, dealing with small, localised communities. The diametric country-town relationship in Britain is very entrenched, and this prejudices the view of rural identity and culture, and therefore writing, in other countries. Mary Ann, who has translated a great deal of Spanish and Catalan literature into English, agreed with this, and related how, in her experience, the vast majority of work commissioned for English translation comes from the great urban centre of the city Barcelona, with comparatively little interest shown in work from, or set in, the massive rural areas of Catalonia.

The panellists ultimately agreed that there is a certain prejudice placed against rural works when commissioning English translations, and that the stereotypes of rural texts and areas are as inaccurate as they are unfair – rural communities, both within the UK and abroad, are much more cosmopolitan than many people think and have a great deal to add to contemporary literature. For this reason, among others, it is vital than publishers take more chances on rural and regional fiction, where regional identities, far from being too niche to attract mainstream audiences, are actually best expressed in multi-cultural and multi-language societies. Developing new voices from outside the metropolis and the mainstream is essential in the current political climate, especially in post-Brexit Britain, where many need reminding that hearing from other cultures can help enrich our own.

Post-Brexit: Challenge accepted

Do publishers have a cultural and moral responsibility regarding what they decide to publish? I have always lived with the idea that reading allows me to walk in other people’s shoes, and that again gives me a better picture of the part of the world I can’t see from my own shoes. I liked this idea, because I could get to know other cultures without having to travel.

“There is no Frigate like a book
To take us Lands away” (Emily Dickinson)

But then again, my point of view is from a minority language whose book market largely consists of translated titles.

On Friday (3rd March) I went to SYP’s conference 101: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and not surprisingly, the main topics of the day were Brexit and the discussion of diversity.

On the topic of Brexit: we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we need to admit that. As publishers we have the power to influence readers and challenge the inward point of view it scarily looks like many are turning to. Instead of standing horrified on the side-line, a new way to look at the situation could be that we are the ones that decide what’s going to happen, to an extent at least. We are perfectly positioned as an industry to challenge the inward looking market. One of the first things they told us on this course is: Lead the change.

I think that Brexit has proven that it is time for translated books and other cultures to become more visible in the Anglophone marketplace. We need to push away from the white middle class and introduce more diversity to the market. But we need to introduce it as it is, and not hide the fact that it is translated. The publishers have to take a risk and challenge the readers.

“How can we get to a place where we are more comfortable with change and difference?”
(Alby Grainger, Little Shop of Heroes)

On the topic of translations, we had Dr Stephanie Craighill come in and talk to us about translations in Europe compared to the UK and US a couple of weeks back. The Anglophone market is not used to other cultures because, historically, it hasn’t needed to be. Unless you go looking for it, which plenty of readers do (in increasing numbers too), readers don’t want a book to appear translated. What does that mean? Is it the different cultural voice that makes it appear translated, is it that the reader doesn’t identify with the character, or because the language doesn’t flow as well as you would expect a first-language text to do? Is it the author’s fault or the translator’s? I can’t answer these questions, I just ask them. Anglophone Publishers seem to stick to the idea that translated books don’t sell, but is that true? Names like Haruki Murakami, Jo Nesbø and Han Kang come to mind. And lets not forget the classics like Dostoevsky and Kafka. These classics have become a part of our international culture.

“Internationalism: What does that mean for us now in the creative industries?”
(Janet Archer, Creative Scotland)

At SYP’s conference this question was asked in regards to EU funding and travel and the business side of the industry. But it applies to the more romantic, naïve “I just want to make books” side of publishing too.

So, I’ll leave you with one last question: Do we as publishers have a responsibility to give readers more diverse shoes to walk in?

Tonje H.

Twitter: @tonjehefte
Instagram: tihefte

Industry visit: Bell & Bain and Witherby

I thought I’d take a look back at our industry visit to Glasgow, for two publishing firms, printers Bell & Bain, and marine publishers Witherby. We took the coach over from Napier to Glasgow to Bell & Bain’s two factory sites in the city and visited Witherby, based in Livingston on the way back.

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The tour around Bell & Bain included a very in-depth talk from staff about the work that the company does, the context of printing in the wider publishing industry (and in relation to the larger commercial printing industry) and the various capabilities the company had at each site. We were guided around each of the sites, giving us a chance to see the smaller-scale digital printing operations in comparison more established methods being used for larger jobs – and by a neat coincidence, saw the hardback covers for the novelisation of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them coming off the assembly line, as well as some of the academic journals and books that are the company’s bread and butter.

The guides were open to being asked questions, though they seemed to be able to give us all the information we needed up front – I had trouble thinking of anything extra to ask – though I did want to find out how they maintained quality control throughout the line, and was told that pretty much everybody on site would participate in removing faulty stock from the line.

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Compared to last year’s exchange trip visit to the Rhineland, which included a tour of Heidelberg (above), the largest printers in the world, Bell& Bain were smaller and more compact. Due to the scale of the operation, there was far less automation, but many of the machines looked essentially the same. If anything, the big meaningful difference I could see was that Heidelberg had built an entire showroom floor just for showing off machines for printing niche products, whereas Bell & Bain there wasn’t space to spare).

Our second visit was to Witherby in Livingston, about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. Here, it was interesting to see how a niche publishing company was thriving, and the particular way they worked to make the most of their market niche. Witherby’s staff seemed to pool talent and expertise for projects, but were also developing knowledge ‘silos’ by getting particular staff members to specialise in certain markets or disciplines – shipping law versus the oil industry, for instance. In particular the attention to the economic weather –the decline of the North Sea oil industry, the development of liquid gas transfer at Scottish ports, and new legislation around the world – was impressive. There was a slightly depressing note when a senior staff member said that the company could probably move to Singapore, where clients are actually based, were it not for current proximity to London/Westminster legislation and the attached law sector – but it was also a reminder that publishing companies, too, are global businesses. Witherby’s might have been hidden away on an industrial estate in Livingston, but the work they were doing there had an international impact.

#SYP101: Publishing 101: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

After the overwhelming success of SYP Scotland’s first, innovative conference – 2020: A Publishing Odyssey – the SYP team decided for their follow up conference to respond to the uncertainty of political and economic climate after 2016, and to discuss publishing’s place in the real world: discussing the good, the bad and the ugly.

The conference brought together not only young people starting out in the publishing Industry, but mentors, representatives and speakers from across all aspects and levels of the industry, to create a warm and inspiring environment that encouraged open discussion an learning from one another. From a rather ominous event title, there was some initial expectation that it was all going to be bad news for us budding publishers, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. From the very outset, there was a huge sense of optimism, encouragement and support around the room, and not just because of free coffee and beautiful tote bags. The conference opened with keynote speaker Jenny Brown from Jenny Brown Associates and her inspiring speech encompassed what were to become recurring themes throughout the day: kindness and encouragement, creating a strong network of enthusiastic and passionate new publishers, innovation and being the change you want to see in the publishing industry.

“Set trends rather than follow the crowd. We all need fresh ideas and fresh thinking. Make your voice heard.”

One of the main events of the day was the cross industry panel on Brexit, with representatives from Creative Scotland, Bell & Bain Printers, Edinburgh Uni Press, Little Shop of Heroes and Little Island Books. The debate across the panel reflected the complex impact Brexit is having on the UK publishing industry and its wider impacts. Although there were disheartening stories, such as Diamondsteel Comics having to suffer a 26% price increase due to uncertain relationship with their US distributors, there were also unexpected benefits as Edinburgh Uni Press had a 25% growth from the weak pound and the possible advantage to the Irish publishing industry, as publishers like Lonely Planet move their European headquarters to Dublin. As was to be expected, much of this was discussed with apprehension as the wider implications of Brexit are still unknown but there was a sense of optimism and resolve, as in the uncertainty more young publishers are banding together, not only within the UK but across the global publishing industry, determined to face challenges ahead through collaboration and innovation.

The sessions then spilt into Internships Anonymous and Pitch Wars, and to support our fellow Publishing Postgrad Lauren, I stayed to watch the Pitch Wars session. Pitching is an essential part of the publishing industry, and it was an excellent opportunity to see the potential of some our fellow young publishers. Each project was intelligent and creative, and would make a wonderful addition to the current Scottish publishing scene. However, the well-deserved winner of the Publishing Scotland training course of their choice was our very own Lauren Nickodemus, with her inspired pitch on challenging preconceived gender stereotypes with a collection of genderbent classics! Massive congratulations Lauren, we’re behind you all the way.

Throughout the day there were talks on Marketing, Self-Starters and Unbound (a new way of Publishing) which brought up many of the issues we still face in the industry today, such as the lack of diversity and issues of starting your own business but also provided insights and discussion into how we can challenge and work to overcome these issues. Speakers from 404Ink and She is Fierce were inspiring and supportive to our own postgrads interested in starting their own similar projects. However, the real highlight of the day (not including free pizza!) was being given the chance to interact and get to know other young publishers. If the recurring theme of the day was to create a strong, supportive network with fellow young publishers, the Scottish publishing industry is definitely in safe hands. Thank you to SYP Scotland for hosting a wonderful event; it was timely, educational, inspiring and a resounding success.

SYP & Publishing 101

Becoming a member of the Society of Young Publishers has been one of the highlights of my time on Edinburgh Napier’s postgraduate MSc Publishing course so far, and has also been crucial in developing my understanding of the industry. The SYP’s stated aim is ‘to help assist, inform and encourage anyone trying to break into the industry or progress within it,’ specifically for those with less than ten years’ experience in the world of publishing. The Scottish branch has hosted several valuable events since I began my membership in September, including October’s ‘Editorial: First Draft to Finished Book,’ November’s ‘Freelancing 101’ and ‘Agents Uncovered’ in February. All of the SYP Scotland events have been extremely interactive and informative, as well as providing great opportunities for networking, but the largest in scale and impact was March’s second annual conference, Publishing 101: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

 

This post is intended as a brief overview rather than an exhaustive account of the day, and, as such, will hopefully provide an insight into the conference for those who were unable to attend, or a quick re-cap for those who did. The different seminars on offer during the day covered many perennially key areas within the industry like marketing, book awards and self-starting, as well as addressing more current issues like increasing diversity and the impact of Brexit on the publishing world. A fiery keynote speech by agent Jenny Brown set the tone for the day, one of optimism and defiance in the face of changing and uncertain times. Jenny also emphasised the strength and importance of Scottish publishing, urging everyone present to have faith that there is life outside London for the publishing industry, and to remember that ‘passion costs nothing.’

 

One of the most intriguing sessions of the day, and my personal highlight, was the Brexit panel discussion which followed Jenny’s opening remarks. The diverse panel featured representation from publishers, printers and retailers alike, as well as Janet Archer, chief executive of Creative Scotland, who focussed on the potential long-term impact of Brexit on funding for the creative industries in Scotland and Britain as a whole. Derek Kenney from Bell & Bain spoke about Brexit from the printing industry’s point of view, and was refreshingly optimistic about the opportunities it may bring, both for his own company and industry-wide, and stressed the need to accept the result, regardless of political position, and adapt to make the best of the situation. Timothy Wright and Gráinne Clear, of Edinburgh University Press and Little Island Books respectively, gave industry reflections on Brexit from the contrasting viewpoints of academic and children’s publishers, with the overriding tone being a juxtaposition of optimism and uncertainty. The final panel member was Alby Grainger, owner of the independent and family-run store Little Shop of Heroes, specialising in comics and graphic novels. Whilst Brexit’s impact is usually thought of as a vague but disquieting spectre looming in the distance, Alby’s testimony showed the immediate influence it has had on book retailing. The costs faced by his store rose by an incredible 26% within three days of the Brexit result, and the only way to bare this increase was to release a long-term member of staff who was almost like a family member to Alby. Publishing and bookselling is very much a people business and it was distressing to hear about the impact Brexit has had on real people from independent businesses. Alby’s passionate claim that ‘principle is much more important than profit’ struck a chord with the audience and showed why independent businesses are still so important in the industry.

 

The next session offered attendees a choice between watching some product pitching by aspiring young publishers in ‘Pitch Wars,’ and discussing the pros and cons of various internships and work placements in ‘Internships Anonymous.’ I chose to attend ‘Pitch Wars,’ which featured four excellent and diverse pitches. As these products are all still in the embryonic stages it would not be fair to expand on them in-depth, but, without giving too much away, the contest was eventually deservedly won by my MSc Publishing colleague Lauren Nickodemus, for an extremely confident and well-thought out presentation proposing an innovative new series of adapted fiction classics.

 

The afternoon’s activities also included ‘Marketing 5×5,’ a run-down and explanation of five successful marketing campaigns, and a further choice between sessions on crowdfunding publisher Unbound by Joelle Owusu and publishing entrepreneurship by Hannah Taylor of She Is Fierce magazine and 404 Ink’s Laura Jones and Heather McDaid. The last main session was a fascinating panel discussion on the merit of book awards and whether they still matter in this day and age, again featuring Gráinne of Little Island as well as Sandstone’s Robert Davidson and Heather Collins from the Scottish Book Trust. The discussion gave a lot of food for thought, especially on the different effects different awards can bestow, with most being about delivering credibility rather than any real increase in sales. There was also debate on the controversial issue of publishing companies having to pay significant sums of money in order for their books to feature on the shortlists of certain awards, before closing remarks and a reading by Chitra Ramaswamy, which again reinforced the ever-increasing importance of diversity in contemporary publishing, and ended the day the same way it began: with unapologetic optimism.

#ScotBookConf: Numbers by Nielsen

As a business and marketing graduate, I’m fascinated by the ways in which numbers drive decision making. A thorough understanding of the market really should be factored into all business decisions, which, in the book trade, equates to a heavy reliance on Nielsen.

Nielsen collects quantitative data on consumer book sales across territories, providing statistics on overall markets, market trends, genre, and publisher sizes. With Nielsen’s wealth of information in mind, it is hardly surprising that the highlight of the annual Publishing Scotland conference for many attendees is Research Director Steve Bohme’s overview of the year’s UK book market. He delves into demographics and genres with a healthy dash of humour. The fact that the content of his talk is under embargo until Nielsen’s own conference on March 13th adds value to the information, as does the unfortunate reality that few Scottish publishers have the financial resources to invest in Nielsen BookData services.

Bohme led a whistle-stop tour through increases and decreases in volume and value sales across formats, breaking the data down further by examining them by demographic segment. One of the most useful elements of the talk was a rundown of the “hero” genres within non-fiction, fiction and children’s books, while the section on purchasing behaviours and decision-making was thought-provoking. Bohme provided a fascinating look into the influential factors in buying books, whether purchased by the consumer or for someone else, and whether planned or unplanned.

Data enthusiasts were in for a treat, as this year’s break-out sessions additionally included a talk from Nielsen’s Anne-Claire Woodfield, following on from Bohme’s talk, and providing greater insight into the numbers across categories. Woodfield acknowledged that there is a difference in book sales between Scotland and England – books that sell well in this neck of the woods don’t necessarily achieve the same sales south of the border. Woodfield also highlighted the gap between average selling price (ASP) and recommended retail price (RRP), discussing the difference as an indicator of perceptions of value among consumers.

Woodfield peppered her talk with practical tips – looking at data is one thing, while deciding how to apply that data to the real world is absolutely another. She suggested that the current political climate offers opportunities for reissuing backlist titles, and pointed out that an awareness of major titles’ launch dates is essential in avoiding being drowned out by such publications.

Though the sheer quantity of numbers was overwhelming at times, both Nielsen talks were hugely valuable. It may seem odd to be inspired by discussions of the industry in numbers, but the analysis was generally positive, and seeing book buying (and publishing) behaviour presented in such a way was reassuring.

If you would like to know more about Nielsen Book and the data they provide to the trade, click here.