Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
There were always plenty of books at home, but I don’t remember much reading.
What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
I read almost nothing before the age of fifteen. Then a friend pressed Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers on me. If I hadn’t found that book as funny as I did things might have panned out very differently.
When did you start working in the publishing industry? Was it intentional or a fluke?
In 2005. I had no idea what I wanted to do. One piece of good fortune after another lead me to meet Haus’s founder, Barbara Schwepcke. I was very lucky. Starting with non-fiction, Haus turned to publishing literary fiction in translation in 2008. The international list of authors includes Siegfried Lenz, Markus Werner, Thomas Mann, Clarice Lispector, Érik Orsenna, Alex Capus.
How do you choose to publish one contemporary writer in translation, and not another? What is your strategy and the process?
There’s no great formula. Firstly, there are books we believe should be in English, and then of course we have to expect they’ll do well. But honestly some of the writers I’m proudest to have published have sold abysmally. As our name suggests, we have German roots, and that is the literature we look to first.
What type of person do you think makes a very good translator?
Translators who translate everything well are rare. Perhaps there are only a handful. The late, great Anthea Bell was one. For us it has always been about trying to find the right voice. Like the rest of us, translators are of all types, and matching them with a text can be one of the most enjoyably challenging aspects of publishing translations.
Tazmamart: 18 Years in Morocco’s Secret Prison by Aziz BineBine, translated by Lulu Norman, looks set to become a classic of prison literature. How did you spot it, acquire it and get it translated? I was alerted to it by Barnaby Rogerson at Eland,. and it was a book the translator, Lulu Norman, had been passionately advocating for for a long time. It had fallen out of print in its French edition and so in that sense it was unusual, in that we acquired the license directly from the author.
How much contact and collaboration goes on between yourselves, your translators and your authors?
Once I’ve talked with the translator about the text I leave it all up to them. If they want to consult the author, and the author’s willing to collaborate, that’s between them. If they’d rather work alone, you respect that too.
Tom Rosenthal said of the late, great Sonny Mehta that he “was able to handle the crudest commerce and the finest literature with equal skill.” This paradoxical challenge is faced by all publishers. How do you manage to balance crude commerce and literary finesse?
That goes to the heart of why we’re in publishing in the first place, but you need to remind yourself too that publishing is a broad industry and guard against the temptation to think that publishing is what you do, and that those in it only for the crudest commerce or finest literature are doing something so different.
Looking into your crystal ball, in the wake of Brexit and now the Coronavirus pandemic, what does the future hold for so-called “traditional” publishing?
Like many a crystal ball, mine is eminently unreliable. Publishing is better placed than some, but as with any industry where margins are tight and there’s a reliance on the high street, we have been hit hard and will be for months to come. There will have to be a sea change in the way readers find books — it’s impossible to imagine browsing in a bookshop as before, at least in the low-touch economy that’s beginning to emerge. Publishers and retailers will have to find new ways for readers to find books, to imitate the experience of the chance discovery, something algorithms can do only in the most superficial and unsatisfying way. Beyond that, publishers will have to do whatever they can to support brick and mortar retail in the recession that is surely coming.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
It’s hard to overestimate how important funding is for translated works. Tazmamart received funding from the Arts Council, having won a PEN Translates Award, but we’ve never received institutional funding from the UK government.
In your experience, how and why does winning a Literary Prize make a difference?
Anything that sets your book apart from the tens of thousands of others published each month is worth its weight in gold. Of course, there is a hierarchy of prizes, but it makes all the difference.
A combination of small press start-ups focused on translation, and Amazon Crossing, using customer feedback and other data from Amazon sites around the world to identify books deserving a wider, global audience, have been game changers. Is it not only a matter of time before foreign publishing companies and literary agencies set up their own English-language imprints?
We’ve seen this already with Europa Editions and World Editions. I am not sure what lessons can be drawn except perhaps that it takes time and, if you can, publish Elena Ferrante! Nor am I convinced that customer feedback means anything more than sales, really. Amazon Crossing are able to use their retail dominance to push their own books, redrawing the traditional distinction between publisher and retailer, so it’s hard to know whether the books would have succeeded on their own merits. As for foreign publishers and literary agencies, I would only say the commitment needs to be wholehearted and it can’t work if you dabble.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to technology and the internet?
Fairly well, in the circumstances. With hindsight it’s easy to say we should have had more faith in the resilience of print, but the idea we’ve reached a sort of equilibrium now is wishful thinking. A generation raised to swipe a screen before they’ve learnt to speak will need to change no habits to read digitally (if they read at all). There’s no reason they should attach value to a traditional book, as we do. The challenge now is only to keep people reading, in whatever form. When it comes to the overall impact of technology and the internet, it has been clear for some time that the monopolistic dominance of online retail is far more damaging than some readers choosing to read digitally.
Your favourite literary journals?
I always make time to read the London Review of Books.
Who would be in your dream book club?
I wouldn’t change the book club I belong to. I’m more interested in what my friends have to say about the books I’ve read.
For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Your bedside reading?
At the moment Janet Malcolm’s Forty One False Starts and George Packer’s masterly Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.
Your five favourite feature films?
In lockdown I’ve enjoyed Barry Lyndon, Phantom Thread, Little Women, almost all of Joanna Hogg’s films.
Your chief fault?
Your chief characteristic?
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