Georgia de Chamberet recently caught up with Susan Harris, editorial director of Words without Borders, (www.wordswithoutborders.org), to chat all things publishing, literature in translation and technology.
Why publishing and not education?
Never wanted an academic career, but always wanted to work in publishing.
Did you want to be a writer, or . . . ?
Of course. (The result was “or . . .”).
How did you end up working at Northwestern University Press?
I was very lucky. I did my undergrad there, and a few years later my advisor on my senior year project became the assistant director and editor-in-chief of the press, and needed a secretary; we’d stayed in touch, and I’d worked as a secretary between undergrad and grad school. So I started in that position and then moved into others as the press evolved.
Tell me about the imprint Hydra and the writers you published.
Northwestern had begun publishing reprints and classics in translation, and also had a series of writing from the lesser-known Eastern European languages, but was expanding into new work by contemporary writers that didn’t fit any of those categories; and it was thought that trade sales would benefit from an imprint and an identity separate from the university press label. (Which it seemed to have done a bit too successfully: when Imre Kertész won the Nobel, the TLS referred to his two books with us, one of which had been published before we launched Hydra, as coming from “different small American presses.”) I did Kertész and Herta Müller before their Nobels, and many other wonderful international writers, a number of whom I’ve been able to publish in WWB.
How has publishing changed since you came into the profession?
Enormously on the technological side, of course — do you remember those awful long galleys, which were always chockablock with errors? And conducting business through the mail, since telephoning was so terribly expensive? The biggest change, of course, is digital publishing and the Internet, advances that have allowed publishers to slash staff and increase workloads while doubling the pace: progress! I’m only an observer of book publishing now, and of course I have no basis for comparison with magazines, so many things are different.
How has your vision changed over the years?
When I started in publishing I was Eurocentric and knew nothing about literature from other parts of the world. Now I’m much more interested in the less translated regions.
Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads and Social Media have revolutionized the publishing industry. How have publishers adapted to industry changes?
WWB didn’t, and couldn’t, exist when I was in book publishing, and is in one respect an adaptation to both technological advances and the inflexible costs of print publication — typesetting, printing, and the dreaded subscription and distribution management. Print publication has been complemented, or in some cases superseded, by online. My sense is that the Internet facilitates some elements of book publishing — communications and publicity in particular — but, like the digital model, complicates others. We’ve had to evolve to meet the expectations of our readers: our original model, with static content refreshed monthly, wouldn’t fly today, and along with increasing and expanding our content and posting frequency, we’re always exploring how we can take advantage of technological advances in presenting it.
Was Words without Borders the realization of a long-held dream of yours, or of a shared collective vision?
Well — a translation magazine was a long-held dream of mine, but WWB was founded by Alane Salierno Mason, then and now a senior editor and vice president at W.W. Norton. Alane was interested in acquiring international writing but — like most US editors — limited in the languages she could read, and her original idea was to publish translations of sections from international books for US and UK editors who couldn’t read them in the source languages. Alane was joined by our founding editor, Samantha Schnee, who’d been at Zoetrope, and Dedi Felman, who was then at Oxford UP. By the time WWB launched in 2003, it had morphed from this quasi trade publication into a monthly magazine — still offering translations of novel excerpts, but also short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. I wasn’t present at the creation, but joined a few months before the launch.
How has the perception of books in translation in the US book trade and Media evolved since Words without Borders was founded in 2003?
That’s an interesting question. The profile is definitely higher. The community works tirelessly to advocate for literature in translation, and much of that has involved increasing general awareness — making sure that reviews name the translator, that publishers not conceal or downplay the fact that a book is a translation, promoting authors with public appearances and readings, etc. The appearance and reception of several new presses devoted to translation — Deep Vellum, New Vessel, And Other Stories, to name a few — is wonderfully encouraging. And I do think there’s more interest in paying attention to the rest of the world in general.
Has literature in translation become viable?
I think it always has been, but the ways and to what extent have shifted. The statistics just released in the UK suggest that more readers are turning to international lit.
Do you enjoy reading e-books? Do you think the physical book will die away eventually?
The physical book will never die. I do appreciate the portability and accessibility of e-books, particularly when I’m traveling, and I love being able to check out an e-book from the library, or buy online, and start reading a moment later; and I much prefer reading PDFs on an iPad as opposed to a computer. But I’ll always prefer physical books. I still haven’t got the knack of making notes in e-books.
Which websites do you use personally? Why?
I know I’ll forget some, but in no particular order: Literary Saloon and Complete Review. The LA Review of Books. Quarterly Conversation. NY Times. Guardian. Independent (sigh). The New Yorker’s Page-turner. New York Review of Books. Granta. Paris Review. Arts & Letters Daily. Asymptote. Guernica. Bomb. Arabic Literature (in English). Three Percent, LitHub. All the translation book publishers. Amazon for pub dates and such.
Your bedside reading?
Always the TLS, NYRB, and New Yorker, all on my iPad, plus whatever books I’m reading.