Interview with Croatia Review Magazine: Issue number 14, June 2011
Susan Curtis has returned to the UK to, of all things, publish translations of authors hailing from these parts. But why “of all things”? Some Balkan works well merit discovering, and the time in the publishing world is ripe. More in the interview.
Cr: How did Istros Books come about?
sc: I have been living and working in the area of Central and South-East Europe for quite a while and find the culture and history of this whole region very interesting. As a writer myself, I am interested in the literary scenes of the countries I stay in and have noticed that writers from this part of the world are not often translated into English. Whereas the German and, to a lesser extent, the Italian market are open to writers and books from this part of Europe, the UK is very much a closed market. In fact, I believe that the actual figure of translated books that get published in Britain is something like four per cent. So having the experience of writing and publishing my own books, and with the advantage of local language and cultural knowledge, I decided that I would set up a publishing house with a focus on this region. I founded the company in the UK just before Christmas using a registered office address, knowing that I would be relocating to London this summer and could take up the business on arrival. So far, I have been concentrating on the advantage of being “in situ” in order to meet and build a working relationship with local writers, literary agents and cultural organisers. In this respect, my work so far has been an absolute pleasure, as I have come in contact with so many dedicated, talented individuals who spend their time promoting culture.
cr: Do you see yourself as somewhat of a unique outfit in the world of publishing: a UK-based company translating works from this region into English...rather than the other way around?
sc: Before I opened the company, I did some research into the market and what UK publishers are interested in. There are a handful of presses – mostly small ones – who are focused on literature in translation, with a couple of them focused on European fiction. However, there is no-one with a focus on the Balkan region at all, and only a handful of books from here get published in the UK, mostly through specific university programmes. The situation in Britain is somewhat more positive due to the success of Steig Larson’sbooks and the glut in Scandinavian crime fiction that has come in its wake. I think that a lot of casual readers have suddenly realised that translated literature is not all about highbrow, tedious books in awkward language, but about discovering new cultures through gripping stories. That is just what I want to do with Istros Books; not to try to push local literature into the box of ‘ex-communist’ or ‘post-conflict’ stories, but as interesting, original works of art which have grown out of unfamiliar regions yet can be of interest to people across borders.
cr: Is there a stigma, then, in the so-called West against the literature that has come out of East and Southeastern Europe?
sc: The EU is expanding and yet many people in the so-called West still keep the old borders in their minds: East and West, Old Europe and New. Whatever you want to call it, such categorizations come with certain prejudices and reserves. Sometimes this is to do with the image associated with Communism, and that everything that comes out of such a system must be heavy and depressing. Sometimes it just comes out of ignorance and a flippant attitude to lesser known cultures.The book that we published in May -'Hansen’s Children' by the Montenegrin writer, Ognjen Spahić, deals on one level with these issues. While on the surface it is a highly original tale of two hospital patients living through the months leading up to the Romanian revolution, it is also an exposé of the disparity between East and West and the way in which humans judge each other without a sense of common humanity. This book won the Mesa Selimović prize (best novel in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia) on its publication, and this year the Romanian translation garnered the Ovid Festival Prize. I hope that English-speaking readers will see beyond the nationality of the author or the fact that it is a book in translation and recognise this story for the amazing piece of narrative that it is.
cr: What does it mean to be a sensitive or “good” translator of literature and what have been your experiences?
sc: Of course, having a top quality translator is an absolute must, and this means that they should be mother-tongue English. I have been very lucky to find an experienced translator who is Australian by origin – Will Firth. His attention to detail, his knowledge of local dialects and difference in regional slang is amazing, and with each new work he tries to capture the “feel” of the language and to transpose that into the English equivalent. There has been a lot of discussion in the UK recently about the role of the translator and their status in the literary world. Edith Grossman’s book, 'Why Translation Matters', argues for the cultural importance of translators and a greater appreciation of their role, both in terms of prestige and payment. Grossman sees the work of the translator as a kind of intermediary between different cultures. As a speaker of Croatian/Bosnian/Serbian, I am in a unique position to edit the books that come to me from the translator and in this way I see Will and myself as a team working towards the final goal of the “seamless text” – a text which reads as comfortably in English as it did in the original language.
cr: We understand that you’ve received assistance from the Croatian Ministry of Culture?
sc: I applied to the Croatian Ministry of Culture for funds towards the promotion of Croatian literature with two books – 'Our Man in Iraq', by Robert Perišić and 'A Handful of Sand', by Marinko Koščec. As both authors are established and respected here in their native country, the process was fairly straight-forward for me. I must say that the Ministry does a lot to help local authors and also authors from other areas of ex-Yugoslavia who may not have the same amount of support in their home countries.
cr: Are there not EU funding structures that might help Istros Books in its mission to bring the literature of this region to a wider European audience?
sc: As part of the EU Culture Fund, there is a funding strand specially reserved for the financing of literature in translation. This means an extra funding source for publishing houses struggling to pay the costs of translation, costs not incurred if you simply publish in the native language. For me the biggest initial investments are in translation (5,000 - 6,000 Euros for a recent Croatian book, for instance). This is why investigating funding sources is of utmost importance to a small publisher.
cr: From a purely business angle, what have been the challenges thus far in breaking into this niche market...or rather, creating a market for translated literature from this region
from the ground up?
sc: It is true that in recent years publishing in the UK has completely changed. Smaller, privately owned publishers have been bought up by big companies and independent bookshops have been swallowed up national chains. However, just as in the food industry you have those who avoid the supermarkets and prefer slow-food options, you also
have readers who ignore the airport thrillers and who enjoy spending time in small, private bookstores, seeking out the advice of well-informed booksellers or simply looking for something a little bit different. I have heard several readers recently complaining that they are sick of the books they find nowadays, which are all written to a formula propagated
in creative writing classes. And that’s one of the things that make the books we publish attractive – the fact that they are written by people who have never been to a writing class, have never been told by their publisher what kind of book they should write in order to maximise profits. The challenge for a small publisher is really marketing. Without the big budgets allocated by the conglomerates, the small publisher has to rely on getting a review in a good paper or having a bookseller promote your books to their customers. There is only so much one can do through on-line social networks. So far I have tried to make personal connections through book launches, attending book fairs and networking through the existing channels. With a little luck and some smart manoeuvrings, one of my books will end up on the desk of the right reviewer at the right time. The other asset that I have is the cultural institutes and societies which have bases in the UK. I have already spoken to the Romanian Cultural Institute in London about promoting the collection of poetry by Octavian Paler which we published this spring, and I hope that the Croatian Embassy there will also be receptive to the idea of having a launch of the two titles I mentioned earlier. Tapping into the diaspora community like that can be one way in, and can hopefully open other doors to the wider public.
cr: What sort of goals and priorities have you set for Istros in 2011?
sc: Right now, I am waiting for the results of my application to the EU Literary Translation Fund, and if this comes through I willhave the money to pay for the translation of four titles: the two from Croatia, one from Montenegro and another from Bosnia. I am also exploring other funding possibilities in order to publish a contemporary Romanian novel and a very interesting book by a Bulgarian writer. I also hope that the Branko Ćopić title will be out by the end of this year, with new illustrations by the talented Croatian artist, Sanja Rešček.
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