Here’s a question I like to ask a friend who asserts that Amazon doesn’t care about books any more than it cares about bobby pins, motor oil, or anything else you can buy at Amazon.com: How do you explain AmazonCrossing?
If the friend hasn’t heard about Amazon Publishing’s translation imprint, launched six years ago, I tell him or her that it now publishes more English translations of foreign-language books than any other publisher.
In fact, AmazonPublishing last year in the U.S. published 75 translations, three times the number published by its nearest competitor.
AmazonCrossing senior editor Gabriella Page-Fort, my guest in this week’s Kindle Chronicles podcast, cites Ayse Kulin’s Love in Exile as a great example of Amazon’s commitment to bringing “distinguished voices from diverse cultures” to English-speaking readers. Written in Turkish, the novel was published in an English translation by Kenneth Dakan on June 14.
“She crosses borders very well,” Page-Fort said of Kulin, whose books have sold more than 10 million copies in Turkey.
“Her stories are of the people, which is I think what draws readers like me into them,” the editor added. “She shows human behavior under extraordinary circumstances, and always leaves the reader with a great respect for the bonds of family and the power of human will, and the sweeping, history-making effect of love. Those are very powerful things for an author to bring to the world stage.”
The novel, translated by Kenneth Dakan, takes place in Istanbul and Ankara just after the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1922, when Turks were adapting to a new regime and the modernization of their society.
“In this new environment,” the author explained by e-mail, “the love affair between an Armenian boy and a Turkish girl should be acceptable to their families, but we find out that traditions, customs and deeply settled feelings are not easily dismissed or forgotten.”
The story is based on Kulin’s own family history, including that of the Turkish girl in the star-crossed relationship, who was her great-aunt.
AmazonCrossing’s commitment to world literature in translation reminds me of what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in last week’s interview described as the difference between missionaries and mercenaries. As sometimes happens with missionaries, AmazonCrossing’s publication of Ayse Kulin’s writing has paid off financially as well.
Last Train to Istanbul, Kulin’s novel published by Amazon in October of 2013, has sold more than 250,000 copies, Page-Fort told me.
What I enjoy about the AmazonCrossing books that I have read is how they enable me to learn about another culture from the inside out, through the power of narrative. I certainly learned a lot about the history of Turkey from Kulin’s novel.
Another AmazonCrossing book that I have enjoyed is Rage, by best-selling Polish crime writer Zygmunt Miloszewski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Published in translation on August 1st, Rage features prosecutor Teodor Szacki investigating a skeleton discovered at a construction site.
The writing is terrific in its vivid characterizations, real-as-bullets dialog, and evocative but not excessively fancy descriptions of scenes and countryside.
An example is a wry passage that begins provocatively with the statement that “Poland is ugly.” After describing the nation’s average mountains and lakes, Miloszewski writes, “The beaches of the icy Baltic Sea are a joke to anyone who has ever been to the Mediterranean” and “It’s nobody’s fault, we simply happened to settle on boring, agriculturally promising land, that’s all. What looked like a good idea in the days of crop rotation is not quite so obvious in the era of mass tourism.”
After four paragraphs in that vein comes the punch line:
“But there are moments when Poland is the most beautiful place on earth. Those days in May following a storm, when the foliage is lush and fresh, the sidewalks wet and shiny, and we take off our coats for the first time in six months, and feel moved by the power of nature.”
What I most appreciate about the missionary work being done by AmazonCrossing is that its editors are not confining themselves to high-minded writing best appreciated by English majors and MFA students.
AmazonCrossing does publish a handful of more literary books. But as the University of Rochester’s international-translation champion Chad Post said in The Guardian last year, “Amazon is going after books the common reader wants to read, and they know how to reach these people. In the end, this might help expand the overall audience for international fiction.”
That goal strikes me as a different category of aspiration than selling more bobby pins or motor oil. It goes to what Bezos has called the DNA of Amazon, where a commitment to books and reading is made visible by AmazonCrossing, the invention of a vibrant e-book platform in the Kindle, and the unleashing of the self-publishing sector through Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace.
Next week’s interview guest on the Kindle Chronicles will be Sara Nelson, who last month took a new executive position at HarperCollins after serving four years as Amazon’s editorial director for books and Kindle.