Chad Post, head of a nonprofit translation press at the University of Rochester, was tallying the number of books translated into English last year when he made a surprising discovery.
Of the 151 presses that published new fiction or poetry in translation in the U.S. in 2015, Amazon’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, led with 75 titles, three times more than the next publisher, the nonprofit Dalkey Archive.
“Three times!” Post wrote at his Three Percent blog on December 6, 2015. “They make up almost 14 percent of all the translations on their own. That’s incredible.”
Post, who worked in independent bookstores and at the Dalkey Archive before taking his current position at the University of Rochester in 2007, was my guest for this week’s episode of The Kindle Chronicles podcast.
Post is a well-known expert in the world of translations into English, so I was not surprised to learn that he has been in touch with the AmazonCrossing team from the time of its debut in May of 2010.
“I talk to them a lot, especially when they were getting everything set up,” Post told me. “All the people that work there I think are really spectacular.”
At an American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, Post made introductions for AmazonCrossing representatives “so they could meet the translation community and the different translators who have manuscripts that are either in their drawers and have never been published or are ready to do work for Amazon and the books that they buy.”
Post told me Amazon is filling a gap in the world literature publishing scene between small presses and the big publishers.
“The big corporate presses are not doing very many of these books,” he told me, referring to translations. “They do the big books that seem like they are built to make a lot of money or have a name—Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, the books that are set to have a large sales base for whatever reason.”
Small presses, he said, “tend to have their idiosyncratic taste—they’re interested frequently in finding these books that are high literary, lasting important books and trying to make that kind of a library sense of literature.”
AmazonCrossing is aiming at a gap between those two approaches, Post said.
“We haven’t for a long time seen the normal mystery book that someone picks up in Spain and reads when they go on their vacation,” he explained. “That’s never been translated into English, because it didn’t seem like it would make a ton of money for one of the big presses, and the small presses are looking for something that’s more patently literary.”
“Amazon’s taken up a lot of those kind of books,” Post said, “which is really fascinating and fills in from a historical perspective a wide range of what the aesthetic is in these different countries.”
Post also said he appreciates the financial support Amazon provides to innovative literary nonprofits, including sponsorship of the University of Rochester’s Best Translated Book Awards, the only prize of its kind in the U.S.
Post noted that besides Amazon, the only other source of funding for literature on a national level is the Lannan Foundation. “For nonprofits it’s always a tricky situation,” he said, “and it’s great that there’s someone that’s stepping in in the way that they’re helping.”
I found Post’s enthusiasm for world literature infectious. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he became interested in the writing of the Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar. In the summer following graduation Post caught up on all the books he hadn’t had time to read during college, including Cortazar’s novel, Hopscotch.
“That was a book that I absolutely loved and adored,” Post told me. He was working in bookstores for his first jobs, which enabled him to read more Latin American literature, especially writers referenced by Cortazar. But many of the titles he wanted to read were not available in English.
“It was the first time that I experienced this lack of what was not available for international books and books in translation,” he said.
What drew him to world literature was the greater experimentation and innovation he found there, compared with American authors.
“It was much more exciting to me, so I got more interested in it through that angle—that there were these things that I’d never seen before and that opened up a new world or how to write and how to think about books.”
Fast forward to Post’s job as publisher of Open Letter Books, which has a staff of three people, and it’s pleasing to see that he is now helping to increase the supply of translated books.
In our interview, he described two new Open Letter titles that sound particularly compelling.
Gesell Dome by the Dashiell Hammett Award-winning Guillermo Saccomanno, published this month, is a 616-page Argentine noire novel.
“It’s set in the winter months, when there are no tourists,” Post said. “It’s people committing adultery, crimes, violence, and no one ever solves anything. There are four people who are in charge, and they’re super-corrupt. It’s kind of like True Detective but set in a weird, small town in Buenos Aires. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Due out on September 19th from Open Letter is A Greater Music by Bea Suah. Post said Publishers Weekly is set to highlight the novel as one of its breakout books for the fall. The book’s translator, Deborah Smith, just won the Man Booker Award for her translation of The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
“This is a slim book about a South Korean author who is in Germany for the second time,” Post said of A Greater Music. “The book is this woman who is back in with this boyfriend of hers, an on-again, off-again male friend of hers who’s kind of a jerk most of the time, remembering back to what happened the first time she was there, with a love affair she had with her female teacher. It’s an absolutely beautiful book.”
I hope you will listen to my conversation with Chad Post on the podcast, because a good deal of his enthusiasm for world literature is audible in the rush of his words and the passion of his voice.
Three books that I’ve read this year from AmazonCrossing are good illustrations of how translations can change the way we think about books.
They are Winter Men by Jesper Bugge Kold, translated from Danish by K.E. Semmel; Love in Exile by Ayse Kuylin, translated from Turkish by Kenneth Dakan; and Rage by Zygmunt Miloszewski, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Highly recommended!