Open Letter Books brings world literature to English-language readers. Working in conjunction with the University of Rochester's Literary Translation Studies program, the nonprofit press publishes ten titles a year. To explain how Open Letter moves a title from acquisition to publication, Publisher Chad W. Post walked Spine through the process on two recent titles.
The Invented Part, Rodrigo Fresán, May 2017
Before talking to Spine about The Invented Part, Post talked about the book's translator, Will Vanderhyden, who first brought the title to Open Letter. Vanderhyden is a graduate student in Rochester's literary translation program, and is "one of the most talented translators we've ever had," Post said. Vanderhyden loves translating so much, he will often tackle a text for practice. For fun.
Vanderhyden also loves Rodrigo Fresán, an Argentinian-born novelist best known for writing science fiction peppered with pop culture references and literary allusions. He brought Post a sample of La Parte Inventada that he'd translated. "It was funny, list-makey in a James Joycean/Nabokovian way," Post said.
He liked the book, but doubted his small press could obtain the English-language rights. "Rodrigo has written ten novels and is very, very, very smart," he said. "We can't get the rights to this book. He's published by major publishers all over the world and we're just a small nonprofit press. But I'll ask."
In asking, Post discovered that Fresán was already a huge fan of Open Letter. He wanted the press to publish several titles. The press agreed, obtained rights, and Vanderhyden set to work translating the full text, with support from several fellowships. The Invented Part came out last May.
Open Letter is dedicated not simply to publishing English translations of great books published in other languages, but also to actively encouraging the English-reading audience to engage with Open Letter's titles. The Invented Part is challenging; "incredibly readable but long," Post said.
To encourage readers to dip into potentially overwhelming books, Post decided to break them into manageable bits, and explore via audio. Called Two Month Review, the podcast pairs a section of each book with a guest reader. "They talk about their little part, themselves, what they thought of the writing. We give people the insight you might need to appreciate the book."
Open Letter's next Fresán title will be The Bottom of the Sky, followed by The Dream Part, both currently being translated by Vanderhyden and to be published in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Then, predicted Post, Fresán will take off. "By 2020 he'll be one of the household names for Spanish literature."
The Endless Summer, Madame Nielsen, February 2018
With The Invented Part, the book came to Open Letter. With The Endless Summer, Open Letter went to the book.
Several years ago, the Danish government invited Open Letter, along with other publishers and agents, to visit Copenhagen and get the lay of the literary land. Impressed in particular by books by several women authors, Post and the press launched their Danish Women Writers Series. The Endless Summer, fourth in the series, is written by multi-gendered artist Madame Nielsen.
"The book is incredibly gorgeous," Post said. "It's like Elena Ferrante meets Virginia Woolf's The Waves. It's about the nostalgia of this one summer where a woman falls in love with her daughter's best friend." The book looks ahead to what happens to the characters in the future, and then moves back to the summer when they all connected.
Nielsen suggested the press work with translator Gaye Kynoch. With any translation, Post said he wants to make sure "that the voice is working, that the tone and register are accurate, and not all over the place." Aside from a few Britishisms that required adjusting, "it really was spot on," Post said.
Authors of different genders, from different countries, writing in different languages, in different genres — a comparison of The Inverted Path and Endless Summer highlights how Post tries to pull his catalogue together. "I try to make sure it's not a Spanish male author from Argentina doing something postmodern and a female Spanish author from Mexico doing something postmodern.
"We try to organize it not only by language, but also by tone. We want different tones, different sorts of books."
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.