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Looking Outside the Mainstream: Charco Press’s Carolina Orloff on Publishing Fiction in Translation

By Victor Meadowcroft

Victor Meadowcroft attended the 2019 international book fair in Guadalajara, where he interviewed writers María Fernanda Ampuero and Ariana Harwicz, and publishers Diego Rabasa (Sexto Piso) and Carolina Orloff (Charco Press). Read more about his experience at the book fair.


Carolina Orloff is an Argentine publisher and translator, and the founder, codirector, and editor of the Edinburgh-based Charco Press, an independent publishing house focusing on contemporary Latin American literature in English translation. She is also the cotranslator of two novels by Ariana Harwicz, both published by Charco, the first of which, Die, My Love, was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and shortlisted for the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize and the 2018 Premio Valle Inclán.

I had the opportunity to speak with Carolina at the 2019 Guadalajara Book Fair. Days before our meeting, two Charco titles had been included on shortlists for the Society of Authors Translation Prizes: Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe), for the Premio Valle Inclán; and Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (tr. Ellen Jones), for the TA First Translation Prize.


Victor Meadowcroft (VM): What brings you to FIL Guadalajara this year, and how are you enjoying the festival so far?

Carolina Orloff (CO): This is my first time in Guadalajara. I’ve come as part of the FIL’s fellowship program, which invites editors from around the world who have an interest in Latin American authors. As a matter of fact, the FIL is actually perfect for what Charco is doing and looking for. It’s been interesting as an introduction to come with the fellowship program because of the infrastructure they offer and because they introduce you directly to certain publishers in Mexico, and also from other Latin American countries, some of whom I knew, but some of whom I hadn’t had direct contact with, so that’s great. And, so far, it’s been amazing—exhausting, but super useful.


VM: When did you first have the idea to set up Charco Press, and how did it come about? Can you speak a bit about Charco’s philosophy and/or aesthetic?

CO: Well, the first time we had the idea was around 2012 or so. I’m from Argentina originally, but I’ve been living in the UK for the last twenty years, and I have always been involved with Latin American literature, first as a researcher at the postgraduate level and then teaching at a university. I always felt that there was a kind of delay in what people were reading, talking about, and publishing in Latin America, and what you could get hold of as a reader in the UK. So after being unemployed for about two years, after the recession hit in 2008, the idea came to try and put all that expertise—not only in terms of Latin American literature, but also of living between two worlds for so long—into something, and that something is now Charco Press.

The idea with Charco is that we want to publish contemporary Latin American authors who haven’t been published in English yet—so debut authors in the English-speaking world—and who back home already have a certain degree of recognition; not necessarily awards, although it could be awards as well. I am definitely interested in those writers who have an impact not just through their fiction, but also within society, authors who are interested in getting involved in social debates, who have something to say alongside what they write. Overall, that certainly plays a part when it comes to selecting works of fiction.


VM: And the aesthetic?

CO: Because we were coming out of nowhere, we felt we had to arrive with something that was visually strong and unique. Also, we knew from the beginning that we wanted to produce an object that was aesthetically different and pleasing. We take great care in the production of our editions. We want them to be beautifully presented and designed; hence the French flaps, the great quality of the paper, the careful choice of font. The book as an object is very important for us.   

“I’m also particularly interested in different styles, in authors who are doing something that’s different.”

VM: How do you find the works/writers you publish? What, if anything, do you look for in a Charco book?

CO: There’s not a single formula for that; at least, I haven’t found one yet! I try to read and explore as much as possible. I sometimes look outside the mainstream of those authors that agents are pushing for, or who are getting invited by international literary festivals. Not solely that; I mean, I think what the Hay festivals are doing is very significant, and I think their curation is excellent, so I definitely always look at them to see who they’re inviting, in the UK and also in Latin America. But I also read the papers constantly and am interested in recommendations from authors I already know: who are they reading? What I do is actually a form of research. At the end of the day, there has to be a good story behind a book that we publish. It has to have some kind of universal appeal that speaks outside the culture it comes from. I’m also particularly interested in different styles, in authors who are doing something that’s different, who are writing with a different voice, playing with language, reformulating ideas or themes.


VM: I remember one of your authors, Giuseppe Caputo, talking about how, beyond its impact on the English-language world, Charco was creating a network of writers within different countries in Latin America who might not otherwise have been aware of each other’s work. Was this one of your aims from the outset, or was it a happy and unexpected development or coincidence?

CO: Yes, I’m glad you noted that down—that is a very happy coincidence. It’s still happening. I have one example of an author from Uruguay, Daniel Mella, who wrote Older Brother: he ran into Rodrigo Fuentes, the author of Trout, Belly Up, who’s from Guatemala, at the Medellin Book Fair. Rodrigo Fuentes had read Older Brother because we had published it, and he thought “Oh, who’s this guy?” and went to try and find the book—I don’t know if he read it in our English edition or in Spanish—and then, at the book fair, he said, “Oh, you’re Mella,” and they had a long chat over beers. And then Mella of course bought Fuentes’s book. Rodrigo Fuentes is not published in Uruguay or Argentina, so Mella may not have been able to get the book back home even if he’d heard of Fuentes. Those kinds of encounters are great and speak of the many levels of “bridging” that the publishing of translated fiction can generate.


VM: You’ve focused your attention on contemporary fiction and talked about challenging some of the preconceptions of Latin American literature that have built up in the Anglophone world over the years. Do you have any intention of publishing books from the past that English-language publishers may have missed out on because of these preconceptions?

CO: Absolutely! I have a name for it as well, which is “Charco Classics.” There’s just so much out there to be discovered and rediscovered, and even retranslated, because I do believe that some translations age or become obsolete. I think there’s definitely a need for all of those, for the rediscovery of an author, or for the discovery of a writer who, as you said, maybe didn’t fit for some whimsical reason into the so-called Boom or any of the other kinds of publishing inventions that existed to promote authors, leaving so many (and especially women!) out. So yes, I’m really keen to start on that.


VM: Do you have a time frame in mind?

CO: It’s in the future. Perhaps in the next five years, hopefully.


VM: As well as publishing translations by established names like Daniel Hahn and Megan McDowell, you have also worked with a number of emerging and early-career translators like Charlotte Coombe, Annie McDermott, and Ellen Jones. Was this always part of the plan?

CO: Yes, definitely. I tried to be a literary translator for a long time and know from experience that it’s very hard to enter the circle of literary translation, here and anywhere you try. So when we started thinking about the project, we knew, on one hand, that we wanted to give the translator prominence—like on our covers, certainly, but also in terms of book launches and events—and to get them more involved, actively and physically, in what it means to put a book out. We also wanted to be a kind of gateway to open possibilities for emerging translators who perhaps would have had to wait for a long time to get a novel published. We wanted to have a balance between working with well-established translators and those who haven’t gone through the experience of getting a book published yet.


VM: And, finally, what can we expect to see from Charco in 2020?

CO: In 2020? Well, it goes without saying that I’d love to publish at least fifty books a year, but I can’t. So, within my limitations, we’re sticking to five to six books a year. In 2020, we have a few follow-ups from authors we’ve already published—we have their most recent work coming out, which is very exciting. The first book of the year is Fate by Jorge Consiglio, whose short stories we published in 2017 as Southerly. Fate is a cotranslation by Fionn Petch and me. Following that, we have Fish Soup author Margarita García Robayo’s most recent novel, Holiday Heart (translated by Charlotte Coombe). Then there is Luis Sagasti’s A Musical Offering (translated by Fionn Petch), which is a kind of sequel to his Fireflies, and Selva Almada’s fiction-chronicle hybrid Dead Girls, translated by Annie McDermott. In terms of new authors—new for Charco, that is—we have Andrea Jeftanovic, from Chile, with a novel called Theater of War (translated by Frances Riddle), and Daniel Saldaña París, from Mexico, with his most recent novel, Ramifications (translated by Christina MacSweeney). So an exciting mixture of debut authors in English and authors who we’ve published already.

One of the things we believe in is that, once we publish a book by an author, we want to invest, as it were, in their aesthetic project as a whole. That’s something that drives me as well, going back to one of your first questions. When I look at a book, or at an author, I’m looking at both. I’m looking at an author and their vision for what they want to do, where they want to take their work. If they trust us, it means they have a channel out there to continue to work, if they want to work with us. That’s why, if the author wants to, we tend to bring them back and offer the reader a continuation of their work. I hope that’s appreciated!


Read more about the 2019 FIL Guadalajara

Read an interview with writer Ariana Harwicz

Published Jan 22, 2020   Copyright 2020 Victor Meadowcroft

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