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News from Somewhere: The World Series from Peter Owen and Istros Books

By Sam Oates

Independent publishers Peter Owen and Istros Books have launched an intriguing new series in their bid to bring contemporary literature from around the world to English readers. Sam Oates, assistant publisher, reflects on the importance and challenges of creating the World Series. The Peter Owen World Series: Slovenia was published in October 2016, and is out now in the US. The Peter Owen World Series: Spain is out now in the UK.

In October last year, not long after Peter Owen and Istros Books had tied the knot, our little publishing houses together embarked on a World Series. The idea was simple enough; to publish three works of contemporary writing, translated into English, from any given part of the world—a single country or a geographical region, such as the Balkans or the Levant. Is there a more satisfying reading experience than a good trilogy? Despite the variety of the literature we hope to offer, each edition of the World Series, through a genus loci, will feel of a piece. We aspire to publish two editions a year, in the spring and autumn, and with the passing of time—money and will permitting—the sun will not set on the series’ furthest reaches. Last September, in a consummating act, we brought out three very distinct works of literature from Slovenia, a country of two million people and, besides Melania Trump, of few household names.

In truth, what with the difficulties of finding readers, of making any money as an independent publisher, of not having money to begin with, it is very easy to wonder what the point is in paying for the works of writers with unfamiliar accretions on the letters of their unfamiliar names, out of, in many cases, unfamiliar parts of the world with unfamiliar literary landscapes, in addition to paying the second most indispensable (and yet wholly dispensable to the general reader) authorial agent—the translators. 

Still, it’s no secret that fiction in translation has been a bull market of late, with recent sales of translated literary fiction beating our home grown produce. But you would be wrong to assume we were jumping on a bandwagon. When I think of Peter Owen, the man, and his quite remarkable history with this cultural phenomenon, I am reminded of a character in one of the books he helped bring to English readers. The author was Blaise Cendrars, and the character, based on a real historical figure, recast in Cendrars’s wildly imaginative novella, Gold, is General Augustus Sutter, an original pioneer of the American West and one of the first Europeans to colonize California. In the novella, first on the scene, presented with boundless swathes of unspoiled land and filled with an agrarian dream, Sutter constructs a utopia of sorts across the incipient state. In a short period of time success and vast riches attend his project. Then gold is discovered on his lands, and prospectors from all over the country, from all over the world, descend upon his utopia, and in an orgy of lawless greed, better known as the Gold Rush, bring about its destruction. Peter Owen was not quite Augustus Sutter—his publishing empire was not nearly so expansive, utopian, or lucrative—but he was one of the first publishers to open up a rich lode of literature which has since been mined seemingly to exhaustion.

What is left for publishers willing to rebuild on these lands? In keeping its ear to the convolutions of the Balkan literary landscape, Istros Books gamely demonstrate how publishers can still bring to English readers the contemporary voices of other languages, the contemporary conditions of other cultures, and so perhaps bring about literary utopia. 

Image: Books in The Peter Owen World Series: Spain.

At this point, I could expatiate on the virtues of reading to acquaint yourself with other cultures, and how important this is in these Brexit times. But A.L. Kennedy did it better, and, while not repudiating the sentiment, for the most part I find it a rather twee and oft-repeated truism.

The picture is more complex, I feel. Languages, other cultures, are difficult to grasp, oddly mathematical, governed by a logic that pulls as much as pushes you away. Especially for people of a philosophical bent, for those who engage their sensibility, a foreign language can often frustrate the mind, as though your thoughts and ideas, circumscribed even more by what you are capable of articulating, were borrowed. If you have ever learned a language you might know the feeling that these words, like people at a party who appear indifferent to you, unwilling to understand you, leave us with a profound sense of insufficiency. We push back and turn to those who do understand us.

I live with a German who emigrated to Britain—or London—a few years ago. She told me recently that, having made such a determined effort to repatriate herself in the English language, she had come to feel distant from the source of her own. Quite spontaneously she had found herself reconnecting with it, listening to German music with German lyrics, reading German literature. She had forgotten how rich and mellifluous her language could be, for burying yourself in a new language is tantamount to rewiring an intimate, functional, and protective part of the brain. (In this case, as a culture, too, we are guilty of giving German an abrasive character, forgetting Heine and Hesse for Goebbels and Hitler.)

To bury yourself in a foreign language, to immerse yourself in it, inure, even, yourself to it, is to be subject to a powerful philosophical encounter with the world. You become aware that meaning is a lake, deep and vast, and that we navigate it tentatively in a boat of words, poised between many shores.

To bury yourself in a foreign language, to immerse yourself in it, inure, even, yourself to it, is to be subject to a powerful philosophical encounter with the world. 

I experienced something similar to my German friend during my first vain efforts at learning another language—the language was Russian, and learning it felt at times like taking water into a boat. The lake, or the lacuna, around me grew larger and darker. I floated better in English, which made the depth and breadth of the lake less frightening. My discovery had similarly been that English is a rich and beautiful language, uniquely useful at keeping me afloat.

As a reason for ever publishing literature in translation this, to my mind, is overlooked. And we do a disservice to readers and authors by sounding those righteous and elitist notes about the need for widening our cultural horizons. We forget the simple fact that we probably won’t experience literature fully in any other way but in one language.

Still, there is too much to read and too much published. It’s hard to know if by translating the work of other cultural sources into English we don’t just make the lake bigger, adding further drops of rain. No doubt the rain falls too heavily in the smallest of languages such as Slovenian. Still, it is somehow comforting to think that Spanish author Cristina Fernández Cubas, who has been at the pinnacle of the short-story game for thirty years, and has made it into most major languages, as well as into the arms of critics across the European continent, is now, thanks to the World Series, to be enjoyed in English for the first time. The same with Slovenian author Dušan Šarotar, whose remarkable and affecting novel, Panorama (pictured left), was translated into English with such euphony, power, and art by Rawley Grau, that it was short-listed for the Oxford-Weidenfeld prize, the most significant recognition, after the Man Booker International Prize, given to the work of the individuals who render words and meanings, unfamiliar to the majority of us, into those beautiful, secure little boats in which we float. Even if there were too much to read, the lake is richer for the little drop of rain we add. Should the banks flood, thanks to the work of translators we simply rise with the water.

Published Jun 16, 2017   Copyright 2017 Sam Oates

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