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February 7, 2010

Open Letter Books — Found in translation

Lost 

FunFact: Open Letter's blog, "Three Percent," is "... a mordant reference to the literary ghetto to which translation is consigned" — about 3% of the overall book market.

Excerpts from Larry Rohter's December 26, 2009 New York Times story follow.

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“There’s a set of readers out there that’s very interested in translations and international literature and is not getting what it wants,” said Chad W. Post, Open Letter’s director. “So we believe our business model can work. American literature has a lot of great works. But English-speaking readers don’t have full access to voices and viewpoints from around the world, and we’re trying to rectify that.”

Though none of Open Letter’s 16 titles has yet sold more than 3,000 copies, its efforts have quickly attracted attention and critical praise. Open Letter books, including the recently published “Season of Ash,” by the Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi, have appeared on Best of 2009 lists....

Open Letter published its first title, a collection of essays by the Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic called “Nobody’s Home,” in September 2008, just as the economic crisis was erupting. But more than a year earlier, to herald the book’s arrival and attract potential readers, Open Letter had begun a blog called Three  Percent (rochester.edu/threepercent), a mordant reference to the literary ghetto to which translation is consigned.

Though it might have initially been conceived as a marketing device, Three Percent has turned into a lively clearing house for everything related to literature in translation, and logs more than two million page views a year, with obvious commercial benefits for Open Letter. Readers can post their own reviews and learn what foreign publishing houses are up to, and translators can discuss their craft and check to see which works are available and which have already been snatched up by colleagues.

A seven-member selection committee that includes University of Rochester faculty chooses the titles Open Letter publishes. While members of that group say they would not be averse to picking a book that could become a best seller — the Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of crime novels having shown once again that American readers will embrace certain books not written in English — they say that is not their principal goal.

“We want the openness in the name Open Letter to register,” said Joanna Scott, a professor of English here who is the author of nine novels. “What we are looking for is excellent work, from any language, eclectic modern fiction that is overlooked. Commerce does not enter the discussions; I wouldn’t know a commercial book if I saw one.”

“They’ve been really smart in creating immensely eye-catching books that readers are going to pick up when they see them in a store window or on a friend’s bookshelf, just because they are so interesting-looking,” said Paul Yamazaki, lead buyer at City Lights in San Francisco. “Their books really stand out. They’re creating a house identity with visual cues, and with all the choices that readers have these days, that helps, especially when most of what you’re doing is introducing writers new to Americans.”

In line with that concept, Open Letter, like Archipelago Books, also offers a subscription service. For $100 a year (or $60 for six months), a reader can receive each of the books that Open Letter publishes during that time: that works out to $10 a title, with shipping costs within the United States thrown in as a bonus.

Next year Open Letter plans to broaden its mission and publish its first collection of poetry. Translators, as might be expected, are especially delighted to see the press’s emergence and are flocking to Open Letter with ideas for new and adventurous projects.

“Open Letter has become important all out of proportion because it is willing to take a chance on work in languages that are not well known in the United States, like Icelandic or Lithuanian,” said Clifford Landers, who has translated the Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca’s collection “The Taker and Other Stories” for Open Letter and hopes to do more. “Commercial publishing houses have become infected with the jackpot mentality. But Open Letter creates an outlet for works that are not expected to have broad popular appeal but nonetheless are of important value in a literary sense.” 

February 7, 2010 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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