Now is the time for starting literary presses devoted to translated literature! We’ve met quite a few folks who are jumping in head first, whether in digital or print (5 Questions with them coming soon), and we’ve heard from the heads of successful, established ones like Michael Reynolds of Europa Editions and Chad Post of Open Letter say how eager people are to read their books and how surprisingly affordable translations can actually be (yup, you read that right! Inexpensive! Translations!). So what better way for PTW to explore the subject than to interview one very intrepid young entrepreneur who is setting out to start the next big thing in translit. Meet Will Evans, intern at Open Letter this summer and future head of **Deep Vellum. Also meet our first guest contributor, Emma Ramadan, book club member, who was nice enough to interview him for us!
1. The obvious one: Why are you starting your own translation publishing house?
In a roundabout way, I’ve been working towards publishing for a long time. After finishing my undergraduate studies in Russian at Emory, I turned down a PhD program in Russian Literature and went into the music business for five years. But that was all fun and games, and I never thought it would be my career to end all careers. I had a great time, but eventually decided to go get my Master’s degree in Russian Studies (having decided that PhDs are great and all, but not for me) at Duke, where I was thinking of what I could do in publishing.
Then I spent three months in Russia in summer 2011 hoping I would come back with an idea of what that one career could be. I spent six weeks in Saint-Petersburg, where I translated a book (the famous journalist Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor, Ruissa! A Fantastical Tale from Putin’s Russia) in between language classes, and six weeks in Moscow, where I worked a pair of internships, one at a democracy-promoting NGO and another at a new media think tank. Coming back to the States, I decided not to move to Moscow and work in the NGO world, because my experience translating the book was so positive, but the process of looking for a publisher so disheartening, that I decided I had to go into publishing. And I had been reading the Three Percent blog run by Chad Post at Open Letter Books (and his collected old posts in the Three Percent Problem), and his writing about the publishing industry, and specifically the translated-literature publishing industry, was a pure illumination. It was like a light bulb went off over my head when I read that there was a need for more publishers of translated literature.
And having worked in a “dying” industry before, I’m excited by the challenges that our digital future provides for literature. I think it’s an exciting time to be entering publishing (but probably nerve-racking for those who are established players in the traditional publishing industry model). The past standards have gone away, and it’s time to create a new world for publishers, authors, and readers.
2. What do you envision for your publishing house? How will it be different or similar to other translation publishing houses out there? What about the industry are you hoping to change?
I’m not at any point where I can say what I am trying to change in the publishing industry, but I can say that I would rather never go along with what has been the accepted industry standard in creating a market for the book as a cultural and sellable product; I don’t want to accept what has been done in advertising and selling books. But I am one small person in a big industry with complicated problems, and I hope that I can bring a start-up mentality filled with passion, excitement, and innovation to what I do at **Deep Vellum.
**Deep Vellum is what I hope to call my press. It was the name of a small record label I ran for a few years, and it fits my vision for literature as much as it did music: always moving forward, never settling with the way things are. Progress. And **Deep Vellum means being forward-thinking and forward-looking in the types of books we will publish, too; I am interested in the best literature from around the world, as all great publishing companies say. Challenging and exciting literature written by contemporary, preferably living, authors is what I hope to focus on.
In my vision of the future, **Deep Vellum will stand alone from similar indie presses who focus on or publish a lot of translations, especially in terms of creating a distinctive editorial and aesthetic vision of my own. But at the same time I am forever indebted to those who came before me, like Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, New Directions, Archipelago, Grove Press, NYRB, Vintage, Penguin, and more for all they have done to open my mind and the mind of the world, bringing the best international authors to American audiences. I remember going into used bookstores and seeking out the spines of these immortal publishers, and I imagine in 50 years’ time, future young readers will seek out **Deep Vellum spines among those of my inspirations.
3. What are you most looking forward to/most afraid of?
I’m most looking forward to reading the best books from around the world and meeting the people who make it happen overseas as well as here in the States–the people who are creating truly original works of literary art, contributing new ideas to the world–everyone who is fighting the good fight for the Word.
I’m most scared that I’m going to put out the most amazing books that I think can change the life of anyone who reads them and they’re going to go unnoticed and disappear as a drop of water in the ocean of self-published garbage and turgid/flaccid pseudo-erotica and young adult fiction that is read way, way, way too much by adults who tell themselves “at least I’m reading” and Brooklyn-transplant MFAs sucking up what little space there is for “literary fiction” in the minds of the Americans who aren’t reading all the other shit I just mentioned. But what scares me about my books going unnoticed is that I’m afraid that might disillusion me and leave me jaded, and I don’t want to be jaded. I want to be an optimist forever. And to put out amazing books that people read and talk about for the rest of human history. That’s not being too optimistic, is it?
4. Where did your obsession with all things Russian come from?
I remember taking an English course in 9th grade that was “International Literature,” and we had to do a book report on something that was written by someone from anywhere but America or the UK, and our teacher gave us a list of all the international works in our high school library that applied to this criteria. I skimmed the list, thinking I’d never find anything worthwhile, and picked what I thought was the coolest title among them all: The Life of a Useless Man by Maxim Gorky. Little did I know at the time this would be the first Russian book I would ever read, forever changing my life, but I also had no idea this was Lenin’s favorite writer, the guy who created the doctrine of “Socialist realism” that effectively stifled Russian/Soviet literature for 50+ years, and that his name translated to “Maximum Bitterness”(!!!!). After that, I was like Alice falling into Wonderland; I fell into the looking glass of Russian culture and I’ve still yet to escape. I’ll never escape. Every time I think I can, Gogol or Mayakovsky or Bulgakov or Elizarov suck me right back in.
5. What advice do you have for young dreamers like me who aspire to be literary translators and will someday soon approach publishers like you?
My advice for translators is to go for it—translate the books you want to see in English, translate the books that make you happy, translate the books that people want to read, but get out there and translate. Don’t listen to the professors who tell you there’s no money in it and to find another path. Just translate. Translate in your spare time, translate on vacation. Translate because you love the text, translate because you love the language(s), translate because you love the process of translating, because you can giggle over the inside jokes in the text and you can giggle on how to translate them, translate everything, just do it!! And then when you’re done translating, introduce yourself to people and send your manuscript to everybody you can. Get an audience. Get people excited. It’s a changing world, and the translator has a lot of power in our digital future!! Who knows where translation can take you, so go for it. And go all the way. And if the text is awesome and contemporary, send it to me.
Will Evans got his undergraduate degrees in Russian and History from Emory University, spent a few years in the music industry, and then went on to get his masters in Russian Studies from Duke University. He spent this summer interning at Open Letter Books in Rochester to learn how to start his own translation publishing house, **Deep Vellum. Will also really loves coffee.
These 5 Questions were brought to you by: Emma Ramadan, a senior at Brown University, where she is studying Comparative Literature with a concentration in Literary Translation. She spent this summer interning at Archipelago Books in Brooklyn, and plans to continue studying translation as part of a Masters program next year. She loves nothing more than reading a good book in the company of a good cat.
5 Questions is a series of short interviews with editors, translators, and other translation luminaries. If there is anyone you would like to see an interview of, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
**At the time of this interview, Will’s publishing venture was called Future Tense. Now, it’s up and running as Deep Vellum. For clarity, all references have been changed. Check our their website and awesome translated books here!