How smart are American readers? What about readers in Dallas, specifically? These questions lingered in the air last week as representatives from three nonprofit presses publishing works in translation — Chad Post of University of Rochester’s Open Letter, Kendall Storey of New York City-based Archipelago Books and Will Evans of Dallas’ own Deep Vellum — gathered to discuss their trade at Indie Publisher Night at The Wild Detectives. The panel’s evident commitment to and passion for translated work, and response by an engaged audience, supported an optimistic answer. In the early 2000s, the death knell was being sounded for print books of any kind, but these publishers are out to prove just how unfounded that was. And thanks to Deep Vellum, Dallas — a city that has never before been considered a publishing hub — is central to the argument that not only is the market for print healthy, there's also plenty of room in it for intellectually stimulating literature.
That’s not to say translations aren’t a tougher sell (to the public and therefore major publishers, too). Storey, who used to work at Houghton-Mifflin but is now associate editor and publicist at Archipelago, recalled an assumption at the big publishers that translations are inherently less marketable. If a book is translated that should not be advertised, she was told; in fact, it should be minimized at all costs. Post chimed in that some publishers’ reservations about translations aren’t completely without base. Readers can misperceive them as being secondary, lesser works, he said, or be turned off by characters with unfamiliar, difficult-to-pronounce names.
But a lack of exposure and education may be to blame for those wrong attitudes. Only 3 percent of the 400,000 books published in the U.S. each year are translated from another language, Post said, and these presses, small though they are — each publishes about 10-15 books a year — are doing their part to correct that balance. Because they operate as nonprofits, meaning the bulk of their annual income is contributed instead of garnered from book sales, they can afford to take risks, expose readers to new things and generally operate with a respect for text as art rather than strictly mind the bottom line. Storey described Archipelago's commitment to only publish works that will still be artistically valid and inspiring in a hundred years' time, and to using the highest quality materials.
There is a higher purpose — the word spiritual was even used — to what these publishers are seeking to accomplish. Will Evans described the genesis of his interest in translated literature: As a teenager he discovered it to be a means of traveling the world. If he pulled a book from the shelf at a bookstore or library and didn't find a foreign name on the cover, he'd shelve that title. His fascination was cemented when he came across an important Russian political text that he wanted to read in grad school. There was no English translation available so at the encouragement of his professor he translated it himself. If knowledge is power, these publishers are empowering readers by making lauded and even historically significant books accessible to millions more of them.
When Evans started Deep Vellum there was no grant money for the literary arts in Dallas, he said, citing an SMU study that identified Dallas as having one of the lowest rates of nonprofit arts organizations. The city of Dallas has since started a micro-grant program for artists, which he complimented, but Evans said fundraising has continued to be the biggest roadblock to basing his nonprofit here. Thankfully, book sales have been robust — perhaps more so than expected. Many of Deep Vellum's releases have received incredible press. Tram 83, the first book from the Democratic Republic of Congo to ever be published in English, garnered a review by Terry Gross on her radio show Fresh Air as well as one in The Guardian. Deep Vellum is patently a success. Evans recently hired a managing director, Jennifer Smart (who is an occasional contributor to Dallas Observer and met Evans by interviewing him for our 100 Creatives series), and celebrated Deep Vellum's new bookstore, which will sell their titles as well as others and have a soft open this month. The nonprofit should soon be eligible for National Endowment for the Arts funds, which require a business to be operational for three years before applying.
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While fundraising has been a challenge, Dallas has had something else to offer Deep Vellum's mission: There is a substantial community of translators here, largely thanks to the University of Texas at Dallas' strong translation program. George Henson has become known worldwide as the exclusive English translator of acclaimed Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, whom he translated for Deep Vellum, and Sean Cotter translated the Romanian trilogy Blinding, by Mircea Cartarescu, for Archipelago. Both Henson and Cotter have been professors in the translation department at UTD. (Henson recently moved to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.) Storey, Post and Evans all identified translators as one of the main resources in finding new titles to publish. Translators are often the ones to pitch books: They suggest projects they are excited to work on, sometimes bringing a press' attention to titles it would not have found otherwise due to language barriers. Having access to and good relationships with quality translators is essential.
The atmosphere at The Wild Detectives, which has by its success also served as a beacon of hope, was positive about the future of physical books in general. E-books were expected to have overtaken print book sales by now but it has proven that readers of literary fiction don't buy them at the same rate. E-book sales for the kinds of titles Open Letter, Archipelago and Deep Vellum publish are not insignificant — around 10% — but they are plateaued. And high e-book sales always reflect the success of the print book, not the other way around, Evans said. The readers these houses appeal to tend to have a more romantic attachment to literature than the average reader and enjoy having libraries. As far as the underrepresentation of translated literature in this country goes, at Indie Publisher Night that was also framed as having an upswing. It means there are countless fantastic works, both classic and contemporary, out there waiting to be published. In that sense the world is the oyster of small independent presses, and Dallas unexpectedly has a seat at the dining table with cities like New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The big talents who've recently been attracted to speak here also indicate the way Dallas is gaining a literary foothold. Next month Dave Eggers will be the keynote speaker at the Highland Park Literary Festival. Evans told a story last week about meeting Eggers on a bus in Iceland. Eggers and Evans, who was there to work with former mayor of Reykjavík and Deep Vellum author Jón Gnarr, chatted about Deep Vellum and Dallas' burgeoning literary community. Whether Eggers was inspired to speak here by what he learned, we can't say, but it couldn't have hurt.
A lot of attention has been focused on making Dallas a nice place to live, with new restaurants and museums and parks galore, but it has sometimes lacked an emphasis on engaging cultures elsewhere — a hallmark of the best cities. Now that is changing, and Deep Vellum is a key part of the charge that's helping Dallas to achieve a more national and international perspective. We shouldn't fail to embrace it in these critical early stages.