Chad Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, a non-profit press dedicated to publishing literature in translation which he founded in 2007. But it does more than publishing: the press is at the center of an ecosystem that creates context and appetite for translated literature. In his role as its director, Chad has initiated the Three Percent website, the Translation Database, the Three Percent Podcast, and the Best Translated Book Awards. Just last month, on October 30, Chad received the Words Without Borders 2018 Ottaway Award. The award recognizes individuals who have taken extraordinary steps to advance literature in translation in the United States, including editors, publishers, agents, philanthropists, and other translation advocates.
Open Letter is sometimes called the “Bulgarian” publisher in America. Perhaps because Open Letter Books and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation co-run two programs, initiated by the Foundation back in 2010. One is a contest resulting in the publication of a Bulgarian novel by Open Letter Books and the other one is a month-long translator’s residency for a Bulgarian translator.
In my conversation with Chad, we discuss literature in translation, contemporary Bulgarian and Eastern European literature, and Chad’s top ten books for 2018.
– Milena Deleva
Milena Deleva: The first James H. Ottaway Award for the Promotion of Literature in Translation was awarded on October 29, 2013. Five years later, on October 30, 2018 you became the most recent recipient of the Award. What has changed for literature in translation in the US over the past five years?
Chad Post: More presses and more options. So many new presses have popped up recently – all with some interest in international literature. That’s a huge boon and gives more readers more access to more voices.
Milena Deleva: The 3% issue was identified in the same year when Open Letter Books was established. Are there any other reasons that inspired you to found Open Letter in 2007? In your award acceptance speech you recounted an anecdote about your flooded hotel room during your first visit to the London Book Fair and how you made a parallel between the cultural differences this episode revealed and your decision to kick off Open Letter Books.
Chad Post: Not exactly. That episode about the London Book Fair was more about coming to understand what my written voice would be. At the time, Words Without Borders gave me the amazing opportunity to write for their blog. Since I was going to be at LBF, I decided to write about the fair from a publisher’s perspective, but a series of weird events – the fair was held across from another conference on beauty products, my hotel room flooded – helped break me out of my typical, staid writing style. Suddenly I understood how to write to an audience about issues like “translation” and “cultural exchange” and “linguistics” in a way that could be entertaining and, hopefully, smart. That tone has been present in the Three Percent blog from the very start, which we launched, in a way, to share a lot of observations and opinions that could have never been written by professional journalists, but which are valuable and entertaining.
Open Letter launched in that year mostly because of the interest at the University of Rochester in creating literary translation programs for undergrads and grad students – ones that would include a hands-on practical experience.
Milena Deleva: Since the double outset of the 3% issue and Open Letter Books, publishers like you and other literary organizations like ours have attempted to tackle the monolingual reading culture in the US. As you mentioned earlier, more publishers are solely focusing on international literature and there are more commercial publishers who have started publishing translations, more international writers have entered the curriculum, and more public events feature authors in translation. Schools, I think, are one of the long-term strategies to broaden the readership for translated literature. What else? Booksellers? For instance, Europa Editions has launched a scholarship for booksellers, Bookselling Without Borders. One of the favorite aspects of my work here in New York is when I see people at a reading who don’t belong to the literary circles or when I see random strangers on the subway reading these books (it’s happened twice and also the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov came across a couple who were reading Tenev’s Party Headquarters). A lot has improved for the last ten years, it seems, but do we really get the translated work in the hands of the non-professional readers?
Chad Post: Although there’s still a lot of room for growth, more and more regular readers are getting into international literature. This is due in part to the huge successes of the past decade – Roberto Bolaño, Elena Ferrante, Steig Larsson – but also because of a huge growth in bookseller interest – due in part to the Reading the World campaign I helped initiate back in the mid-2000s – and from the general empowerment of younger translators. All of this seeps back into the academy and into educational outlets, creating a great feedback loop in which readers get turned on by international voices and then share that discovered passion with their friends, colleagues, and students, who then do the same. Not as many people are “scared” of foreign fiction as they used to be.
Milena Deleva: You rant, you sell, you edit, you write posts and grants, you teach, you organize events. Out of all the strategies you use, can you tell which one is the most effective?
Chad Post: Working with young translators. Hands down. Whether it’s in my class or just reading samples from talented people I meet at conferences, that’s the one thing that most directly helps people understand the value of this literature and the fun found in translation. But all the writings on Three Percent, the podcasts, and the interactions with booksellers and fans always seem very worthwhile.
Milena Deleva: At the Words Without Borders Gala we heard that 60% of readers are based outside of the US. What is your take on this statistic?
Chad Post: It’s not that shocking – in part because WWB has a huge readership and is doing something very unique! A lot of UK, Canadian, Australian readers are using the site, and people in other countries, publishing professionals and otherwise, are checking in to see what’s getting published, or who they should be paying attention to. It’s a big world, with a very global readership.
Milena Deleva: Open Letter publishes 10 titles per year and occasionally one of them is Bulgarian. Although at some point you told me that people call Open Letter “the Bulgarian Press,” when today I found out that the Bulgarian Collection on the Open Letter website is one of the largest, I was nicely surprised. Can you distinguish a Bulgarian literary voice if you, let’s say, do a blind reading?
Chad Post: Ooh. That would be fun to try! I’m not sure that I could though. I’m sure I could identify a work as being Eastern European with a great deal of confidence, but the Bulgarian books we’ve published are all so varied. Just look at 18% Gray compared to Thrown into Nature compared to The Physics of Sorrow. These three books have three different tones, different approaches, and different settings. Oddly, I think I can tell when a book has been translated or not, and could maybe get it to a region, but other than that . . . I don’t know.
Milena Deleva: How do you consolidate the demands of the market (pricing and distribution restrictions) with the non-profit mission of Open Letter? Can we compare your model with democratic socialism? Your authors take advantage of the free market but at the same time, they receive a flat guaranteed fee no matter how much their books sell.
Chad Post: Actually, both authors and translators receive royalties if their books earn out their advances. This happens with some regularity, and there are half-a-dozen titles receiving significant payouts every six months. The market-driven vs. non-profit mission divide isn’t actually all that complicated. We try to sell as many books as possible, but at the same time we are more concerned with readers over the long-term, rather than immediate success in the first three months. As a non-profit though, we supplement our sales revenue with grants and donations, allowing us to evaluate books solely on their literary quality, rather than being restricted to only publishing books with a solid chance at selling 25,000 copies or more. This allows for more voices to make their way into English.
Milena Deleva: Do you think there will be a moment of normalization when international literature will be read as much as any other literature?
Chad Post: Yes and no. There will be more and more huge successes, more translators, more general readers, but it will likely always be easier to promote a book by an English writer than an international one, and the added layer of translation can complicate the reading process in interesting ways. There’s so much more than you can do when reading a translation, and that’s a positive way in which reading the world is separate from reading your own domestic literature.
Milena Deleva: What is an average print run for a book in translation? What is a good print run?
Chad Post: 2,500 would probably be average, and most indie presses are hoping to sell at least 2,000 of most books. 3,000 is excellent, 5,000 is astonishing.
Milena Deleva: Your top ten literary books for 2018? They don’t have to be in translation.
Chad Post: They are:
- CoDex 1962 by Sjon
- Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes
- The Governesses by Anne Serre
- The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
- Fox by Dubravka Ugresic
- Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava
- Dead As Doornails by Anthony Cronin
- My Struggle: Volume 6 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman
Open Letter Books was founded in 2007 at the University of Rochester with the goal of publishing and promoting literature in translation. In addition to publishing 10 works in translation every year, the press helps run the Three Percent website the Reading the World Conversation Series at the University of Rochester, and the Best Translated Book Award.