“Lusting after a Tart of Peacock Tongues”: A Conversation with Publisher Barbara Epler

January 11, 2021

A photograph of Barbara Epler

Barbara Epler started working at New Directions after graduating from college in 1984, and she has been its president and publisher since 2011. In 2015 Poets & Writers awarded Epler their Editor’s Prize, and in 2016 Words Without Borders gave her the Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature.

Veronica Esposito: You became editor-in-chief with New Directions almost twenty-five years ago, in 1996. What are some of the biggest changes in the translation world since then?

Barbara Epler: Without yet being a large enough share of what’s published in America overall, there has been a great growth in the amount and quality of translations appearing here. To my mind, that’s due mostly to two factors: a miraculous growth in new companies here (mostly small and agile) largely or entirely devoted to translated literature, as well as a sort of general cultural nausea about how parochial the USA tends to be.

Back in the mid-1990s, great groundbreaking presses interested in translation were fairly thin on the ground. We did not yet have Archipelago, And Other Stories, Deep Vellum, Fence, Dorothy Project, New Vessel, Restless, Nightboat, New York Review of Books Classics, Open Letter, Other Press, Two Lines, Tilted Axis, Ugly Duckling, Wakefield, Wave, and more (apologies to houses I am forgetting!). Back in 1996, all these marvelous publishers were still a gleam in their founders’ eyes.

Of course, back then there were terrific publishers of translation too: FSG, Arcade, Overlook, New Press, Dalkey, Godine, Graywolf, Grove, Coffee House, Knopf, and the many university presses with a translation line (or such amazing small treasure houses as Exact Change and Burning Deck). When we went peering in the global waters, with all sorts of shiny fish flashing along, there were less than a dozen herons perched along the banks, but now at every bend in the river I spot so many small quick egrets fishing busily—and it’s really this plethora of new and visionary smaller publishers that has been such a game changer.

And then, too, our cultural nausea seems a factor as well: we can’t help but be aware of how hegemonic and either stupid or evil so much of what we produce as a nation is: I feel that we’re like plants: we turn from the dark to the light, and much of the light’s streaming in from outside.

I feel that we’re like plants: we turn from the dark to the light, and much of the light’s streaming in from outside.

Esposito: What changes do you believe are upcoming for translated literature?

Epler: My feeling is that—especially with the atrocious anticultural, antiglobal bias of the outgoing administration finally behind us—there is a keen appetite for more translated literature from countries, cultures, and languages less represented here traditionally.

Moreover, when in an optimistic mood, I’d say these changes will gather momentum because the support for translated literature has become almost institutional—and I mean that in a good way. The New Yorker and Harper’s now are regularly publishing translated works, as well as of course Granta, the Literary Review, Paris Review, White Review, and Conjunctions: these are places where we often find intriguing samples of writers’ work from abroad; and of course we also see writers of interest in Bidoun, Two Lines, Asymptote, Little Star, Threepenny, Banipal, Exchanges, Circumference, and Samovar, all dedicated to works in translation.

And then think of how much Words Without Borders does, or PEN, or a website such as The Complete Review: these are resources we rely on.

Academia too seems to be shifting—I may be being Pollyanna here, but the universities seem slightly less allergic to recognizing stellar translations as a not unmeaningful part of a tenure-worthy academic portfolio.

And hello: the reestablishment of the National Book Award in Translation is a bellwether.

Esposito: A large part of the success of New Directions has been its ability to continually publish work that feels new and vital, even as the translation field and publishing as a whole have undergone dramatic transformations. What do you attribute this to?

Epler: Well, in a way there’s a strength in hoeing the row you know. James Laughlin, who founded ND in 1936, drank the Ezra Pound Kool-Aid that there is one world, one world of literature, and readers should have access to everything, so translation was a key part of his program from the get-go. JL was the first publisher here of Borges, Nabokov, and Neruda, and New Directions has gone on to be the first of W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, László Krasznahorkai. JL of course spoke several languages and was a sui generis phenomenon, but I think we now have an incredibly sharp group here, who all read widely. We work as a collective and Declan Spring, Jeffrey Yang, Laurie Callahan, Tynan Kogane, Mieke Chew, Chris Wait, Brittany Dennison, and John Barrington all read and vigorously mong opinions. We have some extremely active truffle hunters.

We’re also very lucky to be in close contact with like-minded publishers from all around the world who give us great tips.

And an additional huge resource is that we often share translations with such terrific anglophone publishers as Fitzcarraldo, And Other Stories, Istros, Granta, Daunt, Lolli, Harvill, Pushkin, Carcanet, MacLehose, Giramondo, Text, and Penguin, among many others. (Plus the remarkable Tilted Axis has sent us a couple of manuscripts I so much wish I’d made sure to read with more care.)

Also, speaking of the factors that make for success in publishing writers from around the world, I need to include both the visible and invisible sources of support that we could not manage without.

The visible ones are of course all the magazines and reviews I have mentioned both for preserial appearances and review attention, but also we owe all the reviewers; we owe all the editors of reviews that select our books for attention; we owe all the insanely hard-working jurors on the prizes which do so much to make the public aware of writers whose names aren’t always easy to pronounce. I think of all the work that goes into the Best Translated Book Award, the National Book Award, the PEN prizes, the American Academy prizes, the Griffin, the Pulitzers, and others: it’s endless and endlessly demanding. We can’t afford to pay our authors or their translators what they deserve, but we can hope to lift their works up into the light with all this help. And then there are the amplifiers such as Literary Hub or the friendly voices on Instagram and Twitter. It’s incredible the debts we owe. And one of our very largest debts is to the independent bookstores: our books need the love of the independent booksellers. And of course, last but not least of these debts is the one we owe to our designers: we couldn’t succeed without their gift for the visible.

And then, making success possible, there are all the invisible debts we owe! I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that for many years (and we hope going forward), New Directions also owes a great debt to key cultural institutions from abroad who help us very much with both subventions of some of the costs of translation and also travel and event-planning support. It’s a long list, including the Goethe Institut, the French Cultural Services, the Catalan Institute, KLTI from Korea, Fundación TyPA, the Brazilian Biblioteca Nacional, Pro Helvetia, the Instituto Camões, the Japan Foundation, the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, the Hungarian Book Office, the Spanish Ministry of Culture, the Polish Book Institute, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Argentine Foreign Ministry, and Reading Colombia. For a small for-profit press, pinching its pennies, this help is crucial.

Also, many of these cultural agencies invite editors to meet authors and publishers: we have had invitations to Antwerp, Buenos Aires, Germany, Tokyo, Milan, Taipei, Oslo, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Denmark, Korea, Australia, Israel, Indonesia, Istanbul, and Guadalajara. The trips can be exhausting, but they are incredibly interesting and informative, as well as providing the opportunity to build relationships with fellow editors from abroad who can be gold mines of information about international authors.

The point I want to make is that any success of ours may start with the incredible book itself, but not much can happen on behalf of that work without all this support. (It’s possible to feel guilty about all the debs New Directions piles up, but I like to lean on something JL once said: “It is a risk to be my friend. I operate on the principle that if someone does me a kindness that entitles me to ask immediately for another favor. That’s not so immoral as it sounds—if you’re Buddhist. If I am a Buddhist and I ask you for a favor I’m conferring merit on you by allowing you to do a good deed. If you collect enough good deeds that will shorten the time it takes you to become a Boddhisattva.” Admittedly, JL was raised a Presbyterian.)

Esposito: What advice would you give to a newer translator who wants to publish groundbreaking writing?

Epler: First and foremost, I would advise them to send submissions to the wonderful PEN/Heim Translation Fund Awards! That’s the best thing since sliced bread: you only need the permission of the rights-holder and a thirty-page sample, and you’re set to win a nice little cash award—but more than that, the sample will be read by editors in publishing houses large and small. The PEN/Heim winners have a terrific track record for seeing their enthusiasm result in a book contract.

Second, I’d say knock on every door: send a sample to all the book publishers who bring out translated works you like, and also send the same to magazines, journals, and reviews with whom you feel a kinship.

Esposito: What is a risk that New Directions has taken in the past few years? How did it turn out?

Epler: It depends on how we think of “risk”: we sank a lot of resources into the rediscovery of Clarice Lispector, and that program has succeeded spectacularly. On the other hand (in a strictly nickels-and-dimes sense), we bring out incredible authors who have not yet found the audience they deserve: they may enjoy such great critical success as Yoel Hoffmann, Daša Drndić, Evelio Rosero, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, José Revueltas, Ahmed Bouanani, Roger Lewinter, Raduan Nassar, Gennady Aygi, Abdelfattah Kilito, Alexander Kluge, Jorge Barón Biza, or Rafael Chirbes, but their books should be in more readers’ hands. One of our best books in year, All My Cats, by Bohumil Hrabal, barely sold at all! These are all astonishing writers! And so of course it can be frustrating that we don’t reach more readers, but then, balancing that, there’s the happy success of Mathias Énard, Adania Shibli, and Ingeborg Bachmann or Hiraoki Sato’s On Haiku, or Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest or our new author Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory and The Hole. I can’t wait to see how the fantastic In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova does: we’ll find out in the next few months . . . And then there’s the extra thrill when you see a heretofore unknown author catch on like wildfire, such as Fernanda Melchor.

There’s the thrill when you see a heretofore unknown author catch on like wildfire, such as Fernanda Melchor.

Esposito: When you discover a book for publication that feels really fresh, new, and vital, what are you seeing?

Epler: The thing that’s a little relaxing about ND is that we all sort of know what we’re looking for—James Laughlin liked to quote Gertrude Stein that when you read something really new, a bell goes off (or, as JL put it himself, the top of your scalp lifts up). JL thought the purpose of publishing is to have writers make their experiments public, and we inherited a somewhat narrow bailiwick: ND’s supposed to try to follow in his footsteps and bring out ground-breaking or what used to be called avant-garde books. I myself always hope to feel the walls inside my mind moving around—or, more to the point, being moved around—thanks to what I am reading. When I first read Sebald, I felt I was tasting a dish I’d never imagned could exist, and without, I hope, sounding like a decadent sybarite, lusting after a tart of peacock tongues, that’s a delicious sensation.

I always hope to feel the walls inside my mind moving around—or, more to the point, being moved around—thanks to what I am reading.

Esposito: Over the next five years, what would success look like for New Directions? For translated literature as a whole?

Epler: I think one of the most satisfying things anyone who works as an editor can experience is when an author you know is a genius is at long last widely recognized as such. What can be better than when authors we started out, say, twenty or twenty-five years ago—Fleur Jaeggy, Jenny Erpenbeck, César Aira, Inger Christensen, László Krasznahorkai, Yoko Tawada—become (at least within the confines of literature) household names? I would love to see more of that trend, and also any fresh runaway debut successes too. And of course, I am always excited about the next book by our writers being translated at this very moment, and very curious whom we might find next to bring into English. ND has been looking for writers from less-translated languages, to broaden and deepen our list: we’ve been improving in recent years but we certainly have room to grow.

And for translated literature as a whole, I have never seen American authors both look toward and support their fellow writers from around the world so generously, nor have I seen a time when the literary community here was so aware of what Goethe said back in 1827: “Left to itself every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.”

December 2020

Editorial note: This is the twelfth and final interview in Veronica Esposito’s monthly series, En Face: Conversations on the Future of Translation, which ran throughout 2020.

Photo by Kristin Cofer

Veronica Esposito is an associate marriage and family therapist specializing in serving transgender individuals and a regular contributor to venues including The Guardian, Xtra Magazine, and San Francisco NPR affiliate KQED. She was a judge for the 2022 National Book Award in Translation.