Could you describe the dynamics of the author-publisher-translator-agent chain? In general, who is most likely to encourage the promotion of literary works into new readership territories?
I don’t know of any author who wouldn’t like to have his or hers book published abroad. Although its rather iffy to actively pursue this alone. Writers tend to avoid this – save for exceptions – and such a self-promotion would probably not work anyway. Thus, writers are largely represented by somebody else – a publisher or an agent. Czech publishers – once again, save for exceptions – do not do this. I don’t want to go into details here – maybe it’s not worth it for them or they don’t want to do this, or most likely, it’s both of these.
Translators, especially in Eastern Europe, are very important. They bring the attention of publishers to Czech writers in their respective countries, often providing a free translation of a book excerpt or a selection of reviews. They thus pave the foundation for their potential future commission – translation of the whole book. Regardless, it’s still a fairly unusually friendly attitude.
In the West, particularly in larger publishing houses, copyreaders are very influential. They often commission several independent reviews of a single book. Based on these evaluations, and with the addition of a book excerpt and numerous other relevant information, a lengthy decision-making process ensues. The publisher thus invests a lot of time and money into the book even before it’s certain whether it will be published at all. In an ideal case, the chain you mentioned in your question should also encompass a state-run cultural institution that would help co-fund successful projects.
As a matter of fact, the best solution is to stand together at such a moment – for instance a Czech publisher pays for a book display by a promising author at a foreign book fair; Book World and Ministry of Culture invite the author to a local reading; an agent prepares the catalogue and arranges all the meetings; a translator, in cooperation with all of the aforementioned collaborators, delivers illustrative samples and might even partially and “independently” present these to a publisher around the same time.
Since it’s not a mathematical formula, eventually everything can end up being completely different. Whether a project is successful or not is often influenced by something rather subtle, inconspicuous – an enthusiastic editor who becomes fond of a few sentences from an excerpt, a lucky coincidence, anything.
Is it possible to trace and generalize what makes a book a success in Europe, for instance? What exactly is that defining moment from which things start developing?
In the beginning, what matters is the quality of the text itself and an interesting topic (either so general that it’s easily comprehensible elsewhere or, on the other hand, purely Czech and thus demonstrably new, different and interesting…). It’s also helpful to have a good original publisher. A great majority of foreign publishers, who are willing to discuss a potential publishing of a translation, are either already familiar with the Czech market or tend to obtain a profile of a Czech publisher. Literary awards and good reviews are also helpful.
It’s necessary to mention the genre and, as a rule of thumb, the novel has always occupied a special place in literature. Everything else has a great disadvantage from the very start. Short story collections, essays or poetry are translated very rarely. A major breakthrough comes with the first few published translations, especially translated into world languages. Those who manage to get their books published in English or German (and, as is the case with a Czech publisher, it should be brought out by a prestigious publishing house) can soon expect more success.
Such an author should already have several titles out on the local book market. This increases the chances for more substantial success. It’s also useful if someone “prominent” puts in a word – such as Milan Kundera and his repeated praise for Jiří Kratchvil’s books. Provided during this phase (with several acclaimed books at least on the domestic markets and one or two titles translated and published abroad) the author is determined to do whatever he or she can in support of his or hers book accepting various offers for foreign presentations and is perhaps fluent in one of the world languages, everyone is satisfied.
This would be an instant recipe for success…Michal Viewegh calls it “the snowball effect”, yet the ball has to follow in the right direction and if it’s pushed a little from time to time – I would add – even better…
What role do personal relations play in this process. What is the role of inspired individuals – for instance a translator?
Personal relations are invaluable. They are part of the whole magic and can play a crucial role. That’s why book fairs still exist even though in the field of book publishing and sale of rights the year-round agenda has shifted to the internet and phones. Translators are very important – almost no literary translators would translate a book they do not respect or like.
Surely, reservations can arise, but translators spend at least several months of their lives with books they are working on. Hence these translations have to be imbued with positive emotions, you’d notice otherwise. Provided the author can meet the translator of his or hers book in person and they do get on, longstanding friendships are forged… There are several examples, such as Viola Fischerová and Dorota Dobrew, Dradka Denemarková and Tatjana Jamnik, Irena Dousková and Mirko Kraetsch, Jiří Kratochvil and Katrin Liedke with Milka Vagadyová, and so on.
Which author from your roster has received the highest acclaim abroad? What can actually be considered a success?
Even after many years, I still consider each book published in translation a success. The writing can reach new readers and that alone is very important. What authors who write in world languages can happily ignore, becomes crucial for literary works of small nations. If they want to expand the scope of their reach, it has to be through translations.
It doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that the most successful writer whom I represent is Michal Viewegh – judging by the number of languages in which at least one of his works appeared. As of now, his works have been published in 21 languages. Currently the Greek, Ukrainian and Romanian editions are being prepared.
Other writers with similar levels of acclaim (using aforementioned criteria) is Michal Ajvaz (translations into 7 languages, with four other in the pipeline), Jiří Kratochvil (11 and 1), Irena Dousková (5 and 1) and Radka Denemarková (4 and 3).
Furthermore, one can take into consideration the number of titles in a certain language by an author; the number of copies and sold copies; the reception of the book, etc. It is intriguing to follow the success of single titles – with Michal Viewegh’s Výchova dívek v Čechách (Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia) unequivocally at the top with translations published in 16 languages, followed by Báječná léta pod psa (The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living, 14) and Vybíjená (Dodgeball, 10 – rights sold for two other languages).
When it comes to Michal Ajvaz, his Druhé město (Second City with 5 published translations and rights sold into another language) has proven most popular. This is similar to Jiří Kratochvil – three of his most popular books according to these criteria have been published in five different languages (Uprostřed nocí zpěv, Singing in the Middle of the Night – 5 published translations, Nesmrtelný příběh, Immortal Story, and Truchlivý Bůh, Despondent God – 4 published translations, 1 in preparation).
What’s crucial is whether a book has been translated into a world language. In particular, English or German editions can be a breakthrough. Personally, I immensely appreciate the recent success in German and English language territories. I’m very curious about the feedback in other countries regarding the German translations of Michal Viewegh’s novella Andělé všedního dne (Angels of the Everyday)and Jiří Kratochvil’s novel Slib (Promise) as well as the English edition of two novels by Michal Ajvaz..
Interviewed by Alena Blažejovská for CzechLit