Barbara Epler Talks Translation

Posted on April 26, 2011 by Scott Esposito

The Literary Saloon points me to this interesting interview with New Directions publisher Barbara Epler. There's all kinds of useful information here for people who are translators or would like to be in the translation field.

For instance. how does a publisher finds books to translate?

You have published books by several Hungarian writers: Tibor Déry (Love and Other Stories, 2005), László Krasznahorkai (Melancholy of Resistance, 2002; War and War, 2006; Animalinside, 2011), Dezső Kosztolányi (Anna Édes, 1993; Kornél Esti, 2011). This is a very mixed list. On what basis did you choose them?

It is very hard to find Hungarian readers, so we knew about all the three authors from previous English-language publications. Our first Hungarian author was Dezső Kosztolányi. There used to be this great publisher Quartet that went down – we found their Anna Édes and republished it. Susan Sontag was still alive then and she loved that book; she was the one who mentioned another Quartet author, László Krasznahorkai. She used to mention ten books at a time that you’ve never heard of, and they were all great books. She had already recommended several books that we translated eventually, so I said: ‘who’s László Krasznahorkai?’ And then I got a copy of Melancholy of Resistance and read it, and it was in fact great. Tibor Déry was the obsession of a friend of mine, Ben Sonnenberg of Grand Street Magazine. He loved Niki, the Story of a Dog, which has just been republished by New York Review Books Classics. He told us to do the dog, because dogs sell, but we loved the stories of Love more, so we made a selection on the basis of two different British books that were already out of print.

This reminds me of the story that Epler frequently tells about how Francisco Goldman was the one to first get them going on Bolano. That, in my opinion is one of the cool things about translation: opinions matter, as do experts.

And on how to edit a translation from a language you don't read?

Translation is an especially important and also a very problematic issue for a small nation with a peculiar language. How do you ensure that the translations you publish are of good quality?

Unfortunately, at New Directions we are so small and the money is so tight that we cannot hire language editors, since unfortunately – or fortunately – we publish books from so many languages. In any given language, when the translation doesn’t sound right, when it seems that it doesn’t come across, we ask a native speaker for help. But in some cases, like in Szirtes’s translation of Satan’s Tango, one can feel that it is amazing even without knowing the language. You just ask yourself: how does he do it? It feels like you are in the middle of a river that is flowing smoothly, it is beautiful. We had everyone in the office read it and they all said it was one of the most amazing books they had ever read. So with his translation all we had to do were really small things, like changing some of his British English expressions into American English. And there are some translations that turn out to be a massive disaster – luckily, none of our Hungarian books – and then you just go into the trenches and try to fix it. Sometimes you can’t, and then every once in a while we have to give up on a book.

And there's lots more good information. You are all formally urged to give it a look.