The Center of Information on Literature is excited to inform its readers and supporters about a new project which involves various Slovak writers and the publication of their books in English translation. The series curator, translator and avid Slovak literature champion, Julia Sherwood was there every step of the way from the very beginning of the process, so we asked her about how Seagull Books' The Slovak List came to be.
At the end of the summer, you published a note on your social media in which Seagull Books announces its plan to publish works by selected Slovak authors. Could you tell us more about this project and the parties involved?
Julia Sherwood: First of all, I would like to put this announcement into a broader context and say how happy it makes me that the first four Slovak books to be published by Seagull Books will all be by women authors. It is no coincidence that the plan was announced on 31 August, the last day of Women in Translation Month, an initiative launched in 2014 by the translator and blogger and tireless campaigner Meytal Radzinski who pointed out that, in addition to the well-known and often lamented fact that translations amount to only a small fraction of the English-language book market (for a long time, the proportion of translated books used to hover at 3 percent, more recently it has grown to a slightly less depressing 5 percent). The situation was even more dramatic when it came to women writers: only around 30 percent of new translations into English are books by women writers. Women in Translation Month(#WiTMonth) has since become a fixture in the book trade calendar, with many bookshops showcasing English translations of books by women.
In May 2016, the online platform Literary Hub joined the translating community in the effort to redress the imbalance between the number of books by men and women authors, launching a “series from around the world highlighting works by women we’d love to see reaching an English audience." It was kickstarted by German-English translator Katy Derbyshire, who introduced her favourite 10 German Books by Women We’d Love to See in English; over the next few months, similar lists appeared presenting ten Japanese, Chinese, Polish and Latin American women writers. Some of these lists were compiled by a single translator, others were a collective effort and that made me think: there are so many great women authors in Slovakia whom no one in the English-speaking has ever heard of – surely, if we joined forces, we could put together a similar list? So I reached out to some fellow translators and literature scholars and the result is Ten Slovak Women Writers We Would Like to See in English. It appeared on LitHub in March 2017, and featured books that had up until then not been published in English.
And lo and behold, soon after the list was published, an email from Naveen Kishore, the director of a renowned publishing house based in London and Kolkata (India), landed in my mailbox. He wrote to ask which of the ten books I would recommend for them to publish. An exchange of emails followed, then Naveen and I met in London in December 2018 and the rest is history: the idea of Seagull’s Slovak list was born, with me as its curator.
Which Slovak authors have you – or the publishing house – chosen? Can you tell our readers more about the selection process?
It was agreed that we would start with four titles and since the project arose from the discussions around our 'Top Ten‘ list of writers, it was only natural that the first four books should be by women. Naveen Kishore left the actual selection to me as curator, and to speed things up I decided to go for books that were either fully translated already but hadn’t yet found a publisher, or that weren’t too long and could be translated fairly quickly. The two books that were more or less ready for publication were Monika Kompaníková’s Piata loď (The Fifth Boat), translated by Janet Livingstone, and Jana Bodnárová’s Náhrdelník/Obojok (Necklace/Choker) translated by Jonathan Gresty, both slated for publication in the autumn of 2021. Two more books will follow in spring 2022. One is Špaky v tŕní (working title Cigarette Butts in the Brambles) by Zuzana Cigánová, in a translation by Magdalena Mullek. Cigánová’s book was also one of our Top Ten and I was planning to include another work on that list, Irena Brežná’s Na slepačích krídlach (The Best of All Worlds) – even though its author has lived in Switzerland since 1968 and wrote the book in German, it is set in Slovakia and Brežná has always kept her link to her native country alive. But then, last summer, I bumped into Irena in Banská Štiavnica and when we talked about this, she recommended that we include another of her books, the award-winning Nevďačná cudzinka (The Thankless Foreigner), because she had found an excellent translator from German, Ruth Ahmedzai-Kemp.
So this is where things stand at the moment: we have four books in the pipeline, due to be published in 2021/2022 and we will take it from there. Seagull Books is committed to continuing the Slovak series, but because of the turmoil and uncertainty created by the pandemic, we will be taking it step by step, choosing one book at a time. I have already started thinking about the next selection and have several ideas but it’s too early to talk about it.
In what way will the four Slovak titles you have selected be interesting for international readers?
Each of these four books is very different in terms of literary style and approach, and each of them shows some facet of Slovakia the English-speaking readers may not be familiar with (even those who know a little bit about the country).
Monika Kompaníková’s The Fifth Boat is an unflinching portrait of the social vacuum in Bratislava’s jungle of concrete apartment buildings, where a young girl more or less abandoned by her mother tries to stand on her own two feet and find someone to care for. In our Top Ten, the book’s translator Janet Livingstone praises the “vivid and unapologetic eye” with which Kompaníková captures the emptiness and ache of the post-communist environment” and depicts “one girl’s quest for genuine human relationships.”
Zuzana Cigánová’s book Cigarette Butts in the Brambles, also set in a new highrise estate, depicts a different kind of female experience, that of a young mother mistreated by everyone around her, just because she does not meet the expectations of superficial beauty. The author does this with great wit and poetic invention. As her translator Magdalena Mullek puts it, “her razor-sharp observations leavened with a good dose of self-deprecating humor and inventive language produce a revealing narrative of contemporary society.”
Jana Bodnárová’s Necklace/Choker deals with the tragic legacy of the Holocaust and the postwar Stalinist period. It is set in a small town, which, to quote writer and critic Ján Púček, “may also serve as a model of a small country that finds it almost impossible to come to terms with its history because, alongside the victims, its inhabitants also include the executioners, with the descendants of the victims, as well as those of the executioners, living in close proximity and interconnected with one another.“
The Thankless Foreigner is the odd one out among these novels, since it was actually written in German. However, its author, Irena Brežná, was born in Slovakia. She left the country after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 and the book reflects her experience of exile. Her narrator resists the pressure to adapt and assimilate, with her refusal to drop the diacritics from her name becoming a symbol of her continued link to her heritage and culture. Brežná is an acclaimed journalist and prose writer, and The Thankless Foreigner won the prestigious Swiss Literature prize in 2012. This will be her first book published in English.
Seagull Books is a publisher based in India and it publishes books in English. What is the position of Seagull within the international publishing market? When one opens the website, it is evident that Seagull is a large player that publishes renowned authors, Nobel Prize winners among them.
Seagull Books was founded in 1982 in India by Naveen Kishore, a theatre maker, and was initially solely an Indian publishing house. In 2005 Naveen founded Seagull Books London, a British company based in the UK, as a reaction to big ‘Western’ houses like Penguin, Bloomsbury, HarperCollins setting up branches in India. You could call it a kind of reverse migration (you can read more about Naveen’s publishing philosophy and international presence in this interview with him on the Asymptote blog). Seagull’s books are now published from both London and Kolkata. And if you ever get a chance to hold some of their books in your hand, you will see that they are all beautifully produced.
Over the years Seagull has established a worldwide presence and has gained a reputation as one of the foremost champions of literature in translation. As you mentioned, they have published Nobel Prize winners Mo Yan, Imre Kertész, Elfriede Jelinek and the more recent Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai. Seagull Books have now published over 140 German translations and a further 100-plus titles from French, and there is also an Italian as well as a Hungarian list which I have been eyeing with envy for some time.
Until now, very few publishers – Jantar Publishing in London and Parthian Books in Wales are the great innovative exceptions – have made any systematic efforts to make contemporary Slovak literature available to English-speaking readers, so the mere fact that that Seagull Books is joining their ranks and is launching its Slovak list is fantastic news. What makes this even more special is that this publisher, as you have noted, is a major player on the international scene, with their books distributed worldwide (except in India) by the University of Chicago Press and reviewed in major publications, from the New York Times to the Times Literary Supplement. So this should really help to put Slovak literature on the international map.