Art Works Blog

A New Bridge: A View from the Frankfurt Book Fair

Pro Helvetia's exhibitor sign at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo by Ira Silverberg

I was en route to meet some friends---a Portuguese editor, two Italian editors who publish a fantastic line of American writers in translation, and a Swedish agent, a pretty typical lot of the people who one might find sitting together sharing a drink and tales of good writing at the Frankfurt Book Fair. International, interested, trying to make connections for writers whose work they love.

Walking past the Frankfurter Hof Hotel I noticed a crowd with cell phones poised to take pictures. Herta Muller, I wondered? Kazuo Ishiguro? Richard Ford? I asked someone. “ Arnold Schwarzenegger is here. He’s very famous in Germany, you know.” I can’t say that I was particularly surprised---the Frankfurt Book Fair promotes all kinds of writers, all kinds of books. It’s possible to be a party with Dr. Ruth on one end of the room and Julian Barnes on the other.

Well, publishing has been in the doldrums of late. That week in Frankfurt the rumors of the Random House-Penguin merger were already swirling. Bookstores sinking, Fifty Shades of everything, e-books, and more independent houses being gobbled up by larger ones who then gobble up each other. Fewer publishers and fewer booksellers equal fewer choices for readers. But celebrity memoirs, costing strapped publishing houses millions of dollars, there are always plenty of those.

Still, it was an exhilarating week as it always is for me. The book fair, which according to Publishing Perspectives attracts, “7,384 exhibitors from 106 countries, presents more than 3,200 events and totals 280,194 visitors,” is massive. Just about every imaginable pursuit in the realm of publishing is being discussed from the digitization of text books to letterpress editions of poetry from Central Europe. It’s an amazing event. And it can be a very hopeful and inspiring one if you know what you’re looking for.

I’ve been attending Frankfurt for about twenty years---most of them as an agent where I would try to sell the works of my clients to publishers around the world, and some as an editor where I was first introduced to the work of writers I would end up publishing like Muller and Elfriede Jelinek and Kenzaburo Oe---Nobel Prize winners, all. It’s a rare privilege to be on the ground floor of the international literary scene, and I couldn’t imagine giving it up just because I changed jobs. So this year I I went back to my old stomping grounds with a different hat on---Literature Director for the NEA.

Early on, I met up with Jeffrey Lependorf, the executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), the service organization for the independent literary publishers of the U.S. He was there with some of his publishers, including Erika Goldman from Bellevue Literary Press, Johnny Temple from Akashic, and Bruce McPherson from McPherson & Co. Eight U.S. publishers shared exhibition space under the CLMP umbrella. Many were there for the first time meeting a range of publishers from around the world to discuss selling rights to their books---and buying rights to books from other countries to translate into English.

I also arranged several meetings with the various organizations who fund translation from their own country out in to the larger world, such as Pro Helvetia from Switzerland which funds Swiss work out of their four languages, and the Polish Book Institute which offers subsidies not only for translation but for printing and promotion as well. I also met with representatives from most of the Nordic countries who are coming to our shores for Nordic Cool,  a large program at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center in early March featuring Nordic writing and performance. I’ve now enlisted the NEA to help them line up some American moderators for some of their panels.

What surprised me most at Frankfurt this year is how little people knew about the NEA’s work in the field of international literary translation. We fund it in three different ways: annual fellowships to translators, support to publishers who translate, and support to venues and festivals that feature work from around the world---the PEN World Voices festival comes to mind. I felt a warm embrace from these new partners in making international writing available. Their passion will lead to us figuring out new and better ways for them to work with our service organizations, literary magazines, presenters, and book publishers. The beginning of a new bridge is already in sight.

The organization that really wowed me was Literature across Frontiers, out of the U.K. They work with all the stakeholders in translation---authors, translators, publishers, service organizations, reviewers---to make sure best practices are followed and that they all keep up with each other in order to get the greatest possible translations out there to readers. They are a fantastic model for something we don’t quite have yet here in the States---an all-encompassing organization devoted solely to getting international literature into the hands of U.S. readers.

For as many years as I’ve been going to Frankfurt, there’s been something I missed---seeing organizations like the Goethe Institute, the Cervantes Institute, the British Council, and the Danish Agency for Culture. I was always upstairs in the hangar-sized International Rights Center wheeling and dealing. Now I know that downstairs there are some amazing people and amazing organizations fighting the good fight in the middle of all the multi-national mergers and celeb launches.

I’m looking forward to spending more time with these good folks to see how we can get them to build stronger relationships with our grantees. It’s an exciting endeavor!

Want to hear more about what Ira did at the Frankfurt Book Fair? Go here for a great wrap-up from the book fair blog on one of the panels in which he participated.

 

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