Interview: Rachel Hildebrant

Translator Rachel Hildebrandt is the mastermind behind the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, a growing force in the diffusion of international literature among American libraries. Recently, Rachel agreed to answer some of my questions about GLLI and the outlook for books in translation. (Traduzione in italiano sarà presto disponibile.)

How was the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative born?

GLLI was the brainchild of a small group of translators and publishers who realized that librarians would make natural allies in their efforts to celebrate and promote international literature. Back in Winter 2016, we started out as a small email circle, and soon our base began to grow with the addition of an increasing number of librarians. We recognized early on the need to build connections with the professional associations in which librarians are active. I joined ALA as an affiliate member, and along with several librarians, I successfully proposed a session for the 2017 ALA conference on international literature and its importance to libraries. Since that time, our numbers have grown and our engagement is expanding.

What are GLLI’s short- and long-term goals?

In the short-term, one of our major goals is to situate ourselves organizationally such that we can become partners with libraries and library organizations of all kinds. We are exploring some options for fiscal sponsorship, which would provide us with umbrella nonprofit status. With this status, we would be in a good place to apply for grants and corporate sponsorships in order to create a sustainable base for us and to increase the reach of our efforts and projects. Our projects are varied, including: age- and genre-specific book lists for school, public and academic libraries; exploring options for new translated literature awards; pulling together library-focused pan-publisher catalogs across the international literature space; sessions and engagement at library conferences; developing platforms to promote self-published translations among librarians and library users. Long-term we would like to build connections with specific aspects of the library framework, such as partnerships with library venders, aggregators, e-content providers, and such. Ultimately we want to become the go-to resource for librarians seeking to globalize their collections and programs to meet the changing needs of their diverse populations of children, teen and adult users.

It’s very difficult to generalize about library use in Italy due to the great regional differences and the fact that many libraries do not maintain information about their users. One statistic regarding Italian state-run libraries mentions 1.5 million users (out of a total population of about 60.5 million inhabitants).  Can you shed any light on American libraries and their users?

American libraries have spent the past 20 years reinventing themselves. They still are repositories of countless books, but the library of today is just as much shaped by the services it provides, as it is by the number of books in its collection. Libraries have become community spaces and hubs unlike anything else we have today. They are homes to book clubs, artists in residence programs, teen services, legal services, computer labs, maker labs, writing spaces, you name it. Many libraries see themselves as the bridges between the diverse populations in their jurisdictions, and they are servicing individuals from diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Libraries are positioned to be truly communal spaces, and they conceive of themselves as havens, ports of call and safety, for anyone and everyone. Marginalized groups in particular  – immigrants and refugees, the LBGTQ community, ethnic minorities – will find allies in libraries. Library users truly are a cross-section of American sociey in the breadth of its diversity and nuances.

Do you think American readers are skeptical about reading books that have been translated? And if so, how do you think their reluctance can be overcome?

I don’t know that the real problem is that American readers are reluctant to read translated literature. What I feel is sooner the case is that they are not knowledgeable about where to find international works in general and the kind of works that would interest them specifically. They also are not aware that in the globalized world in which we live, they really NEED to be reading globally. We like to travel the world and send our children abroad, but we don’t read the world. With that said, unless you are a reader of international literature journals or a follower of certain presses, how is the average reader going to easily find these works? The vast majority of readers are not New York Times subscribers or even know that World Literature Today exists. On the other hand, I feel like many of the international works being celebrated in the major review platforms fall solidly into the literary fiction camp. To be honest, many US readers are avid consumers of genre fiction. This isn’t something for them to feel ashamed about, but it is something for the international literature crowd to consider. Yes, we need the dark, obscure, genre-breaking works, but to be honest, what is going to win the day for US readers are authors like Backman and Koch and Jonasson. At the same time, readers need to know that these works are non-Anglophone works so they can recognize their inherent diversity and learn from the alternate perspectives that are expressed by authors around the world. I think that the answer to overcoming skepticism is a complicated one. I do firmly believe that one answer is libraries, which have a long tradition of being tastemakers for readers, young and old. We have all been handed books by librarians at various in our lives – titles we had never heard of – and been enchanted, transformed, by those books. Librarians are curators and conveyors of information and collections within a truly demographic framework. It doesn’t matter what your bank account holds, you will walk out of a library with a treasure. That cannot be said of bookshops, however lovely they may be. To me, arming librarians with the resources to intentionally globalize their collections and the means of circulating and programming with these titles will go a long way to increasing the access points of American readers to global literature.

In your opinion, what makes a foreign title more or less attractive in translation?

This is a very difficult question depending on the perspective you are coming from. I am sometimes baffled by comments from publishers about the “suitability” of a work for the US market. Since I read a broad variety of works – and I know I’m not the only one who does so – my immediate reaction to that line of reasoning is: “But the US is such a diverse country that somebody somewhere will read it.” For example, although I’m not a poetry reader, that does not mean that a work of poetry won’t find a decent reception. The same reasoning applies to all kinds of fiction and nonfiction. In terms of the works themselves, obviously the quality of a translation – how lightly and easily it rests in its new language – plays a role in the attractiveness or quality of the newly rendered work. Because of my own background as an editor, one of my personal pet peeves is the editing process, which is often skimped on by publishers these days. Regardless of the quality of the translation, I am more likely to set aside a poorly edited work then one that feels “clean” to me.

As a translator, what are some of the challenges you encounter in rendering a foreign book for English-language readers?

Prior to moving into the literary translation space, I was an editor and a more general translator. Having now experienced translation from a couple of corners, one main difference between literary translators and other translators is the issue of style and voice. And not just subjective style, but what “works” in English. The most fulfilling experiences I have had with contemporary authors have involved equal measures of trust and flexibility. The authors who are aware that dogged adherance to their sentence structures and language choices will not necessarily produce a fine work in translation, are the most librerating and powerful partners. With such support, the rendering and localization of a text is an exciting and challenging process. For me personally, dialogue is a challenge. The text itself is often easy enough to reimagine into English, but casting it into distinct voices is a completely different matter. I often read these passages out loud to just “hear” if an English speaker would actually say something a particular way.

Your small press, Weyward Sisters Publishing, brings crime and noir fiction written by female authors in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland to English-language readers. Do you know of other small presses working with translated literature and limited focus? What’s the outlook, in your opinion, for these highly specialized publishing houses?

Yes, I am aware of a few more limited-focus publishers. Le French Book publishes French crime fiction in translation, while Plamen, Pica Pica, Istros, Gallic, and Kurodahan all publish region-specific works in translation. I would like to think that the outlook for these presses is rosy. As a translator who has worked with and submitted works to other presses, I know the feeling that comes with the perception that you are up against the world. And since many of the presses in the international literature space are small, indie houses, the odds of “your” work getting picked up are relatively slim. Furthermore, as some publishers are rightly trying to diversify their source language base and favor other regions and languages, German and French works may find themselves falling increasingly out of favor. Nonetheless, regardless of the statistics, most US readers have not read all that many contemporary works from either of these languages. It may be that the specialized presses will, through their concentrations, excite new readers for these continuingly rich literary cultures.

Thank you Rachel for you time and insightful replies, and best of luck with your endeavors.