It is well-known in American global literature communities that less than three percent of U.S. books are translations. For whatever reason, there aren’t many publishers willing to work in literary translation. It’s rarer still to find presses that exclusively release international literature for English-reading audiences. Sadly, there is only a handful operating in the States.
That’s why it was so impressive when, in 2007, the University of Rochester set out to establish not one, but two projects aimed at amending this sad statistic: one was a digital platform so English readers could easily enjoy and learn about global stories; the other was a book publisher solely dedicated to English language translations. The aptly named online journal, Three Percent, quickly became an accessible digital source of articles, book reviews and podcasts for English-reading audiences. The brand new nonprofit publisher was dubbed Open Letter Books.
Early on, the publishing team at Open Letter set an ambitious goal—to release “ten books a year”. Today, the four-person team at Open Letter remains steadfast in this pursuit. The press turned eleven this year, which means that it will have published over one hundred books. This is an amazing feat for any small press, especially one that must factor translation time into its production schedule. (Thank you for keeping at it, Open Letter Books staff!)
Of course, Open Letter isn’t simply interested in hitting its publication numbers each year. It’s also actively diversifying acquisitions. Over thirty countries are represented in the catalog, with books by authors like Marguerite Duras and Ingrid Winterbach. The press’ online book categories also include an array of anthologies and collections, not to mention a myriad of genres. Here is a list of this year’s ten releases, which includes Narrator, the quirky novel by Icelandic poet, author and bassist of The Sugarcubes Bragi Ólafsson. It’s a great read if you’re a fan of an unreliable narrator who derides others while unconsciously deriding himself.
Like many small presses, Open Letter Books has developed an almost signature design over the course of its life. A typical Open Letter title boasts minimalist cover art reminiscent of the serialized suspense novels of the 1960s—rich in color and font-focused. One of Open Letter’s recent releases, Fox, is a strong example of this style, especially with its tri-color scheme and fluid lettering. The cover art mirrors author Dubravka Ugrešić’s playful, yet clever postmodernist style, clearly depicting the author’s love of toying with folklore and character changeability. (Read her previous novel, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, for further evidence of Ugrešić’s sense of humor.)
Ugrešić is known for her wit, which she employs in Fox to fully expand, then contract the myth of shape-shifting foxes—creatures seen in various folktales around the world. There’s a mischievousness to the novel’s landscape as well, which shifts along with the fox as she/he roams from Japan to Russia, the Balkans to the United States. A “brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny” story, Fox is recommended for those who love an apathetic protagonist, comedy and the reimagined-fairy-tales trend.
If this article has yet to pique your interest in Open Letter Books’ contributions to English-language translation, then the publishing team’s mission statement definitely will. See a short excerpt below:
Making world literature available in English is crucial to opening our cultural borders, and its availability plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant book culture. Open Letter strives to cultivate an audience for these works by helping readers discover imaginative, stunning works of fiction and poetry and by creating a constellation of international writing that is engaging, stimulating, and enduring.
Explore the fascinating (and somewhat devastating) stats of the Three Percent “Translation Database” by clicking here. Receive Open Letter Books updates by subscribing to the press’ newsletter. You can also follow Open Letter on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
By Chelsey Slattum