#TranslatedLit Istros Books: Publishing the Balkans in English by Susan Curtis

(Or How – and Why – Does one end up ‘At the Rock face of Niche’?)

Having lived and worked in the region (Slovenia, Croatia, Romania) over many years, I became aware of all the writers – both contemporary and from the immediate past – which were revered at home but unknown in the English-speaking world. It seemed that there was an invisible border in a lot of people’s minds between the old west and the east, a border which should have been removed after 1989, but somehow continued to exist in people’s heads. The countries of central and eastern Europe remained behind a curtain, their culture and their literature considered obscure.

(Susan Curtis, Founder of Istros Books)

Back in 1938, during the Munich (Czech) Crisis, then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressed his distaste for making war preparations over “a quarrel in a faraway land between people of which we know nothing.” That remark seems vastly inappropriate for the time, considering that Britain had a global empire, and the distance between London and Prague was a little over 600 miles, whereas the distance between London and Ottawa, for example, was 3000 miles and Canberra was over 10,000 miles away. Even today, the British read literature from Australia, Canada, India and Sri Lanka, all written in English, and they feel like they are reading the world and we don’t read in our own backyard. And so I founded Istros as a small gesture towards redressing the balance; to make sure that the stories from a part of the world that I knew and love are translated and presented here in the UK and in the wider English-speaking world. Our print runs are modest, but the books are available in paperback and digital format, and they will be available for posterity, for whomever wants to read them.

There is a figure often bandied about that only 4-5% of books in the UK are translations – and this means all books, so literature is only a small part of that.  The figures in other European countries are much higher, from 25-50% per cent, but the UK and the US has this very small percentage, mostly for the reasons stated above, but also because translation is expensive and most publishers here are not prepared to make the investment. You often see it boasted on the back of bestsellers here in the UK that they have been translated into dozens of languages – the world translates us but we do not return the favour!

Despite the small print runs and the lack of exposure on a market mostly saturated with American books, it should be noted that having a book in English published in the UK is only the beginning of the journey for most of the authors I work with – it means that editors all over the world can get to read the work of writers from Albania/Romania/Croatia or Montenegro – it’s a visiting card to publication into so many other languages. I am constantly receiving emails from publishing houses around the world – in Istanbul and Cairo and India – asking me to share the English translation with them so that they can decide it they also want to invest in translation and publication.

(Susan Curtis is founder of Istros Books.)

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