Archipelago Books and reading Great Translated Books

shakespeare&coLast fall, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy that picks the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, created quite a stir when he called the US “too insular” because we don’t translate enough works “and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”  He described our ignorance as “restraining.”  Statistically, he’s correct, only about 3% of the books published in the United States are translated works.  While I didn’t think much of Mr. Engdahl’s comment, I thought of it again when I was stunned by beauty of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and wondered what I was missing.  I discovered that I’m missing a lot.

On the other blog I write for, Bookstore People, we’re hosting a summer series called Translated Tuesdays.  Every Tuesday we review a translated book and we’ve discovered a new world of reading.  One of my favorite publishers is Archipelago Books, a non-profit press dedicated to publishing translated books.  Three Percent chose Archipelago Books’ Tranquility, written by Attila Bartis and translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein, as the winner of its 2009 Best Translated Book Winner.  I reviewed The Waitress is New, by Dominque Fabre and translated from the French by Jordan Stump, and felt like I carried the main character Pierre in my head for days after reading it.  The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker and translated by David Colmer, received great reviews and is rising to the top of the TBR pile. I’ve enjoyed Archipelago Books so much that I subscribed to the fall series.

I asked one of the editors, Dave Lievens to answer a few questions about translated works and his publishing company in particular:

1. Share your philosophy of the importance of reading translated works.

Archipelago Books is a not-for-profit literary press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. We’re entering our sixth year, and we have brought out almost fifty books from over twenty languages.

We believe that artistic exchange between cultures is a crucial component of global understanding. It has never been more important for voices from around the world to be heard in this country—so little of what is published in the United States originates outside its borders, and only a small subset of those works are translations. By publishing diverse and innovative literary translations we are doing what we can to change this shameful reality and broaden the American cultural landscape.

2. The mission statement for Archipelago Books is “a not-for-profit literary press dedicated to promoting cross-cultural exchange through international literature in translation,” do you have any examples of achieving your goals that you could share?

Our greatest successes in achieving our mission statement have been in publishing books that portray people, cultures, ideas, places, and times that are all but unreachable outside of literature for most Americans. Three books in particular come to mind: Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury is an epic novel of the Palestinian nakba; A Dream in Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu, which deals with native Siberians meeting stranded Canadian fishermen; and A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, a novel that depicts the lavishly rich and complex culture of Istanbul in the 1930s. Each of these books is an extraordinary look into worlds far beyond our borders – worlds that most readers may know exist, but aren’t able to look deep inside of without international literature.

3. What would you like booksellers specifically to know about translated works and Archipelago Books?

With a gleam in my eye, I’d like bookstores to know that our books look best if you have them all out together, facing outward (like in the photo). We design our books to be beautiful and tactile, and that’s most clear when they’re all displayed in unison. But more seriously, I wish that more bookstores had “World Fiction” or “International Literature” shelves or tables instead of having all fic/lit alphabetical by author. Since we all have to accept that translations aren’t going to sell to everybody, why not embrace the upside of that: there are plenty of readers out there who are looking for books from outside of America, and they tend to be the type of people who buy a lot of books!

4.  How do you find the books you decide to translate and publish?

Of our fifty books we’ve found them in just about every way you can: agents, translator submissions, scouts, word-of-mouth, reading a book in the original, reading a book in a third language, suggestions from translators we’ve worked with, etc. Our eyes and ears are always open. In a way, it’s a boon for us that many publishing houses aren’t publishing these types of books. There’s so much great stuff out there still waiting to be rediscovered and translated.

5. Share a couple of the books that you are currently excited about.

This November we’ll be publishing A Time for Everything by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, a book that fictionalizes and very seriously explores humankind’s interactions with angels from the Bible and beyond. Over the course of the book, as time passes, the angels become less and less divine, and by the end they behave more like animals than humans. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Think Umberto Eco meets Borges.

This September we’re also excited to publish The Salt Smugglers by Gérard de Nerval, which was written in mid-19th-century France, when it was forbidden to print fiction serials in newspapers. To dodge the censors, Nerval presented his story as a first-person narrative detailing his dizzying quest for an elusive book holding the history of a certain swashbuckling count. It’s uproariously funny and a must for any fan of the early postmodern.

Thank you Dave for giving us an insight into translated books and Archipelago Books.

Kim Allen-Niesen
Co-Founder, Bookstore People

Facebook Comments

Related post


  • Thank you – unless more booksellers start thinking along these lines (outside the lazy everyday inside of the box) our business will continue its slide toward oblivion.

    Our local customer base deserves more than a bunch of clerks sitting around waiting for them to stumble into the store when they have nothing better to do – our stores have to become destinations to be visited regularly and they need a depth of stock or ideas to make their shopping trip worthwhile.

    There has to be some sort of momentum toward taking the publishing business out of the hands of people content with the status quo – supporting Archipelago Books seems like a good place to start.

    I will be contacting Archipelago Books to place an order as soon as I submit this comment – thanks again.

  • Avatar
  • I feel your pain! Most times when I walk into my “home” bookstore, the clerks are sitting behind the counter typing on a computer and I want to say “get out and talk to your customers!” Even I feel like I’m interrupting them when I ask a question.

    I hope you enjoy Archipelago, they are a special company.

  • […] their fall series.  Not only is the content great, they are lovely physical books.  Here’s my interview with Dave Lievens of Archipelago Books and my review of The Waitress is […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *