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Crossing the Puddle” 

     Charco Press,
     in conversation with 
Ellen Jones 




In late 2016 I received an email from the director of a new independent publisher, Charco Press. They were to publish exclusively Latin American literature in translation and were looking for translators to work on their first catalogue. Would I be interested in sending them my CV?

The answer was, of course, yes. Being very much on the ‘emerging’ rather than the ‘experienced’ end of the translator spectrum at that stage, I was pleased that Charco was willing to consider me for one of its treasured first titles. They were to start by publishing an exciting series of writers from Argentina, including Jorge Consiglio and Ricardo Romero.

Since then, Charco has been steadily shaking up the world of international literature in the UK. After only a year or so in existence, already Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, co-translated by Charco’s own director Carolina Orloff alongside Sarah Moses, has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, thanks to the disturbing, powerful voice of Harwicz’s protagonist. Charco remains determined to publish only books by writers who have never before appeared in English, such as their latest title, Fish Soup by Colombian Margarita García Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe. They make an effort to support emerging as well as established translators, independent bookshops, and the local literary scene in Edinburgh, where they are based.

I didn’t end up translating any of those first titles, but ever since then Carolina and I have kept up a steady email correspondence. It was via this medium that I spoke to her and her partner, Samuel McDowell, about their first couple of years in business.







Who are Charco Press? Tell us a bit about yourselves. How did you meet?

Charco Press is Carolina and Sam, but Carolina and Sam existed long before Charco Press! We are actually partners in life as well as in business, having met late one night in Buenos Aires... Carolina is from there but has lived in the UK for two decades. She has an academic background in Latin American literature and has worked as a researcher as well as a translator. Sam… Sam is from New Zealand and makes a really good coffee…

The linchpin of the organisation then! Why the name ‘Charco’?

It’s sort of a little in-joke. Charco means ‘puddle’ in Spanish, and is often used in some countries in Latin America as a colloquial term for travelling overseas—i.e. ‘crossing the puddle’—much as it is in some English-speaking countries. We thought it was appropriate as we are bringing these authors and their works across the pond to UK readers.

How would you characterise the kinds of books you publish?

We look for authors that we feel have a unique voice, that have a style that is clearly their own, and that are pushing the boundaries with what they are producing. Our goal is to try and give UK readers the opportunity to explore new works and authors, that perhaps bring something new and interesting to the table. To further enrich the cultural fabric and connectedness of readers.
Carolina Orloff

We also want to try and publish those authors and those books that are making an impact right now, so that the reader over here can feel that they are connected in real time to the literature that is being currently talked about elsewhere.


Samuel McDowell
What are you doing that’s different from other publishers?

We are the only UK publisher to focus solely on Latin American authors. That may sound limiting at first glance, but when you think about the scope of this region, of the sheer number of countries encompassed, of the distinct realities and histories, you quickly understand that it is the exact opposite. Trying to stay across the literary scenes of Chile, Peru, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and all the rest is not an easy task.

What’s the publishing scene like in Edinburgh? What are the advantages of being based there? Are you finding local readers for your authors?

The publishing scene in Scotland is wonderful, in Edinburgh and beyond. We have felt very supported since we first began, which is incredible given that we were complete newcomers to the industry.

There is an extraordinary collection of publishers based here, from stalwarts such as Canongate and Birlinn through to newcomers punching well above their weight, such as 404Ink, and there is a real sense of community amongst us all. This, combined with the support of the likes of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the folks at Publishing Scotland and the energized team at Creative Scotland, make this an ideal place for a new publisher such as ourselves to start.

Once we did start, we were immediately embraced by bookshops, booksellers and readers alike. There is a real interest in what we are doing, and, we think, a little bit of pride that we are doing it here.

Yes—there’s been a lot of talk recently about the importance of diversifying publishing away from London. The Northern Fiction Alliance published an Open Letter last month encouraging publishers to set up outside of London and to include more regional writers in their editorial programmes. It’s great that there is so much incentive for new houses like yours to open in Scotland, as well as in the north of England. But why did you decide to start now? How do you view the UK market for translated literature at the moment? Are you hopeful for the coming years?

The UK market for translated literature is, to put it bluntly, dismal. Sales in this area account for such a small percentage of overall sales. That may sound negative, but it isn’t. This is precisely why now is a good time to start, not just publishing our books, but to try and inject some new life to this sector. Because it is clearly time. Publishers such as ourselves can bring new and engaging writing to UK readers, can give them the choice to explore new authors. Since September last year we have introduced six new authors to the UK. These are not newcomers—they are established and respected authors, whose works have won awards internationally, who have been translated into numerous other languages—French, Italian, German, Hebrew. Why should English-speaking readers not even have the choice to read them?

Very good question! So do you feel like there’s a bit of momentum now, as far as publishing international literature in the UK goes? I’m thinking of other new outlets that are focusing a lot of their energies on translation, like Tilted Axis Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions and, very recently, the new online zine PEN Transmissions. It may still be dismal, but perhaps times are slowly changing?

Times are changing, definitely; times are in constant change. International literature or literature in translation has always been amongst us (Dante, Proust, Kafka, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, just to mention a few classics!) but for several reasons we now feel we need to categorise it and/or think about it differently. This has its pros and cons, of course, and overall it is good that readers and the industry at large are stopping to reflect more upon the translation process and indeed on the translators themselves. However, the English-speaking world has yet a lot of catching up to do when it comes to reading international authors. Charco Press is contributing with its grain of sand…

What is exciting about Latin American writing at the moment? What trends and developments are you seeing?

This are indeed very exciting times for Latin American literature. There is just so much going on, in all kinds of ways! On one hand, the fact that there are so many interesting independent publishers throughout the region means that there are greater chances for all types of literature to be published. This opens the door to many ground-breaking voices to emerge, and it is simply invaluable. On the other hand, there is an entire generation of writers, in their 30s and 40s, that are looking into the recent history of the region and tackling socio-political topics in completely new ways, asking questions from a different angle, reformulating meaning, adding complexity to universal conundrums. This is giving way to fascinating books, such us the forthcoming Resistance by Julián Fuks, The Distance Between Us by Renato Cisneros and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.







Harwicz’s Die, My Love—shortlisted for The Republic of Consciousness & the Man Booker International, 2018; the recently published Fish Soup collates two novellas alongside García Robayo’s short story collection Worse Things (winner of the prestigious Casa de las Américas Prize)




I suppose for so many readers in the English-speaking world their knowledge of Latin American literature stops at the ‘Boom’ writers—Márquez, Fuentes, Cortázar, etc. Having publishers over here who are championing a younger, more diverse generation of writers is so important for the way Latin America continues to take shape in the Anglophone imaginary. 

Exactly. That is definitely part of our aim, to update—as it were—the notion that Latin American literature equates to ‘magic realism’, to provide the readers with a great variety of voices and styles to choose from. A lot has happened in Latin America during these post-Boom decades, and not only in relation to the literary scene and production, but also in terms of socio-political changes, which inevitably have an impact on the former.

The short story as a form is hugely important in Latin America but has rarely been valued in the same way in the English-speaking world, and many publishers still shy away from buying them, at least unless they come with a novel. Certain important prizes here are specifically awarded to novels, not collections of stories. But you’ve just published Jorge Consiglio’s Southerly to considerable praise. Do you think it’s time for a change in our attitude to story collections in the UK?

Definitely! The short story is an art form unto itself and has been seen as such since the birth of literature—any number of great novelists also produced short stories: Woolf, Orwell, Salinger, Wilde, Hemingway, Kafka, Mansfield… the list is endless. There is something quite delightful, for the author as well as the reader in a deftly crafted short story that can whisk you away, dunk you in another world, then whisk you back again—all within a few short pages. Southerly is a great example of this, wonderful, succinct yet descriptive prose, and in some places giving a nod to the Argentinean master of short stories, Borges. There are subtle threads between each of the stories in Southerly, so subtle that you may find yourself going back to check if maybe you are imagining things. It adds a further layer to the writing. Another wonderful example, not by us, is the beautiful Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams, winner of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize. It is great to see short stories getting some attention—and in fact we are doubling down. We have just released Fish Soup by the amazing Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, which is a unique amalgamation of two novellas plus Worse Things, her collection of short stories that won the very prestigious Casa de las Americas Prize in 2014.

What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about working with translators and translations?

Most challenging is in trying to draw every last drop of meaning, intent and lyricism out of the original text, and out of the author themselves. Our authors tend to play a very active role in the translation process. The most rewarding is easy to answer—it’s seeing Anglophone readers discover these authors for the first time. To read a review, a tweet, or even—in one case—a handwritten letter from Australia, where a reader is so excited and thankful that they have picked up one of our books, is an amazing feeling.

You’ve got some really striking book jackets. Can you tell us about your designer? What was your vision for the visual presentation of your books?

Our designer is Pablo Font, based in Buenos Aires in Argentina. We think he is fantastic (he designed our logo, too). Our vision was to provide each title with its own unique character, yet have a consistent, very unique style. You have to remember that, at least to begin with, nobody here has ever heard of the authors we are publishing. So if a reader, not knowing who this author is, decides to take a chance on one of our books, and enjoys it, we want them to easily find us again and try another.

Can you tell us about the kind of book you are dying to add to your list but haven’t managed to find yet?

We think the catalogues we are putting out are pretty good. We are not looking for something that we can’t find. What makes Charco Press is out there in copious amounts, the only tricky part is making a choice from such a vast array of talented authors!

Your catalogue is more than just pretty good! And the number of prizes your books are already contending for is testament to that. Are there any upcoming Charco events we should know about?

It is tricky, being so new and with our authors living so far away, to bring them to the UK. We really can’t do it without some sort of assistance. Having said that, we have been fortunate enough to hold author events in London and in Edinburgh. We also try and do events whenever possible with the translators: we have just had a very successful event with translator Charlotte Coombe to launch Fish Soup, and Fionn Petch, translator of Fireflies and our forthcoming The Distance Betweeen Us, will be appearing with the amazing Mark Polizzotti to celebrate his new book Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto along with Anna Aslanyan at Caravansérail in London on 13th June. Beyond that, watch this space soon for announcements regarding the 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival (we have at least two of our authors appearing) as well as other events later on in the year.






All Charco Press titles are available to buy here

Ellen Jones has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and translates from Spanish into English. She is the recipient of a 2017 Writers Centre Norwich Emerging Translator Mentorship and a 2017 ALTA Travel Fellowship. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.


Jones’ translation of Mapocho—excerpted from Nona Fernández’s 2003 novel of that name—appears in Hotel #4.







2018



Mark

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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

The paper Hotel is designed & typeset by Niall Reynolds

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is edited by Jon Auman, Thomas Chadwick & Dominic Jaeckle


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The lead images on the home page are by Erica Baum—‘Two Blackboards’ (circa 1990)—excerpted from Hotel #1

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2018
Marker