In 1936, James Laughlin, tired of the more conventional poetry he was studying at Harvard, decided to start New Directions on the advice of Ezra Pound whom he had met in Rapallo, Italy. As Eliot Weinberger wrote, “Laughlin was more than the greatest publisher of the twentieth century, his press was the twentieth century.” Discovering writers as varied as Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Bowles, Hilda Doolittle, Herman Hesse, Henry Miller, Yukio Mishima, Pound, Rimbaud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams, and William Carlos Williams, Laughlin built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. The Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee wrote: “I am grateful for all the New Directions has done over the years to bring to the reading public challenging new writers, many of them from far away.” Octavio Paz, another Nobel Laureate, wrote, “To read New Directions’ publications is to open a window.”
Besides being well versed in literature, Laughlin was a world traveler. In the fifties, he was hired by the Ford Foundation to publish a magazine called Perspectives that would promote American writing in different languages. He visited India and other countries and his interest in foreign literature increased. New Directions became more and more committed to offering foreign literature to American readers, and that included the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Lorca’s Blood Wedding was first published in English in an anthology of experimental writing that Laughlin published in 1939. It is hard to believe that at the time, Lorca was virtually unread in the United States. Later on, when Lorca’s works started to be read and published widely around the world, New Directions handled his rights for a while and agented for the Lorca family (a job that would later be taken on by the lawyer William Peter Kosmas and is now handled by the well-known literary agent Mercedes Casanovas). Currently, New Directions publishes eight Lorca books, including selections of his essays, letters and perhaps the most widely studied English-language edition of his Selected Poems (which includes beautiful translations by poets like Langston Hughes, W. S. Merwin, and Steven Spender).
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New Directions has a long history of publishing great writers from Spain. Another Spanish writer New Directions helped get on the map in the U.S. was the marvelous Jose Camilo Cela, whose Family of Pascal Duarte was published in Anthony Kerrigan’s translation by Little, Brown in 1994. After Cela won the Nobel Prize in 1989, New Directions published Mazurka for Two Dead Men (in 1994) and Boxwood (in 2008). Mazurka received a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review, fabulous hardcover sales, and the New Directions staff celebrated in the Publisher’s office with champagne. Cela writes in a sort of grotesque form of realism that perfectly fits New Directions’s experimental kind of publishing. When ND decided to publish Mazurka, its editors were captivated by Cela’s autobiographical account of coming to manhood in Galicia.
In 2002, New Directions brought out Javier Marías’s brilliant A Heart So White. Barbara Epler, New Directions’s Publisher, had read and admired his novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me that the legendary editor Drenka Willen published with Harcourt. The translator Esther Allen was encouraging Barbara to publish Marías, and right then, U.S. rights were offered to Barbara by the British publisher Harvill. That book got off to a rocky start, because by mistake, the Harvill edition slipped into American trade channels, and copies were already in the bookstores! But then ND published Dark Back of Time in Esther Allen’s translation and following that, eleven more books, including Marías’s acclaimed trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. The publication of that trilogy was celebrated with an unforgettable sold-out reading by Marías and Paul Auster at New York’s 92nd Street Y. New Directions’s reputation as a literary publisher is legendary, but it sometimes loses authors to larger corporate publishers, who can sometimes offer more marketing muscle and more dollars for advances. That is what happened to ND with Marías, and now he is published here by Knopf/Vintage.
Currently, New Directions publish eight books by Enrique Vila-Matas, the celebrated author published in Spain by Anagrama, whose books about literature and life have been widely translated and received many of Europe’s most important literary prizes (including the Romulo Gallegos, the Herralde Prize, the Prix-Medicis-étrangers, the Prize of the Royal Spanish Academy, and the Guadalajara FIL Award). Vila-Matas writes with a marvelous erudite wit, but also in a captivating conversational style. This September, New Directions will publish a selection of Vila-Matas’s stories, Vampire in Love, translated into English by the renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa, which includes marvelous tales about suicide, vampires, traveling, the internet, and the abyss. They are both dark and hilarious.
One other recent Spanish addition to the New Directions list is Rafael Chirbes. The Spanish translators and editors Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles encouraged New Directions to publish Chirbes, as did Jorge Herralde and Paula Canal of Anagrama. ND published Chirbes’s On the Edge last year, which sold extremely well (the cover has a bleak and penetrating single eye that stares out at you); On the Edge received splendid reviews nationally, including a prominent New York Time reviews, which stated “Chirbes is a master of the kind of Spanish literature that shines most brightly in lyrical descriptive passages and powerful metaphors.”
New Directions has had enormous success introducing these Spanish writers, as well as many Latin American writers like César Aira, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Roberto Bolaño, Coral Bracho, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Pablo Neruda, and Nicanor Parra, (I have heard many people, including the writer Eduardo Lago, say they see Spanish and Latin American literature as part of a whole.) We also have published writers from other countries around Europe and Asia and the Middle East.
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Despite these successes, it is often challenging publishing foreign literature in the U.S. The well-known figure is 3%: only about 3% of all books published in the States are works in translation, but in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually .7%. People say that reflects the market and general interest in the U.S. in foreign writing. With more people gazing into their computers, and potential readers distracted by commercial offerings from corporate publishers that are prominently advertised and displayed in stores, it is sometimes difficult for a press like New Directions to recoup translation and production costs for an experimental foreign author. However, there are many positive signs, showing a real need, a true audience for foreign literature here in the States.
The publisher Chad Post’s website Three Percent is a great resource for anyone wanting to know more about the enterprise of publishing foreign literature in America. Chad is a tireless promotor of foreign literature in the States and besides running Open Letter, one of the finest American publishers of foreign literature (out of the University of Rochester), he has helped institute the annual Best Translated Book Award, which bookstores all over the country take note of when they place their orders. The human rights organization PEN does a huge amount of promotion of foreign writing and publishing, offering prizes at their lavish, annual PEN Literary Awards and sponsoring the hugely attended and publicized annual PEN World Voices Festival, bringing writers to New York annually from around the globe. Words Without Borders, a prominent website, posts foreign writing and does a huge amount to promote authors from abroad.
Helping further are translation subsidies and travel grants that are for publishers, provided by many foreign governments including Spain’s. (New Directions has benefited greatly from The Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport grant.) These grants help smaller publishers like New Directions with their translation costs, and travel grants help bring authors from abroad to the States for readings and events.
Literary translation has become a point of much talk and study in the U.S. Translation studies have become more and more prevalent in American colleges and universities. The events of 9/11 had many people rethinking their relationship to the world and America’s isolation, the importance of being more open to other cultures in the Arab world and elsewhere. In the past couple of decades, some wonderful presses like Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum, Europa Editions, Open Letter, and Other Press, devoted to publishing literary translations, have emerged, and books by writers like Elsa Ferrante and Karl Ove Knaussgard have become huge bestsellers.
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New Directions has always been independent and for-profit. Unable to depend on foundation money, ND basically aims to make a decent profit after meeting expenses, continuing to publish books in line with James Laughlin’s mission. Laughlin always followed Ezra Pound’s dictum that any book worth its salt would be read thirty years after it was published, and this long-term view is a key factor to New Directions’s success. ND’s backlist is notorious and comprises a huge percentage of its overall sales. And publishing foreign works in translation actually fits its mission well. Larger U.S. publishers often shy away from publishing unknown, groundbreaking authors from Spain or Italy or Germany say, because it is rare that these authors will sell more than a few thousand copies. It often feels that New Directions has a great pick of amazing writers from around the world (which are recommended by like-minded publishers, translators, and ND authors), and we can purchase their rights for less than the established American or English writers. When a book takes off—when it isn’t just reviewed prominently, but starts selling because readers recommend it to their friends and employees in bookstores fall in love with it—then New Directions has a great year. Other publishers are catching on, and it is marvelous to see more great writing from Spain and elsewhere coming out in the States. There are still large gaps to fill, many authors needing to be published, but that is one of the reasons why New Directions is around.