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Liza St. James: The Limitlessness of International Literature

An interview with Adam Z. Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy, the founders of Transit Books, on the power of literary translation to bridge cultural divides.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Baquing

By Liza St. James

One of my earliest attempts at translating fiction was in a Spanish class in high school. We were reading Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” and I spent hours propped up in my bunk bed with a gigantic Spanish-English dictionary, drawing lines to definitions across the pages with a mechanical pencil. Tenses were tricky, and there were Latin phrases followed by strings of words whose meanings I didn’t know in any language. Appropriately, there was only one sentence I recall being fairly confident I understood—a sentence in which the narrator, on the verge of death, asks, “You who read me, are you sure you understand my language?” I wasn’t then, and I’m still not. But I have spent years trying.

At the end of “The Library of Babel,” the narrator suggests that instead of thinking of the number of books in the Library as unlimited, we might imagine the space of the Library itself as limitless. Walk into any independent bookstore and you’ll find more books from Mexico, Korea, Italy, or Norway now than in years past, and book jackets often boast authors translated into multiple languages. But what does it mean for literature to take us someplace, to carry us across borders? What exactly are we seeking? The recent focus on what has been called global literature makes this an exciting time for translators, books in translation, and small presses broadening the fold. But why seek writers abroad when there are unrecognized voices at home? And what about English-language literature from outside the US or the UK? More and more, publishers are asking questions like these.

From the moment I encountered their logo—a sailboat with a book as its hull—I was interested in the new Oakland-based press Transit Books. As someone for whom the combination of books and ships can’t help but call to mind that most famous of literary whaling voyages, it seemed fitting to discover that Andrés Barba, the acclaimed author of Transit’s forthcoming first book, had once had “a nightmare” of a time translating Moby Dick into Spanish. Upon further exploration of Transit’s author list, I learned that in their book-boat alongside Barba were two of Granta’s Best Young writers, Best Young Spanish Language Novelist Carlos Yushimito and Best Young Brazilian Novelist Carol Bensimon. I noticed, too, that Transit’s website included complete bios of their translators (including Barba’s, Lisa Dillman, winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for her translation of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World). Curious about who was steering this ship, I reached out to the publishers behind Transit Books, Adam Z. Levy and Ashley Nelson Levy. (The logo, it turns out, was given to them as a wedding gift.)

On the day I spoke with Adam and Ashley, Transit had announced on Twitter their first title written originally in English, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s novel Kintu. There was a perceptible energy still lingering from Makumbi’s admirers’ excitement, and it was clear that things were happening. Ashley’s own short story “Auntie” had just been published in ZZYZZVA, and Adam was prepping for the American Literary Translators Association conference being held in Oakland this October.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Transit team in a café in San Francisco’s Mission District. [Full disclosure: I recently began working with Transit in a position that grew out of this conversation.] As we spoke of everything from the political and theoretical concerns of literary border crossing to the more practical aspects of starting a press, cheers for the Warriors punctuated our conversation. This didn’t phase Adam or Ashley, who tended to finish each other’s sentences anyway. They sat across from me, backlit by the sun, frequently shifting the light with their enthusiastic turns toward one another.

— Liza St. James for Guernica

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Guernica: What is Transit and how did you arrive at the name?

Ashley Nelson Levy: Well, that could either be a long story or a short one. The idea was born while we were still living in New York. I was writing and Adam was translating and we were noticing this kind of partition between two types of readerships: those who read domestic literature and those who read translation. In other words, those who knew Chad Post and those who didn’t. We were interested in the separation of those literary spheres, and began to wonder how to bridge the gap between them. When we moved to Oakland and the press was officially born, we chose a name intrinsic to our mission, which is to publish books that carry readers across borders and communities, through both American and international literature.

Adam Z. Levy: Embedded in the word transit, etymologically, at least, is that idea of carrying across. It’s one of the things we loved about the name. It suggested something beyond a movement between languages.

Ashley Nelson Levy: Jennifer [Makumbi]’s book, Kintu, which we’ll publish next spring, is a perfect example of that. It’s an amazing novel that reimagines Uganda’s pre-colonial past and present through a cursed bloodline. It was written in English, was first published in Kenya, and somehow was completely overlooked by the big US and UK houses.

Adam Z. Levy: It’s impossible to track a copy down!

Ashley Nelson Levy: She’s won a handful of major awards, and you can’t find it.

Guernica: So how did you find it? How do you tend to find your books in general?

Adam Z. Levy: Well, Jennifer’s book came to us, really. Critic and Africanist-extraordinaire Aaron Bady has been an incredible advocate for Kintu. He had a copy that he’d picked up on a visit to Uganda. The first time we met, he said this was a book we just had to read, so we read it, and probably within a week or two, we’d signed it. I still have his copy at home. But we also find books from agents and journals and foreign rights directors and translators—

Ashley Nelson Levy: Translators have proven to be great scouts. A good word from them is always going to be a tip we’ll follow.

Guernica: How did you go about starting Transit?

Ashley Nelson Levy: Leaving New York was really the beginning, because it threw us into a state of complete terror while also making us feel like suddenly anything was possible. We left our jobs, rented a U-Haul, and said goodbye to all the people we loved. The drive across the country took us nine days; we mostly had a backseat of books and pots from our wedding, and along the way we dreamed of all the ways we could do what we loved on our own terms. Of course we were concerned about starting something far from the center of American publishing, but there has been continual joy in putting those fears to rest. The Bay Area is full of smart, interesting, literary people. I grew up here, and I’m grateful to be part of the community again.

Guernica: Can you speak more to what it’s been like starting a press as a married couple?

Adam Z. Levy: We have editorial meetings over dinner, and share more Google docs than is perhaps healthy. It’s a long-term project to keep from running out of things to talk about.

Ashley Nelson Levy: There’s been some suspicious inquiry into our work/life balance. But it’s just always been this way, really. We’ve found collaborating on the press to be a necessary and natural thing. It helps, too, that we have a similar aesthetic but varying opinions; I think we’re a better team because of that.

Guernica: What are some other early concerns you had or decisions you made?

Adam Z. Levy: There were more fraught aspects of publishing that we wanted to address. In book deals, for example, translators have historically received the short end of the stick. Many publishers still don’t allow them to retain the copyright to their translations. They don’t offer royalties, don’t put their names on the cover. They actively try to hide the fact that what you’re reading was not originally written in English. We wanted to build a press on the exact opposite principles, and went about assembling a board, writing contracts, and marketing our books in a way that reflected that.

Guernica: And how do these values transfer to your writers and translators?

Adam Z. Levy: Well, with translators, we used the PEN Model Contract as a starting point. It’s a resource that’s come out of the great advocacy work done by the PEN America Translation Committee. As a translator, I’ve been on the other end of the process, and I absolutely recognize the powerlessness of that position, without a lawyer or representation. Especially when you’re a new translator, you just want your book out in the world. You don’t know what should be in a reversion clause. You don’t care—

Ashley Nelson Levy: You don’t know what you’re signing away. We’re also not trying to hide the fact that the book is a translation. All those very basic rights are important to us.

Adam Z. Levy: If it means that we sell fewer copies because we’re billing a book as a translation, fine. That’s part of what we’re trying to do—we’re trying to raise awareness that translation is not necessarily taboo.

Guernica: Can you say a bit more about how being a small press affects the publishing process?

Ashley Nelson Levy: I think all the great independent presses now are proving to writers the benefits of publishing with a smaller house. They’re showing that, even though we operate on a smaller scale, we’re much more hands-on throughout the editorial process. We stick with our authors and fight for their books from publication to backlist.

Adam Z. Levy: As a nonprofit, we consider ourselves mission-driven rather than market-driven. It allows us to take risks that larger houses otherwise wouldn’t.

Guernica: How else did you intend for Transit to differ from what you’ve encountered elsewhere? What other gaps did you feel you were responding to?

Adam Z. Levy: In the translation community, I think there’s a general frustration with the limits of the imagination of domestic fiction. You can find incredible, innovative literature written in other languages. But there are also absolutely great things happening here and in the anglophone world. We wanted to make both of those voices central to our list and part of broader conversations about world literature.

Guernica: And what about other local presses? How about the Center for the Art of Translation and Two Lines Press? Are you working with them at all?

Adam Z. Levy: We really admire the Center for the Art of Translation and the work they do to get behind translation in the Bay Area. They’re friends of ours, and were supportive when we came out here. We’d love to work together to make Oakland and San Francisco a real hub for international literature.

Ashley Nelson Levy: All of which is made possible by the incredible bookselling community here. We love Diesel in Oakland. Green Apple Books and of course City Lights. Wolfman in downtown Oakland is great.

Guernica: Can you say a bit more about what you’re looking for in domestic or emerging writers.

Ashley Nelson Levy: As a publisher who also writes, I want to encounter something I desperately wish I’d been smart enough to write myself. I want to feel like I’ve encountered something fresh and new. But not new for newness’s sake.

Guernica: You mentioned playing an active role in the translation process as a press as well, and I’m wondering if you could expand on that. I’m thinking of recent conversations around the Ferrante and Lispector books, and the ways they’ve brought attention to the relationships between translators and editors at Europa and New Directions, for example. What does that look like for Transit so far?

Adam Z. Levy: It depends. Lisa [Dillman] has a really close relationship with Andrés Barba, who we’re publishing in April. They go back and forth all the time, clarifying this or that, so by the time we saw the manuscript, our editorial role was lighter than it would be in other cases. Valerie Miles, for example, who’s translating a collection by the Peruvian writer Carlos Yushimito, edited those stories for their original Spanish publication.

Ashley Nelson Levy: For Jennifer’s next book, a story collection, our role is more developmental.

Adam Z. Levy: I think we also envisioned Transit as a response to the diminished role of the editor at larger houses. We really value how closely we work with our authors and translators, and can’t imagine bringing a book into the world any other way.

Guernica: Your Twitter announcement today had a hashtag (#readwomen). Can you speak to representation more generally and how those concerns factor into your conversations as a press?

Ashley Nelson Levy: Sometimes when we’re scouting new projects we’ll ask: Who are the best writers? Who should we be reading? And we’ll get back a list of men. So we’re conscious of it. In terms of plans for the future, it’s important for us to have parity.

Adam Z. Levy: That’s what’s great about the VIDA count—it’s really started holding a conservative industry accountable for its commitment to parity and inclusion. Chad Post did some really important work to show how that bias carried over into translated works of fiction. Over the last eight years, around 70% published were written by men.

Guernica: I attended a 2015 PEN World Voices panel on Women in Translation (“Who We Talk About When We Talk About Translation: Women’s Voices”) where they released those findings.

Adam Z. Levy: We need the entire publishing ecosystem—from translators to agents to publishers—to get serious about its commitment to being a more inclusive space. As Ashley mentioned, it’s always frustrating to receive catalogs in which nine out of the ten authors are men, but of course it goes beyond that.

Guernica: At a really excellent PEN World Voices “Women of Mexico” panel this year, Mónica de la Torre began the discussion asking: “Will future literary enterprises ever grace readers with commentary on a male author’s physical appearance?”

Ashley Nelson Levy: I had a conversation with one of our translators about that recently. We joked if it’s a question of eliminating the author photo entirely. Look what that absence has done for Ferrante. But now we’ve replaced her face with Ann Goldstein’s. And then, of course, in the absence of women, you’re left with more jacket flaps with brooding men.

Guernica: Who are some other publishers you look to for guidance?

Adam Z. Levy: Graywolf, Coffee House, Open Letter, Deep Vellum, Sarabande.

Ashley Nelson Levy: Especially Graywolf’s nonfiction list. Dorothy is great, too.

Guernica: So nonfiction is in the game?

Adam Z. Levy/Ashley Nelson Levy: Everything’s in the game!

Adam Z. Levy: Well everything except poetry. Maybe one day.

Guernica: It’s starting to sound like this must be full-time…

Ashley Nelson Levy: It’s definitely full-time; we just don’t always get to work on it between the hours of nine and five. It should come as no surprise that a press that hasn’t launched its first list needs other sources of income. At first it was hard to be forthcoming about our having other jobs, but that’s so much the nature of the business that now I don’t feel embarrassed about it, because it would probably be stranger if we couldn’t explain how we were living while getting this nonprofit off the ground.

Guernica: So how big is your network right now of readers, etc.?

Adam Z. Levy: We have a handful of Spanish, German, and French readers, and a few others from smaller languages. And of course it’s easier to find Spanish translators available for this than, say, Finnish ones.

Guernica: Right. So would you be fine with publishing, say, a year of Spanish?

Adam Z. Levy: Originally that wasn’t our plan. Originally we wanted to have a great diversity of languages each year—but at the same time, and maybe this is my own cognitive dissonance kicking in, why not a year of Spanish? It’s not right to lump all Spanish-language writing together. But of course a Finnish writer would be great as well.

Ashley Nelson Levy: We’d love a Finnish writer.

Guernica: No limits.

Adam Z. Levy: We’re very anti limits.

Liza St. James is a writer and translator from San Francisco. She is the fiction editor of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and a teaching fellow in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University. She previously taught writing at San Quentin State Prison through the Prison University Project.

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