PRESS ON! is a series of interviews with publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the books industry.

V&Q Books is a new English-language imprint of the German publisher Voland & Quist. Established by the celebrated literary translator Katy Derbyshire, V&Q has so far published three books since the fall of 2020, the first of which — Paula by Sandra Hoffman — was translated from the German by the publisher herself. In this interview, she talks to us about the benefits of being both a literary translator and a publisher, what it’s like to launch an imprint during a pandemic, and where V&Q Books is headed in the new year.

How long had you been thinking of establishing an imprint of German books in English and what drove you to make it happen? 

It was a fairly spontaneous decision, actually. In October 2018, I was at the Frankfurt book fair, Brexit had been decided and it was unclear what would happen. I’d had a contract canceled because the publisher, sadly, hadn’t been able to get funding for the translation. I was worried about how my career would progress under these strange new circumstances but also wanted to broaden the channel. There’s a lot of literature from English to German, and lots of other languages obviously, but very little gets translated into English from any language. German does quite well in the rankings, it’s usually third place after French and Spanish, but still –– we’re talking about fifty novels a year. 

I wanted to change that in a small way, but I didn’t have the financial wherewithal or stability to set up my own publishing house. So the idea kind of crystallized while I was at the book fair because it was a great opportunity to talk to dozens of different people and flesh out the idea. I was also able to walk around the German publishers’ booths and see what their latest books were, just imagining what I would publish. I went to Voland & Quist, who I had an appointment with, and I mentioned the idea to them, not thinking that they would be the people I would end up working with. They said, “Oh, don’t tell anyone else about this idea,” so I didn’t. It took two years to get from that point to the first books coming out in the September just gone. 

We want to have writers who are working in Germany but they don’t have to be writing in German. That’s something that’s we’re going to expand in the future. There are so many people writing in Germany in different languages that it seems like a shame not to tap into that pool.

What is the structure of the imprint –– what is the relationship between Voland & Quist, the German publisher, and Inpress Books in the UK? 

Voland & Quist is an indie publisher and they already have printers they work with, and distribution in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. I work with them as a freelance publisher. For our distribution in the UK, I work with Inpress who are a go-between us and the UK and Ireland. So they have sales reps who go around trying to persuade bookshops to buy our books and they have a catalog for all of these different indie publishers that they represent, and they do a lot of social media work for all the different publishers. You can also order books directly from them for the UK and Ireland. 

How many people make up the editorial team of V&Q Books, the imprint? 

That’s a very difficult question to answer. It’s mostly me, but the decisions for choosing titles are discussed with Voland & Quist. For the books that I’ve translated, we have to get somebody else to edit, so we work with freelance editors and copywriters. It’s kind of a team effort between me and five other people. 

We also want to balance out the lists that we planned for the first two years. That means there’s a slight emphasis on women writers, although we do have some men writers. We also want to balance between commercial fiction that we know has worked well with German readers and sold a lot of copies in Germany, because we are a for-profit concern, and more literary fiction. 

What criteria do you look for in a book that you wish to publish through V&Q? 

The first thing is utterly subjective: it has to grab me. It has to be set in a certain place and have a sense of place, but that place doesn’t have to be Germany, although obviously it can be. I’m personally drawn to quite strong voices in various forms and also to writing that does things a little bit differently, that opens up new routes for other writers and readers. 

We also want to balance out the lists that we planned for the first two years. That means there’s a slight emphasis on women writers, although we do have some men writers. We also want to balance between commercial fiction that we know has worked well with German readers and sold a lot of copies in Germany, because we are a for-profit concern, and more literary fiction. 

We want to have writers who are working in Germany but they don’t have to be writing in German. That’s something that’s we’re going to expand in the future. There are so many people writing in Germany in different languages that it seems like a shame not to tap into that pool, because part of the way we work is that we are geographically close to the writers we work with in translation.

I wanted to ask you about Paula by Sandra Hoffman, which you translated, because I loved your translator’s note in which you mention that it was the book that sparked the imprint into existence when you couldn’t find a publisher for it. Can you elaborate on why it was important for you personally to publish? 

One of the frustrations of being a literary translator is that you’re positioned way down the food chain in terms of what books actually get published. Almost every literary translator I know suggests titles to publishers for translation, and sometimes it works –– and that is very, very gratifying –– but most times it doesn’t. 

I’d been working with Sandra Hoffman for a week with emerging literary translators at the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School in Norwich in 2018. The summer school format is about ten translators working in small groups on little extracts from the text, and the writer is there to explain their rationale. Also, to answer questions and to break down the artificial barrier between writers and translators. So you get very close to a text but also to the writer.

It worked very well for us, the book and the concerns in it about origin, and does it matter whether we know who our ancestors are? Does it matter whether we look the same as the people around us? There was something in it that almost everyone could relate to, whether that was family stories not being passed on, or being kept silent, and perhaps families having secrets. The book details auto-fictional details about the relationship with her grandmother who didn’t tell anyone who the father of her child was. And it goes from Sandra’s childhood to her teenage years which are just magnificently portrayed –– that awful teenage time of wanting to be on your own, but not wanting to be on your own, wanting to develop your own tastes and yet following others’… It was just, to use a terrible word, very relatable even though the experiences she focuses on aren’t things that I’ve experienced. And beautifully told.

One of the frustrations of being a literary translator is that you’re positioned way down the food chain in terms of what books actually get published. Almost every literary translator I know suggests titles to publishers for translation, and sometimes it works — and that is very, very gratifying — but most times it doesn’t. 

After so many years working as a literary translator and looking at a text from a translator perspective, do you find that being in this unique position of being the publisher of your own translations makes you approach your work differently in any way?

Oh yes, it definitely does. I feel much more empowered. All of the books so far, and also the next two that we are preparing right now, will have translators’ notes which I wouldn’t have always necessarily done if I hadn’t been asked to by a publisher. And I’ve very rarely been asked to, but I think it’s actually quite helpful for readers to have that extra perspective. 

I translated the first two that came out in September because we had a lot of time in the run-up to September. Besides Paula by Sandra Hoffman, the other one I translated is by Frances Nenik, who wrote a very strange narrative nonfiction book called Journey Through a Tragicomic Century which is the life story of an East German writer called Hasso Grabner. What I did there, instead of a translator’s note, was a translator’s glossary, explaining things that come up in the text but in my own voice. The nature of a glossary is to be neutral, to just give you objective facts, but this time I thought OK, well, because I’m the boss here an] its a very strange book in the first place, why not make it a subjective glossary? 

Not all of it is subjective but there are little personal anecdotes in the glossary and my opinion on why I haven’t translated certain terms. It was very much inspired by translator Christina McSweeney’s timeline-shaped afterword to The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, 2015) which is really radical. So, it is a different relationship and I feel I have a lot more agency. 

As a translator, how involved do you get when working with the other translators you publish? 

Most editors I’ve worked with haven’t been able to read the original of my translations. So I try to encourage more daring translation solutions and encourage more interventionist translation styles. That happens really during the editing process. Also, I like to give translators positive feedback, because editing is difficult to deal with as a translator. I’ve gotten used to it and I appreciate it now but to begin with, I found it very hard to deal with. You know, I put all my passion into this translation and somebody’s saying, “Well, you can’t do that, that’s no good,” and I have thrown things around the room in the past (not at anybody). I realized now, after a few years, that they have my best interests at heart. But some of my comments will be “That’s great, I love how you’ve done that!” 

For a book that we have coming out in March of next year, I’ve done my very first co-translation, with Ayça Türkoğlu, and that’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. The book is going to be called The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan and it is set in rural Turkey in the forties to sixties but written in German. Ayça’s father came from a similar background so also grew up in a different part of rural Turkey, and she translates both German and Turkish, so she is the perfect collaborator. We divided the texts into little chunks and we were sending them to and fro as we went along, which really helped me to avoid my typical mistakes or quirks that I often build in, that then have to be mercilessly removed by editors. I learned a lot from her and she learned a lot from me. 

It was also a rare thing to be able to share the very specific joy of translating something that we really love. We both really, really love the book so quite a lot of our comments during this first editing stage were, “Oh my god, I love this book!” Which of course you don’t normally have when you’re translating all on your own –– you can’t share it with anyone. 

The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan , tr. Katy Derbyshire and Ayça Türkoğlu, is forthcoming from V&Q Books in March 2021

V&Q was about to launch just as the pandemic was forcing book fairs to get cancelled and reducing foot traffic to bookstores, so how has the launch been affected by that and how have you been able to adapt? 

We were able to do one event where Sandra Hoffman came to Berlin from Munich and we live-streamed the event because restrictions here at the time were allowing that kind of thing to happen. Obviously, we were sufficiently distanced and we could only have twenty people attending. But nothing of the events we planned could happen apart from that one, which was a blow because that’s one of the things that we wanted to do, to take the German vibrant live literary event culture and adapt it to the UK and Ireland in some way, but which we didn’t get around to thinking about because it wasn’t going to happen. 

We had this amazing intern who was working on a PhD, his name is Pete Freeth, and he set up a blog tour where we had sixteen days of different reviews and interviews and profiles on nine different blogs or something, which I hope will have reached a sort of similar amount of people as a live event might have done. And certainly it has felt for me as a translator, and I know for the writers, that people are noticing that we exist and there is a lasting mark on the internet left by our books. We can’t tell whether that can translate into sales, so who knows. 

What’s next for V&Q?

We’ve got two books coming in March, The Blacksmith’s Daughter is Part 1 of a trilogy about a young woman who grows up in Turkey and at the end of the first book moves to Germany as a migrant worker, and a book that I have personally admired for a good decade. And also a book written in German by a translator and set in Scotland, and that’s called The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan, and that’s going to come in out in a translation by a Scottish translator Annie Rutherford and it’s quite a blockbuster in Germany and the kind of book that booksellers love to recommend. That’s a bit of an adventure because we’re –– well, in English we’d say “taking coals to Newcastle” –– taking a book set in Scotland to the UK and Ireland [that was] written by a German. We’ll see how that goes. It’s a gentle comedy about how people interact around a peacock-related incident at a team-building weekend in Scotland. And then we have more books lined up for Autumn 2021 and Spring 2022. 


Interview by Salwa Benaissa

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