Wednesday 30 April 2014

Questions & Answers with Daniel Seton

Daniel Seton is an editor with the UK-based Pushkin Press, which publishes novels, essays, memoirs, timeless classics, tomorrow’s classics…its lists are filled with exciting high-quality, writing from around the world.

Last November, Daniel was part of a delegation of UK-based editors who visited South Korea for a scoping and study trip jointly organised by The British Council, and The Literature Translation Institute of Korea.

Daniel gave me an interview via e-mail, from London.

Why does Pushkin Press publish so many titles in translation?

We want to publish the world’s best stories in English, which in practice means that we publish books that have already been successfully published elsewhere. They might be contemporary works or modern classics, and the great majority of the time they are translations, although not always - for example we had great success with the multi-prize-winning American Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which we published in the UK for the first time in 2013.

How are translated books received in the UK? How enthusiastic are English speakers to read translated work?

At the heart of our publishing policy is the belief that a great book is a great book. If published correctly, readers simply don’t care whether it was translated or not. That’s not to underplay the importance of translators to what we do, but the mere fact that a book is translated shouldn’t be a positive or a negative for readers. It may sound trite, but it’s all about the writing.

Having said that, the market for translated fiction in the UK is clearly underdeveloped - only about 4% of fiction sales are of translated works. But we think this is a result of attitudes within the publishing and bookselling industries, rather than any aversion to translated fiction on the part of UK readers. The huge success in recent years of books such as the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, which kicked off with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, illustrates this - who thinks of those books as translated fiction? They’re just addictive stories that readers devour, and the fact they were originally written in Swedish is irrelevant.

All this means we see the underdeveloped market for foreign fiction in the UK as a huge opportunity. There are so many amazing stories, from all over the world, that UK readers are currently missing out on. We want to put that right.

Do you have any Asian authors on your lists?  If so, who?  And where do they come from?   

Currently, all our Asian authors are Japanese.

We publish four titles by the sexagenarian enfant-terrible of Japanese literature Ryu Murakami, including the first English translation of From the Fatherland with Love, which imagines a North-Korean invasion of Japan.

We’ve also recently published Bullfight and The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, whose writing we love. We’re following these titles up in August with a collection of stories, Life of a Counterfeiter.

There are also two children’s books that we’re publishing next year: Tomiko Inui’s The Secret of the Blue Glass - a kind of Japanese Borrowers - and The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka, a collection of beautiful and moving stories for children about war.

What drew you to visiting Korea as part of the British Council's delegation?

Pure curiosity! I was aware that there was a rich tradition of Korean literature, with which I was only vaguely familiar, through the works of authors such as Yi Mun-Yol. I also thought of Korea as having a very young, dynamic culture, all of which made me very grateful indeed for the opportunity to visit.

When you got there, what most surprised you about contemporary Korean books, literature and publishing?  

As I mentioned above, I had only a passing acquaintance with Korean literature before my visit, and, I’m afraid to say, next to no knowledge of the Korean publishing industry. I think one of the things a lot of British people hear about Korea is how long the hours are in school, as well as in the workplace, but I was very pleasantly surprised on my arrival by how relaxed and friendly everyone seemed. It must be all the soju!

I was also surprised to learn that, despite the ubiquity of Wifi and smartphones in South Korea, eBook sales are relatively smaller than they are in the UK. Perhaps, when wireless technology is everywhere, as it seemed to be in Seoul, physical books can be something of a refuge?

Have you bought any Korean titles as a result of the trip?

I’d love to say yes, but unfortunately we’ve yet to acquire our first Korean author. I have certainly grown much more familiar with Korean literature since my visit, and there are a number of titles we’re considering, so if you keep an eye on us we might have some better news soon…

Did you meet any exiled North Korean writers?  What, if anything, do you think Western publishers can do to help North Korean writers, whether in exile, or still trapped in the North? 

I didn’t meet any North Korean authors, unfortunately, but I think the world is becoming increasingly familiar with the story of what life is really like inside North Korea, and publishers can help by making sure that story is told.

Song for an Approaching Storm

In March, Pushkin Press published Song for an Approaching Storm, by Peter Fröberg Idling, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves.

Peter Fröberg Idling spent two years in Cambodia, where he was formally employed by Forum Syd, a Swedish NGO, but where he spent most of his time as a legal advisor to Star Kampuchea, a local NGO.

Song for an Approaching Storm draws on his local knowledge.  It is a political thriller set in Cambodia in 1955. The country is on the brink of change, with the first democratic elections just around the corner.

Sar, a quiet, likeable man in his early thirties, is campaigning for the opposition, but secretly working for an armed Communist takeover. In the years to come, the world will know him as Pol Pot.

Somaly is Sar’s beautiful, wilful, fiancée, with an agenda of her own. 

Sam Sary, the deputy prime minister, is Sar’s political rival.  He too becomes interested in Somaly.

Over the course of thirty days, and against the backdrop of political power games, the love triangle of Sar, Somaly and Sam Sary unfolds in the sweltering summer heat, in an atmosphere tense with ambition.