Conversations

Will Schwalbe, founder and editor-in-chief at Hyperion East, discusses the challenges and joys of publishing literature in translation with Jeannine Stronach, manager of the Kiriyama Prize

Will Schwalbe (left) with Pramoeday Ananta

Toer in New York in 1999
(photo courtesy of

Alex Bardsley)

Jeannine Stronach: In his October 2002 review of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s The Girl From the Coast for the San Francisco Chronicle, David Kipen referred to Hyperion East as "editor Will Schwalbe’s heroic Hyperion East imprint." I would have to agree that your efforts to bring Asian literature in translation to an American audience are nothing short of heroic. Not many other American publishers are doing it, let alone doing it consistently.

Will Schwalbe: That was kind of David Kipen to say, and much appreciated. But I consider what I’ve been doing with Hyperion East more selfish than heroic. There are so many wonderful books that have been written, and which are now being written, in Asia—and I can’t read any of the ones that aren’t in English. So I either need to wait for someone else to translate and publish these books—or do it myself. It’s that simple! Thankfully, there are thousands of people just like me, so I can use my own passion as a kind of springboard. It’s turned out again and again that the very books I want to read can find a large and enthusiastic audience around the world if only given the chance and the exposure.

JS: What sparked your interest in getting these books published and how did you convince Hyperion to let you do it?

WS: I first came upon this world and these literatures though a course I took when I was an undergraduate at Yale. It was a Southeast Asian history course taught by a brilliant teacher and scholar named James Rush. He included fiction among the required course texts. So that’s where, for example, I was first exposed to a story by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the stories of Nick Joaquin. And because of that course, and these writers, I became intrigued by Asia in a way I had never been before. So after graduation, I put a few months in at a publishing house and saved up for a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, where I soon got a job as a travel journalist. I spent three years going all over the region. And wherever I went, I asked about the writers. What I discovered was a wealth of literature that was unavailable to people who, like me, don’t speak other languages. 

When I returned to the US, I started working at Morrow—but not in editorial, in subsidiary and foreign rights. So I was able to keep my connections and establish new ones with publishers around the world. Eventually, I was able to get Morrow to agree to let me publish a new translation of The Fugitive by Pramoedya. Simultaneously, I started acquiring and editing very commercial books, like The Juiceman’s Power of Juicing. The more success I had with those, the more Asian fiction I could publish. At that time, very few people were publishing any Southeast Asian fiction at all. When I published Pramoedya, it was the first time any Indonesian fiction writer had been published in translation by a non-academic American press. When I published Duong Thu Huong, hers was the first Vietnamese novel in translation ever published in the United States. By anyone. All the while, I was meeting more translators and coming to rely on them increasingly for, well, just about everything. Without such people as Nina McPherson, Howard Goldblatt, Max Lane, and John McGlynn, to name just a few, none of what I did would have been possible.

Soon, I added writers such as Su Tong, Wang Shuo, Ming Cher, and Li Pik-wah to the list. All of these books did well and were profitable, but not at the level that any large commercial house would require from an editor if that’s all he or she published. So I’ve always balanced my own list, first as an editor, which I soon became, and then as the editor-in-chief of the house. My ability to go on publishing Asian fiction in translation at a major house depends on my publishing a list of other books that make a significant financial contribution. But it’s not a simple question of art balanced by commerce. Happily, I’ve published many books that were able to make large contributions in both areas.

JS: Do you have a particular interest in publishing writers whose works are banned in their home countries?

WS: As I started to work with more Asian authors, I also found myself becoming more involved in freedom of speech advocacy. I serve on a committee of the Association of American Publishers called the International Freedom to Publish Committee; I am also a member of PEN and a supporter of Human Rights Watch and am on the Helmman/Hammett Award committee. I traveled with Sidney Jones to Indonesia to meet a wide range of writers who were suffering under Suharto, and later returned as part of a delegation of publishers and writers that organized, with Lontar, a Freedom to Publish Symposium. I went on my own to Vietnam and Sri Lanka and Cambodia, and met with writers in all three countries. So publishing remains a personal passion, but also, early on and to this day, it became a bit of a crusade for me. It’s not an accident that most of the writers I publish have been persecuted at one time or another for their writing. In most countries in Asia, for a very long time, if you wrote anything interesting, you were going to be persecuted. The writers who suffered the most tended to be those who wrote the most interesting books. Not always, but often.

Eventually, I left Morrow and was hired by Hyperion. One of the reasons I knew Hyperion was the right house for me was that the president, Bob Miller, didn’t just tolerate the idea of publishing Asian fiction in translation, he embraced it. In fact, it was his idea to have an imprint called Hyperion East—so that the books could help find readers for one another. He’s been a huge supporter from the start. He not only supports the publication, but all the activities surrounding the publication. When I worked with Chris GoGwilt at Fordham University to arrange Pramoedya’s historic first visit to the US, it was with Hyperion’s full and enthusiastic support. And Hyperion signed on as a sponsor of the PEN International Writers Festival this year with a contribution that helped bring Duong Thu Huong to the US for her first-ever visit. In all our catalogues and publications and on our website, Hyperion East is given real pride of place.

JS: Has the imprint turned out to be profitable for Hyperion? What Hyperion East titles have been your most successful?

WS: Almost all of the Hyperion East books have, at least, broken even. Some have done very well. None of them have made a truly significant contribution to the company’s bottom line. But I think that as long as Hyperion East continues to pay for itself, then the company is delighted to have it. There is great pride in the books and the attention they receive. We’ve had a Hyperion East book chosen by NPR as "Book of the Month," we’ve had them featured on the front covers of major book reviews, and we’ve heard from dozens of booksellers, like Rick Simonson at Elliot Bay [in Seattle, Washington], how much they appreciate our nurturing this line. I look at profitability this way: if I can’t get the line to break even, then it means I’m not doing enough to get attention for the books. Or it means I’m choosing books of such narrow interest that I should probably be choosing others instead. I have a responsibility to the authors I publish to make sure that their books reach the audience they deserve. If Hyperion East isn’t profitable, it probably means I’m falling down on the job.  

But I hate to define which have been our most successful. Certainly, Pramoedya’s and Duong Thu Huong’s and Yan Geling’s books have been very successful, selling nicely not just here, but around the world. Several of the paperbacks of Pramoedya’s and Huong’s bestselling works have sold more than 50,000 copies—which is huge. And Yan Geling’s The Lost Daughter of Happiness sold in particularly large numbers under license abroad, especially in England and France. And did very well here. (I should mention that a key part of the economics of publishing writers in translation is the right to recoup part of the advance and earn a small percentage of profit through licensing foreign rights on the author’s behalf. When this isn’t possible, it’s much harder, especially since I publish a lot of dissident writers, so know that I will get no help or subsidy from the writer’s government to pay for the translation or promotion.)

Still, many of the books which had small sales could also be said to be among our most successful. Our Twisted Hero by Yi Munyol was the first Korean novel in translation by a contemporary Korean writer to be published in the United States. Its sales were modest, but it had a major impact and course adoption not just at the college but at the high school level. I see that as a very successful publication. Similarly, The Dragon Hunt by Tran Vu introduced English language readers to one of the most extraordinary living writers. Granta ran first serial and to this day I hear from people for whom that slender volume is among their most treasured books. So that’s another way of defining success.

JS: Are books in translation marketed in a different way in the United States than books written in English? 

WS: With any literary work, originally in English or in translation, you need to rely on reviews. But sometimes when a work is by an American writer, you can get some other kinds of publicity, too. Publishing writers in Hyperion East, we rely totally on reviews—except in those cases where we can get an "off the book page" article, like the superb piece Alan Riding did about Duong Thu Huong in The New York Times. Still, it takes a committed journalist for this kind of piece to happen. Of all the authors I’ve published in Hyperion East, only one speaks enough English to be interviewed in English. Here, again, is where the translator is often the unsung hero—not just helping set up feature articles but providing the interpretation services gratis as well.

JS: In 2002, Poets and Writers magazine reported that translations represent less than two percent of all literary publishing in the US, and I’ll bet only a tiny percentage of that two percent are in translation from Asian languages. Why do you think most American publishers resist publishing international literature? Is there really a limited audience for literature in translation in the United States or are publishers missing out on a potential market?

WS: I’ve always heard that one or two percent number and thought, sadly, that it’s probably optimistic. It seems to me that a fraction of one percent of the books published in the US are in translation. And while a tiny percentage are translations from Asian languages, the problem is acute with literature from all languages. I met with a group of Iranian writers who suspected that the reason so few books from Iran were translated and published in the US was cultural prejudice left over from the hostage taking and revolution. They were both relieved and a bit horrified when I proved to them that Americans were equally uninterested in works by German, French, and Spanish writers! (I asked a group of Americans present if together we could think of five living German, French, Spanish, or Italian writers who were published in translation—and we failed on all. Of course there are more than five, but the fact that we couldn’t name them made the point.)

JS: So who is at fault?

WS: I think it’s a combination of an irrational and weird distrust of translations among American readers; of a publicity-oriented literary culture that makes it tough for shy American authors, never mind ones who don’t speak our language; of an unhelpful reverence towards books in translations by reviewers who often present them more like medicine than works people actually might enjoy; of an obsession with context which causes book review editors to assign historians and academics to review works of fiction just because that fiction is from another country; of the solipsism of many American writers who are delighted to have their own books translated into dozens of languages and championed by foreign authors, but can’t be bothered to search out and spread the word about any writers from those very countries; and the scattered attention of certain publishers, who throw too much money at the occasional hyped (often overhyped) work being lauded at a book fair, and then declare that there’s no market and give up when that book tanks.

That said, I really do want to bring attention to all the publishers, big and small, conglomerate and independent, who are publishing books in translation: Grove and Metropolitan and Scribner and Arcade and Copper Canyon and Little Brown and Knopf, and, well, I could go on and on.  

What’s more fun is to talk about what is being done, especially by Words Without Borders and by PEN American Center, with its International Writers Festival, and, of course, by the Kiriyama Prize and Pacific Rim Voices. I’m seeing the impact of all of this. And I think it’s working.

I also have a special plea to major American writers. A lot of writers understandably won’t blurb anymore because they are besieged. If they would all make exceptions for literature in translation, they could do a world of good, especially if they combined blurbing with giving a word or two about one of these books before each reading. By definition they couldn’t be swamped with books to blurb—there aren’t enough being published. And when they are? They can stop, because the problem will be fixed. But if the biggest of the big made this their crusade, they could really make a difference.

JS: You have always been a great supporter of the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York. Do you think that Asian American writers have played a role in opening people’s minds to literature coming out of Asia?

WS: Asian American writers have served a tremendous role in bringing attention to works from Asia. The interplay between Asian and Asian American authors is a big, complex subject—one that probably deserves a thesis from a smart graduate student somewhere. From the start, the very writers who were often trying to get the broadest US reading public to see them as American writers, Asian-American writers, risked the ground they had gained in this respect by allying themselves closely with writers from Asia and championing those works. From the very start, I’ve been able to count on the support of Asian American writers and the Asian American Writers Workshop—even though this really wasn’t part of their mandate. But the line between Asian and Asian-American writers isn’t one that’s hard and fast.

For example, it had always been easy to decide which books went into Hyperion East and which Hyperion. Hyperion East is a line for books in translation. So works by Asian American writers were published as Hyperion; books in translation in Hyperion East. But this year we published a book by Yan Geling called The Banquet Bug and she wrote it in English. Her last book, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, she wrote in Chinese. Should they be in different imprints? The one in Chinese was set in San Francisco; the one in English set in Beijing. She wrote the one in Chinese while living in San Francisco as an American citizen; she wrote the one in English while living in Africa and has now moved to Taiwan.

She still self-identifies as a Chinese writer, not an Asian American writer, so her works will all stay in Hyperion East. And I will let new writers be in whatever line they feel fits them best regardless of the language in which they write.

JS: Do you have a favorite Asian American writer? 

WS: I have so many that I won’t single out one. It’s just too tough. I would urge everyone to go to the website of the Asian American Writers Workshop and look at the finalists for the Annual Award. You will find something extraordinary in each of these books.

JS: You were largely responsible for bringing the works of the great Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer to the United States. Can you tell me a little bit about how you met him and why you felt it was important to publish him here? 

WS: Pramoedya Ananta Toer is, in my opinion, one of the three or four greatest writers of our time. All one needs to do is start the Buru Quartet and this will become evident. He wasn’t just the first Asian author I edited and published—he was the first author, period. Ever since I first read a story by him in Rush’s course, I was haunted. He writes about the big things—this isn’t navel-gazing post-adolescent literature. These are works about what makes us human and inhuman. But, god, the characters, and the stories. I remember sobbing at the end of This Earth of Mankind. I still do whenever I read it. And The Fugitive puts me in a trance; it’s as rich a work as anything Hesse produced. The Mute’s Soliloquy is one of the most important documents of our time, up there with The Gulag Archipelago. And the short stories—Pramoedya was a master. The collection All That Is Gone is mindblowing. So the first thing is just, well, the work. I really believe if I can say I’ve done nothing in my career but introduce American readers to Pramoedya’s work, then that’s enough.

JS: If you met someone who had never read anything by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, what book would you tell him to start with? 

WS: This Earth of Mankind.

JS: I noticed that Penguin has just published a newly translated work by Pramoedya, It’s Not an All Night Fair. If you are free to say, why didn’t Hyperion publish this work? 

WS: This was originally published by Equinox, an excellent press based in Jakarta that has reissued many of Pramoedya’s books for distribution mostly in Southeast Asia. They came to me and asked if I was interested in licensing this from them and publishing it in the US. It’s a new translation of a brilliant short story that had been published years back in Indonesia Magazine. We agreed that it would be better for them to go to Penguin US, which licenses the paperback rights from Hyperion and Morrow for most of Pramoedya’s work. They are also devoted to Pramoedya and have an excellent academic marketing operation. The book is very slim and it seemed that publication as a paperback original was the best way to get for it the large audience it deserves in the US. That way, it was far more likely to get the course adoptions it deserves right off the bat.

JS: Are there any recent or forthcoming Hyperion East titles you’re excited about?

WS: The Banquet Bug by Yan Geling is just out, and it’s a book that is an extraordinary look at appetites and their consequences. It’s also a wicked portrait of corruption at its most baroque. And the over-the-top food descriptions are worth the price of the book in and of themselves. The Observer in London called it, "a telling, multilayered tale, enthralling as a fable and subtle as a riddle."