Paul Sullivan talks to Katy Derbyshire about her new publishing imprint, V & Q Books, and its mission to bring German-language books to English readers…
British-born Katy Derbyshire is something of a stalwart on Berlin’s literary scene—especially in terms of her lauded translation work and long-running (bimonthly) Dead Ladies show. Having graduated in German Studies in the UK, she moved to Berlin and began translating a few years later, gradually moving into literary translating.
She has translated a number of high profile authors such as Christa Wolf, Inka Parei, Helene Hegeman, Tilman Rammstedt and Clemens Meyer: her translation of Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar was long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and won the 2018 Straelener Prize for Translation.
Katy has for several years also co-edited no-mans-land.org, an online magazine of contemporary German literature in English translation, helped establish the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (running since 2017), and is experienced at organising book launches and translation-related events.
V&Q Books, a subsidiary of indie German publisher Voland & Quist that focuses on publishing translated works, is her first venture into the world of publishing…
How did the idea for V&Q come about? Is it something that gestated over a long period of time, or more spontaneous?
It was a slow germination after an initial seed of inspiration. I was worried about Brexit affecting my choices in life in general and on the work front as well, and frustrated by the low number of translations published in the UK. I then took the seed of my idea to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the German indie publishers Voland & Quist watered it. We’ve been tending our shoot for a while now, with our first three books coming out in September 2020 and the next two in March 2021.
Who else is involved in V&Q, aside from yourself?
Everyone at Voland & Quist plays a role. They have established printers, typesetters, accountants and so on, and a lot of experience that I benefit from. At the moment I do most things that need doing in English, though.
How did you wind up working with Voland & Quist specifically?
I happened to have a meeting with one of their managing directors, Leif Greinus, at the book fair in 2018, and told him about my idea to work with a German publisher. It was inspired by Europa Editions, incidentally, who brought Elena Ferrante to the English-speaking world and are an imprint of an Italian publisher. Leif asked me not to tell anyone else about my idea, and we took it from there, drawing up a list of must-have books and thinking about design, communication, mission, and all the rest. The whole process took two years.
The original aim, as I understand it, is to publish translated books by German writers and market them to the UK and Ireland; you are also working with Inpress Books in the UK for the sales and distribution side…?
That’s it, except we’ll also be publishing some German-based writers who work in other languages – because why should national literatures be monolingual? Inpress works with a whole lot of independent publishers and acts as a go-between for us to booksellers and the distributor, helps us with marketing, and has been a fount of good advice. They were recommended to us by a number of friends in UK publishing, and they’re a delight to work with.
You mentioned Brexit; has it continued to shape the imprint as it has gone on…and on…and on?
It did, in that it made me think deeply about border closures in a metaphorical sense. It seems more important than ever to me to provide British readers with access to international writing; but equally, what sense would it make to claim that the only people writing in Germany were doing so in German? Even if they ever were in the first place, countries are now certainly not monolingual and monocultural, and I want V&Q Books to embrace a broader definition of “writing from Germany”. So Brexit sharpened my thoughts about literature and nationality.
On that point, there does seem to be a dearth of German books translated into English—would you say that’s a fair comment? And if so, why do you think this is the case?
It’s a fair comment, and it stems from the dearth of books from anywhere translated into English. German is usually near the top of a very small league table, after French and Spanish. I’ve never quite understood why that is. It could be that the global dominance of English brings us such a wealth of Anglophone writers from enough countries other than the UK that anything else is considered superfluous. Or it could be that translation is a risk and British and US publishing is becoming increasingly risk-averse, at least on the corporate level.
You also say you want to bust some myths about German writing on the site, including that Germans having no sense of humour. Can you elaborate…?
I’ve often heard that German books are all long, dense and migraine-provokingly serious. And that they’re all written by dead white men. None of those stereotypes have ever rung true in my experience, and our list of titles is designed to reflect a less clichéd image of Germany. So out of our first five books, only one doesn’t use humour in some shape or form—although we haven’t yet put together an “all-time best German jokes” collection. Our authors are a little more diverse than the myths would have it as well.
Your remit is to cover commercial and literary fiction as well as non-fiction, is that right?
Yes, that’s always been the plan, partly because one of the first things we did was draw up our publishing schedule for the first two years.
How do you find or choose books to translate, and who is involved in the process?
I’ve been keeping a very close eye on German publishing for years now, and like anyone else I have my own taste. The advantage of working with a German indie press is: they do too! Most of the initial choices have been mine; then I take them to the group and we talk it over. Sometimes we try to buy translation rights to a particular book and it doesn’t work, so we start over again from the beginning. What’s important to me is that our books have a strong sense of place – not necessarily Germany – and a strong voice. Plus of course an inexplicable magic spark.
I’ve read that you want to also try and promote female authors especially, which seems a venerable and necessary counter-balance to what is still a disturbingly male-dominated industry in 2021. Do you have any specific commitments in that regard, or are you simply aiming to find more women to translate/publish as you go?
I was part of a team who lobbied for the creation of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, which has been going for four years now. Before that, I crunched a lot of numbers and found that women are considerably underrepresented in translation in the UK; only about a quarter to a third of translated books were authored by women. I put it down to their relative lack of visibility in their home countries; publishers simply don’t notice as many women writers, even though their work may be outstanding. So there was no way I could publish a list that skewed male, and gender is one of many considerations in choosing our titles.
I know it’s still new, but has running the imprint so far changed anything for you as a translator, or simply as a fan of literature? Any industry or creative insights that have surprised or shocked you?
Absolutely—a publisher has much more agency than a translator; I’m making quite different decisions. But we also ask our other translators to write translators’ notes for the back of the book, and we print their names on the front cover. Again, it’s about increasing visibility. I’m surprised by booksellers’ resilience, I have to say, having never dealt with the sales side before and seeing how they’ve made the best of an incredibly bad year. And by the huge amount of support we’ve received from other indie publishers.
You also work with editors for the books, which I presume is not new for you. But is anything different about the translator-editor relationship now that it’s via your own imprint?
I hope not. The main editor working on my own translations is a very talented friend and colleague, who I hope is suitably unimpressed by my new job title. I edit the books translated by other people, and I like to edit the way I enjoy being edited: praise as well as criticism, the occasional smiley, prompting translators to be more daring rather than choosing the smooth option.
You have also co-translated a book, The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan, with Ayça Türkoğlu; is that a first and how did that come about?
It is a first and I loved every minute of it! I have adored the book and wanted to translate it for many years, but it’s set in Turkey and I’ve never been there. My colleague Ayça Türkoğlu translates from German and from Turkish and has the cultural knowledge I lack. It’s actually part one of a trilogy so there’s plenty of translating to go around, and working together on what is usually a solitary project was eye-opening and delightful. We translated alternating chapters and edited each other’s work as we went along; recurring words and phrases we discussed together. I think it made for an excellent translation.
Are you working with any Berlin-based authors, editors or translators? And as a long-term resident, do you think the city has played a role in the imprint at all?
Our office is here and we’re publishing a number of Berlin-based authors: Lucy Fricke and Ivana Sajko, for example. Our main editor aside from myself is here, but otherwise people are spread fairly far and wide. Berlin has given me the relative financial stability to do such a risky thing, however.
Launching the imprint during a pandemic has presumably brought some challenges. What have those been, and have there been any advantages, such as people perhaps reading more, or online sales going up?
It has been very hard, especially as one of Voland & Quist’s strengths lies in live events. Bookshops have been closed a lot of the time, which is a killer because small publishers simply don’t get noticed on A*azon. It has been hard not to sit down to eat with our writers and translators, not to attend book fairs and talk to colleagues face to face. The only advantage has been a sudden increase in my tech-savviness.
What are the V&Q publishing plans for 2021? And maybe beyond if you have planned that far….
We’re publishing four books in 2021. On 1 March The Peacock by Isabel Bogdan (tr. Annie Rutherford) and The Blacksmith’s Daughter by Selim Özdoğan (tr. Ayça Türkoğlu and Katy Derbyshire). And in the autumn we have an award-winning experimental novel by Iris Hanika, The Bureau of Past Management, translated by Abigail Wender, and Birgit Weyhe’s graphic novel Madgermanes, translated by myself. Future titles will be translated from Croatian and German, and we shall see what else…