The Apollo Solaris bookstore in Tallinn is Estonia's largest bookseller: modern, including a coffee area, and by all appearances much like any good bookshop in the UK or US, with the significant difference that its shelves are filled with books that most of us can never hope to read, because they are written in Estonian. Until someone invents a special pair of translation goggles that will convert every foreign word we look at, English-language readers are stuck on the outside of this particular bookshop experience, left to admire the decor, lounge in the coffee area, but all the while self-conscious and, if you're anything like me, depressed, irkingly aware that these shelves represent an enormous number of intellectual and artistic experiences that you, sad sack, will never have.
A small contingent from Dalkey Archive Press visited Apollo a few years ago while scouting for Estonian novels to publish, and met with Nele Hendrikson, the product manager at Apollo, who was somewhat surprised to learn that an English-language publisher had come to Estonia for any reason other than vacation. Estonians are proud of their own literary tradition, no doubt, but English-language publishers do not typically come looking for it. They did have a section of the store dedicated to books in foreign languages – including English – but what this section provided was simply something good to read. What it did not and could not provide was access to the enormous number of intellectual and artistic experiences the rest of the store – and, by extension, all of the Estonian culture – has to offer.
So we discovered that Dalkey Archive had something to offer the country of Estonia, in return for the great literature that Estonia offered us. We worked out an arrangement with Apollo whereby they would bring in copies of our translations of renowned Estonian writer Mati Unt (1944-2005: novelist, playwright, journalist, and theatre director; renowned for his fiction and for his stage adaptations of works by Gombrowicz, Genet, Beckett ...) We reasoned that these would sell not only to tourists from predominantly English-speaking countries, but to anyone interested in Estonian literature who read English better than Estonian. The success of this experiment served to confirm our suspicion that English-language tourists are not simply interested in toting their own favorite English authors around in the their rucksacks, they are also interested, or are capable of becoming interested, in Mati Unt.
There is a popular line on citizens of the English-speaking world, that we are not very interested in the cultures of other countries. In the business of literary publishing, this cliche manifests as the widespread misbelief that English and American readers have a "bias" against reading books in translation. Although I have seen a great deal made of this "bias" over the past few years, I have never seen any real evidence of it from readers. It is certainly harder to market translated authors, but that is because readers lack a context for picking up an unfamiliar book in the first place. To market a translated book, you have to somehow translate the market itself: you have to find ways to make the book as immediate and relevant and inviting to readers in your own culture and language as it is in the culture where it originally appeared. This is, strictly speaking, impossible to do, and so we come up with all sorts of surrogate strategies: blurbs from famous English-language authors, awards and prizes, comparisons to familiar English-language titles. We try to be creative. We do what we can.
In fact, over the past few years we have seen a growth of interest in English-language translations throughout Europe, with long-established booksellers such as Athenaeum in Amsterdam; Shakespeare & Co, Red Wheelbarrow, and Village Voice in Paris; Norli in Oslo; and Hedengrens Bokhandel in Stockholm, being joined by new and more remote venues, such as Frost Bookshop in Bucharest, which stocks as wide a selection of Dalkey Archive titles as any bookseller in the world. I take this proliferation of interest in English-language translations as a sign of growing inter-cultural intellectual and artistic curiosity. In other words, while the hegemonic role English plays in homogenising culture is generally speaking a bad thing, nonetheless the fact that English can make the culture and ideas of non-English writers available to readers throughout the world seems to me an unquestionably good one.
Of course in our own countries there remains this problem, the problem of marketing, of giving a reader some reason to pick a book up. Personally, I wish every reader could spend an afternoon in an Estonian bookshop. Let them sit with their strong coffee, walk up and down the aisles, imagining the intellectual energy of a culture that they will be forever outside of, the rows and rows of books they can never hope to read, and then offer them one that they can ... If only every translated book could be marketed so well.