Interview with an Indie Press: Two Lines Press
On Focusing on Literature in Translation
Working under the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, California, Two Lines Press exclusively publishes books in translation from around the world. Their staff answered our questions about building a community of translators, their close relationship with indie bookstores, and the other independent presses supporting works in translation.
What are some of the benefits of working at an independent press?
I don’t know that there are benefits inherent to working at an indie press; there certainly aren’t significant material or structural ones. If indie presses have anything going for them in a market oversaturated with marketing dollars and buzzing books vying for limited attention, it’s their potential for focus, their potential for specificity, their potential for curation, and the potential longevity of their workers, who—assuming they are treated well and are also fairly compensated (as is the case at Two Lines Press)—tend to stick around a lot longer doing better work happier.
At the end of the day, that’s a lot of potential. But it is there. All of us at Two Lines and the Center for the Art of Translation are involved in the mission and are inspired by the writers and translators we publish, and because we publish a relatively small number of books each year, we’ve got the time and flexibility to try new things with each. Which is to say, financial limitations and a cogent mission allow us to approach our work from different angles. This is a benefit in a contorted way. At the end of the day, the cause isn’t going to get us on the front table at Barnes & Noble or in every airport in the country (only marketing dollars can do that), but I think we’re grateful for our lot. –Chad Felix, Sales and Marketing Manager
What are some of the challenges of working at an independent press?
It’s tempting to dwell solely on the business of publishing in this space. Who among us isn’t tracking paper shortages, printing delays, weakened links in the supply chain, the consolidation of distribution, and the quiet demise of literary journals and book reviews? Compared to the Big—nay, Massive!—Four, we are but a tiny band of literary misfits. And yet we share many of the same concerns; our industry is not known for nurturing a sense of tranquility. However, I’d still say the greatest challenge for an independent press like ours is to inoculate ourselves against cynicism. When it seems as if the world is falling apart around us, or when it feels like nothing is going our way, we have to turn back to our work, to the page, to the pleasures of the text, and to the joy of sharing a book with a keen reader we know will savor it. –Michael Holtmann, Publisher
Is there a particular quality, style, or other characteristic that connects the projects that you take on?
Of course! There is certainly a style of after-modernist writing (literary, voice-driven) I’m easily drawn to, and those characteristics are well-reflected in the Two Lines list. When I’m doing acquisitions, however, I find myself most excited by projects that are unignorable despite not necessarily fitting my tastes so easily—books that demand to be read (and edited and published) through some of my learned resistance. This is how we ended up with a contemporary magical road novel through the trauma of a post Arab Spring Egypt (Mohamed Kheir’s Slipping, translated by Robin Moger) in a season back to back with a devastating and biting novel written in the 1960s about three generations of women trapped in the patriarchal culture of Salazar’s Portugal (Empty Wardrobes, by Maria Judite de Carvalho, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.) My hope is that a regular reader of Two Lines Press titles finds a through-line of great writing and translation, but still finds themselves on unfamiliar footing book to book. –CJ Evans, Editor in Chief“Perhaps one of the biggest risks we’ve taken as a press is our long-standing commitment to short works that are difficult to categorize.”
Part of the beauty of editing the journal and the Calico Series is that I’m exposed to wide range of writing styles and traditions. Still, I think I’m inevitably drawn to publishing writing that surprises me, avoids cliches, and takes risks with language. My hope is that readers come to Two Lines to discover new favorite writers and see in real time what translators are working on. And that readers pick up a Calico edition and know that they’re bound to read a collection of daring literature that will complicate, rather than reduce and anthologize, their idea of world literature. –Sarah Coolidge, Editor
Were there any titles in particular that were game-changers for your business?
Having a breakout title matters less to me than honoring the faith our writers, translators, and readers put in us: they trust Two Lines Press to publish daring books with thoughtfulness in beautiful editions. We recently attended the Brooklyn Book Festival—our first in-person book happening since March 2020—and it was freshly galvanizing to behold a table full of books we are proud to have published. Translated literature, especially, has a history of being poorly produced, poorly marketed, poorly publicized. In the eight years since we launched Two Lines we feel that we’ve been part of a revolution, with some of our peers, in how translated literature is treated in the US, from design all the way through reviews and events.
This is to say, if there’s a way in which we feel we’ve changed the game it’s the quality we’ve baked into Two Lines Press, it’s the way we play the game: we only publish books we believe in, and we do everything in our power to give each book the attention it deserves. Pick up Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole), or Maria Judite de Carvalho’s Empty Wardrobes (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), or Carl de Souza’s Kaya Days (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman), or Cuíer and you’ll see what I mean. Each one of these books is excellent, and each one has been translated and edited and designed and marketed with passion, intelligence, ingenuity, and care. –Michael Holtmann, Publisher
What are some of the biggest risks you’ve taken as a business? How did you navigate them?
I mean: it’s a risk for a small press to publish only literature in translation. We’re not the only indie press that publishes literature in translation, of course, but we’re among the few exclusively dedicated to the endeavor. Perhaps one of the biggest risks we’ve taken as a press is our long-standing commitment to short works that are difficult to categorize: Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green (translated by Jordan Stump), Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant (translated by Isabel Fargo Cole), the work of João Gilberto Noll, Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses (translated by Christina MacSweeney), and recent books by Carl de Souza and Maria Judite de Carvalho.
On the one hand, I can’t imagine a commercial publisher taking on any of these books; on the other, these books comprise the very fabric of what we’re trying to do, what defines Two Lines Press. I suppose what I’m saying is that we embrace risk—we want to defy the market, upend literary expectations, spotlight underrepresented authors and languages, celebrate the artistry of translators, challenge our readers and ourselves—even if it means we’re less likely to get splashy reviews, even if it means we might never make much money. –Michael Holtmann, Publisher
What are some projects you’re particularly excited about at the moment?
I’m really looking forward to a collection of Kiswahili writing we’re working on, and I can’t wait to introduce readers to the Cameroonian/French author Hemley Boum next year. Her book The Days Come and Go (Les jours viennent et passent) tells the story of Abi, her dying mother Anna, and a girl once taken in by Anna who survived being kidnapped by Boko Haram. It’s an evocative, wrenching book that weaves together reminiscences and reflections, offering stirring thoughts on race, religion, literature, and the troubled history of Cameroon from colonialism through the present. Even more exciting, the translator, Nchanji Njamnsi, is from the same region of Cameroon as where the book is set. –Michael Holtmann, Publisher
Well, I’m a bit biased, but I’m eager to publish our next Calico edition, This Is Us Losing Count, in March. If you’re a fan of poetry, I strongly suggest you pick this celebration of eight contemporary Russian poets in stunning translations. (Only one of the poets, Galina Rymbu, has had a book out in the US.) One after another, the poems turn toward the past, grasping at memories both life-changing and mundane. What’s miraculous to me is the playful experimentation in the language itself. What you get in this collection is writing about the past but written in a style that is more a monument to the future. –Sarah Coolidge, Editor
I’m really looking forward to a book we’re doing in Fall 2022, Out of the Sugar Factory by the Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger. I’ve yet to read the full manuscript (the translation is still in the works) but the elevator pitch is hugely promising: an interdisciplinary, pan-genre work that fixates on the cycles of capital, labor, and lust. Elmiger connects ponderous lottery winners, t-shirt slogans, goats, gamblers, orgiasts, colonialists, and tons more to gently (and perhaps not so gently) surface interconnected truths about our world, sourced from the big and the small, the mighty and the weak. –Chad Felix, Sales and Marketing Manager
I’m very much looking forward to both of our Spring 2022 titles, including Jazmina Barrera’s far-reaching essay on the still-underexplored literary realm of pregnancy, birth, and young motherhood Linea Nigra, translated by Christina MacSweeney. At this moment, though, I just finished up working on our other spring title, Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation of Masatsugu Ono’s At the Edge of the Woods, which is such a powerful and strange book. It perfectly encapsulates the dislocation of living abroad, where even if you speak the language the relationships and customs are always opaque. It’s also an interesting play on fairytales, twisting them to where, much like those opaque cross-cultural interactions, you’re never sure what’s safe and what’s a threat. –CJ Evans, Editor in Chief
How do you get feedback from your readers?
Most good days I talk to a bookseller. Independent bookstores are where most of our books are sold, so it makes good sense that I chat with people like Mark Haber and Ulrika Möats of Brazos Bookstore; Michael Bender (Split Rock Books); Stephen Sparks (Point Reyes Books); Pierce Alquist (Brookline Booksmith); Stephanie Valdez and Noah Mintz (Community Bookstore); Katharine Solheim and Mandy Medley (Pilsen Community Books); and Spencer Ruchti (Third Place Books). If we’re doing OK by them, I figure we’re doing all right. They are our first readers, after all. Our other close readers are the many translators we’ve gotten to know and work with for over twenty-seven years.
In fact, it is our ongoing relationships with the translation community, who we simply would not exist without, that led to decisions at the dawn of the press that have served us well to this day. (Putting translator names on the covers of our books, for example, has always been the policy. Recently, Jennifer Croft, translator of the Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk, has launched a campaign to persuade other presses to take this initiative, which she smartly notes, costs them nothing.) It’s also wonderful to be in touch with the readers we meet at book fairs and conferences, where we all happily attempt the classic handsell. Most of these interactions have been on hold because of the pandemic, but as Michael mentions above, it’s really gratifying to stand at a table in front of all (or most) of our titles. To chat with interested strangers about the project of Two Lines, reveal our books’ fixations (we do say “Lynchian” a lot at these events, come to think of it…), and in general get a sense of what people are reading and loving. –Chad Felix, Sales and Marketing Manager
How do debut authors reach/pitch you?
We take book submissions from translators via Submittable year-round. We’re a small staff and we read everything carefully, so we’re not the quickest game in town, but it’s always a good way to show us what you’re working on. Our longstanding relationships with translators, some going back as far as twenty-seven years, are really the lifeblood of our work, and we’re eager to develop new relationships with emerging translators and support them at this early and vital stage in their careers. I’m always available to field questions and hear about unconventional projects at firstname.lastname@example.org. –Sarah Coolidge, Editor
What’s another indie press you love/would recommend?
There are so many exciting presses out there, but I’d like to give a shoutout to Bloodaxe Books in the UK. They have an impressive catalog, including Ani Gjika’s translation of Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Negative Space (published here in the US by New Directions), and more recently, Maria Stepanova’s poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals, translated beautifully by Sasha Dugdale. I know I’ll continue to return to that book and its stunningly playful poetry for years to come. –Sarah Coolidge, Editor
I will always be indebted to Archipelago Books. I’m a big Knausgaard admirer and have Jill Schoolman and company to thank for his early stateside publications (A Time for Everything will always be my favorite of his books I suspect, no matter how many dozens he publishes). The quality and ambition of that author—an extreme (and extremely popular) case—is built into the Archipelago publishing project. And while their influence can be felt in certain ways, their editorial vision remains singular. It’s hard to imagine another press that would publish a book like Wiesław Myśliwski’s pastoral, plain-spoken epic Stone Upon Stone (translated from Polish by Bill Johnston); or Ida Jessen’s delicate A Change of Time (translated from Danish by Martin Aitken); or Lojze Kovačič’s vast Newcomers series (translated from Slovenian by Michael Biggins). There is a particular quality to these books. Inventive and inviting and oddly shaped. –Chad Felix, Sales and Marketing Manager
I really admire the Scotland-based publisher Charco Press. They have a laser-focus on Latin American literature and have an amazing list, from Margarita García Robayo to Andrea Jeftanovic to Fernanda Trias (to name just a few, translated by Charlotte Coombe, Frances Riddle, and Annie McDermott) But I also admire them because they invest a lot of time, energy, and resources in each book. They think hard about the translation process and connecting translators to projects. They expanded from the UK to the US, and recently began publishing their titles in Spanish as well. There is a lot of pressure in publishing to do “more” and that often equates to more titles, but I think it’s a great lesson to do fewer projects but really do all you can for them for the author and translator. And again, their list is downright amazing from end to end. –CJ Evans, Editor in Chief
I thank my lucky stars for Action Books, Alice James, Archipelago Books, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Dorothy, Flood Editions, Four Way Books, Milkweed, New Directions, Nightboat, A Public Space, Sarabande, Song Cave, Sublunary Editions, Transit Books, Ugly Duckling, and Wave Books. These presses inspire me to publish the best work I can. –Michael Holtmann, Publisher