A Conversation with the Editor

People seem a bit perplexed when we talked about starting this journal. The topic has inspired interesting conversations about the Internet and publishing, literature, travel, globalization, the art of translating, etc. To answer some of those questions, we interviewed our editor in chief, Terra Chapek.

Why are you starting Underpass?

The whole world consumes American movies, TV, books, music, but a ridiculously small amount of foreign media flows back the other way. It’s difficult to get an accurate count, but it has been estimated that less than three percent of books published in English each year are translations. Stories are one of the best ways to promote a deeper cultural understanding. It’s absurd that Americans are so uninformed about daily struggles and triumphs, the hopes, dreams, and passions of the rest of the planet. How can we understand a place or its people if we know nothing of their stories? Underpass is one small way we can begin to change all of that.

What will you publish?

Underpass will publish short fiction, novel excerpts, and narrative nonfiction that have been translated into English from small and marginalized languages. (See our Submissions page for more info.) Out of the very small number of translations published in the United States each year, almost half are translated from French, German, and Spanish. We want to publish great writing from the 1,000s of other languages and countries on the planet. As the site evolves, we’ll focus on writing that has a strong sense of place and provides a glimpse into a new culture.

Why aren’t more foreign authors published the United States?

There are many reasons, but mostly, it’s economics. Often the publisher is responsible for the translation, and good translators for small language groups are difficult to find and expensive to hire. For a book from an unknown author from a little-known country, the cost of the translation could quite possibly exceed what the book will make. Lack of exposure is another big part of the problem. It’s hard for authors to interest agents or publishers when they don’t have anything out in the world that can be read in English. With Underpass, we want to give writers a forum and hopefully, help them get discovered.

How are you handling translations for Underpass?

All submissions must already be translated into English, which means we are just making decisions on the English version. Of course, the quality of translations will vary greatly. Even in the launch edition, there are experienced translators and novice translators. To allow for comparison, we publish the original language text as a PDF alongside the English version. We accept that we do not have the time or the resources to ensure the quality of each and every translation and we hope that Underpass can be a place where quality writers and translators gain experience and make new connections.

Aren’t there enough literary journals?

Maybe, but I don’t think there are any with this particular focus. There are a handful of organizations and journals that just publish translations (and the number is growing!) into English, but none just accept submissions from under-translated languages.

Why Croatia?

It’s where my interest in translated literature began, so I know people there. I worked with several Croatian writers while I was with the Ooligan Press, where three books of Croatian literature in translation were published. (American Scream: Palindrome Apocalypse by Dubravka Oraić Tolić, Zagreb, Exit South, by Edo Popović, and The Survival League by Gordan Nuhanović). Those stories introduced me to the country and awakened me to the potential of translated literature. I was so intrigued that I visited and was blown away by the hospitality, charm, and depth of the country and its literature. I have been there several times, now, and met many wonderful writers, and made great friends including Underpass coeditor Jelena Primorac who speaks English and Croatian natively. Language barriers present real, practical challenges for this kind of project. Even though Croatians speak great English overall, sometimes you just need a translator. The next phase of Underpass will be to find coeditors for other countries with marginalized languages.

Why did you choose the name “Underpass”?

Stories create a shortcut (an Underpass, if you will) to understanding. Through literature you can step inside a new world view and discover truths that even travel doesn’t reveal.

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