Action Books' slogan "In an emergency, break forms" hooked me before I even browsed the catalog—and the catalog delivered with a powerful collection focusing on poetry and translations that push boundaries and give international authors center stage. Action Books is a small press based out of Notre Dame, Indiana and it’s the first in our series of Publisher Spotlights.
The press publishes three to five books a year with a list that features translations from Latin America, Korea, and Scandinavia, as well as bilingual editions and English books. Underpass caught up with co-founder, editor, and author Johannes Göransson to learn a little more about the press.
What’s your genesis story?
Joyelle McSweeney and I started the press in 2003. One of the major reasons was that I had translated a selection of poems by Swedish poet Aase Berg. I had thought that every press would want to publish a book by a young, but acclaimed, international poet who was writing poetry totally different from what was considered acceptable in US poetry (intense, surreal, garish), but it turns out that while a lot of journals and poets were enthralled by her poems, her poetry was too much for US presses. At this point I also realized that US presses very rarely publish works in translation. Since both Joyelle and I—though our poems are very different—were highly influenced by foreign writers (from Mayakovsky to Berg), we decided to start a press that would publish works in translation. But we didn’t just want to be a “translation press.” We wanted to create a press that opened up connections between US poets and foreign poets. So from the start we’ve published both works in translation and works by US poets in order to generate an international dialogue.
How do you find international authors and books?
Sometimes translators approach us, sometimes the poets themselves. Sometimes we search them out. For our second book of translation, we published Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be A Fountain of Feathers, which we found out about when we read a few poems Don Mee Choi, the translator, had published in the journal Circumference. And we’ve continued to publish both Kim’s work and Choi’s own poetry. This led me to get invited to South Korea a few years ago, and there I met the amazing poet Kim Yideum, so I had to figure out a way to get her work translated (I ended up translating it together with Choi and the poet Jiyoon Lee). Recently I read the Uruguayan poet Melisa Machado’s book in Swedish translation and I loved it so I got in contact with her and her US translator Seth Michelson and as a result we’re publishing her book in English translation next year. This gives you some idea of our makeshift approach to things.
What drives your acquisitions decisions?
We only publish books that we love—books that challenge us, push us, excite us. But we have increasingly decided to focus on translated texts because there are so few published in the US. Even after 10+ years, Action Books still feels like a dynamic space through which we come into contact with authors who utterly affect us, change the way we think about poetry. My own writing (as well as my editorial practices, my way of reading) would be completely different if I had never read for example Hiromi Ito’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank (translated and with endnotes by Jeffrey Angles).
What are some of biggest challenges for Action Books and for publishers of translations in general?
It’s harder to promote foreign texts because of the anxieties that surround translation (Is the translation good? Is this a legit author? How can I trust the translated text? Can I understand it? etc.) and because the authors are not Americans (they don’t have friends here, they don’t fit into the cliques here, they often challenge US conventions). Often Americans fear that they don’t have the right “framework” for reading works in translation. Fortunately, Action Books has become a kind of framework for understanding not just foreign but also US poetry.
Do you see any trends or “hot spots” in the world of translated literature?
Poetry is not really “hot,” so I don’t think so. Though a lot of people—here as well as in Europe—seem extremely interested in poetry from Korea, a culture whose literature has largely been ignored by the US until recently.
Why is it important to promote and publish translated literature?
So far, I’ve mainly talked about being driven by self-motives. I followed the poetry that appealed to me and it led me to many non-US writers (as well as many US writers). Being an immigrant, a lot of the poets that have been most important to me don’t even exist in English, and I want to bring some of those poets into English so that my American friends can read them. Further, there’s a fascinating and powerful dynamic at work in what I like to call the “transgressive circulation” of translation: it ruins monoglossic illusions of language and text (based on ideas of mastery and self-sufficiency), nationalistic ideals of “tradition.” But there’s another, more overtly political dimension to translation: US culture (and the English language) has a hegemonic relationship to the rest of the world, which has been very actively bolstered by US industry and government (for example by the US government promoting Jackson Pollock as “the great artist” in the 1950s), and even copyright laws. Lawrence Venuti has written extensively about this dynamic. The rest of the world constantly has to deal with US culture (including US poetry, which is spread via university-funded professors who write about US poetry in the English language), while US culture tends to treat works from other cultures as marginal. (There are of course exceptions: for example every once in a while, we decide that there’s a Foreign Novelist we can support.) I feel like it is especially important to engage with literature from places colonized by the US (such as South Korea) and literature from Africa. At the same time, I feel a little uneasy about recommending people to engage with translated texts—or any other text—to redeem (in Leo Bersani’s words) “a political situation.” This is a tension in my thinking that I haven’t resolved.