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Traders of Truth or Traitorous Translators?

Editor’s Note: To offer a sense of why the top dogs on Foreword’s masthead felt compelled to grant this year’s Publisher of the Year award to Restless Books, we decided to provide Ilan Stavans, Restless’s erudite, wildly ambitious publisher, a soapbox—with just a couple suggestions: one, list some new favorite works of translation; and two, name a handful of independent publishers you admire. Ilan, let ’er rip.


Independent publishers are essential to democracy, pluralism, and tolerance. Without them, the capacity to see the world as complex—as it truly is—is curtailed. In that sense, indie publishers are the ultimate representation of the quixotic dream: they set out into the world attempting to convince everyone that windmills are giants.

To me books are bridges across cultures. And across epochs, too. When we read a classic, we’re in conversation with the dead. And when we read a book in translation, we’re in dialogue with cultures that are concurrent to ours but also different. Time and space, these are the two great obsessions of literature.

I learned to be a publisher while working with three extraordinary editors, whose dedication changed me forever: Cass Canfield Jr. (HarperCollins), John Galassi (FSG), and Alane Mason (Norton). Any of the languages I know don’t have the right words to express my gratitude to them. My models of enduring excellence in indie publishing are New Directions (who would I be without William Carlos Williams, Sebald, Bolano, and Nabokov). I am at awe with the work done by Archipelago, Graywolf, and City Lights.

Translators are my heroes. They embark on the impossible task of making a narrative come alive again in a habitat that is entirely foreign to its origin. The Italian saying, “Traduttore, traditore,” meaning translators are traitors, is simplistic. All artists—a category that includes translators—are traitors: they are forced to betray the truth delivered by reality, replacing it by their own truths.

I am a passionate fan of Elena Ferrante’s tetralogy, My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child (Europa Editions) about a friendship between two Neapolitan women across several decades. She deserves the Nobel Prize. Ann Goldstein’s translation is a masterful lesson in the art of disappearance. The science fiction novels and stories of Yoss, A Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande (Restless Books), represent the most original contribution in Cuban literature since Reinaldo Arenas. I love Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Proustian My Struggle (Archipelago Books), though I wished it had a different title.


Ilan Staphans
Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is the publisher of Restless Books.

Ilan Stavans

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