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Analysis & Opinion
30.09.09 Reading East To West
By Rosemary Griffin

The Russian publishing industry has been going through some turbulent times, with one high-profile bankruptcy and fears of more to follow. But despite the growing impact of the financial crisis, it’s not all bad news. The London Book Fair’s decision to make Russia its market focus in 2011 and programs launched to coincide with this should herald a cash injection for Russian publishers, writers and translators, offering them a gateway to the lucrative UK market.

“The British publishing market remains largely closed to Russian publishers and writers. To some extent this is understandable, as the book market here is closed to international publishing in general,” said Svetlana Adjoubei, the director of Academia Rossica, an independent London-based organization set up to promote and strengthen cultural and intellectual links between Russia and the English-speaking world.

Alexis Kirschbaum, the editorial director at Penguin Classics in London, sees demand among UK readers for Russian literature as steady, if not growing. “Of all the languages, our Russian translations are the most popular,” Kirschbaum said. “Leo Tolstoy is far and away our best-selling Russian author in English. Fyodor Dostoevsky also sells well, as does Vladimir Nabokov.”

The UK has the second largest book market in Europe. According to statistics released by the Publishers Association, the total turnover of the UK book publishing industry was ?4 billion in 2008, with book sales accounting for three quarters of that figure. However, less than three percent of the British book market is accounted for by books translated from foreign languages into English. With Russian texts accounting for just a fraction of that figure, the potential for growth is considerable.

The publishing predicament

Whether Russian publishers, writers and translators are able to capitalize on this potential is another matter. In 2009 the effects of the financial crisis began to hit the Russian publishing sector. Moscow-based bookstore Bookberry, whose stakeholders included oligarchs Alexander Mamut and Oleg Deripaska, filed for bankruptcy in March of this year, following the departure of its chief executive officer in January. Another, smaller chain, Knizhnaya Polyana, also went under in May. Many distributors are struggling to shift stock, as consumers cut back on luxuries and prices in many outlets now seem inflated.

The continuing problems at Top-Kniga, the country’s largest book chain, are also cause for concern. In the first half of 2009 the group’s turnover fell an estimated 30 percent and it struggled to restructure loans. Juggling mounting debts, Top-Kniga has already closed approximately 40 of its 500 outlets, and is by no means out of the water yet.

The decision to make Russia the market focus is, however, a recognition of Russia’s rising clout in the international publishing market. According to a 2009 report from the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication of Russia (FAPMC), Russia now stands alongside the United States, China and the UK in world rankings. There are currently over 5,700 publishers in Russia, which produce around 123,000 new and revised titles each year. “As a result of our success to date and interest from the international community, the decision was taken to make Russia the market focus in 2011,” said Adjoubei.

Responsible for the development of media, publishing and printing in Russia, the agency represents the Russian publishing industry and Russian authors internationally, promoting international collaboration and the exchange of information. Surprisingly, as recently as three years ago the country had no representation at the London event at all. “We realized a few years ago that Russia had no representation at the London Book Fair, which we thought was shocking,” said Adjoubei, adding that when Academia Rossica initially planned to get involved, they were fortunate that from the very beginning, both the Russian and UK sides were very supportive.

Reaping the benefits

The British Council will be the London Book Fair’s official market focus cultural partner. The organization’s Literature Advisor Rachel Stevens sees the event as a great opportunity for those in the Russian and UK publishing sectors alike. In addition to bringing new audiences into contact with the creative face of the UK and increasing opportunities available to the British creative sector, Stevens believes that “this cultural program is an important part of challenging existing ideas and perceptions about Russian writing and publishing, and is also an opportunity for the UK’s publishing industry to showcase its work and to engage with the global creative sector.”

The decision to make Russia the market focus in 2011 was announced at the beginning of September this year, so detailed plans have yet to be made public. Academia Rossica will aim to build on the foundations of successful events already organized in connection with Russia’s presence at the London Book Fair over the last two years, such as the week of Russian literature. Running for the past two years, it has included a number of events designed to promote Russian literature to the general public, academia and the British publishing industry. “We have already successfully organized seminars for publishers and visits by Russian writers to the UK in connection with the week of Russian literature,” Adjoubei said.

As part of this program, in April this year Academia Rossica brought six leading Russian writers to the UK: Dmitry Bykov, Mikhail Shishkin, Alexander Terekhov, Vladimir Makanin, Olga Slavnikova, and Alexander Arkhangelsky. In addition to a university tour and attending the book fair, they held interviews with British publishing houses, with some writers benefitting significantly from the opportunity. “Two new contracts were signed during the fair itself,” said Adjoubei. “Dmitri Bykov’s Zhd (under English title Jewhad) will be published in English and Alexander Terekhov also signed a contract for Stone Bridge.” Since then Olga Slavnikova, who was also part of the tour, has signed a book deal for her novel 2017.”

Lost in translation

Translators and publishers will be able to access a series of grants to be made available to British publishers by the FAPMC, the Russian government’s Russkiy Mir Foundation and Academica Rossica. The grants are aimed at combatting what many believe is one of the major barriers to publication of Russian literature in the UK. “One of our biggest challenges is to create a real school of translation,” said Adjoubei. “In the 1990s, those who graduated with Russian literature and language degrees went to work in the business. It was a time when business contacts were being forged very quickly and there was a huge need for translators. This has left us with a gap. We have translators in their 50s and 60s, but almost none in their 30s and 40s.”

Adjoubei believes that connecting the older generation of translators with new talent is vital, along with raising the overall status of translation as a career choice. “We hope that the grants and prizes will go some way toward doing that,” she said. Academia Rossica awards the only translation prize in the world, which specifically recognizes excellence in translation from Russian into English. The strategy seems to be working, with the organization receiving a positive response in terms of the number and scope of submissions. “We’ve had a good response to a scheme we set up to foster a new generation of translators a few years ago, receiving submissions from Holland and France as well as America and Britain,” said Adjoubei, adding that they also plan to organize trips to Russia for representatives of the British publishing industry.

The potential impact of the program is significant. There is no standard procedure for translation; some writers approach British publishers with an English-language text, and others sign deals where publishing houses will undertake translating their work into English. Slavnikova, who signed a publishing deal earlier this year, had earlier received a grant for translation of her text into English from an American organization. This allowed her to approach British publishers with an English-language text, speeding up the process and making her work more appealing to English-language publishers.

Classical appeal

The translation competition also offers a good insight into the range of books translated from Russian into English. A third are 19th and 20th century Russian classics, a third are works of poetry and the final third are books written since 2000. In the UK, Penguin continues to release new and updated translations of Russian classics. This year has seen the release of new translations of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The company is also set to release a reprint of Andrei Beliy’s Petersburg and Vladimir Nabokov’s final and unfinished novel The Original of Laura toward the end of this year.

In terms of books originating in the UK, which are popular with Russian readers, Rachel Stevens of the British Council highlighted the success of Ian McEwan, Ian Fleming, Iris Murdoch and Terry Pratchett. “Obviously, Russian readers read all the classics as well and Agatha Christie, who continues to be an all-time bestseller. Last year she sold more than 800,000 copies, which put her in third place among all foreign literature fiction sold,” said Stevens.
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