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Selling books without borders

Most great books transcend their national setting and language and can speak to people anywhere, says Adam Freudenheim. Its a statement on which hes staked his future.

    As the owner and managing director of Pushkin Press, his mission in life is to sell translated literature from around the world to the English-speaking market. And many of the authors that he works with are Israeli and/or Jewish.

    Last year saw the publication of Waking Lions, the second novel Pushkin has published by contemporary Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, who won the Sapir Prize for best debut with One Night, Markovitch. Her third novel will be published by Pushkin in 2018.

    Another best-selling Jewish writer published by Pushkin in 2001 and still in print was Hungarian Antal Szerb who wrote Journey by Moonlight (“the novel most loved by all cultivated Hungarians” according to TheGuardian’s reviewer) and there were also new translations of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, written between 1916 and 1937, of which the Financial Times said: “It is impossible to look at the world the same way after reading Babel.”

    Thirty-four titles by Jewish Austrian literary icon Stefan Zweig, helped put Pushkin Press on the map in the first place, when it was founded in 1997 by Melissa Ulfane. Zweig’s work will be back in the spotlight this year, the 75th anniversary of his death, coming after the critical success of a German bio pic, A Farewell to Europe.

    City of Lions, by Jozef Wittlin and Philippe Sands
    City of Lions, by Jozef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

    Pushkin’s scope is, of course, far wider than just the Jewish world. “Autobiographical fiction— think Ferrante or Knausgard — seems to be having a moment right now,” Freudenheim says.

    He’s no doubt thinking in particular of the work of Dutch writer Gerard Reve, whose book The Evenings is enjoying new success, thanks to Pushkin, almost 70 years after first being published. The English translation of the story of 10 evenings of a disillusioned young man, walking the streets of post-war Amsterdam, has had three reprints in a month.

    Harvard-educated Freudenheim grew up in Baltimore before moving to Germany as an exchange student and, later, on a fellowship. He moved to the UK in 1997, where, after a year taking a Masters at Cambridge University, he worked for Granta Books and then Yale University Press.

    In 2004, he moved to Penguin Books, where at the age of just 29 he was appointed Publisher of Penguin Classics and Modern Classics. It was there that he helped rediscover the work of German writer Hans Fallada, with the first English-language publication of the book Alone in Berlin, in 2009.

    This true story of an ordinary German couple, resisting the Nazis, was a huge hit, selling nearly half-a-million copies in the UK. The book has been made into a film, by Swiss director, Victor Perez, and is due to be released in the UK in February.

    “I had been at Penguin eight years and wanted to focus pretty much exclusively on translations. I also saw an opportunity with children’s books in translation.” At around the same time, he happened to have lunch with Melissa Ulfane, Pushkin’s founder, who asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in buying her company. He calls it a “fortuitous” meeting.

    Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb
    Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb

    Since buying Pushkin in 2012, sales have grown tenfold, culminating in the publication of 60 striking-looking titles this year— up from fewer than 10 in 2011. He says he is lucky that many European countries are keen for books to be translated, so offer subsidies of up to 100 per cent of translation costs. In January, he will publish his first Estonian novel, taking up to 24 the number of languages translated.

    Finding the right translator is an art in itself, involving sifting through samples to find the one most suitable. It’s more than just ensuring that nothing is lost in translation. “They make something read so smoothly that you are not even aware it’s a translation.”

    Freudenheim, now 42, and his family are members of Belsize Square Synagogue. His three children Susanna, 13, Max, 12, and Nina, nine, are all big readers, sometimes acting as his test audience for a new book. When Max, (then aged eight) read the second half of Laura Watkinson’s translation of The Letter for the King, by veteran Dutch children’s writer Tonke Dragt in a single sitting, he knew it was going to be a hit. It sold so well, that it’s now in its eighth print run. Pushkin has recently published a third book by Dragt, The Song of Seven .

    Alongside the best-sellers, Freudenheim also welcomes the opportunity to take on what he calls “passion projects,” that only a small independent publisher can do.

    The Evenings, by Gerard Reve
    The Evenings, by Gerard Reve

    He has always been fascinated by Eastern European cities, once centres of Jewish cultural life, like the Ukrainian city — Lviv, Lvov, Lwow, Lemberg, Leopolis — its many names bearing witness to its conflicted past. City of Lions, a small, 160-page book of two essays by separate authors written more than half a century apart, he says “is an important contribution to our understanding of this city and how much has been lost as a result of the terrible events of the 1940s.”

    Written in exile, Józef Wittlin’s love and pain for his city Lwów, contrasts with that of lawyer Philippe Sands who explores in City of Lions what has been lost and what remains.

    “We are lucky that it isn’t necessary to invent either Freudenheim or Pushkin Press,” said author Philip Pullman when Freudenheim bought the business.

    “They already exist, and I look forward to discovering, with their help, many more books that also exist but of which I would otherwise helplessly remain ignorant.”

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