Beyond Words - Language Blog

Haute Culture Books: Bringing Untranslated Classics to English Readers

For as many texts that have been translated into English, scores more have not enjoyed the wider readership that the English language provides. Haute Culture aims to change that with a line of international books that have never before been translated into English. By commissioning translations of literary classics, the small publishing house founded in 2013 intends to bring culturally-relevant works to a larger audience.

Beginning this year with the much-celebrated Estonian novel Truth and Justice, written by Anton Hansen Tammsaare between 1926 and 1933, Haute Culture Books will print limited edition volumes using fine paper, leather-bound covers, and even real gold logos. The production and sale of these elegant copies will subsidize the free distribution of e-books of those texts. Through the Book Angels program, the publishing house intends to gather the support of culturally-minded individuals and organizations around the world. The next foreign classic slated for translation is Yuri Mamleev's Wildings (Shatuny).

ALTA Language Services spoke with Haute Culture's CEO, Luis de Miranda, about his new publishing venture.

ALTA: Can you tell us more about Haute Culture, its mission, and its publishing model?

LM: Haute Culture Books is a new venture in luxury publishing and built on an innovative and experimental new model. Our mission is to bring masterpieces of global literature to English-speaking readers around the world.

The press creates limited print editions, each a distinctive art object. (Our new Flaubert volume, for example, comes in its own hand-painted birdcage.) These luxury volumes support the distribution of free e-books for each title, and buyers are, in effect, benefactors—or “Book Angels,” as the press calls them. Haute Culture's ultimate goal is to reach as many readers as possible and share international literary icons with a new, global audience. The “Book Angels” program allows individuals to share and support that mission. This model is summed up in our slogan: Physical books should be sublime, digital books should be free.

ALTA: Can you share a bit about your background and why you decided to found Haute Culture?

LM: Books, especially novels and philosophy, have been life-long companions from a very early age. When I turned 16, after a long lonely trip to Africa, I learned that there's no such thing as an immutable reality, I knew I had to be a writer. Later, I was lucky to see my work published in France (from 1996 to 2012), and sometimes translated into other languages. In my twenties I was also a book critic in Paris and a cultural reporter, which led me to travel around Europe and the world. I always associated reading with traveling and discovery. In my thirties, I co-directed an independent publishing house in Paris. The idea for Haute Culture has been growing for years, along with my disappointment in the mainstream culture all over the world.

When I turned 41 and had my first child, I decided I had enough experience, enthusiasm, and courage to start the adventure of entrepreneurship. I want to be able to tell my daughter, Svea, that I did my best to spread beauty and elegance in this world.

ALTA: Why did you choose Anton Hansen Tammsaare's Truth and Justice as your first publication?

LM: Our first publication is actually a new translation and an ultra-limited bilingual edition of the Flaubert novella, Felicity: The Tale of the Simple Heart. It's just gone on sale at Assouline Boutiques in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris.

Volume I of Tammsaare's Truth and Justice is planned for publication in 2014. It's a fine example of an untranslated classic. Tammsaare himself is an icon of 20th century Estonian literature. Two museums, a monument, and a park in the center of Tallinn are all dedicated to him. Unlike some traditional classics, which are widely referred to but rarely read, his masterpiece, Truth and Justice, still retains its place at the front of Estonian bookshelves and yet this epic work has never been translated into English. I also have personal reasons for launching the press with an Estonian icon like Tammsaare. I wrote my last novel in Estonia three years ago and I wanted to pay homage to the land that inspired me.

ALTA: We're a language services company, so we're always interested in the process surrounding translation projects. Literary translation is its own art form, and translators often approach the task using vastly different methodologies. Can you offer any insights about your search for translators and what you expect from a literary translation?

LM: It depends on the project. We welcome translators who have already completed a text, but we are also willing to find the right translator for a text we want to publish.

Bringing untranslated texts to English readers around the world is one aspect of a wider mission to bring singular, fine, original works to the global corpus. That has always been my goal—to democratize access to the life of spirit, by creative and surprising means. I've been to the Frankfurt Book Fair many times and met with publishers and agents in New York. I've noticed that not only have many great European works not been translated to English, but also that mainstream US and UK publishers tend to translate mostly genre bestsellers—thrillers for example.

English is now the international language and I believe it's possible, and indeed essential to bring to the international psyche works that aren't standardized and cliché, but truly represent a unique viewpoint. I plan to build a catalogue that only includes masterpieces. Publishers who rely on the old publishing model must often publish potential bestsellers they secretly despise, yet there are so many excellent contemporary classics waiting to be discovered and translated into English. With Haute Culture, I refuse to compromise. Literature has the potential to create a more diverse and interconnected world, but in order to reach that potential we must fight against a profit-driven culture.

ALTA: Haute Culture follows a crowdsourced publishing model. As your press grows, will you adopt more traditional publishing strategies, or is the Book Angel program here to stay? Other than the 500 copy luxury edition and e-book versions of a book, do you ever plan to print and distribute mass produced paper copies?

Our books are unique art objects, hand-made with fine materials. (See our Flaubert edition.) Collectors can be assured that no more than 500 copies of each title will ever be printed. Sometimes a full run will consist of a few different ultra-limited editions, but ultimately we're at the experimental stage so we don't know yet. We don't think mass produced paper copies are in our DNA.

ALTA: You've announced that your next translation will be Yuri Mamleev's Wildings. Can you tell us more about that forthcoming publication? How will you be choosing future projects?

LM: We're working with one of the best Russian to English translators, Marian Schwartz, who translated Bulgakov and Berberova. Wildings is a mind-blowing, hallucinatory story about the quest for absolute truth.

I tend to choose books that I've read and appreciated in French. It's also important for us to choose authors that are important, even iconic figures in their own nations. Honestly, though, we are too young to have an established method. We're still in the experimental phase of the brand, and we're constantly adapting our strategies in order to come up with the best possible publishing model for our mission.

Maria Khodorkovsky contributed writing. Danny Echevarria conducted the interview.


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