Choosing a manuscript is a curious mix of instinct and detective work, Naveen Kishore says.

Naveen Kishore, publisher, Seagull Books, has been awarded the Goethe Medal 2013. Seagull Books owns worldwide English-language publishing rights for books by Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Thomas Bernhard, Imre Kertész, Yves Bonnefoy, Mo Yan, Mahasweta Devi, Peter Handke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. The Goethe-Institut awards the Goethe Medal, an official decoration of the Federal Republic of Germany. It honours foreign personalities who have performed outstanding service for the German language and international cultural relations.  Excerpts from an interview with Kishore:

Why did Seagull opt to make translations, especially from International literature, its focus? 

We began in 1982 by translating Indian languages into English. When Seagull went international I turned instinctively to the kind of literature that had sustained me through my growing years. Translations from European languages had begun to disappear from English-language bookshelves, worldwide, over the last so many years. We thought we would bring them back! 

Who are the prominent German writers you have translated into English?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Alexander Kluge, Peter Handke, Chista Woolf and Ingebog Bachmann and, newer voices such as Thomas Lehr, Dietmar Dath, Inka Parei,  and Tillman Ramstedt, among a list of almost 80 now.

In your catalogue translator Teresa Lavender Fagan says, “A translator must absorb the essence of a work, feel the author’s soul and do what she can to minimise what must necessarily be lost. The paradox of translation: the desire to replicate a work in one’s own language while knowing it can never truly be done.” Do you think you are able to achieve this?

We try and locate the best translators; people steeped in the literature that we are hoping to share with the world. I work with translators who have, over the years, become the English voices of particular authors. This nurtures long-term relationships between translators, authors and the publisher. We prefer to publish authors, not just books, and do more than one work by an author. Whether we have achieved a substantial body of translations is up to readers to judge. The paradox of translation will always remain, but that will not prevent great works of literature travelling from one language to another and spreading across the world.

Most English-language publishers have a very slim list for translations. The reason often given is that it is an expensive proposition. So, how do you achieve so many translations every year?

It is expensive. So what? The world of letters would be so much poorer without it that we juggle and stretch our resources on a daily basis in order to make it happen. There is no miracle formula. We do it because if we didn’t it wouldn’t happen. 

What is the methodology employed?

I trust my own instincts and responses to manuscripts or books that I contemplate publishing. I seek the active participation of my colleagues and translators. I trust publishers that I work with who often suggest titles to me. I read the Rights catalogues sent to me from publishers all over Europe. Our translators are encouraged to give us their wish-lists. We have our own. Selection of books, therefore, depends on a combination of recommendations and detective work. The translations are always done from the original languages. All our living writers work very closely with their translators. For those no longer with us, the translation is sent to their Estate for approval. Translations, when they are successful, capture the essence of what a writer is trying to say. Always.

The Goethe medal citation says, “Naveen Kishore is led not by the market, but by personal convictions and passions.”   Seagull Books has offices registered in London and New York. Its books are distributed all over the world (except India) by the University of Chicago Press. So isn’t the market an important consideration for publishing?

I publish what I wish to. My presence in the U.K. and the U.S. is in itself an interesting reversal of traditional market strategies! It also offers a model that no longer suggests that Indian publishers must buy rights only for India. Seagull buys world rights, because our distribution through the University of Chicago Press allows us to sell across the world. It is a globalised world; your geographical location is of no consequence. The market has a responsibility too, you know! The market must learn to find you. And it does. It takes time, but it does.

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