Babel revisited: Little-known books find homes on foreign shelves — in English
Found in translation

Babel revisited: Little-known books find homes on foreign shelves — in English

From Holocaust memoirs to fairy tales, Adam Freudenheim's Pushkin Press hits record margins by taking popular international literature to the Anglo crowd

Adam Freudenheim, head of Pushkin publishing house. (Courtesy)
Adam Freudenheim, head of Pushkin publishing house. (Courtesy)

LONDON — Adam Freudenheim is jubilantly enjoying the rave reviews for his latest published discovery — a memoir written in 1945 by a Polish Jewish woman who in 1921 opened a French bookshop in Germany, before she was forced to go on the run.

Baltimore-born Freudenheim, 43, now lives in London and runs Pushkin Press, which specializes in bringing gems of foreign literature to the English-speaking world.

There are many impressive books about World War II, but what makes “No Place to Lay One’s Head” by Françoise Frenkel so unique is that it’s the story of an extraordinary woman, within a story.

Polish-born Frenkel is a fiercely independent woman with a lust for life and ambition rare within her generation. Passionate about books, she leaves her home near Lodz and studies at the Sorbonne before traveling to Germany, where she fulfills her dream of setting up her very own French bookshop in Berlin.

‘No Place to Lay One’s Head’ by Françoise Frenkel, published by Pushkin Press. (Courtesy)

“I don’t know exactly when I first felt the calling to be a book-seller,” the memoir begins. Her love of literature immediately evident, she notes the “… Balzac came dressed in red leather, Sienkiewicz in yellow morocco, Tolstoy in parchment, Reymont’s Paysans clad in the fabric of an old peasant’s neckerchief.”

Frenkel runs the book shop for many years, until everything changes.

“Events followed rapidly, one after the other. First came the day of the general boycott,” she writes.

Forced to flee Germany just weeks before the outbreak of war, she seeks refuge in Paris which soon comes under German occupation. Set against the romantic landscape of southern France — Annecy to Avignon — she describes a desperate run from safe house to safe house until she reaches neutral Switzerland.

The story told with such clarity, thanks to the seamless and skillful translation by Stephanie Smee, becomes a breathless account of all the people who take her in and help her survive in the darkest times.

The memoir, which was originally written in French, was rediscovered in a flea market in Nice in 2010. First published in Geneva in 1945, it took 70 years for this eyewitness account to resurface, when it was republished again in French by Gallimard, in 2015.

Freudenheim came to the book ahead of other publishers when a translator alerted him about it. He has now sold the US rights to Simon & Schuster, who will publish it this autumn.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of ‘Waking Lions.’ (Courtesy)

Pushkin Press had a record year of translated titles last year. In recent years its bestselling adult title in translation has been Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s “Waking Lions,” written in 2016. But given the exceptional reviews for “No Place to Lay One’s Head,” it will be no surprise if this becomes the publishing house’s frontrunner.

Pushkin is largely known for translating into English the works of Jewish Austrian literary icon Stefan Zweig. His works are the bread and butter of its backlist, the latest one being “Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink.”

“Zweig was one of the bestselling fiction writers in the world in the 20s and 30s, with a real gift for melodrama,” says Freudenheim. “That era continues to speak to people.”

‘Beware of Pity,’ by Stefan Zweig and published by Pushkin Press. (Courtesy)

Other Jewish writers represented by Pushkin include Arthur Schnitzler, Antal Szerb — who wrote “Journey by Moonlight” — and new translations by Boris Dralyuk of Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry” and “Odessa Stories.”

Freudenheim came to be the owner of Pushkin in 2012 quite by chance.

“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,” he says.

At around the same time he happened to have lunch with Melissa Ulfane, the founder of Pushkin, who asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in buying her company — and he certainly did.

The market for such works is booming these days as many European countries are keen for books to be translated into English. In some cases subsidies of 100% of translation costs are met. Always looking to broaden the range of languages in translation, Pushkin recently published its first Estonian and Indonesian novels.

In 2015 the house published its first Hebrew book, “One Night, Markovitch” by contemporary Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, who won the Sapir Prize in Israel for best debut. American-born Sondra Silverston, who lives in Israel, was handpicked to be the translator of Gundar-Goshen’s books.

Following the publication of her second book “Waking Lions” in 2016, Pushkin will also be releasing her third, “The Liar,” early next year.

“’The Liar’ is a novel looking at what happens when a lie becomes the truth and takes on a life of its own,” explains Freudenheim. “In some ways it’s a commentary on fake news and the media today.”

Adam Freudenheim knew he wanted to focus on translations when he bought Pushkin Press. (Courtesy)

Freudenheim, who has a passion for children’s books, conveniently uses his own three children, aged 10, 13 and 14 as his test audience.

It’s difficult to predict how well a book will do and sometimes he admits to getting it totally wrong, except for when his children have fallen in love with a work.

When his son Max was just 8, and he read the second half of Laura Watkinson’s translation of Dutch book, “The Letter for the King,” in a single sitting, he knew he was onto something. It was named “Book of the Year” multiple times and sold so well, that it’s now in its 10th printing.

Pushkin’s latest children’s book success is “The Murderer’s Ape” by Swedish contemporary writer Jakob Wegelius.

“It’s a kind of Tin-Tin-esque adventure about an ape called Sally Jones,” says Freudenheim. “Max read it last summer and keeps telling me it’s the best book we’ve ever published, and did indeed become our bestselling and most acclaimed children’s title last year.”

‘The Murderer’s Ape,’ by Jakob Wegelius, published by Pushkin Press. (Courtesy)

It’s these “finds” that make Freudenheim’s job really exciting, if not unpredictable. It also means that there is no such thing as a “day job” for him, as many of his evenings are spent speed reading yet another book, or sifting through translated samples to find the right translator.

Nonetheless, he does find the time for the odd holiday, and looks forward to taking his daughter to Israel for the first time later this month.

Alongside the bestsellers Freudenheim also welcomes the opportunity to take on what he calls “passion projects,” where profit is not the priority.

He has always been fascinated by Eastern European cities, once centers of Jewish cultural life, like the Ukrainian city at times called 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 written more than a half century apart is, he says, “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.”

Isaac Babel (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Isaac Babel (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Written in exile, Józef Wittlin’s love and pain for his city Lwów, contrasts with that of lawyer Philippe Sands. Sands, who won the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction for his book “East West Street,” explores in “City of Lions” what has been lost and what remains in this city of his ancestors.

A new translation of Wittlin’s great novel “Salt of the Earth” comes out this November.

“I publish so many writers from the wider area, such as Babel from Odessa and Zweig from Vienna, that it seems like a place that loomed large in my Jewish consciousness,” notes Freudenheim.

Pushkin Press doesn’t market its works as translations from a particular place and time, but rather as great books in their own right. As Freudenheim says, “We’re looking for great books that will stay with us for a long time wherever and whenever they were written.”

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