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Laurence Laluyax: the losers are those market players who do not take translators seriously

Laurence Laluyax runs the translation rights department of Rogers, Coleridge & White (London). Founded in 1967, the agency now works with literary superstars including Kazuo Ishiguro, Donna Tart, Zedie Smith and Ian McEwan. Laurence herself is an agent for Olga Tokarchuk, also László Krasznahorkai and Han Kang (all are International Booker Prize winners), is always looking for new voices from around the world and describes how a French background helps them feel like strangers in the English-speaking book world.


— Laurence, how did you become a literary agent? 

— There are many ways to be a literary agent. There are countries where literary agencies are part of the culture, which is a source of anxiety. In my native France, there is a general perception of the idea of agency work, built on the image of two or three international agent personalities. It creates the illusion that all agents work the same way. But they don’t. I’m used to it. I’m used to living in a country where most authors have a literary agent. I’m used to coming from a country where it’s still somewhat controversial.

— How does your background in linguistics and literature influence and complement your work as a literary agent?

I didn’t know who literary agents were until I became one.

— It just wasn’t part of the culture I grew up in. I studied literature in France, and then I went on to the U.S. and stayed there to teach French for one more year after university. After that I went to England, I liked being «in between» — between different cultures, between literatures. I also liked being a foreigner: it gave me the freedom to become what I wanted to be.

I continued my studies: I studied translation studios and comparative studies, and on weekends I worked in a small bookshop in West London, where writers and journalists came. It was an important experience, because that’s when I realized how little Britain translates. This is still a problem, because translated books here are no more than 4% of the market. Then I tried to understand the motivation — why there is, among this pinch of translations, this particular French author and not another that seemed much stronger to me. I got a job at Rogers, Coleridge & White because they had an office around the corner and came to the bookstore! We talked about books and literature.

— What were your first impressions of working for a big English-language agency?

— When I took over the translation department, I felt a great injustice. At first, I was working with English-speaking authors, and they were paramount writers: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro… It was very easy for me to meet with agencies and publishers all over the world. 

That’s when I knew I wanted to create something like a springboard for international authors. I decided to represent international names alongside English-speaking ones — and that’s been the key to everything I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years at RCW. Our international authors have never been the «second section» in the catalogue after the English-speaking ones.

Once I was talking to a Danish publisher who was looking for new books from the UK, and I said to him, «let me tell you about this British author, don’t forget about this Mexican author». My agency opens up opportunities for me that a potential Brazilian or Mexican agent would be utterly dishonestly deprived of. This is a strategy for infiltrating literature. It’s not so important where the author is from. The kind of book he wrote is really significant. 

— RCW operates as an international company given your description, and has focus not only on the English-speaking market. What is the reason for that?

— I think it comes from a deep interest. Deborah Rogers, the founder, has always been interested in translated literature. Peter Straus, director of RCW since 2006, was a brilliant publisher at Piccador. He had an absolutely extraordinary mind, sometimes I think he read absolutely everything that you can imagine — from every angle. Major publishers had a strong tradition of publishing translations that has somewhat faded today. Often people in Britain, even in the book industry, don’t speak enough languages to be familiar with the texts.

I read a lot in French, and that’s not a bad thing, because a lot of translations appear in French. When I started working with László Krasznahorkai, he had several translations in America, but I read him in French. It’s the same with Tokarchuk-all of her books were first translated into French.

It is very important to know languages, but it is equally important to realize the weight of translators! You can’t represent international authors without knowing and interacting with translators from those languages.

— Formally speaking, does your agency have this clear division between primary agents and translation agents?

— I’ve been the head of the translation rights department for 10 years now. Within that department there are six other agents, we mainly sell books directly – all over the world. In some countries, we have sub-agents, mainly in Asia and in many Eastern European countries. By the way, we have recently been working directly with Ukraine. Some colleagues in my department know Russian well, some know German, we have Italian and Danish… That’s how we work! I don’t speak many languages, I know French, English, Spanish and a little Portuguese.

— Oh, that’s quite a lot! You talk about languages and reading. How would you describe today’s effective literary agent that you would like to see as a colleague?

— We at RCW work as a bridge. I continue to represent Ian McEwan and Zedi Smith in the territories where I’ve always worked, but I also work with international authors both overseas and in Britain and the United States. Our agency structure is quite flexible, which means I can be the key person for both English-speaking authors and those translated into English. In most agencies, the division is clearer, but we try to keep all authors on an equal footing, side by side. 

A really professional literary agent has a genuine interest in other cultures.

Say, one of my colleagues worked in Georgia for a long time, now he sells rights to Georgia – and that’s a passion for Georgia! He knows all the authors, publishers. 

— What is RCW’s commercial approach? Do you have priority markets?

— It’s important to make money — both for the agency and for authors. But we shouldn’t think that we’re only aiming for the big markets because they bring in funds. For us, selling a book to Turkey, Georgia or Portugal is absolutely the same process so when we sell to Germany, France. The English-centric way of doing agency work doesn’t work with international authors.

If you’re only thinking about the UK and the US, you don’t understand what would be the best strategy for, say, a Polish author.

Maybe it’s more important for him to get into the German market. To be an agent is to sometimes turn things upside down and never assume that some countries are more influential than others.

— Last year’s CEATL study on translations from small languages, using Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan as an example, substantiates the usefulness of a successful publication in the German-speaking market for new authors. Obviously, this is due to the fact that in German-speaking countries there is a certain brand of Ukrainian literature, and each subsequent translation relies on it.

— Yes, although English helps the text get much further. I work with several Danish authors — Danish outside of Denmark is very poorly known. It’s very hard to find Danish-speaking readers, editors, outside of Scandinavia. Say, there are still some in Germany and the Netherlands. Well, when you work with a great book, you want to send it to ten publishers you think will like it, not just native speakers. If you don’t have an English translation, it’s just harder for you to introduce it to publishers. Right now I’m working with a Danish novel, which we sold easily to Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, France, the end of Great Britain. And we’re really looking forward to the English translation, because once I get it, I can again approach publishers in Spain who were interested in the author but couldn’t get to know the text quickly. Also, an English translation is important to promote in Eastern countries. 

— How do you work with international authors, besides presenting them alongside English-speaking ones?

— When you walk into a British bookstore, you’re likely to see a table of international authors, it will be called «translated literature». Translated literature is not a genre, but that’s what this country has. And that will explain everything to you. The reader thinks: maybe this literature is too elitist? Maybe too intellectual? Too serious? Translations are read by people who are already included in the subject in a certain way.

— Who are the readers of international authors? 

— The hardest part is convincing young people that they can read translations just as much as English-speaking authors, you don’t have to be afraid! Authors outside the English-speaking world want to get to it, but sometimes you get a translation and nothing happens, because now you have to convince publication and literary critics to read the new book. Even if you convince them, there’s still an editor who may not think the text is interesting enough to publish.

— What other challenges arise in working with translations? What does the English-speaking reader expect from translated literature?

— There is almost an anthropological context behind a foreign book: the book has to promise its readers something about, say, Ukraine that the British reader does not know. These are all constant little obstacles in the way of authors. I’ve lived it in my work with Brazilian authors: I used to be told 15 or 20 years ago, «Oh, this isn’t a Brazilian enough book. But it doesn’t have to be Copacabana and a little samba dancing. Mexican literature is not about coca or criminals! That’s disappearing among young editors, but when I started out there were quite a few high-end publishers who said, «I don’t need translations. In English I can print people from India, Canada, Australia, Tasmania and get international context. Instead, they write in English, so it’s easier». That’s the context of the English-speaking market. 

— Is it about stereotypes, a reluctance to really discover another culture?

— Olga Tokarchuk’s book «Lead Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead» is incredibly important to me. It’s incredibly funny! When this book was nominated for the International Booker Prize, an absolutely brilliant translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones read fragments at Foyles bookshop in London-people cried with laughter! And that’s important, people see that literature from other countries doesn’t fall into stereotypes, it can be different.

— Who, no matter what, publishes translated literature in the UK?

— A publisher takes the risk of publishing authors.

And oddly enough in the English-speaking world, it’s mostly small independent publishers who take the risk of publishing translations. Without them, we’d have a much-needed market.

Look at Fitzcarraldo! A young man has started a new publishing house and is publishing the best authors — for the first time in English. They are the Nobel Prize winners Svitlana Alexiyevych, Olga Tokarchuk… I also really like And Other Stories. The important thing with all of them is that they are mostly people with foreign backgrounds. The editor of Fitzcarraldo is from France, And Other Stories is from Germany. I’ve lived here most of my life, but I’m from France. If you have a connection to the world through your own story, family, you’re more willing to open doors and invite people in.

— How do international authors get into RCW? You mentioned that you have authors who have not yet been translated into English.

— Well, for example, Valeria Luiselli. She’s a Mexican who lives in New York. At the time we started our collaboration, she had only published a collection of essays, she was 24 years old at the time. I was interested in Latin American women who no one knew yet, she was recommended to me by a friend. It takes time to become an author: a lot of desire on the part of the author to participate in all processes, to communicate with the media, to go to festivals. This time is the publication of several books by an author.

— How was it with European authors?

— Some of the writers I started working with were already very famous. Hungarian Laszlo Krasznahorkai was really famous, but there were very strange gaps: there were no translations of him in Scandinavia, the UK (except for one book), Russia. What we did: we worked with his foundation, translated all the texts in English – and promoted those translations. Sometimes authors were brought to us by translators, as happened with Olga Tokarchuk. Of course, I knew about Tokarchuk by the time I read her in French. Here, too, we found strange things: Tokarchuk’s books were not available in bookstores in Spain, Germany and many other countries where she had already been translated. It’s a bit like archaeology, because you have to dig to find these translations, and you realize that the publications were done by incredibly good publishers. High-end international publishers have taste-so they published Tokarchuk. This story applied to me every so often!

— Were you able to fill in the gaps in those countries?

— It was a great time for similar work, because after Olga won International Booker – she was translated into over 40 languages. What an agent does is strategy. An agent looks around the global book market and thinks: what else can be done? What is missing? Then there was the Nobel Prize – interested readers could just go and buy a novel in places like Brazil or China, because we’d already done the work, the translations were waiting on the shelves. But so, first a translator came to me and said: You work with really good literature, would you be interested in working with Olga Tokarchuk?

— How do you find new voices for RCW?

— It’s always a mix. People know my taste in literature and recommend authors. That’s what happened with Danes. I was offered several authors for years, but I refused because I don’t speak the language. And then I was given a 100-page English-language translation fragment, I visited a literary festival in Denmark, talked to the authors… And we started working. It’s all about people: publishers and translators. Translators fulfill the role of literary agents long before they include the agents themselves. They present works to publishers, talk about writers, explain context to writers.

I think the losers are those market players who don’t take translators seriously and think of translators as easily replaceable.

When you change translators, there’s a new author’s language in translation. Readers feel it, the writer is no longer the same!

— Do the authors you work with read each other’s texts? 

— I work with the incredible French author Jean-Baptiste Del Amo. In my little bubble, the authors I work with read each other. His latest novel, Animalia, was published by Fitzcarraldo, the same publisher that publishes Tokarchuk. I recommended this novel to Olga because I knew she should like it. The text is about the life of three generations on a farm and how farming becomes a mass killing of animals and how it affects the family. It’s very interesting to see certain connections among writers working at the same time – authors from all over the world reflecting on similar anxieties. It’s a dialogue between countries and cultures.

— This is a tangential topic to the Ukrainian experience. Lately, we feel the generations of translators from Ukrainian are changing – there are more people for whom Ukrainian is a learned language, they have no history of living in Ukraine.

You definitely need a generation of translators who will think «how interesting everything that is happening in Ukraine!»

— The publishing world is a very narrow one, it’s people who are in constant communication. Who, what and how will translate. We all need translators, and especially young people who want to become translators.

It’s appealing to me to see translations from Japanese to English. We used to know Murakami and a few other men. Now there is a wave of translations of young authors from Japan, because young translators talk about the great competition in the European language market, they choose something new, they often stop at Korean or Japanese. Well, remember Deborah Smith, who translated Han Kang. She chose Korean because that culture captivated her. Another example: most of the British translators from Danish were men who translated Scandinavian noir. But all my Danish authors are young women! And here I have a book about a woman and her sense of self in her third decade. Could I offer to translate this book to a sixty-five-year-old man? I called the British Translators Association and found one from the younger generation. This novel is coming out in Granta.  

— In this project, Richard Charkin was telling us about the shift of power from the publisher — to the literary agent. How do you see the division of responsibility between agent and author?

— Generally speaking, agents in the English-language market negotiate all contracts. The relationship between publisher and author includes primarily the literary editing of the book. The English-speaking market operates an auction system: the agent sends the book to publishers, which can be as many as 10 or as many as 50. Publishers bid their sums and compete for the author and text — that’s how the contract price is formed. The agent evaluates how the publisher will handle the design, publicity for the book — and gives advice to the author. The publisher handles production, mostly media relations and marketing, of course distribution, and nominates the author for awards (which is mostly paid in the UK). The agent remains the author’s main contact. The agent understands the market, it is he who will advise whether all English versions of the book should be released at the same time, whether the first should be the British one, which will change the contract.

— What role does a literary agent play in the publishing ecosystem?

— I agree with the idea that the agent is the defining link. A truly professional literary agent will have a relationship of trust with the author, a good relationship with the publisher, and will make an effort to make the author-publisher relationship the most effective one. If the author does not have an agent, the publisher gets everything, controls all the rights. Another important point: the agent represents the author, not the book.

The agent represents the author, not the book. The publisher sells the book first. 

Of course, if one publisher publishes five or six books by the same author, a relationship is built up, as in the case of Kazuo Ishiguro and his publisher Faber.

— Not all countries have classical literary agents, but sometimes there are institutions that partly perform agency functions: associations, diplomatic institutions. Does every country need literary agents?

— I recently signed a contract with an Icelandic author, and I plan to have a collaboration with government agencies in Iceland who represent the literature there. They can tell me about contexts I don’t know. Not working with them would be nonsense.

—  You talked about a strategy for the author. Tell us a little more about what that strategy is?

— For me, selling a book is just the beginning. I always think, if my author comes out in Britain — I’ll turn to Granta magazine, suggest it to the Edinburgh or Toronto literary festivals, who ask me, «What interesting new advice do you have?». That’s the job of a literary agent for me. Because a book can be well written, beautifully published-and the only thing you can do in that context is recommend that book to people. It’s all work around here — with bookscout, film agents, and so on.

The secret of international promotion is not to look from your country of origin to the big world, but to look at the whole world – from a new place.

And it triggers a domino effect, because there are enough like-minded people in the world. 

— We talked about different European literatures in this conversation. I’ll venture to ask: can Ukrainian literature one day interest you as an agent? What needs to happen for that to happen?

— Interest in Ukrainian literature has to come from people who know it inside and out. I grew up with a literary canon that was all men. We mentioned that 4% of translations in the English-language market: among them, I find the most interesting female voices. It was often women who were not considered intelligent enough to be part of the literary canon. The canons in countries form their own idea of literature, as a literary agent I move parallel to that idea and try to find something hidden.

I grew up in France. It is a country where the writer has a certain social role. Now I live in a country where the word «intellectual» is perceived as an insult, «who do you think you are?» Writers think about things around them and what will happen to us and them. Sometimes authors are really political. The same Tokarchuk is very political, but we have writers who write about refugees, migration, racism. Gang Kang wrote about the Great Massacre in Korea and how people are experiencing it. I would like to know many more such interesting stories that Ukrainian literature accurately tells. 


Author: Bogdana Neborak

Translation: Victoria Pushyna