“A Noah’s ark of books”
On 16 October, the opening day of the 2019 Frankfurt Book Fair, Seagull Books from Kolkata in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut presented the latest paperback edition of its German List. Many friends and companions were invited to the event.
By Florian Schoemer
The Goethe-Institut has supported Seagull Books’ German List series since 2009 and now looks back on more than 140 translations of discerning, more recent German-language literature. Publisher Naveen Kishore, founder of Seagull Books Kolkata and winner of the 2013 Goethe Medal, held an enjoyable panel with Dr Berthold Franke (Regional Director of the Goethe-Instituts in Southeast Asia), who was opening speaker.
Franke described Seagull Books as a perfect partner “for bringing good German books into the world.” The crucial elements, Franke noted, are the quality of the translation and the choice of titles.
Alongside Max Frisch, Adorno and the newly crowned 2019 Nobel laureate for literature, Peter Handke, the illustrious circle of successful German-speaking authors published by Seagull includes Alexander Kluge (e.g., Drilling through Hard Boards) and Jo Lendle (All the Land) who also took part in the round.
Dr Franke handed the panel over to publisher Naveen Kishore, who can be considered a daring advocate of the written word on conventional paper in this age of widespread digitisation. Kishore has, in a way, a “paper vision.” While many large publishing groups are increasingly turning to e-books, Kishore relies on high-quality literature in an inexpensive paperback format. In addition to the high quality works that, according to Kishore, “arouse the intellect of readers and can alter their perspectives,” he cites the progressive design of the covers by his compatriot Sunandini Banerjee as another guarantor of success. Her work on the design of the new edition of the German List plays with adaptations of the colours of the German flag.
When Petra Hardt from Rights and Licenses at Suhrkamp Verlag took the microphone, she underscored the publisher’s persistence. “Naveen Kishore has won over every German publisher,” she explains, which was not easy. After all, some German publishers who had previously published German-language literature in English in London and New York simply saw no need and underestimated the English-speaking region of the Indian subcontinent. The decision to publish with Seagull, according to Hardt, was made based on their partnership with the Goethe-Institut.
Alexander Kluge, philosopher, critical filmmaker and author, eight of whose books have been published by Seagull, is also impressed with “the selection, the quality and the composition of authors at Seagull.” He continued, “I’m proud of my country for issuing this Noah’s ark of books. We’ve built a silk road of books across the oceans. That’s the value of books. I would like to thank Naveen Kishore and the Goethe-Institut for making this possible.”
The books in Seagull’s series are like a raft carrying literature across the seas. A raft is built of several tree trunks and together, the more than 100 books published by Seagull form this raft.
“All that’s been said so far is true,” added Jo Lendle, who was the next to speak, “but it’s not all that makes the team around Naveen Kishore so special. We have a great publisher here, an outstanding list of books, editors and book designers,” said Lendle, and went on to highlight the quality of the Seagull School of Publishing. During his teaching career in Kolkata, he was surprised by the curiosity and creativity of the people at Seagull who share the responsibility for the high quality.
Translator Wieland Hoban, who translated the first book of the German List and Theodor Adorno for Seagull, emphasised the publishing house’s uniqueness and summed up Kishore’s secret of success with “trust and recommendation” and his go-getter mentality. Kishore is a little like a gambler. He enables freedom in the creative process, is curious, daring and determined. His prudence in dealing with his team and the atmosphere he manages to create are the basis for the good work.
Isabel Cole, who translated Dürrenmatt (Selected Essays) and other works for Seagull, praised the publishing house for the great care it puts into translating the book selection into English. They devoted themselves to works that were underrepresented in the English-speaking world, written by powerful writers and are, in part, world literature.
In her closing speech, PEN UK Translation Award-winner Tess Lewis, who translated Anselm Kiefer into English for Seagull as well as books by Peter Handke, Walter Benjamin and Alois Hotschnig, described Naveen Kishore as a genius. “He [Kishore],” said Lewis, “found a way to open a new door to literature in different languages to the English-speaking world. This selection in the Seagull Library of German Literature is breath-taking, almost a distillate of the Seagull project.” Lewis closed her speech with passion, “Whenever you see a Seagull book, pick it up and read it. You’re sure to enjoy it.”