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5 April 2023

Interview with LeeAnn Bortolussi, International Rights Manager at Giunti Editore

Katherine Gregor, Literary Translator from Italian into English

LeeAnn, please tell us about your background and when and how you came to live in Italy.

I’m a native Californian. I grew up in Santa Barbara, graduated with a B.A. in English (and a minor in Modern Italian Literature) at Stanford, and came to Italy in 1985. I was supposed to stay for a year, maybe study a little, I really just wanted to take a break … and then I met my husband after one month. I began working in publishing in 1989 and I’ve always been in foreign rights: first in Dami Editore and then in Giunti Editore, with children’s books and adult:  both illustrated and fiction/non-fiction. With my team of course! Tiziana Geminiani, Cristina Zangrandi, and Valentina Mazza. They are three doing the work of thousands.


Do you think being originally a non-Italian and perfectly bilingual gives you a special perspective on literature and publishing?

I think that it’s easier for me to imagine what some editors might be thinking about Italian literature, and in some cases our literary reference points can be the same, slightly international or more Anglophone. It’s always been fascinating to me to see, in a global sense, which translated literature is read in each country; we all have such different histories and different influences. 

In general, I do think it’s easier for me to step outside of the discourse and try to see how and where a foreign editor can conceive of and place an Italian writer, and how they might try to relate to the book, and to find the best readers in their market. We are all native somewhere, and we are all foreign everywhere else: belonging to two countries, I feel this very strongly, always. I know the borderlines well, I’m always viewing one culture from the perspective of another, moving back and forth.


I know that you often translate yourself samples for the books you pitch to Anglophone publishers: how does it feel to have to put on a translator’s hat on? What insights does this give you into the work of a translator?

Working in two languages when you are studying means you are translating all the time, so I feel like I have been doing this for many years. I suppose I would have been happy writing, too, so translating feels very comfortable to me. 

However, I love using translators to prepare our sample translations, and I really only step in when time is tight and I need a short text right away, because the speed at which I have to work is not good! But I will do almost anything for an editor. I will always go back over a text later, or I’ll have a longer excerpt translated by a translator. My husband is a translator and I know the attention and energy that goes into a good literary translation: it’s not to be taken lightly. 

I do enjoy the immersion that you can achieve in text while translating: it’s entirely different from reading a text. It’s like swimming in a sea. You are surrounded and sustained by the text, and you can move through it fluidly and see what it is made of, you feel its rhythm and texture. I sometimes believe that translating even a small portion of a text can give one insight to a novel that is very helpful when discussing it with editors: it’s clear why editors sometimes rely on translators as readers or when searching for foreign literature.


Do find that the translation book market has changed in the past few years? How?

It feels like the international translation market is always changing. It’s never stable, to be sure, and recent world events have made it even more complicated. But it will always change of its own accord because people change, cultures change, literature changes: everything is always moving forward, and publishers are always adapting to their markets. I think that in many ways, publishers are the most flexible humans on the planet, always responding to input. 

In the past there have been moments when foreign publishers have been very open to translations from Italian or other languages in general, and recently perhaps less so, although the presence of the Italian translation grants creates a new equation for everyone, and the spotlight on Italy in France this year and in Germany next year is a very important factor, too. In many ways I think that a wider segment of publishers is familiar with buying rights in translation; how many translations take place each will then depend on other factors, many markets are in flux right now, publishers are choosing carefully and maybe have less room to try something new. 


Are there any specific genres that tend to sell better to foreign publishers than others? 

That changes, too. In Frankfurt last year I even heard the words ‘humor’ and ‘comedy’, concepts which are often hard to translate and editors tend to shy away from them. But the need is great right now to be distracted and to enjoy a great story, and a laugh or two. Our lives have not been easy recently, for so many reasons.  

I think that in the end, all genres work, in one country or another, if not now, then soon. I can’t say that only commercial fiction sells, or mysteries, or literary fiction because we have sold them all. 

The overlap between fiction and film/television series is very interesting now too, many different types of literature are being developed in one realm and then in another, and the dialogue is constant between screen and page. Lots of stories are being consumed and I think this is great, I love talking to people about what they are watching and reading, what thrills them and what they just can’t put down, what they can’t stop bingeing. I think it has enhanced storytelling in many ways and made the world of writing and publishing expand and grow with new energy.


Are there any countries that tend to be more receptive to Italian titles than others? I assume Anglophone countries are the hardest to pitch books to…

There can be moments where a country is more receptive to one type of literature as opposed to another. This can be based on histories and cultural experiences, or also on recent successes, which editors pay close attention to. So, we do find ‘Italian moments’ when everyone wants to read us, and dry spells when there seems to be less interest in Italian stories. So many details are involved in these decisions, understanding the motives isn’t always immediate. For this reason, through the highs and lows, the one key to presenting books is listening. You need to listen to the editor you are in conversation with in order to understand what they are looking for now or what might interest them in the future. And you are right, the US and the UK may translate less that other countries but there are many smart and curious editors who are on the lookout for international voices. We’ve had success working with Anglophone countries and it’s something I’m very pleased about.


Much of Italian literature is strongly set within specific regions and words and expressions in the local dialect are often used (this is especially true of novels set in Central and Southern Italy). How do you find foreign publishers respond to that?

Sometimes this can be a daunting aspect, so an editor needs to weigh the elements to understand if the story will be perceived well in their country, if the language is not too complex. Because a great story always stands out, no matter what. But you are right: certain expressions can make translation more difficult; yet, as a culture we will always need to write in our languages and dialects, otherwise they are lost. In practical terms, it means that literature that brings in some local expressions but not too many will be a better candidate for translation, but that’s ok. It’s good to start somewhere, and the more a reader knows the more a reader may want to know: this opens the door to learning about a country, a culture, a language, or a dialect in a gradual fashion. 


What would you reply to a foreign publisher who tells you that obtaining financial support from Italy is harder than from some other countries?

With the approach to Italy as guest of honor in Frankfurt 2024, the grant funding for translations from Italian has increased and will continue to do so, so it’s a very good time to find funding for translations. And I hope that once this support is in place it will become the norm, that it will remain: I think that everyone will see how fundamentally helpful it is to a publisher’s economic equation for publishing literature in other languages. Incentives are always good, and I’m hoping these incentives will continue. As much as the work of individual publishers is important, cultural organizations can make great headway by bringing publishers from different countries together, and the results are often immediate.


How do you see the future of Italian books in translation developing over the next couple of years?

I believe it will continue to grow: the work being done right now with respect to grant funding is so important and I do think that everyone will come to regard it as indispensable. In the realm of international rights projects beget projects, collaboration breeds collaboration: the more books are translated now, the more will be translated in the future. Positive growth cycles are what we work on, you’ve got to keep the energy moving: and Italy has a lot of magnificent energy to share.