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14 March 2024

Interview with Piero Salabè,
foreign fiction manager
at Hanser publishing house

Maddalena Fingerle

Piero Salabè (1970) is a translator, editor and author. He studied in Venice, London, Rome and Munich. Since 2008, after working for the publishing houses Antje Kunstmann Verlag and Hueber Verlag, he has been the manager for foreign fiction at Hanser publishing house.


When and how did you start working in publishing?


I started working in publishing in 1996, doing an internship in a literary publishing house. Then, after a doctorate and other publishing experiences, I started writing reading sheets for Hanser Verlag. It was a question of considering the literary value of the works: what did the author set out to do, how did he achieve his intention, would it be interesting for the German public? My files were very elaborate, and rather critical – I think that’s why I got the job.


What is your typical day like?


You start by reading, you finish by reading. You have to open yourself up for reading, otherwise, with all the correspondence and meetings, you end up not being able to clearly grasp the qualities of a text. It is easier to recognise the missing qualities: a text whose language is not convincing, which proposes clichés, requires less time for evaluation than one whose literary elaboration is appreciated, even if one does not then decide to do the translation. The working day starts at nine o’clock, often reading texts to make a decision in editorial meetings, two a week. Sometimes one takes the texts home, to read in the evening at a more leisurely pace. Discovering a valuable book is a thrill, because they are rare cases. By Claudia Durastanti, for example, I had read Cleopatra va in prigione, which I liked a lot, but then it was La straniera that I thought was the right book for my German debut. You share your impressions with external readers before you make your decision.


Has your outlook on literature changed over the years? If so, in what way?


It has not changed. Fashions change, but not the aesthetic judgement. A good text is a good text is a good text … to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. Good literature, which is the ability to tell stories, to give an account of life through fiction, has not changed since the dawn of humanity, since the time of Gilgamesh. I am convinced that good books remain, poor ones fade away. One must be critical and constructive, but without requirements one only indulges in the hubbub.


Do you also read for pleasure?


Above all. Of course, professional reading is not always enjoyable. The fact is that sometimes it takes a long time to confirm something that you guessed from the beginning. It is a similar situation to being at a movie we do not like: we stay in the theatre out of respect for those who have come with us to see it, but in reality we feel a bit held against our will.


Which authors have shaped you?


All the classics of literature of all times. With regard to the 20th century, every literature has great names, sometimes less well-known. I am thinking of the Mexican Rulfo, the Estonian Jaan Kross, the Serbo-Croatian Ivo Andric. They are timeless models of writing. You only have to open a page to feel the work behind each sentence. I don’t mean effort, but work, that simplicity and essentiality that pretentious or naive writers lack. It is like with actors: naturalness is the result of hard work. Every real writer has his own language: in Rulfo’s case the conciseness seems unsurpassed, and must make one reflect on the fact that most books could be shorter. What is fascinating about Jan Kroos or Andric himself is the ability to reflect world history in the stories of individuals. It is an ambition that so many writers have, but few of them live up to it. Finally, a writer like Marguerite Duras has a very marked writing style that has inspired many. There is no good writer who does not acknowledge a debt to other writers.


And the one(s) you are most happy to have published? Why?


I cannot express a preference. It gives me great pleasure to discover an author, a valuable author, and to make their work public, to support their creativity through our publication.


What characteristics does a book have to have to convince you?


Are we talking prose, poetry, non-fiction? Each genre has its own rules. However, care for language is a clear indication of talent, and this also applies to non-fiction. Instead, linguistic sloppiness is rarely combined with a work of real value. A book that arises from an urgency and finds an appropriate language to express it has the right conditions to convince the reader.


Are there any books you have bought that have not won you over?


The editing process – or more modern editing – reveals weaknesses in certain texts that were not discovered on the first reading. It can therefore happen that a text, when revised, loses its polish. Then there are texts that are published because of the author’s policy, books that may not be very brilliant, but which must be published to support the author in his or her creative journey.


Is there any theme that works in the German-speaking world but not in the Italian-speaking one, and vice versa?


A somewhat difficult question. It is not so much the themes, because themes can be universal, death, love, etc., but rather the perspective. Both Germans and Italians are Americanophiles, so they look for stories from that culture. There is, on the other hand, unfortunately much less interest in books from even closer regions, the Arab countries, but also Eastern Europe, or countries more on the fringe such as Portugal. Just take a look at the translation statistics: almost eighty per cent come from English, from Chinese, the world’s second most spoken language, only a few dozen books. For example, Afonso Reis Cabral‘s Pão de Açucar, which won the Saramago prize, has not been translated into Italian, while the books of an author, such as the Lebanese Amin Maloouf, are found more in Italy than in Germany.


Is there a book you would have liked to have published but was published by another publishing house?


There are many books. Homeland by Fernando Aramburu, for example, or Morning and Evening by Jan Fosse. Whenever I see a publishing house publish a valuable book, I am envious.