Towards Frankfurt 2024 Interview with Susanne Simor, Foreign Rights Director at C.H. Beck publishing house
Susanne Simor (born in Budapest) heads the foreign rights office at C.H. Beck. She studied Romance and Germanic languages and has lectured on publishing at Munich University. She has worked for Suhrkamp, Farrar Straus & Giroux and Feltrinelli and speaks five languages: Hungarian (her mother tongue), German, Italian, French and English.
You have a strong bond with Italy. When and how did this come about?
I owe my attachment to Italy to various circumstances in my life. I could also say that the Italian language entered my thoughts little by little, like the Italian writers who have kept me company for so long. I took Latin for several years in high school because I loved it. From Latin to Italian, it was only one step for me. I learned Italian at university, studying the history of Italian, French and German literature in Munich, at the University for Foreigners in Perugia and at the University of Nantes.
When I was studying Romance languages and literature in Munich, I stumbled upon Eugenio Montale‘s books, and his poetry always encouraged me, even during the dark periods of my life, such as the Covid period with its confinements. When I felt anxious, I always thought of some of his poems.
During an internship at Feltrinelli, I also had the chance to meet contemporary writers such as Gianni Celati, Antonio Tabucchi and Erri de Luca.
When did you start working at Beck’s and why?
I started working at C.H. Beck’s in the early 1990s because publisher Wolfgang Beck asked me to manage the foreign rights office, which was still under development at the time. The translation business has always attracted me. The idea that a book can be reborn in another language thanks to someone other than the author of the book has always fascinated me.
Has your vision of literature changed between then and now? If so, in what way?
What has grown steadily over the years is a sense of wonder at the richness of imagination and inventiveness. Respect for the profoundly different sensibilities of writers also grows with time. How many worlds do books offer us, enriching our lives and giving them an incredible polyphony!
What aspects do you take into consideration when deciding to buy the translation rights to an Italian novel, or that you consider important for selling German novels in Italy? What must a book or author have to attract you?
Before you buy the translation rights to a book, you need to know whether it has that spark or originality that can give it a key position, even in a foreign market where the author is not yet well known. A translation is always more expensive than an edition in the original language, because not only do you have to pay for translation rights and costs, but also for a reviser to check the translation. These additional expenses must be recouped by the publishing house purchasing the rights. A very prestigious publishing project is our six-volume Geschichte der Welt, edited by Akira Iriye and Jürgen Osterhammel, which we produced in collaboration with Harvard UP. In Italy, Giulio Einaudi published the six volumes, totalling 6,391 pages. The Italian market has responded very well to these volumes, so much so that in Italy, some of the essays contained in the volume have also been published as independent books.
If I want to sell the rights to a book in Italy – which is the most frequent case for us – my task is to convince an Italian publishing house of the uniqueness of the book, to the point that they will cover the translation costs.
Are there any subjects that work in the German-speaking world but not in the Italian-speaking world, and vice versa? If so, why do you think this is?
The Italian market is very receptive to German books that are successful in Germany. German non-fiction books are widely translated into Italian, while fiction books are somewhat less so, with the exception of the great classic authors. In the field of general history, cultural history, religious history or art history, the German market is very productive. There is an incredible variety of titles, a polyphony from which Italian publishers also benefit by translating a large proportion. This richness is also due to the fact that, after the Second World War, Germany had more need to come to terms with its past than Italy. Our greatest success in terms of foreign sales was the book Das Schloss der Schriftsteller, in which Uwe Neumahr deals with the Nuremberg trials from the point of view of the international journalists who were present at the time. The book has become a bestseller in Germany and has been translated into seven languages. In Italy, it will soon be published by Marsilio and, even before its release, Il Corriere della Sera has devoted a long article to it. If the Italian market welcomes German books, it’s also thanks to the many Italian publishers who read German. Unfortunately, the German market is not as receptive to Italian books. With the exception of a few publishers specialized in German publishing, such as Wagenbach or Hanser Verlag, there are generally fewer and fewer publishers who read Italian.
So far, when we’ve tried to reproduce the success of an Italian book in Germany, sales have often fallen short of our expectations. For every rule, there is an exception. For us, this was the case with Giuliano da Empoli‘s first novel, Il mago del Cremlino, which we nevertheless translated from the French original.
If an author is already established on the market in his own country, he may sell well, but in another country, if he is not yet known, he may go unnoticed. For a translation, therefore, you need to find books that are sufficiently original or brilliant to make their way into the market, whether the author is well known or not. So, if a book manages to cross the border of its own language, it’s because its message is truly original and contains that flame that shines everywhere.
In recent years, the growing popularity and appeal of the Turin Book Fair has contributed greatly to the increase in international exchanges with Italian publishers.
Is there a book you would have liked to have published, but which was published by another publishing house? And a book you would have liked to sell but didn’t?
If a book is translated by another publishing house, that’s fine, because the important thing is that the book finds its ideal place to be launched in a new market. Of course, there have been several occasions when we’ve had to abandon a project because another publisher’s offer was higher than ours. However, we’re an independent family business, not a big corporation, and these things can happen.
What’s much worse is when a book that deserves to be translated doesn’t get translated because no one recognizes its value to a foreign market. Just as tragic is when a book is translated and published by the wrong publisher – who fails to make it accessible to its intended audience.
In the field of non-fiction, we have a magnificent world history of capitalism which will be published in Frankfurt this year. The author is Friedrich Lenger and the title is Der Preis der Welt. The global inequalities that capitalism has engendered include the unequal consumption of fossil resources and the destruction of the environment, which are perceived very differently in different parts of the world. And if commercial and industrial capitalists have been indifferent to nature, they have been equally indifferent to human suffering. This book is therefore essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the complexity of today’s problems, or who wants to take part in the political debate. This book is important for the Italian and German markets, so I hope to find an Italian publisher to publish it too.
Another book that deserves an Italian translation is Sabine Gruber’s new novel Die Dauer der Liebe. The award-winning author was born in Merano, so her Italian roots are reflected in her novels. Sabine Gruber is a German-speaking European with an Italian passport. Having already been translated along with another Marsilio novel, the author is already known to a certain Italian public. Her latest book, published recently, is highly autobiographical and, in my opinion, the strongest she has written to date. With incredible energy and powerful language, the book tells a story of loss and betrayal, but also shows how, after crossing the desert of grief, one can find one’s way back to life, and thus offers a story of healing. At the Frankfurt fair, I hope to find an Italian publisher for these books too.