From Bridget Jones to T.S. Eliot: the mysteries of the Czech market for translations from English


Hello and welcome to Czech Books. And this week I have with me Kristin Olson, who is a literary agent, and is going to talk about the Czech book market in relation to the English books that are popular here. First I'd like to ask you why you came and why you decided to set up a literary agency?

Kristin Olson: "I came about eleven years ago. Before I was living in New York City and I was working in publishing as an editor. So when I came here I wanted to continue working in publishing somehow and some of my colleagues in New York gave me the idea to start this literary agency. So what I do here is to represent publishers from the US and UK and I sell translation rights for their books to Czech and Slovak publishers. So I am like the local sales agent for those publishers."

So you've been doing this for around ten years. How has the book market changed in that time?

Kristin Olson: "It has changed actually. It's interesting. People think of the Czech market as very sophisticated and very literary and highbrow. To some extent it's true. The Czechs are great readers and they value books. But what has become popular here and what is popular now tends to be the same as in other western markets, like the US, France, Germany, and that means romances, science fiction, thrillers, mystery novels. So as where the market used to be a little bit more serious, I would say, people were very interested in serious history, historical biography, now the things that are selling tend to be much more commercial."

So what about some of the actual books that have been very popular here?

Kristin Olson: "For example, right now, things that are very popular include Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, the kind of names that are best-selling in other markets as well, and also things like Bridget Jones' Diary, which was connected to the film."

And how about the quality of the translation? How important is that? You send the titles to the publishers, who then find the translators, so it has nothing to do with you, but presumably it has a big impact on book sales.

Kristin Olson: "It does have a big influence, because if something is published with a bad translation, it makes it extremely difficult to place other books by that same author in the future, because it basically ruins the chances for that author. The book doesn't sell, and it might even win an award for the worst translation of the year. So other publishers don't really want to take on that author, because it's perceived as a failure. So it's very important to get a good translation and it should be the publisher's responsibility. But for example if they're trying to save money or cut corners, then they might just hire someone with not very much experience and they don't have to pay that person very much."

So what about surprises - other than the general world bestsellers like Stephen King, are there any books that are quite surprisingly successful only on the Czech market?

Kristin Olson: "One author, where I've always been surprised that this author is successful here is Charles Bukowski. He's a sort of cult phenomenon in America, but he's not that well known in America - a lot of people, even who've studied literature, don't know him, but he's extremely popular here. All his books are in print here. They keep selling year after year, and it's kind of amazing to me."

And what about authors who you represent, who might come to Prague to see how their books are selling or to promote them or simply to do some research because they want to write about Prague. Have you had any particularly interesting or horrendous visits?

Kristin Olson: "Both. A lot of authors like to come to Prague as tourists, just because Prague has such a great reputation as being a beautiful city and so a lot of people like to use the opportunity to come here. Their books have been published here, so they say - let's go to Prague and visit. For example, last year John le Carré was here, and he was doing research for a new book of his, which is going to take place partly in the former Czechoslovakia and then in the contemporary Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. So that was very interesting. He was meeting with former heads of the security services and politicians. Then on the other hand, sometimes I have visitors who are absolutely culturally insensitive. They don't care about Prague, don't care where they are, they come with a list of demands. They need only organic fresh fruit, only vegetarian meals and are not very sensitive to what's available here or what they might do here."

And what about John le Carré in terms of sales of his books here. He's very popular in Britain, with television serials etc. Is he popular here too?

Kristin Olson: "He's not as popular here as he is in other western markets, I would say, not as much as he is in Britain, or certainly France. He's a big bestseller in France and Italy. So that's quite surprising to me. But who knows why that is? Maybe people didn't respond to the Cold War themes or maybe people are looking for something new and more glamorous and more exciting."

And what did you do with him? What sites did you show him? What might appear in his next book set in Prague?

Kristin Olson: "Well, we had lunch at Palffy Palace. I thought that would appeal to him - the setting in an old run-down palace."

I'll look out for that in his next book. What about the more serious end of the range of books you represent? Do you represent any poets, for example?

Kristin Olson: "I do. I represent some classic authors as well - and poets. Those authors are also very successful here, especially the ones who were published before '89. So those names are well known, those books are well known and they are still selling. A lot of people like to buy those books to have them in their libraries or to give as gifts. So, people like Graham Greene, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Hailey, those authors are all very popular. Poetry as well, but it's very difficult to sell poetry, because you can only do a very small print-run. People like poetry but you don't ever make any money from publishing poetry. So people really do it more out of a love of poetry. Some of the poets I represent are Joseph Brodsky, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney."

So the main part of your work is representing books in English. Have you any involvement at all with the traffic the other way around, with helping Czech writers to be promoted on foreign markets?

Kristin Olson: "I don't do that any more actually. I did do that for a short time quite a few years ago, but I found that it was extremely difficult work, because it was very time-consuming, very labour-intensive. It's extremely difficult to get editors in other markets to take notice of Czech writers, because it's considered to be a small language and many of the editors in maybe France or Germany or England, don't know anyone who speaks Czech, or they themselves don't speak Czech, of course, so it's hard for them to commission a reading, and serious translators don't want to translate Czech writers without having already an established contract with a publishing company. So that makes it a very difficult situation."

I'm interested to hear your views on how the market might develop, because I notice all around books like "Why Men Can Only Do One Thing at a Time" and a lot of books that seem to be selling because of a big marketing machine, and I don't necessarily mean Harry Potter either, but it seems that marketing seems to be getting more and more important in terms of the book market.

Kristin Olson: "Yes, I think you're absolutely right. Marketing is becoming more and more important. For example, previously when a book like Bridget Jones was published, a publisher which published a book which tied in with a film may not have done any special promotion. Now, as soon as a publisher finds out that a film is coming here, they plan in advance with the film distribution company to do a special promotion, to have posters which advertise the film and the book together. So it is becoming more sophisticated in that sense, that publishers are investing more in marketing and promoting the books. That again is similar to other western markets in which something that you may or may not consider to be sophisticated literature nevertheless sells a lot of copies because of good marketing."