“Catalans really have a beautiful culture of literature, that I think a lot of cultures might learn a thing or two from”: An interview with Douglas Suttle of Fum d’Estampa Press — Silvia Rothlisberger

Fum d’Estampa Press was launched in 2019 by Douglas Suttle to translate Catalan language poetry, fiction, and essays into English. Suttle, as well as being the founder, editor, and publisher of Fum d’Estampa, is also a translator.

I talked to him about setting up the press, ignoring the naysayers, translating Josep Maria Esquirol, and the collaborative efforts behind Fum d’Estampa (FdE).

How did you discover Catalan literature and why do you think it’s important to bring these literary voices to English readers? 

Well, I discovered it really by living here and reading stuff. The Catalans really have a beautiful culture of literature, and they treat and respect books and writers in a way that I think a lot of cultures might learn a thing or two from. And that’s how this whole project came about – picking up books, finding out about authors, talking with people about them, getting excited about them and then thinking that they should be read in English. The good thing (and main problem!) with the press is that it’s geared precisely towards just that – I’ve never particularly looked for bestsellers or that mediocre stuff that seems to be lapped up by people. Rather, I’ve tried to seek out voices that perhaps aren’t as prolific as others, that might have something different to say, that represent different ideas, eras, etc. It’s a beautiful way to work, and is spiritually and culturally very enriching for me personally, but can lead to a number of financial headaches. But hey, we’re all only here for a while, right?

How did you create Fum d’Estampa Press?

I created it by reaching out to as many people as possible and telling them about the project, ignoring the naysayers, linking together different parts of the puzzle of bringing books to the public and then, still ignoring all the naysayers, hitting go. The response has been pretty great so far, at least from people who get the project and the ethos behind it. I’m particularly interested in social, collaborative projects. They’re the things that excite me, so it was important to get as many people involved as possible, in any way possible. I love discussing ideas with translators, with editors, with authors, etc. Editing, typesetting and drawing up contracts are all rather solitary actions, but the meetings, the throwing around of ideas, the discussions with other translators and lovers of language and literature are what makes it worth carrying on, despite the constant bad news and frustrations.

What titles have Fum d’Estampa published so far?

It’s been a case of trying to find slightly different stories that are worth telling. Both Alice Banks [publishing assistant and PR guru for FdE] and I enjoy poetry, prose and essay and so that’s what we’ve gone with. Maybe we should have a team of people behind us telling us the trends and what is selling and what isn’t, but it’s never been about that. Why would we publish something we don’t believe in? I couldn’t live with myself. It’s about bringing exciting stuff to a public that gets what we’re trying to do, that isn’t lured in by the latest cheesy grin splashed across the front page, and that is looking for something a little experimental, just a little different.

How do you choose the books that Fum d’Estampa publishes?

Both Alice and I choose the books, discuss them, try falling in love with them, and if we fall in love with them, then we start moving the project forward. Unfortunately, we often have to deal with agents, etc., through whom ideals can swiftly descend into a case of capitalising on what is, effectively, art, but there you go. That’s the world we live in and how it works.

The layout of the book covers share a visual aesthetic of geometric shapes in different colours. Can you expand on the cover designs?

The cover design has undergone a slightly radical redesign. We’ve made it a little more minimalist and I think it works pretty well. It also maintains a strong design aesthetic which is good. We want people to recognise our books through the minimalist design. The geometric design, however, was originally inspired by the traditional Catalan tiles – la rajola catalana – that can be found all over Catalonia, if you know where to look!

Translators are featured prominently on the cover of the books of Fum d’Estampa Press, how important is it to name the translator on the cover of the books for you?

This is of course something that is somewhat of a topic at the moment, and I think it’s great. It’s important to talk about these things. That said, at the end of the day everyone does what they think is best. And so we do that. Others don’t, and that’s fine. I’m sure they have their reasons. I just think it makes sense, especially for the kind of press we are. It’s a collaborative effort, so why try and hide that? The book wouldn’t have been written in the first place if it hadn’t been for so-and-so sweating away at a computer, and it wouldn’t be in English if it weren’t for this other person doing exactly the same. So let’s celebrate that. And it’s not as if we’re pushed for space on our covers, anyway! But really, I think it’s about time that we start moving away from this idea of a translator as ‘translator for hire’ – paid by the word or whatever – valued as a machine might be valued for their output. Would you place a value on a painting based on the number of brushstrokes? Of course not, so why this other art form? The author ‘translates’ their experiences onto the page, just as the translator brings their own experiences to the new book in the new language. If you want a machine, then you’ve got Google or whatever. But if you want a human being to bring a book to a new language, then treat them as a writer, as the artist that they are. And if you do that, then whack their name on the front cover – it’s not the most difficult thing to do in the world, and can make a big difference.

How do you juggle between the different roles of editor, publisher and translator?

With lots of coffee, basically. I mean, both Alice and I have other jobs and we’re doing this in our spare time, so it means a lot of late nights and early mornings to keep on top of it all. I don’t really edit or proof my own translations beyond what is normally done. Alice helps an awful lot with that, just as I will do with her translations. And as both Alice and I are the publishers, we share the workload in that sense, which helps a lot.

The Intimate Resistance: A Philosophy of Proximity by Josep Maria Esquirol is a recent book that came out with Fum d’Estmapa in your translation. How did you discover this book and how was the process of translating it?

Josep Maria is a friend of a friend, and I was introduced to him after I had already read the book. It’s a pretty big seller here in Catalonia and really sort of exploded through word of mouth. And I can see why. It’s beautiful, it really is. Some people say that it’s a difficult read, but I disagree. It’s not a book to sail through without thinking, but I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly dense, either. It’s a book to ponder, to reflect on. If you’re into poetic philosophy (who isn’t?), then it’s a simply wonderful little collection of thoughts and ideas on how to improve our lot when faced with an existence without meaning, and the ever impending death and disappearance, not just of oneself, but of everyone one cares for and knows. It’s a classic up there with the very best of them in that sense. The translation was nightmarish. It really was. Josep Maria uses very specific philosophical terms alongside more poetic ideas and notions, and it was terribly difficult unravelling them both. It was a pleasure to do, though. And I have to give a shout out to Berta Saenz, one of Esquirol’s PhD colleagues at the University of Barcelona, for spending hours and hours with me to straighten things out. That, in addition to long, long conversations with Josep Maria about philosophy and books. Again, it was a fantastically collaborative effort of which I’m very proud.

What books are coming out with Fum d’Estampa Press this year?

This year is getting out of control. We’re only supposed to publish 6 books a year, but we’re doing 7 titles plus a secret (it’s not really a secret) subscriber (please do subscribe – it’s the only way we’ll survive in this industry) title that we’ll announce in the New Year. So that’s 8. The first title is Bel Olid’s awesome collection of short stories called Wilder Winds. They’re angry, they rail against the unfairness and downright hypocrisy in our society, and I love them. Laura’s translation is wonderful, too. Next is one of those projects that is simply so ambitious that it’s just a little bit scary. Mara Lethem is translating 7 essays from 7 different writers about the 7 deadly sins and we’re putting them all together in a book that at once celebrates the quality of essay writing in the Catalan language, and represents the myriad of different ways ‘sin’ as an idea can be identified and described. It’s amazing. Our next – and last – Montserrat Roig title is out next in a collaborative translation by Meg Berkobien and Cristina Hall. They’re amazing. They work closely together, and their translations are just so well done that it’s a joy to work with them. We published Roig’s first translation into English last year – The Song of Youth – and this will be the last time we publish her. So I’m glad it’s Goodbye, Ramona as I think it’s one of her best. It’s the story of 3 generations of women living through the 20th century – not a great time for women in Catalonia. After that is Wild Horses, by Jordi Cussà. Tiago Miller is translating that one. We’ve worked on a number of projects before and he’s just terrific to work with as well. A very meticulous, artistic translator, he is flexible and open to new ideas. Can’t wait to see how that one comes out. After that is a book by Anna Punsoda called Other People’s Beds, also translated by Mara Lethem. It’s a tough read, but beautifully written and incredibly important. Then there’s Ruth by Guillem Viladot. It’s the story of a man transitioning into a woman told through a series of letters. P. Louise Johnson, the translator of Andrea Víctrix and somewhat of an expert of Viladot’s work with translate that. The last book is a first for us as it’s from French and will be translated by Alice Banks. They Call Me Deranged is a wonderful story from the Cormoros islands about class, race and society. This act of branching out into French is an important move by FdE and both Alice and I are very excited about it.

Douglas Suttle is a writer, translator and editor based in Catalonia. As well as writing for several newspapers and magazines throughout Europe, he translates to and from Catalan and English for a number of publishing houses and has collaborated with various governmental agencies in the promotion of Catalan language. In addition to his English-language work, in 2021 his verse translation of Beowulf will be published in Catalan. Twitter: @FumdEstampa

Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on literature in translation and Latin American culture. Twitter: @silviarothlis