At two ends of the publishing continuum: Harvill Secker’s celebrates its (cumulative) centenary and Vagabond Voices

‘International Writing with a Wayward Streak’ is the headline in Booktrade.info announcing Harvill Secker’s approaching centenary celebrations in 2010.

From January through to December 2010, the Random House imprint Harvill Secker will be celebrating a centenary of publishing. Harvill Secker has published some of the most iconic and inspiring literary works of the last 100 years, bringing international writing from exceptional writers to the attention of British book buyers.

Harvill Secker is part of the Random House Group – Dan Brown’s publishers, which said in the same breath as Harvill Secker is something of an oxymoron.  Harvill Secker has an impeccable list of authors, including J.M. Coetzee, Louis de Bernières, Günter Grass, Joseph O’Connor, Henning Mankell, Umberto Eco, José Saramago and Haruki Murakami.

Random merged The Harvill Press (founded 1946 under the famous Leopard logo as radically innovative publisher) – with the politically avantgarde Secker & Warburg (founded 1936) to make Harvill Secker in 2002.  In its later years, Harvill was revived under the direction of Christopher Maclehose and his comments at the time  of the merger make rather sad reading:

‘Harvill’s loss of independence may always be a matter of regret to me and to all those who supported its growth as an independent house and who worked for it, but the climate of the trade in Britain at any rate has dictated that that only within the shelter of a major publishing force can the authors of small and quality houses flourish. After perhaps too long at the helm of this great publishing house, I look forward to being able to concentrate on work with Harvill’s authors and translators, and to sharing the next years with the new members of the team, in particular with James Gurbutt, whose value to Harvill has already been demonstrated, and with the admirable Geoff Mulligan of Secker & Warburg’.

Harvill published some of the world’s most important and ground-breaking writers including George Orwell, Colette, Boris Pasternak, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Grossman and Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa.

I started to think about the maths of the centenary announcement when I did a little more research into the history of The Harvill Press.  It’s a fascinating story – summed up here (with the occasional linguistic slip!) for Unesco by the Croatian publisher Hrvoje Bozicevic (my bold and italics):

Harvill press was established in on February 20th 1946, in London. The founders were Manya Harari and Marjorie Villiers (hence Har-vill), both of them worked at the Foreign Office and their idea was (just “minutes” before “iron curtain” politically separated East from West and vice versa) to promote and exchange different cultures of “both sides”. They set up high standards, almost trying to avoid word “business”: their idea was more idealistic than close to reality, it was part of “cultural activity”, but also one has to remember that “ideals of united Europe” in the post-Second World War times were almost unthinkable, most of Westerners were sceptical, almost scared of communism. Exchanging the cultures? Cooperate with such bad guys as Russians? West was truly scared, and Britain, separated from continental Europe, with Americans as the most faithful allies even more so. Brave ladies of Harvill seemed unintimidated with Stalin moustaches.

From their small space in Lower Belgrave Street they established a long list with numerous classic 20th Century titles among them Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, just to mention few. In fact Russian literature was first on the list of their interest. It will not pass long time since Harvill had a reputation for publishing world-class translated and Collins acquired an English-language author of fiction and non-fiction and it. The money came inside bringing more authors. The Harvill list was precious and it would take too long space to mention all the names, most of them premier league of their country letters. In the future the translated fiction was still of premier interest (Manya Harari translated from Russian), but soon Harvill is publishing biographies, literary critique, poetry, philosophy, travel writing, illustrated books, very important part of the list.

Great success followed after publishing Boris Pasternak and Lampedusa Leopard. Than came Joy Adams novel and more Russians. Manya Harrari dies in 1969. Marjorie Villers will continue to be on the board with the help of Max Bonham Carter who was the most important figure for the Harvill’s promotion, until his death in 1994. Christopher MacLehose, until 1984 publishing director of Chatto&Windus, afterwards publisher and editor-in-chief of Collins become Harvill’s publisher.

So a centenary of Harvill this is not!  To find the real centenary you have to go back to Martin Secker, founder of the eponymous press in 1910, that was later taken over by Frederick Warburg and Roger Senhouse to become Secker & Warburg in 1936.

The DNB entry has this to say about Martin Secker: born Percy Martin Secker Klingender (1882–1978), he changed his name to Martin Secker by deed poll in 1910 and set up the publishing firm.  The first novel he published, The Passionate Elopement (1911), was also the first by its author, Compton Mackenzie.  He went on to publish, among others, D.H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Douglas, and by the

mid-1920s Secker was the pre-eminent British publisher of European work in translation of his time, with novels by Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks), Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf), Arnold Zweig (Sergeant Grischa), Franz Kafka (The Castle), and Leon Feuchtwanger’s Jew Süss.

But enough about Harvill Secker and onto the second part of this post: Vagabond Voices.  The reason why I’m excited about Vagabond Voices is that it’s seems to “defy gravity” (in the publishing world at least) by being based on the Isle of Lewis (one of the Outer Hebridean islands of Scotland for those who might not know!).  Their website is here, with details of their first publications.

Like Harvill and Secker & Warburg in the early days, Vagabond Voices too has a radical mission:

Publisher of translated novels, political polemics and indeed unbridled rants:  It will be a fairly eclectic publisher, but its output will be literary and tend towards the promotion of socialist and non-violent ideals, although always in a spirit of openness and tolerance.

Wonderful! And what’s even better – with a good degree of professional bias from my side! – its stated core activity will be

the translation of European literary fiction into English, and so there is this transmigration of words from one language to another, the forced march of great multitudes of letters, the exodus of thoughts towards an inspired approximation of the original.

Roll on the years, and let’s hope that Vagabond Voices will also be celebrating a wonderful backlist of translated works that will enrich our all-too monoglot culture!

Must stop and do some work…

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
This entry was posted in Cultural history, foreign languages, translation, translator and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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