Pushing back the frontiers: Angel Books at 30
With a redundancy payment, Antony Wood set up as a specialist in translated classic literature, and is embarking on his fourth decade in business.In the spring of 1982 the Hutchinson Publishing Group, preparing to sell itself, slashed its outgoings. The expensive fine arts imprint Barrie & Jenkins, of which I was Editorial Director, was chopped, and I hit the street. I used most of my redundancy payment of £3,000 not towards paying off my mortgage but to start a new imprint, Angel Books, launched on 27 September of that year.
Educated as a linguist, and a commissioning editor in general publishing for some years, I was becoming increasingly interested in translation, and had become a translator myself, from Russian and German. It was clear to me that few English-language publishers knew or cared about translation or what should be translated. Angel Books, therefore, was conceived as a publishing unit, run from home (from a respectable attic), uniquely, as far as I can tell, publishing only translations, with staff consisting of family when willing, spasmodic paid help, and myself ("we" hereafter); and distribution and representation, cover designs and mailing contracted out.
Angel's founding aim was to "push back the frontiers" of world literature available in English. As I spieled at the time: "There is a significant proportion of world literature that the English-speaking reader would enjoy that is not currently available in English translation." I saw severe limitations in the leading classics lists. Rather than rival the big battalions, I decided the best idea was to make lesser known authors and works available, or more adequately available, in English. In the event, we've not got very far around the world yet, tending to concentrate largely on the riches of 19th-century and early 20th-century German and Russian fiction and verse, the former the products of a society fascinatingly like and unlike our own, the latter fascinatingly dissimilar. We have also published a few authors from other European languages, among them Polish, Czech and Portuguese.
Angel has made available the key works of two of the three greatest German writers of fiction of the 19th century, Theodor Storm and Theodor Fontane, in definitive English editions, and critics have hailed our translations of the two celebrated novels Der Schimmelreiter (The Dykemaster) and Effi Briest as indisputably the best in English. We have made a start with Pushkin on the same level, and have published stories by Bunin, Leskov, Bulgakov, Zoshchenko, Schnitzler, Hofmannsthal and other late 19th- and early 20th-century Russian and German writers for the first time in English. The poet Alan Brownjohn's translations of verse plays by Goethe and Corneille have been professionally staged in London.
Another thing that was plain to me in 1982 was that most publishers weren't ambitious enough with translations, being content to see under their name, and the original author's, sloppy, inaccurate renditions slung together with minimal care and cost. I have always taken great care to confer and advise on drafts, whether the translator was a linguistic or literary specialist, a writer of fiction or a poet, or simply an enthusiast without a specialist background. (The Angel winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for 2005 - Denis Jackson for his translation of Theodore Storm's Paul the Puppeteer: And Other Short Fiction - was in the last category.) This close editorial relationship with translators lies at the heart of the Angel project, and in my view has significantly enhanced the reader's enjoyment. My aim has always been that Angel translations should perform in English as excitingly as the originals. Reviewers have commented that this aim has been achieved.
Another of Angel's founding aims was to publish as few books as possible, taking publication to be a serious act too often not taken seriously enough. We have continued to publish only two or three titles a year, but successive distributors - Ken Dickson, Airlift and now Central Books (email@example.com; trade representation, Global Book Marketing) - have considered Angel worthwhile business. The top-selling one-third of Angel titles have averaged UK and US combined sales of 2,500 copies, and the four top-selling titles of all, between 4,000 and 5,000 in our editions. For the first 10 years we published in simultaneous paperback and hardback, thereafter in quality paperback only. We have sublicensed mass paperback rights in some titles, mostly to Penguin Classics, after a period in the original Angel editions. We place North American editions of most of our translations of Russian authors, but don't find the same American publishers' general eagerness to take up German authors, which means that we have been able to build up an Angel library of German classics in North America through our distributors there, Dufour Editions in Pennsylvania.
Angel Books launched on a high in autumn 1982: Paul Scofield and Simon Callow reading from one of the two launch books, Pushkin's verse "Little Tragedy" Mozart and Salieri, on Radio 3; an interview in the first issue of the Radio 3 magazine 3; prompt and brilliant reviews in the TLS and THES... Our programme certainly stood out in those days. Today, a number of other publishers have started up with similar ambitions for addressing "world literature". Although none, as far as I know, publishes translations only, all these newer houses, large and small, are our competitors, for both works and translators. The internet, of course, has given increased opportunities to make our books known, but it is getting harder for a small publisher of limited resources not to be digitally outshouted by louder voices.
The model customer for Angel Classics (the series title has now taken over the publisher name) is a well educated reader not only of English-language writing but also of world literature, curious about the authors of other European countries who wrote in the same 19th and 20th-century periods as the most-read writers in English: a profile which of course includes the student, but also the more mature reader who may have learnt a language at school or university and retain an interest in that culture without having kept up the language. We start our fourth decade with a title which we hope combines these appeals, Red Spectres (November, £11.95, 978-0-946162-80-2), an anthology of Russian Gothic-fantastic stories from the 1920s, which the SF writer Brian Stableford finds "a wonderful excursion into previously uncharted territory".
Angel Books website