The ProsenPeople

New Vessel Press: Great Books in New Vessels

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 | Permalink

by Maron L. Waxman

Shortly after the launch of their first list, I talked with Michael Wise and Ross Ufberg about their new publishing company…

New Vessel Press, Michael Wise and Ross Ufberg’s company dedicated to publishing translations of foreign literature, grew out of a chance meeting at a spelling bee.

Michael’s son, Solomon, was a participant in the spelling bee, and after it was over, Michael chatted briefly with the pronouncer, Ross Ufberg. In just five minutes the two found they had several common interests—art, culture, European literature. Ross, a translator and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, noted that Michael knew as much about East and Central European literature as many of the people in his department—perhaps even more.

The two met again later when Michael, who was volunteering one night in the homeless shelter at Congregation Ansche Chesed on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, noticed Ross’s name on the volunteer list. Both members of the congregation, they became friends over the next couple of years despite the fact that Michael is twice Ross’s age. Ross had been translating some Russian books, and Michael, at one time a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Washington Post stationed in Vienna, had always enjoyed reading French and German books. Over the course of the next two years, their interest grew into the idea of founding a publishing company to make available to an English-speaking audience high-quality foreign-language works.

Ross believes that a market for translated literature exists and that so little foreign literature is translated because publishers often underestimate their readers. Michael observed that, like movie producers, publishers want the broadest possible audience and so they concentrate their efforts on translated literature that is globalized, books that will appeal to an international middle class and could be set anywhere. Ross added that much of the highest-quality translated literature is poetry, a genre that doesn’t have a wide readership. New Vessel will publish high-quality accessible books that speak of a particular place and can broaden readers’ cultural outlook. Above all, Michael says, New Vessel will publish just plain good books.

In selecting books for translation Michael and Ross consult a wide variety of sources. Given their broad reading in French, German, Russian, and Polish, they have drawn on their own knowledge for their first lists. For example, a French biography Michael read last year mentioned Cocaine, a “wicked” book by Pitigrilli published in Italy in 1921 and intermittently available in English; New Vessel will bring it back into print with a new afterword, as it will other worthy books that have gone unnoticed. New Vessel is also publishing The Good Life Elsewhere, which Ross has translated from Russian. Michael and Ross follow several literary blogs, including one by an American woman who lives in Cairo and writes about books in Arabic, and are now receiving recommendations and submissions from translators and agents. Their first list has books from Argentina, Italy, Austria, Israel, Moldova, and Poland. Three books on the list—Some Day, Fanny von Arnstein, and Killing the Second Dog—have Jewish or Israeli connections. Ross and Michael say New Vessel is committed to contemporary Israeli fiction and plan to publish at least one book translated from Hebrew on each list.

Michael commented that the age difference between Ross and him has led to a good balance. Ross is more open to digital business and marketing and originally saw New Vessel as an e-book publisher. Michael, a little more conservative, held out for simultaneous print editions. People still like to hold books and look at covers and nicely designed pages, he says, and printing advance galleys and taking copies of the books to independent stores have helped get word of the books out. At the same time Ross’s marketing on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and online media has generated good coverage and reviews—on Tablet and the New York Review of Books website—and a less expensive place for advertising than print.

Michael and Ross are learning as they go, and at this point New Vessel is a very much a personal business, with only an intern helping out. The publishing community has been supportive, but there’s still an incredible amount to learn. Nonetheless, Michael and Ross are committed to New Vessel and to publishing five to six translations a year. “I never imagined myself in the business of taking books to stores and urging staff members to read them,” Michael said with a chuckle, “but this brings together all my passions—language, literature, travel—and I’m having a great time.” And Ross simply added, “I just love it.”

Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club. She also leads editorial workshops.