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.

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.