The Languages of Canadian Literature: An Interview with Quattro Books’ Bilal Hashmi

I first met Bilal Hashmi in 2014, when we overlapped as graduate students at New York University.

I first met Bilal Hashmi in 2014, when we overlapped as graduate students at New York University. We were both in the Comparative Literature program, both Canadians, and within the logic of literature departments we were also allies: he worked primarily on South Asia and I focused on the multilingual Caribbean, making us at once scholars and promoters of the writers we studied. Bilal soon returned to Toronto, and I learned, through our annual catch ups, of his increasing involvement with the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. This year, however, he had more dramatic news. He had acquired a press. And he would be rebranding that press, Quattro Books, to focus on literary translation. 

On September 19, we met over Zoom to discuss this new venture, likely the first of its kind in Anglophone Canadian publishing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Amanda Perry: Quattro Books is taking a very unique approach this year—six out of nine titles in its fall collection are translations. What's more, only one of those is from French to English, that mainstay of Canadian bilingualism. You are also publishing material translated from Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, and German. This is very exciting as a project, but it seems also like quite a gamble. Tell me more about your overall vision for the press. What is the importance, for you, in publishing so many translations? And translations from such a wide variety of languages?

Bilal Hashmi: First, let me give you some history. Quattro Books was founded in 2006 by Allan Briesmaster, John Calabro, Beatriz Hausner, and Luciano Iacobelli. In May of 2019, I joined the press as Associate Publisher and worked closely with Luciano Iacobelli, who was then the owner and the last of the four original partners to remain involved with Quattro. I stepped in as Executive Director and Publisher in November of that year, and have since been working on rebranding Quattro with an emphasis on Canadian literature in translation.

Quattro’s niche in the past has been the novella, with a strong emphasis as well on poetry, and these two genres will continue to feature prominently in 2020 and beyond. But I want translation to be seen and recognized immediately as a mainstay of Quattro’s publishing activity going forward.

Of the nearly 200 titles Quattro has published to date, only about 15 are translations, and from just three languages—French, Italian and Spanish. So yes, there is quite a drastic shift in direction. Quattro’s niche in the past has been the novella, with a strong emphasis as well on poetry, and these two genres will continue to feature prominently in 2020 and beyond. But I want translation to be seen and recognized immediately as a mainstay of Quattro’s publishing activity going forward. We already have translations of Canadian authors from another half-dozen languages—including Chinese, Czech, Estonian, Hebrew, Persian, Yiddish—very much in the pipeline, and, for the most part, under contract.

Let me also address your initial point about risk, which is always everywhere present in publishing—and now, of course, even more so.  Publishing six translations in one season is definitely a bit of a gamble. At the same time, the risks are mitigated by a few factors.

In the first instance, we are lucky to have the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which has awarded translation grants to each of the six translations appearing in our fall list. This means that our translators’ fees were covered by the Canada Council, and not the press itself. Such funding is never guaranteed, of course, and it is always granted on a competitive basis.

Secondly, a rather unique aspect of translated works is that their reputation precedes them, which is to say that one can base one’s decisions on the originals’ (and other translations’) sales, book reviews, etcetera.

Lastly, I would say that—especially given the relative insularity of Canadian publishing—English translations will almost always have the potential of entering other Anglophone markets, beginning with the U.S. 

AP: The Canada Council for the Arts grants seem like they are a major enabling factor for some of Quattro’s projects. In fact, I've heard that in many cases, it's even more lucrative to translate a novel these days than it is to write one, depending on how advances and sales end up shaking out. Tell me a little bit more about how that system works. I’ve come across the common conception that translation has to be from French to English or English to French, but that seems not to have been the case at Quattro.

BH: Right. Let's begin there, in terms of the qualifying conditions. There's a lot of confusion on this point among publishers, and I would say translators as well. The target language has to be English or French, and more recently there’s been a welcome gesture to include indigenous languages. But generally speaking, there is no requirement for the source language, though that may have been the case in the past.

This is something that I came to learn about several years ago, largely because of one of my own translation projects. There was a question of whether or not it qualified and in fact it did. There’s really no limitation on the source language so long as the author is Canadian.

Prose translation pays 18 cents per word at the current Council rates. Theatre is 20 cents per word and poetry 25. That’s one of the highest rates in the world. I think we may be slightly below one of the Scandinavian countries, but we are certainly on par with, if not slightly above, the U.K.

Now in terms of translation being a lucrative activity, yes, it's quite interesting as an issue of artistic production, right? Prose translation pays 18 cents per word at the current Council rates. Theatre is 20 cents per word and poetry 25. That’s one of the highest rates in the world. I think we may be slightly below one of the Scandinavian countries, but we are certainly on par with, if not slightly above, the U.K.

And hence we have this situation where most authors will make far less than their translators on the same project. Let me add, because I now serve on the Public Lending Rights Commission, that Canadian writers and translators and other creators will also get certain payments every year for books that appear in libraries. A translator would get 50% of the payment whereas the translated author gets the other 50%, and we mustn’t forget royalty structures and rights advances, which are typically more favourable to authors. The hope is that everyone involved—authors, translators, editors and publishers—view this as a partnership. Some people also play multiple roles. This year, we are bringing out translations by Amela Marin and Renée Von Paschen, who have published original, English-language works with Quattro in the past.

The hope is that everyone involved—authors, translators, editors and publishers—view [translation work] as a partnership.

AP: You mentioned that you'd first found out about the eligibility of these other languages for one of your own projects. And of course you were a translator before you were a publisher. I know that you translated Sajjad Zahir’s A Night in London from Urdu to English back in 2011, and I understand you have a couple of other translation projects on the go. How does your own practice as a translator influence your work as a publisher?

BH: I'm very happy to speak to that. My initial entry into the translation world was through a project with Harper Collins India. That was an interesting experience because of India's multilingual landscape. Not everyone in India would have access to Zahir’s text if not for the English translation. So that got me thinking in these broader contexts: What does it mean to position a work within a literary landscape? How do you repackage it? The novella that I translated was first published in 1938. How do you meet the expectations of the Indian 21st century readership?

With the projects that I choose, I'm quite selective. These are usually books that I have been thinking about for a long time. My first Canadian translation is set to come out with McGill-Queen’s University Press and it’s another translation into English from Urdu by an Indian author who became a Canadian later in life. The novel, [Aziz Ahmad’s Flight], is a high modernist work, first published in 1945. This is the project that I had alluded to earlier as eye-opening in terms of rights, and it got me more and more interested in publishing translations within Canada. Already back in 2016, 2017, the idea started percolating in my mind.

I'm also translating Jacques Godbout’s first novel, The Aquarium, which I will be publishing with Quattro, and which is considered the first Canadian nouveau roman. And then from Persian to English there's The Infernal Times of Young Ayaz, by Reza Baraheni, another Canadian writer, who I would call the doyen of Persian literature. This is probably the most challenging one to date, as it’s a brutal allegorical novel about torture and history, and it’s around 400 pages long. Besides that, I'm working on some poetry translations here and there and I am on the editorial board of ellipse, which is a Montreal-based literary translation magazine that was established in 1969. We're preparing to relaunch it, and we have about three issues that are in the pipeline and ready to be released.

Of course, as you know, I'm also the President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada [Association des traducteurs et traductrices littéraires du Canada, shortened to ATTLC/LTAC]. We do advocacy work as it pertains to the craft, the issues that translators have with publishers and so on. And so I am quite privileged to have multiple points of entry into the field as it operates in the country.

Let me just say very quickly that when I joined LTAC, Beatriz Hausner was the president. She also happens to have been one of the founding editors of Quattro. I had the privilege of being mentored by Beatriz who is a leading authority on Latin American surrealism and has translated many Spanish writers, mostly poets, into English. We have a shared experience as immigrants, and as people who are interested in moving beyond just English and French in the Canadian translation landscape.

AP: One thing that I find fascinating is that you entered translation, not through the framework of official Canadian bilingualism, but through your engagement with Indian literature, with a literary market that is always already multilingual. I was wondering if you might comment on that. How do you think that work in the South Asian context has informed your understanding of Canadian literature? Do you think that has allowed you to have a more expansive understanding of what Canadian literature is and could be?

BH: For me, India is a major reference point for what I’ll call an “interlingual” framework—this is an actual term and Canadian translation studies scholars have talked about it. The other site that I’ll point to is Switzerland, but let me start with India. It’s been very much formative for me in thinking about how works are received. A novel may do very well in Bengali, but go unnoticed in Tamil, and vice versa. It’s always a kind of gamble. Hindi and English become the main translation languages, so if the novel does well, you're pretty much assured that those will be the pivot languages for other translations.

... I think there's potential for more linguistic interplay than we currently see. I would argue [Canada is] far more multilingual than many people would like to accept, both officially and unofficially.

Our national bilingual framing is different from that, and yet, I think there's potential for more linguistic interplay than we currently see. I would argue we are far more multilingual than many people would like to accept, both officially and unofficially.

In some ways, Canada has more in common with Switzerland than India in terms of the funding programs that are in place. I had the opportunity to spend some time there on a fellowship at Translation House Looren near Zurich. I interacted with translators who were working in French and German and Italian, and I continued thinking about these questions. Why are we not seeing more work translated from other languages in Canada? This would be a good thing for Canadian publishing. It's a good thing for connecting authors. It's a good thing for Canadian translators. It's something that could really stimulate the industry.

I don't want us to compare the Canadian experience with the United States, as it's very different. But the openness that American publishers have to international literature in translation is not the case here. A lot of the complacency comes from the fact that only projects that are funded are the ones that get published. Because if you can't get a grant to publish a Haitian author in English in Canada, you're probably not going to go with that, right? Even if it's a very important and compelling work. Whereas I think in the States the thinking would be, OK, we're funding this press ourselves. So we're going to take the risk if it's good enough work. Here, it's generally avoided in order to meet certain requirements put in place by the funding bodies, which require the majority of titles in any given year to be Canadian.

AP: I would not have expected to hear that the U.S. is more open to international translations. It sounds like the Canada Council is an enabling feature of the landscape, but also a constraining one.

BH: Exactly—there is a certain paradox here. You're not prohibited from publishing international work that is not Canadian, but you're certainly not rewarded for it. Although, you know, you are a recipient of core funding, which people just across the border in New York would give arm and the leg to receive. These operating grants are quite generous. And translators in the U.S. are often underpaid or not paid at all, which is a troubling reality unto itself.

Then there's the question of distribution, which again, Canadian books do sometimes make it across the border, but the selling focus is usually within the country itself, which is another problem that translation can help unsettle or complicate, in a good way. If you've got rights for a translation, you can typically sell it not only here, but in the U.S. easily enough—which is not to say that it'll end up on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, but you can certainly try to push it there. And then of course you have the U.K., and I already mentioned India, where you might try and bring out a co-edition. There are countless markets for your books.

The Swiss have the capacity to apply for a grant to publish international works in one of the Swiss languages, which is the angle that I was trying to push for here when I first joined the executive board of LTAC in 2017. But we quickly found out this wasn't going to happen, and we respectfully decided to wait for that moment to come. And I hope it does, because I do think it will make Canadian publishing more competitive and interesting in the long run. With Quattro, I took the more conservative route: publishing Canadian writers or permanent residents of Canada who have other literary histories under their belt. Who are these people? What kind of works could possibly be fundable? And the Fall 2020 season features six of these works.

AP: Let's get into that season. I don't want to get you in trouble with any of your authors here, but what are some works that you're particularly excited about?

BH: We have nine titles, and three are English language works. Of the six translations, one interesting work is the poetry of F.P. Grove, and I’m not only choosing that because he's no longer alive so I won't offend anyone. It’s an illustration of what I'm attempting with Quattro going forward. Grove is a canonical Canadian prairie novelist. In the 1970s, it was discovered that he had another life in Germany. He fled to Canada, changed his name, and started over in a new language. The other authors that I'm publishing often have similar stories—most of them have come to Canada with another literary history up their sleeves.

Anyway, since the ’70s, it's been widely acknowledged that Frederick Philip Grove and Felix Paul Greve are one and the same person, and he had written a volume of poetry and a lyric drama in Germany in the early years of the 20th century. Both of these are appearing in English translation by Renée Von Paschen, a Vienna-based Canadian translator. This volume was built in part around Canada’s participation as a guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which has now been postponed until next year. I thought this is a book that needs to come out now to showcase this interplay between literary cultures. This volume will also be entirely bilingual, meaning that it will be for German language markets as well as English ones. I should say that this is something that my colleagues would probably not rush to do: publishing something so old, with an author that is no longer alive.

AP: This suggests to me that Quattro is quite highbrow in its orientation, connected to the academic world in terms of the authors that you’re valuing, but also trying to find them a broader commercial audience. Does that sound right?

BH: I guess so, even in our new signature look. It’s deliberately quite minimalist, a very bare look, and that has shocked some people, including potential funders.

AP: It reminds me very much of the major French publishing houses, like Gallimard: your covers are mostly just the title, the logo, and then a lot of white space.

BH: That’s exactly the kind of model that I’m using. Looking at the books themselves, these aren't the flashy covers that we're used to. I'm aiming for more of a curated library, with books that are more or less a uniform, minimalist, boutique-style. This is not to criticize other publishers, but my thinking is that a book should look like a bestseller when it becomes one. Still, the actual object, I hope, will be seen as quite attractive: we have French flaps and textured covers that add visual appeal. If I were to summarize it in one sentence, Quattro books will not only read differently, but will look differently. I’d like for you to spot us from a mile away.

AP: Another publisher that comes to mind, here in Montreal, is Memoire d’encrier, which was founded by the Haitian Rodney Saint-Éloi. That press has a similar boutique, “library” quality to its covers and is also very committed to publishing a diverse range of authors, including through translations.

BH: I think they’ve been very courageous, more so than most other publishers I can think of in Canada. Especially because they often publish translations that are not fundable through the usual channels.

I’d also like to give a shout out to Seagull Books in Calcutta, which is one of the poorest cities in the world and yet has one of the most vibrant intellectual cultures that you'll find anywhere. Seagull Books publishes probably the most impressive list of translations anywhere. They largely depend on the grants that they receive from the works’ countries of origin—the Germans, the French, the Swiss, and so on—but the books are printed and published in Calcutta, and then distributed in the U.S. and the UK.

AP: I want to ask you about House of Wrinkles by Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto. This is a novel about a young man of mixed Angolan and Portuguese parentage, who travels to Lisbon in search of his father. I’m intrigued by this text and this writer, and I also want to issue a bit of a challenge: as somebody who reads Portuguese, should I still buy your translation?

BH: Of course! House of Wrinkles is really quite unique, and it's being considered for two sources of Portuguese funding, which is a great sign as to its importance as a narrative and in Portuguese-Angolan fiction. It’s one of the earliest in that genre of the return novel, which involves the former colonial subjects coming back to the centre, i.e. Lisbon. Pinto is one of the first authors to write in this mode.

I have very high hopes for this book, which Eleni Kyriakou has translated wonderfully. It's a beautiful work, and this is an author who lives in Vancouver. Very few of us know about him at all. He is one of the sweetest people I know, and he’s also a poet. We've already talked about doing a second and hopefully a third book of his in the future.

Finally, I wrote [Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto] a letter and he very kindly responded and gave me permission to publish the book. So [the translation] is also a rebirth for [House of Wrinkles], putting it back into circulation and helping it find a new audience.

As someone who reads Portuguese, you should definitely buy the translation, because the first edition is very hard to find. I tried to look for it in bookstores in Lisbon, but discovered that the publisher had likely gone out of business. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally, I wrote Pinto a letter and he very kindly responded and gave me permission to publish the book. So this is also a rebirth for the novel as a whole, putting it back into circulation and helping it find a new audience. 

AP: You wrote him an actual, paper letter? That’s a lovely story. Just to make sure that we don't ignore texts that have originally been written in English, I noticed that you also have Alberto Manguel on your list. Of course, Manguel is an Argentine-Canadian, with strong and ongoing attachments to Buenos Aires. This suggests that your international commitment applies to English-language works as well.

BH: Right, Manguel was the director of the National Library in Argentina and is also currently based in New York City. He has a considerable European presence as well, particularly in France. Manguel was one of the first authors that I wanted to publish in English because he has this great reach. And of course, he has this Canadian connection, which is rarely acknowledged, and he regularly writes for Geist magazine in Vancouver. We are publishing two novellas of his that have appeared in 15 or more languages already, but this will be the first time they are being published in English.

AP: Wait, they were originally written in English, but so far they’ve only appeared in translation?

BH: Yes, and in over a dozen languages. It’s quite a paradox. I also wanted to mention that Quattro for the longest time has been known as the home of the novella. These two works carry on that tradition. We have a third of his books coming out next year, called Death by Water. These are Spanish language poems that we’ll be publishing in a translation by Sarah Moses, a Canadian translator who divides her time between Buenos Aires and Toronto. We have world rights for that work, and we’ll make it a bilingual edition.

AP: Of course, we’ve talked about three of the major men that you are publishing, but you also have a play by Catherine Mavrikakis, who is, of course, a very well-established Quebecois writer. Then there’s a novella set in Soviet Georgia, originally written in Russian by Elena Botchorichvili, and translated into English by Tatiana Samsonova.

BH: You know, Botchorichvili has received the Russkaya Prize for short fiction, which is Russia’s highest literary award. Again, without any real acclaim here, and she’s a Montreal-based writer whose work has been published in French, Italian, Czech and so on, but never before in English. Mavrikakis is very interesting in that her canvas regularly includes U.S. and Europeans settings. It’s the kind of work within Quebecois literature that has the potential to break out to other markets. Nathanaël, the translator, is the one who first pitched this title to me.

Let me just give a brief mention as well to David Albahari, who is foremost among Serbian writers of his generation and who has won major prizes in Europe. He’s translated more in the United States than he is in Canada and has made Alberta his home for the longest time! This is one of the most prolific and highly acclaimed novelists of our time and yet he has scarcely ever been published in this country. And this is a Canadian author, right? Someone we can bring back into the spotlight, and reintroduce, if not introduce, to Canadian readers. I would like to resist such terms, but there's definitely a kind of “repatriation” involved here, as these authors have reputations elsewhere.

AP: Another thing that I noticed is that the majority of your translators are women.

On the face of it, we are publishing a majority of men as authors, but in fact, all of the translators are women or non-male-identifying. We should also recall that they are typically getting paid more than the authors themselves. This is a very much a translator-driven press, one that foregrounds translation as a form of authorship in itself.

BH: Yes, I want to recognize the importance of that. On the face of it, we are publishing a majority of men as authors, but in fact, all of the translators are women or non-male-identifying. We should also recall that they are typically getting paid more than the authors themselves. This is a very much a translator-driven press, one that foregrounds translation as a form of authorship in itself.

Really we look at it as a partnership, Authors, translators, publishers, we are all invested in getting the best possible final product out there. It’s also a great thing for Canadian publishing in the sense that every book pays out to at least three, sometimes four individuals, as we also have bilingual readers and editors involved in the process. It's a very collaborative model, and also a very tricky one, because you have to mediate all of these relationships. Sometimes authors disagree with the translators, or editors may request far more extensive changes than the translator had anticipated.

All that said, translation need not be viewed as the sole publishing activity of Quattro. It is certainly a focus, but we will change course if needs be. I'm not going to be naïve about it if it ends up not being the right way to go.

AP: That's a challenge to the public as well, right? If they want to have a Canadian press that is focused on translations, then we're going to have to buy the translations.

BH: Exactly, exactly.

AP: You mentioned earlier that the Frankfurt Book Fair is being postponed. Here’s your mandatory COVID question: how has our current global situation impacted your plans?

BH: It’s certainly not an ideal time to be rebranding a press. Generally speaking, sales are down and there are a lot of returns taking place. And let's not forget promotion. Typically we would have launches in-person. Quattro has had a historic presence in Old Toronto, and there’s a community that would pack our launches, and a lot of people would buy books in person.

So we will have to be creative there, but that’s the situation for the whole industry. I will be the first to admit that I'm probably one of the least social media savvy people in publishing, but to be honest, these tools have their own advantages in terms of the variety of formats. For example, we can have the authors read the original and project the translation at the same time. I should also acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which has been quite generous and has helped publishers with emergency funding.

AP: I want to end by asking you a slightly more personal question. I first met you in 2014 when we were both PhD students, as part of NYU's Comparative Literature Program. You’ve had a very winding road since then, moving in and out of university positions and other settings. I imagine that for a publication like The Puritan, many readers are going to be graduate students. Others are navigating a post-PhD landscape that has just become even bleaker, with widespread hiring freezes. You’ve managed to find yourself now in a very compelling position, intervening directly into the field of literary publishing. And you've been making new things possible. I'm wondering what advice you might have.

BH: This is a very important question. I'm going to speak specifically to comparatists, which is again our shared training. Even if it doesn't land you a tenure-track job, multilingual training in literature will certainly come in handy in this field. Often works are translated into French or Spanish or German before English, so if you are looking for material or to make acquisitions, knowledge of other languages is definitely useful. I don’t read Serbian, so I could only access Albahari through the French translation.

If you have the ability to translate from another language into English, that's another skill that you can certainly put to use. It was also great to have that background because not only was I able to get a sense of the world literary space in terms of genre, but also in terms of how to frame the works. Because you have to write a copy to promote the books. You have to come up with catalogs. I felt that I was already at an advantage in that sense.

That space between academia and publishing is always tricky. You don't want to sound too exclusive or too mannered, because that becomes an obstacle to actually appealing to your readers, who are coming from a variety of backgrounds. But there was a large benefit to developing an international view of literature, which being in New York also helped emphasize on a daily basis.

As for shifting gears professionally, sadly publishing is not a very open field.

The talk of diversity of late is wonderful. It's very important, and it's much needed. But we are in a shrinking space rather than the growing one. New publishers rarely emerge, and if they do, it's a very difficult upward battle. You have to be self-sufficient for a number of years before you qualify for core funding. For me, and without getting into the specifics of my acquisition of Quattro, it was an opportunity that would probably not come again. Even in conventional houses, there are very few positions that open up in any given year. There's a lot of potential for freelance work, though, and it's great to introduce yourself to publishers and to try to work with them—as readers, editors, designers, and so on.

AP: What I am also hearing here is that, with any kind of trajectory, there’s going to be a level of contingency, of things that are beyond your control. Opportunities do come up, and when they do, you need to move towards them. But there is also a need for flexibility in terms of what kinds of contributions you see yourself making. Perhaps you should not be too fixated on one single avenue.

... it helps to be a dilettante: to have read widely, and to have the widest possible sense of what literary culture is.

BH: Right. And I would say, in terms of being a comparatist again, it helps to be a dilettante: to have read widely, and to have the widest possible sense of what literary culture is.

With that skillset, you might bring something to publishing that it desperately needs. There’s a lot of homogeneity within Canadian publishing, a lot of the same people talking to each other.

AP: Well, it certainly sounds like Quattro is bringing something unique to the table. Thank you for taking the time, and I for one hope that this project ends up being a resounding success.

BH: Thanks very much, Amanda, and The Puritan, for this opportunity.

In addition to the works mentioned here, Quattro’s fall list includes Pablo Urbanyi’s Café van Hautten, a novella set in Ottawa translated from the Spanish by Janice Flavien, and Luciano Iacobelli’s most recent poetry collection Noctograms.

Download Link: Quattro Books Fall 2020 Digital Catalogue

[gallery columns="2" size="full" ids="13568,13569"]

Bilal Hashmi is Executive Director and Publisher of Quattro Books. He teaches Urdu at the University of Toronto, where he obtained his BA and MA in English before pursuing advanced studies in comparative literature at New York University. He is the President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada/Association des traducteurs et traductrices littéraires du Canada and also serves on the editorial board of the literary translation magazine ellipse. His annotated English translation of Aziz Ahmad’s Urdu novel Flight (Gurez; 1945) is forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press. Current translation projects include a selection of Kabir’s Hindi poetry, as well as an experimental novel each by Jacques Godbout and Reza Baraheni (from the French and Persian, respectively).

About the author

Originally from Edmonton, Amanda Perry writes and teaches in Montreal. She has a PhD from New York University in Comparative Literature, and she teaches Caribbean literature at Concordia University and English Literature at Champlain College-Saint Lambert. The author of numerous academic articles and book chapters, she is working on a book project that reframes the Cuban Revolution as a Caribbean event.