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Frank Heibert: The Quality Approach

Aug 2, 2018


In July, twenty-five Canadian publishers from across the country went on a scouting mission to Germany. While abroad, they had the opportunity to not only meet with German publishers and visit some of the country’s best publishing houses, but also hear from some of the German industry’s most prominent and knowledgeable professionals. One of those publishing professionals was translator Frank Heibert, who has translated works by writers such as Don DeLillo, George Saunders, Richard Ford, William Faulkner, George F. Walker, Yasmina Reza, Raymond Queneau, Michel-Marc Bouchard, and Suzanne Lebeau.

In a talk on what makes Canadian literature interesting for German publishers and readers, Heibert outlines what works and doesn’t work for the German market.

What works?

Strength in Canada’s diversity.

Beyond Canada’s image as a ‘nice’ country, German readers are interested in Canada’s experience with immigration. A society that celebrates diversity over assimilation “has an immense richness of sources and backgrounds of its people to show for (be they First Nations, Catholic Québécois, Hassidic Jews, Muslim migrants, … migrants from the Caribbean, South-Eastern Europe or Asia). And the richness of that mix necessarily surfaces in the literature that is written, by those different voices and sources or about them. Canada and Québec have an advance on Europe in these things, and that definitely creates interest beyond ‘nice’.”

It all comes back to Nature.

“There is a yearning, in Germany, for wide, wild, untouched worlds and an interest in how we humans can handle them, live in them or not. This aspect gives Canada an exotic, adventure-like touch – the extremes of the climate, the challenge nature can represent (shall I call it ‘the bear element’?), and it is part of what a German immediately thinks of when hearing Canada.”

Perspective is key.

Pointing to works like Christian Bök’s The Xenotext and Karoline Georges’ Sous béton, Heibert has found unique perspectives in Canadian authored works, whether utopian or dystopian in nature. For a country like Germany, “which has its hands full with digesting the past and trying to understand the present, this quality of tackling the future is refreshing, interesting, attractive.”

What doesn’t work?

Happy endings. “German publishers are not afraid of bad endings, they probably find them more believable. … If we want feel good books, we pick up commercial fiction meant to entertain, and that’s fine. But when we’re talking about art, literature as an art form, we seem to prefer the new, the challenging, the provocation.”

Instructive fiction. “Sometimes, a novel that is about an issue comes with a lot of helpful, but ‘unprocessed’ background information. That didactic aspect wrapped up in fiction doesn’t seem to work so well for Germans; if we want to learn, we either take up non-fiction, or we don’t want to notice we are learning while entering into a different world through fiction.”

TMI (Too Much Information). “Memoirs do work when the life they unfold is in some way exemplary. However, novel-like books being centered around one single ego, leaving nothing unsaid, while it soon becomes clear that that this ego belongs to the author – this kind of autofiction seems to work better in Canada than in Germany.”

What can Canadian publishers do to find German homes for their titles?

Focus on the gems. “I‘d like to encourage you to bet on class, not on mass, and by that I want to say: focus on the special books you do, the singular and peculiar ones. Not the books where it doesn’t matter if they were written in Canada, Sweden or Spain – the mainstream will travel anyway, most of the time. But the unique works are your quality assets, they can make sure that your appearance in Frankfurt will make an impact, will not be over after two months but start or deepen a tradition of publishing Canadian and Québécois literature in German.”

And last but not least…

Act quickly! “German publishers are deciding about their programs for 2020, if they haven’t done it already, between now and November, or latest, Christmas this year. The books will have to be translated some time in 2019, so that’s the timeframe we’re looking at for the majority of publishing houses. So if there is interest coming from a German publisher for reading a pdf or for starting negotiations on rights, please act fast, react fast.”

Canada FBM2020 thanks translator Frank Heibert for his time and sharing his expertise in what makes a good book travel!

Photo: Frank Heibert
By Frank Heibert, abridged version by Jolise Beaton