Independent Press Profile: Istros Books

A series in which I profile my favourite independent publishers: some of the most exciting addresses when it comes to finding original ideas, literature in translation and voices that are underrepresented in the mainstream. Each one has so much to offer and is more than deserving of support – buy directly where you can, or from your local indie bookshop!

Next up in the Independent Press Profile series is Istros Books.

Istros Books image

Let’s start with the basics: when, where and who.

Istros Books is a London-based press that specialises in translating and publishing fantastic literature from South-East Europe. Founded in 2011 to counter a dearth of English translations from this part of the world, Istros has gone to become a mainstay of the indie literary scene. Founding director and editor Susan D. Curtis lived in South-East Europe for several years and retains close ties to the region, which allow her to handpick some of its most exciting classic and contemporary authors to bring to us in English.

Where have I heard that name before?

Language scholars may recognise Istros as the old Greek and Thracian name for the lower section of the Danube, which either flows through or feeds into the countries Istros Books has chosen to focus on. The name of the press reflects this sense of interconnectedness, ‘the ideal of the free-flow of knowledge and the cultural exchange that books promote’. In a purely publishing sense, the name may be familiar from numerous prize lists: Istros Books has had titles shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize, and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and the EBRD Literature Prize.

What’s the publishing philosophy?

Best expressed by the publisher: ‘At Istros, we believe that good literature can transcend national interests and speak to us with the common voice of human experience.’ In practical terms, this means discovering both new and forgotten voices from all over South-East Europe and translating them into beautifully rendered English. Istros has a distinctly literary focus and always seeks out unusual, gripping stories – in many (extremely good) ways, the books you’ll find here are just a little bit different.

What can I expect to find in the catalogue?

The Istros catalogue includes short and long fiction, plus a very occasional literary non-fiction title. There are plenty of short-story collections or paired novellas if you’re after a taste of a new author’s work, while the novel selection runs the whole gamut from short and experimental to sweeping sagas. If you’re reading the world or after literature from a particular country, you’ll find titles translated from just about every major language spoken in the region, from Albanian to Romanian, Slovenian to Croatian and a whole host of others.

Perhaps a bit more about how the translation/publishing process works?

Director Susan D. Curtis pretty much is Istros Books – like many independents, the press is reliant on one person wearing many hats. Susan uses her wealth of connections to sign as many authors as possible herself, and engages translators working from many languages and based across the world. As an editor, she maintains close relationships with her translators and authors, while typesetting and design is the responsibility of Davor Pukljak. Istros Books manages to publish around five to seven titles a year and also has time to produce a regular podcast, Istros Conversations, in which recent or forthcoming releases are discussed with their authors or translators.

Can I buy books directly from the publisher?

Yes, please do! Istros titles can be ordered through their online shop (there is also the option of pre-ordering forthcoming books) and are available in digital or paperback form. Shipping is currently only available within the UK and EU.

Any particular recommendations?

Istros books are always full of surprises, so you can be confident about anything that takes your fancy. The list includes some much-celebrated writers such as Daša Drndić and Mircea Eliade, as well as debut novelists like Katja Perat. 2020 was a particularly great year for Istros, with the publication of titles such as Perat’s The Masochist, translated by Michael Biggins, and Goran Vojnović’s award-winning The Fig Tree, in translation by Olivia Hellewell. Olja Knežević’s Catherine the Great and the Small, translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursac, made it to my list of favourite titles from 2020, and I particularly enjoyed Christina Pribićević-Zorić’s lyrical translation of Our Daily Bread, a beautifully composed and illustrated meditation on bread by distinguished Croatian scholar Predrag Matvejević.

What’s on the horizon?

Istros is publishing a total of five titles in 2021 – one, Ludovic Bruckstein’s With An Opened Umbrella in the Pouring Rain, translated by Alistair Ian Blyth, has just been released and offers a much-needed revival of one of Romania’s great but forgotten authors. Others to watch out for include Feyza Howell’s translation of Snapping Point, the first time Turkish writer Aslı Biçen will be appearing in English, and Ana Schnabl’s The Masterpiece, translated by David Limon, a novel that explores the fragile ‘golden 1980s’ of Socialist Yugoslavia and will no doubt be worth the wait until October.

If you have a favourite independent press you’d like to see profiled, please let me know in the comments – the best recommendations always come by word of mouth!

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