Baltimore-born Freudenheim, who lives in London, runs Pushkin Press, which specializes in bringing gems of foreign literature to the English-speaking world. He tells me the book No Place to Lay One’s Head, by Francoise Frenkel, which was a bestseller in Spain, is “amazing.”
“What’s so interesting is that there are endless books about the war, but this is different. The first part is about her passion for French literature and how she set up her bookshop in Berlin. Then it becomes a breathless book about all the strangers who took her in and helped her survive in occupied France.”
The memoir, which was originally written in French, was rediscovered in a flea market in 2010 and is to be released by Pushkin Press in January.
It’s these “finds” that make Freudenheim’s job really exciting. It also means that there is no such thing as a day job for him, as many of his evenings are spent speed reading yet another book, or sifting through translation samples to find the right translator.
The rediscovery of the work of German writer Hans Fallada in 2009 while working at the Penguin publishing house piqued Freudenheim’s interest in translating the world’s best literature. The first English-language publication of Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, a true story about an ordinary German couple resisting the Nazis, was a huge success, selling nearly half a million copies in the UK before being made into a film earlier this year.
During his eight-year stint at Penguin, Freudenheim particularly enjoyed working on translations. “It was such fun, and so interesting, to decide which books needed new translations, to find the right translator and work with them, to find advocates for ‘lost’ classics we would rediscover.”
Then in early 2012 he happened to have lunch with Melissa Ulfane, the founder of Pushkin, who asked him if he knew anyone who might be interested in buying her company. Yes, he certainly did! They closed the deal a couple of months later and Freudenheim has been publisher and managing director ever since.
Pushkin Press is perhaps best known for reintroducing the works of the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig to the English-speaking world. “It’s the bread and butter of our backlist and we are always doing new editions of Zweig’s work, the latest one being Messages from a Lost World earlier this year,” notes Freudenheim.
“He was one of the bestselling fiction writers in the world in the ’20s and ’30s, with a real gift for melodrama. That era continues to speak to people.”
Other Jewish writers represented by Pushkin are the Hungarian Antal Szerb, who wrote Journey by Moonlight, and Isaac Babel, whose Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories Boris Dralyuk translated to huge acclaim for Pushkin. It also publishes a few books by another Austrian Jewish writer, Arthur Schnitzler, including his rediscovered book Late Fame in 2015, which has just come out in paperback.
Since buying Pushkin in 2012 sales have grown more than tenfold, culminating in the publication of more than 60 titles this year. These days many European countries are keen for books to be translated, and offer subsidies of up to 100% of translation costs.
Always looking to broaden the range of languages in translation, earlier this year Pushkin published its first Estonian novel, adding to its range of translated foreign titles which include Finnish, Hebrew, Icelandic and Japanese among many others.
In 2015 Pushkin published its first Hebrew book, One Night, Markovitch by contemporary Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, who won the Sapir Prize in Israel for best debut. It has also published her second book, Waking Lions, and will be releasing her third novel, The Liar and the City, next year.
“The Liar and the City is a novel that looks at what happens when a lie becomes the truth and takes on a life of its own,” explains Freudenheim. “In some ways it’s a commentary on fake news and the media today.”
Finding the right translators is an art itself, which requires sifting through samples to find the most suitable. It really is about ensuring that nothing is lost in translation. “They make something read so smoothly, that you are not even aware it’s a translation,” he notes.
American-born Sondra Silverston, who lives in Israel, was handpicked to be the translator of Gundar-Goshen’s books. “Each of Ayelet’s books is different in style and Sondra is a flexible translator.”
Freudenheim also has a passion for children’s books, and conveniently uses his own three children, aged 10, 12, and 14 as his test audience. It’s difficult to predict how well a book will do and sometimes he admits to getting it totally wrong, except for when his children have fallen in love with a work.
When his son Max, at just eight years old, read the second half of Laura Watkinson’s translation of the Dutch book The Letter for the King, in a single sitting, Freudenheim knew he was onto something. It was named Book of the Year multiple times and remains Pushkin’s best-selling children’s book.
Its latest children’s book is The Murderer’s Ape by Swedish contemporary writer Jakob Wegelius. “It’s a kind of Tintinesque adventure about an incredible ape called Sally Jones. Max read it last summer and keeps telling me it’s the best book we’ve ever published, so I’m very hopeful!”
Alongside the best-sellers, Freudenheim also welcomes the opportunity to take on what he calls “passion projects,” which he says is “part of the beauty” of owning and running an independent press. He has always been fascinated by Eastern European cities, once centers of Jewish cultural life, like the Ukrainian city of Lviv (also known as Lvov, Lwow, Lemberg, Leopolis – its many names bearing witness to its conflicted past).
City of Lions is a 160-page book of two essays written more than a half century apart, written in exile by Józef Wittlin. His love and pain for his city of Lviv contrasts with that of contemporary lawyer Philippe Sands. Sands, who won the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction last year for his book East West Street, explores in City of Lions what has been lost and what remains in the city of his ancestors.
Freudenheim is looking forward to joining Philippe Sands on a trip to Lviv this November. “If you are Jewish and interested in the history of Eastern Europe, Lviv is a major Jewish city. I publish so many writers from the wider area, such as Babel from Odessa and Zweig from Vienna, that it seems like a place that has long loomed large in my Jewish consciousness.”
Pushkin Press titles are available from all major Israeli retailers and at www.pushkinpress.com