UH Librarian Crosses Language Barriers in the Arts World
“I thought I’d print 500 copies and they’d live in my closet,” said Taylor Davis-Van Atta of the first volume of Music & Literature. “Maybe I would do five issues if I was lucky.”
Word got around. The journal, produced by the nonprofit Music & Literature, Inc. and celebrating the works of international writers, artists, and musicians, has released nine issues to date, with its tenth and eleventh issues in the works. What began as a labor of love by a curious and motivated individual has evolved to an esteemed, distinctive literary publication that is distributed to over 70 U.S. bookstores and subscribed to by nearly 50 academic and public libraries; with contributors spanning six continents, over 45 countries, and working in 25 languages.
Davis-Van Atta, digital scholarship coordinator at University of Houston Libraries, was pleasantly surprised by the reception of the journal in 2013, which grew from his personal interest in artists not well-known in the U.S. He is publisher and co-editor of Music & Literature, which originated from research, and tons of it.
“In the early days before we had any staff and it was just me, I would look into what had been written in other languages about an artist I was interested in,” he said. “I’d reach out to the artist and tell them I wanted to curate a substantial portfolio of work about their career to date, and make it available to English-speaking readers.”
Davis-Van Atta provided the artist with a sense of the goal of the journal, and realistic expectations of the project, not the least of which is that publication does not necessarily equal widespread fame, although the journal has been successful in terms of gaining the interest of other editors and publishers. With an understanding of the commitment involved, the artists whom he has contacted have been enthusiastic and generous with their time and effort.
Each print issue of Music & Literature is devoted to the portfolios of artists whose work, for various reasons, had yet to reach an English-speaking audience. The editorial team works with artists to select pieces of their work, and translators are hired. The portfolios are assembled with varied perspectives on the artists’ work, and aims to be as comprehensive as possible. Many of Music & Literature’s featured artists have been working for over 30 years.
The most recent issue features Swiss-German writer Peter Bichsel and Canadian poet Sylvia Legris, two radically different artists who share no interest in self-promotion but have achieved a cult following in their regions of the globe.
“We seek out those artists who are truly deserving of being globally known,” said Davis-Van Atta, noting both the challenge of being introduced to a new language as an artist, and the value of encountering global voices.
Now with a staff of seven and fluency in eight languages, the editors of Music & Literature rely on a network of readers, other editors, and cultural attachés in underrepresented parts of the world who have a strong sense of the art that’s being produced in various languages. The lifecycle of a portfolio, from recommendation to publication, takes around two years, including selection of work, securing rights and permissions, and finding available translators.
Crossing language barriers is a time-consuming but necessary endeavor, said Davis-Van Atta. “It’s a big investment from a lot of people, and it definitely takes time to find what we think are the best pieces and what will resonate with English readers. [The artists] are coming from a completely different set of contexts than those we might be used to, so we want to find pieces that make sense and generate interest. There’s no built-in audience for this.”
Issue 10 of Music & Literature will feature poet and artist Renee Gladman and improvisational pianist Craig Taborn. Davis-Van Atta and the editorial team have found a compelling way to represent the work of musicians on the printed page, by enlisting a well-known music journalist to conduct an interview with the artist for a retrospective, as well as soliciting comments from those with whom the artist has collaborated.
“We get funny, bizarre, and personalized stories, so there’s a real human perspective with those types of interviews,” said Davis-Van Atta. “It’s not just the arts and the work that we’re able to draw attention to, but we’re interested in conveying a sense of intimacy and communion with that work. We really love the thrill of working with that world.”
Music & Literature, Inc., is a nonprofit organization devoted to publishing and promoting the work of underrepresented artists from around the world. Each print issue of Music & Literature assembles an international cast of writers and critics in celebration of three featured artists whose work has yet to reach its deserved audience. In addition to its flagship publication, Music & Literature offers robust coverage of the arts through its website and organizes premier live programming in cities around the globe, routinely collaborating with other cultural organizations and institutions to bring the work of its featured artists directly to audiences. The Music & Literature project is designed to meet the immediate needs of modern arts enthusiasts while enduring and becoming a permanent resource for future generations of readers, scholars, and artists.