The Spanish word for “puddle” or “pond,” “charco,” is a colloquialism people in Latin America commonly use to describe traveling between America and Europe. Cruzar el charco (crossing the pond) is a journey charged with centuries-old symbolism: a quest for the “New World” in colonial times, an escape to European freedom for dictatorship exiles in the seventies, a better future for Latin American migrants escaping economic crisis in the late nineties.
Carolina Orloff crossed the pond more than 20 years ago. Born in Buenos Aires as the daughter and granddaughter of bookshop owners, she settled in the United Kingdom, where she earned a PhD in Latin American literature from the University of Edinburgh.
Orloff made a living as a professor and translator, but then the 2008 recession hit.
Her solution was Charco Press, an independent publishing house based in Edinburgh that translates some of today’s most talented Argentine and Latin American writers into English.
“It was very hard to find work, and after a year and a half in limbo, my partner and I came up with the idea of pouring all my knowledge about Latin American literature and English-speaking readers into something concrete, something commercial,” Orloff told the Herald.
As she saw it, there were two ways to publish Latin American authors who weren’t available in English: either go back a century and a half and showcase those who never made it into the canon, “or start with the present day, the most contemporary writers.”
Orloff chose the latter and officially launched her publishing house in 2016.
“You would always find the same authors, both in bookstores and in the academic scene,” she said. “The idea behind publishing contemporary literature was to intervene in this sort of stalled status quo.”
“What is Latin American literature in the minds of English-speaking readers? We decided to scout books that made a real impact in the last two or three years and go from there.”
The first catalog had five books and focused on Argentina. Its roster included Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love, which will be adapted into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence, and Slum Virgin, the debut novel of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, a finalist for the 2020 Booker Award with The Adventures of China Iron. The other three were Luis Sagasti’s Fireflies, Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room, and Jorge Consiglio’s Southerly.
That first selection aimed to raise awareness among English-language readers about the diversity of Argentine literature, even within the same generation, and dismiss stereotypes that associate Latin American fiction with magical realism or topics like violence and poverty.
“The goal was to deliver a catalog that would be representative of a single country but also depict its super-rich diversity,” said Orloff.
Fast forward to 2023, and the Charco Press catalog features almost 40 titles from Latin American authors across the region, from bestselling Argentine crime novelist and screenwriter Claudia Piñeyro, whose novel A Little Luck was a finalist for the 2022 International Booker Prize, to Mexico’s Margo Glanz, a Guggenheim and Rockefeller grant winner.
The catalog also includes the latest from Federico Falco (A Perfect Cemetery, a finalist for the García Márquez Short Story Prize), and Martín Kohan (Confessions), a renowned writer, literature professor, and cultural scholar whose 2007 novel Moral Sciences won the prestigious Herralde award. (Falco’s novel Los Llanos was a finalist for the prize in 2020.)
Orloff’s selection criteria are subjective and straight-forward.
“The book must rock my world,” she said. “As a literary product, it has to be unlike anything I’ve read before.”
Finding an English-reading audience for this kind of prose was not always easy. “Specifically for British readers, there’s like a black hole in terms of their understanding of Latin America. I believe they have a curiosity and fascination with the Caribbean and certain African or Asian countries because of their colonial past. But Latin America is still a terra incognita,” she said.
Charco has already left its mark on the publishing industry. Today, several houses are translating Spanish works into English and offering a diverse array of Latin American literature that includes Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, and the enormously prolific César Aira, who counts singer/poet Patti Smith among his fans.
“The curiosity of readers has grown a lot,” said Orloff, who acknowledged a “chicken-and-egg effect” when it comes to the availability of and demand for Latin-American literature.
“I think the appeal here is that these books look at universal or even simple themes from a perspective that is absolutely incomparable for an English-speaking reader,” said Orloff.
“It’s not like García Márquez, who is beautiful but fantastical,” she continued. “These stories have an earthy element and a contemporary perspective shared by readers abroad. At the same time, they’re rooted in a totally different place. I think that combination works.”
Orloff also noted that the way Latin American literature handles certain topics like politics is especially interesting to foreign readers.
“Maybe they’re more controversial or belligerent; I’m not sure,” she said. “But it’s not a coincidence that most of our books have a political ideology that is distinctly, and perhaps inevitably, Latin American.”
Across the pond from the UK, in the United States, Charco has also begun publishing Spanish-language originals through existing distribution channels. To date, it has released 10 titles, with more on the way.
“We thought it was a shame not to take advantage of a Spanish-reading population living in the US with limited access to contemporary literature from the region,” said Orloff. “If we’re going to have a publishing house that represents what is happening in Latin America today, offering these titles to US-based readers is essential.”
The titles haven’t made a huge difference in sales, but the decision to publish them wasn’t strictly financial. “For us, this goes beyond the numbers”, she said. “Ideologically, it’s something we feel we have to do.”
That commitment is not limited to offering a representative selection of contemporary Latin American literature. Charco is also determined to make its books as readable as possible and devotes special care to their translations.
“I take a lot of time for that,” added Orloff. “I try to find the perfect translator for a specific author with a specific voice. Since it’s often the first time that a writer is being published in English, I consider it a responsibility.”
Credit for image: Charco Press