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Iperborea. A Pioneer Publisher in Italy
Carmen Giorgetti Cima
Translated by Tom Geddes

This article appeared in the 2005:1 issue.

One fine spring day in 1987 I was astonished to receive a telephone call from a lady who introduced herself as Emilia Lodigiani and announced quite unpretentiously that she intended to start a publishing house that would specialize only in Scandinavian literature. And that she was looking for others to join her in the enterprise. I had at that time been translating Swedish fiction into Italian for a dozen years or so, and knew only too well how hard it was to persuade Italian publishers to take Scandinavian books. Most of what had until then been published in Italy was the work of Nobel Prizewinners, not infrequently translated “second hand” via German. Another problem was the dearth of people with a university degree in Scandinavian languages who would be willing to devote themselves to literary translation when there was no real market for it. I myself had done a number of translations of individual short stories and poems that had been published in literary magazines, and a few books by Olof Lagercrantz, on whom I had written my thesis, and I had managed with some difficulty to find a publisher who agreed to publish the translations that I had already undertaken on my own initiative. So that was the situation in Italy at the time for these still rather mysterious Scandinavian literatures. And now suddenly here was someone who wanted to make these countries the basis of her whole publishing programme!

Fired by our mutual enthusiasm, Emilia and I decided to meet that very afternoon. We both lived in Milan and at no great distance from one another. I walked to her home and was received in a large tasteful apartment, where there were as yet no tangible signs of the new publishing house – it was still just a concept. But Emilia gave the immediate impression of knowing exactly what she wanted to do. She had only recently come back to Milan, where she had grown up and studied, after living in Paris for ten years with her husband and two children. Literature had always been her great interest – with a degree in English and a book on Tolkien to her credit – and in France she had had the opportunity to acquaint herself with Scandinavian literature in translation, first the classics (Strindberg, Ibsen, Lagerlöf, Lagerkvist...) and then gradually contemporary writers too (Enquist, Gustafsson, Lindgren...), who had at that very time become “fashionable” and caught the attention of the French book market. Ensconced in the Ste-Geneviève Library, which specializes in Scandinavian literature, Emilia started out on her journey of discovery – and was hooked.

When she returned to Italy she was surprised and disappointed to find that most of the writers she had come to know and love in France had not been translated into Italian, so she began to weigh up the possibilities of filling the gap herself by founding her own publishing house. She had no experience of the business, so she sought information and advice from a few small publishers – who were driven like herself by a genuine love of books and culture – and made contact with the few translators of Scandinavian languages there were in Italy at the time, and her ideas soon began to take shape. She now had to start buying rights and working in earnest. That autumn she went to the Frankfurt Book Fair and presented her ideas to Scandinavian publishers, who welcomed the fact that someone in Italy was willing to pay their authors the attention they deserved but which until then had been extremely sporadic and arbitrary. She brought a selection of titles back with her, and the following year, 1988, the first books from Iperborea appeared in Italian bookshops.

Emilia was convinced that a small publisher would have to be clearly recognizable to be visible, so she chose a distinctive format for her books, tall and narrow, elegant, reminiscent of the style of the French publisher Actes Sud, whose books she was of course well acquainted with since they had published a significant amount of new Scandinavian fiction. She herself liked to compare it to a brick, both literally and metaphorically: firstly because she herself came from a family who owned a major construction company, and secondly because she thought of every book as a solid and lasting part of her publishing house. The paper too was of the highest quality, the pages stitched rather than glued, and the covers often featuring a detail from a painting by a well known or minor Scandinavian artist. The message was clear and unmistakable. And there was soon lively interest – from the media, the book trade, and of course the general public. Iperborea’s books had a distinctive character and gradually built up a faithful readership.

The quality to which Emilia had committed herself proved a successful investment. Within two or three years Iperborea had published a score of books by writers like P. O. Enquist, Torgny Lindgren, Lars Gustafsson, Sven Delblanc, Tove Jansson, Henrik Stangerup, Herman Bang, Peter Seeberg, Tarjei Vesaas, Johan Borgen and others, and Iperborea soon became synonymous with good literature from Scandinavia. Print-runs were modest (2-3000), but distribution was efficient and the books were available all over the country.

In 1991 Emilia decided to extend her coverage to the Netherlands and Belgium, and there too she made some inspired choices with authors of the calibre of Cees Nooteboom, Willem Elsschot, Hella Haasse, Gerhard Durlacher, Jan Jacob Slauerhoff. But it was not until 1994 when she began publishing Arto Paasilinna, from Finnish, that Iperborea had its first real commercial breakthrough: The Year of the Hare soon became something of a cult book, has sold over 80,000 copies and is still a decade later winning new readers who almost without exception become smitten by Paasilinna fever and can hardly wait for the next book (the seventh in the series was published in the autumn of 2004).

But The Year of the Hare was not alone in its commercial success: the following year, 1995, the time was ripe for another bestseller, Björn Larsson’s Long John Silver, which has sold over 50,000 copies – not least thanks to the free publicity provided by the Italian prime minister, who cited Larsson’s book when asked about his holiday reading.

Since 1995 Iperborea has become economically viable for its founder, owner and general factotum, Emilia Lodigiani, who still adheres to the same principles that inspired her from the beginning: she publishes only books and authors she herself likes (she has learnt Swedish in order to be able to form her own opinions) and always aims for quality literature. As well as such classics as August Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf, Pär Lagerkvist (almost forgotten in Sweden but well known in Italy now!), Henrik Ibsen, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, Jens Peter Jacobsen, Halldór Laxness, and the more major contemporary figures – Göran Tunstrom, Bo Carpelan, Mika Waltari, to name but a few – she is always ready to make room for younger writers. In the last few years Iperborea has published Mikael Niemi’s very successful Popular Music from Vittula; from Danish Janne Teller’s grand saga Odin’s Island; from Norwegian Tove Nilsen’s The Hungry Eye and Erland Loe’s Naive. Super; Leena Lander’s international successes from Finnish; and the young Icelandic playwright Hrafnhildur Hagalin’s I am the Master, which was performed in several Italian cities during an “Icelandic Cultural Week” organized by Iperborea and others.

Even in the case of colleagues (meaning translators), Emilia fosters younger talents, and her publishing house has become a focal point for university students and graduates in Scandinavian languages. They are given the opportunity for work experience or to take part in translation workshops as their first step into the world of literary translation – and sometimes to see their collective work published, as in the case of Knut Hamsun’s Queen of Sheba.

Emilia Lodigiani has also been extremely active in disseminating knowledge of the Scandinavian countries and their cultures generally. Over the years Iperborea has been the obvious collaborator for Scandinavian embassies and institutions whenever cultural events are arranged in Italy (from Swedish film weeks to Norwegian gastronomy events), and sooner or later most of her authors have come on tour to meet their enthusiastic public. Some of them have received prestigious honours and prizes – from P. O. Enquist who was awarded the Premio Superfaiano and Premio Mondello for his novel The Visit of the Royal Physician, to Lars Gustafsson who received the Premio Grinzane Cavour and Premio Agrigento; from Paasilinna, who won the Premio Acerbi in 1994 to Einar Már Gudmundsson, who was awarded the same prize in 1999. Emilia Lodigiani herself received what is probably the most illustrious recognition of her work when she was awarded by Sweden the Royal Order of the Polar Star in 1996 for what she had done and was continuing to do for Swedish literature in Italy.

Such then were the changes in the situation of Scandinavian literature in Italy over the course of eight years. The market had reacted positively to Emilia Lodigiani’s courageous project, and the result was not just that readers were introduced to new authors and new cultures. Other publishers too began to show an increasing interest in Scandinavia and to explore areas that Iperborea, adhering to its own policy and Emilia’s personal tastes, had left untouched. From Sweden in particular there came a rich profusion of crime fiction, a genre in which the Swedes had long excelled. Nowadays both Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser are essential stock for most bookshops, with regular new titles (a new novel every year on average), and there have been individual translations of many other crime writers, including Liza Marklund, Åke Edwardson, Åke Smedberg, Karin Alvtegen.

But interest has not only been confined to this somewhat more commercial fiction. The essayistic oeuvre of Sven Lindqvist has been widely translated, and some publishers have ventured into more “difficult” fiction, such as Kerstin Ekman’s wonderful but challenging novels, or taken on other women writers like Marie Hermanson or Agneta Pleijel. Or even, in the case of Carl Johan Vallgren’s Story of a Grotesque Love, decided to publish on the basis of its having won the highly regarded August Prize in Sweden, a clear sign that more eyes than just Iperborea’s are now looking to the north.

More and more Italian publishers of quality literature now want Scandinavian writers on their lists, and are increasingly in competition with Iperborea, which has thus to some extent lost its long monopoly of its chosen geographical area. This applies particularly to authors not previously published in Italy, and not least, to promising new writers, for whom Iperborea may sometimes have to make swifter decisions than before, although Emilia retains a privileged position with Scandinavian publishers in respect of “her” authors. Now after sixteen years of existence and 130 titles published, Iperborea can continue smoothly on its course and include in its programme of on average ten books a year both Scandinavian classics (future titles include Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling’s Saga, Hjalmar Bergman’s The Girl in a Tailcoat and Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen’s Barbara) and newcomers such as K. Hotakainen and A. Kaurismäki from Finland, alongside the latest work of now well established authors like Torgny Lindgren, Björn Larsson or Arto Paasilinna. For the inspiration of us all.

(Editor’s note: Carmen Giorgetti Cima has herself translated 22 books for Iperborea.)