A wonderful profile in The Guardian of the publisher Christopher MacLehose, who comes from a family (seven generations) of Glasgow printers, publishers and booksellers.
In the family business he remembers “people in the editorial department who could speak and proofread many languages”. As a young publisher in London he entered an industry peopled by émigrés from all over the world [Deutsch, Hamlyn, Weidenfeld, etc]. “Everybody read books in whatever languages they could and thought it normal to take books from other languages, translate them and publish them simply because they were the best books.”
He now lives in a home full of languages, not least because of his wife, Koukla, a key part of MacLehose Press operations, whom he has described as “French, with Greek as her first language, bilingual Italian, passable Spanish and rather good English”. In such an atmosphere, he says, “authors who visit can feel that little bit more at home. That’s how we like it. Even the dog [a handsome Viszla] is Hungarian.”
When the émigré generation “lost control or retired” from their publishing houses, MacLehose says, there was a dramatic reduction in work in translation. “And I find it almost inexplicable that it is tiny houses with no money that are still doing most of the work.”
MacLehose’s own publishing company has translated books from nineteen languages in its first five years. “Harvill – in its free days [before it was taken over by Random House, that is] – published books from 32 languages. It is a wonderful system for the English reader in that not only have those books already been filtered from the upside-down pyramid of thousands of books by the overseas editor, we then chose the best of their choices.”
As a young man MacLehose reviewed books and wrote obituaries for the Glasgow Herald and The Scotsman.
He says it was a remarkably engaged literary environment. Once he went with a colleague to watch Hibs, the traditional team of Edinburgh Catholics, on the same day he had run a negative review of Iris Murdoch’s novel about the Irish Easter Rebellion, The Red and the Green. “My colleague was recognised by a drunk in a pub as someone who worked at The Scotsman and we were both accosted with the words ‘if I ever find the cunt who insulted The Red and the Green I will kill them’. That was Edinburgh. Even drunken football fans read the books pages.