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Editor Pamela Murray describes how Nikolski made the leap from French to English

Every writer and every publisher knows there's one thing that sells book better than anything else: word of mouth.

I first heard about Nikolski when I was having lunch with a young publisher from Montreal. He said there was one novel in that spring of 2005 that everyone he knew was reading. So I immediately got my hands on a copy and was wowed by it.

I contacted the publisher, Éditions Alto, to see if the English-language rights were available. They were. And so the wheels were set in motion to publish the translation. We thought the book would be a natural as part of our New Face of Fiction program, which has helped to launch more than a few literary careers over the last 15 years.

The next step was getting a translator on board. It was our great fortune that Lazer Lederhendler was able to take it on. The novel is full of humour and wordplay and the distinct voices of the three main characters, so it was crucial to have someone as sensitive and experienced as Lazer to make it read as elegantly as the original. I don't think he'd disagree that it was a challenging task, yet also a lot of fun. (What's more, it was immensely gratifying to see Lazer's contribution to Nikolski recognized with a Governor General's Literary Award for translation.)

So, some months after Lazer began his work on the book, in frequent consultation with Nicolas and me, we had an English-language manuscript. Terrific. Because, until then, I was one of the few people in-house who had read the book in French. And now we'd be able to get the word of mouth, this time in English, bubbling through the company: in sales and marketing, publicity, rights, editorial. In publishing we read books for a living — lucky us — so I knew that one of the things people here would respond to was the book's celebration of books and reading, told by a born storyteller who propels his tale with gorgeous language and true comedy.

In the process of working closely on the book I must have read the whole thing at least four or five times — always happily, and each time making new discoveries. By the third reading a certain scene in the book even coaxed a sentimental tear from my steely editor's eye. Damn, I thought. This guy is good.

When the book came out, there were some really great reviews, one of the avenues publishers always hope can be a spark for the all-important word of mouth. On the cover of our paperback edition, the designer has set the Gazette's quote, "A magical read and a striking work of imagination" so that it is flowing out of the mouth of a colourful fish.

Now, thanks to Canada Reads, that erudite little swimmer is going to be talking up the book to readers all over the country. Go, Nicolas! Go Nikolski!

Pamela Murray is senior editor for the Knopf Random House Canada Publishing Group.

 

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