Remembering Carol Brown Janeway


Carol Brown Janeway in 2014 ©Beowulf Sheehan

When news of the sudden death of publisher, editor and translator Carol Brown Janeway at the age of 71 hit the airwaves just over two weeks ago, I was shocked. I’d moderated a panel on Thomas Bernhard with Carol on it just a few years before, and more recently watched her accept the Ulfers Prize (2013) and Ottaway Award (2014) for her contributions to the advancement of foreign literature in the U.S. She was “around,” an active member of the New York literary community, brimming with energy and projects. The cancer that unexpectedly overtook her must have been moving at a pretty fast clip to catch her.

Since I didn’t know her well, though, I wanted to invite someone who did to write something more substantial about her life and work, and was very happy that my translator colleague Frank Wynne agreed to do so. Frank is a London-based author and translator from French and Spanish with a highly distinguished record (IMPAC Prize, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Scott Moncrieff Prize, Premio Valle Inclán) and publications list. He also counted Carol among his friends. Here’s what he had to say about her:

On August 3, the world lost one of the great champions of world literature in Anglo-American publishing. In the space of forty-five years Carol Brown Janeway rose to become a publishing executive, senior editor and vice president of international rights at Knopf. If that was not enough, in her spare time – “for fun and love” as she put it – she translated novels principally from German, but on occasion from Yiddish, Dutch and French.

Though she spent much of her life in New York, she was proudly, fiercely Scottish. Born in Edinburgh in 1944, she studied modern and medieval languages at Girton College, Cambridge and it was here that she first met Sonny Mehta, who would be her colleague for much of her working life. She worked briefly with the London literary agency John Farquharson before moving with her husband William Janeway to the United States in 1970 where she joined Knopf, a company to which she remained steadfastly loyal for the rest of her life. Her first marriage ended in divorce, and she later married the editor Erwin Gilkes, who died in 1994. These scant facts do little justice to her life.

I had the good fortune to be introduced to Carol some seven years ago by a close mutual friend. I was a lowly translator, she was a publishing luminary with a formidable reputation; I feared the worst. I could not have been more wrong. If Carol was a legend of her own making, her neatly pinned hair and straitlaced demeanour masked someone who was wildly, riotously entertaining. Over the years, whenever I found myself in New York or she in London we would meet up to gossip, drink and set the world to rights. She was passionate about books, fearsome in negotiation, intensely loyal to her friends, devoted to ‘her children’ – a generation of younger editors and publishers she encouraged and supported. An evening’s conversation with Carol was always a rollercoaster, there were few subjects on which she did not have an opinion and it sometimes felt as though she kept a high horse saddled for every occasion. But what I will most remember about Carol is how much we laughed, and how outrageously, laugh-till-wine-comes-out-your-nose funny she was. She could be caustic and scathingly witty – being a perfectionist, to say she did not suffer fools gladly is a gross understatement; she gladly made fools suffer – and her sense of humour encompassed the infantile and the cerebral. If she sometimes seemed to cultivate her standing as a grande dame in the publishing world, she was also the first to puncture her own balloon.

Her contribution to international literature is a fitting testament to her tenacity and her enthusiasm. As a publisher, she introduced English-language readers to Imre Kertesz, Elsa Morante and Patrick Süskind and commissioned John E. Woods’s striking new translations of Thomas Mann. As a translator, her first book for Knopf was Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s Das Boot; thereafter, every year, she would spend her ‘holidays’ immersed in a translation. She had an unerring instinct for international fiction, and her many authors include Ferdinand von Schirach, Thomas Bernhard, Bernhard Schlink, and – somewhat controversially – the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai, whose novel Embers she translated from the German.

At the 2013 ceremony when she was awarded the inaugural Friedrich Ulfers Prize for her contribution to German literature, Daniel Kehlmann, her author and friend, said: “the truth is, in publishing she is a legend.” Carol Brown Janeway was and is a legend: larger than life, feisty, fiery and ornery, she will be long remembered by her sister Ann, her many friends, and the host of readers who continue to be touched by her work. It is a fitting legacy.

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