Obituary: Carol Brown Janeway, publisher, editor

Edinburgh-born publisher, editor and internationally acclaimed literary translator. Picture: Contributed
Edinburgh-born publisher, editor and internationally acclaimed literary translator. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 4 February, 1944, in Edinburgh. Died: 3 August, 2015, in New York, aged 71.

EDINBURGH-born Carol Brown Janeway was a New York-based publisher, books editor and, most notably, one of the world’s finest translators of literary works from several languages. While working as a publisher, specialising in acquiring rights to books, she translated scores of literary or historical works “for love and fun” in what was usually her spare time.

Known for being full of life, she died in Manhattan only two weeks after being diagnosed with late stage cancer. The publishing industry on both sides of the Atlantic were in shock.

At the time of her death, Janeway had been an important and award-winning figure at the New York-based publishers Knopf and later Knopf Doubleday for 45 years, starting in 1970 and rising to the posts of senior editor, vice-president and director of international rights.

Over the years, she introduced North American readers to countless foreign authors, including Carlisle-born George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series of novels and former deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald.

As a Scot, Janeway took a personal interest in Fraser’s work, and whether he would have won such widespread readership in the United States and Canada without her is an open question. In the US, she was regarded as having “discovered” Fraser.

Carol Janet Brown was born in Edinburgh on 4 June, 1944. Her father, Robert George Archibald Brown, was one of the city’s top chartered accountants, with offices at 22 Charlotte Square and known professionally as RGA Brown.

He was also one of the capital’s most-appointed liquidators in the 1960s and 70s, handling the liquidation of Darling’s Regent Hotel at Waterloo Place, in those days a historic temperance hotel and now a popular Travelodge.

While Robert Brown dealt with figures, his wife, Kathleen Neely, Carol’s mother, dealt with words as a director of the Ranfurly Library Service. The service was founded by Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly (of Dungannon, Northern Ireland, although the title was named after Ranfurly, Renfrewshire) in 1954 to provide books for children in developing countries.

It has since become the global Book Aid International, with the Duke of Edinburgh as patron.

Young Carol picked up her love of books, and languages, from her mother and soon stood out at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh’s Ravelston district for her prodigious Latin to English translations.

She went on to Cambridge University, where she graduated with a first-class honours degree in modern and medieval languages from Girton College, at the time an all-female institution.

Her first job was at the John Farquharson literary agency in Haymarket, London before she moved to New York in 1970 to join Alfred A Knopf publishers, later to become Knopf Doubleday, where she would work for the rest of her life.

After working all day at her Manhattan office, Janeway would retreat to her “getaway” home in scenic Hudson Valley, upstate New York, to do her translations. Among her best-known works were Embers (2002) by Hungarian author Sándor Márai, which she translated via a German version of the original Hungarian, which led to some criticism in literary circles.

But she gave the English version her own “voice” and it was widely praised. Márai had died in 1989 but Janeway helped rediscover his work, putting him posthumously on the world literary map.

She was also feted for her translation of German author Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader (1997), later to become a multi-award-winning 2008 movie starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes, which heavily relied on her translation. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Leading Actress (Winslet) in 2009.

Scots writers Chris Dolan and Donal Mclaughlin (himself a Germanist) also read Janeway’s translation before putting together the first-ever play of The Reader, which had its world première at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2000, directed by Leslie Finlay and featuring the Ayr-based Borderline Theatre Company.

It was Janeway, too, who translated the novel F by Austrian-German author Daniel Kehlmann, which was shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. She also translated Kehlmann’s 2006 Measuring the World after it became the best-selling novel in the German language.

In 2014, Janeway received the prestigious Ottaway Award for the Promotion of International Literature handed out by the magazine Words Without Borders, which promotes cultural understanding through the publication and promotion of international literature.

The previous year, she won the inaugural Friedrich Ulfers Prize for translations from German literature.

The chairman of Knopf Doubleday in New York, Sonny Mehta, who first met Janeway at Cambridge, said: “From the very first moment, what struck me about Carol was her fierce intelligence. She was in possession of impeccable decorum and dazzling wit, enormous fun to be around.

“Authors loved her, agents respected her and foreign publishers trusted her.”

According to Boyd Tonkin, longtime literary editor of The Independent and the man behind the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (recently merged with the Man Booker International Prize), added: “Carol consistently proved that she ranked with the brightest of talents. That she did so while pursuing a full-time career as a senior publisher and editor almost beggars belief.

“The sheer range of the fiction she carried into English bears witness to her virtuosity and versatility. She brought to English-language readers all the sparkling wit and story-telling brio that often separates the great translator from the merely good.”

Carol Brown Janeway first married American economist William Hall “Bill” Janeway, the son of two of her clients Eliot and Elizabeth Janeway. After their divorce, she married American editor Erwin Gilkes, who died in 1994. She is survived by her sister Ann Hughes.