Penguins in Argentina: Don’t fly for me

Penguins travelled to some unusual places in their first twenty years. The US Penguins are relatively familiar, Australian and New Zealand Penguins rather less well known, and Penguins from Egypt and Palestine little known and very difficult to find. But all of these editions were in English. There are relatively few Penguins in other languages – two brief series of Penguins in French (but published in England), one book in Italian, and a few other odds and ends.

Spines of Argentina Penguins 2

Which makes it all the more odd to find Penguins in Argentina, published in Spanish in the late 1940s, in association with the local publisher Lautaro. And a very odd selection it is too. The early books from 1947 are almost exclusively translations of UK Pelicans – self-consciously intellectual books on Opera, Ballet, Town Planning, Greek Science and the like.

One of the early titles is a translation of ‘A short history of English literature’ by Ifor Evans, but there appears to have been a conscious decision not to market English literature itself. The list included ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley and two novellas by Henry James, ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘The Aspern Papers’, but these were by then already classics, and neither book had been published by Penguin in the UK. There is no representation at all amongst the early books for contemporary fiction – Penguin’s core product in its home market. Of course there may have been copyright issues, but these do not seem to have been insurmountable in the US, Australia and elsewhere.

 Argentina-Opera Argentina-Greek-Science Argentina-Frankenstein

In late 1947 the first crime novel appeared – a translation of ‘Poison in jest’ by John Dickson Carr, and this was followed by three others in mid-1948, but by then the series was already on its last legs. Two last translations of Science books and then a complete change of direction for a final flourish with fiction from local South American authors, particularly the stories of the Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga. The series continued at the rate of about one book a year until 1952, but after 1948 there seems to have been little if any input from Penguin, so that it may have become little more than a sub-brand for Lautaro.

 Argentina-Poison-in-Jest  Argentina-Cuentos-de-Amor

Other than that final coda, the series effectively ran for just 18 months and included 36 books, so it is little more than a footnote in Penguin history. It can hardly have been a commercial success, and there were few attempts at publishing Penguins in translation elsewhere. Was Penguin, not for the first time, guilty of putting its high-minded (but self-imposed) Reithian duty to educate and inform, above its commercial purpose? Or was it simply too difficult to manage an operation far distant from London, in a way that was consistent with the Penguin brand? That was a problem they certainly encountered in the US, and indeed most of the other overseas operations of Penguin led to similarly short series.

Short as it was, the Argentina venture did have one consequence of lasting significance for Penguin. When Allen Lane visited South America in 1944 and made initial arrangements for the Argentina Penguins, he decided he would need Spanish-speaking assistance back in the UK office, and recruited a young girl from Uruguay, Tatyana Kent, to work for him. She ended up not only working for Penguin for many years, but marrying their chief designer, Hans Schmoller, and is now, some 70 years after that first visit, the President Emeritus of the Penguin Collectors Society.

Tanya Schmoller and others at a Penguin party

Tanya Schmoller and others at a Penguin party

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Posted on May 4, 2014, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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