Biblioteca Rojo y Azul

What on earth is this? The Biblioteca Rojo y Azul (Red and Blue Library). A series of Spanish translations of the works of predominantly German authors, from Tauchnitz, a German publisher best known for selling English novels in the original language.

Some context might help. The books appeared first in July 1921, less than three years after the end of the First World War. The war had put Tauchnitz on the other side to the suppliers of its main product, English literature, and to many of its customers as well, and had left it hugely weakened. Several competitors, notably Nelson’s Continental and the Standard Collection, had sprung up during the war to take advantage of Tauchnitz’s absence from the market. It was far from obvious that Tauchnitz, hamstrung by economic conditions in Germany and impending hyperinflation, could ever recapture anything like the dominant position it had had before the war in the market for English language books in continental Europe.

After publishing only a handful of titles in its ‘Collection of British Authors’ during the war, Tauchnitz had cautiously restarted its publishing programme in English with six new titles in 1919 and eleven in 1920. A further eight had been added by mid 1921, but these numbers were only a fraction of the numbers before the war and sales were almost certainly poor.

So perhaps it was concern about the position in its core market that made it think about possible opportunities elsewhere? Spain had been neutral during the war and its economy would not have suffered as badly as those of the combatant countries. It’s certainly possible that book sales were higher there than in other European markets, and that Tauchnitz with its Europe-wide distribution network could see this in sales of its English language titles. Did that encourage it to try to expand into other parts of the Spanish market?

But why classic German texts, almost all from the nineteenth century, translated into Spanish? The experience of Tauchnitz was in publishing contemporary novels in the original language, a specialist area of the market, shielded to some extent from domestic competition. German language editions in Spain might have been a more natural diversification, although there probably weren’t enough German speakers in Spain, or Germans travelling there, to sustain such a market. Even if they wanted to try translations, why not of contemporary German writers, rather than long dead ones? Other than the problem of copyright fees of course.

The three short stories in this volume were all written before 1820.
Two had been dramatised in Offenbach’s opera ‘The tales of Hoffmann’.

There might be a clue in the identity of the principal translator. When the first four volumes in the series appeared in the summer of 1921, it was remarkable that all four were shown as translated by Dr. Maximo Asenjo. Indeed a fifth book in the series was shown as ‘already published’, although it seems not to have appeared until 1922 and when it did, it too was translated by Dr. Asenjo. They’re not particularly long books, mostly under 200 pages, but producing five translations still sounds like quite a marathon piece of work that would have needed a long lead time. Had the series been planned a year or two earlier to allow time to commission translations. Or had the translator produced the work speculatively with no certainty of a publisher?

All five of the books listed were translations by Dr. Maximo Asenjo

Maximo Asenjo seems to have had a rather unusual background for a translator. He was a Nicaraguan who had first come to Germany as a medical student in Munich and later become the Nicaraguan Ambassador to Chile. During the war he had attracted attention as the author of a series of articles supporting the German cause in the foreign edition of the ‘Hamburger Nachrichten’. These were then republished in book form in Germany as ‘Deutsche Kämpfer und deutscher Geist!’ (German fighters and German spirit).

The Tauchnitz series eventually ran to a total of ten volumes, seven of them translated by Maximo Asenjo, two by other translators, and one a Spanish language original text by a Guatemalan writer, Flavio Herrera. Only the final book by Herrera, and one earlier title by Rudolf Herzog, were at all contemporary. The other eight were all classic nineteenth century texts. Although the first book in the series was by a Swedish author and had been first published in Swedish, the translation is from the German.

Gustaf af Geijerstam was the one Swedish author in the series

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was almost a personal series reflecting the interests of Maximo Asenjo, and the involvement of Tauchnitz was almost incidental. Was there some personal connection between Asenjo and Curt Otto, then General Manager of Tauchnitz? Or had Asenjo offered his ideas and his translations to other publishers before reaching agreement with Tauchnitz? That they were a German publisher with some access to a distribution network in Spain and even possibly in Central and South America, would have been an attraction to him. Was it in some respect payback for his support of Germany during the war?

I have no idea what the significance was of ‘Rojo y Azul’ (red and blue). These are not the Spanish national colours, or those of Germany, or even of Nicaragua. Did these colours have some other significance? The red and blue design of the books, or rather of the dustwrappers, looks relatively contemporary, certainly more so than that of the standard Tauchnitz Editions at the time, even though they had been redesigned only just before the war. Tauchnitz had never previously used dustwrappers on paperbacks, nor used covers overlapping the edges of the book block as these do. Both changes in a way move the books to be more like hardbacks than paperbacks, although the covers are only in thin card. They certainly don’t look as if they are made with any thought that they might be taken to a bookbinder, as the English language Tauchnitz Editions often were. That was very much a dying practice by the 1920s anyway.

The first four books all had a standard Tauchnitz catalogue bound in at the back, advertising its English language editions, with just the first page altered to contain Spanish language text. In the later titles these were dropped. Four more books appeared in 1922 and the last two in 1923 before the series was abandoned. It seems unlikely that it was a success in sales or financial terms.

Posted on December 29, 2020, in Vintage Paperbacks and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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