A Dispatch from European Literature Days

By Lucy Popescu

I’ve just returned from the tiny town of Spitz on the River Danube in Austria’s picturesque wine-growing region of Wachau. I was attending the European Literature Days festival, organized to encourage cross-cultural dialogue about literature with a particularly European slant. The festival featured an exciting range of writers who are translated into English, including Mathias Énard, French author of Zone (to be published by Open Letter, December 31, 2010); Robert Menasse, Austrian author of Don Juan de la Mancha (Alma Books); Sjon, Icelandic poet, lyricist and author of The Blue Fox (Telegram Books); and Edo Popović Croatian author of Zagreb Exit South (Ooligan Press).

Facilitating the meeting of minds across linguistic and national borders was high on the festival’s agenda. Inevitably many of the debates focused on European identity and the values of a shared European culture, but all of them contributed toward a wider understanding of translated literature in general.

On the first night, we heard the Slovenian author, essayist, and poet Aleš Šteger speak about the relationship between national and “"uropean literature." Šteger questioned whether "a local poetic context" is of interest to anyone apart from members of the same community and if there is poetry being written today that can be considered specifically European.

He suggested that too often poetry is seen as "the rotten egg" of literature and referred to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s contention that poets are "nationalist agitators" and that they have been largely responsible for Balkan nationalist extremism. But Šteger concluded on a hopeful note, remarking on poetry’s potential to serve as a powerful medium for cultural exchange, with its particular ability to reflect and illuminate the global society in which we now live. Šteger proposed that the curriculum in European schools should include poems by five contemporary poets from neighboring countries. By familiarizing themselves with five poets the students would learn about "the contemporary social contexts and problems, and aesthetic and everyday-life dilemmas of his or her neighbors." This intriguing idea would surely enrich the curriculum of any school in Britain or the US particularly given our renowned insularity regarding foreign literature.

The next day we enjoyed a panel discussion on the various ways that translators serve as mediators of literature across borders. Translator Alida Bremer observed that "literary translation makes you look out of the window rather than in the mirror." She maintained that it was a translator’s responsibility to communicate a country’s culture and warned publishers against exploiting kitsch and the folkloric in literature.

Immigration in Europe was also touched upon when German Jürgen Jakob Becker noted Germany is experiencing its third generation of Turkish immigration and yet most of his native countrymen know little about Turkish literature.

A proliferation of new Web sites may help change this by encouraging better communication, widening the reach of translated literature and improving the quality of translations. In recent years, a virtual community of translation has established itself on the Internet. Words without Borders readers may be interested in Eurozine, a network of more than seventy-five European cultural journals and netmagazines, which publishes outstanding articles from its partner journals with additional translations into one of the major European languages; Traduki, anotherEuropean network for literature and books; and Readme.cc, co-sponsor of the festival, a multilingual and cross-border Internet platform that collaborates with universities, publishers, translators, libraries and literary magazine and other Internet projects.

Matthias Politycki, German author of Next World Novella (to be published by Peirene Press in February 2011)discussed the book form of the future and the authenticity of digital media. He expressed his own reluctance, as a journalist, to “believe” in the publication of an article until he could “see and hold the printed copy.” An engaging raconteur, Politycki raised some interesting issues. The easy availability of free content in today’s world inevitably affects the quality of the literature being disseminated, and the proliferation of digital media is already having a profound influence on the ways in which literature is now received. This is partly because of how we read texts online, ordering and processing the words differently. Politycki suggests that when all efforts are focused on making the downloaded copy as economically viable as possible content is invariably marginalized.

"Digitalization is the great equalizer amongst texts," he pronounced. A prognosis that isn’t entirely optimistic, but I share his concerns that we may come to rely too much on "a reader’s tip or star rating" (a reader who may be a friend of the author, or even an enemy, rather than an independent reviewer).

In the panel discussion that followed, science writer Jürgen Neffe remarked that what’s most important is that people are encouraged to read, not the methods they use. Rather than signaling the death of the book, for him digital publication provides an exciting opportunity for multimedia texts.

Politycki concluded with something that struck me as particularly sad. Most of us regularly travel on trains, buses, or on the metro and the downside of using iPads and Kindles is that now we will never know what our fellow travelers are reading. The most powerful (and the cheapest) means of marketing or recommending a book will be lost. 

The rest of our time at this lively festival was taken up with hearing many of the participants read work in their original language. I went to European Literature Days in my capacity as a journalist, to listen to and report on the various debates. As a reader I was introduced to a tantalizing array of new works already or about to be published in English translation. I look forward to reading them all.


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