Last month, a crumbling castle in the depths of the Styrian countryside became the unlikely meeting place for a motley group of writers, musicians and academics at an event organised by the European literature portal Readme.cc.
The celebrated British poet Lavinia Greenlaw joined fellow writers from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Denmark and France to read and debate at European Literature Days 09, the first of what is hoped to become an annual festival celebrating the diversity and convergences of European literary voices.
Against the backdrop of Hainfeld Castle, southern Austria’s largest moated castle, which had been the home of the 19th-century orientalist Josef von Hammer-Purgstall, discussions turned to questions such as “does literature enhance mutual understanding around the world?” “Is there such a thing as European literature?” and “Is the internet going to replace the book?”
There was a general consensus that one of the defining characteristics of continental European literature is translation. “The translators are the immigration office into our various countries,” said the academic and translator Jürgen Ritte in his paper on the subject. “Literature is not rooted in the soil of a country, it is migrating … Literature is always on the move, like the shells stuck to the bottom of huge ships.” Or perhaps, as the translator Jörn Cambreleng joked, “as translators, we speak European.”
By the end of the event, most people were speaking European, as papers were delivered in various languages and translated simultaneously into English and German via headsets and the readings themselves were spoken in the native language, or in some cases second language, while the audience read the translations on printed handouts. The Danish post-modern writer and artist formerly known as Claus-Beck Nielson (he declared himself dead in 2001) read from his novel in German and then later in the evening performed his satirical political songs in English. Writing in the less-spoken languages of Europe, it seems, will always be known in a global context through translation into the dominant languages.
The event was a great success for the trans-national and cross-language books portal Readme.cc, who were bringing their virtual community of authors, researchers, artists and media professionals together for the first time. “This is hugely exciting for us,” said Heide Kunzelmann who was involved in organising the event. “Walter Grond, Readme’s director, found partners from nine European countries when we set up last year, including the Sorbonne University and various literary institutes, and the community has grown and expanded – it is incredible to finally put faces to the names I know only through emails.”
The event was hot on the heels of the European Union prize for Literature, which was awarded in Brussels at the end of last month and a number of the prize-winners were present to read from their work. The prize was awarded to writers from 12 European countries, including France (Emmanuelle Pagano) and Ireland (Karen Gillece).
Of course, it wouldn’t really be a European festival without some electronica played loudly in an old chapel, and this was provided by the Viennese soundscape masters Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber of the Austrian music project Tosca, performing their new work “No Hassle”, a heady, hypnotic sound to captivating video animation for which no translation was needed.
Next year’s European Literature Days will be from 17th September to 19th September 2010