The first day of the Literary Translation Center at the London Book Fair has first and foremost been about asking questions. This is because one of the organizing themes of the day—and a refrain among the handful of panels held—has turned on one of the biggest issues facing literature in translation, a perennial stumper in fact. We all know there is good literature out there, but how do we get at it? And more vexingly: how do we bring it into the market when publishers are loath to take the high risks that publishing work in translation so often involves?
The day began with an announcement of the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The top six titles were:
The Sickness, by Alberto Barrera Tyszka, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Kamchatka, by Marcelo Figueras, translated by Frank Wynne
Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
I Curse the River Time, by Per Peterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund (in collaboration with the author)
Red April, by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated by Edith Grossman
Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
[Mythili Rao reviewed I Curse the River of Time in the magazine several months back, and Fran Bigman recently wrote on Visitation too. Also look out for Anderson Tepper’s piece on Kamchatka, forthcoming in our April issue.]
The announcement lent a duly celebratory air to the day’s events, aided by the fact that turn-out this year seems to have nearly doubled that of last year’s program. But as is so often the case with literary works in translation, the celebrations also gave on to renewed concern about the health and vitality of reading in translation.
On the first panel, in which judges of the prize reflected on the shortlisted selections, Boyd Tonkin of the Independent wondered if at a certain point—owing to lagging education in the Anglophone world of lesser-known foreign languages—we may start to see translators working outside their native languages; in other words, non-native speakers of English translating into English since, under the circumstances, it’s maybe more likely that a speaker, say, of Tamil knows English, than the other way around . . .
The talent is out there: in the eyes of the panelists it was rather a matter of making it liquid (so to say), of getting it into the usable capital of English for English-language readers. This of course means grappling with the technical concerns, entertained by the first panel, about the translation of uncommon languages. But it also, principally, involves questions about the market itself.
The next subject, explored at a panel titled “Money Talks: Why Funders Should Care about Translation,” dealt with another issue of liquidity, as it were: where is the money to fund translation projects? Economic crises notwithstanding, there may still be some money floating around to support translation work. But how is one to access it? If foundations and governments are inclined, at all, to sponsor ambitious translation projects (aimed at fostering education and cross cultural understanding, for instance), what of individual translators who need institutional and financial support in order to translate individual works about which they’re passionate. Here, Caroline McCormick, former director of International PEN and something of a guru in these matters, encouraged translators to use ambitious language in promoting their work: indeed to pitch it to funders as nothing less than a matter of “accessing the best in art.”
At “The Translation Agency,” held afterward, a group of literary agents, translators, and publishers concerned themselves with an extension of the question; in this case, how does one get the publisher to invest in a new work. Edgar de Bruin, a literary agent from Holland, offered up a fascinating thought experiment in which he proposed an international collective charged exclusively with handling texts in translation. It would be a kind of international literary agency which might serve as a freestanding commission of sorts to consider the proposals of translators and then put its weight behind promoting them to publishing houses.
Before the group broke for the day, these promotional questions were put temporarily aside, and we were treated to a reading from Goli Taraghi, Haifa Zangana, and Rukhsana Ahmad – with our own Samantha Schnee moderating—in a celebration of Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. We listened to (and savored) an arresting short piece by Zangana, the deep and lucid reflections of Rukshsana on the continued importance of the Middle Eastern exile community in local affairs, and the bitingly ironic anecdotes of Taraghi on her experiences with the state censor in Iran.