Samantha Schnee (SS): Last year, English PEN launched PEN Presents, a platform to showcase and support sample translations. The program funds literary translators’ creation of samples, gives publishers access to titles from underrepresented languages and regions, and helps diversify the translated literature landscape. Can you tell us a bit about the rationale for establishing this grant program?
Will Forrester (WF): As is often the case, the germ of the idea started with the advocacy of literary translators. We’d heard from them that the organic way in which samples have been used by parts of the translation publishing chain—how they’re commissioned, paid for, edited, and used, and who’s creating them and for whom—has meant translators doing unpaid work. It has also limited the routes publishers have for acquiring literature from relatively underrepresented languages and territories, and put up barriers to communication and connection between everyone involved in the creation and use of samples. We’d seen this through our other grant program, PEN Translates: though we were expressly welcoming titles from acutely underrepresented languages and regions, we weren’t receiving these submissions from publishers, because publishers weren’t seeing these books in the first place. Of course, excellent literature exists everywhere, and in every language, and so some knot in the chain was causing trouble.
Rather than building a program that we thought would meet the priorities of the community, we consulted with translators, agents, publishers, and other literary professionals, spending six months exploring what precisely those imperatives were. There was agreement as to the need for an intervention, but also productive disagreement as to how best to prioritize competing demands. But, as we worked collaboratively with our consultees to design the program, it became clear that these ostensibly competing priorities were rather complementary. It’s in everyone’s interest to fund the often-unpaid labor of sample translation, provide translators with editorial support, promote their samples, harness the network and positioning of an organization like English PEN to break down established barriers between translators and commissioning editors, champion access and inclusion, and, through all of this, give English-language readers access to a more diverse literary landscape created by a more diverse community of practitioners. And that’s what the germ sprouted into.
SS: It’s very exciting that the program is open to translators anywhere in the world. How is English PEN funding a program with such diverse applicants?
WF: Given our aim of fostering bibliodiversity, we recognize that one part of (the many intersecting aspects of) this work involves acknowledging how the uneven distribution of financial support for work translated from different languages and emerging from different geographic contexts, created by translators based in different regions, has a concomitant effect on the literary landscape. In other words, not all languages, territories, and voices are represented and financed equally. With PEN Translates, we support work from any language or region, but we recognize that work from languages and regions without established funding infrastructures will tend to have been translated and published less, and so new titles from such contexts might tend more readily to contribute to bibliodiversity. That’s not to say that anything is “overrepresented”; rather, we need more translation from everywhere and every linguistic context, and more funding across the board.
I say all this by way of context. We seek to fund art and labor where there is the least funding for it, while still recognizing the need to fund everywhere. Of course, we need our own funding for this, and we’re grateful that our supporters for PEN Presents—the British Council for our first round, and the University of Exeter and AHRC for the latest, for which we’re collaborating with the excellent Translating Women (our partners for the original consultation phase)—recognize this, too. We try not to “follow the funding”—not just accessing the pots already out there, allowing them to determine our focuses, but instead finding ways to finance the contexts for which those pots don’t exist. And we’ve been fortunate that our supporters have recognized the value of responding to the priorities of the community and researching where the greatest need lies.
SS: The program’s goals are integral to the health of a diverse publishing landscape. Do you have specific metrics by which you’ll measure the program’s success?
WF: I think your reference to the whole landscape prompts an important point: that measuring success isn’t just about gauging the individual impacts of the program, but also about the necessity of collaboration, and gauging what this cooperation achieves. In my view, wholesale change demands careful and long-term intervention at every stage of the chain of production, and participation with a meaningfully diverse range of individuals and organizations working in that chain (because, when we talk about systems change, we should remember that systems are comprised of and created by individuals). That’s why we work with groups and initiatives advocating for equity, rights, and fair pay in different contexts—writing, translating, scouting, agenting, publishing, bookselling, criticism, programming, and more.
That said, there are shorter-term outcomes that we’re aiming toward and for which we can measure indicators. These include the volume and variety of forms, genres, and linguistic and regional contexts represented in responses to our calls; the diversity of voices who feel endorsed to apply (we expressly encourage applications from translators who identify as underrepresented in the literary community, who don’t have established access to editors, who don’t normally feel these sorts of opportunities are for them, or who don’t necessarily even see themselves as “translators” in the way literary folks might); and, of course, how this changes over time. These same metrics can be measured in terms of which translators and translations are shortlisted for the program and included in its final selections, and, ultimately, what is acquired by publishers and made accessible to readers.
We hope there are also “successes” intrinsically built into the design of the program: each round, twelve translators will be paid to create new work, with six of them given editorial support and connected with publishers. For us—and, we hope, for them—that financial, network, and craft support is valuable.
SS: The inaugural round of the program featured excerpts from works written in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, and Kannada. Have you seen any success from Round One in terms of winning samples going under contract for book-length publication?
WF: Though I can’t yet go into detail, several of the projects are currently under consideration or offer. Interestingly and importantly, this is not just in the UK; one of the necessities of working in a context as linguistically diverse and geographically large as India is recognizing the possibilities of English-language translation internally—both in terms of making works accessible to English-language readers who don’t read, for instance, in Bangla, Gujarati, Hindi, or Kannada, and in terms of the role of English in enabling translation from those languages into other languages of India. (Though we should of course mention a related but separate imperative: the need to support the translation of work between the languages of India, bypassing English and its colonial histories altogether.)
There are a host of North American rights still available, though, so any US publishers reading this should get in touch.
SS: Can you tell us about the submissions you received for Round Two?
WF: We were overwhelmed by the size and vitality of the response to our latest open call—for work of any form, genre, style, era, and linguistic or geographic context. We received 125 proposals for work originally published in fifty-one different languages and fifty-three countries. There was an inevitably large showing of literary fiction—novels and short story collections—but also a series of strong genre fiction submissions, creative nonfiction, travel writing, and poetry (collections and novel-length verse), as well as a few plays and an exciting range of writing for young readers (YA, illustrated kid lit, and graphic novels). And the range of themes explored in these works was remarkable.
Just as excitingly, these proposals came from translators meaningfully spread across the world, with a large proportion of submissions from heritage and bilingual translators, and from translators of color. An initiative succeeds or fails depending on whom it reaches and those who feel included by it, and one of the most encouraging aspects of the response to our call was the number of translators applying who were completely new to us.
SS: Do you have any tips for translators who are considering applying to future rounds?
WF: Our three assessment criteria—literary quality, the strength of the project, and its contribution to bibliodiversity—are designed to allow exceptional, compelling, and varied work to sing; the application form is designed to shape information into a persuasive and successful pitch. So, in the first instance, I’d encourage engaging on these terms and framing the project against these criteria. Concrete information is powerful—sales figures and success in the original, praise and press quotes, details on other rights deals, and so on—but so is thoughtfulness and championing and heart; PEN Presents is translator-led because it recognizes the unique faculty translators have as exceptional readers and compelling advocates. Care and nuance are invaluable: thought-through arguments for a work’s contribution to bibliodiversity, engaging sensitively and thoughtfully with both the context of the original work and what its publication would mean for English-language readers, are important. We’re also interested less in a translator’s experience (we’ve moved away from CVs and bios) and more in why they want to translate this project in particular, and why they are the right person to do so.
Finally, it’s worth saying that while the “concrete information” I mention above is persuasive, we know that such data isn’t always there; we’re open to work not yet published in its original language, recognizing the myriad reasons why this might be the case. And what we’ve seen in the first two rounds is that the following will always shine through: a work for which narrative, theme, originality, voice, and style are deftly summarized; an attentively made argument both for need and demand in the English language; a translator’s evident chemistry with the title; and an explanation of what translating and publishing the book would mean for Anglophone literary diversity. Or, to summarize this all in a word: urgency.
SS: What are your dreams for PEN Presents? Where would you like to see it five or ten years from now?
WF: The first part of my response is to say that, for me, these dreams must be contingent; our aim with PEN Presents isn’t just to fit into an (albeit uneven) literary landscape, but to respond to a changing landscape and contribute to its change for the better. So I hope that, in five or ten years, the program will be meeting the imperatives of the day for translators, publishers, readers, and all who are have a hand in international literature. (I also hope that, in five or ten years, pay and conditions will have markedly improved, and so PEN Presents will be a part of furthering these interests, rather than merely doing a small something about the large matter of unpaid labor.)
That said, I think there’s an evergreen hope: that PEN Presents will have contributed to the sustainability of translators’ careers, enabled a range of new translated literature to be brought to market, and been a part of a sea change. I don’t think something like PEN Presents will ever not be needed, but I hope that it will be part of a growing and more dynamic infrastructure supporting translators financially and providing a platform to an increasing diversity of literatures and voices, and that such infrastructure will be working across the chain of publication, involving agents and booksellers and critics and other professionals and activists. In other words, I hope that PEN Presents will have grown, and so too all its sister initiatives.
SS: How do you see this program fitting into the bigger picture of English PEN’s work to promote the freedom to write and the freedom to read?
WF: I think the answer is right there in the first line of the PEN Charter: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people.” PEN Presents is one piece in the very large puzzle of fostering the free movement of words and ideas—across national, linguistic, and other boundaries. The freedoms to read and write provoke the questions Who gets to read? Who gets to write? and therefore Who gets to translate? Who gets to be translated? Addressing the structural barriers and inequities that are at the bottom of these prompts is a part of promoting such freedoms, and of recognizing that they are only thoroughgoing freedoms if they are equal freedoms for all. And so, for me, the aims of promoting economic viability, access, and a more diverse literary landscape built by a more diverse community of creatives are indissoluble from the organization’s ultimate and longstanding mission: the freedom to read, and the freedom to write.
Will Forrester is translation and international manager at English PEN and editor of PEN Transmissions. He co-edited All Walls Collapse: Stories of Separation (Comma Press, 2022) and project managed Untold’s My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women (MacLehose Press, 2022). He has worked with Commonwealth Writers, in the visual arts in Malaysia, and as an expert for the EU Commission’s Creative Europe program. He is a Clore Emerging Leader 2022, and a judge for the 2023 TA First Translation Prize. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, London Magazine, and elsewhere.
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