THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

22 posts categorized "European Literature Night"

11 May 2016

Curiosity Helps a Lot

Add comment

In another Q&A post with a writer featured in tonight’s European Literature Festival Writers’ Showcase event, we meet Bulgarian author Alek Popov whose novel Black Box is published by Peter Owen 

  ELN Alek Popov
Alek Popov

How did you become a writer?
 
I started by recording a dream many, many years ago.
 
Do you have a favourite character in your fiction? If so, who? And if not, why not?
 
I like very much my secondary characters. They come to life so spontaneously and sometime even contest the leadership of the protagonists.
 
You’re coming to London for European Literature Night. Is there a British author you particularly admire?
 
Joseph Conrad  if he counts. I admire both his talent and his personal strength. What he managed to achieve in a language which was not his native was highly remarkable and could serve as an example of how national barriers and cultural prejudices could be overcome.
 
Other than reading literature in translation, how else can we break down barriers between people of different nationalities and cultures?
 
There will be always barriers between universes, otherwise there will be only one universe. Transcending these barriers either natural or stereotypical always requires efforts, ability to change and learn, and is often marked by internal growth. Curiosity helps a lot. Some degree of generosity too. If you are determined only to sell and not to buy anything from abroad barriers will remain for obvious reasons. Self-indulgence in your own culture and the sense of self-sufficiency can make things even more claustrophobic.
 
Is there a book you wish you’d written? If so what is it?
 
Unfortunately I don’t have the guts and the patience of Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out?
 
If you don’t like loneliness, don’t start this journey.
 
What are you reading now?
 
A piece of fiction that irritates me on almost every possible level… But sometime you can learn a lot from such a book. And I am curious to see how far it will go.
 
Can you tell us anything about your next book?

Well, I am working on the sequel of my latest novel Snow-White and Partisan-Red. The story is set in turbulent times – World War II and the subsequent Cold War. I follow my characters’ steps through bombed Sofia, guerilla trails in Yugoslavia and the streets of London in the 1950s. Two girls from an affluent family taken by dreams of freedom and social justice finally find themselves on the opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. It’s a story of survival, delusion and excitement told in a humorous way, challenging the clichés of history and ideology.

ELN Alek Popov Black Box

My Way of Looking/Breathing

Add comment

Our latest Q&A post with a writer featured in tonight’s European Literature Festival Writers’ Showcase event introduces Belgian Flemish novelist, poet and dramatist Peter Verhelst, whose story The Man I Became is published by Peirene Press

ELN Peter-Verhelst-author-photograph1
Peter Verhelst

How did you become a writer?

I’m not sure I became a writer. I’m sure I didn’t become a painter. I wanted to become Jan Van Eyck, but wasn’t able to paint very well. I've written every day since I was 15. That's my way of looking/breathing.

You’re coming to London for European Literature Night. Is there a British author you particularly admire?

I love (to hate) James Joyce. No one can irritate me the way he does and at the same time: witty!
I love Julian Barnes. His elegant way of thinking and finding words for all human emotions.
I love Samuel Beckett VERY MUCH.
I would love to love Tom McCarthy: I only read fragments of his books. Didn’t have the time yet to read full texts. But I'm sure I will love his books.

Other than reading literature in translation, how else can we break down barriers between people of different nationalities and cultures?

Talk to each other. Visit each other. Eat with each other.

Is there a book you wish you’d written? If so what is it?

Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll): it’s a book about the pleasure of writing. The pleasure of ‘making things up’.
(But I don't like the songs.)

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out?

Don’t try to be loved. Don’t believe compliments. Never mind the haters. Do exactly what you think you have to do (and don’t hesitate to contradict your own opinions).

What are you reading now?

Books about art. Preparing for my new novel.

Can you tell us anything about your next book?

It’s a novel about grief, trauma. Is it possible to talk about ‘what you can't talk about’? (Of course it is)

Man_i_became_web_0_220_330

 

10 May 2016

I Prefer Imagination

Add comment

Our second author Q&A post as a taster for this year’s European Literature Festival Writers’ Showcase event features Dutch author Jaap Robben, whose novel You Have Me To Love is published by World Editions

ELN Jaap Robben
Jaap Robben

How did you become a writer?

Actually I don't know. As a child I loved to read, but I never knew writing could be a real job. When I was around sixteen years old I started writing, jokes, small poems, sentences. In the mean time I went into enviromental science. I finished my studies but I'm a very bad scientist. I always preferred working on a story or a poem, instead of studying the environment. I prefer imagination to the correctness of science.

Do you have a favourite character in your fiction? If so, who? And if not, why not?

Oh, that's difficult. I don't really focus on characters when I'm reading. What I remember from the books on my bookshelf are more sentences or situations than characters.

You’re coming to London for European Literature Night. Is there a British author you particularly admire? 

Of course: Julian Barnes. At the moment I'm reading All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld for the second time and love it. I also admire Oliver Jeffers’ writing. 

Other than reading literature in translation, how else can we break down barriers between people of different nationalities and cultures?

In Dutch schools they only teach us about Dutch history, some ancient Greek, a little prehistoric, the Second World War. But we need to know more about modern European history.  We need to know who our neighbours are. We live in a union, but we don't know what happened to each other the last hundred years. For example, after I read a lot about the Singing Revolution in the Baltic States, I felt ashamed, because I had never heard about it. We need to know our stories.

Is there a book you wish you’d written? If so what is it?

Always my next book. The Flemish writer Hugo Claus  said: ‘Writing is like smashing your head against the wall, it’s always a relief when you quit.’

I think I would have been proud to be Janne Teller and and to have written her book Nothing  

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out?

That’s quite difficult. For people who want to write, but don’t get started, I don't really have a good advice. If you really want to write, you will do it. People hardly ever start with something completely new. For those people who are already writers, don’t listen too much to good advice. And try to forget yourself. it always helps me if I’m not so aware of myself while I'm writing. And put away your phone and email.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading Dorthe Nors’ Karate Chop – she will also be at the European Literature Festival.  And it’s great! Her stories are like the best Tapas. Don’t eat it too fast.

Can you tell us anything about your next book?

It's for children. I’m writing it together with the Flemish illustrator Benjamin Leroy. It’s called Suzy Douzy and the Smelly Finger.

ELN Jaap Robben You have me

 

Stamina! Stamina!

Add comment

For the European Literature Festival Writers’ Showcase event we are posting brief Q&A’s with the featured authors. First up is Dorthe Nors from Denmark, whose works Karate Chop & Minna Needs Rehearsal Space are published by Pushkin Press

ELN Nors Dorthe 2008_1  Foto Simon Klein Knudsen copy_redux
Dorthe Nors (photo by Simon Klein Knudsen)

How did you become a writer?

I learned the alphabet, I started writing, I kept on writing (and reading, I read a lot) and then I wrote some more. One day I sent a novel to a publisher who loved my writing and published my book. That is how I became a writer.

Do you have a favourite character in your fiction? If so, who? And if not, why not?

Nah, you love the characters you work with in different ways. If I should choose a small favourite it would be the little girl in the story The Wadden Sea.

You’re coming to London for European Literature Night. Is there a British author you particularly admire?

When I was a kid I loved Charles Dickens (still do), then came the Jane Austen years (I still read her when I get the 'flu). I also really love C.S. Lewis - and Dylan Thomas, love Dylan Thomas.

Other than reading literature in translation, how else can we break down barriers between people of different nationalities and cultures?

It’s a matter of choosing openness. Being friendly to what is culturally different to yourself is a decision you can make. The very openness you need in order to read a book should be transformed to the very meeting between people. We have in The Western World, I feel, become dangerously afraid of otherness.

Is there a book you wish you’d written? If so what is it?

Tarjei VesaasThe Birds – an amazing Norwegian novel about a sister and brother (and life and death and love and stuff).

What advice would you give to anyone just starting out?

Keep it up. Don't let go. STAMINA, STAMINA!

What are you reading now?

I just finished Dutch writer Jaap Robben’s You Got Me to Love - great book, and now I'm going to read Max Porter: Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. Porter and I will perform together in New York later this summer. Can't wait to read his book.

Can you tell us anything about your next book?
Nope!

 ELN Dorthe Nors Karate chop

09 May 2016

Our May Acronym Heaven: EU, EL, EUPL, ELIT, ELF, ELN, ACE & BL

Add comment

As European Literature Festival 2016 begins, we welcome back journalist and broadcaster Rosie Goldsmith to our blog as she introduces the events and gives a hint of what to look forward to at the Writers’ Showcase event on Wednesday 11th

For European Literature (EL) lovers, the month of May is the equivalent of Christmas, Hanukkah or Eid – it’s the festive highlight of our year when we celebrate our year-round efforts to publish and promote our beloved EL. Time to polish the champagne glasses (Boyd Tonkin), buy a new T-shirt (Daniel Hahn) and get out those red shoes (Rosie Goldsmith). This May we have an embarrassment of international literary riches: our first ever European Literature Festival and the first ever annual Man Booker International Prize (MBI)  in conjunction with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP: RIP) .

Eight years ago we had a dream, that we could gather together the best writers from the rest of Europe to London for a one-night-only special event. It had never been done before. Thanks to the mass collaboration of sponsors and partners, our dream became reality. The event became European Literature Night (ELN), initiated by EUNIC London, the Czech Centre and the British Library, and taking place in London and cities all over the continent. Over these eight years our ELN evening has become a week, then a month and this May it is the showcase event in our first European Literature Festival (ELF), embracing more than 30 countries, 60 writers and including poetry, graphic novels, literary fiction, non-fiction, crime thrillers and translation workshops. This year we also have some real British celebrities to boost the brand – Kate Mosse, Mark Lawson and Ian McMillan – and not just cut-price slebs like me and Danny Hahn. EL in the UK has itself become a celebrity. Next year maybe the cover of Vogue? Although we’ll have to do something about our acronyms.

  ELN 2015 Rosie Goldsmith
Rosie Goldsmith at the podium on European Literature Night 2015 (photo (c) MELA)

Here’s the full, fabulous programme: www.europeanliteraturefestival.org.uk and congratulations to ELF’s Artistic Director Jon Slack for making it happen.

As chair of the judges, Director of European Literature Network (ELNet) and host of ELN (keep up!), May is my personal merriest, busiest month. And I can guarantee that we have pulled it off again: the best of contemporary European literature (ok, EL!) is coming your way. British Library (BL – of course!), Wednesday 11th May.

Our six ‘winning’ writers are all literary celebrities ‘back home,’ magnificently translated and selected by us, the judges, from a pool of 65 European writers submitted by publishers and cultural organisations last November. Joining me on stage will be: Burhan Sönmez (Turkey), Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Gabriela Babnik (Slovenia), Peter Verhelst (Belgium), Jaap Robben (Netherlands) and Alek Popov (Bulgaria). They are all outstanding - unique, original, mind-expanding and fun. I love ELN and my two hours on stage, vicariously bathing in the reflected glory of our stars, conducting the equivalent of a BBC Live broadcast. (British Broadcasting Corporation!)

As our ELF Publicity promises: “The discussion will travel from the Turkish prison cells of Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul, Istanbul to the turned upside-down-lives in Dorthe Nors’  twisted and imaginatively-realised streets of Copenhagen; to Slovenian writer Gabriela Babnik’s  seductive tale of forbidden love on the dusty plains of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; via Peter Verhelst’s deadpan Belgian humour in his Gorilla-narrated fable about the story of human civilisation (and its collapse). There is a tormented relationship unfolding between widow and son on Dutch-writer Jaap Robben’s remote and stormy island (located somewhere between Scotland and Norway); and we finish in Alek Popov’s strange and comic novel that moves between Bulgaria and New York, where two brothers question whether their long-deceased father is, in fact, dead.”

ELF-Writers-FB-Photos
This year's ELN line-up

As our ELF superstar-host Kate Mosse says: “At a time when the countless shared histories and stories from our many friends and strangers in Europe are danger of being lost in the politics of the EU debate, an initiative like the European Literature Festival is more important than ever.” Who needs supermodel Kate Moss on a Vogue cover when you have superstar novelist Kate Mosse?

On behalf of ELNet & EUPL & with thanks 2 ACE & ELIT I’ll c u 4 ELN @BL! LoL RGx

27 January 2016

Crossing European Borders with Diego Marani’s ‘The Interpreter’

Add comment Comments (0)

As in previous years, the British Library will host 2016’s European Literature Night on 11 May. As a taster, we look at a newly-translated work by an author who featured in 2014’s event.

Diego Marani’s The Interpreter (original Italian L’interprete, Milan, 2004, British Library YF.2004.a.24136) begins in Geneva at the United Nations where an interpreter has developed a strange malady and starts speaking gibberish while claiming he has discovered the primordial language of mankind. Before he can be sacked he disappears, then his boss develops the same illness and goes to a sanatorium in Munich for a language cure. While at the sanatorium he decides his only chance of being cured is to find the missing interpreter and find out about the mysterious illness which has taken over his life. There now begins a journey through Europe which takes him as far as the Crimea. This is no travelogue but an exploration of cultural diversity, language, identity and crime.

TheInterpreterMarani00000264_g

It is a very entertaining novel with a lot of humour but also dark and frightening. It shows how easily all the certainties of life can disappear and how an individual can be left defenceless to the buffetings of external forces beyond his control. The narrator in the novel loses everything but the power of the human spirit keeps him alive and he fights back. For him life is an obstacle race where the obstacles can change from day to day, and where you must adapt to survive.

As with Marani’s earlier novels, New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs, the importance of language and identity are at the heart of the novel:

Languages are like toothbrushes: the only one you should put in your mouth is your own. It's a question of hygiene... it's dangerous to let yourself be contaminated by the germs of another tongue.

It is your language and your culture which give you your identity and make you what you are. When times get tough it is a bulwark against chaos and adversity. Your language and culture help you belong in society and connect you to both the past and the future. Whatever journeys we undertake, we take with us our language and culture and we do not lose them however much our life changes. We can learn new languages and immerse ourselves in new cultures, but we still retain the language and culture which surrounded us in our formative years and in which we were educated. This is why exile is so painful for most adults. Indeed, people who have left their homes for work in foreign countries remain truer to the traditions that they grew up with than people who remain behind in a changing society. For the exile, a country can’t change as it exists only in his mind, frozen in aspic, and it is to this country of the mind that he wants to return. Indeed, as many returning immigrants discover, the country they left behind no longer exists and they can’t readjust to the country which has taken its place.

The themes of the novel are carefully embedded in a thriller plot and do not interfere with a cracking yarn rich in event and the unexpected. Diego Marani shows that he is at home with the detective story, so it is not a surprise that he has gone on to write detective fiction with God’s Dog. The issues raised in The Interpreter are answered, but what the narrator has learnt does not seem worth the price that he has paid and will continue to pay.

MaraniBooksintheBLDSC_0529
Books by Diego Marani from the British Library's collections

Eric Lane, Dedalus Books

Diego Marani will be in the UK from 31 January to 4 February and will be giving readings in London, Bath and Oxford. For details, see the European Literature Network’s website

27 May 2015

Looking back at European Literature Night

Add comment Comments (0)

In out last post marking European Literature Night 2015, Slovenian author Evald Flisar, who took part in this year’s event, looks back at the evening. 

I had been chosen (apparently there were 55 nominees) to appear at the widely publicised event European Literature Night at the British Library on 13 May as one of the six best European writers. I felt honoured, of course, as well as mildly surprised and modestly pleased. It just wouldn’t be right to jump up and down, shouting,  “Look at me, look at me!” Certainly not at the age of 70, when one is supposed to have put away childish things. Besides (let’s indulge in a little arithmetic), in the next ten years 60 more  “best European writers” will appear at this grand event (presuming that authors cannot be recalled for a repeat performance). And so, with the passing of years, the importance of my attendance will gradually be diluted to the point of astonishment at the fact that the continent of Europe, however small, can boast such a great number of “best writers”.

That may well be true, and we (inside and outside EU) may be unforgivably ignorant of the quality   Front-my-fathers-dreams-3_53fc653aca024_250x800r
of our neighbours’ writing (publishers please note!), but surely ... the best? Well, never mind. Perhaps this year’s  “six of the best” are justified in believing that their writing warrants the inclusion in this exclusive club (after all, 49 authors among the 55 nominees didn’t make it), and most certainly I should be grateful for the invitation to attend the event that has brought one of my books to the attention of many (generating, among other things, a glowing review in The Irish Times). 

Evald Flisar’s novel My Father's Dreams, published in the author’s own translation by Istros books and presented at European Literature Night 2015

I am grateful, of course. Not only grateful but also glad that the event is over and that (by some miracle) I have avoided making a fool of myself. I have even (not intentionally, of course) succeeded in amusing the audience. All in all, my impressions (of the event and even, to a lesser degree, my performance) are considerably better than good, and I am delighted to have been invited (delighted in spite of 144 translations into 36 languages, or the fact that I have so far attended over 50 similar events round the world). I have read from my work in Washington, New York, Milwaukee, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Sao Paolo, Frankfurt, Prague, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Wrocław, Brno, Cairo, Alexandria Library, New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Tokyo, Taipei ... that’ll do, the line between facts and self-praise is perilously blurred.

Rosie Goldsmith and Evald Flisar (ELN2015)
ELN host Rosie Goldsmith interviewing Ewald Flisar at European Literature Night 2015. (Photo © Metaphoto. 
There are other photos - and drawings - of the event at: http://eurolitnetwork.com/european-literature-night/)

However, not one of these guest appearances (with the possible exception of Mumbai’s Literature Live Festival)  can compare with the faultless organisation of the European Literature Night in London. Not to mention the publicity it has generated. It may well be that I am slightly biased. Having lived in London for almost 20 years, being (even after a 20-year absence) still English at heart (not to say in the mind), I may be tempted to give any literary event in London some extra (subjective) points. But that is not so. Appearing at the British Library really was one of the highlights of my long literary career. And all thanks to my publishers, the ambitious Istros Books, for whom quality, far from being a mere promotional phrase, is in fact their raison d'être. Long may they prosper!

Evald Flisar

13 May 2015

Grimms’ tales in Translation (and in the British Library)

Add comment Comments (0)

Perhaps one of the British Museum Library’s worst 19th-century acquisition decisions was not to  buy the first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm when it appeared in 1812. Probably the title put the selectors off, fooling them into thinking that these ‘Children’s and Household Tales’ were intended purely as a domestic entertainment, a ‘mere’ children’s book, a genre we don’t generally buy from overseas. Even the second edition, the earliest that we hold, was not acquired on first publication in 1819 but later in the century; the first volume has a brief manuscript  dedication from Wilhelm Grimm to a previous owner.

While the Grimms did not necessarily want to exclude children from their audience, their primary goal was to collect and record German folklore for an academic readership, and both the first and second editions include a volume of scholarly notes on the stories and their origins. 
 
Grimm Frontispiece
Frontispiece and engraved title-page by from the second edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Berlin, 1819) British Library Cup.403.tt.14.

However, as more and more editions were published, the tales were made more child- or family-friendly. Already in this second edition Wilhelm Grimm had started the process of sanitising and Christianising the stories. The frontispiece to the first volume hints at this process with its rather sentimental illustration of the story ‘Brüderchen und Schwesterchen’, which shows an angel watching over the eponymous brother (transformed into a deer) and sister as they sleep. (Like the portrait in the second volume of Dorothea Viehmann, the tailor’s wife named by the Grimms as a source of a number of stories, the picture is by a third Grimm brother, Ludwig.)

Grimm Cruickshank
Title-page of the first English translation, by Edgar Taylor, illustrated by George Cruickshank (London, 1823) Cup.402.b.18.

The Grimms’ tales were soon translated into many languages, and the British Library’s holdings of the tales are overwhelmingly English translations published in Britain, the majority aimed at a young audience. These range from more or less direct translations, through re-tellings as picture books or ‘easy readers’, to reimaginings or ‘subversions’ of the tales. Some in this last category are in fact aimed at adults, like the stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. And plenty of works of modern German literature which we hold also play on the Grimms’ stories for an adult audience, for example Elfriede Jelinek’s Prinzessindramen and Günter Grass’s Der Butt – ‘translations’ of the stories in a different sense.

Another form of translation –in the sense of interpreting the stories in a different medium – is illustration. Again, most of our illustrated versions of the stories are English translations for children, featuring a roll-call of fine artists including George Cruickshank (the Grimms’ first English illustrator), Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, Mervyn Peake and Maurice Sendak.

Grimm Rackham
‘The Goose Girl’, illustration by Arthur Rackham to the Grimms’ story from Fairy Tales ... A new translation by Mrs. Edgar Lucas (London, 1900) 12411.eee.27.

To return to actual translations, despite our general policy of not buying foreign children’s literature, a search in our catalogue reveals children’s editions of the Grimms’ tales in many languages, acquired in various ways. Among European languages we have versions in Czech, Dutch, French, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian, as well as the auxiliary languages Esperanto and (more unusually) Volapük, all testifying to the international influence and reach of a collection intended to highlight and preserve a national tradition.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

This piece is based on the author’s contribution to a lunchtime talk given in the John Ritblat - Treasures of the British Library Gallery on 13 May, the second in a series organised with the British Academy as part of their Literature Week 2015 and to coincide with European Literature Night. The Library’s copy of the 1819 Kinder- und Hausmärchen is currently on display in the gallery with items related to the other talks. The final talk, on African Folklore and the Tales of Anansi, will take place on Friday 15 May.

11 May 2015

Yasmina Khadra: A Writer of the World

Add comment Comments (0)

In another guest post for this year’s European Literature Night, Gallic Books translator Emily Boyce introduces the French-based Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra

Yasmina Khadra, who will appear at European Literature Night at the British Library on Wednesday 13 May, is a novelist who has often been drawn to tackle controversial and current topics such as global conflict and extremism in his fiction.

Khadra200x150
Yasmina Khadra (photo © E. Robert-Espalieu from Gallic Books website)

Khadra began writing under his wife's name to avoid censorship while serving in the Algerian army, and revealed his identity after moving to France in 2001. Informed by his experience as a Muslim of North African origin living in the West, he is a leading voice on many of the defining issues of our time. He recently appeared on Al Jazeera to discuss his thoughts on literature and freedom of speech in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, while his contribution to BBC Radio 4’s Letters from Europe series warned of the growing threat of racism and intolerance in the continent.

Khadra confronted the rise of the Taliban in 2002’s Les hirondelles de Kaboul (The Swallows of Kabul, to be discussed in this month’s BBC World Book Club), and explored the motivations of suicide bombers in his Tel Aviv-set L’Attentat (The Attack). This book was adapted into a 2012 film which will be screened at the Institut Français on Tuesday 12 May, followed by a Q and A session with the author.

Yasmina Khadra, African EquationKhadra's latest novel, L’équation africaine, published in English as The African Equation by Gallic Books in February this year, takes the problem of East African piracy as its starting point, and goes on to portray one man’s ordeal as a hostage and his life-altering encounter with a fellow captive who holds a very different view of the continent and its people.

In all his fiction, Khadra brings empathy to characters in desperate situations. As The Literary Review put it, ‘Khadra is a passionately moral writer but he rarely sits in judgment.’

 To mark his forthcoming appearance at European Literature Night, Khadra has written a moving piece in reaction to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, published on the Culturethèque blog of the Institut français UK.

 Emily Boyce, Gallic Books

Selected works by Yasmina Khadra in the British Library (for full holdings see our catalogue)

Les anges meurent de nos blessures: roman (Paris, 2013) YF.2014.a.12993

L’équation africaine: roman (Paris, 2011) YF.2013.a.25944; English translation by Howard Curtis, The African Equation (London, 2015) awaiting shelfmark.

Ce que le jour doit à la nuit : roman (Paris, 2008) YF.2009.a.3841; English translation by Frank Wynne, What the Day owes the Night (London, 2010) Nov.2011/207.

Les sirènes de Bagdad: roman (Paris, 2006) YF.2007.a.1939; English translation by John Cullen, The Sirens of Baghdad (London, 2007) Nov.2007/2364.

L’Attentat: roman (Paris, 2005) YF.2006.a.7205; English translation by John Cullen, The Attack (London, 2006) Nov.2006/2043.

Les hirondelles de Kaboul: roman (Paris, 2002) YA.2003.a.14765; English translation by John Cullen, The Swallows of Kabul (London, 2004)

A quoi rêvent les loups: roman (Paris, 1999) YA.2003.a.6391; Engish translation by Linda Black, Wolf Dreams (New Haven, Conn., 2003) Nov.2007/33.

08 May 2015

‘World Literature’ and ‘World Languages’

Add comment Comments (0)

Today’s guest post for European Literature Night 2015 considers how the original language of a work can influence its international success

In his 2007 New Yorker essay, ‘Die Weltliteratur: European novelists and modernism’, Milan Kundera poses the question - would anyone today know the work of Kafka if he had written his works in Czech and not German? For anyone writing in, or translating from, what is considered a ‘small’ or ‘lesser known’ language, this is the kind of question which could keep one awake at night and could easily induce a bitter sense of being neglected by history. For it does seem that nations such as the Czech Republic, not to mention the even smaller Macedonia or Montenegro, are left at the footnotes of history books; their writers excluded from the canon of European Literature. How many books written by Macedonian writers can you name?

Milan_Kundera_redux
Milan Kundera (photo by Elisa Cabot from Wikimedia Commons)

Arguing for a ‘World Literature’ instead of a number of juxtaposed ‘literatures’, Kundera considers cultural diversity to be the greatest European value. His essay is a plea against ‘provincialism’ – either from the larger nations by ignoring the literary output or smaller nations, or from the writers of smaller nations themselves, who hide behind their obscurity, not daring to add their voice to the international dialogue. Brandishing the now infamous ‘4%’ statistic, publishers of literature in translation in the UK can often feel very frustrated by the constant reminder that the massive geographical reach of the English language makes many readers feel as if the world is writing in English. Insular as we are, the job of discovering writers from other nations, and then going through the lengthy process of having them translated, might seem to be pointless. But then we are reminded of how many works in translation have had so much influence in terms of literature as a whole – from Herta Müller  to Murakami, and even Kundera himself – and we have to admit that we would all be the poorer without it (with the added relevance that Herta Müller, like Kafka, lived in Romania – a ‘lesser-known’ country and a smaller language group, but wrote in the much ‘bigger’ language of German).

So if Herta Müller and Franz Kafka had written in the lesser-known languages of their native countries it is very possible – given the low rate of translated fiction here in the English-speaking world – that they would never have been able to achieve the international reputation they now enjoy. This in itself should be argument enough for the benefit and relevance of translated literature. It is why a number of dedicated publishers continue to seek out new writers – however small the nation they come from – and why cultural institutions like the EU Culture Fund and the Arts Council continue to encourage and finance literary translation. Like Kundera, we feel that cultural diversity is Europe’s greatest value, and one worth preserving.

Susan Curtis-Kojakovic 

Susan Curtis-Kojakovic is publisher of Istros Books, an independent publishing house dedicated to promoting the literature of South-East Europe. For this year’s European Literature Night she nominated and is supporting Slovenian author Evald Flisar