Rajendra Chitnis writes:
By any standards, the 2015 European Literature Night Translation Pitch has proven a remarkable success. 59 entries were received from 21 national literatures, from the Atlantic to the Baltic and the North Sea to the Mediterranean, and the shortlisting judges – Louise Swan, Rosalind Harvey and I – faced the impossible task of choosing our favourite eight to go through to the public final at the Free Word Centre on 4 June.
Judging by this chance cross-section, anyone who fears that European literature may be flagging can breathe easy. The range of themes explored and styles deployed, in extracts taken from novels, short stories, verse, essay, biography, memoir and much in between, was more bracing than soothing, evidence that neither life nor art in Europe has lost its edge. Marginal voices featured prominently, whether ethnic-minority or mixed-ethnicity authors and narrators or juvenile characters, often female adolescents or socio-economic ‘drop-outs’. The theme of ‘lost and found’ – of a recovery of meaning and purpose through unusual friendships, love or the discovery of a new way of living – recurred, sometimes linked to homelessness and wandering or youthful ‘backpacking’ outside Europe. We repeatedly met the Europe of not only economic crisis, but also of the Cold War and post-Communist transition. European writers continue to evoke the darkest episodes in the continent’s recent history, notably Italian and Slovene reflections on Srebrenica, but they also find inspiration in medieval crusades (the Estonian Tiit Aleksejev) and ancient Egypt (the Italian Claudia Musio). In these, as in various fantasy texts, authors seem to hesitate between escape from and allegory of the contemporary human situation. In contrast to these grand landscapes, however, we also confronted the dissection of the everyday, most extraordinarily in JJ Voskuil’s huge fictionalised memoir of his career at a Dutch research institute. Overall, it seems possible to argue that, whether puzzled or enchanted children, wronged or disaffected intellectuals, migrants or the suddenly impoverished, the characters of contemporary European literature are marked less by exhaustion or defeatism, and more by resilience and often inarticulate defiance.
As judges, we were led above all by the style. We faced a challenging balance between the epic and the lyrical, convention and experiment, black humour and pathos. Texts did not obviously conform to national stereotypes, and we were mostly persuaded by translators’ arguments about the universality of a work’s concerns. We were struck afresh by the creative subtlety of the individual imagination, and admired the translators who had set themselves the task of re-rendering that striking vision in English. Memorable examples included Charles Lee and Manon Manavit’s work on Maguy Vautier’s evocation of Touareg mythology in verse, Denise Muir’s on Manuela Salvi’s censored Italian graphic novel for teenagers and Ana Makuc and Cyprian Laskowski’s on the Slovene Bojan Meserko’s unpaginated, rearrangeable ‘infinite’ novel.
Amazingly, our preferences in fact proved similar, and little haggling was needed to produce our shortlist. Our discussion was not guided by any particular priorities (gender, range of national literatures, type of writing, type of audience), but we were delighted to find that, in these and other areas, our list offered a fair reflection of what we had to choose from (though poetry and essays are unrepresented). Alongside the literary languages most frequently translated into English – French and German – we find Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Flemish and Hungarian. There are two genuine cycles of short stories – Pierre Autin-Grenier´s That´s Just How It Is, translated by Andrea Reece, and Krisztina Tóth´s Pixel, translated by Owen Good – a novel for young adults about a high-school shooting – Jesper Wung-Sung´s Proper Fractions, translated by Lindy Falk van Rooyen – two short satirical novels – Vonne von der Meer´s Take 7, translated by Laura Vroomen, and Jan Van Loy´s Scraps, translated by Anna Asbury – and three long, differently ambitious novels – Jan Němec’s biographical A History of Light, translated by Melvyn Clarke, Verena Rossbacher´s metafictional Small Talk and Slaughter, translated by Anne Posten, and Vladimir Zarev´s contemporary historical Ruin, translated by Angela Rodel. We hope the distinguished panel of judges charged with choosing a winner do not curse us, and we wish them good luck with their deliberations!
Rosalind Harvey adds:
We ended up with five male and three female authors, and six female and two male translators: there are undoubtedly more women in literary translation than men (arguably because it is a low-paid profession, and all low-paid professions – nurses, cleaners, carers – tend to have disproportionate numbers of women practising them, due to structural misogyny), but I was disappointed, although not surprised, to note the relative lack of women writers. This is not a new problem, and nor is it one that has been ignored: my colleague Katy Derbyshire, the translator from German, for instance, has spoken about this recently on a panel at the London Book Fair, and is planning on establishing a prize for women writers in translation to address this very issue. We tried to ensure that the disparity in literary translation out in the world was addressed to at least some extent in our shortlist, without, of course, compromising on quality. The selection process for ELN in a way functioned as a microcosm of the publishing industry at large; it was hard for us to end up with equal numbers of men and women on the shortlist (or even – shock horror! – with more women than men), simply because fewer women writers were pitched to us. This is a topic worthy of its own blog post.
From my perspective as chair and co-founder of the Emerging Translators Network, I was particularly alert to who was pitching works and at what stage their careers were at. Many of the pitchers were known to me through the network, and as such I am aware of how hard they work and how passionately they champion the authors they believe deserve to be in English. In the end, though, the quality of the translations, tempered a little with the awareness in the back of all of our minds that diversity was crucial, was what had to take precedence.
On the whole the process was a very heartening process – there is a wealth of interesting, challenging and fun-sounding literature coming out of Europe, and a wealth of translators ready to champion and translate it. Not all of it will end up in English, because there’s simply not enough money or space in the UK publishing scene. But some of it will, and should. All that remains is a willingness from publishers, readers and booksellers to trust these translators and believe in the quality of the work. Given the number of heartfelt submissions here, combined with the increase in literary translation in the UK in general, I think that this trust and belief has no choice but to grow.