In June 2015 I was invited to Writers Centre Norwich to take part in Worlds Literature Festival. Over thirty writers and thinkers came together for a series of round-table discussions on the theme of ‘reputation’, broken up by excellent public readings by the delegates.

I myself am not a writer; I run the Writers in Translation programme at the literary charity English PEN, where I work with publishers, translators, writers and others to raise the profile of translation in the UK. My main task at Worlds was to chair a panel on the role of translators in establishing the literary reputations of writers from other languages. Of course I couldn’t help but join in the other discussions of the week, which covered such diverse topics as how literary reputations shift over time; what it means for a country to have a literary reputation; how far a writer’s reputation might include things in their character or life beyond their actual work; the difference between reputation and success, success and value; and the reputation of English as the world’s global language.

Many of these questions seemed to boil down to the question of who confers literary reputation. Another way to frame this might be to ask: where is the centre of the literary world?

Before joining English PEN I worked in trade publishing in London, on and off for nine years, and the question of literary reputation seemed to come up quite a lot, often when an editor was considering acquiring a new book by this or that writer. At times it seemed as though this hard-to-measure quality, also known snappily as ‘profile’, weighed more in the estimations of editors than a writer’s sales record. So how is a literary reputation made?

Feeding into a writer’s reputation in the UK seem to be the opinions (roughly in order of importance) of: literary editors and reviewers at newspapers and literary magazines (in London and New York), other writers of reputation, famous people in the arts, certain high-profile BBC producers, other book editors, and agents. In addition to these, judges of literary prizes can contribute considerably to a writer’s reputation – but these are often drawn from the above groups of people. Being from a well-known family can also contribute indirectly.

Usually not feeding into a writer’s reputation are the opinions of: bloggers (even those with thousands of readers), social media followers (even if the writer has tens of thousands of these), booksellers, local newspapers, individual librarians, school teachers, and ordinary readers. Academic institutions can contribute to a writer’s reputation, but usually and most effectively after the writer is dead – ‘Lazarus writers’ such as John Kennedy Toole and John Williams are good examples. Universities can also collect and study bodies of work (as the University of Texas has recently done with the archive of Kazuo Ishiguro), thereby cementing the importance of a writer for future generations as part of a literary canon.

My recipe for reputation may already be ringing some alarm bells. What happens if a writer doesn’t have connections in London or New York? What if she doesn’t know other writers or famous people? What if her book wouldn’t appeal to a BBC producer? What if she doesn’t write in English? English may be the biggest ‘world language’, but the Anglophone literary world is notorious for the fact that only 4% of all of our published literature was originally written in another language[1]. Is the possibility of literary reputation more open to certain writers than to others? And does that mean that the writing of those ‘other’ writers somehow doesn’t matter as much? As the manager of a translation programme based at a free speech organisation, I find this an urgent and troubling question, and I’m particularly interested in the so-called gate-keepers of literary reputation in languages other than English.

The reputation machine in Paris is equivalent to that in London, except that its reputation-conferrers also include literary editors and reviewers in London and New York and famous people in Los Angeles, because 15.9% of France’s published output is in translation, of which 61.8% is from English. That is to say, nearly 10% of literature published in France was originally written in English. Meanwhile, French, being the most translated language in the UK, contributed 28.9% of our literary translations in 2000–2012, i.e. 28.9% of 4% of our literary output. That is to say, about 1% of literature published in the UK in this period was originally written in French.

This lopsided relationship is replicated in every literary capital in the world, with influence and actual words flowing more in one direction than in the other. We are starting to get a picture of a literary world with an epicentre of London/New York, with tremors rippling out to the other major cities of the globe.

But it is slightly more complex than this. At English PEN we recently did some research into titles in French and Spanish (the two most widely spoken ‘world languages’ after English) which were submitted for a PEN Translates grant (which offers funding for literary translations into English) between 2012 and 2015. We found that out of 34 titles submitted in French, 25 were by French writers and the remaining nine were by writers from Morocco, Algeria, Iran, Afghanistan, Canada and the Republic of Congo. But all 34 were acquired by UK publishers from publishing houses in Paris, who had acquired them from local publishers in the source countries where relevant; in other words, for the UK publishers in our sample, Paris seems to have been the gate-keeper of literature written in French, no matter where the writers themselves were from or based. For Spanish it was a similar picture. We had 23 submissions, of which eight were by Spanish writers and 15 were by writers in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay and Equatorial Guinea (and one Cuban writer living in London). 11 of these 15 were acquired by UK editors from their opposite numbers in Madrid, while only four were acquired from their source countries (which in the case of the Cuban writer was the UK, as he was approached directly by the UK publisher rather than being published somewhere else in Spanish first).

The PEN Translates submission rounds don’t form a very large sample size, but these figures support anecdotal evidence that publishers in London primarily have relationships with publishers and agencies from nearby European capitals, and those capitals are perceived to already be selecting the best literature from their linguistic worlds, of which they are the cultural centres. In New Delhi, as poet and professor Mamta Sagar was explaining at Worlds, this situation is exacerbated by the fact that the domestic publishing industry operates mostly in English, so writers of Hindi, Tamil, Kannada and other languages hardly get a look in unless they are translated first. That is to say, India, with its dozens of indigenous languages, has an overwhelmingly Anglophone publishing industry focused on New Delhi – London and New York’s main entry point to India. The same fate has befallen indigenous languages in Nairobi, Kampala, Johannesburg and Sydney. (This applies too, of course, in e.g. Mexico (65 indigenous languages but an overwhelmingly Hispanophone literary culture), Senegal (36 languages, Francophone literary culture) and China (292 languages, predominantly Mandarin literary culture).) The proliferation of postcolonial and Diaspora writing, the majority of which is written in English, also contributes to the dominance of English in global literary culture, and potentially to the idea that there is no need to look further than a handful of other literary capitals to find ‘the best of the rest’. (I could insert a whole additional essay here about what is considered to be ‘the best literature’ from North Africa, South America, etc. We had several very interesting discussions at Worlds about ‘representing’ a country as a writer, and the risk that the culture-funnelling I describe above could lead to unhelpful literary stereotyping, and ultimately to a ‘world literature’ made in Europe’s image.)

So what if a writer doesn’t write in English, and also doesn’t hail from a country with a colonial history and resultant channels to a ‘literary centre’ from where she might make the leap to being translated and published in London or New York? In the period 2000–2012, just 135 works of literature were translated from Arabic into English; 113 were translated from Chinese. 38 works were translated from Welsh – a language of the British Isles. Five were translated from Lithuanian – the language of the amazing writer Sigitas Parulski whom I had the privilege to meet at Worlds, and whom I would have no way of knowing otherwise as none of his work has been translated into English.

It is no wonder that, unlike most countries which offer funding to export their literature abroad, the UK and USA uniquely offer financial support to bring more works of literature into English. English PEN’s own PEN Translates grant operates with funding from Arts Council England, with the declared aim of increasing literary diversity in the UK. One PEN Translates-supported novel, By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, was only the second book by an Equatorial Guinean writer ever to be published in the UK. It went on to be shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

We also want to discover the best literature from around the world through the direct work of translators rather than through the ex-colonial funnel-channels of the worldwide publishing network. The PEN Samples scheme offers small grants to translators to produce sample translations and reports for books which don’t have an obvious way of reaching UK publishers. We have supported samples from works in Uzbek, Icelandic, Bulgarian, Korean, Burmese – and one book, Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey by İpek Çalışlar, was subsequently acquired by Saqi Books and published in 2013 in Feyza Howell’s translation.

I like to imagine that, decades from now, we will have a multilingual literary world, with no epicentre and no dominant language with attendant baggage, but lots of reverberations in every direction and new hybrid forms that will tell new stories for the planet in the twenty-first century. But while this remains a flight of fancy, and as long as English remains the world’s dominant language, culturally and politically, we need to champion the right of writers from other languages and cultures, near and far, to be heard in it.

We can make small moves in strategic places. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, literary prizes can actually make a difference to literary reputation, so initiatives such as a new prize for women writers in translation (spearheaded by translators Katy Derbyshire and Rachel McNicholl after an animated panel discussion at International Translation Day 2014) and the new high-profile Man Booker International Prize (an expansion of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) are really exciting. Anything we can do to get translations into the review pages has to be a good thing, too. And, despite my pessimism about bloggers and social media, perhaps we will see the internet begin to wield more influence in years to come. Watch this space!

This article was originally published in the translators’ journal In Other Words.

[1] This and the other national translation statistics in this piece have been drawn from Literature Across Frontiers’ excellent report ‘Publishing translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland 1990–2012’

See footage and hear audio from all talks, debates and performances at Worlds Literature Festival 2015 here.

Find out more about the Writers in Translation programme, including its grants for literary translators and UK publishers.