On the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, the UK awoke to the news that it had collectively decided to leave the European Union. In London, where campaigns to form a breakaway republic would soon appear on social media walls, people found themselves muttering This Was Not Supposed To Happen, to no one in particular.
One of the only emails to come in that day was from Mark Banting, Waterstones’ one-man-events-band champion of translated literature. His message was a rallying cry ‘to celebrate Europe’s past, present and future’. Later, in the downstairs Piccadilly bar, dark humour and wine flowed freely. But as variations on the same question – ‘what are we going to do now?’ – issued back and forth, a quiet determination began to form in response. This is an opportunity, people started to say. We need to redouble our efforts, said others.
So: we need to do something to tell Europe’s stories, to change ‘Brand Europe’. But what role can a festival play in doing that?
When I joined last autumn it was known as European Literature Night (ELN), one of some 50-plus simultaneous ‘nights’ scattered across Europe and concentrated especially in the Czech Republic, where the initiative first began. Most participating cities put on a few local writers, together with some speakers from other parts of the world. What happens in London is a far more involved affair. A judging process invites submissions from UK publishers in partnership with the 33 European cultural institutes and embassies which make up EUNIC London. The submitted authors have to fulfil some unusual criteria: they must be recently published and in excellent translation; they need to speak good English and be engaging speakers and performers; and the final selection should represent a range of European countries, genres and ideas. The six selected writers appear at a showcase event at the British Library, which is the centrepiece of ELN London.
Following ELN’s expansion over the years from a single night into two nights, then three, the idea of re-launching it in 2016 as a fully-fledged festival was a no-brainer. And there’s a lot to cheer about what was achieved. This year ‘ELN’ received 62 entries from 23 countries, an increase of nearly 30% from 2015. According to Rosie Goldsmith, long-time chair of the judges and director of the UK-based European Literature Network, this year’s entries were of the highest standard to date. The final six (four men, two women) were Burhan Sönmez (Turkey), Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Gabriela Babnik (Slovenia), Peter Verhelst (Belgium), Jaap Robben (Netherlands) and Alek Popov (Bulgaria). As well as showcasing them at the British Library, we took them to workshops and school events across London. We branched out into other cities too, with some modest but well-received events in Birmingham, Newcastle and Chichester.
The new festival format gave us freer rein to add in more elements around ELN, and in a blink of an eye we had a six-week ‘season’ of literature from the continent, with more than 60 writers and poets (from 30 cultures) taking part. Some of the highlights included a Don Quixote ‘translation joust’; a poetry night where 20 poets sparked off against each other as part of the ingeniously conceived ‘Enemies Project’; and a packed-to-the-rafters conversation between journalist Misha Glenny and Italian writer Roberto Saviano, who in 90 minutes lifted the crooked lid on London’s complicit role in international crime.
The Translation Pitch, back for a second year in association with English PEN, illustrated why translators aren’t just good for quality writing but can be a book’s best advocate for acquiring editors. The Pitch offered a fast-paced tour of stories and poetry from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Turkey and France, all not yet available in English. Translator James Womack received a special commendation for his entertaining presentation of Antonio Orejudo’s campus novel A Brief Respite (Spain), but Karen Leeder won the day with her exquisite rendering of Ulrike Almut Sandig’s poetry collection Thick of It (Germany).
Our major translation project this year was the Poetry Periscope – or the ‘poetry jukebox’, as it translates from its Czech origins – a bright yellow, two-metre-high sound installation, which first appeared on the Piazza of the British Library in April. It contains recordings of poems from 30 European cultures, each available in their original language and in English translation. Judith Palmer of the Poetry Society helped us to put together this wide-ranging selection, which was designed to represent the ‘voices of Europe’ in all their diversity across age, race and gender. The Periscope is now touring to other venues around the UK, in partnership with regional writing agencies.
If we are fortunate enough to develop the European Literature Festival further and stage it again next year, there is so much more we can do – other forms of storytelling we can bring in, different and unusual spaces we can stage our events. One big idea which is gathering momentum is a European Literature retail promotion, timed to coincide with a fresh edition of the Festival: discounted table displays in bookshops, promotional offers online, supported by a dedicated magazine (handed out at Underground stations, distributed at bookshops and libraries). We need to start with new readers first and then go as far as our resources and energies allow us to travel.
Would all these ideas together help start a different kind of conversation about Europe? The European Literature Festival and any initiatives that spring from it are just a tiny part of the effort, but we all have a role to play. The stories and voices of Europe are needed more than ever to help us make sense of these extraordinary times. In the words of Rosie Goldsmith: ‘In the wonderful world of literature we can be both British, and European.’