I’m still rather surprised that the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club is the only book club, as far as I can tell, solely tackling books from other languages. In our first year, we’ve taken in books from Angola, Argentina, Brazil, China, Iceland, Mexico, Russia, Slovenia, South Korea, Syria and Uzbekistan, and the new worlds this has revealed would be a thrill for many readers.
Each month I pick a country of focus. Books are then chosen in two different ways. Roughly two out of every three months, members put forward suggestions of books from the nominated country and then vote on which of the shortlist will be discussed. Every third month or so, we entertain a special guest – a translator, a publisher or even an author. In an early session, Han Kang’s translator Deborah Smith revealed how women dominate the Korean literary scene. Hamid Ismailov and his publisher at Peirene Press, Meike Zeirvogel, shared with us how radically different the English version of The Dead Lake is from the original Russian. Gabriela Babnik, over from Slovenia for European Literature Night, gently contradicted our readings of A Dry Season. Boyd Tonkin spoke to us, with as much inside information as discretion allowed, about the winner of the first new-format Man Booker International Prize, for which he was chair of the judges.
Our itinerary is a globe-trotting one, with regular visits to every continent. I’d vowed at the start to avoid the western European nations which seem to dominate translated fiction lists. However, I’ve found that the range of countries actually available to choose from is rather limited, as so little is available from scores of countries. It’s a problem that particularly affects our access to African literature; this became starkly apparent when I chose Senegal as our first African country of focus. I’d presumed that such luminaries as Ousmane Sembène, Mariama Bâ and Fatou Diome would be just the tip of the iceberg. But once I started looking through members’ suggestions I realised that these, and every other Senegalese writer put forward, were actually out of print in the UK. Between us, we couldn’t find a single book readily available. (Out of print is out of bounds for us, as we want to make sure that all members can obtain the book from their preferred bookshop.)
Another worrying discovery was how the world of translated literature reflects the Anglophone book world’s bias against woman writers. The first three books chosen by members were all by men, from a shortlist of books mostly by men. It seems that our limited sampling of other languages’ literary cultures prioritises their male writers. The Book Club has already tried a couple months of nominating only women, to restore some balance, and it seems likely we’ll need to do this regularly in the future. It’s not hard to see why independent publishers And Other Stories and Tilted Axis Press have taken on novelist Kamila Shamsie’s challenge to make 2018 be the Year of Publishing Women.
The fact that most books in our first year have come out with independent publishers has been less of a surprise: editors at the major publishing houses, even those with a passion for foreign literature, are finding it very hard to get the backing of their sales departments for anything without a track record in bookshops.
We are the Translated Literature Book Club, not Translated Fiction, but it still took until March this year before we tackled anything other than a novel – Pushkin Press’s recent reissue of short stories by Russian writer Teffi. This September has been designated a non-fiction month and we will be discussing Valeria Luiselli’s urban essays Sidewalks, translated from Spanish by Christina McSweeney. It comes directly after the book chosen by Marta Dziurosz, Book Club member and the Free Word Centre’s Translator-in-Residence, who rounded off our first year by leading a discussion of Chasing the King of Hearts, Hanna Krall’s devastating real-life account of Izolda Regensberg’s quest to rescue her husband from Auschwitz, translated from Polish by Philip Boehm. Next year we will read a big, chunky novel, and at some point we’ll tackle some poetry too.
If you asked each member which their favourite title of the year was, almost every book would get a mention, but, by my recollection, there were two that stood out in particular: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Chasing the King of Hearts.
Not everything won us over: The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, was the one whose ‘magical virtual realism’, as one reviewer put it, stumped the majority. And with almost every book, we did find ourselves wondering how we might have reacted to the original, were we able to read it for ourselves.
But the joy of any book club is hearing the perspectives of one’s fellow members; it’s a little like re-reading a book several times, which of course, few of us ever do. It’s brought books alive that seemed opaque on first reading, perhaps helped us shed a few reading inhibitions and made us all determined to keep broadening our horizons. Who knows where we’ll end up during our second year?