Workshop 2: The Choreography of Translation

‌Our second public workshop explored the roles played by translators, agents, publishers and others in selecting a text for translation, publication and promotion abroad. It was held under the auspices of European Literature Night 2015 at the British Library Conference Centre, London, on May 13th 2015, with the kind support of the European Department at the British Library and the Czech Centre London

Our lead participants were Vladislav Bajac (Geopoetika, Belgrade), Susan Curtis-Kojakovic (Istros Books), Margaret Jull Costa (translator, Portuguese and Spanish literature) and Nicole Witt (Literary Agency Mertin, Frankfurt). We were also blessed with a very rich audience of emerging and established translators, publishers and other advocates for the literatures of smaller European nations.

During the discussion, we heard about the importance of grants in supporting the translation of smaller national literatures, the limitations of government-led publishing enterprises and the discrepancies in financial support and infrastructure provided by governments to those wishing to translate or publish works from their national literatures. Even in a period of austerity, Portugal and Slovenia emerged with particular credit from speakers' accounts.  We heard about the increasing unity and influence of independent publishers in the USA, and the difficulties facing less well known authors and literatures if they take on the approval processes at larger publishing houses, where many people have to be convinced.

It was noted that only crime fiction sells well in translation. Translator, agent and publisher must look above all for quality, higher, probably, than if the work were in, say, English or German. It is better - and often more feasible - to publish a smaller number of excellent books. The text should not be too topical, given the time it takes to produce a book, but at the same time speakers noted that no or negative news from a particular country suppresses curiosity about its literature. Speakers noted the need for exposure, notably through reviews, and the value of author visits and on-line interviews to build rapport with readers.

Several participants mentioned the recent report by Literature Across Frontiers, which revealed a steady growth in the absolute number of literary translations published in the UK over the past two decades, reaching 4-5% by 2012. While this figure still seems low, Nicole Witt noted that, while the figure in Europe is more like 12%, 65% of these translations are from English.We heard about the enduring dominance of English-language traditions, genres and styles, and the possible reluctance of readers to get used to different narrating traditions. The increasingly mobile, interconnected and multi-lingual world has, however, meant that literatures which historically suffered from a lack of good translators can now be heard.

Amid a general mood of cautious optimism and vigorous advocacy, concerns were raised, for example, about the availability in libraries of translated literature, the dominance of London as a location for the discussion and promotion of translated literature in the UK, the privileging of fiction over poetry and the absence of discussion of translated literature in schools.