Translation is no longer marginalised as it once was, with its advocates being viewed as quirky oddballs lacking commercial sense and sensibility. The number of independent presses publishing translated literature in the UK has greatly increased in the past decade, often set up by people with a corporate publishing or banking background who are astute operators. Booksellers are far less curmudgeonly than they once were. And somewhat unexpectedly, in 2015, Amazon Crossing published three times more translated fiction in the US than its closest competitors in America (FSG, which has a long tradition of publishing works in translation, and Atria, which mostly publishes books by celebrities).
The imprints of conglomerate publishers in the UK who publish works in translation – MacLehose Press, Harvill Secker, Sceptre, Vintage, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Penguin Press – publish predominantly though not exclusively the sub-genre of crime fiction in translation, leaving the field open for the likes of Alma Books, And Other Stories, Arc, Carcanet, Comma Press, Dedalus, Fitzcarraldo, Les Fugitives, Gallic, Granta, Hesperus, Istros, Jantar, Norvik Press, Peirene Press, Portobello Books, Pushkin Press, Saqi Books, Scribe UK, Small Axes, and others, to publish experimental and literary translation.
In the report by Alexandra Büchler and Giulia Trentacosti published online by Literature Across Frontiers, it is heartening to read that since 2000 there has been a consistent increase in the number of titles in translation published year on year, with the percentage of literary translations coming out in the UK rising from 3% to 7%. Technological advances have helped fuel the growth and foster awareness of translated literature, with social media, book review sites, online reading groups and bloggers giving a viral spin to ‘word-of-mouth’ recommendations.
But there remains in ingrained mistrust of “foreign” literature in Britain: an attitude typified by the Prime Minister who is disliked in many global capitals, understandably so — during the 2016 referendum campaign he compared the EU to Adolf Hitler; and as a newspaper columnist he offended world leaders Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He recently faced a backlash for making a U-turn on his promise to hold an independent inquiry into Islamophobia.
A positive counterblast to such toxicity would be for translation to get on to school curricula. And for sales of translated literature to continue rising, since translation combats the negative consequences of insularity and isolation that fuel one-dimensional abstractions and fear-based thinking. It links us to the world beyond our borders, helping us to get a better understanding of another culture through a new and different pair of eyes to one’s own.
Translation increases and improves our ability to listen, to learn, to evolve, and to connect with people of all linguistic and cultural traditions expressing alternative viewpoints. Translation exposes the commonality of human experience, as readers experience world events through different eyes, which fosters empathy and understanding.
The 2019 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation
Literary prizes do not only boost sales and help browsers to choose what to read in their local bookshop – they help to raise the translator’s profile. Since 2016, the annual Man Booker International has split the £50,000 prize money between author and translator.
Boyd Tonkin, its Special Advisor from 2016 to 2019, is one of the three judges of The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Established in 2017, the award aims to “address the gender imbalance in translated literature and to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by a British and Irish readership”.
The winner of this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was announced during an evening ceremony in the offices of the Warwick Business School on the thirteenth floor of The Shard, the spectacular eighty-seven-storey skyscraper in Southwark designed by Italian architect, Renzo Piano.
Last year the prize was awarded to the novel Belladonna (Maclehose Press) by the late Daša Drndić and translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth. The inaugural prize was awarded to Memoirs of a Polar Bear (Portobello Books, 2017) by Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada and translated from German by Susan Bernofsky.
Six titles were shortlisted this year out of a total of ninety-two eligible entries. There was a “rich discussion and evocation” of the shortlisted books at the awards ceremony. Extracts were read in the English translation and in the original language before the prize winner was announced. The summing up by Boyd Tonkin serves as a kind of literary pot-pourri, giving a taste of all six books that are perfect for winter reading by the fire.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated from French by Tina Kover (Europa Editions, 2018). “A debut novel which overturns every possible cliché of exile literature, it is comic exuberant, subversive and deeply mischievous, but at the same time there is the undertow of tragedy, of sadness, of loss.” — Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin, Susan Bassnett (The Judges)
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tocarczuk (the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature), translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). “There is an extraordinary mixture here of the murder mystery, of the ecological fantasy, the social satire, a lyrical tragedy, all couched in prose which is delightfully converted not just into a rich English, but an immensely entertaining, multi-faceted English. Sardonic humour and gothic plot-twists add a layer of macabre rustic comedy.” — Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin, Susan Bassnett (The Judges)
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó, translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (Maclehose Press, 2019). “A lyrical novel, a tragic novel. The story of a family and of a country a novel that embraces the personal and political with an extraordinary delicacy and a great elegiac quality.” — Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin, Susan Bassnett (The Judges)
Negative of a Group Photograph by Azita Ghahreman, translated from Farsi by Maura Dooley with Elhum Shakerifar (Bloodaxe and The Poetry Translation Centre, 2018). “These poems are a wonderful mixture of the bodily, the earthy and the transcendent, the metaphysical; they have lyricism and a sense of elegy and a wonderful sense of defiance.” — Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin, Susan Bassnett (The Judges)
People in the Room by Norah Lange, translated from Spanish by Charlotte Whittle (And Other Stories, 2018). “A wonderfully eloquent translation, a real discovery for me. An eerie novel and a really uncanny story in a poised, expert prose which draws us into an atmosphere of dread, uncertainty, expectation, a vision of female confinement and also a fictional maze.” — Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin, Susan Bassnett (The Judges)
The Years by Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), “Not just multi layered but a remarkably intimate translation. It is a hugely ambitions book, one in which the voice has to draw us in and keep us engaged. It is the story of woman, a nation and of an age. It moves from politics to sex, from shopping to family. It’s a secret history that becomes a shared history, a book in which the body enters collective life and the personal infects the political on every possible plane of language, of emotion, of ideas.” — Amanda Hopkinson, Boyd Tonkin, Susan Bassnett (The Judges)
Many moons ago I was lucky enough to work with the visionary editorial director of Quartet Books, Stephen Pickles, to whom many of the well-established names of literature in translation of today owe their first break.
Looking after the French list, I worked particularly closely with a group of superb, idiosyncratic translators, the late Tanya Leslie among them. We’d spend hours on the phone discussing the nuances of a word, a sentence, the title . . . as we revised her translations of A Woman’s Story, Positions and Passion Perfect by Annie Ernaux (still available from their US publisher, Seven Stories Press).
So when The Years, translated by Alison L. Strayer, was announced as the winner of this year’s Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, I was touched and delighted that Annie Ernaux is well-published now, and receiving the proper recognition she so deserves in the UK.
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