Blogcast: Final preparations

December 30, 2011

So this is it: less than 48 hours to go until the great adventure begins. The shelf is ready and the list is groaning with suggestions of books from more than 110 countries (just 86 or so left to find — let me know if you can help… or if you’ve got an idea for a better title than the ones on my list).

Already the first consignment of books is peering down at me as I type, ooh, and producer Chris Elcombe has put together this blogcast about the project…

With thanks to Steve Lennon for the shelf pic.

What counts as a story?

December 22, 2011

It seemed so simple: read one book from every country in the world in 2012. What could possibly be confusing about that?

But as soon as I started to plan the project in earnest, the questions started coming in. Was I including poetry? What about plays? And memoirs? Where did I stand on biographies? Did journalism count? Did the books have to be contemporary?

I realised I was going to have to define my terms a little more carefully.

A lot of the people I spoke to about this project felt that I should stick to prose fiction. This was my first instinct too. After all, novels, novellas and short stories are the main media for storytelling, aren’t they? Surely I should keep a level playing field between all countries by reading only one particular kind of book?

But as time went on, I got more and more recommendations for intriguing books that wouldn’t fit that mould and found myself getting frustrated. I heard of literary award-winning journalism that had led to bounties being placed on writers’ heads and biographies detailing extraordinary lives, and I wanted to read them.

There were also books that straddled several genres. Dr Ruth Martin, who recommended Elias Canetti’s autobiographical work The Torch in My Ear for Austria, for example, wrote in her comment that ‘the writing is wonderfully literary and he does “embellish” the truth a little’. One man’s memoir might just be another man’s fairytale…

I also realised that, while prose fiction may be fairly ubiquitous, it’s by no means native to every culture. In fact, in places where stories tend to be passed on verbally, narrative poems may be much truer reflections of literature there.

The question of contemporaneity also gave me a dilemma or two. Much like M Lynx Qualey, who very kindly wrote a blog post setting out her recommendations for Arabic literature in translation,  I was tempted to keep to recent texts. But when Dr Valerie Henitiuk of the British Centre for Literary Translation told me that her all-time favourite translation was Sonja Arntzen’s rendering of the 10th century Japanese Kagero Diary, there was no way I was going to bar it from the list.

So, after chewing it over for a while, I decided that I would count all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own. This means memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage are in and, with regret, non-narrative poetry and plays are out.

I also decided that while I would stick to mainly contemporary stories, I wanted to leave the door open for fantastic blasts from the past. The one condition is that the works have to have been created when the country was in existence in something like its modern-day form.

So if you know of an outstanding eighth century Swedish epic, or an intriguing narrative poem from Tuvalu, now’s your chance to tell the world (well, me, at least) about it. Keep the suggestions coming in – there are still quite a few gaps on that there list…

Some people say you should only read books in their original languages. This may be because they believe a particular text is inherently sacred – as in the case of the Quran – or because they are worried about bias and erroneous interpretations creeping in Chinese whispers-style when a third party gets between writer and reader. It can also be down to concerns about the difficulty of translating idioms, images and ideas that are specific to particular cultures (see writer Miguel Fernandes Ceia’s recent blog post for The Independent).

However there is often an element of snobbishness mixed up in this view too. Culture, we seem to think, shouldn’t come easy. It should be hard work and anything that threatens to make it more accessible is not quite cricket — a bit like someone refusing to have Brussel sprouts with their turkey on Christmas day.

There was definitely more than a hint of this in my mind when I started to think about my challenge to read a book from every country in 2012. Being able to read (slowly and with a very big dictionary) in French and German, I felt it was only right that I should take on stories from Francophone and German-speaking countries in their original languages. This would enable me to access the texts in their purest form (and allow me to show off how clever I am).

Then a kindly linguist pointed out that reading in other languages would miss the point. If this blog was about one person in London trying to access all of world literature, she said, it should stick to texts in the language that most Londoners can read: English.

After a bit of headscratching, I realised she was right. After all, if I truly believed that only reading done in the original language really counted then what was I doing trying to read my way around the world? Even with my impressive trilingualism (erhem), surely such a view would mean that I was only really able to access a very tiny percentage of what the world had to offer? And besides did I honestly believe that my schoolgirl French would provide a fuller, more meaningful reading experience than a translation researched and crafted by a professional linguist? 

In fact the more I thought about it, the more vital translation seemed to be to people around the world having a hope of understanding where others are coming from. And the more scandalous it seemed that even despite the excellent work of organisations such as the Society of Authors’ Translators AssociationEnglish PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation (all of which have already been hugely supportive of this project) translated texts only make up 3 per cent of published works in the UK each year. (In fact, as English PEN’s Emma Cleave told me, even the figure of 3 per cent, which is quoted in pretty much any article you read about literary translation, is probably exaggerated — no one’s sure where it originated, so if you’ve got any idea we’d all love to know!)

Then there’s the fact that, as more books are sold in English than in any other language (according to English PEN and Free Word’s Global Translation Initiative Report), we are putting writers in other languages at a huge disadvantage by failing to translate all but a handful of the great foreign language works out there — particularly when the works of English language writers are so widely translated. The excellent Cairo-based blogger M. Lynx Qualey (another valued supporter of this project) wrote eloquently on this subject recently for the Egypt Independent.

So the long and short of it is that I am embracing translation. I am reading only in English and I make no apologies for it. I want to hear about all the latest, best and most exciting translations and the quirky, little-known ones too. I don’t care if something has been through three or four languages to get to me; I don’t care if you’ve translated it and sent me the text yourself (in fact I’d love that). If a work’s good, then it’s better that it has a chance to reach as wide an audience as possible instead of staying forever closed off to millions of people.

Keep the suggestions of books coming in — this is getting exciting…

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