My time on a translation funding panel

Villalobos

Since I finished my Year of Reading the World last December, I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a number of exciting opportunities and projects. The last few months have been no exception. Not only was I invited to record a piece about reading the world at BBC Broadcasting House for NPR in the states (you can hear the finished report through the link at the bottom of this post), but I was also asked to sit on English PEN’s PEN Translates panel for the second time.

If you’ve not come across it, PEN Translates is a funding programme run by the freedom of expression and literary network charity English PEN. It exists to help pay for the translation into English of works that deserve to reach a wider audience. Scores of books have received support from the fund since it was launched in 2012, including Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, who you can see pictured above at a signing (photo by Robert Burdock).

As it’s open to works in any language and from anywhere, the programme has to have a careful assessment process. First off, the publishers’ submissions and original versions of the proposed texts are read by people with in-depth knowledge of that region’s literature and language. These assessors prepare detailed reports in English, giving their reactions and explaining whether or not they support the application. The panel members (aka yours truly and six others) read these reports and formulate their own opinions. Then we get together and have a discussion that goes on for several hours.

It’s not easy. For one thing, it’s often very hard to make a judgement about how good a book is – or what sort of a job a publisher is likely to do with it – when you’ve never read a word of the story. As I discovered last year, books that don’t necessarily sound promising at first can often be hidden gems.

Then there’s the challenge of balancing all the rival considerations that affect a book’s chances: the quality of the writing, the diversity of applications, how well represented literature from that region is in the UK market, whether or not the work is too similar to other things in the bookshops, whether or not you (yes, you sitting there) are likely to want to read it and if you are, whether the story needs funding in the first place – to name but a few.

Amazingly, however, after several hours of discussion, we always seem to manage to reach a good solution. Luckily, because the panel is not required to grant the full amount requested, we have the freedom to make partial awards where it seems appropriate, which means we can make the money go a long way. In fact, at the last meeting, we managed to support some 17 books.

It’s inspiring and humbling to be involved and I’m proud to have the chance to play a small part in helping to bring some exciting new works into English. If you’re looking for Christmas present ideas, why not check out the supported titles on the PEN website? I’m told there is going to be an updated version soon, complete with books that dance!

Photo by Robert Burdock

An amazing month

Globe reader

It’s been an exciting time in the A Year of Reading the World camp over the past few weeks. First, BBC Culture asked me to write an article about the project (you can see it here, unless you’re in the UK, in which case you’ll have to paste the link into a proxy site such as anonymouse.org to access it). They even sent a photographer round to my flat to capture me with some of the books – I’d never realised how tough it is to smile continuously before!

When the article went live, a flood of visitors came pouring onto the blog and with it media requests from all over the world. This led to articles in newspapers in Denmark, Sweden, Serbia, Macedonia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and many other places besides, as well as approaches from radio stations in Australia, Ireland and the US. In fact, I’m still getting requests more than three weeks after the event.

If that wasn’t enough, some mysterious person then posted The List on Reddit and things got crazier still. More than 42,000 people piled through to this site in a single day, making my head spin. It was humbling to think that so many people could take an interest in what I’d been up to – and very exciting to know that the idea of reading world literature appeals to so many others.

In other news, the World Bookshop Challenge has got off to a good start with feedback from various sources in the UK and abroad (so far, it seems, you’re unlikely to find literature from more than 70 countries represented on the shelves of a single bookshop).

As ever, the world’s readers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help – and none more so than Paul in Waterstones Windsor. He not only counted up all the books from different countries in the shop, but also wrote a blog post about the feat and did a pie chart to represent his findings. He’s itching to tell someone about the shop’s Kyrgyz literature now, so if you’re passing through Windsor why not pop into Waterstones and make his day? (Apparently, he’s the one with the beard.)

However, Paul’s labour of love and my own foray into nearby Kirkdale Bookshop (which, the manager estimates, carries literature from 25–30 nations) have made me realise just what a tall order counting up the number of books from different countries can be in many shops. For one thing, most places don’t even demarcate books that way. You’ll find The White Tiger and Things Fall Apart rubbing shoulders with Rebecca and Cloud Atlas in the general fiction section – not to mention the international free-for-all that is the bestsellers list.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to modify the challenge slightly. Where counting is not possible, it’s more than OK to ask staff to give you a rough estimate. Though it won’t be exact, it will nevertheless provide an interesting insight. Of course, if you are as diligent as Paul, I’d love for you to hit me with your pie charts, but whatever you can find out would be great.

Thanks again for all your support. None of this would have happened without you.

Picture by Diane Cordell

HALFWAY APPEAL

So here we are: 98 books in and 98 books to go. Halfway round the world, exactly halfway through the year.

And what a journey it’s been so far. We’ve heard the North Korean government’s official line on fiction, sourced a manuscript of a classic novel unavailable in English from Mozambique and listened to a story written specially for the project from the world’s newest country South Sudan.

We’ve seen a Burundian novel published to ebook because of enthusiasm from blog readers, discovered the Andorran Dan Brown and had help from a Luxembourgish pop star to find a book from the world’s only grand duchy. We’ve even seen the world change slightly, with Palestine replacing Kosovo on the list.

The project’s been featured in two national newspapers, on UNESCO’s list of World Book Day initiatives and on countless other blogs around the globe, from Romania to South Korea.

None of this would have been possible without you. From the many people who’ve suggested books, helped with research and even gone to bookshops in far-flung places on my behalf, to the kind folk who comment on, like, tweet and share posts, making all the early mornings and late nights worthwhile, you have kept me going. Thank you.

But it’s not over yet. Not by a long chalk. And some of the biggest challenges lie ahead.

There are 25 countries that I have yet to find any books for. These are:

  • Brunei
  • Central African Republic
  • Comoros
  • Guinea Bissau
  • Honduras
  • Kiribati
  • Liechtenstein
  • Madagascar
  • Mauritania
  • Micronesia, Federated States of
  • Monaco
  • Mongolia
  • Myanmar
  • Niger
  • Palau
  • Panama
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Qatar
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  • San Marino
  • Sao Tome and Principe
  • Seychelles
  • Slovakia
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu

There are also plenty of other countries on the list that could do with some more recommendations.

So I’m asking you – yes, you, sitting there reading this now – to help me again. Please tweet/share/email/discuss/create expressive dance routines about this project. Please look at the list and see if there are any countries you might be able to help find novels, short story collections or memoirs from.

Maybe you have friends or relatives there? Maybe someone you work with does? Or someone whose restaurant you eat in? Or that nice man you sit next to sometimes on the bus*? Perhaps you’re going on holiday there this summer or you found a blog by someone from there recently?

However you do it and however tenuous the connections seem, I’d love to hear about them. Let’s see what we can find between us.

*Please be sure before you engage him in conversation that he really is a nice man.

Can you help me read the world?

In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it. I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 countries (yes, I count Taiwan) as I can, sampling one book from every nation.

I want to read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nepal, a book from Bolivia, a… well, you get the picture.

It’s going to be tough — according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tavalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where there may not be much written down at all.

Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.

And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?

Frankly I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.

What I do know is I can’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I tend to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric.

So I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. I hope to get as good a list together as possible in advance so I can hit the ground sprinting come New Year’s Day.

The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. All I ask is that they capture something of the character of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.

With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea.

Picture by Steve Lennon