Ros Schwartz: ‘Bibliodiversity’ and the rise of translation
Ros Schwartz, outgoing chair of English PEN’s Writers in Translation committee, reviews a decade of great work in translation and looks forward to even more ‘bibliodiversity’
Funded by Bloomberg and launched in 2004, PEN’s Writers in Translation programme has supported the promotion of 82 translated books from over 20 languages – from Albanian and Burmese to Tamil and Turkmen. The coveted ‘Winner of a PEN Award’ stamp has become a byword for quality, and translation prize shortlists are studded with PEN-selected titles. Thanks to the success of this programme, in 2012 the Arts Council of England invited English PEN to apply for further funding. Our bid was successful and PEN Translates, a new programme supporting translation costs, was born. We are about to embark on the fourth round of this grant, and once more we are impressed by the diversity and quality of the applications.
So while the past decade has been one of doom and gloom for publishing in general, it has seen the publication of a growing volume of superb international literature, with the overall proportion of translated books reported to have risen from 3% to 4.5%.
Things have changed at the coalface too. Recent years have witnessed the emergence of a strong and vibrant translation community with the main professional organisations – the British Centre for Literary Translation, English PEN, Literature Across Frontiers, and a reinvigorated Translators Association – all working closely together. The Free Word Centre, which opened in 2009 and hosted the first International Translation Day, has become a real hub, particularly since the introduction of its translator residencies.
As well as instigating peer training initiatives – the BCLT summer school, London summer schools at Birkbeck University and City University, workshops at the Society of Authors and the expanding mentoring scheme spearheaded by the BCLT and funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation – the translation profession is involved in partnerships with a host of national organisations including the Arts Council of England, the British Council, the British Library, book festivals, libraries and reading groups, the London Review of Books with its translation master classes, the South Bank Centre, the European Literature Network and the Eastside Educational and Stephen Spender Trust with Translation Nation putting translators in schools, and now Foyles.
Translators are increasingly active and visible, and translation events have become crowd-pullers: the translation strand at the Edinburgh Book Festival programme now sells over 800 tickets.
At the London Book Fair, the Literary Translation Centre, launched in 2010, has become a major draw, garnering huge audiences, along with the PEN Literary Salon which also turns the spotlight on international writers.
Today there is an influx of emerging translators bringing fresh energy and ideas to the scene, encouraged by the BCLT’s mentoring programme, the Harvill Secker Young Translators prize, now in its fifth year, the Free Word Centre’s Translators in Residence programme, and International Translation Day itself, also in its fifth year, which attracts newcomers to the profession. And the Emerging Translators Network, started by one of the first Free Word Centre Translators in Residence, Rosalind Harvey, brings together and nurtures this new talent.
Over the past decade, the concentration of both publishing and bookselling plus the rise of online retailers has made it very tough for publishers of quality literary works. But even so, a number of independent niche publishers passionate about translated literature have appeared, including Peirene Press and the translator-led And Other Stories. They have devised innovative models (subscription, literary salons, selecting titles in consultation with specialist readers’ groups – both physical and virtual), creating a community around them, and their books are prominent in the translation prize shortlists. Publishers and translators are working closely together to produce and promote translations of the highest quality. And there have been some notable blockbusters, often unforeseen, giving the lie to the myth that translated books don’t sell. I’m not just talking about Scandinavian crime fiction: currently topping the charts is Harvard University Press’s best-ever selling book: the 700-page Capital in the 21st Century by French economist Thomas Picketty.
Faced with the general decline in book sales, it is an ongoing challenge to come up with creative ways of developing audiences. I hope that with the support of funding from English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme, and from the new EU Creative Europe Programme, publishers will carry on seeking out world-class works of foreign literature and harnessing translators’ passion, creativity and energy in the effort to reach out to new audiences.
I am stepping down after six years as chair of Writers in Translation. It has been an enormous privilege and pleasure to be involved in this programme, so ably managed by Emma Cleave, and to work with so many passionate writers, translators, publishers, agents and booksellers in selecting the award-winning titles. I know that under Samantha Schnee, the new chair of Writers in Translation, the programme will continue to flourish.
My hope for the future is that we’ll find a way of supporting the translation of writers living in exile within our own community – Uzbek, Kurdish, Farsi and others whose works are unpublished in their own countries and who have no outlet for their writing.
About the author
With over 60 titles to her name, Ros Schwartz has translated a wide range of Francophone fiction and non-fiction authors including Dominique Manotti (whose Lorraine Connection (Arcadia) won the 2008 International Dagger Award), and Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé, whose Kite (Seagull Books), was longlisted for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award in the USA. In 2010 she published a new translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, shortlisted for the Marsh children’s book award and she is currently involved in translating a number of Maigret titles for Penguin Classics new Simenon edition. Her translation of Dominique Eddé’s Kamal Jann, winner of a PEN Promotes award, will be published in June.
Ros frequently publishes articles and gives workshops and talks on literary translation around the world. She is co-organiser of a 2014 translation summer school in association with City University, London. In 2009 she was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to literature.