A passion for literary fiction in translation

During the fifteen years I worked for English PEN’s Writers in Prison committee, we campaigned on behalf of many writers whose work was not translated into English. We knew that they had written something to anger or intimidate the authorities but PEN would usually have only the relevant extracts translated. Of course, I always wanted to read more. One of the strangest cases was that of Elif Shafaq (who recently judged the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize). Shafak was charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her novel Baba ve Piç (which had been originally published in English as The Bastard of Istanbul). One of her characters referred to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres – a sensitive subject in Turkey. Shafak and her publisher argued that the book was a work of fiction and therefore not appropriate for prosecution. Shafaq was acquitted in September 2006.

Almost seventy years earlier, in 1937, PEN had campaigned on behalf of Arthur Koestler who had been arrested by Franco’s forces while reporting on the Spanish Civil War and was threatened with execution. A petition was sent to General Franco appealing for Koestler’s release, signed by forty PEN members including EM Forster and Aldous Huxley. This early campaign for a writer in prison proved successful and Koestler was released. Later he wrote to PEN:  ‘I am fully aware that it was no personal merit of my own, but in the deeper interests of freedom of expression of opinion, which is the life-blood of democracy and humanity that this help is given. That a free public opinion should have thus proved so strong, is as much to me as my own personal liberty.’ Later, in Paris, Koestler was arrested again, and lost the German manuscript of his novel, Darkness at Noon. Fortunately, an English translation had been mailed to London a few days before, which literally saved the book from being lost forever. The English version was published in December 1940.[1]

The PEN charter proclaims: literature knows no frontiers’. In 2007, I had the pleasure of editing the PEN anthology, Another Sky, which covered forty years of our work with persecuted writers. We commissioned a number of new translations including, from Spanish, two Cuban poets Angel Cuadra and Yndamiro Restano, Peruvian journalist Augusto Ernesto Llosa Giraldo and the Mexican novelist and human rights activist Jose Revueltas.

My time at PEN made me curious about foreign writers and in particular, literary fiction in translation. I was hungry to read and discover more. Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish traveller-reporter, neatly sums up my own feelings about why foreign fiction is important when he writes of travel: ‘these other worlds, these other cultures, are mirrors on which we can see ourselves, thanks to which we understand ourselves better – for we cannot define our own identity until having confronted that of others, as comparison’. [2]

Shortly after I left PEN, I lived briefly in Mexico from 2009 to 2010. I began reading voraciously about the country and immersed myself in the work of classic Mexican authors such as Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo and contemporary authors published in English translation such as Enrique Serna, Eloy Urroz and Jorge Volpi. The latter is a leading light in his own country and to my mind is as thrilling a discovery as Chilean Roberto Bolaño. Born in 1968, Volpi is a founding member of the Crack Movement – a literary group that endorses the complexity of plot and style employed by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Volpi is a master of the historical thriller and effortlessly blends an acute analysis of political events into his fiction. It’s hard to believe that Volpi has had only one novel, In Search of Klingsor (translated by Kristina Cordero) published in the UK (Fourth Estate, 2003).

In fact, relatively few contemporary Mexican authors are known in the UK. Laura Esquivel’s homage to Mexican cooking, Like Water for Chocolate, (translated by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) became a bestseller only after it was made into a successful film in 1992 by Alfonso Arau. Thankfully, this looks set to change. Fernando del Paso’s mammoth News from the Empire (translated by Stella T. Clark, Alfonso González) about the French conquest of Mexico and Emperor Maximilian’ s troubled reign was published by Dalkey Archive in 2009. More recently, And Other Stories saw their English language version of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole (translated by Rosalind Harvey), a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland – where absurd wishes are granted, giant cats are fed human corpses, and corrupt politicians come to lunch – nominated for the Guardian First Book Award 2011.

When I returned to England, I become acquainted with Peirene Press who publish European literature of distinction in English translation. Their books are beautifully designed paperbacks and are always less than 200 pages “so you can read them in the same time it takes to watch a movie”. The first title I read was Maria Barbal’s poignant novella, Stone in a Landslide, about rural hardship in Catalonia at the beginning of the 20th century. It is considered a Catalan classic but before it was translated into English, by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell, Barbal was unknown over here.

Granta Magazine gave younger writers a huge boost in 2010 when it published its wonderful anthology The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. Apart from the mainstream publishers of prominent authors such as Javier Cercas, Javier Marías and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, it is mainly the smaller, independent presses who are introducing Spanish language authors to these shores. Thanks to them, in recent years I have become acquainted with many new Spanish language novelists whose books have been translated into English for the fist time. The most memorable include Peruvian Santiago Roncagliolo who, together with his English translator, Edith Grossman, won the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) for his political thriller Red April published by Atlantic Books; Chilean Carla Guelfenbein and her tender love story, The Rest is Silence, translated by Katherine Silver and published by Portobello Books; Horacio Castellanos Moya’s meditation on post-civil-war San Salvador, The She-Devil in the Mirror, translated by Katherine Silver and published by Alma Books; and Colombian Evelio Rosero, whose novel The Armies (translated by Anne McLean and published by Maclehose Press) won the 2009 IFFP.

There have been a spate of Argentinean writers published over here in the past two years alone: Marcelo Figueras and his brilliant coming of age novel set during Argentina’s Dirty War, Kamchatka, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Atlantic Books;  Carlos Gamerro, also writes poignantly about Argentina’s brutal past in An Open Secret, translated by Ian Barnett and published by Pushkin Books; Matías Néspolo’s assured debut novel, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat, set against Argentina’s financial collapse of 2001, translated by Frank Wynne and published by Harvill Secker; Iosi Havilio and his beguiling debut novel, Open Door, about an open-door institution for the mentally ill, translated by Beth Fowler and published by And Other Stories; and Andres Neuman’s magnificent Traveller of the Century (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia and published by Pushkin Books), this year’s joint runners-up at the IFFP.

Why these books remain uppermost in my mind is because so few foreign writers are being translated into English. At International Translation Day 2012, Alexandra Buchler from Literature Across Frontiers, announced that translation makes up only 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK, compared with 24% in Spain and 15% in France. This is slighter better than the 3% generally cited for the US but is still woefully low. However, many consider this small increase an indicator of change and some credit for this must go to initiatives like New Spanish Books.

I was delighted to be invited to be part of New Spanish Books’ 2013 panel of literary professionals and trade experts. We met only twice but whittled down over 120 fiction titles to just seventeen and then chose a final eight. Most of these were clear shortlist material and there were few disagreements. We tried to include a range of subjects from Betina González’s coming of age novel, Las poseídas and Isabel Camblor’s psychologically complex Memoria de la inocente niña homicidato to Alan Pauls’ topical Historia del dinero about an Argentinean family’s relationship to money as well as a mix of genres from Catalan master Pere Calders’ short stories Croniques de la veritat oculta to Felix G Modrono’s historical drama, La ciudad de los ojos grises. We also considered whether the works bring something different to what is being published here already.

Hopefully, these titles will be snapped up by UK publishers. Given the globalised society in which we now live, there are ever more pressing reasons to read literary fiction in translation, in order to explore and better understand “these other worlds, these other cultures”.

[1] Scammell, M. ‘Dialogue with Darkness’ from Index on Censorship, Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee, Vol 39, No 4. 2010

[2]  Kapuściński, R. Travels with Herodotus, Penguin Books, 2007

Originally published by New Spanish Books