New developments in translation
Sophie Lewis: Despite fears, literary translation is thriving
20 Nov 09

This is a guest post by Sophie Lewis

On Monday 16 November, the winners of 2009’s Times Stephen Spender prizes for poetry translation were warmly applauded at the annual ceremony of readings and prize-giving. As always, both the standard of translations and the range of languages and periods represented, living and dead, were impressive. Several of those commended in the open category confessed to a sense of awe at Johanna Reimann-Dubbers’ rendering of La Fontaine’s “The Cricket and the Ant”, which won the 14 and under category.

While the Spender Trust’s translation grants unfortunately remain on hold, the prize is now calling for submissions for 2010. All entries must be sent by post before 28 May and will be scrutinised by seasoned poets and translators Susan Bassnett, Edith Hall, Karen Leeder and George Szirtes. For more information on how to submit, see the trust’s website:

Another staple of the translation enthusiast’s calendar that usually occurs in mid-Autumn has been moved to January: the British Centre for Literary Translation-sponsored annual WG Sebald Lecture will now take place on 11th January, at Kings Place. The past year’s language-specific translation prizes will be awarded, winning extracts read and the cherry on top this time will be Will Self’s lecture on Sebald and the Holocaust. It should be worth the wait!

Translating is not all about prizes, of course; much of it consists of scarcely rewarded hard graft. See for example new publications from Dalkey Archive Press including the manual Translation in Practice, compiled from a seminar on best practice in the often fraught translator-editor relationship, and The Subversive Scribe, a classic text by celebrated feminist translator, Suzanne Jill Levine. January will see the UK launch of the Press’s biggest collaborative project yet: Best of European Fiction 2010, an anthology of stories from all over Europe and a unique showcase of the necessity and impact of translation in action.

In September, Modern Poetry in Translation magazine launched its latest issue, Freed Speech, fruit of a collaboration with Poet in the City, which brings poetry to new audiences, and Amnesty International. While including poetry by refugee and exile poets, and highlighting situations of torture and oppression, this is a remarkably positive, heart-lifting issue. A celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Freed Speech focuses on the triumph of the will to speak and the freeing of diverse tongues. Among the poets featured are Amit Chaudhuri, Seamus Heaney, Shazea Quraishi and Edith Södergran.

Outside the usual circles of literary translation, the Society of Young Publishers shows a new interest in the subject this season. The whole autumn issue of inPrint, the Society’s magazine, is devoted to publishing around the world and how UK publishers should be thinking globally. The stories are a mixed bag: while some in the industry detect a surge in UK publishers’ interest in translation, others see deteriorating prospects, for children’s literature at any rate. At least the topic is on the table.

English PEN continues its valuable support for translation through its Writers in Translation committee. This year, the four books selected for grants were translated from Lebanese Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Spanish and Polish. The committee is now receiving submissions for its next round of awards, while PEN-sponsored events throughout the year address translation from a variety of angles.

Big-name foreign writers recently appearing at the South Bank Centre include novelist Javier Marias, who is well-known in Spain for his translations of English classic authors including Laurence Sterne and Thomas Hardy. We can look forward to Orhan Pamuk’s spot at the South Bank earlyin 2010, as well as readings and debate around translation from obscurer parts of the world, on the occasion of the Dalkey Archive anthology’s launch.

Among the larger bookshops, Foyles and Daunts stand out for their determination actively to sell translated books. Foyles’s recent Ibero-American Literature Festival provided a particularly intense week of discussion, workshops and focused selling of a broad sweep of mostly hispanophone literature –– one of the few to rival the anglophone world in its wealth and depth. More praise is due to Foyles for its partnership with the free, London-based short fiction magazine Litro. Recent Litro issues have included collections of Spanish and Brazilian fiction and poetry, and a long-awaited Polish-themed issue is slated for the new year.

To end on the surprisingly upbeat note that seems to dominate talk of translation just now, it should be noted that Foyles aren’t the only ones whose festivals celebrate translation. A number of the UK’s biggest and oldest literary festivals, including the various Hay manifestations and the Edinburgh International Books Festival, have reaffirmed their commitment to inviting authors from all over the world. This, in a time of tighter belts and fears about flying, is heartening news.

Sophie Lewis is manager of the Europe office of Dalkey Archive Press