On December 5 and 6, eight European authors, one translator, one publisher, and three leading American authors and critics gathered at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York for the 11th annual New Literature from Europe festival. For those anxious about the appeal of foreign literature to American audiences, the packed houses at the ACFNY were hopefully a reassuring sight.
NLE this year featured writing from nine countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, and—for the first time at NLE—Bulgaria. This year’s theme, Crossing Borders: Europe Through the Lens of Time, reflected two aspects of this year’s writing. First was its trans-national character: many of the authors were writing about, or writing in, countries other than their nations of birth. Second was the theme of time—many of the writers dealt with European 20th century history directly, but each of the books featuring the past had a way of reaching into the present and remaining a vital, active force.
Friday night was an evening of bilingual readings from all the authors, kicked off by a keynote address by Barbara Epler, president of New Directions. Epler has been instrumental in bringing foreign literature to American readers for many years, not least the great Roberto Bolaño. She made a strong case for the importance and relevance of literature in translation, projecting behind her portraits of some of the most famous names in literary translation—putting a face to these too-often faceless artists. The readings themselves were enthralling and diverse, with each author reading in their native language and the English translation projected behind them, while translator Philip Boehm, representing Polish author Hanna Krall, read from his award-winning translation of her book Chasing the King of Hearts with Krall’s words projected behind.
Saturday saw three panel discussions hosted by the award-winning American authors and critics. In “Love in a Time of War,” Boehm, Germany’s Nicol Ljubić (The Stillness of the Sea) and Austria’s Susanne Scholl (Emma’s Silence) talked to Lorraine Adams about the freedom literature offers to explore war and violence. In “True Grit—Beating the Odds,” Hungary’s János Háy (The Kid), France’s Julia Deck (Viviane), and Italy’s Davide Longo (The Last Man Standing) talked with Ian Buruma about happy and unhappy endings and how their personal stories shaped their characters. Finally, Siri Hustvedt kicked off “Buried Secrets” with a barnstorming speech on the role of literature in uncovering society’s own buried secrets. The panel—the Czech Republic’s Magdaléna Platzová (Aaron’s Leap), Bulgaria’s Georgi Tenev (Party Headquarters), and Romania’s Lucian Dan Teodorovici (Matei the Brown)—talked about the influence of their countries’ Communist history on their own writing.
Saturday wrapped up with the presentation of the Polish government’s annual Found in Translation Award to Philip Boehm, for the translation of Chasing the King of Hearts he’d read from the previous evening. The award, which includes a $3,000 cash prize and a three-month residency in Kraków, was presented by the Director of the Polish Book Institute, Grzegorz Gauden, and the Acting Director of the Polish Cultural Institute New York, Bartek Remisko.
The great thing about New Literature from Europe is that in bringing together such a range of writers from different countries and with different voices, it just underlines how much European literature shares. The chemistry onstage Friday and Saturday was remarkable, and the moderators drew on their own experience and expertise, making for fascinating and engaging discussions all around. We were also lucky to have an engaged audience of people passionate about literature in translation—but also just interested in hearing about some great books.
Sean Bye is head of Humanities programming at the Polish Cultural Institute New York. His translations of Polish fiction, drama and reportage have been published in magazines and journals such as Words Without Borders, Continents, and In Other Words, and his essays and commentary on literary translation have appeared in The Mantle, Translation Ireland, and others. He is an artistic director of the London-based radio theater company Invisible Theater, for which he regularly acts, produces and translates.
The New Literature from Europe Festival 2014 was co-presented by the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Czech Center, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the Goethe Institute, the Balassi Institute, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Polish Cultural Institute New York, and the Romanian Cultural Institute New York. It was produced by 20 Square Feet. See the NLE website here for the full program, and follow them on twitter @NewLitEurope. And keep an eye out for updates for next year’s festival!