Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations

Translators and scholars discuss stereotyping, globalization, and small sales in English-language literary markets.

Last September, three British universities—Bristol, Cardiff and UCL London—launched a two-year-long project on “Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations” in partnership with Literature Across Frontiers. The purpose was to “understand better the ways in which, through translation, these literatures endeavour to reach the cultural mainstream.” In addition to scholarly research, the project involves three public workshops and a conference.

The first of these workshops, held in February 2015 in Bath, explored the question of “Who Reads the Literatures of Small Nations and Why?”.  I had the pleasure of attending the second workshop, “Choreography of Translation,” which took place at the British Library in London as part of the European Literature Night in April 2015 (a third and final workshop, on promoting literature in translation, is planned for early 2016). Featuring publishers Vladislav Bajac of Geopoetika in Belgrade, Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, founder of Istros Books, translator (and Asymptote Close Approximations nonfiction judge!) Margaret Jull Costa, and Nicole Witt of the Frankfurt Literary Agency Mertin, the BL event ended up being more panel discussion than workshop, partly because the venue was not particularly conducive to the workshop format.

By contrast, a conference at Bristol University on September 9-10 provided many opportunities for lively discussions. The participants were a perfect mix of literature and translation studies scholars and practising translators from across Europe, covering a range of smaller European literatures from Catalan to Turkish. I’ll try to highlight some of the major issues covered, divided into often overlapping categories.

Worlding, Globalization, Europeanization

The conference opened with Marko Juvan’s paper on the “worlding” of peripheral classics, using the example of English translations of the Slovenian classic France Prešeren, a Romantic poet whose singular voice may have been “drowned in universality.” He suggested that the pull of English may be complicit in the globalization of literature, helping to create a bland single literary culture. On a similar note, Paschalis Nikolaou pointed out the unprecedented rate of re-translation of Greek poet C. P. Cavafy that has resulted in the emergence of a ‘globalized’ Cavafy. Gunilla Hermansson and Yvonne Leffler presented the preliminary findings of a project on the export of Swedish women writers in the nineteenth century including the “ghostlike international dissemination” of Julia Nyberg (pseudonym Euphrosyne). Hilariously, this writer has been cited by authors all over Europe, even though there is no evidence of her work having been translated into other languages.


Self-translation and Re-translation

The rich theme of self-translation was explored by Glasgow-based Maltese writer and lecturer Josianne Mamo; Olga Castro analyzed various strategies employed by Galician authors who translate their own works into Spanish; and Josefina Komporaly introduced Matéi Vishniec, a Romanian-born playwright living in Paris who now writes in French and self-translates his plays into Romanian. Discussing the mechanics behind re-translation and domestication, Liz Wren-Owens contended that Tim Parks’s new translations of Antonio Tabucchi make his work seem part of an Anglophone—or global—canon, deracinated from the Italian tradition. Sule Demirkol-Ertürk examined the circulation and reception of two English translations of the seminal Turkish novel The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The first English translation, published by a small press in the U.S., suffered from limited distribution and promotion, whereas the more recent translation by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe has reached a much wider audience and received more reviews, partly thanks to the translators’ higher profile. And clearly you can’t go wrong with dropping a famous name: Orhan Pamuk crops up three times in the first paragraph of Pankaj Mishra’s introduction.


Support, Promotion, Dissemination

Several speakers offered insights into various kinds of institutional support provided by smaller European countries in promoting their literatures abroad. Richard Mansell analyzed the incentives available to encourage translation from Catalan—most notably the publicly-funded Institut Ramon Llull—and how these are used by English-language publishers. The question is whether the money and energy poured into promoting English translations by smaller European nations have any effect on readership? I wondered, for example, how many Anglophone readers could name a single author from Slovenia, even though—as Olivia Hellewell reported—this country of 2 million residents published more translated works than any other EU country between 2008 and 2010 (247 works of Slovenian literature appeared in English since 1991 alone). However, some writers eschew this institutional support and develop their own strategies. Novelist Miha Mazzini, for example, believes it is more important to reach a wide readership than to be seen as a specifically Slovene author; he actively disguises his work as having been written in English, sending his books to Anglophone publishers already translated.


The Individual and the Battle Against Stereotypes

Ivana Hostová has painstakingly collected the rather scanty data on English translations of Slovak poetry. She pointed out that what gets translated is very much down to individuals and, refreshingly, dared to note that the choice of authors who get translated is often determined by access to institutional funding rather than the quality of their work. Uroš Tomić and Milan Miljković presented a case study on the editorial practices of Istros Books and Geopolitika, two publishers specializing in South Slavic literatures. “But you do misery so well!” is how Antonija Primorac summed up the way reception of Croatian literature is affected by cultural stereotypes. Meanwhile translator Ursula Phillips has been waging her personal battle against stereotypes: in this case the notion that Polish literature reflects the long history of the nation’s suffering and indeed martyrdom. Her personal quest is to prove that Polish writing is universal by bringing more nineteenth- and early twentieth-century classics, especially by women, to English readers.

Ursula Phillips also happens to be this year’s recipient of the Found in Translation prize for her translation of Choucas by Zofia Nałkowska, published in 2014 by Northern Illinois University Press. The prize was presented on October 2 during International Translation Day in London (another outstanding event—see Kristen Behrman’s blog) at the beginning of what turned out to be a great weekend for Polish translation, with the announcement that Marta Dziurosz has been chosen as the 2015-2016 Translator-in-Residence at London’s Free Word Centre and that Asymptote contributor Tuesday Bhambry had won the 2015 Harvill Secker Young Translators‘ Prize for her version of Maciej Miłkowski’s short story, “The Tattoo.”

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Photo by Elzbieta Piekacz, courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute in London.


Julia Sherwood is Asymptote‘s editor-at-large for Slovakia. She was born and grew up in Bratislava, which was then Czechoslovakia. She studied English and Slavonic languages and literature at universities in Cologne, London, and Munich. She spent more than twenty years working for Amnesty International in London and has since 2008 worked as a freelance translator, dividing her time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London.