Smaller European literatures don’t necessarily come from geographically or numerically small nations, but they are generally clustered in what for, say, English, French, or German readers, are European peripheries like the Balkans, the Baltic, Central and Eastern Europe, the Low Countries, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia. They are written in less widely spoken languages, come from less familiar traditions and depend on translation to reach an international audience. A project called ‘Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, aimed to understand both the challenges and opportunities that exist for these literatures as they try to break into the cultural mainstream in the UK, and in June 2017 we finally published a report on our findings.
Our project brought together four academics from the UK who promote very different smaller literatures―not only through their teaching and research, but also through various kinds of public engagement and publisher collaboration: I work on Czech and Slovak at Bristol, Rhian Atkin on Portuguese at Cardiff, Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen on Scandinavian and Zoran Milutinović on South Slav at UCL. We sensed that we work quite similarly, in parallel or even in competition, without much opportunity to discuss how our smaller literatures perceive and promote themselves internationally and how they are received by readers. We suspected that this parallel, competitive experience applied more generally to other professional advocates of smaller European literatures, whether translators, publishers, literary agents or state and third-sector promoters.
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.