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You Say Tomato, I say Tomaat

Gentle Reader,

I returned to the Salon Weltempfang, Centre for Politics, Literature and Translation, over in Hall 5, for a panel discussion called “Travel Agencies for Literature: International Cooperation Between Translation Funding Organizations.” In addition to Paul Beukenhout from the Netherlands and Jurgen-Jakub Becker from Berlin, our own Ira Silverberg from the NEA was chatting about European organizations funding literature. The panel was moderated by Barbel Becker and Bas Pauw and put together with the cooperation of the Nederlands Letterenfonds Dutch Foundation for Literature.

The panel was a third-time gathering like this at the Bookfair. It’s something new to have the US as part of the group here, and thanks to Ira for that. The NEA provides grants for translators, which is remarkable, and they have an impressive track record of funded translators who then find publishers for their work. Ira is here at Frankfurt increasing the possibility of funded translators not only finding publishers, but finding additional money for the publisher to bring their work forth as well.

Ira Silverberg (right) adding an American voice to the European Congress on Translation.

The panel largely addressed a just-published report on translation and spoke about the goals of the “New Conditions for Literary Translation in Europe.” This project is called PETRA (an acronym for their platform for literary translation in Europe). It aims to bring together various stakeholders in the field of literary translation, starting with translators and their organizations, and also reaching out to those in education and training, and in publishing in various roles (agents, publishers, etc.). It largely looks to promote the work of literary translators, and as an ultimate goal, “to set in motion beneficial changes in the world” by doing so. The recommendations are the result of a congress that met in Brussels last year that included 150 representatives from this world from across Europe. There were many discussions and the results are the recommendations made in the study. The study will be disseminated throughout Europe through many co-organizers. There are also associated partners and contract partners to widen the web of dissemination in various European countries.

The PETRA study is addressed to national authorities in each country to affect change in literary translation. Publishers and festival organizers are also being addressed with visibility being a primary theme, so largely it’s an awareness process and an image/status campaign for translation and translators.

The goal is for the platform to be a permanent platform, but it’s not yet known if it will/can be. Visibility is one theme; others are Education & Training, Marketing, and Copyright. They are now focusing on education & training organizations and the next congress will likely meet on this theme.

One of the chapters addresses the cultural role and visibility of the translator, and the paradox that translators face: they work to be invisible in the text itself, but this very invisibility gets translators into trouble as it weakens their cultural and economic position. The report gives ideas about how to deal with this invisibility. Placement of the translator’s name on book covers, getting translators active on literary stages at festivals, and the education of literary critics in not only mentioning the translator, but reviewing the translator, are a few of the recommendations. The problem with recommendations of course is that they can easily be ignored, so how to actually have them happen remains the biggest challenge.

The study also addresses the issue of getting readers to know that though a book should read like the original — not feel “like a translation” — that the translator should be known as a second author. So, how to address this problem?: for one thing, they believe it needs to start in schools and students need to have classes working with literary translators on the books they have translated to understand how a translation is really produced.

Literary criticism is also key and addressing the issue with critics is tough. Critics tend to agree with the issues, but then do nothing about the problem, saying it takes too much time to focus on the translation as well, or don’t have space for it, etc. The solution largely is that translators themselves need to be the most active in generating ideas to being visible on festival stages and in making themselves visible in reviews by supplying things of interest for the critics to write about.

How to get publishers involved? Recent trends in the book market make establishing the role of the translator even harder, but translators are not interested in fighting with publishers, nor fighting against current translation support programs. The consortium believes that, toward a solution, “it’s not enough to support the press to support translation — the translator must be seen as part of the program as well.”

The group then moved the discussion over to Ira. It historically has been a European group, but now this group may have a US presence through Ira’s presence at the NEA and interest. Things are very different institutionally in the US of course, and Ira spoke about nonprofit publishers being a unique kind of publisher, and that working with them is seen as charity work in the US, which is to say, things are a lot different in Europe. The Literature department of the NEA supports translation and Ira talked a bit about having left commercial publishing and how his new post allows him to support what he loves most in the field right now. Ira was asked about the NEA’S “small and simple” program and how it focuses on projects — and in publishing, on small, non-profit presses.

Ira mentioned Dalkey Archive, Archipelago and Open Letter as translation small presses supported enthusiastically by the NEA. He also mentioned support service organizations, like CLMP and SPD, that also through their work support access to translation, and of course literary magazines, who also make much translation available. Ira is here at Frankfurt partly to meet with these non-US funders of translators, who may be able to partner with the NEA’s translation fellowship recipients to see that their work is brought to press. 70% of translators over the past 10 years have had their work published. They also feel at the NEA that focusing attention on small presses will give these works a better chance of being published.

Many people in Europe know very little, if at all, about the NEA’s translation efforts, so being here at Frankfurt provides extremely important contacts in both directions. In the case of the The Netherlands, for example, and in many other countries, the arts are facing cutbacks in government funding. The American model of supporting the arts through private gifts and sponsorships is being looked at in Europe as a solution. Ira suggested that the essential difference from the US has to do with what “nonprofit” means in the US in terms of tax deductions. The NEA is in fact a relatively tiny organization compared to other government organizations — about 130 million dollars, with 40% going directly to the States — the Literature department is giving away, relatively, very small amounts of money and they are really the only national funder giving to literature in all of the areas that they do. The NEA itself is also always threatened for political reasons. There may be more sponsorship of certain kinds of art from the corporate sector than their may be in Europe, but very little has gone to literature.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if Ira’s zeal for attracting a European spotlight on some of the NEA’s literary activities drew the kind of positive attention to the NEA that everyone can be happy about.