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On the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist

By Georgia de Chamberet

Real food to enrich the intellect and the soul, or fast food publishing: which will survive in hard times? As the economic downturn hits home it makes sense to publish fewer, well-written books rather than splash out the cash on the latest "sensational" celebrity memoir. Clever companies perceive not just threats in a recession, but also opportunities. The British literary marketplace may be prejudiced against writing in translation, but to pick up a high-caliber heavyweight from foreign climes represents value for money.

The financial support of English PEN's Writers in Translation Programme —established in April 2004—can make all the difference. Launch title Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya went on to sell over 20,000 copies. With the assistance of Arts Council England and the support of the news organisation Bloomberg, Writers in Translation has backed 28 titles to date. The marketing director of Saqi Books confirms: "This programme enabled us to promote an important new work of fiction by having the author tour the UK, producing early review proofs and buying advertising, which ensured that the book was widely reviewed and stocked by the book chains."

Seeking out new writing from other languages is crucial in order to ensure that the literature available to readers is a reflection of the diverse world in which we live. PEN's Writers in Translation Committee selects six to eight books a year, translated from a broad spectrum of languages. Its members cover expertise in many areas—as translators, writers, publishers and agents. Julian Evans, Chair, states: "This programme goes to the heart of PEN's vision of literature as a way of strengthening understanding between cultures. Books that are translated and read by English-speaking readers not only help writing and writers from other countries to become better known. They make the world more legible." The English PEN Online World Atlas which is in its pilot stage is a further step towards achieving the organisation's goal to build a world community of writers.

A number of Writers in Translation books feature on the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist: Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (German, trans. Anthea Bell), Ismail Kadare's The Siege (Albanian via French, trans. David Bellos), Evelio Rosero's The Armies (Spanish, trans. Anne McLean), and Jose Eduardo Agualusa's My Father's Wives (Portuguese, trans. Daniel Hahn). There is one particularly enticing book on the longlist which, for some reason, was not submitted to PEN's Writers in Translation Committee: Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool (Japanese, trans. Stephen Snyder). A prolific writer and the winner of numerous literary awards in Japan, Ogawa has not been published in Britain until now. Most UK publishers are slow to pick up new voices from abroad, so it should not be that surprising…

© G de Chamberet 2009

Published Mar 10, 2009   Copyright 2009 Georgia de Chamberet

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