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PEN World Voices Festival As It Happened: Translation Bloggers

By Katherine Payne

Blogger Michael Orthofer grew up reading book reviews in print newspapers and admiring the variety of books written by authors around the world. But throughout the mid-90s and early 2000s, he noticed less and less space was being devoted to reviews, especially of books by international authors. At Albertine bookstore on Saturday, May 9, Orthofer was one of four bloggers who talked about his blog, his work, and the importance of online reviews. Sal Robinson, co-founder of the Bridge reading series, moderated the panel and encouraged the bloggers to talk about why they started their blogs and how they see their roles as reviewers.

Michael Orthofer has reviewed over 3,500 books (3,529 to be exact, and counting) on his blog, Complete Review. Before he started the blog, he noticed that there were many excellent book reviews online that didn’t link to each other. He started the Complete Review in 1999 in order to connect reviewers to each other, and to readers. Given the frenzy of carefully designed websites these days, the Complete Review is refreshingly old school, maintaining more or less the same look and feel it had in its early days. The blog remains an invaluable source for anyone wanting to learn more about international literature. A spinoff of the Complete Review, Literary Saloon gives daily updates about prize nominations and winners, publishers and international literature, and anything newsworthy in the worldwide literary community. It maintains an impressive links page and makes a point of highlighting the best, and best underrated, books through an easy-to-follow grading system.

The margins of Scott Esposito’s blog, Conversational Reading, are filled with book covers, links, his Twitter feed, and blog posts—a keen reminder that Conversational Reading actively concerns itself with bringing literature from the margins to the center of readers’ attention. It’s easy to be intrigued and diverted by his variety of interesting books and reviews, and it’s just as easy to share them via Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. Part of the inspiration for Esposito’s blog came from the political conversations he saw online between 2002 and 2003. He wanted to create a similar energy and conversation around international literature. Conversational Reading lives up to its name, as do Esposito’s other projects, including the reviews he has written for a variety of print and online publications as well as his press, Two Lines, and the journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation. As many of the bloggers noted, blogging can lead to interesting ventures both online and off-line.

Tara Cheesman-Olmsted’s Book Sexy Review is chic, minimal, and right on target in providing the latest reviews and updates about international literature and literary translation. The focus seems to be the deep relationship readers have to books. Olmsted’s writing is witty and conversational, while also giving readers the well-researched content they would expect from the New York Times and New York Review of Books. The blog in its current form really began in 2011, after Olmsted read Shahriar Mandipour’s novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story, translated by Sara Khalili. In her own words: “Once I started on that path—seeking out books translated from other languages into English or just written by authors from countries other than my own—I didn’t look back.”

Nana-Ama Kyerematen is still relatively new to the literary blogosphere, starting in 2013, but her webzine Afridiaspora, dedicated to African literature and African stories, champions the many talented writers from Africa who write in a variety of languages and traditions. Kyerematen curates many readings and discussions with African writers. She even organized Africa39 (a Hay Festival) in New York City, the first African literature festival of its kind in the United States that featured prominent writers under the age of forty from Africa and the diaspora. The necessity of her work is not lost on PEN, who made Africa the theme of this year’s World Voices Festival. Among the talented writers featured on her site are Alain Mabanckou, Vivian Ogbonna, Songeziwe Mahlangu, and Chigozie Obioma. It’s clear that the goal of Kyerematen and her team is to inform and promote African writers, especially to new audiences. The site gives readers many places to start—whether it’s with “Flash Fiction Sunday” or the “Book of the Month,” the site is clear in its mission, and successfully promotes authors on and off the web.

All the bloggers agreed that they actively seek out new and interesting writers through literary magazines, friends, publishers, and translators. But of course they ultimately must make decisions about what books are reviewed on their sites and what books are left out. Women, in particular, as both authors and translators, are perhaps too often left out.

“It’s something I struggle with,” Orthofer said.

As Olmsted pointed out, though, even small victories like seeing a book by Elena Ferrante being sold in a grocery store next to popular mainstream fiction is a huge victory for writers and readers.

Kyerematen said that she tries not to be swayed by popular opinion, but chooses authors and works that resonate with her.

“The work we do is just one part of the ecosystem,” Esposito said.

And it will be passionate readers and reviewers, online and in print, who continue to shape the landscape of international literature.

For video of the event, visit the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature Website

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Scott Esposito on Reviewing Translations (2011)

For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here

Published May 13, 2015   Copyright 2015 Katherine Payne

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