This year, as part of my studies on Edinburgh Napier University’s MSc Publishing course, I attended The London Book Fair for the first time. Now in its 46th year, LBF defines itself as ‘the global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sale and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels,’ and is therefore a crucial event in the publishing calendar for professionals and students alike. The sheer scale of the fair is incredible, both programme-wise and geographically, and can be borderline overwhelming for first time attendees, but also presents great opportunities for learning and networking.
This post will not review or recap the fair in its entirety, but will instead focus on my favourite seminar of the 200+ that were on offer for visitors. As I read a lot of translated fiction and am hoping to write my dissertation on minority language publishing in the UK, I spent a lot of my time at LBF at the Literary Translation Centre, which featured a stellar programme of events by speakers working in the translation field. The seminar that interested me the most was ‘Translation from Outside the Metropolis,’ where the focus was on the underrepresentation of a ‘variety of national voices and perspectives’ in contemporary fiction and media. In the same way that white and middle-class authors are an overwhelming majority over BAME and working-class counterparts in contemporary Anglophone publishing, urban voices tend to dominate English-speaking literature to the detriment of regional and rural voices and identities. The panellists were tasked with discussing this issue in specific relation to translated works.
The discussion was chaired by Theodora Danek, Programme Manager of English PEN’s ‘Writers in Translation’ programme, and the panel comprised voices from three different stages of the writing process: Alys Conran, a Welsh author and creative writing lecturer; Mary Ann Newman, literary translator and expert on Catalan literature and culture; and Ra Page, founder, CEO and Editorial Manager of Manchester-based Comma Press. All three spoke eloquently and in some detail about the challenges facing translated fiction in the UK, and specifically about the lack of voices from outside major cities being translated into English.
Alys’ views were of particular interest to me as Welsh is one of the Insular Celtic languages I am planning to focus my dissertation on; it was fascinating, if a little disquieting, to hear her speak about the difficulties she faced getting her latest novel published. ‘Pigeon’ was released in 2016 and thrived immediately in Wales, but took longer to start gaining any traction in the English market. She eventually released English and Welsh editions simultaneously through Parthian Books, but beforehand was told by more than one publisher that her story was ‘too Welsh’ to succeed in the English market, and that the rural stereotypes of Welsh culture and writing would make the book to difficult to market. Ra, speaking as a publisher, thought this a ridiculous position to take. An author and book’s background and origin, while being useful in flavouring the text, should never be the be-all and end-all for marketing a book. The example he offered was that if Comma was to release a book of Polish short stories translated into English, merely targeting Polish immigrants and second-generation Poles as a target market would be absurd; the market simply isn’t big enough. A book’s content is more important than its background. If a novel or short story is of good enough quality, its provenance should not matter and it should be able to connect with readers regardless of regional heritage or allegiance.
Ra emphasised that publishing companies should be more prepared to take risks when importing fiction into English and commissioning from abroad, as Comma itself has done with books like Hassan Blasim’s ‘Iraq + 100.’ He also earmarked the English short story as a particularly and predictably urban, even London-centric, format, and contrasted it with Ireland’s tradition of quality rural short stories, dealing with small, localised communities. The diametric country-town relationship in Britain is very entrenched, and this prejudices the view of rural identity and culture, and therefore writing, in other countries. Mary Ann, who has translated a great deal of Spanish and Catalan literature into English, agreed with this, and related how, in her experience, the vast majority of work commissioned for English translation comes from the great urban centre of the city Barcelona, with comparatively little interest shown in work from, or set in, the massive rural areas of Catalonia.
The panellists ultimately agreed that there is a certain prejudice placed against rural works when commissioning English translations, and that the stereotypes of rural texts and areas are as inaccurate as they are unfair – rural communities, both within the UK and abroad, are much more cosmopolitan than many people think and have a great deal to add to contemporary literature. For this reason, among others, it is vital than publishers take more chances on rural and regional fiction, where regional identities, far from being too niche to attract mainstream audiences, are actually best expressed in multi-cultural and multi-language societies. Developing new voices from outside the metropolis and the mainstream is essential in the current political climate, especially in post-Brexit Britain, where many need reminding that hearing from other cultures can help enrich our own.