(Excuse my Euro-effusiveness in this blog but I’m feeling rather buoyant – also on the eve of our annual ELIT festival in Austria – check out this very website for more details.)
On Friday 17th October I hosted the launch of ‘BEF 2015’ at the invitation of the wonderfully enthusiastic Dr Gabriela Saldanha and her Translation Studies colleagues at the University of Birmingham. Friday’s event was kicked-started by BEF 2015’s entertaining and erudite editor West Camel (yes, that is his name!) and 2 of BEF’s wunderkinder, the Glaswegian writer and translator Donal McLaughlin and the English author, reviewer and blogger Joanna Walsh, both performing to perfection from their own work in a stimulating but also sobering event. Sobering because: Europe and the UK hover on the brink of yet another Euro – and EU – crisis and the percentage of translated European fiction in the UK has risen only marginally since BEF first appeared in 2010 – and in spite of a whole host of enterprising independent publishers, writers and translators working in this area.
BEF is still the only anthology of European short fiction published in English. Dalkey Archive Press (www.dalkeyarchive.com), its publisher, based in the US and UK, battles valiantly on, publishing a large chunk of the world’s English literary translations. Not everyone agrees with Dalkey’s choices or modus operandi but the fact is they are indefatigable champions of contemporary and avant-garde international fiction. Novels, essays and short stories.
I am not paid by Dalkey to say any of this (by the way!) but thanks to them I have read Slovene and Albanian novels; thanks to them I can read short fiction from Armenia and Belarus to Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, as well as from Spain, Poland, Iceland and beyond. There are 30 stories in this year’s BEF batch; nearly 40 last year. It’s a heady rush. A crash course in the contemporary literary concerns of our continent. I certainly don’t like all I read but I love a lot of it (and, you may notice, I love alliteration.)
The idea of the BEF annual anthology is to be (and I quote) ‘….a window onto what’s happening right now in literary scenes throughout Europe, where the next Kafka, Flaubert, or Mann is waiting to be discovered’. Each BEF is for me a snapshot of Europe NOW.
BEF is the brainchild of Dalkey’s visionary publisher John O’Brien and for the first few years was edited and shaped by the Bosnian-American writer Alexsandar Hemon. If you read the editor’s prefaces to each BEF over the past 6 years you do get a feel for the Big Questions in European literature. For BEF 2015 the great Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas took up the challenge of describing Europe NOW.
Vila-Matas’s preface is entitled ‘The Fear of Europe’. He describes a fragile, fearful, apocalyptic Europe and dreams of ‘a spiritual insurrection, a rebirth’ for Europe and its literatures. He proclaims that ‘literary fiction is today the best, if not the only path, to approaching the truth’…. and that, to paraphrase Umberto Eco, ‘the language of Europe is translation.’
Later, in this superb essay, Vila-Matas hails the French writer Camille de Toledo:
‘…we are told that the current identity crisis of the European Union, as well as its habitual tensions, may be related to a neglect of language and, intoning a paean to translation, to the art of intermediation; in other words, (Camille de Toledo) insists that we “understand European citizenship by becoming translators, exerting ourselves to pass over from one context to another, from one grammar to another, and from one culture to another.” Camille de Toledo’s utopia transports us to a 2040 where there will function an ingenious translator-society. The situation he describes will be as follows: after one or two generations, children born in Europe have learned to speak our language—remember: this language, according to Eco, is translation—and numerous bodies of work have been translated or retranslated in their entirety. The public willingness to promote a culture of translation has revived an enthusiasm for knowledge, for understanding, for the humanities. Children from the more recent migrations feel recognized, because school speaks to them about their languages, about what their adopted languages take away from their childhoods, from memory. Translation courses generate abundant vocations. Indeed, the myth of Babel is interpreted again, reread, retranslated . . . We laugh at misunderstandings, are moved by contretemps, we play around at the interstices. And we see, throughout Europe, increasingly active translators’ organizations that also bid for politics to be reconceived in their image: a politics beyond languages and beyond nations. When a future constitution is written, the discussions center on the meaning of the word “freedom” in Hungarian, of the word “fraternity” in Turkish. Solidarities are born across frontiers, and the voices of the speakers can once again be heard without headphones. Legibility returns, but endowed this time with a poetics—the expressiveness, the emotion, of the person who knows how to translate on his own. We dream of shedding the archaic skin of nationhood. Relying on the parliament, we impose our will upon the national executive governments. Newspapers speak of a “translators’ revolution.” It is a Babel in reverse, where everyone can truly understand one another. It is the triumph of a common language in Europe: translation.’
So, to mark the publication of another anthology of challenging European fiction, I offer a personal ‘Thank you’ to Enrique Vila-Matas for stimulating my brain cells. Thank you to his translator Adrian West (of course!) and thank you to Dalkey for permission to quote from the Preface and for publishing Best European Fiction 2015. Go on – read it! Become a more informed, enlightened, literary European.