Eyes East

Eyes East
Posted 11 February 2013 by Carol McKay

It's official. According to the latest information released from the 2011 Census, Polish is now England's second language, with 546,000 native speakers in England and Wales, or one percent of the population


I wondered what impact this influx of Polish and other nationals from the eastern European Union might be having on literature in translation. Is greater integration changing our taste in reading? Are we eager to discover what life is like through the words of classic and contemporary Eastern European writers?


Dr Valerie Henitiuk, Director of the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, believes the influx of migrants makes us rethink our cultural boundaries. 'We want to know,' she said, 'who are our new neighbours?'


She told me about a new mentoring scheme for translators, initiated by the UK Translators' Association and run by the BCLT. In its first year, there were only two mentees, translating from Chinese and French. In the second year, the number of places on the scheme increased to twelve, including one mentee translating from Polish.


And there certainly seems to be an upsurge in interest in getting good books, sensitively translated, out there. Over and above established publishing houses listed elsewhere in this website, a quick literature search picked out Stork Press, whose aim is to discover outstanding new voices. 'Central and Eastern Europe has given us some of the most exciting voices in literature,' they say. 'Franz Kafka, Imre Kertész, Wisława Szymborska, Milan Kundera, Czeslaw Miłosz, Herta Müller, Eugène Ionesco, Bohumil Hrabal, Ismail Kadare, Stanislaw Lem. Can you imagine what literature would be like without them?' 


Interestingly, Stork Press are selling e-books direct from their website, in what could be another example of how advantageous e-publishing can be for testing non-mainstream or 'niche' markets. Their list features authors like Tadeusz Różewicz, Poland's foremost living writer, who's been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature but is almost unheard of in the UK, as well as translators like Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose translation of Paweł Huelle's The Last Supper won the Found in Translation Award in 2008.


Stork's list includes several crime novelists. Another publisher to celebrate crime fiction from Eastern Europe is Profusion, whose Profusion Crime Series focuses in particular on 'Romanian crime novels with a difference: novels that certainly thrill, but also books which can show the audience the reality of a country which used to be behind the Iron Curtain but now emerges as a vibrant European partner after a bloody revolution and a long transition to a market-economy.'


Twisted Spoon Press is an indie publisher based in Prague, and founded by Americans. 'Equal emphasis,' they say, 'is placed on introducing both new works from contemporary writers, and work from an earlier period that has been neglected in translation.' They want to translate into English a variety of writing from Central and Eastern Europe, and make it available to a global English-speaking readership.


Yet who is that readership? A well-travelled and educated elite, or the general public? Are we really interested in our neighbours, or does interest develop primarily among those who have eastern European connections?


I asked three people whose parent or grandparent came to the UK from Eastern Europe in earlier waves of migration. Catherine Czerkawska writes her novels, her Radio Four plays, and stage plays in English, but does yearn for that part of her personal history which she lost when her father died. Her novel The Amber Heart is based on her own Polish family history. Would she like to read more literature in translation? Definitely. 'It would be lovely to see more translations of Polish classics, more work for all kinds of media with a genuinely Polish theme, written from a knowledgeable point of view. There's such a huge body of fine literature out there, and it would be very good to see some of it properly translated, properly published over here. As well as that from other Eastern European countries.'


Martin Stepek, author of a parallel text Polish-English poem sequence For There Is Hope, said, 'As an educated guess I'd say that Central-Eastern EU immigrants would buy more books about [the UK]. The reverse might happen once the next generation of these immigrants grow up and start to explore their parents' cultural background. Thus, just as I have in the last decade bought several books about Poland and its history, or by Polish authors translated into English, so too will the children and grandchildren of our recent European arrivals.'


Melanie Lewicka, a recent graduate, agreed. 'I think there will be interest perhaps from people like myself who would love to know more about the history and culture, and fiction of Poland, but it won't really show until the incoming children grow up and want to know about their homeland. I personally would love to read books translated from Polish, but never see anything like that in shops or the library.'


So, there is a market, though there may be an issue over discoverability. Publishing initiatives like Stork Press show promise, and Government agencies across the EU offer grants to promote their literature abroad. Organisations like Book Trust, Free Word Centre and Words Without Borders all help raise awareness of world literature in translation. Even the reading website Goodreads has discussion threads on Eastern European Fiction.


In the publishing world, it's often said that the reading public's taste is jaded: that we crave something new. When one looks at the success of Scandinavian literature (Jo Nesbø, Stieg Larsson) and TV drama (The Killing, Borgen), it's clear the wider public - not just sons and daughters of migrants, and not just some middle class or intellectual elite - are hungry for the amuse-bouches or hearty nourishment well-translated writing from different cultures can give them. Curiosity about our new neighbours might just make Central and Eastern European literature top of the menu, next.

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