Who are the gatekeepers?

Who are the gatekeepers?
Posted 3 May 2012 by Catherine Mansfield

Earlier this month I headed to Earl's Court and found myself right at the heart of the UK's translated fiction scene: the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair.


As always, the Book Fair was bustling with activity, with thousands of literary professionals promoting everything from JK Rowling's new novel to instruction manuals and erotica. In this chaos of publishers, marketeers, distributors and printers, the Literary Translation Centre is a little island paradise for anyone who loves translated books.


This year the centre (organised by the British Centre for Literary Translation) ran 16 events - every last one of them packed to the brim. Aspiring and established translators, publishers, librarians, readers, booksellers and more squeezed into the seating and gathered around to hear panel discussions from over 50 international speakers, all of them passionate about literature in translation.


There were many highlights, but here are some that stood out for me: a fascinating discussion of translated children's literature from 'minority' languages, including publishers from Lebanon and Turkey; an exploration of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2012 shortlist; and the fantastic '4D Translation game', which saw an intrepid group of book lovers rushing around the fair on a translation treasure hunt created by Rosalind Harvey, translator-in-residence at the Free Word Centre


Another interesting event was the discussion of 'gatekeepers', led by Samantha Schnee from the fantastic online magazine Words without Borders. The panel explored the question of who controls which books are translated into English and which are left behind.


Booksellers and foreign publishers (who only present the books they think will sell well to UK readers to their British counterparts - often choosing very 'safe' and 'samey' titles) are often blamed for restricting the type of book that gets translated into English. Barbara Epler of US publisher New Directions even said that she had heard the fiction buyer at one of the biggest US bookshops say that she 'doesn't believe in translation'.


However, translator Shaun Whiteside pointed out that new and innovative independent publishers such as And Other Stories and Peirene Press - as well as a new generation of translators - are increasingly using new technology to create a buzz about translated books and even to decide what to translate through online reading groups. By doing this, they are embracing the role of the 'gatekeeper' and putting a positive spin on it: inviting more adventurous books in rather than keeping them out.


After all, as Boyd Tonkin of The Independent pointed out, the idea that British readers are 'little scared rabbits' who are afraid of trying something new is clearly untrue: people who are interested in books will always welcome translation because it 'opens doors' to new and interesting literature.


Looking around at the crowded Literary Translation Centre, it seemed he was right: translated literature is attracting more interest than ever. From publishers who can see that translated fiction can attract as a wide a readership as English language fiction to a growing group of translators who are excited about bringing their favourite foreign literature to an English-speaking audience, there are many 'gatekeepers' out there who are determined to make translated fiction more daring and exciting than ever.


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