Every year I am invited to a charming and informative literary festival in Austria called European Literature Days (ELiT). It's held in the small town of Spitz, next to the River Danube in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wachau. During the long weekend of events, I get to meet new authors, hear the preoccupations of my European colleagues, and participate in numerous debates about literature and culture. This year's theme was "The Limitations of Literature" and included talks on the graphic and documentary novel, and how they are challenging ideas about traditional literature, as well as panel discussions about the extent to which technology is changing our conception of literature and literary markets.
The first day was taken up with a mini conference entitled "Backflow", specifically about book translation in the Danube region. I didn't think there would be much of relevance to the English delegates but was pleasantly surprised. In the morning, various authors spoke about translation generally and the impact on book markets, throughout the whole of Europe caused by the rise in digital publishing. German writer and moderator Rudiger Wischenbart suggested that online publications and E-books potentially offer new opportunities for the smaller south-east European literary markets, allowing more authors to publish digitally and reach a wider readership across borders. Instead, Wischenbart felt, the opposite was true and that because of the dominance of large global players, such as Amazon, Google, Apple etc the smaller literary markets in the region are drifting apart.
Miha Kovac, an academic and publisher from Slovenia, noted that the English book market continues to be a major force in central /eastern Europe. His research had found that the smaller the country the greater the import of English books. Sales and the accessibility of English books were now substantially aided by Amazon.
Fellow Brit, Chris Meade (Director of if:book and a Trustee of Modern Poetry in Translation) spoke eloquently about how the digital age and rise of multi-media could actually help to nurture the diversity and translation of poetry. As a small, sophisticated piece of software, the App, he argued, was the perfect counterpart to a poem - a compact piece of art in which the culture of a nation can be distilled. The digital age is changing the way we think, read and compose but Meade is optimistic that we can use technology to shape a new literary culture.
In the afternoon we met in smaller groups and debated various subjects related to the translation. The UK has a poor record for the translation of literary fiction - currently thought to be around 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK - and yet authors from countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia, dream of obtaining a wider readership by being translated into English.
That evening German writer Matthias Politycki read from his latest novel, Samarkand, Samarkand. Politicki's first novel to be translated into English, Next World Novella (Peiriene Press, 2011), was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The following day, Steve Sem-Sandberg (pictured), Swedish author of The Emperor of Lies(Faber & Faber, 2012) about the experiences of Jews in the Polish ghetto of Lodz during the Holocaust, gave a brief presentation on the "Documentary Novel" and Swiss writer Christian Gasser took us through the rise in popularity of the "Graphic Novel". Gasser noted the range of subjects covered in the past 25 years, from growing up in Iran under the Ayatollahs, Hiroshima and the Holocaust to reportage from the Gaza Strip and North Korea.
The graphic novel theme continued into the evening with a reading from Austrian comics' author Ulli Lust (Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, Fantagraphics, 2013). On our last day we were taken to an exhibition of the Belgian comic series Lucky Luke. Together with The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix, it is one of the most popular and best-selling comic-book series in Europe and we were fortunate to meet French artist Achdé, who took over drawing new Lucky Luke stories in collaboration with writer Laurent Gerra in 2001, and continues today.
Once again, the festival raised interesting issues and introduced me to an array of contemporary European authors I'm keen to read in English translation. However, I am also reminded that while writers from around the world want to be published in English, our response is poor. We live in a globalised society, we have E-books and print on demand - it's easier than ever to cross literary, linguistic and cultural borders - and yet it continues to be the smaller, independent presses that are promoting international fiction in this country.