Books Without Borders?

Thirteen years after the Berlin Wall bit the dust, global publishing giants have staked out beachheads across the Balkans, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary, with a gimlet eye turned to each country’s potential print-runs, GDP data, and reading habits. On the up side, these strategic investments in Eastern Europe have pumped up flagging local book markets and helped overhaul a defunct distribution system. But, critics say, there’s a big down side: as book behemoths pick off the low-hanging fruit of globalization, less lucrative language areas have been left to shrivel on the vine.

Read any good Catalan, Welsh, or Polish authors lately? If a group of publishers from across these supposed hinterlands has their way, you will. Based at the Mercator Center of the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, a four-year-old effort called Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) has strung together a network of off-the-beaten-path publishers from more then a dozen countries who are determined to see their languages and literatures gain a broader audience. With official backing in hand from the European Union’s Culture 2000 initiative, LAF is mobilizing its network of publishers, translators, agents, and fund directors to rescue neglected “minority” languagesincluding Latvian, Portuguese, Welsh, and Hungarian — by putting translation funding and policy issues on center stage at book fair forums from Prague to Paris, and Leipzig to Gothenburg. As LAF project manager Alexandra Büchler has noted, 40 million people in the EU speak territorial languages other than the official language of their state. That’s virtually a whole new continent of literature, wide open for discovery.

Of course, lit-in-translation has always been a quixotic affair. Whether mainstream European publishers — or their counterparts overseas — will take as much as a peek in LAF’s direction remains to be seen. But funding has come in from sources such as the Central European Book Publishing Fund in Amsterdam, the Soros Open Society Institute, and Austrian Kulture Kontact, which aids publishers from Balkan states, in addition to translation funds in most other European countries. (Translation grants are also available to American literary publishers, typically university presses, with their troves of foreign authors.) This cash has gotten a first round of translations under way from authors including Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk (published by Granta in the US); Christopher Meredith from Wales; Nora Ikstena, Vladis Rumnieks, and Andrejs Migla from Latvia; Patraig Standun, Michael O’Conghaile, and Padraic Breathnach from Ireland; and Slovenia’s Andrej Blatnik.

In addition, Literature Across Frontiers has helped launch the Mosaic Publishers’ Network, which grew out of an inaugural conference in Aberystwyth in 1998. With members including the Czech Republic’s One Woman Press, France’s Actes Sud, and Kedros in Greece, Mosaic has become a sort of grassroots federation fighting to put little-studied translation issues on the map. A second conference, held at last year’s Prague Book Fair, helped turn up the wattage with participants including Andre Schiffrin; the well-known Slavic translator Michael Henry Heim from UCLA; and Jeffrey Young of the literary magazine Trafika. At that event, participants pondered the role played by translators in today’s book business, worrying over the scant protection of translators’ copyright, negligible authors’ fees, and publishers’ reluctance to offer the translator a share of the commercial success of a translated work.

As for the future, Mosaic and LAF will be back at Bookworld Prague this month with a three-day slate of readings, debates, and film screenings, and other projects on tap include a study of support for minority literatures, an online database of the translation infrastructure in Europe, and an online “European Review of Books and Writing,” described as a multilingual source of publishing news. Hellenophiles among us will want to pencil in a week-long residency with Greek poets, translators, and musicians in Corfu and Athens. And finally, stay tuned for LAF’s third international conference, to be held in Helsinki in 2003.

Correspondent Hrvoje Bozicevic, publisher of Editions Bozicevic in Zagreb, contributed to this article.