PLUME INTERVIEWS:
ALEXANDRA BÜCHLER

Alexandra Büchler is the founder and director of the Wales-based organisation Literature Across Frontiers (LAF), a European-wide platform for literary exchange, translation, and policy debate. In addition to her thirty-year career as a cultural manager and literary curator, Büchler is an editor and translator of fiction, poetry, theatre plays, and other texts. She has worked on some thirty publications and is now compiling an anthology of writing from the Western Balkans and Wales, as well as translating two children’s books from the Czech. In this interview, she discusses her work with LAF, obstacles in highlighting less represented literatures, and the gender disparity in translation.

What inspired you to co-found Literature Across Frontiers (LAF)?

LAF was launched two decades ago with support from the EU as a project aiming to address various imbalances and inequalities of access — readers’ access to a more diverse range of writing; publishers’ access to information about possible titles they could be interested in; writers’ access to international opportunities, readership and audiences; and literary organisations’ access to each other’s ideas, experience, and expertise.

All this loosely translated into looking at how underrepresented literatures and their authors could find a way to international readership and how that process could be facilitated through cooperation between national organisations. This was a rather novel idea at the time with much of what was going on in that era being based on bilateral cooperation initiated by national governmental institutions. Much of what LAF then pioneered has become commonplace practice across Europe, but we are still probably the only organisation promoting literary exchange between Europe and other regions.

LAF was established in Wales, a bilingual country strongly invested in multilingualism and linguistic rights, so that’s a whole set of issues that have informed LAF’s mission and its “philosophy.” This is also why we have worked closely with minority language literary scenes and were one of the founding organisations of the European Civil Society Platform for Multilingualism.

At the start, we brought together mostly national organisations supporting translation, but soon we extended our partnerships to other types of literary organisations, including literary festivals and venues. Over the years, we set up a number of large-scale projects and initiatives that provided opportunities for writers to collaborate and spend time in a residential setting abroad, as well as residential poetry translation workshops that have been since then adopted as a model and continued in various countries.

The common thread in all this has always been flexibility and adaptability, aiming to create international opportunities for writers and literatures that do not have the same resources and cultural representation abroad at their disposal as those provided by major countries of Europe. Another one has been multilateral cooperation as opposed to the bilateral way in which government institutions mostly work, based on the agenda of cultural diplomacy.

Another strand of our work has been contribution to arts policy debate and development, research into translation flows, and provision of information and resources for the sector. On the whole, we have been a hub and catalyst for all sorts of new connections and projects.

Less translated literature” is a concept that is understood and interpreted in different ways by different people, and it has little to do with the number of speakers of a language and everything with perspective and power structures.

How has your work as a translator influenced your work as Director of LAF (or vice versa)? 

Having first-hand experience of literary translation—an activity that’s at the heart of what LAF is about—and being part of the literary translation community, is from my point of view crucial. But LAF would not have come about without me having a cultural management background as well. Before I moved to the UK, I lived in Sydney and worked at the Australia Council, the federal arts funding body, on a special programme that supported immigrant and refugee artists and communities, and this experience was transferred into much of LAF’s work which is about “mainstreaming the marginalised.”

Another important catalyst was the fact that LAF was established in Wales, a bilingual country strongly invested in multilingualism and linguistic rights, so that’s a whole set of issues that have informed LAF’s mission and its “philosophy.” This is also why we have worked closely with minority language literary scenes and were one of the founding organisations of the European Civil Society Platform for Multilingualism. We are also involved in various European and international networks. For example: Culture Action Europe, the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation network, Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, and of course PEN which will be celebrating its centenary next year—through Wales PEN Cymru.

What have been some of the most rewarding LAF initiatives you’ve been a part of and what makes them so memorable?

I always joke that LAF works towards its own obsolescence, and what I mean by that is that our most important work is often picked up and carried on by others. This has happened with the poetry translation workshops, one of our trademark activities, that have certainly been memorable for the poets who took part in them over the years, and set off a series of on-going creative collaborations and friendships. The workshops employ a multidirectional bridge-language translation method based on detailed discussion between the participating poets and they offer the luxury of complete immersion over a period of up to a week. The experience of working and living together with a group of poets from different countries for a period of time is quite unique and can have a profound impact on one’s work and future reading, in addition to developing translation skills.

We have clocked up over a hundred of these across Europe and in other locations by now. Lately, we have been continuing them outside Europe, bringing European poets into collaborative contact with poets in Asia, particularly India.

We have all been spoiled for choice suddenly having mostly free access to literary events from around the world, but the isolation and lack of direct contact are taking their toll, not to mention the huge economic impact on literary events such as festivals, but also on individual writers, many of whom depend on income from events, workshops, master classes, and residencies—not only from sales.

The large-scale projects we initiated such as Sealines or Word Express were mostly based on residencies and travel. Sealines was a project that connected six bilingual port cities through a series of residencies involving writers from different countries spending a month together, and Word Express was a two-year project involving some sixty writers from Southeast Europe and the UK on a (logistically very complicated) set of journeys through the region that converged in Istanbul. The project generated long-standing creative collaborations and a number of translations into the languages of the participating countries.

Such successful projects are about partnerships among organisations, but mostly they are about a spark that ignites something in an individual or an artistic collective that’s inspiring and important enough to carry on with and develop further, and ultimately make a lasting contribution to a local cultural scene.

What do you see as the biggest challenges when it comes to highlighting less translated literatures?

Less translated literature is a concept that is understood and interpreted in different ways by different people, and it has little to do with the number of speakers of a language and everything with perspective and power structures. A less translated literature can be written in languages spoken by millions and may only be “less translated” into a hegemonic language such as English, which itself is globally the most translated source language. We’ve recently seen some source language shifts in the English-speaking world, with non-European languages becoming more prominent.    

The obstacles are always the same: lack of contact and information, lack of investment in promotion and translation, lack of experienced translators, and, on the other hand, lack of interest on the part of publishers and the target market in general—and, not to put a too fine point on it—prejudice.

The position of translated literature will probably never change dramatically in the English-speaking world, where it has not really been part of the literary canon in the same way as in other countries, but translation as an activity and topic now has a firm place in the literary discourse and on the programmes of literary festivals, and digital communication has helped create a strong and lively translation community.

A single publisher who specialises in a certain region, such as Istros Books or Tilted Axis in the UK, can significantly increase the number of translations over a short period of time. Concentrated effort and investment can help literatures of very small countries make a mark, as was the case with the Baltic countries which were the “Market Focus” at the London Book Fair, with several years advance preparations that resulted in a number of translated books.

In the UK, the obstacles start with education, curricula, reading lists, the lack of importance given to learning modern languages, etc. The position of translated literature will probably never change dramatically in the English-speaking world, where it has not really been part of the literary canon in the same way as in other countries, but translation as an activity and topic now has a firm place in the literary discourse and on the programmes of literary festivals, and digital communication has helped create a strong and lively translation community. Translation prizes and competitions have also made a huge difference and we still need more of those. Blogging, vlogging, and podcasting have been powerful and effective ways of spreading the word about translated literature, and blogs such as World Kid Lit or ArabLit have made a phenomenal contribution.

Gender disparity in translated literature primarily reflects continuing gender inequality in general, but also the value judgements of the source and target markets as to what constitutes serious literary fiction—because that’s what publishers are looking to translate in the English-speaking world, as opposed to the predominance of commercial titles among translations from English.

Can you speak to any recent trends or shifts you’ve noticed related to women in translation specifically?

As with any attempts to redress an imbalance, initiatives and campaigns that have highlighted the low number of women writers in translation—estimated at around 25%—and systematically advocated for a better gender balance have played a crucial role in this respect. Women in Translation, WIT Month, and the Women in Translation Prize have been a fantastic step forward. The campaigns—these days easy to follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—have led to changes in the sector, with publishers paying more attention to introducing gender balance to their lists. And there is some tangible good news: Looking, for example, at the International Booker Prize since it was established in its current form in 2016, we can see that four out of five winning titles are by women. So, it seems we’re tipping the balance.

Why do you think there’s a gender disparity when it comes to works translated into English from other languages?

Gender disparity in translated literature primarily reflects continuing gender inequality in general, but also the value judgements of the source and target markets as to what constitutes serious literary fiction—because that’s what publishers are looking to translate in the English-speaking world, as opposed to the predominance of commercial titles among translations from English.

This is why it’s important to monitor, analyse, and produce statistics, but also to question the very criteria we apply along the entire process from selection of a title to be translated, to promotion and marketing, and nominating titles for prizes, etc.

Why do you believe LAF’s statistical reports on published translated literature are so important? What has been some surprising information you’ve gleaned from this research?

Our statistical reports give us a reliable picture of publishing literature in translation in the UK and Ireland, and while they still confirm the notorious 3% figure for all translations, we have also established that the percentage is higher for literature, around 4.5 to 5%, and that the absolute number of translated titles keeps growing and so does the range of source languages, although the expanding volume of overall publishing keeps the percentages pretty much at the same level.

There are also reports from Nielsen Book based on sales, that showed a steady increase in sales of translated literature while domestic fiction sales have plateaued. So some of the “surprises” have been precisely the growth in publication and sales, as well as in diversity of source languages.

What are some upcoming LAF projects you’re particularly excited about?

The pandemic is causing serious damage to arts and culture which we are only now beginning to assess. Our work revolves around making literature and authors “travel,” but it’s also about the necessity of cross-cultural interaction. We have all been spoiled for choice suddenly having mostly free access to literary events from around the world, but the isolation and lack of direct contact are taking their toll, not to mention the huge economic impact on literary events such as festivals, but also on individual writers, many of whom depend on income from events, workshops, master classes, and residencies—not only from sales.

We have currently several projects underway in addition to our regular activities, and all revolve around international travel and direct contact—to residencies, festivals, meetings. One is a project that focuses on refugee and exiled writers living in Europe, another offers exchange residencies to young authors and translators from Western Balkans and Wales.

Another initiative I’m very excited about is a project that will set up a pan-European structure for the promotion of contemporary Arabic literature in Europe. We used to work extensively in the Arab world a decade ago but had to curtail our activities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which has at the same time brought about fascinating cultural and literary developments in the region, which we in Europe need to connect with despite all the obstacles. You can find out more about these projects on our website and social media.


Interview by Cindy Brzostowski

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