Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: School of Modern Languages


The literatures of smaller European nations, written in less well-known languages from less familiar traditions, all depend on linguistic and cultural translation to be heard by the wider world. Scholars and others who perform this work for academic and broader audiences, however, generally work in parallel and even in competition, divided along linguistic, geographical and professional lines, and are unused to examining the precise nature and implications of this shared situation. As a result, scholars of a given national literature may view its situation too narrowly, while scholars of comparative literature, in imagining a supranational organisation of literature, fail to consider how the literatures of Europe's smaller nations might become part of it. Public-facing intermediaries may view their work only from their own professional perspective, in the context of their own commercial, cultural or diplomatic motivations.
This project creates the opportunity for the first sustained comparative analysis of how, through translation, the contemporary literatures of small European nations endeavour to reach the cultural mainstream. It brings together researchers from typical examples - Czech and Slovak, Portuguese, Scandinavian and South Slav - who work as cultural translators in both academic and public-facing contexts. Both strands are reflected and combine in the project's approach, activities and outputs. Through public workshops, the project will bring together academic and public-facing intermediaries in the UK to discuss their contributions to the work of translation and explore the opportunities and barriers they encounter and strategies they use. This innovative engagement with participants in the process will not only lead to a better mutual understanding of different intermediaries' roles and motivations, but also feed into a comprehensive analysis of the cultural dynamics underlying the current translation of these literatures. These findings will be published in on-line reports, prepared in consultation with and designed for use by public-facing intermediaries in their subsequent work. These reports will also be shaped by a series of case studies arising from the investigators' specialist areas and drawing on material from the workshops and interviews alongside analysis of quantitative data, public documents, critical material and literary texts. For example, the project will examine the role of intermediaries in the recent international rise of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the impact of this apparent success on publishing plans, cultural perceptions and other genres. It will also explore the motivations for state funding of translation, and particularly how literary exchange may be used to promote notions of tolerance and civil society, for example in the former Eastern Bloc or Yugoslavia, or to foster political and economic relationships between peripheries, unseen by the centre. A project conference will invite researchers working in other literatures to contribute to these questions, and this research will be gathered in a major edited volume that examines how far these literatures of small European nations may be viewed as a specific literary system in their interaction with the centre and each other. By identifying more precisely both the range and limits of cross-border translation, the project may thus contribute to a better understanding of the complexity of current cultural and political interaction between Europe's nations.

Planned Impact

The main direct beneficiaries of this research will be the wide range of 'public-facing' intermediaries who support the linguistic and cultural translation of the literatures of small European nations. These include translators, literary agents, publishers, booksellers, cultural attachés, national cultural institutes, and charities and NGOs that promote literature and cultural communication, some of whom advise on cultural policy in their own countries or at EU level. It will also benefit policy-makers seeking a broader understanding of contemporary national self-perceptions, priorities and interactions in Europe. The project will also reach and hear from readers interested in European literature in translation and thereby raise the profile of the less widely known literatures it explores.
The project will bring together academic and 'public-facing' intermediaries who normally meet - if at all - for a particular purpose at often geographically circumscribed, hastily arranged events, often interact mainly along national or regional lines or in narrower professional spheres and may consider themselves in competition with each other. Public workshops will encourage these intermediaries, including the academic investigators, to step outside their national and professional contexts and engage with one another's situations. They will explore the similarities and differences between their roles, priorities and aspirations and the challenges they face, and examine what lies behind them, focusing in particular on prevailing national attitudes and contexts in both the UK and throughout Europe. Audiences will test intermediaries' assessments of notional target readers and the strengths and merits of national stereotypes and preconceptions.
These interactions will bring discrete practical benefits in identifying what does and does not work well, what changes might facilitate intermediaries' work and how they might work differently. The workshops and on-line reports arising from them will not only build greater understanding among academic and 'public-facing' intermediaries of each other's roles in the 'system', but also foster greater awareness of one another, greater coherence of networks and more effective and visible interaction between different intermediaries and 'peripheries' in the future. At the same time, however, the research will interrogate the limits of a single, supra-national cultural agenda by identifying not only shared priorities and opportunities for cross-border cooperation, but also points of tension, competing agendas and concealed hierarchies within and across 'peripheries' which may not be easily overcome, but with which intermediaries need to engage. Through a precise characterisation of the dynamic, 'unequal' structure of the contemporary European literary system and how 'peripheral' literatures negotiate it, the project will provide a broader picture of the complexity of cultural and political interaction between Europe's nations. By simultaneously shedding further light on the facts and underlying context behind the UK's low production of literature in translation, it will also support and strengthen the work of 'third sector' groups who seek to promote greater British openness to and interaction with national literary cultures.


10 25 50
Description Unlike most research on literary translation in the UK, which focuses on data, ours focused on the experience and interaction of translators, publishers, agents, booksellers, state and third-sector promoters of literary translation. As our forthcoming on-line report shows, we found an industry moving from pessimism to cautious optimism. The web and digital technology are making it easier to publish, sell and promote translated books, the proportion of books published in translation is growing, and the past decade has seen the established of many new, successful independent publishers, with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of strategy and opportunity, as well as challenges. There is increasing support and recognition of the work of translators through professional training, networks and third-sector programmes.
Anxiety has shifted from perceived shortages of translated books to the threat to diversity by a publisher focus on popular genres, notably crime and fantasy, over more individual, challenging texts, and the dominance of multiple English-language voices over voices translated from other, especially smaller languages. Our audiences characterized the world of published literary translation as a fragile eco-system. For some, the proliferation of translated books reflected supply- rather than demand-driven publication, especially from less widely read literatures, which resulted merely in more unread books and an increasingly unnavigable market. They called for a more strategic approach to funding, particularly from the governments of smaller literary nations, likely to increase the cultural-diplomatic impact of literary translation and attendant activity. Others, however, fear the unintended harm caused by such intervention, including cuts in funding and the exacerbation of a focus on commercially successful literature that less adequately supports cultural diplomacy and exchange.
Our research pointed to the following core directions for next steps:
• supply-led translation and how funding works;
• how literary translation strengthens relationships between geographical peripheries without recourse to the centre;
• how the web supports new approaches to literary translation and its circulation, bypassing formal publishing routes and fostering collaborative on-line translation;
• how the profile of translated literature could be raised in schools.
Methodologically, our research showed that smaller European languages and cultures, most frequently studied in isolation and encouraged to compete with one another for academic and wider attention, benefit from collaborative, comparative study, which builds critical mass and a broader audience for more persuasive findings. It also highlighted that an industry with diverse, hard-pressed, often volunteer participants can only be properly explored and understood through prolonged, structured engagement between academic and non-academic partners.
Exploitation Route Academically, through our volume now accepted by and submitted to Liverpool University Press, we have provided a collaborative, interdisciplinary model for research into smaller European literatures that overcomes both the exceptionalist national and ill-informed, major-literature-centric world methods by permitting and providing commentary on the juxtaposition of literary-analytical, literary-historical, sociological, translation studies and other theoretical approaches. We have highlighted particular areas above to which this model might be applied. More broadly, our findings invite government and third-sector organisations to consider how clearly they define objectives and measure success in funding literary translation, and how effective literary translation can be as a tool of cultural diplomacy and the spread and strengthening of civil society. Our findings highlight to the publishing industry that translated literature should not be understood monolithically, but rather can be successfully supported through various approaches. Similarly, our findings highlight to authors and translators the increasingly diverse, including digital/on-line ways in which they can attempt to reach international audiences without waiting for discovery.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description Following the release of our on-line report in June 2017, it was presented by the PI to publishers, translators and agents at the Oxford Translation Day and featured in the on-line translation magazine Asymptote ( It thus quickly fed into on-line industry discussion ( and we have each had numerous translators tell us that the report has been discussed and highly praised in on-line discussion groups. We are monitoring concrete impacts resulting from this reception.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Public Workshop, Free Word Centre, London 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact This workshop focused on the role of literary translation in cultural diplomacy and the promotion of international dialogue. It was attended by around 30 people, mostly embassy staff, cultural centre managers, and third-sector advocates of translated literature. The discussion highlighted an important discrepancy between third-sector and national approaches to literary translation, with the third-sector wishing to prioritise diversity of a fragile 'eco-system', and civil servants wanting more coherent strategies from funders. The potential for academic research to inform third-sector practice was thoroughly considered and plans initiated.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description The Choreography of Translation: European Literature Night Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This public workshop explored the roles played by translators, agents, publishers and others in selecting a text for translation, publication and promotion abroad. It was held under the auspices of European Literature Night 2015 at the British Library, with the support of the European Department at the British Library and the Czech Centre London. Our lead participants were Vladislav Bajac (Geopoetika, Belgrade), Susan Curtis-Kojakovic (Istros Books), Margaret Jull Costa (translator, Portuguese and Spanish literature) and Nicole Witt (Literary Agency Mertin, Frankfurt). The audience consisted mainly of emerging and established translators, publishers and other advocates for the literatures of smaller European nations. We moved closer to identifying models of coordination that work and models that do not, but many variables remained for the project to examine. Amid a general mood of cautious optimism and vigorous advocacy, concerns were raised about the availability in libraries of translated literature, the dominance of London as a location for the discussion and promotion of translated literature in the UK, the privileging of fiction over poetry and the absence of discussion of translated literature in schools.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Who Reads the Literatures of Small Nations and Why? 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Around 30 members of the public, including representatives of local reading groups, and a number of translators gathered at the Bath Royal Literary Scientific Institution to discuss reader attitudes to translated literature, how it is best sold and promoted and how it might attain a wider reach. Our lead participants, Nic Bottomley (Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath), Stephanie Seegmuller (then of Pushkin Press) and Simon Winder (Penguin Press) spoke as booksellers, editors and publishers about their perceptions of readers, how they attempt to reach and engage with them and understand their tastes. We also reported the results of a reader survey which had received over 300 responses. The event engendered a sense that a range of intermediaries would have a voice in our work, which we have sustained in subsequent activities. The discussion was very valuable in highlighting to the researchers key concepts and questions to be examined in the project. One participant wrote a report on the event for the Institute of Translating and Interpreting:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015