Boyd Tonkin: Songs of praise for books across borders

The Week In Books
Click to follow

A couple of weeks ago, in these pages, I introduced the long-list for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The judges are now re-reading our 16 candidates in preparation for the meeting, at the end of March, that has the task of carving out from this multi-talentedfield a shortlist of six. Check the contenders – and please read a few – at . At the time, however, I failed to specify where I wrote that article – because, frankly, it would have sounded like such a preposterous distraction from the job in hand.

I sat at a terminal in the panelled library of a Baroque palace in Salzburg, Austria, overlooking the frozen and snow-carpeted lake that – in its more summery dress – features in The Sound of Music. Beyond the lake the peak of the Untersberg scintillated in its winter whites: the mountain that, in the movie, the Von Trapp clan plan to cross in their melodic flight from the Nazi yoke. I've never had the run of a Prince-Archbishop's pile before, let alone one that stars in the campest classic of all.

Since 1947, Schloss Leopoldskron has hosted the Salzburg Global Seminar. This long-running series of results-oriented international conferences began with a post-war Atlanticist agenda, but has broadened its remit to become a sort of multi-episodic think-tank on social, cultural and economic topics that overrides all frontiers. It expects hard work (honestly...) in exchange for the chance to breakfast in Archbishop Firmian's marble hall, study in Max Reinhardt's library (the director and impresario, who founded the Salzburg Festival, took over and renovated the Schloss after the First World War) and murder "Edelweiss" around the piano in its cellar Bierstube.

In a session entitled "Traddutore Traditore?", the 461st Salzburg seminar turned its well-focused gaze to literary translation and, in particular, on ways to promote the unique art that allows books to jump cross the borders of language, and to reward its often-unsung practitioners. If Britain seemed slightly over-represented among a group of 70-odd translators, writers, agents, publishers and organisers from 27 countries, well, a culture that closes its ears to much world-class work from other tongues does need remedial therapy. I tried to argue that lovers of literature without boundaries should not make a fetish of the sheer numbers - such as the notorious if unprovable "three per cent" total figure for translations among books in English. Instead, the cargo of imported treasures that does survive the journey into Anglophonia should benefit from noisier celebration than it often receives. Hence the rationale of the Independent prize, which forms part of Arts Council England's portfolio of projects to magnify the role of literature in translation.

The UK or US perspective at such gatherings always fixes on the tough task of re-balancing the terms of trade between all-conquering English and other languages. In Salzburg, it was revealing - and humbling - to learn about the lives of translators elsewhere who seek to make an often scanty living from the commercial blockbusters of the Anglophone world. Translations from English have risen by 60 per cent across Europe over 15 years, according to research by Rüdiger Wischenbart.

In Britain, with translation still a relative rarity, its choicest talents can often look like maverick artisans who practise an arcane craft for love as much as gain. In other lands, where translated bestsellers swamp the charts, they labour – and organise – as underpaid piece-workers in a callous heavy industry. Does Ken Follett, for example, know that his medieval doorstops are converted into Spanish not by a single toiler but by an all-woman collective in Barcelona? The message came across with no ambiguity from Argentina and Slovenia, Germany and Bulgaria. Translators from around Europe and beyond made it as plain as the snow on the summits that fair terms, realistic workloads, above-starvation pay and watertight contracts - tied up with legal string – always count as a few of their favourite things.

P.S.While this year's Orange Prize long-list hosts a scatter of well-known names – from Toni Morrison to Kamila Shamsie – it also spotlights intriguing newcomers. Ann Weisgarber's novel of a black family in the 1910s who leave Chicago for a harsh farming life in the "Badlands", The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, comes from Macmillan's controversial New Writing imprint. Founded by Michael Bernard in 2006, MNW deals directly with authors rather than agents, offers debut novelists no advances, demands first refusal of a second book – but does deliver high royalties on sales of its handsome hardback editions. In spite of much initial scepticism, most writers who have signed up to the MNW terms sound happy with their treatment, and the stable – as Weisgarber shows – competes with ever-more success against traditional imprints. With so few literary-fiction lists now open to new blood, it can only thrive.