Who brings books from around the world to our bedside tables, tablets and headphones? When we encounter a novel from Japan or Argentina, how has it journeyed into our lives and how does this in turn shape the world we imagine? Who works to assist literature across international borders? And how can we conceptualise their ‘service’?
Writer and critic Boyd Tonkin, former literary editor of The Independent and Man Booker International Prize Judge joins the Prize’s inaugural joint-winner Deborah Smith and King’s College academic Zoe Norridge to unpick these questions. Taking the translator as a key figure in the global circulation of literature, we explore how this intrepid pioneer curates the UK public’s view of the world by selecting, championing and rendering accessible distant writing.
Since it was first awarded in 1969, the Booker Prize has shaped the way in which British and international audiences have read and understood the world. Originally limited to Commonwealth writers, winners such as Rushdie, Naipaul and Coetzee have extended and complicated readers’ conceptions of the ‘anglosphere’. The reconfigured Man Booker International Prize, re-launched in 2016 after its merger with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, takes this further by rewarding a work of fiction in translation. In its first year the judges celebrated Korean novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.
When Smith decided to pitch her translation of Han’s beautifully crafted and disconcerting novel to her publisher, Portobello Books, she began a journey bringing insights into Korean perceptions of what it means to be human to UK audiences worlds apart. The publishing house she subsequently founded – Tilted Axis Press – continues this mission, shaking up international literature with translations of radical new writing.
We discuss why, at a time of increasingly policed borders, such movement across cultures is essential. Here, to translate is indeed a world service.
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