From the window above my desk I can see straight into four of my neighbours’ offices. The workspace belonging to the family opposite sits to the side, almost in their house’s pocket. Its occupant slinks away from the rest of the building to nest in that forgotten room for 6 hours at a time. Whether I should be watching is an entirely different matter. As a rule, the British are blessed with rubber necks, prying eyes and incorrigible noses and in the second month of lockdown, looking has become what we are both born and now forced to do. Yet for a nation so deeply invested in other people’s business, in some areas stares invariably point inwards. When it comes to literature, we seem to care little for affairs outside our own country. This is a tale told by the often quoted statistic that Ted Hodgkinson, the current Chair of the International Booker Prize, relates part way through our Skype conversation. “The UK translates 3% of its literature, and this is comparatively very low if you look at almost any other country”. A recurrent feature of Hodgkinson’s career has been addressing these national blinkers. Prior to the International Booker, he held posts as a British Council literature programmer for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, as well as managing the Santa Maddalena Foundation in Tuscany and being involved in Granta’s ‘Best Untranslated Writers’ series in his tenure as online editor. He is also the Head of Literature and Spoken word at London’s Southbank Centre. After weeks of office-peering it is refreshing to see someone seated, as he is, in a kitchen.
I suggest that, like most news bulletins right now, we start with Coronavirus, asking about the impact that the pandemic has had on literary circles and live events. Hodgkinson is characteristically complimentary and tuned-in to the happenings of his industry in replying.
“One of the underlying drivers for live events is that before any of this happened, we spent so much of our lives online that I think live events in some respects were born out of a desire to be in the room with an author and to hear them speak, and to have that very ancient connection to a storyteller. Live events are deliberately rooted in the physical and the real world interactions. But the sector is an immensely imaginative and ingenious one and you’ll have seen lots of digital events mushrooming up.
“The best ones have really embraced the form, they brought the best things about the live event, the intimacy, the personal touch, the personal interaction, but they’ve embraced the digital.”
His praise and optimism jars with my now unmoving face, Skype having chosen to freeze at that exact moment. Hodgkinson goes on to talk about ‘Hay Online’, Intelligence Squared’s new subscription service and work done by the Edinburgh Fringe to go digital, stressing as he goes the supportive spirit that the community has shown.
“I think there’s this feeling and desire to see others succeed in their various projects… it’s been actually really heartening.”
This isn’t the only positive development Hodkinson sees. When I ask which changes might stick around, he is quick to mention the new opportunities found in Covid culture.
“More on the educational end of the spectrum, one of the things I’ve been seeing a lot of is poets and writers who’ve been running online workshops and raving about the experience, and likewise their students. This has been a slightly under used avenue for people to connect with aspiring writers. If and when we get back to some kind of normality, it will tune us in to dimensions that we previously never considered before.”
Community work has long been part of the Southbank’s mission, and it is pleasing to see that those initiatives will not wither under current circumstances. But talking further, we get to the cost of the restrictions placed on live events, even in what Hodgkinson terms a “socially- distanceable” field, hastily apologising for the neologism. The absence of intimacy and proximity between creators and audiences is clearly tangible for him, and a nostalgia fills the kitchen on the distant end of the call.
“There is this ancient dynamic, that people do, as I see in my work all the time, really hunger after.
“If anything it will heighten our sense of what a special thing it was to be able to be in the same room as someone…you know there is such an intimacy between a reader and an author, you are completely within a world they’ve created. It can be one of the most profound kinds of connections.
“There’s a built in distance to these kind of [virtual] interactions. Digital forms are a kind of simulation…of approximation”. Skype buffers angrily.
“Joelle Taylor, who’s a poet very connected to Outspoken [a monthly poetry and music night at the Southbank Centre, featuring performances and workshops], said something I really love, that the audience is half the poem. It is not just about the audience’s access to the author, it is about the author’s access to the audience. They feed off each other. If you’re an author and you’re looking at a screen full of faces, that’s great and everything but it is all very fragmented and atomised.”
In much the same spirit of interaction, I now feel like an atomised audience, offering up ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ to compensate. Despite the distance, it is clear that these issues are central to Hodkinson’s idea of the power literary cultures hold. He discusses the very salient capacities that writers have to help us “navigate shifting social moors” and to illuminate the ways in which we “construct our language…and observe ourselves”. As well as to our own reflections in the screen, the latter point relates to another frequent reality of Hodgkinson’s work. Globalist approaches to literature and its accolades are often tasked with some kind of political purpose. This reflects the underlying assumption present in our conversation that translated fictions have a revelatory power that can offer insight into our own lives and aid in this self-observation. I ask about this political dimension, questioning how growth in translation as a practice relates to a world of Brexit, points-based immigration systems and growing isolationism.
“I think it’s really encouraging that sales of translated fiction were up 5.5% last year, and that the sales of translated literary fiction have gone up by 20%.
“It reflects a growing appetite for writing that represents worlds beyond our own, perhaps also writing that connects us to a sense of what unites us, what we share…as a human community beyond lines of culture and language and geography.
“Obviously behind those numbers, there is an immense amount of work going on. Translators and publishers, and authors as well are really at the coalface of this. In the last ten or so years, some people have been working on this for much longer, there has been a really concerted effort, a big push behind this.
“I think it has been helped enormously by certain prizes. I would say this wouldn’t I; the International Booker has been particularly helpful in the respect that it recognises the role of the translator”.
Formed in 2004 to be hosted alongside the Booker Prize for fiction (formerly the Man Booker Prize), the award Hodgkinson has been steering accepts submissions from writers of all nationalities whose work has been translated into English. The prize money of £50,000 is split evenly between author and translator. Hodgkinson elaborates on the impact of the organisation, noticeably proud of what it has achieved.
“What it did was really spotlight the translator, and recognised that this wasn’t just a case of carrying meaning in a very sort of plodding, workman-like way into another language…it was actually an art and the translator could really make a profound difference to the way an author was received in English.
“There is a silent conversation that happens between a translator and an author which is not on show in the final work necessarily, but if you’re looking for it you can see signs of the artistry, inventiveness and courage that is required to make those leaps.
“I think the International Booker Prize has been really instrumental in raising awareness of what translators do in our culture, at a moment when a lot of readers, as the statistics suggest, are looking outwards to the world beyond the Anglophone bubble.”
With his one year old son now on his knee, Hodgkinson stresses the importance of including international voices. He recalls a time in his former position at Granta, when published writers from abroad would question why their peers were not translated, noting that this oversight may be fading.
“One of the things that has been slowly shifting over the last few years, is an awareness of the fact that much of the most innovative, playful, formally ambitious and subversive writing isn’t necessarily being written in English. There are other literary cultures in the world that perhaps have a more porous notion of genre: they take a more playful attitude to categorisation, they delight in blurring the lines between novel and memoir or between, poetry and fiction. They revive our sense of the plasticity and endless possibilities for reinvention the novel presents.
“One of the things we get from writers like Han Kang, or any of the writers on the International Booker Prize list this year”, aptly digressing, he cites Shokoofeh Azar’s ‘The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’ for its fusion of Persian epic, magical realism and political elements, “is that writers like that can be smelling salts to the English tradition and the English novel. There are many formidable and terrific writers in English, but I think that there has been perhaps a false sense of hierarchy, not through any fault of those writers, that English language writing somehow has a sense of its own exceptionalism.
“What reading and translation can do is broaden your sense of just how big a conversation literature is, and how it allows for things which can be really enlivening. There is perhaps this wrongheaded idea that reading and translation is a sort of eating your greens or doing your homework and I find the opposite is true. It is a place where playfulness and form bending and the throwing off of convention is celebrated. It is much more a place that is filled with possibility and play.”
Every statement Hodgkinson makes is accompanied with an eager flurry of praise for the writers and translators involved. This keenness to acknowledge and commend is characteristic of the various projects discussed, but also of Hodgkinson’s conception of the role of prizes. Undeniably politicised and implicated in conversations around decolonisation and elitism, international prizes in particular offer plenty of fodder for their critics. When I ask about this, the response is measured and we joke about the perilous borders of ‘political’ discussions of culture.
“These things aren’t perfect. They all have their limits and space in the sense that each one has a different structure. In the case of the international prize, it is really true to its aims in the sense of a very broad reach, but it also has to rely on the strictures of publishing, the financial challenges and so on and at the moment it is a really challenging period for publishers. We rely on the ingenuity and brilliance of publishers to bring us the best writing from around the world, and in a time like this it is very hard for them to do that.”
As our discussion strays dangerously closer to a verdict on prizes and their worth, Hodgkinson makes an important distinction about these various structures.
“There are prizes where the panel is essentially an unelected group of people who preside over its selection for a long time. You still have a quite opaque system. That plays into a perception of a kind of closed doorsness. For the International Booker Prize, every year there is a new panel and the panel is selected by the Booker Foundation for their relevance and experience in the world of translation, so there is a degree of transparency… and a fairly open and public discussion of the jury.
“The constitution of a prize often mirrors its output, and therefore it is really vital that prizes are looking at the way they’re constituted in order to try and reach a wider audience. The people I know who are interested and involved in the literary prizes are really committed to reaching readers and the International Prize is very much an example of this; it is a prize for readers.
“We don’t think of it as a kind of coronation of a book. It’s very much a collaborative, collegial community exercise. A group of people who love writing in translation coming together and reviewing and reading these books in order to celebrate the very best of them. The endeavour is not to confer some kind of power on ourselves, but to push outwards these things that are worth celebrating.
“The most positive example I can give you is that since ‘The Vegetarian’ won the International Booker Prize, we have seen many more submissions from that part of the world, South Korea particularly, but also from Southeast Asia. Sales of ‘The Vegetarian’ went up 625%.”
Growth of the practice has also been seen closer to home. In the UK, specifically at Oxford, Hodgkinson’s Alma Mater, various projects share a similar cause with the International Booker. Events by organisations such as Queen’s College Translation Exchange and the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation, as well as the Stephen Spender Trust all promote the practice of translation in its academic and literary settings. But the closing of distance between “popular” and “academic” work seems a less vital impact to Hodgkinson. Although we never talk specifically of responsibility when discussing how globalism has affected English publishing, Hodgkinson is enthused by the social potential translation can have.
“Your question about decolonisation. This is a very thorny one and not easily answered. There are a lot of publishers on the UK publishing scene who are actively working at pushing against this in the respect that they are trying to upend old power structures…who are beating against that current. ‘Tilted Axis’ spring to mind, a fitting name and one that deliberately invokes that sense of recalibrating the power dynamics that exist in the world.
“You could say that the act of translation itself reverses the sense that English is the sort of supreme language and is a subversive act.”
Ever the spokesman, Hodgkinson loyally returns to defend prizes in this context, when I ask if the distinction between national and international literatures by awards could be seen as a damaging one.
“Juries have different priorities. So, you know, they are as imperfect as human society is as a whole. In my experience, most of the people involved in literary prizes are really passionately driven by a desire to want to connect with readers. And prizes are a way of cutting through the general noise of the media”
“And actually the language of winning and losing, as artificial as it may feel to many writers and authors, does help to kind of cut through the noise and to celebrate excellence where it exists.”
As our conversation ends I can’t help feeling that there is more to be said. Everything discussed involves ongoing projects and long processes of change to which Hodgkinson has been both party and witness throughout his career. Looking ahead, he comments that there are definitely “ways to make a syllabus [on translation] really sexy and contemporary”. “We are in a place where translation and the act of translation is really recognised as this creative act itself”, an accurate summation of his own work, and an optimistic note for the future.
The most obvious feature of arts projects during the Covid-19 pandemic has been well encapsulated by our discussion of the spirit and communities of translation: exchange, understanding and the broadening of conversations. Hodgkinson’s eagerness to promote and compliment his colleagues and other creators at every turn speaks to this, and we return home to his hopeful capital for the end of the interview.
“London has been through so many plagues and fires in the past, we are a pretty hardy city. I admire the people who are doing inventive things in my sector, so I hope they’ll come out of this smiling.”