Excitement and Possibility by Bill Swainson
(An extract from My BCLT 30th Anniversary Edition)
I first went to the British Centre for Literary Translation in 1991. It had recently won support from the Arts Council and been encouraged to establish a pool of outside advice, so it was as a literary advisor that I first met Max Sebald and Adam Czerniawski, the director and his able deputy. I felt an impostor from the beginning, because if anyone was in need of literary advice it was me.
I already knew of Adam through his work as the editor of The Burning Forest: Modern Polish Poetry, but Max was an unknown quantity. The serious, engaging, modest, ironical and occasionally peppery director of a bold experiment as I discovered him to be, was also, it turned out, an author and his new book Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants) had just appeared on Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s ‘Die Andere Bibliothek’ list at Eichborn Verlag in Frankfurt. Adam insisted that I consider it – ‘Max would never push himself forward,’ he said – so I asked two English poets living in Germany to write reports – Michael Hulse working at Deutsche Welle in Cologne and John Hartley Williams teaching at the Free University in Berlin – and both came back saying in very different ways that it was an extraordinary book and should be published. I was then working with Christopher MacLehose at Harvill, and that is where the first three books – The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo – appeared in English translations by Michael Hulse from 1996. I have written about editing Max in Issue 48 of In Other Words, and Michael has written about the experience of translating him in Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt’s incomparable Sebald handbook, Saturn’s Moons. Not all authors are so fortunate in their champions, nor are all literary advisors so richly and unexpectedly rewarded.
Initially, BCLT offered 4-week bursaries for translators translating from any European language into any other European language, and provided accommodation, the use of a library and, perhaps most important of all, a community of fellow translators and academics. When I joined the advisory board, there was great excitement about plays, especially Polish plays, and Janet Garton already had the Norvik Press under way. It was clear that in addition to his many other qualities Max was both a supportive colleague and a great encourager of others’ efforts.
In 1992, perhaps the highpoint of BCLT’s public-facing work in its early years, Max and his colleagues organised a conference called the European Writers Forum. The writers, who read their work and spoke in the discussions that December weekend, were Marie Cardinal, Cees Nooteboom, Lars Gustafsson, Jaan Kaplinski, Gianni Celati, Julian Ríos, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ryszard Kapuściński and Max Sebald himself. It was a heady time: the Berlin Wall had fallen two years previously, and the Baltic States and the rest of what was known till then as Eastern Europe, not to mention Russia, were establishing independent governments. Those of us lucky enough to be at UEA that weekend revelled in the sense that another larger, more exciting and undivided Europe was possible.
The conference opened my eyes to a literature beyond the western European mainstream, and having begun my publishing career with John Calder it seemed a natural extension of that earlier experience to explore a wider world. Under Christopher MacLehose, Harvill was already publishing or on the point of publishing Jaan Kaplinski, Lars Gustafsson and Cees Nooteboom, and many, many others.
As funding proved increasingly difficult to find after the initial influx of EU funds that launched BCLT, the conference and the bursaries changed and adapted so that by the early 2000s, the focus was on the annual summer school. I watched the translation community grow in that time – at the annual Sebald lecture, the summer school in July, and with the establishment of mentoring schemes – and although my focus (thanks to BCLT regular Anne McLean) was usually at those times on Spanish-language writers (Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Brenda Lozano and Eduardo Halfón among them), it was clear that the beneficial impact of BCLT on many would-be and emerging translators working with a wide range of languages was huge.
In summer 2018, I found myself at BCLT no longer as an advisor, or as an interested observer, but leading the Baltic Writers workshop on editing translations and chairing the publishing panel. It was exhausting and exhilarating, a true baptism of fire, both in terms of the intense concentration and the intense heat of the UEA campus in July. More than once I looked out at the burnt savannah surrounding the relatively cool teaching rooms and wondered how the rabbits survived on grass that looked about as nourishing as coconut matting.
What’s great about BCLT – from the teaching at UEA, through initiatives like the mentoring scheme started by Daniel Hahn in 2010, to the public-facing work, now under the wing of the National Centre for Writing – is the sense of excitement and possibility it stimulates in cohort after cohort of aspiring and emerging translators and the fact that good ideas are always given the chance to flourish. Now translation studies and translation events are increasingly common and increasingly well attended across the country, and world literature is increasingly available and the preferred reading of many. Publishers still need to edit to help create the best possible English text of a work originally written in another language, but the range of languages and the quality of the translators able to take on challenging literature has changed our work significantly for the better.
So chapeau to Max Sebald, Adam Czerniawski and their colleagues, for quixotically starting off something that has become that rare good thing: a resilient institution capable of adapting to circumstances but one which stays true to its core values of expert translation and great literary writing.
Bill Swainson has worked for mainstream and independent publishers since 1976, including John Calder, Allison & Busby, Fourth Estate, Harvill Press and Bloomsbury, where he was Senior Commissioning Editor for fifteen years. Since 2015 he has worked as a freelance editor and literary consultant, publishing fiction in translation under his own name at MacLehose Press and non-fiction at Oneworld.
This article is from a book published in January 2020 to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the British Centre for Literary Translation. My BCLT (30th Anniversary Edition) is a collection of articles by individuals that have either worked with the BCLT over the years or have been a part of BCLT programmes, such as the annual Summer School.
Photo credit: Anita Staff