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Catalan Literature: One Year Later

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.

Catalan Culture was last year’s Guest of Honor at the Fair, and put on a huge display of Catalan culture, and producing a number of slick publications and presentations to help make people aware of their rich literary tradition. (It’s sad, but I think a lot of Americans–and possibly others–think that Catalan is a Spanish dialect rather than recognizing that it’s a unique language. Again, Horace Engdahl, lack of literature in translation, America isolationism, etc., etc., etc.) Based on the sheer number of people visiting their booth and attending their fabulous parties, it seemed pretty successful, and based on my conversation with Carles Torner of the Ramon Llull Insitut, this positive effect has carried over quite well.

“Being the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair was very important to us,” Torner said. “By the end of this year there will have been as many translations of Catalan books into other languages as there was in 2007.” Which sounds sort of static, but is actually a huge gain considering that 53 titles (including a lot of multi-volume titles) were published in German in preparation for the Frankfurt Book Fair.

(I’m going to digress for a moment here: as I typed that it occured to me just how special it is to be the Guest of Honor. And just how civil, bookish, and outward looking the German publishing scene is. There’s a better chance of the Cubs winning the World Series than American publishers getting together and publishing a shitload of books in translation in preparation for BookExpo America. Dead horse, beating it, I know, I know, but for all doubters of Engdahl’s statments, here’s another instance pointing to just how right he is.)

(Another digression: the press I run is publishing three Catalan works over the next eighteen-months thanks to last year’s FBF and an amazing visit to Barcelona.)

Carles’s feeling is that the publication of Catalan literature–classic, modern, and contemporary–by German publishers sent a message to the rest of the publishing world. Jaume Cabre is a perfect example. After being published by Surhkamp for the Fair, his latest novel Les veus del Pamano was picked up by Dutch, Italian, French, and even Romanian publishers. That’s how the network of publishers I’ve mentioned before functions: if a couple well-respected presses publish a book, it sends a message to everyone else that they should pay attention. (Well–again with the horse–except maybe in the case of Le Clezio. He’s published by Hanser in Germany and many other fantastic presses, but Simon & Schuster doesn’t seem to be rushing his books back into print . . .)

In terms of numbers, over 80 translations of Catalan books came out last year around the world (or at least were subsidized by the Ramon Llull Institut) and that number will likely be broken this year.

Carles also mentioned that another great effect of being the Guest of Honor is the fact that they no longer have to spend time explaining what Catalonia is–something that used to be a huge problem. But now there are other problems. Similar to the situation with Dutch and China (see my earlier post), some Greek publishers became very interested in acquiring Catalan works last year, but at the time there were no Catalan to Greek literary translators . . . So the Ramon Llull Insitut organized a special seminar, helped get some translators up to speed, and now eight books are under contract with Greek publishers.

Since last year’s Fair, the Ramon Llull Institut has continued to expand its activities, hosting a number of events at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival (including one to celebrate the Review of Contemporary Fiction’s New Catalan Writing issue), planning a seminar in New York in November 2009 to bring together translators, critics, and publishers interested in Catalan culture, and opening an office in New York next year.



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