Literary translations in the library tower

The UL’s Tall Tales exhibition has opened up to public view some of the treasures held in the seventeen floors of the library tower. One of the cases, to which I contributed, concentrates on literary prizewinners, a topic with which regular readers of this blog will be familiar. When selecting items to go on display, the challenge was to pick half a dozen titles that could somehow reflect the astonishing diversity of material to be found in the tower collections: the serious and the intellectual sit alongside works that are altogether less highbrow. Similarly, the range of literary prizes that are out there to be won is mind-boggling: could I include the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards? (There are eight categories each year.) The Waverton Good Read Award, handed out annually by the residents of Waverton (a village in Cheshire) to the best debut novel published in the past twelve months? (It was set up in 2003, inspired by Le Prix de la Cadière, a similar prize given out by the Provençal town of La Cadière D’Azur.) The Bad Sex in Fiction Award? (It goes to some unlikely recipients: in 2016, it was awarded to the Italian novelist Erri De Luca, for his novel The Day Before Happiness (Il giorno prima della felicità). A less illustrious prize, perhaps, than the others he has collected during his career, which include the Prix Fémina Étranger.)

While most of the books which appear in the exhibition are ones that were received via legal deposit, I wanted to highlight the fact that the UL also buys material from all over the world, and so one of the literary prizes I decided to include in the case was the International Dublin Literary Award. Drawn from nominations submitted by libraries worldwide, it is given annually to a novel either written in, or translated into, English; if the latter, the €100,000 award is split, with €75,000 going to the author, and €25,000 going to the translator. Translators can sometimes find that they are competing with themselves: in 2006, the shortlist included both John Cullen’s translation of Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul, 2003.8.6044), and his rendering of Margaret Mazzantini’s Don’t Move (Non ti muovere, 741:39.c.200.108). The book that features in Tall Tales is A General Theory of Oblivion (Teoria geral do esquecimento, C207.c.5150) by José Eduardo Agualusa, an Angolan writer, and translated by Daniel Hahn, which in 2017 became the first Portuguese novel to win the award (and which was also shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize). It was not, however, the first time that author and translator had enjoyed this kind of success as a pair: in 2007, Hahn’s translation of Agualusa’s The Book of Chameleons (O Vendedor de Passados, C200.d.9164), claimed the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Following on from their 2017 award, Daniel Hahn used some of his winnings to establish a new prize, for first-time translators; it will be awarded for the first time in February 2019.

The Tall Tales exhibition runs until the end of this week; on Sunday, there will be a Festival of Ideas event (no need to book), with library staff sharing some of their favourite books from the tower. If you’re interested in what else can be found in the library tower, the Tower Project blog, which flagged up some of the weird and wonderful items discovered during the project to catalogue the nineteenth-century material stored there, is well worth a browse.

Rebecca Gower

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