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Foreign Literature Essay

Last night I was at the presentation of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, at the National Portrait Gallery, where a young Angolan writer, José Eduardo Agualusa, was announced the 2007 winner for his novel The Book of Chameleons, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Set in contemporary Angola, the book is particularly notable for being narrated by a lizard. The judges this year were the poet David Constantine, writer and editor Jennie Erdal, Arts Council Literature officer Kate Griffin, novelist Ali Smith and the literary editor of the Independent, Boyd Tonkin.

Admirably the prize is shared between the translator and author, thus honouring an art that often goes unsung. The book was evidently a popular choice and Agualusa received his award in person, accompanied by whoops and cheers. Tonkin extols the prize as “a unique bridge between writers abroad and readers at home”. As thrilled as I was that this talented newcomer beat such literary heavyweights as Ismail Kadare and Javier Marías, however, I was even more delighted that the award honours a small literary publisher, Arcadia, who recently celebrated their 10th anniversary.

The dedicated team at Arcadia are worthy recipients of this prestigious award, not just for bringing this imaginative young writer to an English readership, but overall for their championing of cultural diversity and for widening our literary choice – 50% of their 2007 lists are books in translation. Given the effects of globalisation elsewhere, it seems astonishing that we don’t translate more foreign literature in this country. Apparently, translated fiction accounts for only 3% of fiction sales in the UK, compared with 30-40% in France or Spain. The British are voracious readers, so why are we so insular?

Don’t we welcome unusual voices and different perspectives? How can we exert pressure on publishers to produce more translated fiction? For those interested in foreign literature, an excellent resource is Words Without Borders, an online magazine dedicated to promoting international exchange through translation and publishing works/extracts on the web. And if you’d like to see José Eduardo Agualusa and Daniel Hahn, they’ll be reading from The Book of Chameleons this evening at Foyles bookshop, London, 6.30pm – 8.30pm.

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