For the past 3 years I’ve been part of the editorial team on a magazine called ‘12 Swiss Books’ produced annually by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. Over 6 months we lovingly select 12 Swiss books from all the many publications written in the ‘Famous Four’ Swiss languages (and sometimes dialects), which we think you would like to translate, publish and read in English. We provide sample translations, author bios, feature articles and opinion pieces – all in English. They’re then packaged up in a snazzily-designed magazine and launched at Frankfurt Book Fair (this week!). 12 Swiss Books is a true labour of literary love. It’s an astute trend-spotter and we are proud of it. When the shortlist for the all-important national Swiss Book Prize was announced last month, 4 of the 5 novels on their list coincided with our choices. You can read the magazine and upload it for free here
For each magazine, each year, I write a feature article about a key aspect of British international literary life. This year I interviewed Rose Fenton the director of Free Word (https://freewordcentre.com), nicknamed ‘London’s first literature house’. It’s a frank and revealing interview – and with the kind permission of my colleagues at Pro Helvetia I am reprinting it here.
Rose Fenton OBE is one of Britain’s most influential, innovative and international cultural leaders. In 1980 she co-founded LIFT, the world-famous London International Festival of Theatre. Her Curriculum Vitae is impressive. She’s initiated several European arts projects and in 2011 became Director of Free Word, London’s first ‘Literature House’.
Rosie Goldsmith: What is the idea behind Free Word? How did Free Word come about and why?
Rose Fenton: Free Word is an international centre for literature, literacy and free expression that explores and celebrates the transformative power of words to change lives. It opened in 2009 here in Farringdon, an area of London with a tradition of pamphleteering, dissent and literature, which we are proud to honour in our work. A lot of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was set here. He achieved so much with his novels, providing fantastic stories but also getting the nation thinking about its social responsibility. His novels helped pave the way for immense social change. We also believe in the power of stories to create change and the imagination to elicit empathy. Free Word is a labyrinth of offices, meeting places, a hall, theatre and café. We are home to six remarkable organisations, such as English PEN, which supports international translation and campaigns for the right of everyone to read and write. The Reading Agency promotes reading and literacy in our libraries, schools and communities, beyond the educated literati. We also host Arvon which runs writing courses up and down the country, in houses left as legacies by writers to help other writers develop their craft. We are an ‘umbrella’ for six residents, thirty associates and hundreds of writers, translators, publishers and campaigners who use Free Word for meetings and events. It is a lively, creative hub; a rich laboratory of ideas. We also run a year-round programme of talks, debates, screenings, music, poetry and parties. But competition for audiences and funding is huge in London. Major venues like the Southbank Centre, the British Library, King’s Place and many more offer world-class events every day and we each need to find our place.
RG: What is Free Word’s Unique Selling Point?
RF: One example: in 2010, with our partners, we launched International Translation Day (ITD) in the UK, as an annual gathering for translators, publishers, booksellers and media to discuss all issues around translation. As you yourself know, compared to other countries, Britain is lamentable in how few books we translate from other languages – about 4 %, compared to, say, 50-60 % in Germany. There are lots of reasons but our island mentality and arrogance about Anglo-Saxon writing and thinking are reasons for me. ‘A novel from Afghanistan?!’ people protest: ‘We’ll surely get confused over the names and geography!’ And so on… But what matters at Free Word is good story-telling and how literature can provide a window on our world to help understand the world. Our first International Translations Days here at Free Word were packed. The whole building buzzed with conversations: How to get more translated books into bookshops; how to promote them; how to help the profession of translator; how to encourage more language-learning in schools; what are the fears of publishers in this market? Because publishers will say, ‘It’s all very well having marvellous stories but there’s too much prejudice in the UK, readers are sceptical about translated literature and it’s expensive to publish’. Anyway, so great was the appetite for these conversations and workshops that we decided to take a risk and move ITD out of our small theatre to bigger venues. Our new partner is the British Library. It was great timing for both of us: BL wanted to promote their translation archives and we wanted to amplify the discourse on translation. In 2013 ITD took place in the big Conference Centre of the British Library. It was full then too! And there were waiting lists! So, contrary to the official discourse, ‘nobody is interested in translation’, we were overwhelmed with interest. We are now thinking how to extend ITD through the year. So we work with university departments and may offer regional variations of ITD. Free Word is London-based but our role is also to share knowledge and ideas and connect with our regional equivalents, like the Writers’ Centre Norwich, which has developed a very successful international perspective. Being international is part of our core purpose; ITD and our new European Literature Houses project are central to that.
RG: In the rest of Europe Free Word would possibly be called a Literature House but formally they don’t exist in the UK. To what extent do you model yourself on them?
RF: Free Word was very much inspired by the German Literature House idea which became popular about twenty-five years ago and spread to Austria, Switzerland and France. Then there were interesting Writers’ Houses in cities like Moscow or East Berlin or Bucharest and also Translators’ Houses, a sort of amalgamation of both. Fritt Ord (‘free word’ in Norwegian!), one of our key sponsors, is a private foundation supporting freedom of expression and free press. It helped found the Literature House in Oslo and needed little persuasion to support us in London, because those paradoxes – of being a world city, yet insular, not having a Literature House yet having a strong tradition of literature – made sense.
RG: This summer Free Word achieved a major coup, something you instigated: you brought together European Literature Houses from the whole of Europe to the UK for the first time. Why did you do it? What did you learn?
RF: Four years ago in Oslo, Fritt Ord hosted a specialist gathering of core Literature Houses mostly from western Europe. It was really important and everybody said they’d like to meet again. London and Free Word were suggested. I saw it as a great way to familiarize myself with Literature Houses, to expand the idea to Writers’ and Translation Houses and to include a greater diversity of voices from across Europe, as well as to strategic individuals and organisations in the UK. We had forty-two delegates, from Turkey and Georgia to traditional ‘houses’ like Germany, France and Switzerland. It was ground-breaking. We were catalysts for each other. We found partners to develop European projects. We shared best practice, new ideas and got to know each other.
RG: It was a closed conference of intense discussion, panels and workshops: what do you think people took away from it?
RF: It was the most remarkable gathering. It ‘stretched’ the networks, if you like: stretched them beyond the comfortable Literature House network. It made people think about the relationship between free expression and literature and those hard-fought freedoms in Europe, many now under threat. You had to hear the Hungarians and Georgians talk. And we all discussed how we integrate, without becoming overtly politicised, how we navigate free speech, how we ‘freshen up’ the traditional Literature House idea – something the Germans, French and Swiss raised. How also we support writers and engage with wider audiences and the digital development of literature and translation exchange.
RG: It’s a fact that here in Britain we are ahead of the game with digital.
RF: Our use of social media, and how writers can engage online, shows how digital can be incredibly creative and develop new, more inclusive relationships with audiences, beyond the narrow elites. For all of us at that meeting, I think it shook up our notions of what a Literature House can be and of our role in Europe today at a time when we need to be vigilant.
RG: What’s your own background Rose? How did your ideas develop?
RF: I am a committed internationalist. My childhood was spent travelling around Eastern Europe in a van, living in forests in Poland, on beaches in Romania, going to a village school in Greece. I was co-director of the London International Festival of Theatre for twenty-five years, bringing theatre from all over the world to perform in London and I approached Free Word with the same philosophy – smashing through hierarchies, our Anglo-Saxon arrogance, engaging with communities and providing other voices and international perspectives. The paradox of Britain is that we’ve got this insular mentality but in London we have one of the most diverse populations in the world. 300 languages are spoken here. Half the children in our state schools in London speak English as a second language. And rather than saying this is a terrible problem – as some politicians do – I say let’s celebrate it because it means we can be world players, not in the old assertive colonial sense, but through dialogue. If someone lives part of their time here and part of their time in Nigeria and feels equally loyal to both countries that’s a huge asset as we forge forward in this complicated world. And that’s one of the things that really excites me about working in Free Word. The fact that it’s an international centre in a country where internationalism can still be viewed with suspicion.
RG: How difficult is it operating as cultural leader and internationalist in the UK?
RF: Increasingly difficult! This year’s EU elections across Europe proved that there is growing populism, nationalism and xenophobia. Britain has always been a sceptical European and the rise of UKIP, the UK Independence Party, means that mainstream parties are ‘borrowing some of their clothes’ in order to survive. We live in dangerous times and need to be incredibly vigilant. I think culture, literature and houses of literature and free expression, like Free Word, have a very important role to play in keeping the doors open to international ideas and dialogue and actually highlighting the benefit of a world conversation.
RG: As the Director of Free Word what did you personally take from your first conference of European Literature Houses here in London?
RF: A confirmation of a huge desire to work across borders in Europe and with unheard voices beyond, like Syria and Egypt. Artists and writers long for connections with like-minded organisations to exchange, to feel support and solidarity.
RG: Three Swiss Literature Houses, from Geneva, Basel and Zürich, attended the European Literature House gathering: how closely had you worked with the Swiss before? How do you assess your new collaboration?
RF: Some organisations I’d worked with before, but I met my Swiss colleagues for the first time this Summer. They were great and there’s huge potential for us to work together to overcome the clichés and ignorance in the UK about Swiss identity. I call myself an internationalist but I still can’t tell you what the Swiss ‘voice’ is. In the twenty-five years I ran LIFT we didn’t once host a Swiss theatre company in London, though we often went to Swiss festivals where we’d discover, you know, great Tunisian or Latin American companies. Switzerland is obviously very international. I’ve never visited their Literature Houses but I’ve now heard about their wonderful writers’ and translators-in-residence centres and such a wide variety of events and festivals. I personally think the Swiss situation is unknown in this country because of its diversity. They have many identities and languages and what was interesting in our discussions is that everything for the Swiss is about translation, which is a great topic for us to explore together, how we negotiate across several languages and cultures. They are a wealthy country, slightly distant from our EU preoccupations, sitting there confidently and comfortably. This may seem unfair but I don’t think we engage with one another enough culturally. I think the European Literature House movement is an opportunity to shift perceptions and collaborate on some wonderful projects. At the end of the conference we all agreed we’d like to reconvene in two years’ time. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Switzerland hosted it?