Found in translation


To know a stranger is to read their story, says Caro Llewellyn, director of PEN World Voices.

PEN World Voices, the New York Festival of International Literature, was established in 2005 by Salman Rushdie as a forum for the literature of the rest of the world.

Conceived by perhaps the world’s most controversial living writer, it is not surprising that this festival has become one of the most political events on the international literary circuit. Over the course of the last four years, it has matured into a six-day festival featuring 160 writers.

This year’s incarnation, themed “evolution/revolution”, was the most charged to date. It was conceived in response to a sense of crisis in the US, in the old sense of κρίσις, or decisive turning-point, a period defined in equal parts by peril and hope.

Central to the festival’s evolution has been Caro Llewellyn, who, as director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival for four years, more than doubled attendance figures.

More significantly, she gained an enviable reputation among the writers she worked with, and when PEN was seeking a permanent director for 2007, they received an influx of emails from authors around the world suggesting Llewellyn for the job.

Adam Jasper spoke to Caro Llewellyn in New York about the highs and lows of running PEN World Voices.

ADAM JASPER: What was it like first becoming involved in the World Voices festival?

CARO LLEWELLYN: I came at the end of September 2006, and the first festival was in April 2007, so it was a bit of a scramble. For the first six weeks, I slept on an inflatable mattress in an empty apartment, eating dinner sitting on the floor. It was such an incredible period.

Rushdie is still the chair of the festival. I work with him very closely. Before, it was a whole lot of people consulting and helping out, but I was the first formal director to come on. There were wonderful people working to pull it together, it was a miracle. There’s an incredible woman, Esther Allen, a translator, who got it going with Salman and people at PEN. It was extraordinary, to think they could do it.

Nobody ever thought that this festival would last. Everyone thought that there was too much going on. On any one night, it’s possible to hear one star author or another at a small venue here, and the New York public library does a lot of events. But after two years, the festival not only survived but proved itself, and they decided to get serious and that they needed someone to run it.

AJ: How is it working with Rushdie?

CL: It’s great. Salman is amazing. New York has him to thank for this festival. It was his idea, he got it going, he put his weight behind it. I talk to him most days.

It doesn’t matter where he is in the world. If I send him a message, I get an answer back in five minutes. He helps raise money, he’s an incredible spokesperson for the festival. He’s very lovely, he’s just great. He’s very encouraging and appreciative. Even when he’s trying to write books as well. He loves the festival and he makes time ?for it. It’s a very big priority ?for him.

AJ: Did you import a model based on the Sydney Writers’ Festival?

CL: The festival here had already been going for two years, and so there was a structure to it. Panel discussions, readings and conversations are the same no matter where you do them, it’s just the focus changes.

All the same, this festival is more political, and it is more about the specifics of translation, and bringing world voices to the US, which is very insular. Likewise, the writers’ festivals in Australia are focused mainly on English language literature, whereas here on stage we’ll often have two or three writers who’ll need translators.

AJ: You have a reputation as a voracious reader. How do you combine that with the enormous workload that you are under at this time of year?

CL: I never want to lose the love of reading, but I’ve been doing less of it this year, because it’s been a very problematic year trying to raise money, so a lot of my attention has been on that, which isn’t great, but it’s the reality of the situation.

I mean it’s important that when writers arrive, they do not feel hung out to dry. It’s important that you show them the respect that they are due. Part of that is trying to be as familiar with their work as one can.

AJ: The question of translation seems to be central to the programming of the festival. Can you tell me more about why that is?

CL: I think the whole question of language is very political. If you look at Spain, those who write in Catalan make a very political and conscious decision to do so. It would be easier for them, they would get more coverage if they wrote in Spanish, but many of them choose not to.

A lot of the writers who are here, they don’t have books that are translated into English. There is the whole issue of the English world–that English is gobbling up languages. I don’t know the figures, but languages are dying every minute of the day.

In the US, fewer than 3 per cent of books published are from translations. That’s a tiny, tiny proportion. The US is very under-exposed to the rest of the world, whereas in a country like France, it’s something closer to between 30 and 50 per cent. They are looking outward. They are buying the world’s books.

American writers are translated almost instantaneously into German, and many writers that I speak to around the world say they’ve been published in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, French etc, but cannot get published in English. Very big writers, in their own countries, cannot get into this market.

AJ: What are the consequences of that?

CL: Well, I think what’s been happening in the US over the last eight years is the consequence. How can you understand the rest of the world if you don’t read their stories? I don’t just mean their non-fiction. Writers give a great insight into the rest of the world, and if you don’t read their books, you can’t get a handle on it. You sit with a book for days, a movie lasts an hour and a half, it’s a different sort of involvement.

Translators are the unsung heroes of literature. We do this thing called the translation slam. The whole idea is to give people an idea of the translation process. A good translator, for any work, political or not, has to get the sense, the feel, the meter.

It’s true that other countries are also affected by isolation. We are about to embark on a project with Russian PEN. Russia is a mirror image of the US. They are not translating the rest of the world either. And they are now equally isolated culturally and politically.

AJ: You’re on the barricades!

CL: PEN is a political organisation. Around the world, we take on governments. We are fighting a case with this government here. There is a writer, Tariq Ramadan, who we invited to the festival, but he can’t get a visa. He has a job teaching, if they would only let him in. We’ve just had a court case, and are working with the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union].

There’s good reason that literature and political activity are linked. Wonderful non-fiction is incredibly powerful, but you have to already be turned on to a topic to pick up a book.

But the amazing thing about fiction is that it can bring you into a new interest via a story. It’s the most powerful tool that we have. It enables people to change positions, to move from the position from which they started. I remember Bernard Schlink’s The Reader which totally changed the way in which I thought about a historical event.

A couple of years ago, we brought a couple of Palestinian writers to Sydney, and their stories about going shopping and how difficult it was for this woman to feed her family, and walk across a sniper range every day to feed a family...I knew it was much more powerful than reading another essay or looking at a newspaper to see how many people had been killed the day before. That is what results in compassion fatigue. People read it over and over again, they skip over it, we all do.

But when you hear someone talk about their own story, it moves people.
Everybody comes to the table with their own position: I believe this and I believe that. Through storytelling, you can change people, you can change the positions that people might irrationally hold. That’s why writers are targets for repressive governments, because it’s a powerful medium.

AJ: How do you work with the star authors?

CL: The older statespeople know that part of their role in the festival is to promote lesser-known writers, so, for example, I invited Richard Ford. Richard Ford told me he didn’t want to do the festival. He’s sick of doing stuff, he’s sick of talking about his work. So instead, I asked if he would interview this young short-story writer, and he said, “Send me his book, if I like it I will. As long as I don’t have to talk about my own work, it’s fine”.

I sent him the book–by Nam Le, a Vietnamese-Australian writer and they’re going to be on stage together. Nam’s book has done well here, but the great thing is that we are able to use Richard as the draw to expose people to Nam.

There’s a great generosity among the writers. We had a Saudi writer, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, come last year [Al-Mohaimeed is published in Beirut to avoid censorship]. I put him on a panel, a discussion with Ian McEwan, and they ended up becoming great friends. They hung out all through the week and they went to dinner. Yousef has one book published here, but was essentially completely unknown. Everybody loved him, he was fantastic. Now, it turned out that Yousef wrote travel books in Arabic. So Ian asked what his favourite place was that he had covered, and Yousef said Norwich [laughter].

Ian got back to his hotel, and rang the Dean of Norwich University, and said we’ve got this great writer, so Ian organised for Yousef to go to Norwich on a residency there, and they are going to translate part of his book into English. Every year, wonderful things happen, and that’s what keeps me going, even when I’m eating dinner on the floor.

Caro Llewylln is director of PEN World Voices.