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The Stories We Tell – interview with Renata Clark

The Stories We Tell: The 2016 European Literature Festival started on April 27. Initiated by the Czech Centre the festival continues until the beginning of June and will introduce more than 50 writers and poets from more than 30 countries. We asked our colleague and Deputy Director of the Czech Centre Renata Clark to tell us more.

This year’s European Literature Night (ELN) is the 8th. From just one evening in the British Library in 2009, the festival has grown to host 21 events across six weeks this year. How did this happen?

Since it’s inception, the European Literature Night has gradually built up its reputation as an important platform for the promotion of European literature in translation. It seemed a shame not to use this potential and the interest of authors, publishers and our partners reaching far beyond the possibilities of a single event. So this year we are extending our activities beyond one night, beyond the walls of the British Library, and even beyond London.  We began by collaborating with London’s Free Word Centre, while  including   cities like Edinburgh and Birmingham in our programme, and then expanded our own range of programming. In addition to our initial high-profile, centrepiece night, there is, for example, an event regarding the European crime novel, while the Translation Pitch, as ever, aims to support the emergence of new translators, seminars and workshops aimed at professionals. The single night, therefore, has inevitably had to be extended, and our new name, as the European Literature Festival, reflects these changes.

European Literature Night 2015

The lead organization behind the ELN is Czech Centre London. Why is this event important for the Czech Centre?

The ELN is a concept for London that stemmed from the Prague Literature Night and has been developed by the Czech Centre. It is fundamentally this concept in its various forms that  Czech Centres’ network, along with EUNIC (European Union National Institutes for Culture), introduced in major European cities. It is not only our know-how, but also a successful model which improves the visibility and popularity of literature in translation . Czech literature is put in the broader context of European literature - alongside authors who are being translated from major languages such as French, Spanish and German, which significantly increases its prestige.

The Czech delegate at the festival is Tomáš Zmeškal. Why him in particular?

Tomáš Zmeškal is one of the leading representatives of contemporary Czech literature. This May, Yale University Press will publish the English translation, by Alex Zucker, of his debut novel Love Letter in Cuneiform, which won Zmeškal the Josef Škvorecký Award for literature and the European Union Prize for Literature. It is therefore a great opportunity to introduce this author, who brings new experience and perspective to Czech literature, to the British public. Zmeškal’s powerful story set against the backdrop of post-war Czechoslovakia and written in a fragmentary, postmodern style is likely to appeal to a British audience.

Tomáš Zmeškal


Part of the festival this year is the Poetry Periscope, which contains poems from 30 countries. Do you think poetry will find its place in this busy world? What do you expect from this project, and does it include a Czech poet?

The rising popularity of performance poetry and spoken word shows, I think, that poetry’s place in contemporary literature certainly hasn’t been lost. However, the pathways to poetry are changing. We want to convey European poetry to an audience that would not otherwise have a chance to engage with it. We have put the Poetry Periscope in a public place, where readers/listeners may simply press a button to hear exclusive recordings of the poems recited by their authors in their original languages or an English translation read by one of the British poets. The playful, bright yellow colour of the periscope, and its unusual shape, will ensure that passers-by will stop and let themselves be drawn into the world of European poetry. This is what the initial reactions at the British Library have truly shown. Amongst the poems is Je mi 35 let (‘I am 35 Years Old’) by Czech poet Ondřej Buddeus, which hundreds of people will be able to hear not only in London, but also at  Ledbury Poetry Festival and Durham Book Festival, which the periscope will visit as part of its UK tour.

Poetry Periscope at the British Library Piazza

Which events would you especially recommend at the festival?

Certainly the 8th annual European Literature Night itself, which offers a unique opportunity to be introduced to six exceptional European books that a jury of experts have selected from 65 nominations. The authors come from Bulgaria, Turkey, Denmark, Slovenia, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The icing on the cake is the participation of Kate Mosse, the British author of the bestselling novel Labyrinth, and many other international bestsellers. Poetry fans should not miss the launch event of the already-mentioned Poetry Periscope, hosted by British poet Ian McMillan. For fans of detective stories, there is also a night dedicated to European crime moderated by Barry Forshaw, with leading representatives of Scandinavian, British and German detective fiction.

What is the British attitude towards literature in translation - is it popular?

Certainly, however readers do not approach these texts as literature in translation; they choose books based on topics, stories, the experiences of an author, or literary awards. I do not think whether it is a translation or not is crucial. It is different to, for example, a film, where subtitles may get in the way. Translations are, however, in the minority - the statistics show that just 4.5 percent of all of published literature is translated. It is therefore clear that the vast majority of books on the shelves of libraries and bookstores are written in English. 

The European Literature Festival comes at a time when the British public is deciding whether to remain in the EU or not. Do you think that an event like this can affect someone’s decision?

I think that it can at least get them to think. Recently, the European Union, and Europe itself, has been associated with problems such as economic and refugee crises, and both sides have mainly depicted a disastrous economic situation. I think the whole debate forgets the positives regarding a common European culture, heritage and tradition. Our festival is a celebration of Europe’s diversity, with an incredible number of stories coming from the continent and, in turn, enriching the British experience of literature. I believe that the British will recognize that without this influence society would certainly be diminished.



European Literature Festival runs from 27 April - 9 June 2016.
For more information and full programme go to www.europeanliteraturefestival.org.uk