Q&A with Emma Cleave: How Does PEN Choose Which Books to Support?

We had a few questions about how PEN works (and then a softball at the end) vis–à–vis their translation projects. Writers in Translation Program Manager Emma Cleave responded.

headerLogoArabLit: Can you explain to me how PEN chooses their supported books? How many proposals/manuscripts do you read each year (who reads them)? What criteria do you use to choose the winners?

Emma Cleave: English PEN champions literature beyond national and linguistic borders and beyond conventional literary expectations. Our Writers in Translation programme consists of two main award strands: PEN Promotes, which provides funding for the promotion and marketing of translated titles and PEN Translates, which provides funding for translation costs. We work with a Committee of literary professionals (translators, agents, publishers and booksellers) to select all the books we support. Each strand has two submission periods; PEN Promotes in January and August, PEN Translates in April/May (post-London Book Fair) and October (post-Frankfurt Book Fair).

Our longstanding programme, PEN Promotes, has now supported over 60 books in translation. Of the criteria, the most crucial is Literary Quality and we are also looking for books that speak to the PEN Charter in some way, whether by directly addressing freedom of speech or human rights issues, or by contributing in some way towards inter-cultural understanding. We also ask that publishers submit a strong publicity and marketing plan.

We measure applications to PEN Translates against the following criteria; Literary QualityStrength of the Project and Contributing to Literary Diversity. This funding strand does not ask that books have a link to the PEN Charter, but we are still looking for books of outstanding literary merit. Submissions are independently assessed and then reviewed by an expert panel who select a balanced portfolio of books for support. The panel is currently chaired by English PEN trustee and professional translator, Ros Schwartz.

AL: What sort of support does PEN provide for these books? 

EC: As well as financial support for translation (up to 75% of costs/100% for smaller publishers) and promotional costs (travel and accommodation for authors and translators), we work closely with publishes who win our promotional awards to ensure that a minimum of two events are organised to launch the book in question. We help by assisting in the organisation and promotion of events and spreading the word about new books in translation to our members and networks. We regularly feature blogs on our online PEN Atlas series by authors and translators we’re supporting. We’re also beginning to work with booksellers and online retailers to showcase and profile the great selection of we’ve supported.

AL: How else does PEN try to increase the visibility of translated literary work in English?

EC: We aim to be as active as possible across the sector in order to help build infrastructure and support for translated literature. English PEN is part of a core group of partners (BCLT, Literature across Frontiers, Words without Borders, Free Word and many more) working towards a common aim; to remove barriers to literary translation and to encourage open exchange between cultures. This consortium of partners work together to programme two key events throughout the year: The Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair and International Translation Day.

AL: Why is it important to have books translated from Arabic, for instance, when publishers could just find Arab-Americans or Arab-Brits and publish their books?

EC: Diversity is key here, and I think it is important to have access to a wide range of views and literature from Arab-Brits, Arab-Americans, as well as from writers living throughout the Arab world (and sometimes in exile) who write in Arabic. The situation becomes problematic if there is only one or the other available to readers, and what we tend to see in the UK is a lack of literature from people ‘on the ground’ who are experiencing, living and tasting the reality of their location. This can largely be put down to the above mentioned ‘barriers’ to literary translation, which are quite often financial. Thought there certainly does seem to be an appetite for world writing in translation, as expressed by Stork Press in this great piece for Publishing Perspectives last week.

Emma Cleave graduated from the University of Leeds in 2007 with a BA in English Literature and French. She previously worked as an Outreach Coordinator at Bootstrap Company before joining English PEN in December 2010.