Novel set in the Norfolk Broads
Bringing you the “Penguin Europeans”
6th April 2019
We have been chatting to Isabel Wall, an editor at Viking who launched Penguin Europeans, a series of rediscovered classics in translation and was launched in 2018 by her. She decided to do this in response to the political climate of recent years. The series aims to encourage readers to look across borders for the next read, and is beautifully packaged as a series of covetable, upmarket paperbacks.
TF: Penguin Europeans is a series of rediscovered classics in translation. Can you tell us a little more about the collection?
As someone who studied French and Italian at university, and spent time living abroad, I felt compelled by the current political climate to begin a new initiative to promote European literature to British readers. Penguin European Writers is the result of that idea: a new series of forgotten modern classics by some of Europe’s greatest writers. The books published in the series so far are: Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda, introduced by Colm Toibin, The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese, introduced by Elizabeth Strout, and The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc, introduced by Deborah Levy.
TF: What was your part in making them available to new readers?
I read countless books from all over Europe before choosing which ones I wanted to publish in the series. Once I decided on the books, I acquired the rights, and commissioned new introductions by well-known writers. I briefed the covers, and our designer Chris Bentham came up with a beautiful series style that was at once literary and accessible. And of course all the other things we do as publishers to attract readers: I wrote the cover copy, wrote letters to booksellers, to other authors, to each country’s cultural institute, and so on, in order to spread the word.
TF: The Guardian recently stated that translated fiction is enjoying a boom in sales as UK readers flock to European authors. That is so gratifying because I know it has been hard to get translated fiction in front of a UK audience. How much do you think this is due to the current circumstances in the UK?
Europe is obviously at the the forefront of British readers’ minds, and I think this does have a knock-on effect on the books they choose to buy. Reading books by European authors is a way of learning more about those countries, about their culture and traditions, and can be a political statement, too: a way of showing what matters to you. But of course there are other reasons for this boom: the wealth of great writing coming from Europe, the success of individual books, and so on.
TF: What for you in particular is the pleasure of reading a book in translation?
I think one of the joys of reading in translation is being transported to another time or place, and getting a rare insight into a world you may never have experienced yourself. I love reading a book that takes me somewhere new, that tells me something I don’t already know.
TF: The role of the translator is always an interesting one, they can make or break a book. What do you think are the particular skills a translator needs to really convey the essence of a book?
I think the best translators are actually very good writers in their own right: that’s something I was taught at university, that the quality of your translation would depend upon the standard of your writing in English, rather than a perfect knowledge of your source language.
TF: Which is the next title to be published in the series and can you tell us a little bit about it?
On 4th April we published The Train Was on Time by the Nobel Prize-winning German author Heinrich Böll, introduced by Anna Funder. It’s a hauntingly beautiful tale about a young German soldier who is travelling on a troop train to the Eastern Front when he has an awful premonition that he will die in exactly five days. As he hurtles towards his death, he reflects on the chaos around him – the naïve soldiers, the painfully thin girl who pours his coffee, the ruined countryside – with sudden, heart-breaking poignancy. Arriving in Poland the night before he is certain he will die, he meets a beautiful woman named Olina, and together they attempt to escape his fate. It’s a taut, intensely powerful novel about the absurdity of war, by one of Germany’s most important post-war writers.
TF: Do you have any favourite European authors who haven’t yet had their work translated but would go down a storm here?
I’m saving those for the next books in the Penguin European Writers series – watch this space!
TF: Which work (s) of fiction in translation have you recently enjoyed and could recommend to our readers (it doesn’t need to be a Penguin!)
I would recommend Lie With Me by Philippe Besson, a gorgeous coming-of-age love story about two teenage boys in 1980s France, brilliantly translated by the actress and writer Molly Ringwald. It opens with a famous writer who chases after a man on the street, mistaking him for his first love. The novel then goes back to Philippe’s teenage years, to a winter morning in 1984, a small French high school, and a carefully timed encounter between two seventeen-year-olds. It’s the start of a world-altering love affair between Philippe and his classmate, Thomas. The novel was a number one bestseller in France and winner of a prestigious prize there, and it’s one of the most devastating love stories I’ve ever read. I will be publishing it this September, and it’s available for pre-order now.
Thank you so much to Isabel for highlighting the beautiful novels that are in the Penguin Europeans collection. Discover more here
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