Around 100 translations of Slovene books are published each year in around 25 different languages, according to the Slovenian Book Agency database, The Slovenian Book Agency, the key public institution supporting production and promotion of books for over 10 years, was established in 2009.
Slovenia will be ‘Guest of Honour’ at the book fairs in Bologna (2022) and Frankfurt (2023), indicating a positive trend in the translation of Slovene books in the future. For example, Senja Požar, Senior Rights Manager at Mladinska knjiga and Cankarjeva založba stated that“Following the announcement of Slovenia as Guest of Honour in Bologna and Frankfurt, we are noticing more interest in our books from many countries and recently, more titles have been sold to German-speaking countries.”
Today we live and read and translate books and even the covid pandemic has had a very positive side effect. Senja Požar emphasizes: “After the book fairs were cancelled, several digital platforms were launched and we could reach completely new publishers around the world because some of them were not present at the Bologna, London or Frankfurt book fairs in the past or there was different gravitation within the market. 2020 was a great year for networking, checking programs and discovering new horizons.”
For highlight of the international aspects of our literature, we invited Renata Zamida to share her thoughts.
Renata Zamida, expert for the promotion of Slovenian literature abroad, has been working in publishing for more than 15 years. In 2016, she joined the Slovenian Book Agency and from 2018 until recently she was the Managing Director. In December she was replaced by the government in the middle of her mandate, despite protest from the literary community. In the same period, certain other acclaimed directors of public cultural institutions in Slovenia were substituted as well.
That’s what it’s basically about – visibility and prominence
Where are we, where aren’t we?
We could easily say that we are everywhere… A lot of literature gets translated in a great variety of languages from such a small country, there are also translations into quite particular languages like Urdu, Tamil, Nepali, Mongolian, etc. However, most of these translations get published by rather niche publishers with a limited access to distribution and promotion alike. As a consequence, the audience reach is narrow and therefore international visibility of all these wonderful authors and especially our fantastic poets, stays low. It is quite an exciting challenge to change this. I definitely believe that it can be done.
How is Slovenian literature appraised and measured abroad? How is it evaluated?
Slovenian literature is still considered a kind of insider hint, something for epicureans to be honest. A proof of this is that generally, so-called quality literature gets translated, that is literary novels basically (an exception to this rule is philosopher Slavoj Žižek). There are some authors who have “made” this their trademark, for example, Boris Pahor or Drago Jančar have recently both been awarded visible international prizes and have also been reviewed successfully. However, having just a couple of internationally renowned authors is not enough, there has to be a broadness to what gets translated, a variety of choice, also in terms of genre, for foreign readers and critics to rely on. Also, the classics of course, especially for critics and decision makers it is crucial to have a reference of a nation’s classics! There is a lot of our great modernist author Ivan Cankar translated, but there are still huge gaps. Luckily Lojze Kovačič and Vitomil Zupan have recently been discovered, our modern classics of the 20th century, I think this is of great importance. All these authors pave the way for the visibility of national literature, for others to get translated as well, and my personal quest has also been to get more female authors out there. There is so much to be discovered, really.
What type of stories attract the attention of the international literary arena today?
The international publishing scene is always hunting for good stories, some are just more visible than others, and a lot of big publishing markets don’t translate much from foreign languages. Big publishers, in particular, are very conservative in terms of opening their doors to unknown authors from lesser-used languages. The secret, I guess, is in finding the particular in the universal – to tell local stories with a global or universal echo. For example, from the younger generation, Nataša Kramberger has the potential to do that really well, she was awarded the European Prize for Literature for her first novel, but I am particularly keen on her latest one, and a German translation is on its way.
In 2014, the government of the Republic of Slovenia made the decision that Slovenia would run for the Guest of Honour title at the Frankfurt Book Fair. You have been part of the project from its beginning and you led the preparations for the candidacy. What have been the main highlights of the so-called Bid Book?
The decision was made years ago at the governmental level, but we have to know that the Guest of Honour title at the Frankfurt Book Fair is quite desirable among countries, so there is traditionally a long queue of candidates. However, no one approached the decision-makers of the book fair when adopting that decision in Slovenia and it seems that a lot of people thought the Guest of Honour for Slovenia would just happen spontaneously. But it doesn’t work that way, not if you are a country which is so small and unknown. It is actually not a formal necessity to deliver a bid book, but we decided to go with it since no one at the Frankfurt Book Fair really knew anything about Slovenia and what we have to offer. You have to convince the Board of Trustees, who confirm the Guest of Honour countries alongside the Book Fair Director, Juergen Boos, who has a strong voice in it of course, and also the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I was the editor of the bid book, but we had several colleagues working on it. Basically, the idea was to show the huge diversity, in terms of both books and also the country, and especially the strong historical role of books and language in the nation’s creation.
I like to quote poet and intellectual, Aleš Debeljak, on this Slovenian peculiarity: the birth of a nation from the spirit of poetry. That was the red thread really, and a convincing one. We also entitled the bid book with Edvard Kocbek’s poem from 1969, Sosed na oblaku/The neighbour on a cloud.
In 2018 you signed the contract for Slovenia to be the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2022, which has now been postponed to 2023 because of the covid pandemic. What, in your opinion, was the main reason for choosing Slovenia?
What followed the bid book handover was an intense, almost two years of debating with the Frankfurt Book Fair management that we are a great choice and Slovenia’s literary and publishing landscape needs and deserves the title, as well as our capacity to deliver.
What about “Bologna 2022”?
To be Guest of Honour at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the leading professional fair for children’s books in the world, was the ongoing desire of Slovenian publishers and authors in the field of children’s literature and illustration. We have a lot of high-profile and internationally acclaimed illustrators, and the Bologna Book Fair is a mecca in this sense. I met the book fair director, Elena Pasoli and we agreed on a Slovenian focus in Bologna in the first possible year.She knew some Slovenian artists and was excited about this idea, she was basically waiting for someone to approach the book fair and propose it. It went fast from the first meeting to signing the contract, we met several times afterward for location-hunting in the city, for exploring what the fair itself can offer, and I think this is going to be an important milestone for Slovenia’s creative scene, and a bridge to Frankfurt, that was the plan!
What needs to be done to create a higher export value of Slovene literature and not only launch a lot of translations? In the last two years, Slovene books tend to have higher price in foreign markets and the interest of the largest publishing houses has increased.
This is a crucial question, especially for lesser known literatures, written in lesser used languages. We have to bear in mind there are no professional literary agents in Slovenia, yet! The Slovenian Book Agency, as the national body, took on a lot of tasks regarding international visibility and prestige of Slovenian literature, especially in recent years. And that’s what it’s basically about – visibility and prestige. If you have it, foreign publishers and editors follow specific literatures more closely, are more prone to take on authors in their editorial programmes, pay higher royalties and keep on looking for new. With some measures introduced recently by the Book Agency, we can see such a result already – fellowships for foreign publishers and editors, an updated and attractive visual identity of our national stands at book fairs, organizing professional’s meetings abroad etc.
Last but not least, it is also necessary to find the right balance in terms of financial support to foreign publishers. With over-financing, you can easily send the wrong message and get a false effect, as well as attract the wrong publishers. Long lasting interest has to be established differently, as described above, and Guest of Honour titles at prestigious book fairs such as Frankfurt or Bologna can be huge facilitators.
What is the initial advice you give to future literary agents?
To have patience. Nothing happens overnight unless you get lucky, which also only happens from time to time… And, of course, to read, travel and get a wide personal network of people from the same business – publishing is quite a small world and a lot happens on a personal level.
Since the promotion of Slovenian literature abroad is a complex theme and any sale of translation rights is a success, with a lot of work, time and effort behind every deal, we want to present the main stakeholders of the international aspect of Slovenian literature. Therefore, in the coming months, we will publish an article about authors and translators in the international arena and also an article highlighting the engagement of publishing houses and public institutions.
Nina Kokelj, author and book promoter