On 8 January World Editions launched in London, an initiative of Dutch publishing house De Geus to diversify the international, English-reading literary scene. Stefanie van Gemert discusses what reading ‘minor’ languages might bring us.
For seven years I researched and taught what is considered a ‘smaller’ European culture abroad: Dutch language and literature at University College London. My research topic made for some good pub talk. ‘Real’ London folk listened, nodded politely, kindly apologised for not remembering the name of that guy who wrote ‘Uhm… What was it called again? … Ah, yes. The Dinner! … How do you pronounce his name? … Could you please say that again?’
The Dutch living in London, however, never fail to respond with surprise when hearing about UCL’s Dutch Department. Their questions are different: why would British students even study Dutch? Everybody in the Netherlands already speaks their language. What drove these students, they regularly ask in disbelief.
I often had to resist a childish urge to fire back ‘Well, why not?’ and stick a proudly Dutch tongue out. Not that I want to encourage anyone into ungrounded nationalism – far from it. I simply rather like Dutch literature. In context, preferably in global context.
This is why I am hopeful about World Editions: a spin-off publishing initiative by publisher Eric Visser from De Geus, a Dutch publishing house that has done many efforts to publish literature in translation.
De Geus is the proud publisher of Elif Shafak, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Roddy Doyle in the Netherlands – to name a few. It also published many Dutch writers with a migrant or refugee background. From its start in 1983 De Geus dared to bring different perspectives into what often seemed a closed literary circuit of Dutch authors and titles translated from English.
World Editions was launched on January 8th and promises a two-way stream for Dutch publishing: De Geus will keep importing into the Netherlands; World Editions will start exporting, translating minor languages into English. Its base will be in London.
World Editions’ founder Eric Visser talks of a broad portfolio of global titles. He stresses that publishers need to cross borders nowadays, and that he will look for support from Dutch and Flemish foundations for translation costs.
When my London students read Dutch classics by Claus, Reve and Haasse, their responses were refreshing: open-minded and curious about circumstances in which these texts were written and received. Their readings of stories by contemporary writers like the Dutch-Iranian author Kader Abdolah are not informed by daily life in, say, West Friesland, but by lives lived in a thought-provoking metropolis, aware of daily movements across borders.
These students are appreciative of Dutch culture from the very start of their BA- or MA-programme. And as global citizens, they have a comparative framework that broadens their vision. At the same time, they take pride in speaking a ‘minor’ European language and recommend translations from Dutch to others. I think they would appreciate the handsome and brightly coloured World Editions.
Though there are signs that translated literature in the U.K. is booming lately, it seems driven by big names and blockbusters, such as Haruki Murakami and Jo Nesbø, and competition remains fierce. Visser’s initiative, therefore, is a brave one. No tongues out, but both my thumbs up and my other fingers crossed for World Editions.