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Bay Area Book Festival highlights power of works in translation

International authors in front of Moe's Books before the 2018 Bay Area Book Festival
International authors attending the 2018 Bay Area Book Festival were taken on a tour of important local sights. Photo: Bay Area Book Festival

This story is brought to you by the Bay Area Book Festival.

Imagine a world without Dostoevsky. Without Kafka or Plato or Shakyamuni Buddha or the Bible. All these literary works came to readers through translators.

In Berkeley, interest in translated literature is particularly keen.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 20% of Berkeley residents were born outside the U.S., and nearly 29% speak a language other than English at home. UC Berkeley attracts not only international students (6,569 full-time enrollments for the 2018 academic year but American students eager to explore fields such as comparative literature and East Asian studies. Some leading professionals in the translation field live and work here.

Unfortunately, the nationwide publication of new literature in translation keeps a slow pace. Of the new books published each year in the U.S. — approximately 300,000 works of prose and poetry — translated literature makes up only about 4%.


In the Bay Area, several organizations are working to bring forth more translated literature. Small publishers like Two Lines Press and Transit Books focus exclusively on bringing new works into translation, and others like City Lights Publishers include works in translation in their repertoire. The Bay Area Book Festival (May 4 and 5 in downtown Berkeley this year) features numerous authors in translation each year.

The Center for the Art of Translation, based in San Francisco, is run by Berkeley resident Michael Holtmann. According to Holtmann, while the numbers are still relatively low, there are more publishers releasing books in translation now than there were 10 years ago. Two Lines Press, a subsidiary of the Center, recently published a novel by Duanwad Pimwana, making her the first female Thai writer to be translated into English.

“We don’t always think of writers from other parts of the world as amazing stylists with incredible sensibilities, but they can be electric, especially when matched with a great translator,” Holtmann said. “They can enhance what we think is possible in English writing. They enrich the canon.”

Holtmann said there are so many more voices out there — voices with the power to transform literature like the European greats of past centuries — that remain undiscovered by English-speaking audiences. The beauty of these small publishers is they can be selective, he said, seeking out the best books around the world to bring into local circulation.

The work of small presses goes beyond the literary goal of discovering new talent, though. Holtmann said the work is really devoted to one question: “How do we expand our understanding of what’s happening in the world?” Translated literature from Thailand can provide different, more intensive insights into the lived experience in the country than a novel merely set in Thailand.

To engage Bay Area residents in the world of literary translation, the Center for the Art of Translation’s Poetry Inside Out program will host a booth at this year’s Bay Area Book Festival where attendees can attempt to translate poems from a variety of languages, seeing firsthand the differences in meaning that arise and the larger implications of language barriers and cross-cultural understanding.

The Center also is sponsoring two indoor programs at the festival. The Heart of A Child includes Pimwana and her translator, as well as Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik and an American novelist. Dance & Do Battle: Writers and Translators on Art and Activism looks at how literary translators also use their skills in difficult real-life situations and how the process of translation can probe deeply political matters. It includes Katherine Silver, an acclaimed translator of Spanish (also a Berkeley resident) who brings her translation skills to the border.


“International authors are among the most popular speakers at the Bay Area Book Festival each year,” said Cherilyn Parsons, the festival’s founder. “Reading literature from around the world is a powerful way to counteract insularity and American exceptionalism, and it doesn’t surprise me that Berkeley welcomes that experience.”

Below is a small selection of festival conversations with foreign-born authors this year (check out the full schedule):

Saturday, May 4:

  • Trinidad-born Canadian author André Alexis in conversation with Joyce Carol Oates, 10 a.m.
  • Novelists Laura Lindstedt (from Finland) and Tamsen Wolff (U.K.) in “What Women Want,” 11:45 a.m.
  • Five bestselling crime fiction authors from Iceland, Sweden, and Norway in “Nordic Noir,” 1:30 p.m.
  • Three Irish authors in “Writing Irish,” 1:30 p.m.
  • Thai writer Duanwad Pimwana and Norwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik in “The Heart of A Child,” 3:15 p.m

Sunday, May 5:

  • Four German-language authors in “Seeking Connection: Literature from Germany and Switzerland,” 11:45 a.m.
  • Malaysian-born historical novelist Yantsze Choo in “Unlikely Alliances and Other Surprises in Historical Fiction,” 11:45 a.m.
  • Iranian-American memoirist Niloufar Talebi writing about translation itself in “Literature Will Save Your Life,” 1:30 p.m.
  • Irish, Swiss, and Finnish authors in “Literary Bravery: Sleepwalkers, Ghosts, and Radical Storytelling from Three International Luminaries,” 3:15 p.m.
  • Internationally acclaimed Swedish-Norwegian author Linn Ullmann, 1:30 p.m.

Visit the festival’s site for the full schedule.

This story is written by the Bay Area Book Festival which takes place on May 4 and 5 across many locations in downtown Berkeley. Berkeleyside is a media sponsor of the Bay Area Book Festival.