Mikaela Pedlow, Assistant Editor at Harvill Secker, talks to us about translated fiction
How did you come to join Harvill Secker?
I’ve always been passionate about learning from other cultures and exploring parts of the world unknown to me. When I started at Vintage as a general editorial assistant, working with all of the division’s hardback imprints, from Square Peg to Jonathan Cape, I found myself getting more and more involved with projects at Harvill Secker, and devouring the books Harvill were publishing at the time, such as Édouard Louis’ The End of Eddy. Luckily an editorial assistant opportunity came up at Harvill and I jumped at it.
What are you particularly proud of having published in translation (from German and other European languages)?
Though I’ve not had the privilege of publishing a German book myself (yet!), at Harvill we’re proud to have published many German authors over the years such as the late, great Günter Grass.
A couple of years ago I published Ismail Kadare’s The Traitor’s Niche, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson, which was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. It was so rewarding to bring this book to English readers, forty years after its initial publication in the 1970s. A surreal and allegorical tale of tyranny and rebellion set in the Ottoman Empire (and written during Enver Hoxha’s ultra-communist rule), it is just as timely, poignant and powerful as ever.
The Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize is in its tenth year and the focus this year is French. How did you select the language and the text to be translated?
We choose a different language for the prize every year, and our focus in previous years has included German, Arabic, Bengali, Korean, Norwegian and Spanish. One of the founding pillars of Harvill Secker, The Harvill Press, was set up by two brilliant women, Manya Harari and Marjorie Villiers, who wanted to use publishing to rebuild cultural bridges between Britain and Europe after the devastation of the Second World War. In our tenth year of the prize, and with so much pressure on the UK’s relationship with Europe, we wanted to celebrate and encourage our ongoing cultural exchange with Europe. Surprisingly, we had yet to focus on French – one of the best-loved literatures in English translation. We were keen to appreciate French as a world language, too, and we’re thrilled to be using an excerpt from Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel De purs hommes. I can’t wait to see how entrants respond to the challenge this year.
Do you think literature in translation – and publishers of it – have a role to play in expressing/ describing/ developing a European identity?
We’re proud to have a long history of publishing prize-winning European writers. We believe in the importance of cultural exchange throughout the world, which of course includes our neighbours in Europe, and we strive to represent a wide range of experiences. We’re especially keen to discover voices that are not yet being heard. We seek out books that bring something unique to readers, be it a writer’s personal experience, writing that challenges the status quo, or innovative form or genre. While I’m not sure that the writers I’m reading are responding directly to the idea of a European identity, they certainly provide wide-ranging insights into issues of personal, cultural and political identity, and so become pieces in the shifting puzzle of European society and its contemporary challenges.
What do you think are the most exciting upcoming trends in translated fiction?
It’s exciting to see growing public awareness of what translated fiction has to offer, and especially more of an appetite for works from lesser-translated languages and countries. This is reflected in the diversity of the most recent Man Booker International lists and has been helped along by breakout commercial successes such as The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, and of course Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The prevalence of autobiographical, genre-bending fiction in translation continues, and it’s especially brilliant to see more and more women being translated, which has historically not been the case.