Busting boundaries: English Pen's World Bookshelf


Being that W&M is relatively new in the world of books, we thought we'd get out from behind our desk and be active. So, because we like shifting our horizons (and because we were thankfully allowed to attend), we were at the launch at English PEN's 'World Bookshelf'. held at Foyle's on Charing Cross Road.

For the uninitiated, English Pen is the founding member of the Free Word Centre, and the founding centre of the international association of writers. If that means little, it is a charity set up to support the rights of readers and writers both in the UK and internationally. To give a small hint of its beliefs, it's actively fighting for a reversal of the UK's prison book ban.

Needless to say then that English PEN's belief in literary freedom is plastered all over its bookshelf.

Happy to be in like-minded (if far superior) company, we arrived in Foyle's 'gallery' area and took a seat surrounded by book lovers and industry professionals. We then moved seat; not wanting our mind to be the only thing able to stretch. Frankly, we weren't disappointed, as what was to follow was enlightening, enjoyable and highly interesting.

Harriet Gilbert of BBC Radio 4's 'A Good Read' and the World Service's 'The World Book Club' led things. Joined by novelists Nikita Lalwani, Elif Shafak and the translator Frank Wynne, the evening was relaxed, welcoming and genuinely revealing.

Each of the guests talked openly about their experience of writing in (and having text ported to) different languages. With the guests reading excerpts from personally chosen titles, we were treated to books in translation which inspired, intrigued or challenged them. All the while Gilbert listened avid as the rest of us, yet guiding the evening with insight and purpose as needed.

For those, like us, who read very little translated material, it was dazzling to be made aware of the artistry that goes in to making a book region-suitable. Titles, phrases, indeed whole passages of text have to be considered for suitability.

Elif Shafak recounted that one of her books Iskender, was translated to English (Honour) and Italian (House of Four winds) with changed titles. In English, Iskender (Alexander) may be taken as a history of Alexander the Great. In Italian, Honour (Honore) might be taken as a mafia-themed title.

Such considerations were alien to us. And we likely weren't alone: With English-writing authors works dominating British bookshelves, much of the magic of translation - and of the rhythm, themes and stories skilfully carried from other languages - are missed by many of us.

And so 'The World Bookshelf'.

Not content with letting readers miss out on international literature, English PEN has opened and committed to an "online gateway" showcasing the works of international writers - all made accessible through translation.

A portal full of author, book and translator info, complete with a blog and the possibility of future events. Meanwhile, a PEN Atlas section allows exploration and discovery of literature and by the continent.

We'd be stunned if we weren't so impressed by the portal. More importantly though, we're now struck by a daring feeling: the feeling that we may hold truly dear a book not native in English, but powerfully adopted.

What that book might be we're not yet sure. But we know who might help.


A podcast of the evening should shortly be available; we'll be sure to link to it here when it is!