Anne Enright: How the world reads Irish writers

The newly appointed Laureate for Irish Fiction considers the reach of Irish books abroad – and what gets lost in translation

Photograph: Alan Betson

We live in a country that is already translated, as the road signs keep reminding us. Every new place throws a mock-historical shadow. Coill na Silíní, my children say, with relish, every time we pass through Cherrywood – a grey expanse of concrete, hoardings and negative equity – as though there were real cherries somewhere in this part of southeast Dublin, hanging in the ghost of an ancient wood.

I doubt the children of Bromley, in London, think about the brambly wood that once grew there, and what American child imagines fields of wild garlic when they hear the word “Chicago”?

English is a greedy language, and Irish writers, however keen they are to harness its colonising power, are always aware of other shifts and possibilities.

"It is a shame we are throwing our lot entirely in with the English speakers," John Banville says when asked about his work in other languages. He sees the business of translation as a two-way street. "There is a world of literature out there, almost none of which is translated into English any more, because publishers won't risk it."


The language barrier is more permeable out of English than into it, and Irish writers, whose books go everywhere, know how lucky they are. Perhaps a sense of being between things helps in other ways, too.

"I don't think I could have made a decent living without the French," Colum McCann says of his early career. "I was very lucky in France from very early on, more than 20 years ago. They adopted me after This Side of Brightness, which was a New York novel, but also it was written by someone who was European, so it somehow bridged the gap."

France has been good to Irish writers: a culture nervous enough about the influence of the English language has welcomed writers from John McGahern and Jennifer Johnston through to Joe O'Connor. Three of our writers have won the Prix Femina Étranger, the premier prize afforded to books translated into French: Keith Ridgway, in 2001, Hugo Hamilton, in 2004, and Nuala O'Faolain, in 2006.

O'Faolain's The Story of Chicago May sold 25,000 copies in France. At a guess, this story of an Irish immigrant prostitute in the United States of the 1890s played better in French than in the original, either in Ireland or the US.

Do well in France

There is always a mystery about what makes a book take. It’s impossible to second-guess: you could not sit down to write something that “will do well in France”.

This is one of the frustrations not just of the book industry but of funding the arts in general: you can’t manufacture a creative success (although it is possible, sometimes, to fake one); you can only provide the environment in which success can happen.

In 1995, a number Irish writers ran across France as part of L’Imaginaire Irlandais, a festival dreamed up in a meeting between Mary Robinson and François Mitterrand, and curated by Doireann Ní Bhriain. This was a new generation, and a new energy was in the air.

The Butcher Boy, by Patrick McCabe, came out in 1992, and it wasn't just a book: it was a declaration that the fun was about to begin. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle, took the Booker Prize in 1993, and the perspective from the writer's desk tilted wonderfully as it was translated into dozens of languages.

The Irish writers who went to France were clean, sober, neat and cheerful, although you couldn’t always say the same for their books. This paradox was, perhaps, part of the pleasure of that time. Or maybe that’s the way Irish people were, just before the boom. Ready.

“Irish writers are so nice and so easy to deal with,” an organiser in St Malo said to me. “You all answer the phone.” French writers did not answer the phone, apparently. “Oh, no,” she said. “In France the wife answers the phone.”

Translation grants

In 1994, the newly-established Ireland Literature Exchange began giving modest grants to foreign publishing houses, in order to fund the translation of Irish writers. All of the writers who won the Prix Femina Étranger were helped into French by the organisation, whose grants turned goodwill into published books.

The return on this seed money is very high. The Dutch government spent nearly €700,000 on translation grants in 2014, as it does, year on year. The Ireland Literature Exchange spent €150,000, a figure down 65 per cent since 2009. It is hard to say how successful Dutch writing is in France, but the Prix Femina Étranger has not been won by a Dutch writer in 20 years.

Hans-Christian Oeser has translated Irish writers from Maeve Brennan to Claire Keegan into German. His work is distinctive for capturing the cadences of Irish speech; he somehow keeps the rhythms despite what is for us the unwieldy nature of the German sentence, which stacks all the verbs just before the full stop. For the many Irish writers who use an active, free-flowing present tense, delaying the verb might be a real deadener. But Oeser has lived in Ireland for many years and has a keen ear for the vernacular.

The surge in interest in Irish fiction in Germany began, he says, when Frankfurt Book Fair took Ireland as its theme in 1996. Interest has waned a little, perhaps since the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (who knew it was such a selling point?), or maybe the very “Irishness” of the work – “each novel containing a confession box episode, etc” – has become a problem, as German readers reach a saturation point.

“There is a lot of competition from other literatures,” Oeser writes, “so anything that Ireland Literature Exchange can do in order to raise awareness ought to be fully supported by Irish state bodies in the same way they support Irish butter and Irish beef (both highly successful in Germany . . . ).”

Oeser’s next project will be Colin Barrett, a new voice with not a confession box in sight. The generation coming through since the collapse of 2008 are taking awards in London and moving into the United States, but the money to help them into other languages is much scarcer than it once was.

An increasing proportion of Ireland Literature Exchange’s shrinking budget goes on book fairs even as the core business of translation fades in the background. The shift is from making books to making noise, and this is a pity, as there is nothing like an actual novel to enlarge readers’ sympathetic understanding and touch their hearts.

Germany is more than just the biggest book market in Europe: there is also the (ahem) diplomatic function of the work to consider. I last read in Berlin (at the Irish Embassy, indeed) in 2011, on the day some fool sent a draft of the Irish budget to the Bundesrat before it was seen by anyone in the Dáil. Enda Kenny had flown out of Frankfurt at 5am that day.

I still remember the silence in those corridors. A man looked into a filing cabinet as I passed, and I thought he had put his face in there to weep.

The reading, though, went quite well.

“We like your prime minister,” a man in the audience said to me afterwards. “We like him much better than the Greek.”

"Oh, good," I said. Super geil.

Publisher’s passion

If you ask what makes a book work, the first thing a writer will mention is the passion of the editor who publishes it.

Catherine Dunne cites the belief of her Italian editor that her first book would be "not a bestseller but a long seller", and he was right – In the Beginning has been in the shops since 1997. The book made national news in Italy when Silvio Berlusconi's wife cited its Italian title, La Metà di Niente (Half of Nothing), to describe the way she felt in her own marriage.

Dunne had struck a chord, and after that moment of recognition there is no going back. All her subsequent work has done well in Italy, and the royalties she earns there, she says, enable her to keep writing.

When Dunne took the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction, in 2013, she gave 20 per cent of the prize money to her translator. If the writer’s income is uncertain, then translators’ income is always, and certainly, low. The book industry is an increasingly fragile ecosystem, and some of the birds are dropping out of the trees.

This is a concern when Irish writing continues to be so uncompromising, with books that are strongly colloquial, complex or long. How much money should someone be paid to translate Kevin Barry, Paul Murray or Eimear McBride?

Sinéad Mac Aodha of the Ireland Literature Exchange says rates for translation vary from a few thousand euro to a prime, and rare, €18,000 for books that take up to six months to translate. It’s not just a question of maintaining quality; a translation grant can determine whether a publisher will take on the risk of including a foreign writer on its list.

“This can really make a difference when some literary publishers are going under and others are having to cut everything back to the bone,” Mac Aodha says.

Nothing makes writers feel more intelligent than opening their books in, say, Hungarian – or more stupid and shut out. It’s as though you had learned a whole language in your sleep and forgotten it in the morning. The effect is doubly strange when the book moves out of Latin script.

Colm Tóibín’s books have sold nearly 100,000 copies in China, but there is nothing, on those pages, that he might recognise as his own. And what on earth, you might wonder, do the Chinese make of him? In fact, Tóibín says, a new generation of readers there “take the availability of foreign fiction in translation for granted. They are curious and open and they notice everything.”

The Chinese laughed when he told them to Google something, and then they laughed again at his discomfiture.

In fact, there is nothing opaque or odd about the Chinese reader’s response to an Irish book, as authors who have given readings in China soon realise. And this is a different kind of strange: stories travel. Fiction is held together by its own internal tensions and laws, and these laws are universally understood.

Cultural barriers

Outside the world of the book, we erect cultural barriers that do not actually exist. We sometimes erect them against our own.

"Why do I hate Norwegian writers?" a Norwegian woman once said to me. "And I love you guys. I just read Sebastian Barry, and he ripped my heart in two."

It is sometimes hard the see the thing that is closest. Readers, especially readers of fiction, are attracted to the feeling of “elsewhere” that translation can only heighten. It is this mixture of estrangement and recognition that makes for a sense of wonder.

“Elsewhere” has always been important for writers, too. Not only is there the kind of intellectual engagement that informs and sustains a writer’s work; there is also income, and great praise. The Princess of Asturias Award, the Spanish equivalent of the Nobel, was presented to John Banville by King Juan Carlos earlier this year. Colum McCann is a chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, in France. Colm Tóibín was put on the altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for one of his many awards, which also involved a High Mass.

They do the formal, out foreign, quite as well as we do the informal at home. And although you may think it good for the country to get our writers into foreign markets, I think it is good for Irish readers to have a group of writers who come home to them with the smell of fresh air still trapped in their coats, who write for the whole world, starting here.