Books? Review? Europe? What does it mean, today, to call a magazine the European Review of Books?
Culture in Europe is filtered through national and metropolitan sieves. A pan-European magazine steps into what is still a curiously empty space. The “European” intellectual atmosphere is thin – thinner than I expected when I moved to the Netherlands from the United States in 2011. I’m now among the founders of the European Review of Books: a magazine not from a country but a continent, not in one language but in many. And that’s the rub.
I teach history at the University of Amsterdam and talk a lot about Europe, America, and transatlantic mythologies. I enjoy gently pulling the rug out from students’ expectations about history, identity and language, and I try to give them a sense of history’s swirls of translation and migration.
I tell them about Christopher Columbus’s visit to Galway in 1477, where he saw two people “from the east” who had arrived in Ireland by sea: “a man and wife of marvelous form, with two dugout logs in their possession.” He thought they had come from China, but they were more likely Indigenous American who had followed the Atlantic currents long before Columbus’s own voyage of conquest in 1492. I tell them that his interpreter on that voyage, Luis de Torres, was a Jewish convert to Christianity who spoke Arabic, and likely tried Arabic when first speaking to the Taíno people on the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
My students – European, mostly Dutch – are generally comfortable in English. They usually write their papers in English; their passive comprehension is practically fluent, thanks to a lifetime’s inundation of more-or-less “American” mass culture. They speak, and surely sometimes dream, in a post-American English. The language is theirs as much as it’s mine.
I cannot say what “Europe” means to them. They’ve grown up with the Schengen travel agreement, for instance, but haven’t given it literary form. They’re shaped both by political crisis and by crisis-fatigue. But I sense that when it comes to politics and culture, Europe remains bloodless and abstract – which isn’t surprising.
In my decade here, I’ve been struck by the endless handwringing that characterizes European political discourse – about whether a common culture could ever emerge from a political and economic union, about whether technocracy can be democracy, about surfaces rather than depths.
“Crisis” abounds, lulling language into platitude, limiting the imaginations of politicians and thinkers, who end up making Europeanism a bland vegetable fed to children: Europe is good for you. The result is an anxious stasis – flat and unadventurous. “Europe” deserves better critique.
The problem is multilingualism. Multilingualism is the solution.
Which brings me to the utopian language game of the European Review of Books: to publish essays both in English and in a writer’s mother tongue. Pieces written in Greek or Arabic or Italian or Polish or Dutch – or, or, or – will be available in English and in the original. Perry Anderson recently noted the irony that post-Brexit Europe’s “only lingua franca is that of the country that has abandoned it”.
The fact that it’s possible to get by in English, that English is practically second nature among young Europeans, can give the impression of an inclusive lingua franca, as frictionless as the flows of goods and capital. But it’s a fantasy, and to celebrate it is to celebrate a shallow internationalism.
We need, that is to say, an English-language magazine that resists, or plays with, the seeming hegemony of English. Dual commitment – both to a true lingua franca and to exclusive fluencies, to translation and to the untranslatable – is the way to discover new writers and new solidarities. Call it predicament, irony, contradiction, paradox: we want to use the ubiquity of English to animate the multilingual.
European? The European Review of Books is emphatically not the European Union Review of Books, whatever that would mean. We aren’t founded on coal and steel. But it is instructive to glance at the EU’s translation apparatus, to clarify the magazine’s own aspirations. The European Union has 24 official languages. The Translation Centre for the Bodies of the EU performs the herculean task of translating across them, with an aspiration toward efficiency and order.
Language means something different to the European Review of Books, and not only because there are hundreds of languages on which we want to draw. (We thrill to the non-national languages, too. It was the Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich who first quipped, in Yiddish, that a language is merely a dialect with an army and a navy.)
Our approach is a strategic bilingualism: we want to give good writing a double form, and to have it resonate within and beyond particular places. I want to edit essays as Gaeilge, and I want them to appear in beautiful Gaeilge and beautiful English.
Editing – real editing – creates a powerful intellectual intimacy. To have that intimacy across two languages is possible now in a way that it wasn’t before. Because of English’s international saturation, and because of translation technologies, it’s possible, in the composition stage, to give form to ideas even if the editor is a linguistic outsider, to think on both sides of wall. And that, if we’re being utopian about it, can be the miniature of a larger communion – one that preserves the vivid particularity that makes it worth translating at all.
I have written this piece to reach out to readers and future contributors. Such a project takes resources, as well as a network we are in the process of building. Our crowdfunding campaign runs until June 19th; what we raise will go toward paying contributors – the writers, translators, local editors and illustrators who will bring the magazine to life. Our backers are, in effect, supporting writers in languages they don’t speak and in places they haven’t been to, not only out of the goodness of their hearts but because of the promise of something new.
The crowdfunding campaign link is here.