Thursday, 23 April 2015

Q & A: English PEN

English PEN is the founding centre of a worldwide writers’ association with 145 centres in more than 100 countries. The organisation campaigns to defend writers and readers around the world whose right to freedom of expression is at risk.

PEN works to remove inequalities which prevent people’s enjoyment of, and learning from, literature. It matches writers with marginalised groups, such as refugees, and women and young people who have been victims of trafficking.

PEN promotes translation into English of published work in foreign languages which is considered to be of outstanding literary merit. Many of these works are to be found on World Bookshelf, its collection of contemporary literature in translation. Meanwhile, PEN Atlas features literary dispatches from around the world.

Erica Jarnes, Writers in Translation Programme Manager, and Cat Lucas, who runs the Writers at Risk Programme, collaborated on answering questions.

PEN promotes freedom to write and freedom to read. If you are illiterate, you have no freedom to read, or to write.  Does PEN have any projects to promote literacy, worldwide, or do all its activities and programmes assume participants are literate?
Erica: Interesting question! I can speak only for English PEN. As you say we promote the freedom to write and the freedom to read. Our work focuses on political and historical forces that inhibit freedom of expression, access to literature (and literary experiences) and intercultural understanding. We campaign on behalf of writers who are being silenced or threatened for their writing; we advocate about freedom of speech legislation in the UK; and we support the transmission of voices from other languages into English through our two major translation grants, international writing blog and events programme. While English PEN doesn’t focus on literacy per se, our Readers and Writers outreach programme works with several target groups to increase their confidence with reading and writing. The programme offers creative writing and reading workshops to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, refugees, prisoners and older people with dementia, promoting a lifelong engagement with literature and improving literacy skills.

Do you think that, for writers, constraints on what you can say can be creative constraints – or are they always just constraints?
Erica: I think that writers are crucial for society, and our shared humanity, precisely because they respond to the world as they find it. They offer a mirror, a challenge, an imaginative leap to how things might be. In this sense, external constraints can be considered to be part of the landscape that the writer works in. Physical hardships, and circumstances beyond the writer’s control (e.g. a war), find their way into the writing, and illuminate that place and time for readers elsewhere (including readers in the future). However, ‘constraints on what you can say’, also known as censorship, is never positive; it goes against freedom of speech, which denies writers the agency to respond to the world in an honest way. Unfortunately it is a reality for many writers working today.

Are there any imprisoned writers in Asia whose plight you want to highlight?
Cat: Imprisoned Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia – currently under house arrest – are two of our primary cases of concern in the region. However, PEN is currently monitoring the cases of more than 40 writers in China – the world’s worst jailer of journalists according to our colleagues at the Committee to Protect Journalists – and almost 200 writers at risk across the region.

What is PEN’s response to the recent murders of bloggers in Dhaka?
Cat: English PEN was shocked to hear of the brutal murder of blogger Washiqur Rahman, just a month after the equally horrendous murder of fellow blogger Avijit Roy. In these cases, we felt the best response for PEN was to commission writers with a good understanding of the situation in Bangladesh to write for us. Salil Tripathi, a former trustee and chair of our Writers at Risk Committee, and political analyst Rehuma Rahim accepted the challenge:
Murder in Dhaka / Salil Tripathi

Are all PEN Atlas dispatches originally written in English? 
Erica: PEN Atlas pieces are often translated – about half of the pieces published have come from other languages. The translator is always credited in the piece. The target audience of the blog is English-language readers. This is part of the broader aim of English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme to bring perspectives from other languages into English – the global language of power which, for a variety of reasons, is woefully resistant to voices outside ‘the mainstream’. Translating more voices from around the world into English is a small step towards making ‘global’ debate truly global. (The next step would be to get English-speakers to learn other languages!)

It’s worth saying that where possible we also publish pieces in the original language as well as in English translation, to reach more people. For example, Self-censorship and Silence, by Sanjuana Martinez, is published in both Spanish and in English.

How do you commission the literary dispatches for PEN Atlas?
Erica: PEN Atlas has a dedicated editor, Tasja Dorkofikis, who commissions the weekly pieces. The pieces tend to relate to themes in English PEN’s work across our various programmes – campaigning, translation, public events, advocacy and outreach – or to key moments in the international publishing calendar, or world events.

How do you manage the translation process for World Bookshelf? 
Erica: The World Bookshelf is an online showcase of titles that have been supported by a translation grant from English PEN. We have two main grants, PEN Promotes (for the promotion of titles in translation) and PEN Translates (for the costs of translation), funded by Bloomberg and Arts Council England respectively. UK-based publishers apply for the grants in twice-yearly rounds, and a dedicated committee selects titles to be awarded. All genres of literature are considered. In brief:
PEN Promotes supports books of outstanding literary value, showing dedication to free speech and intercultural understanding, which have a clear link to the PEN Charter.
PEN Translates supports the translation of titles of high literary quality which contribute to literary diversity in the UK.

Please click here for more information on PEN Promotes and PEN Translates.