Thursday, 23 April 2009

London Book Fair - subjective comments by a visitor

As David mentioned in an earlier posting here, the London Book Fair has been, and has now gone. I was there for varying lengths of time on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so I had a good look around, and not only at things Nordic.

The book fair is principally a market: buying and selling. It is hugely bustling and crowded. So it is good to book appointments ahead with specific individuals. Translators are always in a curious position, in that they are neither authors, nor publishers, nor literary agents. They fall between three stools (if that is physically possible). But with a little judicious planning, you can get an "audience" with publishers. Authors often speak at various events, often inconveniently held at some stand in the middle of the book fair, so people listening and people trying to get past have conflicting aims. The publishers lurk spider-like at the stands while the literary agents are a more ephemeral presence. And translators?

My goals this year were specific. First, I wanted to tell the Finns that I am improving my reading knowledge of Finnish and moving in the direction of seriously being able to translate from that language. Also that my re-integration with the Finland-Swedes at a literary level is advancing apace. And I want to expand into Norwegian, specifically nynorsk (aka New Norwegian, a written version of an amalgamation of various dialect traits). So I had a chat there with a friendly person from NORLA (the Norwegian literary promotional agency) and an equally friendly and helpful nynorsk publisher. A Norwegian literary agent was, alas, much more stand-offish. And I had a little business at the Estonian stand, as most of my recently published book-length translations are from that language. Plus appointments with British and American publishers.

The Nordic stands varied in size and scope, but both the Norwegians and Finns had substantial ones. (I never actually discovered the Danish one, I'm afraid!) The Norwegians and Finns did their business right there at the stand. The Swedes were in this strange, exclusive cordoned off area called the International Rights Centre. So their own stand in the open area was of minimal scope. This segregation hardly makes for joined up promotion, because if you have the display books, publishers and promotional organisations all together you have more joined up activity. There is a risk that you may get nuisances disturbing you, but most people attending book fairs are decent people who have the intuition to know when people are talking business, so as not to interfere.

The books on display are very useful for the browsing translator who is not absolutely up to date with the very latest authors and books. I also had a look at the German, Polish and other stands, to see what's going on there. When you can read several languages, you can even browse through the originals.

The drinkies dimension (termed: reception) can help people make new acquaintances. But I am not a dab hand at the ritual courtesies of gliding in and out of little huddles. You are expected to interrupt, but my upbringing makes me feel this is infradig. I attended three such gatherings, two Nordic, one Estonian.

The first of these was the annual Nordic reception near the stands. I did make a good contact with someone from a Finland-Swedish publishing house but in the main this event was rather exhausting. Badge-peering becomes a ritual, as sometimes the most innocuous-looking person turns out to be someone you've wanted to meet for years.

The second was the annual book presentation at the Estonian Embassy. This is a fairly informal gathering, and always interesting because the Estonian Ambassador himself is a historian and reads Robert Creeley. This year an Estonian publisher (who has herself translated Harry Potter, along with her daughter!) interviewed the publisher from the Norvik Press (London) and one from the Dalkey Archive Press (Illinois) about recently published books in English translation by Tammsaare, Unt, Ehin, and so on.

The third was a more formal reception at the Swedish Ambassador's residence in Portland Place, an elegant building on the inside, with much turquoise plasterwork, stucco, 18th century atmosphere, and old or reproduction furniture. Gustaf III would have felt at home there. To my surprise, I met an old university friend from about 30 years ago. In those days she was a student of English & American literature, but had recently taken up Norwegian. Both the Swedish Ambassador and the Swedish Cultural Attaché were friendly and humorous people, something of a pleasant surprise.

So, all in all, I had a good book fair. But I thank my lucky stars that I am not obliged to attend several such fairs every year, as publishers are doomed to do.


David McDuff said...

I'm glad you had a good trip to the Book Fair, Eric, and thank you for giving an account of your time there.

I just didn't have the stamina for it this year. One other person who was at the Fair described the Nordic Tuesday evening do as "the prospect of an airless 2 hrs shouting in those over-dressed rooms w c. 1000 others", and I'm afraid that on past experience there I agree...

Eric Dickens said...

Yes, I heard someone using the very word "airless" during the other Nordic drinkies crush. Even Earls Court, which has mercifully high ceilings to accommodate air, was a bit stuffy.

Dress codes for the 21st century should be revised in the direction of realism. I walked around the fair itself in a short-sleeved shirt. So many executives and bestseller-selling wannabes were waltzing around in dark two-piece suits. However, having once been at a do in Amsterdam where I was underdressed, I decided to stick to the norm when it came to the Swedish do on the Tuesday evening.