Quality Non–Fiction in the Digital Age, Amsterdam Conference 2011

By Nicky Harman, published

Fish out of water? Lone voice crying in the wilderness? (well, alright, in the Quality Non–Fiction in the Digital Age conference). At the start, I was a little unsure about what role I, as the sole translator–speaker, was going to play at a conference largely attended by international publishers. Though I wasn’t the only one of a kind. There was a philosopher, Jos de Mul, reminding us that the invention of writing in the New Stone Age was just a way of outsourcing memory! And computers in the New New Stone Age (that’s now) are a way of outsourcing thinking…

The conference, brainchild of Maarten Valken, was held in Amsterdam, 27–28 January 2011, and proceedings and video will be uploaded to the Dutch Foundation for Literature (DFL) website as soon as…. There were publishers from UK, Holland, China, Egypt and the USA, including Threepercent’s Chad Post, and Publishing Perspective’s Ed Nawotka.

The discussions ranged widely, and were not confined to non–fiction. It was a real pity that, with a roomful of people all fighting to have their say, Lisa Zhang of Shanda, got rather drowned out. There was a lot more she could have said about the promotion of online literary communities in China. (See this article about Banyan Tree on P R, for instance.) Then there was one whole session about ways of enhancing books on e–reading devices. (See one of our speakers, Marcus Chown on Youtube if you can get Youtube. It’s gorgeous.)

I focussed my own contribution on two kinds of web – the WWW and Paper Republic as an online community of translators, and the “spider’s web” of the publishing world in which translators from the “less–translated” languages are, willy–nilly, enmeshed. My basic points were that 1. Publishers sometimes have unrealistic expectations of Chinese fiction, especially genre fiction – they need to get better informed. So, of course, do translators – about the publishing world. 2. An individual translator pitching their favourite book to a publisher will rarely be successful and is likely to spend many hours preparing the pitch (yes, I know how popular these workshops are at translators’ summer schools. I did say “rarely” not “never”). I compared myself to a plumber or an electrician doing quotes for jobs that don’t materialise! 3. An online community like Paper Republic plays a hugely important role in informing publishers, and allowing translators to showcase themselves and promote their favourite authors. 4. Funding: I pointed out that P R had received funding for development for a year from the Arts Council England, and that the Industry Newsletter, a new initiative, is supported by the Beijing Bookfair – unlikely bedfellows perhaps, but funding is key if you’re going to spend serious amounts of time on promoting translation and developing websites. 5. I also mentioned the Publishers Visit to China in February. Not that I know much about it, but I made it sound exciting.

There was a brilliant bunch of people there, and the conference was short and sweet – only one and a half days. Add to that, the brilliant winter sunshine in Amsterdam, a classy hotel right by the canal and fantastic organisation… If you ever get an invite from the DFL, accept it!


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