2021 in Review

Our now traditional round-up of the year from SELTA chair Ian Giles

Dear SELTA members,

What a weird year of ups and downs! It wasn’t all bad – indeed some parts were very good – but I doubt I’m the only person who will be glad to see the back of 2021 as the Christmas holidays loom large. Anyway, I’d like to begin by thanking you for another year of gott samarbete in SELTA.

Our membership figures remain strong – we end the year with a membership tally of 85, representing an increase of 11 against last year. This partly reflects our decision to admit our North American colleagues, but represents continuing growth in Europe too. It’s gratifying that even in these changing times, members value what SELTA has to offer.

Back in January, the possibility of meeting in person seemed a distant prospect as restrictions rumbled on for many of us. Nevertheless, we were able to meet via Zoom for a couple of informal fikastunds. I was also pleased that we were able to continue our track record of public-facing online events in the first half of the year. In March, we held an event focusing on the cross-currents between literary translation and other activities, drawing speakers from among our own ranks (watch here). In April, we were overjoyed when Nichola Smalley was included on the longlist for the International Booker Prize for her translation of Andrzej Tichý’s ‘Wretchedness’, and we held a virtual event with both Nicky and Andrzej to mark this achievement (generously funded by the Swedish Embassy in London). You can watch it here. Our digital spring meeting held in May attracted 25 members – surely a record for a SELTA meeting?

Despite misgivings, there was work going on in the background to prepare for an in-person gathering. After securing an eye watering amount of funding from the Swedish Literature Exchange to allow four authors from Sweden to travel over (all on refundable tickets!), we pressed on hatching plans for a day-long workshop in London in October. It was a real delight to welcome authors Susanna Alakoski, Eija Hetekivi Olsson, Mats Jonsson and Anneli Jordahl to discuss their work with members of SELTA and other guests (including two MA students from UCL). You can read the accounts of the day here. After a fruitful day, our authors travelled on to Bristol where they appeared in a public panel as part of the Working-Class Writers Festival, which you can listen to the recording of here. All this would have been impossible without the generosity of our funders, our embassy hosts, and the untiring hard work of my predecessor Ruth Urbom.

SELTA continues to maintain ongoing dialogue with our good friends at the Swedish Literature Exchange. Notwithstanding their considerable financial support for our working class literature workshop and the festival in Bristol, funding has also been made available to support a Swedish mentorship run through ALTA (with SELTA member Kira Josefsson serving as mentor), and a grant awarded earlier this month will also allow Henry Jeppesen to undertake a mentorship with Sarah Death. The Swedish Literature Exchange have organised several översättarsalonger over the year which have been well-attended, and I gather these are to continue.

Our colleagues at the Swedish Embassy in London also take an active interest in our work. Pia Lundberg (Cultural Counsellor) was delighted to welcome so many of us to the embassy in October for our workshop and she remains excited about the work that we do. We were also thrilled to finally meet Sofia Lundström, the all-round fixer extraordinaire of the embassy cultural section. Torbjörn Sohlström has returned to Sweden from his posting (where he has bought a bookshop!) and his new replacement, Mikaela Kumlin Granit, has settled into post. She too was eager to meet both authors and translators at October’s workshop, and we are confident of the embassy’s continuing support for our activities.

Indeed, the embassy (under the auspices of the Anglo-Swedish Literary Foundation which they administer) has truly shown its support for literature in translation. I am overjoyed that the Society of Authors is moving the Bernard Shaw Prize from triennial to biennial – this has been made possible by the generosity of the ASLF trustees. This means that once the 2021 prize is awarded on 10 February, we will only have to wait two years for the next award. This is richly deserved – around 50 Swedish books are published in English translation annually now, as opposed to some 10–15 annually when the prize was established.

In November, Swedish-translation-Christmas came early when the shortlist for the 2021 Bernard Shaw Prize was announced. On it were: Neil Smith for ‘Anxious People’, Deborah Bragan-Turner for ‘To Cook a Bear’, Sarah Death (twice) for Hagar Olsson’s ‘Chitambo’ and Tove Jansson’s ‘Letters from Tove’, and Nicky Smalley for ‘Wretchedness’.

In fact, 2021 feels like an outstanding year for SELTA members on the prize front. As mentioned, Nichola Smalley was longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize for her translation of Andrzej Tichý’s ‘Wretchedness’, which was also the winner of the 2021 Oxford-Wiedenfeld Translation Prize. Sarah Death, Deborah Bragan-Turner and Neil Smith were all longlisted for the 2021 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger, with Deborah and Neil’s translations making it to the shortlist. Saskia Vogel and Alice Menzies were both nominated for the 2021 Pen America Translation Prize, with Saskia being shortlisted for her translation of ‘Girls Lost’ by Jessica Schiefauer. B. J. Epstein was shortlisted for the 2021 Kate Greenaway Medal for her translation of Sara Lundberg’s ‘The Bird Within Me’. Sarah Death and Deborah Bragan-Turner were both shortlisted for the 2021 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel, Sarah for Håkan Nesser’s ‘The Secret Life of Mr. Roos’ and Deborah for Mikael Niemi’s ‘To Cook a Bear’, and we were delighted that Deborah was named winner.

Swedish Book Review ‘i ny dräkt’ online goes from strength to strength. Editor Alex Fleming has managed not only to publish  2 full issues online at swedishbookreview.org, but also to sneak in several smaller special issues marking events such as the virtual London Book Fair. SBR’s editorial team has also held two virtual public events this year, lending a more literary (rather than translator-y) focus to proceedings. Of course, our thanks go not only to the indefatigable Alex, but also to the team at Norvik Press who watch her back. Thanks are also due to Fiona Graham, who is stepping down in the spring as SBR’s reviews editor – her work over recent years in this department has been stellar.

SELTA’s new website finally launched properly in early January, offering a significant improvement on the old site and increasing the visibility of the organisation and its members. The SELTA Google group continues to be a valuable forum where members can ask questions and share information.

As yet, I don’t know what 2022 holds for SELTA and its members. However, we will be celebrating our 40th birthday (cue a midlife crisis?) as SELTA officially came into being on 1 January 1982. The committee is busy thinking of ways to mark this milestone appropriately. Other initiatives may include retrospectives in SBR and updates to SELTA’s official history. I don’t think I am spoiling anything by suggesting that clinking glasses and cake may feature too…

More generally, the committee plans to adopt a one meeting on, one meeting off approach. SELTA’s AGM will continue to be held virtually, enabling all members to democratically participate in SELTA’s governance, while our ordinary meeting held in the spring will be tied to the London Book Fair. Next year, this is scheduled to take place 5-7 April, and we cross our fingers for something closer to what we have been used to in the past. Whatever happens, I hope to see many of you either in person or in cyberspace in the coming months.

Gott nytt år,

Dr Ian Giles

Chair of SELTA