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Boek to Book: Flanders in the Transnational Literary Field

‘Boek to Book’ uses a sociology of translation approach to ask, ‘How do books from Flanders travel beyond its boundaries?’ Focusing on agents of production, it examines the people (translators, acquisitions editors, distributors, critics, national literature fund officers, rights managers, literary agents, academics, etc.), institutions (source and target publishers, national literature funds, non-profit organizations, literary prizes, etc.) and spaces (international book fairs, festivals) involved in the coming-into-being, promotion and international circulation of translated books by Flemish authors.

A central theoretical and empirical concern taken up in the dissertation is the relationship between state and market agents in the world market for book translations. This relationship has changed drastically as a result of Anglo-American-led processes of globalization and conglomeration. Whereas state-organized circuits of dissemination dominated this market until the 1980s, government organizations have increasingly subordinated their international dissemination strategies to suit the needs of publishers. The FLF can be taken as a case in point: its grant managers tread a fine line between matchmaking and deal-making and demonstrate a highly professionalized intermediary role where learning and responding to the tastes of individual publishers is paired with cultivating direct interpersonal ties. Clearly, the FLF targets and tailors its outgoing translation policy to foreign publishers, preferring to let publishers do the circulating after controlling for quality and capital potential. Taking ‘Flanders’ (e.g. the Flemish Literature Fund in its state-sanctioned role as transnational mediator) as a case study, the dissertation aims to contribute to ongoing discussions about how works from smaller European literatures cross national borders, how state agents act in a globalized book market characterized by increasing economic constraints, and how translation into English affects a work’s later production and reception trajectory, both in terms of new translations in third languages and feedback effects at home. 

The dissertation uses three interconnected levels of analysis: the global level, the national level and the individual title level. This particular analytical framework was chosen for two main reasons. Firstly, it reflects how the research progressed. Starting from a broad research question, 'How do books from Flanders travel beyond its boundaries?', I began by compiling and analyzing a dataset of bibliographic information on translations out of Dutch. The goal was to quantify and analyze Flemish authors' and publishers' relative share of outgoing translation flows from Dutch in order to explore the question of intralingual power relations within Dutch and the extent to which they were expressed in translation flows out of Dutch. To enable an answer to that question, I analyzed bibliographic data for 11,121 book translations out of Dutch published between 1998 and 2018. The data that formed the basis of that analysis was sourced from the freely available translation database maintained by the Dutch Foundation for Literature (DFL) in cooperation with the FLF, which was then augmented with original metadata on author nationality and source publisher nationality (among other things). I then moved on to an in-depth examination of a government institution and an event revealed in the dataset to be crucial to the circulation of literature from Flanders in the period under study: the FLF and the guest of honorship of Flanders and the Netherlands at the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair. In a third, related line of inquiry, I sought to reconstruct the international career of a single translated book from Flanders, studying how the many different people and institutions attached to the title, including the FLF, but also many others, worked together to propel it around the world. That book turned out to be Oorlog en terpentijn [War and Turpentine] (De Bezige Bij, 2013) by Stefan Hertmans, which thus far has found its way into 30 languages.

Progressing from the global to the national to the singular in this way had a second, heuristic advantage: it enabled an exploration of the center-periphery structure of the global translation system through the case of a language on its margins (Dutch), which could be used to inform the analysis of the international policy of the FLF, the official representative of a dominated national grouping within this language (Flanders). Insights gained at the global and the national levels could then be used to understand how one individual title by a Flemish author beat the odds and came to be widely translated. In other words, it allowed a multi-level analysis. At each pace, the Netherlands and its intermediary institutions (particularly the DFL and its predecessors) and actors (particularly publishers in Amsterdam) remained essential relational counterpoints: at the global level as the source of the larger share of translation flows out of Dutch; at the national level as a partner and example to the FLF; at the individual title level as War and Turpentine's principal transitional agents, especially in the person of Marijke Nagtegaal, foreign rights manager at De Bezige Bij. 

Date:1 Mar 2015  →  14 Jun 2019
Keywords:vertaalwetenschap, Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren, sociology of translation, cultural policy
Disciplines:Theory and methodology of literary studies
Project type:PhD project