January 10, 2012

Finnegan’s List: book recommendations from Europe’s top writers


Adam Thirwell

Fans of translated literature, take note: some of the most highly respected names in European literature have again chosen their pick of under-translated works for Finnegan’s List, the initiative started last year by the European Society of Authors. Polled this time were:

György Dragomá (Hungary), Hoda Barakat (Lebanon), Georges-Arthur Goldschmidt (France), Vassili Golovanov (Russia), Juan Goytisolo (Spain), Yannis Kiourtsakis (Greece), Terézia Mora (Hungary/Germany), Sofi Oksanen (Finland), Roman Simić (Croatia), and Adam Thirlwell (UK).

Each author was asked to select three books that they feel merit more international recognition, and you can see their choices here. Interestingly, they weren’t restricted either to works from their home countries or to fiction—there isn’t even a time restriction, with Adam Thirlwell choosing a Gertrude Stein, several nineteenth-century works on the list, and Lebanon’s Hoda Barakat selecting Andalusian Ibn Hazm‘s eleventh-century treatise on love, The Ring of the Dove, originally written in Arabic.

Of their aims, the organisers say:

The Finnegan project tries to point out the current gaps in literary translation, yet it also focuses on works which have already been translated but are out of print or simply forgotten by a book market always eager to pounce on the latest novelties. In struggling against the uniformity and the spirit of immediate consumption that are increasingly defining the publishing world, the Finnegan project aims to be a long-term elaboration, proposing over the years a veritable archive for translators and publishers alike…

In the face of recent and most worrying political evolutions—such as the resurgence of an excessive nationalism throughout Europe—it is once again crucial to affirm the importance of remaining open-minded towards other languages and cultures. Through its multilingual polyphony, Finnegan’s List is striving to be a vivid expression of the essential truth that “a culture is, after all, the sum of the external influences it acquires”, to quote one of the List 2012 committee’s members—Juan Goytisolo.

Adam Thirlwell observes that the unusual model highlights unexpected patterns in the flow of translation:

It was very strange thinking of under-translated titles in English: the basic model is that everything’s available in other languages, that the problem is the other way round… I think it’s interesting how the project shows that gaps can exist anywhere.

That same unusual model, with no agenda from national cultural institutes, just honest recommendations from avid readers, also lends the whole project authenticity in bucketloads. And after all, anyone who’s ever bought a book on the basis of a blurb—and I’d bet that’s more of us than would like to admit it—knows the value of a recommendation from a trusted figure.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.