Maltese literature urgently needs to be translated and exported, according to Immanuel Mifsud, winner of the EU Prize for Literature.
“When we become conscious that our market is wider, then our perspective and our writing will change,” he said, adding that only this could improve the quality of Maltese literature.
For this to happen, Mr Mifsud told The Times, Malta pressingly required a Literature Information Centre.
This should also include a translation unit. “We need an army of literary translators,” Mr Mifsud, the acclaimed author who has been the leading voice of the Maltese Generation X, said.
So far there are no professional literary translators in Malta, as opposed to document translators, of which there are several – literary translation is a completely distinct concept in itself.
Moreover, the whole structure of the publishing world in Malta should change, he continued to insist.
“A lot of homework has to be done: publishers need to change their perceptions,” he said, arguing that almost no Maltese writer had an agent.
At the awards ceremony in Brussels for the EU Prize for Literature, more than half the winners from other countries were there with their agents. He explained that when he was approached by agents for his winning title In the Name of the Father (and of the Son), he could only refer them to his publisher. “Agents deal with agents,” he said, and only when the deal was struck did they take it to “publisher level”.
Mr Mifsud is not one to mince his words, but at the same time his delivery is very composed and soft-spoken – he has the aura of a docile bear. By his own admission, he is “not very good at showing emotions”, and yet his passion shines through his words: in his writing, which is refreshingly raw, and no less in his conversation.
As a lecturer at Junior College, where he teaches Maltese poetry, criticism and literary theory, his pulse is on the language and he is adamant about the need for Maltese writing to be given an injection of vitality.
He suggests that Malta look at Cataluna, in Spain, as an active example of how to push its literature. They pumped a lot of money into Catalan literature – writers had at their disposal a translation unit to help them publish their books in the language of the country they would be promoting it in, he said.
He also pointed to Iceland, which has an even smaller population than Malta, but where practically every book published in Icelandic is translated.
Why is it that Malta does not have a reading culture?
“Why? Take the village which has two band clubs. They compete not for the best composition or the best band player, but for the best façade. All this indicates we are concerned with image, not with content,” he said, replying with caution.
Mr Mifsud said perhaps Maltese “are not people who think a lot”. When pressed, he added: “How can you think when you have Net and One [television channels]? How can you think when comedy dramas on television want to make people laugh with the obvious? When the comedian is always portrayed as an ignorant, chavvy idiot? Like that, what’s his name on Xarabank, Kajboj? How can you think in an environment like this?”
Malta is also a nation gagged by taboos. At a recent reading of his book in Brussels, Mr Mifsud read part of the text which mentioned the former Labour minister Lorry Sant. A Maltese woman in the audience laughed out loud nervously on hearing the name. Writer Alex Vella Gera (of Li Tkisser Sewwi) in his blog described this moment as “an audible expression of the taboo culture that pervades the arts in Malta … those unmentionables, such as who’s really pulling the strings in the country …”
Mr Mifsud agreed with Mr Vella Gera’s take on the situation. “I blame this on the political parties. They have planted the mentality that you have to belong to one of them, at all costs. You don’t really see this dualism anywhere else,” he said.
There is an innate fear of being boxed under a party, he said. “We fear the timbru (stamp), which is stupid really because even if you don’t say anything you will be pigeonholed.”
Consequently, much of Maltese prose was void of political references, because many feared taking a stand, hence the reason for the nervous giggles.
“Apart from Oliver Friggieri’s Fil-Parlament Ma Jikbrux Fjuri, there was just one author who took a clear position: Trevor Zahra, and as he says in his biography, he paid the price for it,” he said.
Meanwhile, as part of the Prize for Literature promotion Mr Mifsud has been all over Europe from Frankfurt to Brussels, Luxembourg and Paris.
At the time of the interview Mr Mifsud had just returned from Copenhagen where the Representation of the European Commission in Malta organised a Maltese literary evening with him as the protagonist.
It may sound glamorous but for the author, who suffers from acute fear of flying, it was an ordeal every time. And yet, he presses on because he would like to sell the rights of his book to a foreign market.
“This book took a lot out of me, emotionally,” he said, adding that at times he did not feel comfortable with what he was writing.
In the Name of the Father (and of the Son) is published by Klabb Kotba Maltin and is now available from all leading bookshops.
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