In May 2008, the journalist, critic and Mann Booker Prize judge Stuart Kelly wrote an opinion piece in a national newspaper that must have put several dozen very eminent noses out of joint.
Reacting against the various claims that Scotland was “enjoying a Golden Age of Letters” and that the world “disproportionately enjoys” Scottish writing, he spoke of a generation of Scottish literary critics and writers “characterised by chippy self-satisfaction [and] defensive insularity” and asked: “How did this complacent, stand-offish superiority complex arise?”
In part, his answer had to do with the fact that, although we are becoming increasingly well acquainted with our own literary output – four histories of Scottish literature were published in a single year in the Noughties – we still know relatively little about the literature of the rest of the world. Before blowing our own trumpet so loudly, should we not first develop an understanding of what’s going on in China? Or India? Or even the rest of Europe?
In conclusion, Kelly wrote: “There would be no greater proof of Scotland’s cultural maturity than if it were to stop telling us how wonderful it is… and begin the hard work of listening to the rest of the world and entering into dialogue with it. Wha’s like us? Listen and we might find out.”
That sign off now seems particularly prescient in the light of the fact that Edinburgh is about to become the home of Trafika Europe – an innovative online radio station broadcasting European literature in English translation. The brainchild of writer and lecturer Andrew Singer, who studied creative writing under Derek Walcott at Boston University, Trafika will have its launch at Edinburgh’s Summerhall in August. It already has the support of the Scottish Poetry Library and Edinburgh’s Makar Ron Butlin, who will co-host its inaugural event, Northern Idyll: New Work From Europe’s Northern Islands, from 5-10 August, and when I spoke to Singer on the phone recently he assured me that it won’t simply be a festival phenomenon but something based in Edinburgh “for the long haul”.
As its name suggests, the Edinburgh International Book Festival offers a fantastic window into world literature – this year it has a whole strand dedicated to writing from South Africa, 20 years on from the end of apartheid – but it’s only in town for a couple of weeks each year. Trafika, by contrast, will be a physical presence all year round. True, it will mostly exist as an online entity, but the possibilities for cross-fertilisation with other organisations in Scotland are exciting to say the least. For a start, the University of Edinburgh’s Translation Studies Graduate Programme is only a five minute stroll away from Summerhall, on the other side of the Meadows.
Wha’s like us? If we tune in to trafikaeurope.org, we might just find out.