Transcending Malta’s literary limitations

When the market for books is as tiny as the Maltese one, there is very little incentive to excel. At least, that is what writer Immanuel Mifsud, who won the European Prize for Literature, seems to have been saying in an interview with The Times.

Mr Mifsud suggests a number of solutions, foremost among them is the setting up of a national pool of translators who would specialise in translating literature.

But before evaluating the merits of such a suggestion, we need to try and understand the local literary situation. Essentially, there are two main aspects the implications of which we need to examine: language and infrastructure.

Maltese is spoken by about 400,000 people in Malta and a few thousands in the diaspora. So any book written in Maltese can at best reach a few hundred thousand people, though, in reality, the reach is much smaller.

The Maltese are not avid readers of books in their own language, though a National Book Council survey did indicate that they do read, just not a lot of books and only just under 50 per cent of those who do so read in Maltese. Plus, the Maltese are, at least on paper, bilingual and so, even in Malta itself, the book that is strictly in Maltese has one of the biggest book markets in the world to compete with.

Nor can the diaspora take up the slack as buying Maltese books from Malta could become quite expensive.

Whether this disheartens writers from excelling is another matter. No doubt, Malta does have a number of fine writers who, given a level playing field, are able to compete effectively with foreign counterparts.

Mr Mifsud is right, though, when he says that a parochial, partisan mentality infuses and limits literary production and certain impositions tend to often gag minds. The insularity fostered by living on a small island does not help either.

In terms of the infrastructure, Mr Mifsud seems to imply that the whole publishing set-up is all wrong for the Maltese to have a chance to compete in other countries. That is, even if books are written in English or are translated there would still be a problem with diffusion because the system here excludes the middlemen.

Literary agents, who create the commercial underpinnings for writers in many countries abroad, do not exist in Malta. Even publishers are but a few in this country, though they have been doing an excellent job in the face of adverse conditions.

Are there solutions? If there is the knowledge of the markets, then there is a good chance that good products in a language that is internationally understood can break through.

But this is also a case of supply and demand. There does not seem to be a demand for Maltese literature in other languages because the infrastructure that can sell it abroad barely exists.

However, on a smaller scale, the gifted writers that can compete are there, and, in a pinch, a number of translators capable of rendering literature into, say, English are there too.

What is missing is the mentality to strike out and find the markets that transcend our geographical limitations. The pity lies in the lack of importance culture seems to be given by administrations that might pay lip service to the need to expand this country’s literary horizons but do not put their money and resources where their mouth is. This they can do by helping involved parties expand their reach, changing marketing approaches and giving a boost to literature and Malta’s cultural identity abroad.

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