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Reflections on the Frankfurt Book Fair 2023

By Chloe Marshall

Last week, I found myself in Frankfurt for the seventy-fifth annual book fair. Mostly hoping to gain an insight into what the fuss is all about, I arrived on the second day, pretzel and coffee in hand. I was ready to wander about and be thoroughly overwhelmed by the presence of hundreds of publishers, creatives, and other industry professionals, all of whom seemed to have a purpose there much grander than my own mission to “simply observe.” The fair is generally only open to trade visitors from Wednesday to Friday, and then officially to the rest of the public on the weekend, but I was able to secure a free trade ticket through the Book Machine, a creative agency offering great resources for “hopefuls” and publishers alike.

The Frankfurt Book Fair, or Frankfurter Buchmesse in German, saw it’s inauguration in 1949, and in 1950 the beginning of its internationalisation. The Fair’s impressive figures in 2023 far outnumber those of its (comparatively) humble beginnings: with 105,000 trade visitors from 130 countries and 110,000 members of the public, it has reflected, responded to, and stimulated great shifts and growing interest in the publishing sector over the course of its history.

Each year, the Fair hosts a guest of honour to showcase a country or linguistic region; this year’s was Slovenia, with its programme “Honeycomb of Words.” I ended up in Slovenia, so to speak, by accident, hoping to attend a poetry reading which, due to getting lost en route, I only managed to catch the last 5 minutes of. Despite being slightly difficult to navigate, the fair demonstrates an incredibly creative approach to a conference space. The area dedicated to the Slovenian programme was an oasis of calm compared the rest of the Fair, at least on the Thursday that I arrived (it became busier as school children started to arrive on Friday). The programme of events hosted in this area covered a range of topics along a general axis of the meaning of literature in the contemporary age: particularly regarding poetry, artificial intelligence, Slovenian literature on the European plane, and current trends in the creation, publication, and consumption of books.

A refreshing panel discussion about Literature in the Age of AI shifted my perspective on the relationship between literature, creativity, and artificial intelligence: namely that in our understanding of this relationship, the possibility of choice is essential. Rather than viewing AI’s continual advancement as a threat, and to see therein a reduction of our power to stop it, we must learn to use it as a tool and a supplement. Just because AI can write books does not mean we should commission it to do so at every opportunity, nor does this diminish the value and necessity of human creativity.

Readers were also a focus at the fair: events such as Book Reading and Critical Thinking, Publishing and Low Literacy in Adults, and the Attention Crisis and Book Reading examined the potential of a responsive publishing industry to mitigate the changing demands of a contemporary readership.

Last year saw the introduction of the International Translation Center at the Fair, hoping to establish translation as a crucial opportunity for the publishing world: not just a literary but a communicative act. This year, the programme covered the role of AI in translation and the issue of translating between “power-language-politics" in and outside of Europe. Certainly, conflict was the not-so-subtle elephant in the room at many of the panels I attended. The so-called “violence of translation” is a phrase often circulated, referring to the extent to which conflict is relevant — or rather, inherent — to the act of translation. However, in light of the war in Ukraine and most recently that in Gaza, talking about the “impossible necessity” (another favourite catchphrase) of translation became a focal point of discussions in this section. However, it can be difficult to understand the practical implications of such (often abstract) statements: what do they actually mean in times of conflict, particularly for the publishing industry?

One panel discussion from the journalistic translation initiative dekoder about Translating Journalism - between Culture, Politics and Aesthetics outlined the obstacles in translation which can also form its motivation: namely: speed, impact, and tone. The act of quickly translating journalistic texts across territories in conflict can be difficult because the urgency of the situation demands a level of accuracy both necessary and impossible to meet. All of the panels I attended at the International Translation Centre were in German, and as I don’t speak German, I listened through headphones to the live English interpretation broadcast from a glass booth at the back. Considering questions of translation, in translation, with the interpreters’ urgency of following a constant debate and their simultaneous tasks of listening, interpreting, and speaking — it felt apt, to say the least.

Translating the present comes with its own baggage, but different questions are posed when we try to translate the past. Another panel discussion, Deference to difference: Approaches to alterity, examined the responsibilities we have, if any, towards texts and people when we translate or retranslate the past. Sebastian Guggolz argued that his translations of older works are in fact contemporary products, written for a contemporary audience and contributors to the present, not the past; the question is rather to what kind of present do we want them to contribute?

Kristina Maidt-Zinke suggested in this panel that if we don’t want old books to be old books, why re/translate them at all: why not conserve the historical distance which we must already cross as readers, as critics? It’s worth considering who translation — or for that matter, sensitivity reading — really protects: the reader, the writer, the publisher? Perhaps, instead, we should be concentrated on ways to mitigate harmful perspectives without smoothing over their problematic elements. Translation, whether it is used to mediate the present or to interpret the past, will always be fraught with conflict – sometimes this conflict must be worked through rather than stifled.

Finally, I enjoyed several panels at The Frankfurt Pavilion Agora, a cultural and political stage situated in a kind of futuristic tent at the centre of the fair. On Thursday, Markus Gabriel and Anna Katsman from The New Institute in Hamburg presented their book, Towards a New Enlightenment: The Case for Future-Oriented Humanities (2023). Along with their host, Peter Neumann, they argued for a reconsideration of the humanities from a political and humanitarian standpoint. Rather than using historically embedded principles of rationality as our epistemological framework — whereby we are bureaucratised, measurable, and governable — we should be making space in policy for immeasurable values such as love, compassion, and kindness. Just because these things are immeasurable does not mean they are inactionable. The book pushes for democracy on all levels of human relations, making a case for the vote for children: whether or not we include them in the practice of politics affects the very definition itself: if it is the science of the smallest evil, responding to an inevitable struggle for power or rather a way to make sustainable decisions and create conditions for care.

The final and most integral message which I took from this panel discussion was the passionate case made for the humanities as a way forward and through the crises our planet currently faces. A characteristic feature of the humanities is to complexify, to slow down, which may seem counterintuitive and counterproductive when facing catastrophe; however, as Gabriel quoted from writer and activist Bayo Akomolafe: “the times are urgent; let us slow down.”

The Frankfurt Book Fair presents an opportunity to do just that: slow down. The corporate environment can seem overwhelming and busy — it certainly is if you’re constantly in meetings or trying to network — but many of the panels which formed the majority of my experience of the fair insisted upon the importance of stepping back, of connecting over whatever it may be (probably books). Swallowing my imposter syndrome and owning my wide-eyed, inexperienced curiosity allowed me to anonymously participate in what is undoubtedly one of the largest events of cultural exchange in the world. So, definitely worth the free ticket!



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