English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day


From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

25 September 2015

Celebrating Translation at the British Library

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On Friday 2nd October, the British Library will open its doors once more to the translation community to celebrate International Translation Day. Translators, authors, students, publishers, booksellers, librarians, bloggers and reviewers, all with an interest in translation, will gather to debate significant issues and developments within the sector, as well as to celebrate its successes. This annual event, presented by Free Word, English PEN and the British Library in association with the British Centre for Literary Translation, Literature Across Frontiers, the Translators' Association, Wales Literature Exchange and Words With-out Borders has become one of the highlights of the British Library’s calendar. 

Translated literature may only represent between three and four per cent of books published each year in the UK, but most literature lovers will find that their bookshelves (real or virtual) hold a far greater proportion of translated works than such a statistic implies. The personal library of any serious book-worm is very likely to include international classics such as Homer, Tolstoy, Proust, Ibsen, Nietzsche and de Beauvoir, as well as examples of more contemporary authors such as Saramago, Kundera, Knausgård and Murakami…and perhaps some Scandinavian crime, for lighter, though somewhat dark, reading. Without this international literature our world would certainly be a great deal narrower, and our literature a great deal poorer.


Deborah's picture

It is easy to forget when discussing the latest work by Murakami that the words on the page are in fact those of his translator/s and as such represent an act of interpretation. We have no way of knowing the challenges that the original text has presented the translator with, or how much is lost (or perhaps even gained) in translation. Even more hidden from our eye is the collaborative pro-cess that goes into the making of a translated text: the discussions that took place between the translator and the editor, or original author, over issues of style or ‘meaning’. Neither can we guess at the various levels of negotiation that bring a work of foreign literature to our shelves:  the impassioned letters from a translator to a publishing house persuading them to publish the latest literary gem they have discovered; the fierce negotiations over foreign rights at the international Book Fairs; the wrangling over author’s and translator’s fees; the concerns of publishing houses about the marketability of a work. In a sense, then, it is not just the translator and his/her process which remain largely invisible to the public, but all the other professionals who collaborate to bring translated fiction to our shelves.

It is this ‘hidden life’ of a translation – the whys and wherefores of translators’ choices and the complex process of translated literature reaching our shelves – which is often revealed in the archives of translators. Within its contemporary literary manuscripts collections, the British Library holds the extensive archives of poet Michael Hamburger (1924-2007) and playwright Michael Meyer (1921-2000). Both authors in their own right, Hamburger and Meyer are best known for their translations. Hamburger was responsible for bringing some of the most important German language writers, particularly poets, to our shelves, including Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn, Friederich Hölderlin and W. G. Sebald. Meyer translated the works of the great Scandinavian dramatists, Ibsen and Strindberg, for the British theatre, radio and television of the 1950s and 1960s, bring-ing a freshness to the texts which helped to ensure their status in the twentieth century’s dramatic repertoire. These two archives, containing draft manuscripts of their translations alongside correspondence with editors, literary agents, publishers and other prominent literary figures shed light on the ‘hidden life’ of a translation.

Other equally interesting translation-related material is to be found in the recently acquired archives of contemporary poets Ted Hughes and Peter Dale, both prolific translators. Hughes believed passionately in the importance of translation, and the archive includes letters and papers relating to the journal Modern Poetry in Translation which he and the publisher Daniel Weissbort founded in 1965 with the express aim of bringing contemporary foreign poetry to the Anglophone reader. Hughes’s own translation work included the poetry of Ovid, and plays by Euripides, Racine and Wedekind. The archive includes correspondence about his translations of Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding as well as drafts of his translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Peter Dale’s translations from the French include the poetry of François Vilon and Paul Valéry and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Library’s archives collections do not only represent translations into English. A collection of correspondence between Harold Pinter and his Japanese translator Tetsuo Kishi not only throws light on the relationship between author and translator but also on the cultural transformation that Pinter’s plays undergo in translation, giving us pause for thought about the Pinter we know and love, and what it is it about his work that transferred so effectively to Japanese theatre.

Older translation-related treasures are to be found in the British Library vaults too. The archive of the nineteenth century drama critic, translator and author William Archer, who brought many of Ibsen’s plays to the British theatre for the first time in the late 1800s, includes papers related to performances of the time, and discussions with George Bernard Shaw about Ibsen’s work. The literary manuscripts of William Morris contain drafts of his translations of the Icelandic Edda and Beowolf, along with correspondence and notes. The archive of William Henry Fox Talbot, known chiefly as a pioneer in photography, but also an Assyriologist and one of the first decipherers of the inscriptions of Nineveh, includes a collection of notebooks with his draft translations.

And from even further back in time there are many Early Modern British and European manuscripts of translated works; not just into English but from English into Latin, Greek, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and Arabic (to name but a few). Some even earlier examples of translation are to found in our Arabic and Islamic Heritage collections - among them a thirteenth century manuscript of Ptolemaeus’ Almagest, an influential astronomical text thought to have been translated from the Greek into Arabic by al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ibn Matar in about 900 AD. The manuscript was owned by the mathematician Tusi, and is annotated with his comments and improvements on Ptolemaeus’ system, as well as remarks where he finds fault with the translation (visit the Qatar Digital Library at  to find out more). Such documents offer important historical clues into the impact of translation in the history of the international ex-change of ideas on philosophy, medicine, surgery, theology, as well as politics, trade and diplomacy, from as early as the thirteenth century.

The fact that translation and international literature is an intrinsic part of our national heritage, both past and present, is not only represented throughout the British Library’s collection, but is celebrated in our calendar of events through-out the year. This June, for example, UCL held the ARTIS 2015 Conference: Multidimensional Methodologies: collaboration and networking in translation re-search. The conference included a panel discussion about the relationship be-tween Archives, Museums and the study of Literary Translation, followed by a “show and tell” session led by curators at the Library to showcase some of our collections.

For the general public with an interest in international and translated literature, there are a variety of events to be found on the British Library’s calendar, not only including the forthcoming International Translation Day, but The PEN Pinter Prize held this year on October 6th, European Literature Night held each spring, and a plethora of events throughout the year which offer audiences an opportunity to hear international and British authors from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as well as translators, discuss their work.

Deborah Dawkin is currently working on a collaborative AHRC PhD project with UCL and the British Library focussing on the archive of Ibsen translator Michael Meyer.


12 August 2015

The Michael Marks Awards 2015: now open for entries

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        We are delighted to announce that this year’s Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets are now open for entries. There are three awards for Poetry Pamphlet, Publisher, and Illustration. Works published in the UK between July 2014 and June 2015 are eligible, and full details of how to apply are available from the Wordsworth Trust website.

        The Awards were started by the British Library with the Poetry Book Society, with the generous support of the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, in 2009. They are now entering their 7th year, with the Wordsworth Trust joining the British Library as lead partner in 2012, and the TLS joining as media sponsor.


Laura Scott, winner of the Michael Marks Award 2014, for her pamphlet ‘What I saw’.

Laura Scott: What I saw. Aylsham: The Rialto, 2013.

            The Awards were inspired by the Scotland-based Callum Macdonald Memorial Award, also supported by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust, and founded by Tessa Ransford. They were established to celebrate the poetry pamphlet as a unique form of publication, having a fundamental importance in poetry. Traditionally the poetry pamphlet is often seen as the first step to publishing a collection of poetry by emerging writers, but it is also used by established poets who may have a piece of work that they want stand alone, or want to use the opportunity to collaborate with an artist or writer.

Forweb-Helen Mort
Helen Mort

        Judges for the 2015 award include Helen Mort, Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds, and former Poet-in-Residence at the Wordsworth Trust; Rory Waterman, poet, lecturer in the Department of English at Nottingham Trent University, and regular reviewer for the TLS; and Debbie Cox, Lead Curator of Contemporary British Publications at the British Library.

        There are two major Michael Marks Awards, one of a work of poetry in pamphlet form, and one for a publisher of poetry. Pamphlet publishers are the lifeblood of new poetry, often working on a voluntary basis and often with only their own resources. The Awards are unique in recognising
that commitment.


Winner of the publishers’ award in 2014 was Welsh poetry pamphlet imprint Rack Press


        This year, for the first time, we offer a new Award for an illustrator of poetry pamphlets, celebrating the pamphlet as a beautiful object in its own right. The Illustration Award will be judged by Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, London from 2008 – 2015.

        The shortlist for the Poetry and Publishers’ Awards will be announced by the end of October and the winners will be announced at a special dinner at the British Library on Tuesday 24th November.

Full details of the Awards are at

Closing date for submission of pamphlets is Friday 28th August 2015






05 August 2015

Lee Harwood: Sailing Westward

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                                                                         Lee small 2010   Lee Harwood (1939-2015)

Chris Beckett writes:

        There is a haunting valedictory quality to Lee Harwood’s recent collection, The Orchid Boat (Enitharmon Press, 2014). And yet the poems, many of which recapitulate with a light (and last) touch themes and motifs familiar from Harwood’s considerable body of work, are far from sombre:

I don’t intend to sit here waiting in my coffin,
gathering dust until the final slammer,
adjusting my tiara.

I’ll stamp my foot
and, checking the rear-view mirror,
head for the frontier.

Sadly, the sense of journey’s end – or journey’s beginning – that characterises The Orchid Boat is now made all the more poignant by the news that Lee Harwood passed away last month, on Sunday 26 July.

So where’s the boat?
A sampan or a lugger?
or an elegant steam launch?
Is there room for me and that crew of sages? 

‘Sailing Westwards’, the poem that concludes The Orchid Boat, moves seamlessly in typical Harwood manner between landscapes imagined and landscapes remembered, from the mountains of China to the hills and mountains of Snowdonia that Harwood climbed with untiring enthusiasm and a perpetual sense of wonder. We have seen the ‘elegant steam launch’ in Harwood’s poems before; and the lifelong delight that he took in the orchids of the Sussex Downs finds new resonance in ‘Departures’, the poem that opens The Orchid Boat: ‘Without thinking / I step aboard the orchid boat, / the feel of silk / carrying me beyond all mirrors’.

       Lee Harwood established his reputation as a distinctive new voice in English poetry with The White Room, published by Fulcrum Press in 1968. Landscapes (1969) and The Sinking Colony (1970) quickly followed, and in 1971 his work appeared in Penguin Modern Poets 19, along with selections from Tom Raworth and the American poet John Ashbery. In 1975, Trigram Press published Harwood’s translations of the poems of Tristan Tzara, a seminal influence whose work Harwood discovered in the early 1960s. Thereafter, Harwood was published exclusively by the small presses, a state of affairs that reflected the divided and divisive territory of English poetry during the 1980s. In 2004, Shearsman Books published Harwood’s Collected Poems to considerable acclaim, prompting an upsurge of retrospective interest in his work. The Salt Companion to Lee Harwood, a collection of essays on his work, was published in 2007, and this was quickly followed by a series of illuminating interviews conducted by Kelvin Corcoran, Not the Full Story (2008). Recently, Harwood’s poems found an appreciative home in the London Review of Books, and his work was championed in sensitive reviews by August Kleinzahler and Mark Ford.

       It is a great pleasure to report that the extensive papers of Lee Harwood, which were acquired from the poet by the British Library in 2012, will be made available later this year. The preparation of the catalogue, which has benefited from the poet’s close involvement, is now in its final stages. It is a matter of great regret that Harwood did not live to see the release of his papers, although he took great satisfaction in seeing his papers join the national collection. The archive is a rich record of the life of a singular poet who belonged to no particular school, finding sympathetic friends across poetry’s territorial divisions, both at home and in America. Journals, diaries, notebooks, and much poetry in draft, are supplemented by a considerable number of letters received: there are 77 files of letters and 146 correspondents, from Ashbery (John) to Wylie (Andrew). A sense of the variety of Harwood’s correspondents, and the number of letters in the collection, can be quickly given by some examples: Paul Evans (122 letters), Harry Guest (354), August Kleinzahler (48), Douglas Oliver (48), F. T. Prince (22), Tom Raworth (58), and Anne Stevenson (in excess of 400). Harwood greatly valued the close reading of his work by other poets, and one of the instructive rewards of the letters is to read their detailed responses to his work.