Roots in the PEN Charter

‘PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations; and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible’.

(Point 4 of the PEN Charter)


Mario Vargas Llosa, Orhan Pamuk, Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami… just a few of the many international writers whose work has inspired and moved readers across the world. From the lush Chilean landscapes of Isabel Allende to the days of an occupied Prague in Milan Kundera, literature from other cultures has taken readers on journeys into new and diverse lands.  Millions of readers have found pleasure in books which have their origins in other countries or cultures; books which have crossed linguistic and geographical borders to entertain and inform an English-speaking audience.


Seeking out new writing from other languages is imperative if we are to ensure that the literature available to UK readers is an accurate reflection of the diverse world in which we live.  The English language has a vast and impressive literary tradition, and we are justifiably proud of the wealth of quality literature which has been written in English.  But we must not ignore the fact that there is a huge amount of good literature being written in other languages.  And yet of the some 100,000 books published in English each year in the UK, only around 3% are translations into English.  This reluctance by the UK publishing industry to support translated titles ensures that millions of voices across the world go unheard, and further preserves the global hegemony of English at the expense of other languages.


Such dismal statistics make this a natural issue for PEN.  The reluctance to translate work from languages other than English must be seen for what it is: a form of censorship.  What we don’t acknowledge, we don’t read; what we don’t read, we don’t know.  The reluctance of UK publishers to actively encourage literature in minority languages acts to preserve the hegemony of the English language and, worryingly, ensures that the ideas of millions are going unheard, unrecognised, and unread.


In these turbulent times, where war and terror dominate the news, and where differences between cultures frequently result in fear and mistrust rather than diversity, the need to understand other cultures is crucial.  Literature may not be able to change the world, but PEN has always believed it can play a significant role in helping to make it a better-informed and more generous place.  Reading literature from other countries can open minds, and can help us to understand – and appreciate – people whose backgrounds may be very different to our own.


In our global Babel of languages, communication is often only possible through translation.  Translation can open up ideas, explain concepts – in short, make intelligible what would otherwise remain incomprehensible.  At its best, good translation acts as a mediator between cultures – transmitting the meaning of one culture to another, and promoting intercultural understanding, tolerance and sympathy.  

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