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Infrequently Asked Questions
George Blaustein
11 March 2021
published in Issue Zero – Opuscule

Who, what, and why? Imagine something called, say, the Zemblan Review of Books, or the Esperanto Review of Political Theory, or the Klingon Review of Horticulture, or the Utopian Review of Bicycles.

Who are you?

We’re a group of writers, academics and designers. We’re from the Netherlands, Norway, France and the US, and we’re reaching out. I myself am originally from Wisconsin and moved to Amsterdam in 2011 after finishing my PhD. I teach history and American Studies, with an emphasis on the transatlantic: the founding preoccupations of my field were the American picture of Europe and the European picture of America. The ERB, though, is of a new era: a Europe after the American Century.

Whose idea was the European Review of Books?

About two years ago Uğur Ümit Üngör said to me, out of the blue: « we need a European Review of Books. » Another friend, Sander Pleij, had been pondering a new literary magazine. Something clicked, though we didn’t yet know what it would be. I think the first line we put on paper was: « Books? Review? Europe? A European Review of Books would sound thrice-doomed. » For a while this was our perverse mantra.

Why have a crowdfunding campaign?

A magazine of this sort does not emerge from a local coterie; we’re casting our first nets across language and region. Is this possible? We hope so. We want to create an institution that pays contributors fairly—writers, translators, local editors, designers, illustrators—that cultivates new writers, that endures. What we raise from the crowdfunding campaign will go to that purpose. We hope people will thrill to the idea of supporting a writer who writes in a language they don’t speak in a place they haven’t been to. Not only out of the goodness of their hearts but because of the promise of something new.

What does the title of this magazine really mean?

Something called « The European Review of Books » will spark very different sentiments—aspiration, nostalgia, bitterness, scorn, confusion, delight—depending on where you are. The title is both a game and a commitment. It calls to mind the many other Review[s] of Books—great magazines all—but the ERB has a different purpose and will have a weirder shape. While it channels a longstanding « European » cultural aspiration, sure, experimentalism can sneak in under that staidness. Imagine something called, say, the Zemblan Review of Books, or the Esperanto Review of Political Theory, or the Klingon Review of Horticulture, or the Utopian Review of Bicycles.

Our commitment is to a literary culture beyond the nation and the metropole. We want a magazine for great original essays and great criticism, in English and in a writer’s mother tongue. We landed on that approach to language pretty early: strategic bilingualism. It’s strategic in that there’s no other way to do it. But it marks a grander commitment, too: to give good writing that double form, and to have it resonate within and beyond particular places.

Strategic bilingualism sounds confusing and arduous. What do you mean theres no other way to do it? Why is it important?

English has a strange ubiquity in Europe. That ubiquity can give the impression of an inclusive lingua franca, which then raises a fantasy of efficient translation, of a frictionless flow analogous to the flows of goods and capital. (« Frictionless » is a horrible word.) But that impression is an illusion, and to celebrate it would be to celebrate what is, after all, a shallow internationalism. The ERB is an English-language publication that also resists, or plays with, the seeming hegemony of English. (I understand and even sympathize with calls for linguistic protectionism, even though, as an academic expat in Amsterdam whose Dutch is clumsy and witless, I have myself followed the routes of that pseudo-internationalization.) Call it a predicament, an irony, a contradiction, a paradox, whatever—we want to use the ubiquity of English to animate the multilingual.

« European »?

One risk of calling something « The European Review of Books » is that it might sound like a parliament of other magazines, standing above and looking down, as if in parallel to the EU. But that is emphatically not what we are. (Here I do want to mention Eurozine’s heroic curation of cultural journals: a punning alternative to the Eurozone.) The ERB can operate below the nation as much as above it—or perpendicular to it. These are clunky spatial metaphors. The point is that the ERB will wind geographic paths that we cannot imagine. The editing of it will demand, and can give rise to, unexpected intimacies and solidarities. None of it is orderly or clean, and it isn’t without risk.

The old aphorism that « a language is a dialect with an army and navy » comes to mind. I had heard it for years before learning that it appeared in Yiddish first: « a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot. » Max Weinreich, who expressed it that way in 1945, was a Russian Jewish linguist who had moved from the Latvian town of Kuldīga, to Berlin, to Marburg, to Vilnius. He was in Denmark when war broke out in 1939, and then moved to New York—a life both hyperlocal and supra-national.

Another anecdote, since sometimes an anecdote is the best way to answer a question. Years ago I heard that a librarian at my university translates Emily Dickinson poems into Frisian on the side. (« Water, is taught by thirst / Land—by the Oceans passed » becomes « Wetter, wurdt jin leard troch toarst. / Lân—troch de befearne See. ») It’s wonderful. We want non-national languages, too. And we welcome any implosion of the old « traduttore, traditore » joke—here the translator is no traitor. Maybe translation is a spiritual smuggling.