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Angharad Price: Steig Larsson and the Quercus connection

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Phil Rickman Phil Rickman | 09:15 UK time, Friday, 13 July 2012

The late Steig Larsson has sold an estimated 60 million books worldwide, a good proportion of them in the UK. Which is a lot more than Angharad Price... so far.

Angharad Price. Photo: Angharad Elen

Angharad Price. Photo: Angharad Elen

OK, three massive, complex, violent Swedish thrillers don't have too much in common with a very slim poetic story set in the Maesglasau Valley of north Wales. Except that both Steig and Angharad were discovered by the same London publisher, Christopher MacLehose, who runs his own imprint inside independent publishers Quercus.

It's not really all that surprising, as MacLehose specialise in translation, and The Life Of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price was published some years ago in Welsh. But it did get me thinking about what would become the theme for this week's edition of Phil The Shelf.

Before Steig Larsson came along there were already a few Scandinavian writers, like Wallander creator Henning Mankell, doing fairly well in translation. But before Angharad, London publishers had virtually nobody whose novels had begun in Welsh - well, nobody still alive.

So how come we can't get enough Nordic novels while Offa's Dyke seems to be the biggest book-barrier in Europe?

It's not, of course, because the English-reading world is entirely uninterested in what happens in Welsh-speaking Wales. It seems to be all about a shortage of good translators - or, at least, good translators with good contacts in the UK publishing world.

The Life of Rebecca Jones. Photo courtesy of MacLehose Press

The Life Of Rebecca Jones. Photo courtesy of MacLehose Press

As very few London publishers speak Welsh, they rely on people they can trust to say, "this is a serious page-turner". Or, in the case of The Life Of Rebecca Jones, "this is a classic".

Rebecca was translated for MacLehose by Lloyd Jones, best known for the award-winning Mr Cassini - a Welsh novel in English. Obviously a labour of love, the translation preserves all the poetry in this story of a very unusual family, which produced sons who overcame the constraints of blindness and also, at a later stage, Angharad Price herself, now a senior lecturer in Welsh at Bangor.

It's been widely praised in the London media. The Independent said:

"Price's book achieves a rare feat indeed. A lovingly crafted account of Welsh-speaking rural life on the brink of dissolution or at least transformation, it serves both as a touching, tender document and as a thoroughly artful exercise in storytelling."

It's already a cult, but will it become a serious bestseller in English? A paperback is scheduled, with major promotion. If it does take off, will the Steig Larsson effect create a demand for more Welsh novels?

In other words, will Welsh-language novelists be able to earn something approximating to a good living?

It's hard enough these days for English language writers to achieve a worthwhile income but, as you can hear on Sunday's programme, full-time Welsh writers like Gareth Williams - thrillers, non-fiction, screenplays, kidlit; you commission it, he can do it - need to multitask on a mind-boggling scale.

But Angharad Price thinks Gareth's good and, if all goes well, that could count for a lot.

Listen to Phil the Shelf from 5.30pm on Sunday on BBC Radio Wales.

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