Organized by English PEN, the International Translation Day celebration at the Free Word Centre occurred on September 28, 2018.
International Translation Day was celebrated this year at the Free Word Centre in London with an evening event on September 28. While this format was much reduced from the full day of parallel sessions conducted in previous years at the British Library, the event sold out quickly and the atmosphere was fabulously buzzy as literary translators came together to celebrate their profession, learn, and mingle.
Both sessions were chaired by Theodora Danek, Writers in Translation program manager at English PEN and the organizer of the whole event. The first panel, entitled “Three Things I’ve Learned about Translation,” included speakers Rahul Bery, Rebecca May Johnson, and Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen. The lessons in translation for Rahul Bery included becoming a translator with a capital T; because previously he didn’t earn a substantial part of his income through translation, he felt like inhabiting the profession was something he had to learn. His current position as translator in residence at the British Library raised his profile “artificially,” as he said, which was a good thing because it helped him to be more confident and forthcoming. The lesson being that “faking it until you make it” is a good way of embarking on a new career. Rahul’s second lesson was about the importance of schools and how they approach multilingual students. He has been working with EAL (English as Additional Language) students from all over the world and watching them “translate themselves into British people and students” with varying results. Rahul emphasized the importance of appreciating the variety of students’ linguistic/academic situations (for example those who speak four languages but don’t really read or write in any or those whose source culture emphasizes the importance of learning data, not skills), and of teaching them that multilingualism is an asset, not a hindrance. His last lesson was about living in a bilingual country when you’re not bilingual yourself; his children attend a Welsh school and their knowledge of that language is better than his. He’s been interested to see how they function in translation, and the family has created their own English/Welsh idiolect.
Writer and academic Rebecca May Johnson observed that you can translate within a language: you can translate patriarchal language into a feminist one, heteronormative into queer, standard English into regional dialects. Language is heterogeneous and each variety has its own political implications and meanings. She then remarked that you can translate out of language into a different medium (film, art, sculpture etc.); her own experience in intersemiotic translation took place during Jen Calleja’s Translation as Firework project, for which Rebecca translated Anna Weidenholzer’s short story “Chairs and Sentences” into a recipe. Her dish, a rice pudding combining German and Turkish culinary influences, blurred the lines between identity and difference, which was a big theme of the story. The third lesson—which she learned from her work on the Poettrio Experiment—was that poetry translation dissolves the mind/body dualism and that no “objective,” unemotional translation is possible. The intention was for Poettrio, a collaborative project involving British and Dutch poets translating each other’s poems with the assistance of bilingual advisors, to be scientific and “lab-like,” but this proved unrealistic. Various factors made it impossible for some participants to take part in the project in the end—interpersonal relationships and bodily realities came into play. Chaos contributed to the brilliance of translation.
Image: Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen presents. Photo by Marta Dziurosz.
Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, a lecturer in Scandinavian literature at the UCL, began by pointing out that translation is something you breathe and do all the time—and so every day is International Translation Day! Translators enable us to live and travel between languages, and Jakob thinks they’re brilliant and lovely and deserve hugs. Jakob was one of the researchers in charge of the Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations project, which had an academic aspect and also engaged with people involved in the “translation ecosystem,” such as translators and publishers. He boiled down the findings of the project’s final report to several points. Those that stood out to me were: while everyone seems to think there is very little published in translation in the UK, the situation is actually changing for the better, and because so much is published here every year, even the infamous 3% number translates to a healthy number of titles (which, incidentally, has risen by 100% in the past 5 years). While state and NGO sources of funding are of course vital, translators are organizing and finding new business models for working with publishers. I was interested in Jakob’s discussion of how cultural diplomacy can be achieved through translated literature, but another point that needs to be considered in equal depth is how to spread the reach of “translated literature” beyond big cities so that it can become accessible and normalized (hopefully to the point that this artificial “genre” becomes irrelevant).
The second session—“Pitch This!”—saw editors Ailah Ahmed (Virago/Little, Brown), Federico Andornino (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), and Isabel Wall (Viking/Penguin Random House) discuss book pitches delivered live by three translators: Polly Barton, Steph Morris, and Joanna van der Veen. Polly pitched There’s No Such Thing as a Cushy Job in this World by Kikuko Tsumura (Japanese); Steph pitched A State of Confusion by Christoph Hein (German); and Joanna pitched Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (Italian). I found the three books diverse and memorable and the translators presented them with flair, talking about the plot, voice, and tone of their texts; their intended audience and possible comparison titles; as well as their reception in the source language.
Image: Polly Barton presents. Photo by Marta Dziurosz.
The questions the editors asked, which any translator should bear in mind when pitching a book, included:
– Did the translators have a particular connection with the writer? How did they come across the book?
– Will the book’s humor translate? If it’s a feminist text, is it feminist in a way a British reader would understand?
– Why was this particular book from the writer’s oeuvre the one they chose to focus on?
– Does the author remind them of other authors, whether writing in English or not?
– Could the book appeal to readers who don’t read “literature in translation”? Would it create word-of-mouth buzz?
– Does the author speak English/travel/have international connections?
– How long would it take to translate the text and what is its word count?
– Has the book been translated into any other languages and, if so, who published it?
– Who’s the ideal reader for the book? Why do the translators think the British reader should read this particular book and why would they enjoy it?
-What are the quotes on the jacket (perhaps from famous writers?) and were there any good reviews in the source language? Is there an American/British author who loved the book and could champion it?
After the pitching event, Sarah Bower from the National Centre for Writing in Norwich took to the stage to announce the results of the most recent round of the Emerging Translator Mentorships. The program is now in its eighth year and it has launched many translation careers from a wide range of languages.
The only thing left after that was to get a drink and chat away with all the other translators gathered in the lobby for the networking portion of the evening—which went so well we had to be ushered out of the building. Another fantastic International Translation Day celebration—let’s hope for many more of them in the years to come.