Way back in February I attended a workshop on translated fiction in Bath. I mentioned at the time that there would be a follow-up conference in Bristol in September. That date has now arrived, so I was up early and off to the big city.
I did actually miss the first set of papers. It has been a very long week on the day job already, and there was no way I was getting up at the crack of dawn, but I made it there for morning coffee.
That was important because the first paper of the second session was by Paulina Drewniak from the University of Wrocław. Her paper was all about Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series, which is one of the few cases of a major international hit from translated genre fiction. It turns out that Paulina is a fan, and had been at the Eurocon in Dublin last year (where Sapkowski was one of the Guests of Honor). I apologized for voting for Barcelona. We agreed we’d be going anyway, and I’m trying to get her to come to Helsinki. We should bug her for a paper, Merja. Anyone who ends her academic talk with a picture of a Lego Witcher figure is OK by me.
Actually I want to know more about the figure of the Witcher in Slavic folklore. Apparently Sapkowski drew on pre-Christian traditions for his stories, as well as including a wealth of Polish in-jokes, most of which were omitted in the English translations.
Next up was Olivia Hellewell from Nottingham University who is working on Slovenian literature. I had a great deal of sympathy with the writer she interviewed who said that he now sends translations of his work to US and UK publishers under his own name, because if he says they are translations they go straight in the bin.
Finally in that session we had Richard Mansell of the University of Exeter on Catalan fiction. I love the Catalans. They are so proud and defiant. They refuse to be described as having “minority” language, but rather insist that it is a “minoritized” language. Nor is Catalan a stateless language. It is the official language of Andorra. While most Spaniards will have a copy of Don Quixote on their bookshelves to show that they are cultured, Catalans have it bookmarked at the page where Cervantes describes a Catalan novel as the best book ever written. I could go on. I am so looking forward to Barcelona.
There is a fairly well known Catalan novel that is a bit experimental and science-fictional. Richard didn’t think much of it as a book, but he noted that the central character spends the first few chapters talking about how he was once a member of the IRA. That section has been omitted from the English translation for fear it would offend delicate English ears.
I had managed to miss booking lunch, but I got really lucky and found a really good Indian restaurant across the road. This one. The little mint leaf in white chocolate that they gave me at the end was to die for.
The graveyard session was allocated to the poets, perhaps in the hope that they could entertain us and keep us awake. It is not an area I have much interest in (save for Roz Kaveney’s translations of Catullus), but I was astonished to hear that there are 119 books of Macedonian poetry translated into English. Apparently it is because they have a big international poetry festival in Macedonia and stuff gets translated for that. I was also delighted to discover that there are books of Cornish poetry in English translations. People write poetry in Cornish these days. I remember visiting the house in Mousehole where the last living Cornish speaker died. It is wonderful that the language has been resurrected.
The final poetry paper was about Cavafy, which was kind of appropriate because the conference was being held in the former home of another great gay poet. John Addington Symmonds is one of the superstars of Bristol’s LGBT history. He was also a translator. Up until he took a look at them, no one in the UK knew that Michelangelo’s poems were homoerotic. The original translator had gender-swapped some of the characters so that sensitive English readers need not be offended.
The final session opened up with Şule Demirkol Ertürk from Istanbul talking about two different translations of The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (which is not SF, the title is a reference to clocks). The first translation was done by a small press specializing in Turkish literature. However, after Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize publishers looked for other Turkish writers to exploit, and a new translation of Tanpinar’s book was commissioned, with the involvement of Pamuk’s translator, Maureen Freely (though apparently most of the work was done by her student, Alexander Dawe).
Şule’s paper was fascinating in the way that it contrasted the different approaches, and wildly different commercial success, of the multinational and small press publishers. It wasn’t just the marketing muscle. Penguin also made a specfic effort to package Turkish culture in a way that would appeal to Western readers likely to be suspicious of the country.
Interestingly exactly the opposite is happening with Jules Verne. When he was first published in the 19th Century the big publishers of the time rushed to get him to the English-speaking market. They too were insistent on packaging him for their audience, including removing all of the anti-British and pro-Socialist rhetoric. Nowadays there is a movement to re-translate Verne and let the English speaking world read the books as they were originally written. This is all being done by small and academic presses such as the fabulous folks at Wesleyan.
The next paper was about Swedish women writers, which would have been great except that it focused on the 19th century and was half about poetry. If you are interested, there is a blog maintained by the researchers.
Finally we had a couple of Serbian academics telling the story of one particular translation. It didn’t help that the original was badly in need of an edit, but their tale of English translators and editors desperately trying to dumb down the book for the English audience was hilarious. Too many characters with funny names? Seriously? Have these people never read epic fantasy? Probably not. I wish I could have given those people a Zoran Živković book. If they had to put a dream sequence in a different font to help the reader understand what was going on they wouldn’t stand a chance with Zoran.
Anyway, it was a fun day. It also shone a light on a few cracks in the world. There was a very clear divide in the audience between those people who thought that translations were a good thing to do regardless, and those who felt that unless the project resulted in a major best seller like Steig Larsson it was all a sad waste of time. It was also clear that while international literature and poetry festivals were seen as a valuable way to promote the product, international science fiction conventions were mostly seen as an embarrassment to be avoided.
Anyway, my thanks to Rajendra Chitnis and his team for an entertaining day. I’m looking forward to tomorrow, if not exactly to getting into Bristol for a 9:00am start.