Translation Conference, Day 2

I was up stupidly early on Thursday so that I could get to Bristol for a 9:00am start. The first set of panels was on the subject of self-translation. The presenters had very different approaches to this.

First up was Olga Castro talking about Galician fiction. Galician is one of the less commonly spoken languages of Spain. To reach the widest possible market a book needs to be translated into Castilian, the language we know as Spanish. According to Castro the Castilian publishers, knowing that they have economic power, insist that Galician writers self-translate their work into Castilian. (Apparently the languages are similar enough for this to not be a completely unreasonable request.)

Of course translation is one thing, but that isn’t necessarily all that is done. When a British novel is “translated” into American for the US market it is usually just a matter of changing spellings and substituting words. But translating a Galician novel into Castilian may involve changing the names of the characters to names that Castilian people might have, and also changing the setting of the story so that the action no longer obviously takes place in Galicia. This process is known in translation circles as “domestication”.

Because readers tend to shy away from translations, the Castilian publishers often present the translation as the original work. That’s why they want the original author to do the job. Because the Castilian publishers have much greater market reach, the Castilian translation will sell better. And when it comes to selling rights for translation into other markets at book fairs it will be the Castilian version that gets sold. Translation into other languages is done from the domesticated Castilian version, not from the Gailician original. That may even be the case for translation into Portuguese, a language which is much closer to Galician than Castilian.

Castro’s point was that by participating in this domestication process the Galician writers are actively participating in the erasure of Galician culture.

Next up was Jozefina Komporaly, an Hungarian academic who lives in Romania. Her subject was Matei Vişniec, a Romanian playwright who lives in Paris. Because he is fluent in both French and Romanian, Vişniec is able to write his plays in French for the much more lucrative French market, and also provide translations to Romanian for use in his home country where he is hugely famous.

Plays add a whole new level of complexity to the translation issue. To start with in both poetry and plays the languages choices are constrained by the requirements of performance. Simply changing the words is not enough. Plays, however, are not just words. The staging and the acting are equally important. Indeed, I’d argue that every time a new director stages a play the result is a translation of a kind. Modern staging of well known plays such as Shakespearian favorites often change the words dramatically too, of course.

I was very pleased to hear Komporaly mention the importance of literary awards recognizing translators. This doesn’t often happen. I am very proud of the fact that the Hugo Awards actively promote translations by allowing then an extra period of eligibility, and I was absolutely delighted that Sasquan chose to list the translators alongside the authors when two Hugos were won by translated works this year. Both translators got rockets of their own. That’s the way it should happen.

Anne O’Connor’s presentation was very different. She was talking about the various reasons for producing translations of Irish works in the 19th century. On the one hand, English translators wanted to produce works that showed how primitive and barbaric the Irish were. On the other, Irish translators had various reasons for promoting their own culture. The trouble was, of course, that by translating works into English the Irish translators made it unnecessary for Irish people to learn their own language. It is a thorny problem.

Of course one reaction to that problem is to refuse to translate. Some Irish writers took the view that translation was impossible. O’Connor read us a wonderful quote in which an Irish writer was opining that the English language was but a feeble brook into which the full raging glory of Irish literature could not possibly be poured.

The final paper of the session, by Liz Wren-Owens, was something of an anomaly in that she was looking at translation from Italian. Eventually her research will look at the different ways that the Italian writer, Antonio Tabucchi, has been translated into a variety of languages. For now all she could comment on was the English translations.

The most interesting thing for me in her presentation was where she talked about how Tabucchi’s celebrity translator, Tim Parks, has become as big a name as the original author. Parks is an acclaimed author in his own right, and he is now given equal billing with Tabucchi on book covers. It is very rare for a translator to achieve that sort of prominence, but it is good to know that publishers will exploit it when it happens.

The final session was about cultural stereotypes and how they impact translation. We began with David Norris whom I believe lives in Belgrade and has a Serbian wife. I was delighted to find that they know Zoran Živković well. David’s presentation was all about magic, that is the power of naming. When you translate a work, you are in effect re-naming something. You are changing it, molding it in an image of your own design.

Sometimes, of course, this can be a total misrepresentation. Jules Verne was a proud Frenchman, but in order to make his books more saleable in the Anglophone world his disdain for the perfidious British had to be excised from translations. A much more pernicious example is the way in which Steig Larsson’s profound feminism was watered down and even inverted by the English translations of his books.

There is a particular problem when translating works from a culture which is already in a minority position vis-a-vis the rest of Europe. Translations, and even the selection of works that are chosen for translation, can easily do damage to the reputation of that culture.

Norris also noted the Anglophone literary critics need to be taken to task for the way in which they assert the primacy of Anglophone culture in their theories. F R Leavis came in for a particular kicking. Apparently he claimed that one of the touchstones of literary greatness was the author’s ability to express Englishness.

Ursula Phillips brought Norris’s main point home in two ways. Firstly, as a proud feminist, she noted that almost all of the works of Polish literature available in translation are by men. When Polish literature is taught in Anglophone universities, it is the work of men that is foregrounded. Phillips has made it her life’s work to make the work of Polish women writers available to the world.

Secondly she noted that the way in which Polish literature has been translated (and chosen for translation) makes it seem like Poland is a very isolated country that has little contact with the rest of Europe except when our armies roll over it on their way to fight someone else. The works by women that she has chosen to translate make it very clear that Poland has always been part of a wider European culture, and has interacted significantly with that culture.

The final paper was by Antonija Primorac from the University of Split in Croatia. The title of her paper was “But you do misery so well!”. It was all about how the work chosen for translation by Croatian writers tends to be almost exclusively stories about the misery of war.

Of course Croatia’s struggle for independence from Serbia following the break-up of Yugoslavia is very recent. The war took place between 1991 and 1995. Memories of the war are very fresh, and authors can write from personal experience. As the war happened in parallel with the Bosnian struggle for independence, and the tragedy of Sarajevo, there has been a great deal of interest in these wars in the Anglophone world. Naturally publishers have sought out war narratives, and these have been pretty much all that has got translated.

There is a feedback loop too. Croatian writers are now very much aware that if they want to sell into English translation they need to write war stories, so that is exactly what they produce. The end result, of course, is that wartime tragedy has come to dominate the Anglophone world’s view of Croatian culture. Thank goodness for package holidays and A Game of Thrones which are picking away at that image.

Of course as a publisher of a book of translated stories by Croatian writers I had a personal connection to this paper. I have to admit that many of the stories in Kontakt are set in war time. Indeed, my three favorite stories by male writers in the book are all set in war time in one way or another. Living through a war has to have an effect on writers. But I hope one day I will get to publish another Croatian anthology, one that is perhaps informed far more by Croatia’s emergence as a country in its own right. That sounds good material for science fiction stories, right?

My thanks to Rajendra Chitinis and his team for two very enjoyable days, and hello to all of the new friends I have made as a result. Sadly I won’t be able to make the conference in Budapest next year as I have to be in Canada in March, but hopefully I’ll see one or two of you in Barcelona. The science fiction world does want to promote translations, why not come and see that in action?

And finally, if you want to come to your own conclusion as to whether Croatians are miserable or not, why not buy this very fine book?