Love and Elbow Grease – ITD2012

So, yesterday was the International Translation Day 2012 conference put on by the Free Word Centre and English PEN, and held at Kings Place in London. Having heard about it at the TA Industry Day back in June, I knew I had to go this year, and what an inspiring event it was!

Loads of translators, publishers and all kinds of interested figures talking about translation from 9 in the morning till, well I don’t know. I left at nearly 8pm and there were still plenty of conversations in full flow. The discussion ranged from the need for a better word for “mentee” to the mythical figure of 3%*, to translation in schools, to book reviewing, to the rise of independent presses, to Shakespeare across languages and cultures, and so on. King John is big in Armenia, apparently.

(* If there were ever a translators’ version of QI, 3% would surely figure – “everyone knows” that it is the percentage of books published in English that are translations, as opposed to the 40% in other languages…)

State of the Nation panel

L-R: Christopher MacLehose (MacLehose Press), Alexandra Büchler (Literature Across Frontiers), Jonathan Ruppin (Foyles), Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) and Danny Hahn (BCLT)

While there were the usual, and inevitable, tales of the difficulties in the market, the resistence to translated literature, the need for more translated non-fiction and so on, it was agreed that the translation profession has been, in the words of BCLT National Programme Director Danny Hahn, “mobilised, energised and united”.

Alexandra Büchler from Literature Across Frontiers talked about the research her organisation has been and is still doing to find out how many books actually are published in translation. The latest figures she had available suggested that translation actually makes up 2.5% of all publications and 4.5% of literature, by which she meant fiction, poetry, short stories, etc. Meanwhile there was a challenge as to whether the percentage actually matters in such a swollen market, when more and more books are being printed, but not actually championed or promoted, while Marek Kamierski of OFF_Press wondered if we as an industry actually like the 3% myth. Maybe we like being an unappreciated minority, maybe we don’t believe we can actually change things…?

Pile of translated books

Who says there’s no appetite for translated fiction?

I was particularly inspired by Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles bookshop who said that “readers are more curious than they are given credit for”. He spoke of the passion for translated books that they see in their stores, where theme tables of books in translation are very popular and sell in large numbers. These tables feature books that staff have read and are passionate about, and may be grouped around some recent publication – Japanese fiction to mark the appearance of Haruki Murukami’s 1Q84, for instance. He talked about the way we can use fiction to investigate the world around us and gain insights into the globalised culture that affects us all. Books have a certain cachet and bookshops have a responsibility to help people explore the world. He claimed that if you show people what is there, they will take it, and that this is a huge opportunity for independent bookshops, and something denied by the lack of browsing at online retailers (I’m sure you know who I mean). Publishers, take note!

Another wonderful seminar was on translation in schools, led by translator Sarah Ardizzone and teacher Sam Holmes. There is the Translation Nation project for primary schools, and other similar initiatives at the secondary level. Translation is no longer used as a tool in language teaching, and so it comes as a new activity to children. At the same time, though, it’s something that those from multilingual homes do all the time, without being consciously aware of it. These events can help children to see language in a new way, as something fun and creative. They can use stories, nursery rhymes and songs from their own homes, their friends or neighbours, bringing something personal in the classroom. Although this clearly has benefits from the point of view of diversity and inclusion, it also has strong academic advantages – it teaches “creative writing by stealth”, enables children to express themselves, helps monolingual children to be inspired about languages…  I have absolutely got to see if something can be done like this in fils aîné‘s school. It seems to fit so well with the reading cafés.

To round off the day, there were performances of “To be or not to be?” in English, Spanish and an African language – if we were ever told which one, I’ve forgotten. Sorry. This was part of a fascinating discussion on the recent Globe to Globe festival, followed by a talk on Shakespeare in film from around the world. I’m afraid that while I loved the clips, some of it was just a little too academic for me at that point in a long day.

Canal boats and office blocks.

The view out at the back of Kings Place.

After emerging from this subterranean world for a brief gulp of fresh air and a phonecall home, it was back down again for the evening event – a round table with Danny Hahn, Briony Everroad, Andrey Kurkov and Nicky Harman, followed by the announcement of the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize winner. Even that wasn’t the end as there was the drinks reception to come, still going strong when I had to head off for my train.

Incidentally, all the food and drinks were excellent all day, and there was a wonderfully long lunchbreak with plenty of time for mingling, networking and good old-fashioned chatting with friends old and new. There were still far too many people I didn’t get a chance to meet, so here’s to the next event – translated children’s literature for me.

If there was one frustration I had with the day, it was in the attitude that the translation of literary fiction is the only thing that counts. There seems to be a real snobbery about “genre fiction” (unless its Scandinavian crime) and it’s a shame, because there is plenty of good, intelligent writing out there that gets ignored and overlooked for translation just because it comes with a label like chick-lit or sci-fi. Still, I also now know that I’m not alone in this frustration, and I was able to air it in public at least once…

Oh, and the title of this post comes from a remark made by Sophie Lewis of And Other Stories. It was a description of their publishing model, but seemed pretty apt for what keeps us all going in this business.

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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One Response to Love and Elbow Grease – ITD2012

  1. Pingback: Twerking Lizards, Wizards and Creative Writing: Translators in Schools 2 | a discount ticket to everywhere

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