“The Language of Languages”: International Translation Day 2013

English: British Library, London WC1 Looking a...

English: British Library, London WC1 Looking across the piazza towards the entrance to the British Library. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year’s International Translation Day Conference was held last week at the British Library. Again, the day was bursting with inspiration and encouragement. We got the chance to talk, to share experiences and ideas and to wonder where the world of literary translation might be heading next. The very first session was entitled “What Now?” and included a presentation from Alexandra Büchler of Literature Across Frontiers on the state of international literature and translation in the UK, which showed the positives, but also work that still needs doing. Children’s literature and poetry in translation being particularly under represented.

Kirsty Dunseath of Orion talked about the fact that there is room for everybody in the publishing industry and the benefit of a range of approaches. Independent presses can be more fleet of foot than corporates, who have to operate as a business and take hard-headed decisions, but there’s no need to see things as “them and us”. I was also cheering her on as she defended crime, science-fiction and other “genre fiction” from the charge of having lesser literary value. That attitude is “almost offensive”, she said, as it implies that the people who read them have lesser tastes.

Jamie-Lee Searle described new publishing models offered by online publishers such as Frisch & Co as an opportunity to work together and tackle things in new ways.

Simon Mellor of the Arts Council talked about the need to treat translators as artists, and the need for a coherent international arts strategy with exchange at the heart of it.

There was talk of the need to create reader demand through informal literary events and broadcast media coverage, a proposal for greater funding for sample translations – three cheers for that! – and so on.

Suitably buoyed, we headed out to the seminar rooms. I went to hear Daniel Hahn and Claire Armitstead discuss the reviewing of translations and will try to write that, and the afternoon seminar, up separately.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o reading at International Translation Day 2013

photo by George Torode for English PEN (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Before lunch we returned to the main auditorium to hear Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o in conversation with Amanda Hopkinson. Despite his eminence, I am ashamed to admit to not having previously heard of him. He was an inspiring and very entertaining speaker, especially when reading from his own work on learning English as a colonial language. He described translation as “the language of languages” and talked about its importance in his life and work, and its global impact. Monolingualism, he said, is “totally against the idea of globality” while translation is conversation and assumes equality.

In the afternoon, there were more seminars, followed by the now-traditional (i.e. it’s happened more than once) entertaining final session. Under the title of “Making Translation Sing”, composer Helen Chadwick and some of the singers from her group performed some of her work from Dalston Songs and a new work in progress which features interviews with war correspondents. Dalston Songs is based on interviews with Helen’s neighbours in east London a few years ago now (she said it couldn’t have been made now as those people have been moved on and the area’s got trendy) and snippets overheard in cafés, on buses etc.

International Translation Day 2013, Helen Chadwick and singers

Helen Chadwick (in the blue) and singers.
Photo by George Torode for English PEN (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Some of the subject matter is very dark but there is humour running through it too. It was performed unaccompanied, enabling us to really hear the words, with wonderful rhythms and harmonies interweaving to make complex and multi-layered songs that perfectly reflected the recorded interviews she played us. It was a real snapshot of a time and place that translated words into music. Helen described the way she used the words that spoke to her, jumped out at her, from an interview or  a poem. Sometimes she uses translations in her work, and finds that some can be set to music while others can’t. Sometimes other cultures offer emotions that are riper for musical setting than English and translators help her discover them.

It was a wonderful way to round off the day, and offered us a new angle on what it is that we do, day in, day out.

So thanks again to the organisers for a great conference. Incidentally, if you were there, check out English PEN’s photostream of the event on Flickr and you might catch sight of yourself.

I can’t wait for next year!

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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