EIBF 2013: No Undertakers of the Multiplicity of Language – Pedro Lenz and Donal McLaughlin
by Rebecca DeWald
We dive straight into the world of Switzerland as the discussion starts with a reading by Pedro Lenz of his debut novel Der Goalie bin ig in Swiss German, followed by Donal McLaughlin’s translation into Glaswegian. There is a lot of movement in the Swiss, the sound of the rolling Rs and voiced CHs form high amplitudes of sound and convey the energy of a language I don’t understand, despite speaking German. The Glaswegian version of this excerpt of the novel, translated and read by Donal McLaughlin, born in Derry but a Glaswegian since 1970 is, surprisingly, much softer, lighter, and more melancholic than the passionate Swiss performance. It is also longer so I wonder whether it could be the same text passage at all. Other listeners are also struggling to make the comparison, are listening attentively to the incomprehensible Swiss (being monoglot or non-Swiss speakers and giggling slightly, sometimes a bit louder, at the Glaswegian.
The project is rather unusual: Lenz and McLaughlin met during Lenz’s 6-month residence in Glasgow in 2005, as McLaughlin mentions. This stay and meeting Scottish writers such as James Kelman and Tom Leonard inspired Lenz to write in his local vernacular, Swiss German of the area around Langenthal near Bern, in order to write in the language people around him speak. Throughout the discussion, the emphasis is on Swiss, spoken Swiss, as part of an oral culture which is rarely written down and rarely the language of publications, so the audience is left to attune their ears to it, as Lenz exclusively answers to the chair’s and audience’s questions in English in Swiss German, interpreted by McLaughlin. Some might not have been used to this necessary reliance on the interpreter: The chair – who remained unnamed at the reading and in the event’s advertisements, much as the participation of the translator in this event – initially looks almost exclusively at McLaughlin, as Lenz responds in Swiss German. It is as if he has to grow accustomed to the level of mediation taking place in the conversation and to receiving a reply (Lenz understands English and responds straight away) in a foreign tongue.
Naw much of a Talker (Der Goalie bin ig, in Swiss) is published by the small Scottish publishing house Freight Books, known for being the home of Gutter magazine (also being launched at the EIBF), and tells the story of Goalie, an ex-junkie who has just been released from prison and, on his first night after his release, falls in love with Regula who will make his life complicated. Throughout, storytelling plays an important role in Lenz’s first novel, as Goalie finds a sense of orientation within life through it, Lenz explains through McLaughlin. Yet Goalie, who tells so many little stories, does not realise the big picture and needs Regula to help him out, as “in the context of this story it is the woman, Regula, who is more likely to listen,” in McLaughlin’s words – “and in life in general, women really listen whereas men don’t,” Lenz makes McLaughlin correct his interpretation. This type of correction happens a few times throughout the discussion, making us aware that while Lenz prefers to respond in Swiss and be interpreted into English, languages don’t work one-sidedly, are not exclusive and that every act of translation and, in this case, interpretation, involves both content and context.
Goalie is, though placed in Switzerland, not exclusively Swiss, as the characters, says Lenz, were partly inspired by “marginalised people” he met when he dropped out of school and worked as a bricklayer for 7 years, and partly by his residence in Glasgow which made Lenz realise “that it is important to give marginal characters a voice.” Through the translation, the story could be equally set in Switzerland and Scotland, so that Lenz’s “Goalie lives in Langenthal and Donal’s Goalie lives in Dennistoun.” Lenz stresses the importance of letting characters speak in the language they would be surrounded by. Crucial in this respect is not only the vocabulary used, but particularly the sound, the melody, the music of a language, its rhythm and pauses, which Lenz clearly feels and experiences in his readings which show that his usual habitat is the stage: Lenz is a well-known performing dialect poet in Switzerland where hundreds of people come to see him perform as a solo artist and as part of the spoken word performers Bern ist überall (Bern is everywhere).
Naw much of a talker is “a retelling, a rewriting,” which tries to escape the “craze to normalise language” – Lenz employs the term Wahn, suggesting that he considers this madness – in order to fix and eventually kill a language. And indeed, as McLaughlin recounts, his (normative) spell-checker underlined every single word and even auto-corrected his translations, since his computer did not accept Glaswegian. People adhering to these norms are, according to Lenz, the “undertakers of the multiplicity of language” and Lenz and McLaughlin are doing everything to escape their languages’ death.