EIBF 2016: REDRESSING IMBALANCES: The Different Faces of Translation

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 13th–29th August 2016 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
The discussions between Charlotte Collins, Deborah Smith, Daniel Hahn and Daniel Medin, and between Bessora, Sarah Ardizzone and Mairi Kidd took place on 17th August 2016.

By Rebecca DeWald

The questions asked at this year’s EIBF translation events convey the feeling that translation has finally arrived in the consciousness of the audience: nobody asked about how “faithful” a translator would need to be to the original text and author, or stated that a translation could “obviously” never live up to the original. Instead, the questions focused on the detailed work of translators and the wide-ranging effects foreign texts in English translation exude.

A central feature of this Wednesday at the book festival was the Man Booker International Prize, whose winners Deborah Smith and Han Kang participated in a number of events throughout the day. In the afternoon, Smith was joined by fellow shortlisted translators Charlotte Collins (translator of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, from Austrian) and Daniel Hahn (translator of José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion, translated from Angolan Portuguese), and chair Daniel Medin, a jury member of the Man Booker International 2016.

Image by Laura Waddell
Image by Laura Waddell

The three novels on the shortlist are as varied as translated fiction can be: Seethaler sets his novel in the Austrian alps and recounts the life of Andreas, a man of few words who leaves his village only once in his life when he is forced to fight in WWII;  A General Theory of Oblivion recounts the story of Angola through Ludo, a Portuguese woman who bricks herself into her flat on the eve of Angolan independence to escape the outside world; Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is the story of a South Korean couple’s life upset by wife Yeong-hye’s decision to lead a more “plant-like” existence, eventually hoping to become a tree. The novel itself is an unusual construct, since the subtitle “a novel” — doubtlessly to ensure The Vegetarian does not end up being filed in the cookbook section — is an addition to the UK edition. The South Korean version is so-called “linked fiction”, as Smith explains: originally three separate novels, based around the same central character.

The books themselves only feature tangentially in the ensuing discussion, as the focus firmly remains on the art and craft of translating. Medin’s first question for the translators concerns the fact that all three have translated multiple books by the shortlisted authors. Does the relationship between the sentence on the page and the translation task change with growing familiarity with the author and their work? We hear from Hahn, who saw his fifth translation of Agualusa’s featured on the MBI shortlist, that yes, the work changes in that Agualusa has developed a voice in English, which means Hahn now translates into an existing form of English. “It’s a very fine voice in English, if I may say so, as I take some credit for that”, he adds tongue-in-cheek. Knowing a particular author very well also means knowing their likes and dislikes, their preferences for certain words. Agualusa, for example, keeps using the word “abismo” (“abyss”), though when confronted with this in a workshop, he startled “do I?” Collins agrees and explains: “Every time Seethaler used a certain word, I felt it was deliberate and I should keep the link.” She also addresses the visual component involved in both writing and translating. Seethaler is a well-known film actor, so his texts are based on visual images: he sees a picture and then writes it down. And this is precisely the approach Collins took in her translation: seeing an image, describing it in English, and then checking the original again. The experience that comes with knowing a particular author well also makes for translators that are more confident: “Every time I translate a book by the same author, I feel I am better qualified to translate a book by them,” Smith states. Though this can also mean seeing the pitfalls of one’s own previous translations.

Medin returns to the question of familiarity, this time pondering how the translators render their own awareness of the source text and context for the English language reader. That is, how do you convey facts of the original that readers of the original language would take for granted? The answer immediately turns to translator’s prefaces, and Smith’s repeated assurance that she was “lucky enough” to be allowed to write a preface for Human Acts proves that these introductions are still much too rare in UK publishing. Smith used this opportunity to explain contextual facts of the novel with which Korean readers would be familiar. Footnotes or glosses would not have been an option in this instance, as the text is already very dense, and footnotes make for “dull writing, slowing the text down”: “It feels like you are being taught something”. And they feel like “terribly failures,” Hahn interjects, referring to two footnotes in his very first literary translation he would rather see erased in a re-edition. The preferred strategy for Hahn is to gloss over, though secretly. And the rule of thumb is: “if I can understand the text without looking something up, so can the reader.”

Explaining specific cultural terms can also have a beneficial effect for readers of literature translated from a particular linguistic background. For many readers, The Vegetarian would have been the first South Korean book they have read, Smith continues. Through translation, authors like Han Kang can build a readership in English. And these readers will gain more knowledge about Korea with every book they read, making life easier for the translator in the end.

This point is precisely what focuses the discussion on the wider benefits of translation, beyond the linguistic transfer of words. The Man Booker Foundation, as Medin explains, wants to promote translated fiction, hence the wide reception of the longlist and shortlist, and of translated fiction more generally, is a core aim of the newly designed prize (its precursors was the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International in its old format, awarded for the life achievement of a non-English language writer).[1] Hahn shares Medin’s aim:

The reason we translate is because we want people to read these books. One of the huge benefits of a shortlisting of a prize like this is that it is doing what we are trying to do. It does feel like it’s a continuum of the thing we are doing anyway, that is, to get a book we love to as many readers as possible.

This simple fact might be the reason translation is apparently the happiest of professionsSmith expands on this effect by saying that the prize meant an expansion to readers beyond the familiar circle of translators and independent publishers. Considering the media hype around the MBI this year, the bigger audience can only mean an advantage for translation as a whole, as the fact that a novel is a translation has suddenly become an extra point of interest, a point of access to the exciting cultures from all around the world: “A lot of readers would not have read something like that before”.

Collins supports the argument that the high profile of the prize meant people noticed it, and translation, which invites readers to explore further territories in their reading. Rather than just being limited to the books on the shortlist, the prize “benefits the profession and international writing. That readers are encouraged to take risks has been good for all of us,” Hahn states.

For some translators, this effect means more than the immediate benefit for the shortlisted books in translation and their original authors. Both Hahn and Collins noted a heightened interest in their original authors after the longlisting, including TV appearances and media coverage, though none had noticed a landslide effect similar to Han Kang. There had not been a lot of media coverage for South Korean fiction before Han Kang, Smith explains: “This was all the Christmases coming at once,” it revitalised the South Korean literary industry and triggered record sales. “The effect cannot be underestimated.”

Questions from the floor conclude the discussion. Laura Waddell from Freight Books asks about the political component of translating. As publisher and translator — Smith founded not-for-profit Tilted Axis Press in 2015 to promote Asian literature in English — Smith works on “redressing certain imbalances,” by challenging the idea what readers, what the public wants. A success like The Vegetarian is a great way to shut down the argument that books in translation do not sell.

Translation as collaboration is central to the second question about teaming up with translator colleagues who work into different languages. Collins tells the audience that the English, Dutch, French and Polish translators of Seethaler have set up a Dropbox folder to avoid asking the author the same questions repeatedly. A common practice with authors, as Hahn confirms, who was sent answers to the German translator’s questions by one of his authors, to spare him having to answer the same questions multiple times.

IMG_2547Nick Barley, director of the EIBF and chair of the MBI 2017 — where he will be representing Edinburgh, he reassures — passes on a “quick” question he was asked himself: How do you know if something is a good translation if you do not speak the language of the original? All three translators are keen to answer this conundrum, which is at the core of translators’ activities. Hahn jumps straight in: “Sometimes you don’t know, but it mostly doesn’t matter.” The evaluation of a translation submitted for a prize is in English, and that is perfectly acceptable. Many translators’ bugbear, however, is that when reviewed, the translator is only ever mentioned if something goes wrong — Hahn cites everybody’s favourite hollow phrase “lost in translation” here, which is received by a general sigh of the audience — or the critic refers to the prose as if the translator was not there, though obviously the translator is at least partly, if not wholly, responsible for the style.

You can’t always tell, but if you read something in translation, obviously there are two people involved in these books. You can’t say who did what, but both did an extraordinary thing. As long as you don’t pretend one of them wasn’t there, I almost don’t mind that you can’t tell who did what.

The reader does not make this distinction either, since all you do when reading is responding to the text you have in front of you. Translating “correctly”, in the way implied in the question, is almost an academic question, according to Collins. You have to assume that by the time someone gets to translate a novel, they know the language, and that the content is accurate. “How do you write the tone is more important in English than ‘is this the right word?’”

The “Culture” podcast recently featured translation under the topic “Why are books in translation such big business?”, which seemed like news to literary translators in the UK. They referred to Nielsen Books’ announcement that sales of books in translation had gone up in 2015, with translated literature making up 5 % of all fiction books sold in the UK — and increase of 96 % since 2001![2] Prizes like the MBI have certainly contributed to a heightened awareness of translated fiction, as have the increased public appearances of translators who speak up about and promote their profession. As Hahn predicted in his Guardian article last summer, “The change to the Man Booker International prize is good news for translated fiction.”[3]

Later on the same day, Sarah Ardizzone and Bessora showed the audience at the EIBF that translation involves so much more than choosing the right or the prettiest word. Bessora wrote the graphic novel Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord, illustrated by Barroux and translated from French by Ardizzone. The book tells the story of Alpha, who travels from Ivory Coast to France to join his wife and child since he has not heard from them in a while. On his migration route, he meets a variety of different people with multiple fates, symbolic of the all-encompassing nature of the current refugee crisis.

The project developed out of Ardizzone’s performance of the Spectacular Translation Machine at the EIBF 2015. For this, Ardizzone chose images from Alpha and invited book festival visitors to translate these into words, and thereby effectively translate the novel in one day. Mairi Kidd from publisher Barrington-Stoke discovered the graphic novel at Edinburgh and published Ardizzone’s English rendition this year, supported by Amnesty International.

The discussion unfolds around Bessora and Ardizzone asking each other questions, since this was the first time they met in person. Bessora explains the importance of space in writing for a graphic novel, since it is important to leave space for the pictures and also for thoughts. An anthropologist by trade, she has experience in writing about people, which is best done in fiction, because

Fiction is life. When you read a book, you believe it is true, because it is stronger than a newspaper.

Media and social sciences treat a subject more like in a post-mortem, like in forensics. A graphic novel reminds us that we are human, reading about other human beings.

Ardizzone says about the translation process that publishing Alpha was a more powerful, proactive endeavour than any other of her previous translation projects. But having to translate only 11,000 words, as opposed to the usual 40-50,000 words of novels, was also liberating. “It’s stripped down to the bare minimum. There is an urgency in it.” The word choices, in addition, are often dictated by the visual element, as her Spectacular Translation Machine proved.

Image by Laura Waddell
Image by Laura Waddell

Both Ardizzone and publisher Kidd have high demands of the translation: By portraying a complex character, Kidd wants the book to be challenging, and not to  be about pity. In this respect, reading Alpha must not be restricted to an older audience, despite its difficult subject. Kidd is adamant: “I don’t think it’s too distressing for young readers. I think we need to address that and raise a new generation of readers and give them tools to think creatively about the future.” Ardizzone draws parallels with the book’s content: “Alpha encounters gate-keepers and it’s important that this book does not encounter the same gate-keepers so people can access it.” It is about making a story accessible, about inviting anybody to come along to book events and explore, since this is a text “that can travel to remote places. It’s the story of our time, of the 21st century.”

Alpha asks many questions about migration, whether economic migrants should have the same rights as refugees, and what forces people into migration. Barrington-Stoke accompanies the English translation with an entire website (www.thealphabook.org) devoted to teaching materials, additional background information of the book, and even a board game where players’ fates are decided at a role of the dice. In translating for Barrington-Stoke, Ardizzone was aware that the translation had to be as inclusive and accessible. Some particular French references and vocabulary was replaced or left out to avoid erasing the general feeling Alpha conveys and making the graphic novel an issue of France and its former colonies.

In this translation, spaces are very important, as chair Rowena Seabrook notes. The text has words in images, an original, a translation, and silences that create another text. Ardizzone elaborates:

The images create a parallel story and the translation does that as well. There is space for everyone to create something that does not mirror it, but that overlaps and leaves space to create.

This collaborative process is noticeable in Barroux’s graphic approach, whereby he limits himself to a certain colour palette or technique — he calls it the contrainte, the restraint. In this case, he created the effect of a cheap notebook Alpha could have picked up en route, by using sharpies, rough drawing and collages. The experience of creating Alpha is still ongoing, Bessora describes: “Translation is creation. As if she [Ardizzone] wrote nearly a new book from this book, and she made an adaptation for theatre [performed at the EIBF the previous weekend, with live drawings by Barroux].” This, again, Ardizzone found liberating: “As literary translator, there is an agony of language, of whether this is written beautifully. On state, it is just “is this important to the story? Does it matter?” Translation, in this respect, appears as non-threatening, as Ardizzone notes about the Spectacular Translation Machine. While creative writing workshops appear intimidating to people, translation can resemble that the hard work has already been done because the text already exists. Even children decode pictures and images into words every day. The tricky part of this, however, was perfectly summarised by a 10-year old workshop attendee last year, who said about Google Translate:

The thing is, Google Translate can’t do voice. And it can’t do flair.


[1] For more information on the different prizes and the pros and cons of having a new Man Booker International prize, see Daniel Hahn for the Guardian here.

[2] See for example here.

[3] See endnote 1

2 responses to “EIBF 2016: REDRESSING IMBALANCES: The Different Faces of Translation”

  1. […] For a fascinating report on two of these events see Rebecca DeWald’s recent piece in The Glasgow Review of Books. […]

  2. Thanks you for this report! I attended these events too and thoroughly enjoyed them… this gave me a chance to relive the day.

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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