EIBF 2017: A SYMPATHISING EYE ON TRANSLATION – the Man Booker International Award

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 12th–28th August 2017 at Charlotte Square Gardens and George Street, Edinburgh. The events covered took place on the 15th, 16th and 21st August 2017, in chronological order: Reading Workshop: Daniel Hahn on the Man International Booker Prize Winner, The Power of Translation, The Best International Novel of 2017, and Edwin Morgan Poetry Award: Portuguese-Scottish Poetry in Translation.

By Rebecca DeWald

Much like in previous years, I consciously chose to attend events with a translation bend at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017. A few years ago it was fairly easy to make a choice – don’t get me wrong, the EIBF has always had a strong focus on literature in translation as the “international” in the title suggests, but I do have my favourites on the translated literature scene… The number of translation related events, to my delight, has been steadily on the increase, so I had artificially limited my choice by a) choosing events on and about the Man Booker International Prize 2017 and a) searching for “Daniel Hahn” in the events listing, chair of many a translation event – though there were still many more events that fitted that pattern. In addition, a strange phenomenon has occurred with regards to translated fiction: Once you notice it, you’ll see it everywhere. With regards to the book festival, director Nick Barley is certainly partly responsible for this happy circumstance, given his chairing of the Man Booker International panel of judges. Though might there be other reasons? When asked about his motivation to participate in a translation exchange organised by the Edwin Morgan Trust, poet Richard Price replied (in part) that he wanted to learn about non-Anglophone traditions since the UK’s limited interested in Europe, including its literatures, was partly to blame for the Brexit vote. I’m certain that the idea of translation as a form of bridge-building in 2017 has crossed more than a few minds of people working in literature.


The event with the most explicit focus on translation was certainly “The Power of Translation”, co-chaired by Daniel Hahn and Nick Barley, in conversation with Danish translator Misha Hoekstra and Norwegian translator Kari Dickson. Participants discussed the MBI shortlist, with regular references to potential translation challenges, idiosyncrasies and dilemmas. Book titles were a favourite discussion point: Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, in Megan McDowell’s translation, is entitled Distancia de rescate in the original, an Argentine term, literally meaning “rescue distance” and referring to, e.g., rescuing a child that is just about out of reach. In contrast, “fever dream” gives the novella a different connotation before the outset. Though surprisingly, this distinction between original and translation did not seem to have a further-reaching effect on the experience of reading the text in both languages. Though judges did not read the original texts for comparison, Hahn explained: “One thing that made me think about how great the translation is, was hearing Megan describe the book in Spanish, which was the same experience I had when reading it in English.”

Daniel Hahn with (l to r) Kari Dickson and Misha Hoekstra at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017 chaired by Nick Barley Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

In contrast, the title “Compass”, the title of Mathias Enard’s Boussole in Charlotte Mandell’s English translation, did not result in a change of tone, as the direct translation implies the same connotation of bridge-building between East and West. Similarly, Amos Oz’s Judas, translated by Nicholas de Lange, is a happy coincidence of language, since the proper name Judas is synonymous with betrayal – the subject matter of the novel. Biblical references are abundant in the English text, replicated from the resonances of Hebrew. Hahn cited Jessica Cohen, translator of MBI winner A Horse Walks into a Bar, according to whom English is a very broad language and Hebrew is very deep, with few words but profound meanings. David Grossman’s winning title, however, gave rise to discussion: does the joke even work in Hebrew? How does “why the long face?” translate? The jury made the educated guess that the jokes in the novel must be the translator’s, since many of them are language jokes. We would need to wait until the evening’s event to find out the answer from Grossman himself.

What followed, with three translators present, was an in-depth discussion on the nitty-gritty of literary translation, with examples from Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Should, Signal, translated by Misha Hoekstra, and Roy Jacobsen’s The Unseen, translated by the “Dons”, Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, represented in the discussion by Kari Dickson. Hoekstra read a section in Danish and (American) English, which he described as more “straightforward because it’s dialogue. But in the more lyrical passages, I changed it to make it more American.” Other examples of this were his neologisms and compressions, a stylistic means carried over from the Danish source. And, of course, the question about the title reappeared: “As judges we discussed it a lot, because in the UK you say ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’”, Barley explained to audible approval from the audience. It turned out, the English title is a direct translation of the standard phrase in Danish, and apparently even driving schools in the UK and US differ in their taught order of actions. Ultimately, Hoekstra clarified, “we wanted a title that also worked in the US.”

Hoekstra explained that he had discussed writing in American English even when translating for British publishers with publishers in the past, and settled on making the text “more me, rather than British”. I was reminded of the Reading Workshop the previous day, in which we discussed the MBI winner with Daniel Hahn. A translator had asked whether publishers were looking for a more “domesticated”, or even “violating” translations that read well in English, rather than a text that might be closer to the source – to stereotype the extreme poles in approaches to translation. The answer was an unwavering: “The target is the English reader, not the original, and that is what’s expected by publishers and readers”. At the same time, a question from the audience about Dorthe Nors’ English skills, and the seemingly throwaway comment “she is more fluent in English than I am in Danish” by Hoekstra made me wonder: Can the ultimate goal of fluency in the translation also mean that perfect command of the translated language becomes a secondary skill? I am far from advocating “faithful” translations, whatever they may be, but I do wonder if absolute freedom in tone and voice of the translation might not overlook the linguistic competence involved in translating literature.

This accomplishment becomes evident in translating dialects and vernaculars, as is the case in The Unseen. The novel is set on a North Norwegian island with its own dialect. When we “mostly don’t talk about translation because we don’t notice it” (Hahn), we certainly notice it when the outcome is dialect. Kari Dickson explained:

This dialect is something that does not exist written down. It’s from the North of Norway. There is much about the orthography that tells you where it is from. One thing about the dialect is that it drops the ‘e’ at the end. It is clearly a dialect that is identifiable.

The English version by Bartlett and Shaw replicates the spoken version by using West Country and Yorkshire phrasings (to Hahn’s ears) – “apparently it’s Lancashire”, Dickson corrected. This not-fully specified vernacular is close to star translator Anthea Bell’s idea of using “non-specific demotics”, a way of using local register without tying it to a specific place – since the specific place, in this case, would be North Norway, where English is not anyone’s first language.

The discussion ended with a slight note on the effect the order, in which we read books, has on the reader’s impression. Barley asked Hahn: “You might have realised that I sneaked into these sections female characters that are weak. Both end up being more powerful. Do you agree?”, only to receive the response: “it hadn’t actually occurred to me.” The topic of a personal “reading narrative” resurfaced in the evening event with Barley and David Grossman.


After an afternoon of close readings of translated texts, I must confess I was initially slightly disappointed to “only” see David Grossman on stage, without the accompaniment of his translator Jessica Cohen. I rapidly changed my mind from the outset of this delicate discussion between two people with a tangible belief in the Power of Literature – which, in retrospect, might have been an apt title as pendant to the afternoon event (instead of “The Best International Novel of 2017”).

Opening the discussion, Barley confessed: “It has been my ambition to bring David Grossman to Edinburgh for many, many years, so it is a privilege.” This long engagement with the author’s work facilitated an encompassing discussion about Grossman’s current novel and some of his earlier work, Falling Out of Time (2013, UK) and To the End of the Land (2010), all three translated by Cohen. The three are linked by the theme of grief.

Grossman confirmed, in a discussion conducted in English: “These three books are about loss and life after loss. And the very writing of them is an answer to how you can live after loss.” A writer’s – and everyone’s – natural tendency to express condolences, as Grossman’s family experienced first-hand when they lost their son Uri, “11 years and 4 days ago”, was to write in clichés: “we are speechless, we have no words – and they are the masters of their art!” – when what the mourner really needs to hear are precise words directed at them, exactly attuned to their situation. Grossman felt he needed to find a way to express his grief, “because otherwise my inner channel to my son would be lost.”

To the End of the Land is the first in this coincidental trilogy about loss. It describes a similar fate to the one of his son, who died in the war of the Hezbollah against Lebanon, although Grossman had written the novel before this tragic loss. In the book, a mother has the premonition that her son has died in the Occupied Territories, though tries to escape this reality by running away from the messenger. On her travels north, she meets an old lover whom she tells the story of her son. “And by telling the story she brings him to life anyway, by creating him again,” Barley interjects. “That’s what stories can do,” Grossman confirmed.

While To the End of the Land is about “the fear of loss” (Grossman), Falling Out of Time is about grief. Written in verse, it was composed after the death of Uri.

I felt prose was not enough for me. I wanted to write not as I know but as I do not know. I felt prose was thick, and I needed something more nuanced. My wife said maybe I wrote poetry because it is closest to silence. And the first need is to be silent about something like that. But then I felt silence wasn’t enough, because so many things can happen under silence.

He described the urge to retreat from life, whereas writing is a way to be in one’s life. The arts – prose, poetry, music, theatre – become alternatives for non-believers to experience the “place where life and death exist simultaneously”. They share many similarities, because “after all, literature is music and we respond to it without being experts in music.” The origins of a literary work, for Grossman, stem from a similar place whose existence is certain, though of which the reader is not fully conscious: “Books take place in a blind spot of the writer. They should take place in a spot he is not totally aware of.”

Translation seamlessly made its way into the conversation, by way of Barley’s personal reading narrative. He recounted reading Falling Out of Time in French, because the English translation was not readily available, and confessed: “I had to read it more slowly and I shed tears on every page. No book ever affected me like that.” But he also admitted that the English version did not have the same effect on him. Grossman’s retort about working with his translators highlighted these differences between individual languages and the echoes they create:

I write a sentence in Hebrew, which maybe echoes the Bible, or the Talmud or Hebrew slang. And some wonderful translators might translate it and their language will echo their literature and culture. So that’s what we are reading when we are reading translations.

Grossman’s 15 translators of A Horse Walks into a Bar had had the great privilege, for the first time, to meet with the author in a Grassian translators’ colloquium in Straelen to work on their versions alongside their fellow linguists, seated in order of “sister languages”. Grossman called the process of finding language solutions “a totally spiritual thing” and explained that he realised there that “translation is a mystery; we don’t know how it works.”

Credit: Edinburgh International Book Festival

And finally the audience members heard the answer to the riddle whether the joke about the horse with the long face worked in Hebrew. “We don’t have it in Hebrew. We have a short face,” Grossman joked, and then proceeded to tell a joke about a horse walking into a bar – of which there are many in Hebrew, hence the title (a fairly literal translation). The novel about a stand-up comedian – although Grossman had never been to see a stand-up comedy routine before writing the book – is riddled with jokes, many of them intentionally uncomfortable. It is the balance between bitter comedy and grief that creates tension and release in the novel. Among the audience members of the novel’s comedy act are performer Dovaleh’s childhood friends, who witness his continuous emotional unravelling on stage. Though “both look at him, which changes throughout the session, with a sympathising eye, which is maybe what he needed most throughout his life.” And Grossman expanded: “Maybe we all need a sympathising eye. Maybe governments should pass a law that every citizen deserves a sympathising eye.” It is ultimately what performing artists and writers work towards, “hoping that somewhere among the hundreds of eyes there will be a sympathising eye reading this story or listening to it.” Good readers and listeners create a “voice box or echo”, enabling the writer to listen to themselves “in a different way” and “hear how we have become prisoners of our own story that stops us from letting go and leaving it behind, because some stories should be left behind.” This power of storytelling goes as far as changing people who seem to be “stuck in parallel lives to the lives they should have lived”, through working in the wrong profession – like A Horse’s Doveleh –, living in the wrong gender or wrong nation, “or living in a life so contradictory to the way they should have lived, like in Israel”, Grossman adds. No surprise that critics have seen in A Horse a reflection of Israel’s unresolved issues, portrayed in a voice that mirrors the country’s internal power struggles.[1]

Helen Mort, one of this year’s MBI judges, begins her question to Grossman with a heartfelt thank you for “an extraordinary conversation. I feel very lucky to be here.” I left the EIBF with the same profound sentiment, having learned a little more about literature and translation and the magic they exert on mind and soul.



In the Reading Workshop about A Horse Walks into a Bar, we naturally discussed the challenge of judging novels in translation without having access to the original text: the judges – Helen Mort, Daniel Hahn, Chika Unigwe and Elif Shafak, chaired by Nick Barley – combined a number of languages between them, though this would not have made the task of comparing every possible language combination any less Sysyphusian. When asked about their approach in judging the translations, Hahn therefore explained: “we didn’t talk about the translation very much.” To a group of emerging literary translators in the workshop, this initially came as a shocking response: How could you award a prize for an author and translator without acknowledging the translation? His subsequent elaboration, however, made me see the business of translation and literary awards for international literature in a different light: “Largely,” Hahn explained, “David Grossman is probably responsible for plot and character and Jessica Cohen for tone and voice.” The prize was hence awarded for the best collaboration, whereby each collaborator contributed their part and performed it to the highest standard.

The Edwin Morgan Trust event showcased this better than any other translation event this year: three Portuguese poets – Andreia C. Faria, Ricardo Marques and Miguel Martins – and three Scottish poets (without or with very limited knowledge of Portuguese) – Richard Price, Jane McKie and Miriam Nash – were invited to translate each other’s work. At a previous showcase at the University of Glasgow in May, I had already asked the question: To what extent can the process be called “translation”, if one of the main skills (knowing the language) is missing? Facilitator Tom Pow engaged with this question and thanked the bridge translators Sophie Paterson, Carla Davidson and Caterina Nascimento at the event for their “professionalism, ingenuity and insight.” Richard Price expanded on the idea of “collaboration”, the name he gave to their form of working, and said that translation was “a collective process – much more than we realise. Normally the poet-translator oppresses the bridge translator, which is a great loss.” While this has to do with our “Romantic idea of the poet as individual”, publishing is really “collective.” That is why he made the case, which was thankfully accepted, for the “with” rather than the “and”: In the resulting pamphlet The Other Side of Silence, the acknowledgments are giving as “translated by [the poet-translator] with [the bridge translator]”. A novel way to express an ever more common process by paying due respect to everyone involved, even in their absence.


[1] In the vein of multilingual literature, the reference can be found in this German and this Swiss newspaper.