EIBF 2018: LENDING A VOICE: Translated Literature and Migration

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 11th–27th August 2018 at Charlotte Square Gardens and George Street, Edinburgh. The events ‘Michael Hoffmann on Translation’, ‘Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel and Sharon Bala’ and ‘The Best International Novel 2018’ took place on the 21st August 2018.


Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017)
Olga Tokarczuk, Drive your Plow into the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)
Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, The Gurugu Pledge, translated by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2017)
Sharon Bala, The Boat People (Doubleday, 2018)

By Rebecca DeWald

Looking for coffee in the bookshop/café tent, I ran into a translator colleague who had just come from the same event I had been to, ‘Michael Hoffmann on Translation.’ We couldn’t wait to talk about it: “It was so enjoyable,” she said. I often meet other emerging translators at translation events, keen to learn from our more experienced peers, hoping to get some important insight to foster our careers in the field. Though this event, we agreed, came without the pressure to note down contacts, names and dates, and was purely, well, enjoyable: the joy the literary translators on stage gain from their profession spilled over to the audience. Though this, and other events I attended that day, also made room for thought on the purpose translation serves in the literary world and beyond.

Hoffmann begins by asking his peer how they got into translation, which uncovered many different routes into translating, demystifying what kind of person “the translator” is. French and Spanish translator Frank Wynne, who might be best-known for translating Michel Houllebecq (of whom he says “I worked really hard to get his style to read this flat”) explains that his family household was the opposite of bookish: “Not a single family member has ever read any of my books or translations.” Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is out this September (Fitzcarraldo Editions), had a different upbringing: her home was filled with her father’s books, who was professor at Oxford and had very high ideals. Studying Russian (before Polish) was her only way to live up to his standards without competing with him – though her mother remains her harshest critic. Jennifer Croft, another Tokarczuk translator, whose rendering of Flights won this year’s Man Booker International Award (see more below), situates herself somewhere in-between. Growing up in Oklahoma, the daughter of a geography teacher’s home was filled with maps, spurring on her escapism, which in turn fostered her passion for writing travel fiction from a young age.

The other translators share her interest in writing, since “you have to be a writer in the target language” to be a good translator, Lloyd-Jones summarises. Hoffmann and Wynne agree that the most important language in translation is the target language, though Croft has a strict approach to the source language as well, and only translates languages from countries she has lived in (namely Poland and Argentina). This is a question I have pondered at length with fellow translators, and we continue that discussion on the day. As translator-writer, you need to possess the ability to manipulate the language into which you are translating, as it is the medium you are working with and the aspect of translation you are able to influence and change. However, I wonder where the insistence on the paramount importance of the target language, on its superior importance over the source language, comes from? Many translators cross – and should cross – Croft’s geographical red line, otherwise we would probably read even less non-European literature than is already available in English. Yet her point of view is refreshing and should be fleshed out. It highlights how difficult it is to grasp the nuances of a source text if you are not fully aware of the way in which the source language is used, depending on its geographical and cultural context. Of course, many of these aspects can be researched – as a good translator is always and already a translator-researcher as well. Though what does that mean for the code of ethics of translators: should we not strive to master a foreign language, rather than settling on anything less, excusing the compromise with the pre-eminence of the target language English?

Lloyd-Jones takes the discussion into the realm of tone and voice, stressing that the translator needs to find a voice for the text they’re translating, which does not equate to the voice of the author: “I couldn’t have translated Flights,” she explains, although she translated a number of Tokarczuk’s books, and praises Croft’s translation as “exquisite”. (At the evening’s event on the award-winning novel, Croft explains that she had got in touch with Lloyd-Jones before translating Flights and that they had both agreed that it would be the right book for her to translate). In order to find the voice, the translator must “listen to the cadences of writing”, Lloyd-Jones continues, whereby reading a text aloud helps, or listening to the audiobook in the original. Though, Wynne interjects, not all books work well when read aloud – Houllebecq is a case in point.

The translators all have different working habits – some prefer working in in absolute silence at home, others in cafés or even on buses: Lloyd-Jones has allegedly produced some of her best poetry translations on buses. Their approaches to translating, however, share a number of similarities: they all say they read the entire text before translating it. This is either because its publication in English depends on a translator pitching a book – which is the case for most Polish translations and works from other less represented translated languages – or simply for the pleasure of enjoying the book before the work begins. In each case, the translation goes through multiple stages, in “a process of living with the book,” of translating, editing, reading aloud, and proofing the final version, often without checking it against the original. Though Hoffmann admits: “I worry that I have reversed someone’s meaning”, with the caveat of professional confidence: “I mean, I don’t worry about that, but other people do.” Wynne describes the moment of receiving the final copies as “a bit like what I assume childbirth to be like: you’ve forgotten all about the pain and think, ‘look, how lovely!’, or, ‘you’ve got a smudge here.’”

The audience, spurred on by the lively discussion, gives the podium interesting pointers to continue the debate: ‘What do you do if the original contains jargon?’ and ‘Are some languages easier to translate than others?’ have the translators assess their work and convictions. “I like to be reader-friendly”, Hoffmann begins, explaining that otherwise a book can risk eschewing success. Wynne is a bit more experimental. He “likes making-up words, when I feel the reader can deal with it.” Croft, referring to the second question, points out the false equation that cognate languages are necessarily easier to translate: “I’m constantly struck by the difficulty of translating Spanish into English, because the two languages are so similar. The temptation is to keep the syntax and word order”, in contrast with Polish, which “has a completely different grammar, so it’s obvious that you have to change it.” Wynne refines her argument and alerts the audience to the fact that, although English has an entire vocabulary derived from Latin, “we use it to sound posh, for example when we say ‘I enter’, ‘I exit’”. Hoffmann concludes that Arabic seems to him the most difficult language to translate, though the difficulty will probably fade in a few decades, when we’ve accessed more English translations of Arabic texts. He concludes the discussion by affirming the audience that we’ll “probably have enough to go and be translators now.”

The discussion around translation continues in the evening, at the ‘Best International Novel of 2018’, which focuses on the Man Booker International Prize winning Flights, and includes translator Jennifer Croft, and jury members Lisa Appignanesi and Michael Hoffmann, chaired by Economist cultural editor Fiammetta Rocco. Returning to a discussion about the voice in translation, Tokarczuk’s writing offers the perfect example, as the Polish author’s breadth ranges from vignettes, to science-fiction, and a feminist-ecological murder mystery (Drive your Plow), and she is even thinking of writing a horror story. “She is fearless and versatile,” Croft confirms. This makes critics respect her work, but she is also a darling with readers. It is only the far-right in Poland that has issues with Tokarczuk. She is under attack from the Patriot Party because she says “to be a patriot means to be European, to be a feminist and to be open to the other,” as Appignanesi quotes.

Though Flights does not explicitly refer to the refugee crisis, and was published in Poland in 2008 before it intensified, it is still a book about “being welcome in a place”, and Tokarczuk made references to the link with displacement at a later stage. For the panellists, Flights has connotations of movement and migration. Croft wanted to give the book a title that stresses the creation of networks, as Tokarczuk’s ‘constellations’ pervade the text. For Rocco, it is a book about “the human compulsion to move”; for Hoffmann, it “groups itself around ideas of people in movement”.

I was reminded of an afternoon event with Canadian writer Sharon Bala and Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, chaired by translator Daniel Hahn and supported by Carolina Orloff. The common theme of the books discussed was migration, and how to give migrants a voice. When setting out on writing her debut novel The Boat People – based on the arrival of a boat on Vancouver Island in 2010, bringing escapees of the Sri Lankan civil war to Canada – Bala was struck by the lack of public information about the fate of these people, after the first public reports and outcries over their planned deportation. There was a publicity ban, so the “refugees didn’t have names, which made them anonymous.” While Bala did not set out to give every single one of the 503 boat people a voice, she wanted to tell a larger story: “We think of history through politics and the military, but really it’s the story of people’s lives.” This is reflected in the way in which the Sri Lankan refugees were treated and written about in the news and in politics. They were given a “uniform” of grey jogging trousers and jumpers; were described as “armadas”, the boat as “test ship” trying to “invade” Canada. In order to change the narrative, Bala employed a different narrative device: Instead of the classical Aristotelian dramatic arch, we need “arches that are longer than that. We need more character-driven, less plot-driven books.” Ávila Laurel’s book The Gurugu Pledge is similarly people-centred, as it follows North African migrants to Spain by telling individual fates, without one central narrative. In response to complaints that his book is “plotless”, he counters (through Orloff) that “the plot is people’s lives – their lives are plotless. If there was one, I wouldn’t replicate it, as it would be silencing them. People telling their story has nothing dramatic about it.”

Giving unheard characters a voice – even if it is done indirectly – does not mean that people necessarily want to hear these voices. The Gurugu Pledge, Jethro Soutar’s English translation of the Spanish original, has yet to be published in Spain. “Spain doesn’t want to talk about these issues. Africans aren’t very visible in Spain” are the two reasons Ávila Laurel cites for this circumstance. Similarly, Bala is not surprised that people want to ignore the issue. “We like comfort.”

According to Rocco – whose questions are elucidating and detailed, and make room for a broader discussion – “fiction makes you see the world through other people’s eyes.” She elaborates that “often the translator is at the frontline and brings a book to the publisher’s attention. Translators!“ she exclaims, “You are frontline activists!” This is why we need activism, and translators are well placed to act.


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