Sunday Salon: “Literature Unleashed! The Power of Translation”

March 18, 2012

Last weekend, I went to a pair of sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Today, I’m going to write about what I heard (and learned) at the first session, called “Literature Unleashed! The Power of Translation”.

From left to right: Yang Lian, the host, Bashir Mufti, and Rosie Goldsmith.

There were three people on this panel (plus the host). Yang Lian is a Chinese poet, Bashir Mufti is an Algerian novelist/short story writer, and Rosie Goldsmith is a presenter with the BBC. It was a fairly good mix of panelists – they all had something interesting to say about the topic, and the host did a good job of re-directing the conversation to include everyone and cover as many facets of the issue of translation as possible.

I took a bunch of notes through the session. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to organize them by the person who said them, and also include a few pictures that I took while they were doing so!

The Hostess

I can’t believe I didn’t get this woman’s name written down. For some reason, her name wasn’t up on the session’s information slide, so that didn’t help.

The first thing that the hostess said that really caught my attention was that “translators are unsung heroes”. It was interesting, because it ended up being one of the overarching themes of the session. The panelists talked a lot about the different ways that translators work behind the scenes, without being properly recognized or appreciated for their efforts. In particular, the hostess spoke about the challenge being the “difficulty and richness of translation” at the same time as the difficulty of accepting a translator as an artist instead of a technician.

Another issue that she raised is that the discourse surrounding translation can end up being the same group of people discussing issues within themselves. Somewhat related to this point, she also said that we have to be careful that the writers who are translated into English should become the “token representatives” of their cultures.

The book in translation that the hostess recommended to the audience was The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami (translated by Anthea Bell).

Rosie Goldsmith

An interesting point, that Goldsmith made right near the beginning, was that she didn’t always realize that books she was reading were works in translation. I have to agree with her – until recently, I never paid attention to whether or not a book I was reading was originally written in English. It didn’t seem to matter. Now that I’m learning more about the world, though, and purposely trying to expose myself to different cultures, it’s something that I’m paying more attention to. One of the interesting statements Goldsmith made was that, when she’s travelling to another country, she purpose seeks out something in translation from that country – usually a mystery/crime novel! It was really interesting to me that she would choose something less literary, but I suppose the point is that it be more mundane and everyday literature rather than something that isn’t as universally representative.

Goldsmith also made some interesting points about getting to know other cultures through works in translation. She was originally interested in foreign affairs and later “slipped into” foreign literature. She has noticed, particularly in recent days, that we often ask author about their political opinions, especially when they are from countries in conflict (such as from the Middle East), and she made the rather interesting observation that it is important to ask these authors if they want to talk about politics, or if they’d rather only talk about their works.

Another interesting observation that Goldsmith made was about the state of translated literature in the UK. She said that she is appalled by how badly translations are promoted in the UK, and said that this is partly due to few publishers understanding and wanting to invest in the “extra costs” of translation.

Goldsmith recommended two translated books for the audience to read: The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan (translated by Michael S. Duke) and The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano (translated by Shaun Whiteside).

Yang Lian

According to Yang, the “biggest language in the world right now is translation”. It’s hard to disagree with him, particularly with rising globalization and an ever-increasing desire for us to understand and interact with other cultures. Yang argued that if we want to understand ourselves, we need to understand other cultures; he also said that awareness of others can lead to cultural transformation. Yang pointed out that many parts of the world are “internally facing complex cultural transformations”, including China. Along those lines, he also stated that both Arab and Chinese works in translation are often over-simplified for a Western audience, and that we need deeper reading into these works to truly grasp their meaning and influence.

Yang said that there are groups of writers who benefit greatly from translation. Most of what he said was specific to writers of poetry; he was very prolific about the challenges and necessary components of translating poetry from one language to another. For example, he said that “concept, form, and image in poetry is understood before translation to the target language”.  He says that, when he is working on a translation, he often challenges the translator and gives them a hard time, making them really think about (and defend?) their choices. He says that he often records the discussion of a translation, considering this discussion to be just as important as the final product.

Finally, Yang pointed out that there are often different interpretations of meaning by English speakers from different cultures, and that we need to be aware of this when we are translating works originating in other languages.

Yang suggested his own book of poetry, Concentric Circles (translated by Brian Holton and Agnes Hung-Chong Chan), as something to look for.

Bashir Mufti

The final panelist, Mufti, began by speaking about how his early experiences of works in translation – such as Kafka – opened up his passion for literature. He made the rather poignant observation that “however many languages we can learn, we can’t learn them all”, making the point that no matter what, translation will always be an important part of literature and of understanding other people and their cultures. He also pointed out that translation pushes you to learn more about a language, suggesting, for example, that you might want to learn more about the Russian language after reading Dostoyevsky.

To be honest, it felt a lot like Mufti was added onto the panel because he is an Arab writer, rather than that he had any particular knowledge or experience in the field of translation. In the end, though, he made some rather interesting points.

Mufti spoke at length about the great interest that the West is starting to show in Arabic literature in translation, but he also pointed out that this interest is more about what is happening in the Middle East rather than about the books themselves: in his words, “literature is taking the backseat”. He argued that the literary text should be dealt with as such, instead of seeing the author as a social worker or a political representative of their country.

An interesting point that he made was that the languages of others must be open for Arab culture in order for Arab literature to be fully understood in translation. He pointed out that there are many prejudices and pre-judgements of Arab literature, and that these are reinforced when the original ideas of the Arabic work are not able to be fully actualized in the target language.

Finally, Mufti talked about the conservatism of the Arabic language. He argued that Arabic as a language has become more conservative over the past few centuries, and that it needs to be opened up to foreign influence in order to renew itself. He claims that the best way to change this trend is through translation, since this could open up the Arabic language to the values of other cultures, and also to an internal dialogue that would allow growth and change to take place.

Some interesting general statements were also made. For example, there was definitely an emphasis on the way that the West is currently looking to the Arab world to see their challenges expressed in literature. It was also pointed out that headway in the field of translation and world-wide interest in translated works is being made, but is slow; for example, the success of Stieg Larsson was mentioned. An interesting audience question about translation through a bridge language (ie translating a work from Russian to French and *then* to English) was brought up, but sadly, was not properly explored by the panel.

So that’s it for my first session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. A week from today, I’ll talk about the second session that I attended, “Nawal El Saadawi in Conversation”. See you then!

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