Translation as Conversation

Posted 1 year ago by Catherine Colwell

Alastair Reid, one of our finest poets and translator of Borges and Neruda enjoyed conversation more than anyone I’ve ever met. When my friend Richard Gwyn was working on a new anthology of Latin American poetry, I told him he had to meet Alastair. Richard drove to Dumfries and I then drove him to meet Alastair. Richard told me it was a meeting of great significance for him and in fact was the final spur he needed to finish the book. Six weeks later Alastair died.

To the Edinburgh launch of The Other Tiger, Recent Poetry from Latin America, edited and translated by Richard himself (Seren 2017), Richard brought two Mexican poets, a Chilean poet and the Argentinian poet and translator, Jorge Fondebrider. In a short discussion, Jorge commented, “It’s very hard to have a conversation with you (the audience), because you are so ignorant – pardon me for saying so.” This came as quite a shock to the Blackwell’s audience! Jorge explained: “If you go into a bookshop in Buenos Aires, it is full of translations from English-speaking poets. You go into a bookshop here and where are they? We are missing half the conversation.” The idea of translation as ‘conversation’ immediately struck me. I recalled Robyn Marsack saying, we must pay attention both to what goes out and what comes in, but I think the idea of conversation makes this much clearer: something that suggests two sides considered equally. It seems to me that such a process is culturally and politically necessary at the moment.

I recognise that export of our literature is of course hugely important for all kinds of reasons – which is why, as one of the advisory group for the recent Creative Scotland Literature Review, we argued for a dedicated post in that area, and why I now serve on the Scottish Publishers Translation Fund panel. This panel receives applications from foreign publishers who wish to publish Scottish writing in all genres. We attach great importance to the case that the publisher makes. These can show wide knowledge both of an author’s previous works, as well as of Scottish literature generally. Here is a short passage illustrating a publisher’s appreciation of Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis: “In some extraordinary passages in this new book, the author leaves aside the familiar synthesis of case study with cultural history, and aims for something more exacting and unsettling in his prose, full of profound and complex moments.”

Often, these ‘cases’ appear to be part of a conversation that publishers are having between Scottish writing and that of their own tradition – and with writing from other nationalities on their list – or simply with an idea of Scotland. But when the work is eventually published, it will add to the conversations readers can have with others and with themselves. Regarding the ‘what comes in’ part of Robyn’s equation, there is what has been called the ‘three percent problem’, denoting the proportion of works translated for the English-speaking market. So, I think we should applaud and (continue to) support the work of award-winning Charco Press, based in Edinburgh, and Vagabond Voices, based in Glasgow, for enriching our conversations with elsewhere. Without exception, the literature of every country is vital to it; so there needs to be, not sensitivity to a particular literature, but to ideas beyond our own circumstances. The taking in of such ideas can demand a certain kind of translation. As Kate Briggs writes, in This Little Art, “We need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does; we do.”

But, when Jorge made his “missing half the conversation” comment, I was also struck by the fact that there is a great deal of activity that does not focus on the availability of individual books or sets of books. Such activity is also vitally important to our cultural health, although much of it takes place on a (less visible) practical interchange/conversational level: translation exchanges which Mireille Gansel has termed ‘the essence of hospitality’. Examples of those involved in this work are Highlight Arts, the Scottish Poetry Library, StAnza, Cove Park and the Edwin Morgan Trust. (Literature Across Frontiers has also offered valuable experiences for many Scottish writers.) Informal connections can thrive from more programmed exchanges – I think of the work of Ken Cockburn with German poets and of Anna Crowe with Catalan ones. Poetry, which is the genre with which I’m most familiar in terms of translation exchange, offers great rewards within a relatively short time-scale. Iain Galbraith, for example, who was part of the most recent EMT translation project, described at StAnza how Hungarian was an unknown language to him on the first day of the translation workshops, but by the fourth day, through intent listening and conversation, certain of its features had become familiar to him and he had a sense of the language himself.

However, perhaps the one thing that sensitised me most (unsurprisingly) to ideas of conversation was Brexit. Kate Briggs refers to an article published in The Observer in which Rachel Cooke declared, “It’s boom-time for translated fiction.” Briggs writes, “Cooke’s article celebrating the ‘subtle art of translated foreign fiction’ was published on 24 July 2016. Exactly a month and a day after the UK vote to leave the European Union; what sounded, to my ear, as to so many others, like a great big boom.”

Yet we must not be deafened by it. We must continue to be a culture that is attentive and engaged. Translation as Conversation is a vital strand of A Year of Conversation and BooksfromScotland will be featuring other writers reflecting on this theme throughout the year. As Mireille Gansel writes in Translation as Transhumance, “In these times of solitude and solidarities: translation, a hand reaching from one shore to another where there is no bridge.”

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