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Here we feature a series of blog posts written by people who've attended translation-related events in Oxford. We're always happy to receive new blog posts, so if you've attended an event like this recently and would like to write about it, please contact us.
  • The White Rose Project by Lucy Buxton

    Translating the White Rose Diaries

    Before this project, I hadn’t really done much translation beyond the passages I’m set every week or so as part of my university work. Still, I’ve always been fascinated by translation because it enables me to apply my linguistic knowledge and understanding of German to something more creative than mundane grammar exercises. To me, the purpose of translation is twofold: it aims to make something readable to non-German speakers, be it a work of fiction, a non-fiction article or a document of some description, and gives me (or the translator) the opportunity to be creative and come up with a piece of writing that is, in a sense, wholly my own. In particular, when translating from German into English, I love being able to apply my understanding of my native language to create a piece that is enjoyable and (hopefully!) easy to read, rendering it accessible to a whole new readership.  

    The ‘White Rose’ project called to me because it offered the opportunity to translate passages unlike anything I’d done before: a far cry from the artfully constructed pieces I’m usually set, these were the very private, personal accounts, namely diary entries and letters, of students not much older than myself, as they attempted to undermine the Nazi regime of terror. These students distributed leaflets urging the German people to come to their senses and resist the regime, and the project translated these leaflets last year. But whereas those leaflets were designed to be read by as many people as possible, the passages I would be looking at were much more intimate and gave great insight into the thoughts and character of the students involved. As these had not yet been translated into English, the idea that I would be opening up a window into the minds of the ‘White Rose’ members for English speakers was exciting -  not least because I would love the story and memories of the ‘White Rose’ to become mainstream knowledge in the UK. Whilst in Germany, the ‘Geschwister Scholl’ (‘Scholl siblings’, referring to Hans and Sophie Scholl, two key members to the ‘White Rose’) is a familiar, household name, here very little is known about the group and its resistance efforts.

    Working on the project was so much fun. It was great to discuss the nuances of our potential translations with other languages students, all of whom shared my enthusiasm for modern languages and translation. Regardless of our different degrees and experiences, we were united by the common goal of producing the best possible translation we could, to secure the legacy of the ‘White Rose’ in the UK. Moments like this remind me why modern languages are so interesting and so important. The study of a language enables you to connect and communicate with people from all over the world, and it opens up writing, philosophy, history and a culture that would otherwise be lost in the abyss of the ‘foreign’.

    Lucy Buxton is a second year studying Classics and German at Merton College, Oxford. You can read more about the White Rose Project here.

     

    The image used was sourced from the White Rose Project website, accessed May 2020.

  • Poetry residency blog by Helena Kernan

    Last term the Translation Exchange was delighted to welcome translator Helena Kernan and Russian poet Galina Rymbu to Queen’s, as part of the inaugural Contemporary Poetry in Translation Residency initiated and funded by Pushkin House in London.

    Here Helena Kernan shares her experience of the residency.

    Can poetry ever be disembodied? Can we separate it from vocal chords, body language, or physical presence? The experience of collaborating with Russian poet Galina Rymbu as translator-in-residence at The Queen’s College this spring brought these questions to the forefront of my mind. Simply existing in the same space after months on different continents allowed us to construct a symbiotic relationship based on a shared experience of voiced poetic fragments. As we accumulated a repertoire of bilingual readings in both Oxford and London, we began to imitate the rise and fall of each other’s intonation and experiment with performance, unearthing a constellation of new possible rhythms and interpretations. Galina’s poetry is highly associative and often takes the form of a stream of consciousness, but it is very much rooted in visceral experience. The residency was invaluable in this respect because it allowed me to witness how Galina embodies her own work, and how I might be able to embody it in English, using radically different semantic and phonetic tools.

    Working together in the flesh is a privilege that few author-translator pairs can afford. Aside from the obvious – it’s impossible to ask an author who lived five hundred years ago to clarify what exactly they had in mind when they chose a specific word or phrase  – logistical obstacles and time constraints mean that sustained, meaningful dialogue can be hard to achieve. This is why initiatives like this residency are so vital. Spending a prolonged period of time with Galina allowed me to excavate her motivations, her sources of inspiration, her values and her myriad poetic voices in a way that would not have been possible remotely. I learnt that Galina likes to work with texts that don’t exist, imagining fragments of recorded human experience that have reached future generations after an apocalypse or ecological catastrophe. I learnt that she has been reading the German Expressionists for years and that their keen ear for fugue-like rhythms and focus on decay and entropy informs her own work. I learnt that, although born in Omsk, Russia, she has Ukrainian and Romanian ancestors, which lends her poetry a fascinating tension between the states, identities and bodily experiences that make up the post-Soviet space.

    One poem that we discussed during the residency stemmed directly from this sense of liminality. Entitled ‘Red Sun’, it is written in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian and represents Galina’s mental cosmos and the intimate linguistic sphere that she inhabits. Galina told me that the poem is an attempt to recreate her inner monologue since she moved from her native Russia to Lviv in Western Ukraine. In her view, the fusion of words, roots, prefixes and suffixes that emerges is testament to an enrichment rather than an impoverishment of language, and functions as a way of decolonising the Russian language and developing a more liberating mode of thinking. ‘Red Sun’ is ostensibly set in Lviv, in and around two cemeteries: the Lychakiv cemetery and the Yaniv cemetery, where executed members of the Ukrainian Jewish community were buried after the Second World War. It presents a dreamlike sequence in which the speaker appears to float around the city as easily as the breeze in the first line of the poem. Images of darkness, solitary contemplation and burial rites emerge, interspersed with Galina’s reflections on borders.

    The poem suggests that national borders are mere constructs, while the real, existing borders are those between individual psyches, moods and collective spaces.

    I brought this poem to the translation workshop at Queen’s, one of the first events of the residency programme, in the hope of exploring a broad range of potential solutions to a thorny translation dilemma. Could a single language hope to capture the dynamic interplay between two languages, and heavily politically-charged ones at that? Could the distinction between the Russian fragments and the Ukrainian fragments be preserved without imposing foreign political contexts onto the text? The response from the workshop did not disappoint. A group of around fifteen participants came up with a whole host of inventive possibilities: translating the poem with French or German fragments, differentiating the fragments using English words with Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots, launching a collaboration between a native speaker of Standard English and a native speaker of Pidgin English, omitting certain letters, à la Georges Perec. The list goes on, and the idea for a joint collection of translations of the same poem surfaced. Such an energising and thought-provoking session left me with one conviction: that groups of poets and translators, working in close, visceral proximity, can produce magical results.

     

    The Pushkin House Contemporary Poetry in Translation Residency was launched in 2019 in collaboration with The Queen’s College, Oxford. Helena Kernan and Galina Rymbu were guests of the Translation Exchange at Queen’s in February/March 2020, and took part in readings and workshops in Oxford and London.

    Helena’s translations of three poems by Galina, 'The Rose', 'That Day' and 'Elegy', will be published in the summer issue of Modern Poetry in Translation.

    The images on this page were sourced from the following sites, accessed on 20 May 2020:

    https://www.dailyartmagazine.com/sacred-and-beauty-in-russian-art-at-gal...

    https://www.liveinternet.ru/users/bo4kameda/post242650353/

  • Shadows of Troy: drama outreach in action, by Jack Franco

    Shadows of Troy: Bringing Classics into the Light

    By Jack Franco

    When we were first contacted to join the Shadows of Troy effort, just before we submitted our bid to the Oxford Playhouse, much of the crew was understandably puzzled by the director’s vision. Jamie Murphy was planning to take two canonical Greek tragedies – Iphigenia at Aulis and Aj​ax – and perform them as one play of two acts. Not only that, but to translate them from the original Greek and readapt them, placing the protagonist, Agamemnon, at the heart of the second play.

    Now that all is said and done, we can say that it paid off. Given that this was such a bold production, we had anticipated hiccups on the way, but the vision was coherent enough to withstand it all and deliver something unique and innovative. I was proud to have suggested, designed and led the Education & Outreach programme for the production. When staging classical Greek tragedy at a theatre such as the Playhouse, we had to consider two keys things: theatregoing is in and of itself an exclusive cultural activity, and that Classical education is severely limited to a minority of the population.

    Indeed, well over half of Classics undergraduates at Oxford are privately educated. The vast majority of state schools do not even offer Latin, let alone Ancient Greek. How could we, as a student production, take responsibility intellectually, socially and culturally, to help fix this disparity of opportunity? Putting welcoming faces, with as much curiosity as the students themselves, in local state school classrooms, and explaining the project, its roots, and its relevance.

    We wanted to show that Classical education has nothing to do with ‘aptitude’ or ‘cultural capital’, and everything to do with exposure. As such, we planned an easily reproducible cycle of school workshops that caters for three age categories: Year 7s, Year 9-10s, and A-Level classes. For Year 7s, we sent Oxford classics students to teach the Ancient Greek alphabet, introducing the notion of different scripts and etymology and derivation. Given the UK is a country in which only 32% of the population speak a second language, introducing such concepts and possibilities is a great stimulus for curiosity and linguistic further study. Oxford Spires Academy and Cherwell School were a pleasure to work with, really engaging with the volunteers and what must have been a bizarre topic!

    For the middle category, the Education & Outreach team collaborated closely with the cast and crew of the play to design specially adapted drama workshops. They were based on the Greek conception of the tragic chorus, allowing a whole class to learn basic dramatic tropes and techniques whilst working in unison. Though challenging to design, they proved a huge success, when we delivered them to groups of enthusiastic schoolkids both at Cheney and Cherwell School.

    Our last group was tailored to A-Level English Literature students. A shortcoming of the national curriculum is its short-sightedness and lack of integration: we are not taught the crucial links between subjects of study, or their cultural influence. As a team, we thought that a practically useful and intellectually stimulating way for these students to progress in the study of dramatic texts would be to teach the origins, so to speak, of Tragedy, and how that has carried through and developed with time. From the Renaissance to Arthur Miller, A-Level texts benefit greatly from detailed and alternative readings. We trained our sights on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, teaching the roots of the Renaissance in classical revival, Aristotelian poetics, drawing parallels with Aeschylus’ Agamemnon on themes of fatherhood, revenge tragedy and prophecy.

    At the end of it all, we felt proud but still with a taste for it: we only wish we could have brought these workshops all over the county. Nevertheless, we feel that the production has now made standard the practice of Outreach – much needed in the Oxford drama scene – and set a fine example as to how to cater to all. Without the help of the Translation Exchange’s Dr Charlotte Ryland this would not have been possible. I would like to thank her, and our outstanding teaching team: Georgie Dettmer, Maya Little, Alice Wong, Krishan Emmanuel, Emily Glancey, Alannah Burdess, Joanna McClurg and Abigail Casson.

    At the end of it all, we felt proud but still with a taste for it: we only wish we could have brought these workshops all over the county. Nevertheless, we feel that the production has now made standard the practice of Outreach – much needed in the Oxford drama scene – and set a fine example as to how to cater to all. Without the help of the Translation Exchange’s Dr Charlotte Ryland this would not have been possible. I would like to thank her, and our outstanding teaching team: Georgie Dettmer, Maya Little, Alice Wong, Krishan Emmanuel, Emily Glancey, Alannah Burdess, Joanna McClurg and Abigail Casson.

  • Multilingual translation workshop with Erin Moure by Luke Cooper

    A Multilingual Translation Workshop with Erin Moure

    By Luke Cooper

    A cold, dark November evening, a room full of translators. A room of near twenty different languages brought together around a short poem. Erin Moure’s enthusiasm was infectious and her sharing of her own techniques and opinions invaluable. The evening began with a brief introduction outlining the surprising variety of literary work Moure is involved in, from her own poetry through to the translation of dialect poetry, including Galician poet Chus Pato’s work. This journey through her career was complemented by her sharing the journey she goes on when translating a poem.

    This journey begins with Moure giving her opinion of hotly anticipated drafts before receiving the finished poem. From here, Moure explained how she uses a surprising array of resources, from reference books and official EU dictionaries through to online dictionaries that anyone can add to. Interestingly, and unlike other translators we have hosted, meeting the poet to run through her translations is a key part of Moure’s method; this allows her to better capture the sounds and rhythms unique to the original language and to appreciate how the poet understands their own work through recital. While the translation process certainly involves inhabiting the text and mind of the original poet, Moure was keen to stress how the translator leaves a mark on the poem and that the best way to capture aspects of the original is sometimes to turn them on their head. Moure’s translation of Chus Pato’s Secession, which she titled Insecession, is a pertinent example of how translation can act as a disruption of the language of the original, yet create new poetic possibilities in the original’s spirit.

    Once our ideas of what translation involves were thoroughly questioned it was established that the beauty of translation lay anywhere between capturing the essence of a word, the rhythms of another language, to sharing the original with people of other tongues or simply in inhabiting other people’s works. Then, a six-line poem was handed out to each group, but in five or so different languages. It soon became clear that all of the poems were translations of the same poem, but it was less clear which iteration of the poem was the original. It turned out to be one of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Lieder auf der Flucht, which are worth a read:

    Mund, der in meinem Mund genächtigt hat,

    Aug, das mein Aug bewachte,

    Hand —

    und die mich schleiften, die Augen!

    Mund, der das Urteil sprach,

    Hand, die mich hinrichtete!

    Each translation posed its own challenges, varying from word order and metre to finding vocabulary with the right sense. Each translation had to make compromises, to lose subtle word play or duality, for example the original’s hinrichtete, which means execute while being a compound that fittingly literally means ‘direct away’. As we had come to learn, losing one aspect of a poem does not mean that the sense of the whole poem has been lost, rather that it likely offers us another opportunity to capture that aspect in a way more natural to the target language: to recapture the poem in another language, to see it through a different lens.

'Translation can have many pathways….’

Babel: Adventures in Translation

By Rebecca Smithson

Babel: Adventures in Translation aims to break open the stereotypes and myths surrounding languages and introduce the public to deeper debates regarding the art and science of translation. The exhibition will run until the 2nd June 2019 and it’s truly a must-see (even if we at the Translation Exchange are a little biased about this). Displaying Mary and Percy Shelley’s handwritten translations, Ada Lovelace’s first use of a programming language, and a 4000-year-old bowl covered in an undeciphered language, there’s really something for everyone.

But what is translation, really? Often seen as a task reserved for hyper-polyglots or those who ‘just know languages’, the ‘Library Late’ event ventured into the unknown to break every myth surrounding translation. Packed with both activities and visitors, on 8th March 2019 the Weston Library invited guests to participate in a myriad of activities, from recording speech samples to learning Elvish!

Particular highlights included ‘extreme translation’, which challenged people to translate within their own language by prohibiting certain letters. This created all sorts of wonderful results, including poetry in the form of a text message. The Oxford Balkansko Oro and the Oxford International Folkdance Group gave captivating dance performances, displaying a non-verbal way of sharing culture and of translating ways of life.

The Translation Exchange team were also present at the Library Late with their ‘Spectacular Translation Machine’. The team displayed individual pages of the graphic novel Carnets de Thèse (Notes on a Thesis) by Tiphaine Rivière, so that they could be translated by the public. The challenge? Many of the visitors were not familiar with French, and had never translated before. Despite what seemed to be a language barrier, the public creatively and vividly translated large chunks of the graphic novel.

With so many fun and accessible events on offer, it’s no wonder that when the evening reached its end, no one seemed to want to leave. Whether you’re new to languages, a translation aficionado, or just curious, Babel: Adventures in Translation is worth the visit. You never know, you might just knock down your own Tower of Babel.

Babel: Adventures in Translation runs until 2 June 2019 at the Weston Library, Oxford.

Carnets de Thèse, by Tiphaine Rivière, is published by Editions du Seuil in French and Jonathan Cape in English (tr. Francesca Barrie).

 

  • Interview with James Garza, winner of the open category of the 2019 Stephen Spender Prize

    Every year the Stephen Spender Trust runs a competition for translations of poetry from any language, awarding prizes in categories for 18-and-under, 16-and-under, 14-and-under, and an Open (adult) category. The number of entries has been steadily growing, as has the range of languages that entrants choose to translate. In 2019, these included Nepali, Dholuo, Basque, Breton and Korean. The 2019 winner of the Open category was James Garza for his translation of 'Going Home' by Ito Shizuo. You can read in interview with James about his winning translation here.

  • Interview with Shrinidhi Prakash. winner of the 18-and-under category of the 2019 Stephen Spender Prize

    Interview with Shrinidhi Prakash

    18-and-under winner of the Stephen Spender Prize 2019

     

    Shrinidhi Prakash is the winner of the 18-and-under category of the Stephen Spender Prize 2019 for poetry in translation. Shrinidhi lives in Kent but is originally from Trivandrum in India. Massively impressive in her own understated way, this Year 13 student spoke to us about her passion for languages, professional Scrabble and recklessness in translation. 

    Congratulations on your winning entry – it’s so impressive that you’ve been able to take part in the competition all whilst completing your A-Levels. How is school going?

    School's great! I'm really enjoying sixth form, though I'm nearly done with it. It’s great to be able to study what you like with friends who share your interests.

    Which include…?

    I read a lot and a wide range, from Wilde to Tokarczuk to Borges. I'm also fond of music; I play the piano and a bit of the sax, and am rarely found without my headphones. I also like cooking.

    How did you become interested in languages?

    I've always liked wordplay; I used to play professional Scrabble. At school, when we started learning foreign languages, I found I absorbed languages fast and had a good head for new spellings and syntax. As I studied languages to a higher level, I became interested in how these structures were used as a way of expressing a rich medley of people's ways, philosophies and dreams.

    So why did you choose to learn and translate French?

    I've learnt French since Year 7, and took to the language because of its rich Latin tone. I read and listened widely because I reasoned it was a great way to open up new fields of literature in all their original glory, as well as keep tabs on European affairs from an insider's perspective by reading French-language media.

    Why did you decide to enter the competition?

    I always enjoyed writing and exploring new forms of it; I've tried my hand at poetry and fiction, but I had never translated before entering the prize. Coming across richly translated works from Heaney's Beowulf to Hines's Gilgamesh, I wondered if I could have a go myself, seeing as my French had become quite advanced. The Stephen Spender Prize gave me an excellent chance to give it a stab.

    It's been a great honour to win the prize, but I think one of its most important and enjoyable results was getting to hear so many wonderful new translations at the prize giving, translated from Bengali, Turkish and German and spanning such a colourful range of emotions. I’ll certainly be reading more poetry from other cultures.

    It's easy to think of languages as merely a mode of expression, but as McLuhan observes, the medium is the message. A society's language can tell us a lot about the way it thinks, its history, its politics and its aspirations. Even stripping away such sociological analysis, different languages are like different genres of art, each with its unique timbre.

    How did you pick your source text? French is well-known for its plethora of poetry - how did you choose amongst such a literary history?

    A friend recommended earlier this year that I read Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. I was blown away by its fierce surrealism and astonishing turns of phrase, and realised that it was a great candidate to translate for the prize; I had been rummaging around the well-worn likes of Baudelaire until I came across the Cahier, whose freshness and pertinence is remarkable.

    Did you encounter any difficulties during the translation process? Is there anything you’d do differently, in retrospect?

    Surrealist poetry is difficult to translate, especially in parts so figurative you're not entirely sure what the poet's trying to say (‘an abrupt early-morning scene where the apocalypse of monsters parades,’ for example). In such cases I decided it was best to just translate fairly literally and leave it to the reader's imagination. On the whole, though, it was fairly straightforward to translate, because the original language of the Cahier is so fertile that even a literal translation sounds astonishing in English; you don't have to put in too much of a conscious effort to make it flow. 

    In retrospect, I'd say that I was a bit too faithful in my approach, which I suppose is natural given it's not my native language. Looking back, I wish I'd been freer with the translation of the very abstract parts in particular. If I ever have a go again at translating (I do have an ambition of finishing the entirety of the Cahier) I'd say I would be a little more reckless in my approach.

    What are your plans for the future?

    I'm hoping to study PPE (philosophy, politics and economics) at university, but I'm not entirely sure about my career yet. I only know for certain it would have to involve writing, and also linking different fields (I always get bored if studies have a narrow approach). I’ve always liked analysing the way societies work, which naturally calls for broad thinking, but apart from analytical work I’d also like to be able to contribute to the arts somehow.

    (Interview by Rebecca Smithson)

    You can read an extract of Shrinidhi’s incredible winning translation below. Please click here to read the full entry.

    Shrinidhi Prakash – Extract from ‘Notebook of a Return to My Native Land’

    “Leaving… I'd arrive plain and young in this country of mine 
    and I'd say to this country whose silt embeds 
    itself in my flesh: 'I've wandered a long while and I'm returning 
    to the deserted ugliness of your wounds.' 

    I'd come to this country of mine and I'd say to it: 'Kiss me without fear… And if 
    I only know how to speak, it's for you that I speak.' 

    And again I'd say to it: 

    'My mouth will be the mouth of mouthless suffering, 
    my voice, the liberties of those shut up 
    in despair.' 

    And on the way, I'd say to myself: 

    'And my body, especially, as well as my soul – careful not to cross 
    your arms in the sterile attitude of a spectator, for life is not 
    a show, a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, a shrieking 
    man is not a dancing bear…' 

    And look, I'm here!”

Translating Life of Galileo

by Tom Lyne

In July 2019, in collaboration with seven other Oxford students, I took part in a translation project which aimed to produce a workable English version of Brecht’s Leben des Galilei (Life of Galileo) to be performed by Velvet Vest Productions at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre in Oxford. Each of us worked on four scenes from the play – I was assigned the first, second, third and final scenes.

At first, I was slightly apprehensive about the project, as I had encountered Brecht’s polysemy, allegory, and general linguistic experimentation when studying his libretto Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny) for the German Prelims course. But once I read the play and began having a go at putting together my first drafts, I realised just how immersive an experience the process of literary translation can be. Having been used to translating much shorter passages out of context, both at A-Level and in my first year of university, the depth of the text, particularly issues surrounding the continuity of tone and dramatic character, opened up a wide range of new questions that simply don’t cross your mind in a translation exam. In the case of Leben des Galilei, the questions that interested me were not only textual and literary, but also deeply rooted in the historical theme that Brecht is seeking to depict. Brecht is a man remembered as much for his texts as for his contributions to dramatic theory, so it was impossible not to have his Verfremdungseffekt (alienation, defamiliarization effect) in mind.

To turn Brecht’s Episches Theater into ‘Epic Theatre’ needn’t be a daunting task. With all of these complexities in mind, it was easy to get started with the text, but difficult to find a solution I was satisfied with. Translation is an art, not a science, after all, and there can be limitless textual and contextual elements that problematise even the very best of translations. When it came to considerations of voice and register, the text threw up some equally interesting puzzles. When translating the final scene, I had trouble with the repartee between a group of young boys, full of colloquialisms, and full of abbreviation. Rendering this in the English was difficult to say the least – after all, the whole point of colloquialisms is that they sound natural in spoken language – I found myself reading lines out to my family and repeatedly asking them the slightly odd-sounding question: “Does this sound like English?”

I didn’t want to overly systematise my approach to the translation, or for my own voice to intrude too much into Brecht’s discourse. Brecht’s texts are characterised by dissonance, dissembling and political revolt, and I think that was the main thing I was looking to recreate. But formally, the text isn’t chaotic: rather, it’s ordered comfortably into episodes, and each one is given a historical context by a short proemial poem before the main dramatic action resumes. Brecht’s ‘authorial’ and sometimes metatextual comments in these poems heighten the sense of artificiality and historicity in the play, and so I didn’t want to distort Brecht’s voice in any way here.

But there was one big problem with that – rhyme. I said from the start that I’d give it a go – if I could find a rhyming translation in English, then why not go for it. But I did fear at times that I was sacrificing semantic precision in order to retain the form. In the final production, I noticed that these short verse sections had been fine-tuned really nicely – they were just as pithy as Brecht’s original, and the rhyme didn’t sound forced at all.

For anyone interested in modern foreign languages, literature, and translation, I’d definitely recommend giving translating drama a go. It’s not as dense as prose, and if you pick the right sort of text, you’ll be able to translate all sorts of registers, and it’s fun to take on the role of a playwright without the trouble of finding inspiration for your own play!

Jokha Alharthi translation blog

International Book Club: Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies

By Ffion Kellegher

Try describing a sweet you’ve never tasted, or a land you’ve never seen, a culture you’ve never felt. This is just one of the difficulties faced in translation, when the literal word will not always suffice, or simply does not exist in another language. When Jokha Alharthi came to London, she gifted her translator Marilyn Booth with Omani sweets, after Marilyn had struggled to render these into an English translation; however, with regards to the rich history and culture of the Omani people, it is not so easy to find a solution.

Marilyn Booth, in the book club gathering for Jokha Alharthi’s award-winning novel Celestial Bodies, described her acquaintanceship with Jokha, who she met at the University of Edinburgh. Jokha gave the book to Marilyn as a thank-you gift for helping her in her studies, opening for Marilyn the gateway into Oman’s culture, history and people. She was inspired to translate it into English, subsequently opening this precious gateway to English-speakers all over the world, who can now also experience this fantastic gift.

The novel itself was received controversially. It deals with a range of topics, many of which remain taboo in the Omani world. While it is not an overtly feminist novel, Marilyn Booth affirmed that the book “really has female characters in the centre, looking at the women’s lives, but the men are important too”. The question of gender roles is at the centre of this novel, which of course raised some controversy, yet this was not the only polemic trait of the text. Indeed, many Omani locals objected to what Marilyn called the “forthright treatment of the history of slavery”. Naturally, this is an extremely sensitive topic, yet our translator affirmed that Jokha had written about this delicately and compassionately.

The question of slavery is deftly interwoven in the fabric of the story, alongside the question of what it means to be a family. When discussing the novel in groups, Marilyn claimed that “slaves are part of the family. Definitely”. This complex relationship between classes within the family household is, perhaps, a foreign and unfamiliar concept for the contemporary western reader to grasp, yet we must bear in mind that, with Oman being one of the last states to abolish slavery, in 1970, it is of course a far newer and more sensitive topic for the Omani reader than perhaps for the western reader.

Omani people objected to this open discussion of slavery, saying that they don’t need to talk about it now, it’s in the past. Jokha’s response to this was, as Marilyn paraphrased, “it’s part of our past, which is why we need to talk about it.” This is a courageous approach to such a topic, and embodies the persistent faith of our author in her nation, in the hopes that it will look forward and embrace the difficulties of the past.

In terms of the translation process, Marilyn Booth told the group that Jokha “has been absolutely great”, adding that most of the authors for whom she has translated have been “excellent to work with”. She enlightened us on Jokha’s trust in her as a translator, since, despite the fact that Jokha speaks English, she did not insist that she knew how to translate into it. This, I can confirm - through the personal experience of a joint-language degree - is another matter altogether.

While speaking a language is about communicating a message and a basic meaning to another person, translating a written literary piece is about nuances, underlying meaning and conveying those feelings, which the native reader of the language gains from the text, into a new language. This must be done in such a way, so that not only the story and general meaning of the book are evident to the secondary-language reader, but also those sensations which surround and envelop a text, evoking and provoking the original thoughts and feelings that the author had in mind. 

Marilyn told us that personally she finds “being more literal is the best thing to do”, but “not to the point that it becomes awkward and alienates the reader”. Naturally, this is another obstacle faced by translators; how much initiative should one take on the meaning of the text? She gave an example of translating the proverbs which were embedded in Jokha’s novel, mentioning that she tried to “do a literal rendering, making it clear that it’s a proverb”.

We might observe how a literal translation would lend well to proverbs, due to the fact that in all languages they tend to contain this stratum of complex meanings and, ironically, would sound unnatural if they were to be translated in a ‘natural-sounding’ way, which is often considered the rule-of-thumb when translating.

However, Marilyn brightly remarked, “I really love translating, I really love working with these difficulties” and that, working as a translator has “generated some of my closest friendships”. Her positive words resonated throughout the room, while her book club audience warmed to her adoration of translation with every minute that passed.

The experience of meeting the translator of such a soulful and historically significant novel was, needless to say, pretty awesome.

Talking Maps

Weston Exhibition 2019: Talking Maps

by Ffion Kellegher

Generally, I’m not a fan of maps. So naturally, at first glance, the Weston library’s ‘Talking Maps’ exhibition appeared pretty standard: a few geographical charts, some monochronic, others colourful, some large enough to cover the wall, others small enough to barely be visible on it.

However, within a few moments of rambling through the exhibition I was pleased to have my perception of maps completely revolutionised. First, I read the line: ‘every map tells a story’. I had never considered this, so I continued, curious as to what these ‘stories’ could be.

I reached a bizarre-looking anatomical map with an even more peculiar name: ‘The Map of Nowhere’. I was officially intrigued. This “map” had been created by the artist Grayson Perry; I read that it ‘references Utopia (of which one meaning is ‘nowhere’) and medieval mappae mundi.’

Naturally, as a linguist I was intrigued by this other significance of ‘Utopia’, which seems paradoxical to its typical meaning of an ideal world, of course this corresponds with the disconcerting title and nature of the map.

The placard highlighted that instead of the conventional image of Christ or Jerusalem at the centre of this medieval-style chart, we find ‘the island of ‘doubt’’. Certainly, a disturbing and introspective proposal.

I was fascinated by this new form of cartography, one which attempts to formulate human life as an illustration, with some areas of the map marked as ‘nature’, or ‘meaningless’, or, my two personal favourites: ‘the sadness of the excessively logical’ and ‘catastrophic optimism’.

Moving on from the this, I came to the Laxton map, a rather more modestly delineated work, showing the land-management system of the 17th century English countryside. The more I gazed on it, the more I was mesmerised; the map embodied 3,330 strips of land, each belonging to various land owners at that time and painted in eye-catching pastoral colours.

The intrigue of this map lay in its proximity to the land of a different time, gazing at the image made me feel somehow connected to Laxton, while my sentiments were strengthened by the accompanying description of the map, reading ‘a land and its inhabitants may be brought back to life via cartography’.

Despite my dire previous experience with maps, I began to grow towards them, realising that each one indeed represents a journey and a past, while it can also communicate a message from the map-maker to the beholder, not only guiding him or her, but opening up one of the most essential questions in life: how we find ourselves.

In Conversation with Didier Decoin

By Rebecca Smithson

J’aime rêver, et je veux que le lecteur rêve avec moi

une fluiditê, une grâce, une transparence

Speaking about his latest novel, Le bureau des jardins et des étangs (The Office of Gardens and Ponds), and accompanied by his translator Euan Cameron and Oxford academic Catriona Seth, Didier Decoin led us down a rabbit hole into the author’s mind.

Secretary General of the Académie Goncourt, Decoin has written enough to keep any avid Francophile reader going for years – be it novels, screenplays or essays. Among his most notable works are screenplays for Le comte de Monte Cristo (1999) and Les Misérables (2000). He won the Prix Goncourt in 1977 for his novel John l’enfer. The reasons for his success are clear as soon as he begins to speak. His imagination, his eloquence, his rich vocabulary pour forth like a melody, charming anyone and everyone to fall silent and listen to the magic that he weaves.

Le bureau des jardins et des étangs, published in France in 2017, is set in the Heian era of Japan, in the twelfth Century. After facing unexpected difficulty, the heroine Miyuki is charged with an enormous task: delivering the best carp to the Imperial Palace. Decoin and Cameron’s research into this long-forgotten world is extensive to the point that the reader soon becomes absorbed in the mirage of ancient Japan.

Decoin let the audience in on the secret of his creative experience, informing us that he never lets anyone read his novels until they’re absolutely ready. Additionally, Cameron pointed out that Decoin crafted ‘ripples’ across his words, creating a ‘fluidity, grace and transparency’ that reflects the water motif of the novel.

In terms of translation, Cameron noted that maintaining the right tone was difficult for this complex novel with its setting in Heian Japan over 1000 years ago, citing in particular the contemporary courtesans’ writings. Nonetheless, the translated novel has already received rave reviews in English, much to the delight of both novelist and translator. Decoin, always weaving tales from thin air, says that he likes to dream and loves making the reader dream with him. Seeing his passion, I couldn’t think of any better dream to be a part of.

This event was organised by Catriona Seth (All Souls, Oxford) as part of the Beyond Words Festival.

The Office of Gardens and Ponds was published by Quercus Books on 2 May 2019.