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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.
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.

‘I believe in the Martian, but most of all I believe in good faith!’

The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, edited by Jhumpa Lahiri (2019)

Review by Jack Franco

For a number of years, the status of languages in the UK seems to have been determined by what history has established a ‘business language’ to be, or by how many people across the world speak it. In other words, we only seem to study or appreciate a language if it can get us around more than one country or in contact with more than sixty million people. Amongst the imperial goliaths of French, Spanish and, of course, English, Italian has suffered. Once the language of traders and literati, the source of proverbs and the progeny of Latin, Italian has lost its status as a world language. Its wealth of world-class literature, too, has been neglected.

Enter American-Bengali Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who has undertaken a personal quest to read and write solely in Italian. By using the language to demonstrate the impact language and translation can have on life and character, Lahiri has been responsible for a restoration of interest and, I would say, pride, in Italy’s literature. She spent time living in Rome, published in her adopted language and began translating from Italian to English. Her seminal book In Other Words (2013) was written in Italian, narrating her journey from a curious dictionary-dependent school student in Florence to Viareggio Prize-winning Italian writer.

Lahiri’s appearance at Blackwell’s Oxford early in March 2019, launching The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which she compiled and edited, marked her arrival not only as a linguist of distinction, but as an Italianist of rare ability. With Italian’s supposedly ‘limited’ usefulness, to be a consummate literary Italian requires not just the knowledge that a French student needs for a year-long job abroad, but a deep appreciation and commitment to a language which is conscious of its history, its peninsular diversity and unique dependence on turns-of-phrase and small talk; in short, its pride in being a spoken, everyday, witty language, where the so-called ‘vulgar’ is shaped for the page in its literature, rather than crudely replaced by contrived flourish and rhetoric. Lahiri grasped this, and her anthology is a remarkable contribution to a shamefully neglected field.

Lahiri’s vision for her anthology is based on Italian writer Elio Vittorini’s own 1941 attempt, Americana, at publishing the great American literature of his time in Italian translation. Although Vittorini had the likes of Nobel poet Eugenio Montale on his translation team, Lahiri has the insight and scope to avoid the overwrought Italian canon. Instead, her anthology is a treasure trove of previously untranslated material, including excerpts from minor works of Italian giants such as Alberto Moravia, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Primo Levi, a feminist defence of Italy’s female literary heritage, and a reintroduction of the pariahs of the conventional Italian short story such as surrealist Alberto Savinio. These all come together in a proud though understated celebration of the Italian racconto, the short story.

At the Blackwell’s event, Lahiri was accompanied by Professor Nicola Gardini, expert in his native literature. He began the discussion with the bold claim that Italy’s modern history (post-unification) had never kept the racconto in pride of place, neatly underscoring the importance of Lahiri’s new work. It is precisely in this context that the book is an astounding success: the breadth of the forty selected authors creates a mix, for any Italian reader especially, of homecoming, adventure and tradition. It was a joy to open the book and see Tuscan legend Luciano Bianciardi alongside crime-writer and moralist-king Leonardo Sciascia. Lahiri’s decision to deliberately find the short prose of writers unknown for that form is also remarkable: Umberto Saba or futurist Aldo Palazzeschi, both renowned poets, were brave choices that have paid off.

Lahiri, throughout her anthology, has a clear idea of what it means to translate and be translated. Several of her chosen authors were translators themselves, most notably Giorgio Manganelli (who translated T. S. Eliot), Bianciardi and Beppe Fenoglio. Fenoglio particularly, perhaps the most special of all the chosen authors, wrote all his prose in English, and then translated it into Italian. His masterpiece, the unfinished Il Partigiano Johnny, contains several phrases and tracts in English, or many translated idioms. It is presumably the same relationship with Italian to which Lahiri aspires and is approaching.

In fact, this strikes at the heart of the matter. Lahiri’s anthology, so personal a project, suffers from a single, although perhaps unavoidable, error: having too large a team of translators who palpably do not have the same connection with Italian as she does herself. We see in Sciascia’s astounding The Long Voyage, about Sicilians smuggled to ‘America’ only to find themselves forty-three kilometres down the Sicilian coast in Agrigento, that the humour and suspense is taken too literally in the English, with the idioms lost particularly in the dialogue. In contrast, where Lahiri takes the wheel – Carlo Cassola’s At The Station is one of a handful she has done herself – the translation is versatile, capturing the mood by adapting the dialogue to a screenplay-like format, rather than relying on the very Italian reported speech. Fenoglio’s story, The Smell of Death, is a frustrating, interior and cathartic narrative mix of observation and action, and also suffers from a strange detachment in translation where voices are modulated, changing also the unique stunted pace of the original. At times one wishes that Lahiri had translated them all.

It would be impossible to go through every fantastic short story chosen by Lahiri, for the scope is truly impressive. And even if the occasional translation leaves the reader somewhat estranged, one cannot but help feeling like Ennio Flaiano’s Martian in Rome: fascinated by the Colosseums and Basilicas of Italian literature, privileged in the company of the Mayor, President and Pope who welcome the Martian with open arms, yet remaining an extraterrestrial in a country you wish you could call your own.

'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).