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TranslationExch Blog
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.
  • L'Avventura by various collaborators

    Virtual Adventures in Collaborative Translation

    Over the summer of 2020 the Translation Exchange coordinated a collaborative translation of a French comics blog that appeared in Le Monde during the Covid-19 pandemic. The blog depicts the pandemic from multiple perspectives, portraying the experiences and reactions of ordinary people as their lives are suddenly changed. It is deeply moving and thought-provoking, with plenty of humour, and presents a great translation challenge. Read our English translations here.

    The project ran from July to September and involved 122 participants working collaboratively in 20 groups of 6 or 7 to translate one of the 10 blog entries. You can follow their progress below. We will publish our translations on our webpage at the end of October. This project is generously supported by The Queen's College and the Institut français du Royaume-Uni.

    Week 10: Lilti and Luzzati: Contemporary Cultural Perspectives on the Medical Profession, by Ramani Chandramohan 

    Ramani Chandramohan is a recent graduate of St Anne’s College where she studied Classics and French. She will be starting a Masters in Modern Languages at Oxford this autumn, specialising in medieval French literature. As groups prepare to publish their translations, Ramani compares the depiction of the medical profession in Luzzati's blog and in films by Thomas Lilti.

    In and amongst the all-encompassing effects of Covid-19 in social, economic and environmental spheres, Coronavirus has most obviously changed the discipline at the frontline of fighting the disease, both epistemologically and existentially. This is evidenced in L’avventura by those panels which focus on Irene, an ICU worker in Milan, and Maïa, a third-year medical student in France who volunteers in a hospital at the height of the pandemic. To better understand the crossroads at which these medics find themselves, I have found it enriching and enlightening to compare Luzzati’s bande-dessinée with a trilogy of pre-Covid contemporary French films directed by Thomas Lilti who is also a practising doctor: Hippocrate [2014], Médecin de campagne [2016], and Première Année [2018].

    The comic strip and films in question both represent the conflicted conscience of the medical profession. The English translation of Lilti’s Médecin de campagne as Irreplaceable conveys a conventional sense of doctors’ personal pride in their work and the unbreakable bonds of trust forged between them and their patients. These sentiments are initially echoed by an optimistic Irene at the start of Panel C in Luzzati’s comic and they are reflected in the plot of Médecin de campagne, which revolves around Jean-Pierre Werner (played by François Cluzet), a country doctor with a brain tumour who refuses to leave his job. Jean-Pierre comments that doctors mend the screw-ups of nature (‘on répare les conneries de la nature’). Similarly, Luzzati presents medical professionals as figures of authority who are inevitably and inexplicably reduced to a state of helplessness in attempting to fix ‘conneries’ of a more specifically political kind. Moreover, the act of caring ironically creates its own traumas and scars for medical staff, as in Maïa’s distraught calls to her boyfriend Victor after looking after Covid-19 patients isolated from loved ones in their final moments.

    Lilti and Luzzati both endorse and re-evaluate the long-standing and more recent heroisation of the medical profession in the wake of Covid-19. Irene certainly receives special treatment – she gets free housing when she moves to Milan and is allowed to skip the queue in shops – and her role as a ‘réanimatrice’literally implies that she brings patients back to life. However, she views herself as neither a hero nor a ‘kamikaze’, a reference to the Japanese pilots who launched suicide attacks during the Second World War. Irene’s negation (‘ni…ni’) in this sentence only suggests what she is not, implying uncertainty and almost indifference towards the perception of her contribution to society during the pandemic. Indeed, the universally-recognised symbol of the profession that recurs in Lilti’s films – the stethoscope – features surprisingly little in Luzzati’s bande-dessinnée where it has been replaced by a litany of PPE, including waterproof surgical suits and FFP2 masks which seemingly transform Irene into an astronaut.  Lilti also undermines the self-valorisation of young medics in pre-Covid times. The film Hippocrate focuses on the contrast between Benjamin’s enthusiasm about starting his medical training and his later inability to cope with the pressure. This disjuncture is especially highlighted by Benjamin’s drunken rampage on the hospital wards, damaging equipment and frightening patients, a far cry from the ethics of the father of medicine, Hippocrates, he is supposed to embody.

    Furthermore, reading and translating Luzzati in the light of Lilti’s films reveals the potential for the Coronavirus crisis to produce a more effective and more humane version of the medical profession. As my translation group observed, Irene is as an experienced member of staff, an anaesthetist who becomes an ICU worker during the pandemic; she compares her excitement when a patient opens their eyes and recovers from an operation to the happiness of a doctor delivering a baby: the French specifically uses the word ‘obstétricien’, which appears demarcated from the related, but less senior, role of midwife. Nevertheless, both Irene and the medical student Maïa point out how the hierarchies of hospital staff collapse in the face of the pandemic, a sign perhaps of chaos but also solidarity. By contrast, Lilti’s Hippocrate comes across as a stratified world: the junior doctors Benjamin and Abdel are disciplined by the consultants for making well-meant and time-critical decisions about patient care without prior authorisation, with Benjamin receiving a more lenient punishment because his father works in the hospital.

    Luzzati also gives an unexpectedly more positive picture of medical students than Lilti, despite producing her comic in the time of Coronavirus. The relentless rhythm of medical school dissipates when Maïa is forced to put her training to the test in the pandemic; it is only at the end of the panel that she mentions making notes ‘for later’ from her time on the wards. As a result, the ruthless competition and hours of rote-learning at the medical school in Première Année seem even further removed from the reality of practising medicine than when the film came out in 2018.

    The transition between the abstract and the concrete that medical students and healthcare workers have to mediate feels connected to our own role as translators, crossing the divide between the technical and the everyday, the exclusive and the accessible. In the same vein, the visual and auditory effects of the silver screen and the comic strip, itself connected to film storyboards, are apt mediums for representing a profession that turns the invisible into seen and known quantities.

    Week 8: Luzzati and Me, by Rajeshwari Dasgupta

    Rajeshwari Dasgupta is getting ready for final year studying French and Russian at the University of Leeds. As groups work on polishing their translations in the final weeks of the project, Rajeshwari reflects on what this group project has taught her about translation and the ways in which her own experience of lockdown are reflected in Luzzati's panels.

    I was excited to start this collaborative project in translation, because I’d never done anything like this before. Translation at university is usually a solitary task, but through this task I have discovered the benefits hearing different ideas and suggestions can bring to a translation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the leader of our team was also studying, like me, French and Russian. I found that I was working with people from all over the world and I was fascinated by the different perspectives on the comic and strategies for translation suggested by others, because it helped me to re-evaluate the way I was approaching the task at hand. For example, we had some issues with American and British understanding of the word “FFP2 mask”, which was familiar to me but not to my teammate who lives in America, and it really brought to mind the fact that our audiences may not be exclusively British. This helped me to translate with our potential future reader in mind. 

    The comic we were working on was about a medical student working in a COVID ward; this really struck home for me as I have a parent who works in the NHS. Luzzati’s blog has really changed the way I view bandes-dessinées, or comics: previously I had viewed them as an imaginative way to tell fictional stories but working closely with this material I realised that even the short captions in the comic strip are packed with anxiety and sadness about the situation. The biggest challenge during this collaborative translation project was translating the emotion of the French captions. In school and in my classes at university, I was always told that you must “translate meaning”. I did not understand what this meant until I was discussing with my team the emotion conveyed by a particular word in English versus another word, what connotation did that word have that the other did not? This sort of translation requires an understanding of the storyteller's situation and expereinces.

    As this project draws to a close, I am grateful for the opportunity to hone my skills as a translator and to work with a group of talented people. I have enjoyed allowing my own experience of lockdown to inform the decisions we made in the translation process and the content of our comic strip, the experiences of an ICU worker, has also been a humbling reminder of what others have experienced. I will take the skills I have learnt on this project into my final year of university, and hopefully, into a career in translation.

    Week 6: A Picture Paints a Thousand Words: Translating Images, by Hannah Hodges

    Hannah Hodges is a recent graduate of St Peter’s College and is now studying for an MSt in Modern Languages at Hertford College, University of Oxford. Hannah is leading a group working on the comic strip entitled « Il faudrait dire la vérité » : Une étudiante en médicine face au Covid. In the sixth week of this project, when groups are starting to finish their first draft, Hannah reflects on how Luzatti's illustrations have informed the translation process.

    The powerful comic strip that my group is working on tells the story of Maïa, a third-year medical student in France. Following Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on 12 March 2020 that France would go into lockdown, Maïa returns to the hospital to help. In the first panel we see Maïa and her parents watching Macron on the television; the image brings back memories of sitting in the living room with my family almost two weeks later and of hearing Boris Johnson give one clear instruction: ‘you must stay at home.’

    My memories of life in lockdown are oddly visual. Sitting with my family every evening to watch the daily press briefings, taking in the same views on my daily walk around my village, speaking with friends and family on Zoom, revising for exams in Dad’s study. I can picture it all perfectly. Images, and by extension comics, therefore, seem an incredibly apt means of recording the pandemic.

    When translating comics the translator enjoys a certain amount of freedom. At the beginning of the project, my group decided to translate our comic panels in the most idiomatic way possible. We wanted the anglophone reader to see their experience of the pandemic reflected in our translation. The images prevent us straying too far from Luzzati’s text but also ensure that, whatever decisions we make, something of the original will always remain. This means that, no matter how we choose to translate ‘des sacs poubelle’ (rubbish bags, bin bags, garbage bags), the point is reinforced by the striking block of black on a comic panel that is largely white—a chilling reminder of the rising death tolls in hospitals. Just as Covid-19 is not bound to one country or one language, Luzzati’s images overcome linguistic boundaries and translate an experience which has become universal.

    Having the images as an aid is therefore reassuring, but they also present their own problems. This comic strip oscillates between Maïa the student (dressed in red) and Maïa the healthcare assistant (dressed in white scrubs); at the hospital easily discernible individuals morph into indistinguishable figures whose faces are obscured (most of the time) with bulky face masks. The changes in images are accompanied by a change in tone: banal conversations, expressions of love and journal entries are contrasted with the cold technical language of the hospital and the depressing comments made by elderly patients. We need to be sensitive to the relationship between the words and the images. The black body bag conveys a certain sense of dehumanisation and the pressures of working in a hospital in the middle of a pandemic can be seen in the matter-of-fact tone adopted by the employees: ‘on doit mettre la 12 dans la housse’. Translating this as ‘we’ve got to put the patient in room 12 in the body bag’ perhaps goes too far and it might be better to keep it simple, ‘we’ve got to get 12 in the body bag’. This panel is bleak. The hospital workers remain faceless behind their masks and when Maïa finally removes hers she is crying. The pandemic reduces the dead and the hospital workers to cogs in a machine. Luzzati’s illustrations portray this brilliantly and it is up to us as translators to make sure we capture this in our word choice and tone.

    The images of this comic strip speak for themselves and speak volumes too. Not only have they guided the choices we make as translators but they have made this into a trilateral project which considers not only the relationship between one language and another but also language and image.

    Week 4: Translation Beyond the Classroom: A Sixth-Former’s Perspective, by Irram Rehman

    In the fourth week of the project, sixth-form student Irram Rehman reflects on the challenges posed by the translation task and how it differs from translation within a classroom. Irram is about to enter year 13 at North Birmingham Academy where she is studying French, Chemistry, and Psychology at A-Level. 

    What is translation? It is not simply the transfer of words into another language, it is an art. An art that takes precision and thought to create a seamless and cohesive text in a new language. This is what I have learned from participating in the Translation Exchange.

    For me, the Luzzati blog translation project was a way to put theory into practice. After working on my EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) in year 12 on the theory of translation studies, this is a great opportunity to apply what I had independently studied. Within my EPQ I had discussed topics such as literal translation, form-based translation, and meaning-based translation, it was interesting to be able to compare these different theories of translation and to be able to apply them to modern-day literature.

    As a sixth-former, working with university students has been an eye-opening experience because I have had an insight into their approaches to the translation and thought processes. This has been very beneficial to me because I can now see the line that distinguishes university-level approaches to translation from those I have experienced at A-Level. Taking part in this exchange has allowed me to break away from the usual translating techniques we practise at school and to look at the text as a whole rather than in chunks. I believe that I’ll be able to do much better in class now that I have experienced first-hand translation in a different context.

    The comic strip my team and I are working on is entitled ‘Qui a peur du grand méchant virus?’ This comic strip depicts a philosopher asking children how they feel about the coronavirus and lockdown. So far, I have most enjoyed the translation of cultural elements of the comic strip, which has involved thinking about how to translate customs particular to France and uncommon in other countries such as kissing to greet another person. This was one of the challenges we faced as a group when translating the text because we had to amend it to suit or to make sense to an English speaker. Although this presented itself as a challenge at first, when we came together as a team we were able to figure out innovative solutions.

    Working as a team has been incredible: hearing everyone’s different opinions and thoughts on the translation made me look at it differently which was unexpected and interesting. It was great to see everyone’s ideas come together to reflect an eclectic perspective and we have all taken away very valuable skills from this experience together. Aside from the obvious educational benefits, I have enjoyed being able to connect with others during this confusing time; it has been nice to meet new people in an informal and friendly way. As we are now in the summer holidays, I have not been having online lessons; this means that I have less opportunity to socialise with others outside of my family and friends. Partaking in this project allows me to constantly be in contact with others which is a comfort in the current global circumstances.

    This project has not only given me a way to communicate with other students but it has also helped me in preparation for my A-Levels. I am studying A-Level French and a part of our exams is translation. Now that I have tackled a different style of text than those we study in class, I feel more confident in translating from French to English. With A-Level French, it has always been about concrete topics such as relationships or politics; however, exposure to the language of current global issues, such as Covid-19, has been fascinating and more enjoyable. In other words, I have discovered that I prefer learning about recent events rather than historical policy. The fact that we are translating a comic strip that was recently published in a national French newspaper adds that extra bit of excitement and also brings the language to life. We are all experiencing the current pandemic together but in different ways, so it is very interesting to see how French children have responded, and to think about how these experiences can be rendered into English and the register this requires.

    It has been great working with my team on translating this comic strip written by Luzzati, and I will always value this experience greatly. Translation for me has now transformed into a much more thoughtful and intricate process. This experience has encouraged me to continue my French studies because it is interesting to see how a different language and culture represents things we are all collectively going through. I look forward to continuing work on this project and creating a piece of art.

    Week 3: Reflections on translating the here and now: the ‘grand méchant virus’, by Anna Lancaster and Ayna Taira

    This week's blog entry is a collaborative post written by two members of the same group. Anna Lanacaster is a group leader on the project and finalist in French at the Queen's College. Ayna Taira is a second-year Philosophy and German student at New College. Here the two reflect on their experience working together on the translation so far.

    Below: Ayna (left) and Anna (right) during their first group Zoom meeting which connected people in Japan, Coventry, West Yorkshire and South London. 

    How do you translate an ongoing event like the coronavirus pandemic? What relationship do you have with the subject matter? What if the translation process constantly brings to the fore your own experiences in a way that translating an eighteenth-century poem would not? Our very first online meeting provoked these questions: when discussing how to translate this piece, we found ourselves moving constantly between our own lockdown stories and those written into the comic strip.

    Our group is very diverse in terms of our experiences of the French language and of translation in general; however, the task of translating a comic strip about COVID-19 has presented us all with a new challenge – just like the virus. We’re living in the midst of a raging pandemic that continues to prey on all nations and we find ourselves translating a comic strip that tells its story – a real-life story for which the ending remains unwritten. It’s a surreal experience helping to transform these everyday experiences into historical accounts. How do we translate something so raw, present, and deadly? This is both a personal and a methodological question. Do we unconsciously approach the translation with a greater sensitivity because we are translating something that has affected so many in the past few months and continues to do so? Do we hesitate uncomfortably when we feel that an experience of lockdown has been represented tactlessly? An exchange across the Channel takes place but does this become stilted by our own sensitivities to ongoing events? Translation, in this context, becomes a delicate, thought-provoking process. 

    It also becomes more personal: the distance between subject matter and translator is reduced, if not abolished. In the comic strip assigned to our group, Qui a peur du grand méchant virus? Les enfants parlent du covid-19, the experience of lockdown is voiced by children. Translating these speech bubbles involves negotiating these children’s experiences by comparing them with our current everyday existence. Our relationship to the text therefore becomes a lot more personal: the text speaks to us, sometimes in surprisingly familiar ways, and also speaks about us, our family, our friends, and our peers in France and in the UK, some of whom are living incredibly difficult situations in lockdowns, unknown to us. 

    One member of our team, for example, shared that the children’s understanding of COVID-19 in our comic strip reminded her of how her little cousins described the virus: ‘a little evil thing that wants to eat you’.The comic strip promotes these exchanges between the translator and the text, it speaks to us personally and our responses continue the dialogue.

    This dialogue and exchange about COVID 19 is also stimulated between one another in our collaborative working. As another member of our team commented: ‘the project is as much about translation as it is about the virus’. This became clear from our very first Zoom meeting, which could only take place in the morning as I (Ayna) was in Japan at the time. My parents and I had flown out to my mother’s hometown just before the borders closed in the UK, and I ended up staying there for a little over four months until it was safe enough to go back to Europe. My experiences of lockdown in Japan were slightly different yet strangely similar to the experiences of Anna’s and our other fellow translators. As our group discussed the content of our comic strip, it became clear that the focus of this collaborative translation project was much more than just the exchange of words and phrases, but ideas, experiences, and feelings. We learned more about each other and our lives with COVID-19; every discussion about our personal lives has contributed to the approach we are taking to the comic strip and will continue to play a part in our translations.

    Translating a text that talks about our current everyday lives, over Zoom, is strange, surreal, but also wars against the isolation that COVID-19 has brought about by producing fertile ground for dialogue and exchange. Thank you, Fiamma Luzzati, for beginning this exchange that has now extended to the English-speaking world.

    Week 2: Introductions and first discussions, by Yasmin Jackson

    Yasmin Jackson is a soon-to-be finalist of French and Spanish at the University of Oxford whose recent Year Abroad consisted of seven months in Spain and four months on Zoom. In this second week, Yasmin meets the other members of her group online for the first time and they begin to think about the challenges posed by their designated comic strip. 

    If someone had told me at the beginning of this year that the entire world would be locked away indoors for months on end I would have struggled to believe it. Virtually empty office buildings, conference rooms and cafés are the product of this new life where mixing with family, friends and colleagues is a potentially dangerous activity. Socialising is the new smoking – risky for yourself and those around you – and yet somehow, confined to my home, I feel more connected. When my group met for the first time on Monday via Zoom I was relieved to be able to put faces to the names in our emails, and to see first-hand how enthusiastic they were to start the project. Being able to communicate ‘in person’ with your teammates is essential for translation, each word is nuanced to such minute detail that I once spent the better half of a seminar debating the difference between ‘little’ and ‘small’.

    In the first meeting we discussed our general impression of our designated strip ‘La Belle Indifférence’ . The post encapsulates the little-known neuro-psychiatric manifestations of COVID-19: the disturbing sequence of the patient’s initial denial, their air of insouciance that follows, and ultimately inexplicable depression after overcoming the illness. One aspect of the comic that surprised our group was the apparent absence of satire and humour that one may associate with the prototypical English newspapercomic. Instead, Luzzati has illustrated the patient’s descent into disconcerting behaviour as told from the perspective of the family and the doctor. Translating this post will present a challenge; we must ensure that we use the right medical terminology, accurately convey the character’s persona, and demonstrate awareness of the relationship between image and text. To put this into practice our group leader set us the task of translating three panels each for the next time we met.

    In our second meeting we discussed the challenges the text poses for the translator, such as questions of register when Luzzati switches between informal language and jargon as the setting shifts from the warm orange pages of the family home to the clinical sterilised blue pages of the hospital. Other challenges discussed included shared apprehension about translating short colloquial phrases, the extent to which we should venture further than we would instinctively prefer from a direct translation, and a colourful discussion about translating vulgar language. Perhaps one of the more unexpected features, or rather lack thereof, was the omission of any footnotes explaining the technical language. One may assume that Luzatti is enticing the reader to further engage with news and research on coronavirus with the bande dessinée acting as a vehicle to bring the latest research to a wider readership. Over the coming week the team has been tasked with inserting our translations into the speech bubbles so as to evaluate how well the words fit into the available space; comic strips are, after all, a visual medium.

    It is a pleasure to translate Luzzati’s work as she herself translates the complex and sensitive sphere of coronavirus to the masses through bande dessinée. Luzzati's depiction of life during lockdown has encouraged me and my group to reflect on how the pandemic continues to impact how we work and communicate with one another: Covid-19 continues to pose challenges but our collaborative and virtual experience has so far been overwhelmingly positive.

    Week 1: Preparing to lead and to collaborate, by Ami Ganatra

    Ami Ganatra is a group leader on the Avventura project and a Modern Languages undergraduate at the University of Oxford. Like other group leaders, Ami will be responsible for coordinating a team of six over the coming weeks who have been assigned one of ten of the comic strip blog entries. In this first week Ami and other group leaders are preparing for the task ahead by reading the blog, thinking of any issues that might be encountered in translation, and coordinating the first group meeting.

    If you decide to study Modern Languages at university, you can quickly bid au revoir to thinking unilingually. As a second-year student of French, I have found that oscillating between English and French for literature tutorials has helped to slowly rewire my brain, such that translation is always at the forefront. Outside of formal studies, I find myself doing increasingly nerdy things like trying to translate songs on the radio in real time, or starting a “Mot du jour” social-media group chat. More seriously, my professional goals have become increasingly oriented towards translation and interpretation. It was therefore unsurprising that I was keen to get involved in Queens College Translation Exchange’s latest summer project: translating Fiamma Luzzati’s L’Avventura comic-strip into English. I am so excited about helping to make Luzzati’s informing and amusing insights more accessible, while also developing an understanding of collaborative translation in a professional publishing context. I look forward to meeting my team in the next couple of days, and to discussing how we can negotiate the stylistic and thematic challenges that the blog presents.

    Luzzati’s recent blog posts analyse, and sometimes satirise, the COVID-19 pandemic. By tracing the plight of an individual or small group, Luzzati examines various social, psychological and scientific repercussions of the coronavirus, exploring, among other things, how the virus might affect the body neuro-psychiatrically, the potential benefits of lockdown, children’s responses to the crisis, or the effects on married life. Luzzati’s sincere and engaging style and creative experimentation with image-text relationships mean that L’Avventura is an incredibly accessible, interesting, and often emotionally challenging read.

    My team has been tasked with translating the blog post entitled: ‘Covid-19: mourir seul, rester seul – le deuil impossible’ (‘Covid-19: dying alone, continuing alone – impossible mourning’). The post immediately poses the troubling and quasi-taboo subject of death and mourning, which Luzzati has sensitively broached through the lens of a psychologist and her various patients. The blog underscores the tension between government guidelines meant to protect and the emotional reality of losing a loved one. As a team we will have to ensure that we translate these themes with delicacy and precision, which will require an understanding of religious ceremonies and official government regulation. At the same time, we must strive to remain faithful to the stylistic nuances of the piece: the informal register, technical pandemic vocabulary, and the relationship between text and image.

    This project will widen the reach of Luzzati’s comic strips. As it stands, the blog usefully combines visual and textual elements such that it can support readerships of different ages, sociological backgrounds and levels of literary interest. I am keen to see what the team thinks about animating the comic strip with recorded speech and purpose-composed background music; this might allow L’Avventura to become a more three-dimensional medium accessible to a much wider audience. The Translation Exchange has the benefit of having a diverse participant base of sixth-formers, university students, professional translators, and teachers, which will no doubt be a rich source of many more creative ideas. 

    It is so important in this strange new world that we focus on what we can rather than cannot do: comic-strip blogs like L’Avventura may not be directly “saving lives” but can provide reliable information, support, guidance, and also entertainment when it is most needed. The translations we are about to start work on will be published in September, from which point I hope that Luzzati’s blog can be reaching out to many more hearts and minds.

  • Impostures by al-Hariri, translated by Michael Cooperson, reviewed by Jean Franco

    A twelfth-century ‘poetry slam’ in elaborate, vibrant and inwardly complex classical Arabic replete with slightly niche historical allusions. Should we consider this an accurate description of al-Hariri of Basra’s maqamat, it would be no surprise to find out about its history as a notoriously difficult text to translate. Al-Hariri’s maqamat, compiled in the twelfth century, brought the maqama genre to new heights in terms of popularity – attracting praise and criticism, as well as allegations of plagiarism, along the way. The very first collection of maqamat is attributed to ninth century wordsmith Badi’ al-Zaman al-Hamadani, but it was al-Hariri’s own work, plagiarised or not, that would confirm its place in the history of classical Arabic literature. Cooperson tells us throughout his introduction of all the times he was discouraged from continuing with his work: ‘the maqamat cannot be translated’, he was told point-blank by critic Abdessalam Benabdelali. Cooperson has attempted the impossible, walking in the footsteps of several orientalists from across the European tradition, and his translation really does stand in a league of its own.

    The maqama genre, a type of short story in rhymed prose and verse, is one that doesn’t lend itself to translation: it is an exhibition of skill and pure rhetorical extravagance specific to the Arabic language. As a result, it is almost impossible to replicate the internal rhyme, poem-length palindromes, and lipograms in translation. A standard maqama follows a particular scheme: it begins with an introduction, complete with a sort of chain of narration, followed by the main scene  itself, in which the protagonist tricks the audience with a disguise and impressive linguistic skills, and ending with the unmasking and departure of the trickster. Al Hariri’s maqamat follow this format with the rogue conman Abu Zayd al-Saruji and the travelling detective-narrator al-Harith Ibn Hammam, with each episode taking place in a different city. 

    As Cooperson himself says, the only way forward with a project such as the maqamat was to ‘throw out the rulebook’, and this is where his refreshing idea – to reinstate language and translation ‘as play’ – comes alive. Cooperson tells us, ‘If the result does not quite seem to deserve the name of translation, I will happily accept two other names. One is new: transculturation. The other is old: Englishing.’ This admission is part of throwing out that rule book, and is what makes Impostures so unique. No longer should translations be dull literal translations, bereft of any style, nor should they read, especially in the field of classical Arabic translations, like a book of the Old Testament. 

    In his Impostures, Cooperson does not stop at even the most daunting hurdles: instead of leaving any maqama based on lipograms, or constrained writing, untranslated, or even worse, translating them literally, Cooperson takes matters into his own hands and sets himself a challenge comparable to those confronted by Abu Zayd (the original Arabic task is to use only dotted/undotted letters), such as his translation of episode six where he uses only English words of Germanic and Romance origin in alternation. Examples of Cooperson’s creativity and flair are endless, with a different dialect, technique or imitation used for each of the fifty maqamat.  This bold choice manages to show the elaborate nature of classical Arabic storytelling, but also of the English language. From Singlish to London slang, al-Hariri’s wandering bard Abu Zayd and his companion al-Harith ibn Hammam are made living proofs of the diversity of English’s linguistic landscape, incorporating historical and cultural nuance through the translator’s careful but innovative approach.

    Previous translators have pulled al-Hariri’s maqamat in innumerable different directions: one nineteenth-century scholar wanted a text with which to teach the new class of Orientalists, something like the grammatical poetry of Ibn Malik or the Ajrummiyah of Ibn Ajurrum; whereas a priest was set on discovering moral truths or answers to the ‘mysteries in the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament’. Cooperson’s lack of constraints means that his Impostures are truly his own, just as al-Hariri’s original text was. They don’t belong to the will of the religious or academic establishment, but they are a clear expression of the playful possibilities of translation.  In a way, Cooperson replicates the essence of the maqamat - the same way al-Hariri was supposed to have ‘taken’ his predecessor al-Hamadhani’s own maqamat, Cooperson carves out his own place in the history of the maqama genre. As Abdelfattah Killito suggests in his foreword to Impostures, ‘the imitator had eclipsed the originator: al-Hariri’s maqamat proved, if proof were needed, that a copy could surpass the original.’  In Impostures, Cooperson makes us aware of his skill in a way that can only be described as Abu Zayd-esque; after all, isn’t that the very heart of the maqama

    Impostures by al-Hariri, translated by Michael Cooperson was published in May 2020 by the Library of Arabic Literature.

  • 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 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:

  • Shadows of Troy by Jack Franco

    Bringing Classics into the Light: Drama Outreach in Action 

    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

    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.

  • Babel: Adventures in Translation by Rebecca Smithson

    'Translation can have many pathways….'

    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

    Translating Life of Galileo

    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!

  • International Book Club: Jokha Alharthi's Celestial Bodies by Ffion Kellegher

    International Book Club: Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies

    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.

  • Weston Exhibition 2019 by Ffion Kellegher

    Talking Maps

    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

    In Conversation with Didier Decoin

    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.