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Translating Wajdi Mouawad: A Q&A with Linda Gaboriau
The translator can be the servant of the author or the servant of the reader. But what happens when the author is a playwright and the reader is an audience? Second-year students in French at The Queen’s College have been participating in a theatre project organised by Dr Macs Smith (Career Development Fellow in French), in which we translate excerpts from a play, perform scenes, and work on exercises such as improvisation. We have been focusing on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Victoires, written in 2015 with students at Le Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique in Paris.
On 2nd February 2022, we had an hour-long Q&A with Linda Gaboriau, Mouawad’s English-language translator and one of the foremost translators of Québécois theatre. Linda spoke about her distinguished career in literary translation and we learned about how professional translators approach texts, particularly dramatic texts.
Several of us had also read Mouawad’s play Incendies, and we were curious to hear about Linda’s choice to translate the title as Scorched because some of us would have translated it more literally as Fires. She reflected on how her background had influenced this decision, as she associated ‘Blazes’ with American cartoons and ‘Fires’ was tricky to pronounce with her Boston accent. She ultimately chose Scorched to foreground the image of war-torn villages pervading the play, which would not have been captured as powerfully with ‘Fires’. Linda commented that titles are the hardest to translate, observing that sometimes they would come to her at the beginning of the process and sometimes at the very end.
To further demonstrate what she called the ‘convoluted alchemy’ of finding a title, Linda explained her choice to translate the title of Michel Marc Bouchard’s play Embrasse as Kisses Deep. The literal translation ‘Kiss’ sounded like the rock band, but she pursued the association with music and ultimately borrowed her title from Leonard Cohen’s song ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’. This discussion revealed not only the complexities in translating titles, but also how translators might bring their own experiences from outside the text to bear on their translations.
An integral aspect of Linda’s work is her deep knowledge and love of theatre, acquired through her career as a theatre critic before she became a translator. She emphasised the importance of seeing live productions of the original plays, which allowed her to experience first-hand how actors transmit and channel the text. Although productions can give a sense of the playwright’s style, this is channelled through the director. However, Mouawad often directs the first production of his plays, which gave Linda insights into both his writing style and his theatre style. Getting a sense of what is required of actors to project to the audience, to send the text out onstage, is essential. For instance, seeing actors grapple with words highlights the need to avoid tongue-twisters. Linda discussed the significance of the corporal alongside the verbal, namely what she calls ‘body language punctuation’, which is how actors run things through their bodies.
An issue we encountered when translating Victoires was the difference in tone from scene to scene. Linda explained that this disjointedness arises from a collective process because Mouawad works very closely with actors and honours their input. They rehearse for much longer than what is standard in the industry, during which time the actors participate in the development of the script and ask questions from their characters’ point of view, allowing them to develop a greater sense of who their characters are.
This question of identity is particularly pertinent given Mouawad’s multilingual background as a Lebanese-Québécois playwright based in Paris, creating an ‘international’ French culture, as Linda put it. She suggested seeing translation as a way of digging deep into a culture but this is complicated by the plurality of cultures in Mouawad’s work. Whilst his Québécois renders emotions more rooted and volatile, his rhetorical speeches and lyrical imagery are not familiar to those accustomed to naturalistic American theatre. Linda highlighted how her translations were informed by conversations with Mouawad because she learned, for example, that he is deeply influenced by Greek theatre as is evident in his use of chorus and presentational moments. The medium itself therefore becomes part of the message.
Linda reflected that her career as a translator gives her a privileged window into the mind of a ‘witness of our time’, as she characterises Mouawad. In a similar vein, we had the incredible opportunity to peer into Linda’s mind, and the insights we gleaned are invaluable to our understanding of Mouawad and translation more broadly.
Hayley Chow is a second-year undergraduate reading English and French at The Queen’s College, Oxford.
An interview with the Stephen Spender Trust Prize winners 2021
The Stephen Spender Trust Prize for Poetry in Translation runs every year, inviting participants to translate any poem in any language into English. We interviewed the 2021 winners of several of the categories: Harry Man (Open/Adult), Doa Acikgun (18-and-under) and Iona Mandal (16-and-under).
Harry Man, Open Category winner
What made you choose The Green Tent (by Endre Ruset) to translate?
On the 22nd July 2011 in Norway there was both a bombing in central Oslo and the attack on Utøya Island where teenagers and adults were killed, and frequently it’s the tragedy of the bombing in Oslo that is omitted, particularly in literary and cinematic and other cultural representations of those events. This poem, I feel, touches respectfully and sensitively on the impact of both.
Endre Ruset invited me to work on a sequence of elegies in memory of those who had died in both attacks, and for me it was an incalculably large challenge as well as a profound honour. Endre’s imagination, sensitivity and intelligence, and his use of language as a material in an almost painterly style on the page, I knew would mean that he could handle what was such an emotionally and psychologically charged subject. I thought of Picasso’s Guernica and his idea that he didn’t want to paint reality as it is, but paint reality as he saw it. The 22nd July was something that had proved almost unspeakably difficult to address directly – and I knew that Endre could do it with empathy and integrity (even if no-one would be the least bit interested in publishing what we’d created). With this poem in particular, I’d seen Endre read the poem at Deichman bibliotek, Oslo’s iconic public library, in conversation with Kamzy Gunaratnam, herself a survivor of the attack on Utøya who, as shots rang out across the water, against all the odds, swam to safety. The poem itself was so piercing and so powerful – the way it reads and sounds in Norwegian with its incantatory repetition and the transformation that took place at that terrible threshold when everybody’s lives changed. It also shows, for me, how close to the subject Endre Ruset is and how present and how raw it is not just for him, but also how present and raw it is for Norway. Kamzy Gunaratnam is now Deputy Mayor of Oslo and that’s also another really inspiring story.
How did your interest in languages begin?
Being dyslexic, spending time with language wasn’t just a past-time, it was a survival skill. So my interest in languages other than English grew out of the same necessary fascination, which became both a passion borne out of persistence and a joy. For this sequence, I’d read Endre Ruset’s poems for the first time in 2014. We’d also been working together on and off as part of SJ Fowler’s Enemies Project and The Nordic Poetry Festival. I’d also translated some of his poems from his book on the veteran Japanese ski-jumping champion Noriaki Kasai, more for fun than for any particular final purpose. Endre and I had also been in touch since reading together at Struga Poetry Evenings in North Macedonia eight years ago and I was impressed by his poems. He shared a sequence that played with the geometry within a description where present tense spaces became occupied by both fiction and memory, similar to autofiction or Eliot’s ‘towards the door we never opened / into the rose-garden’ in The Four Quartets, but with language that was selectively chosen. And where Eliot was throat-clearing to make a philosophical point, here Ruset’s language was spare and direct. The garden was both a memory, a story and an unvisitable place – all three contained within a philosophical or creative conceit. I hadn’t really read anything that talked about grief in this way and that to me was something special.
What was the greatest challenge of translating your chosen poem?
With this poem, Endre Ruset’s voice in the language, combined with the unique shape of the poem, offered an avenue to explore beyond the reaches of perhaps the more varnished traditional English elegy. The events were chaotic and unsettling and prompted national and individual self-examination and here was a poem in a form and language that responded to that. This poem in particular focussed on the human cost; the blot of the campfire in the same place, the microphone becoming, like the subject, a political football (the target of the attack having been the Labour Party) and the roses that also conjure the image of the sea of roses that were left outside the Oslo courthouse during the trial of the perpetrator, both in mourning and in solidarity with survivors and the bereaved. It’s hard to carry across a lot of these resonances which are more identifiable and immediate in Norwegian culture than they are here in the UK. Across the sequence the poems are all in the shape of faces, so translating also had the added dimension of trying to work to a geographical position of language within a poem, where the lexis in Norwegian and English syntax had to be navigated carefully. For example in Norwegian ‘pusten’ means both ‘breath’ and ‘the breath’. So the campfire holds in a breath – the air around it, but also the breath more generally of that time and there is this sense of susurration, the sibilant ‘s’ of ‘pusten’, of inward breath and a pause with a full stop. The same idea of freezing time at that moment in the poem, of feelings that cannot be released ever since it happened is extremely hard to convey in English without changing the number of words in the line and so drifting from Endre’s style in the English emulation. So in the end there were times where I had to work more fluidly and allow myself certain freedoms in order to get closer to the sense of the language. We were (and still are thankfully!) in regular contact.
How did you balance crafting a beautiful poem with the emotional responsibility of translating a poem so integral to the grief of so many people?
From fairly early on, the subject has been covered so much in Norway in books and in plays and documentaries and feature films and on television including via a recent television serial by NRK, so it meant that another poem or poetry collection talking about 22nd July was going to be received as part of a broader cultural conversation and, although it didn’t feel like it from this side of the collaboration at the time, there wasn’t as much pressure as there could have been for both of us to carry that responsibility. From my perspective, I certainly hoped beyond the reasonable expectation of failure.
You mentioned working with the poet Endre Ruset – how did you find this process, and what do you think you and your final translation gained from it?
All I could do was listen. I listened to Norwegians who had been so very deeply affected by what had happened, and listened to Endre Ruset talk about his feelings and experiences, and both of us went together to the 22nd July memorial centre in Oslo, seeing some of the damage to the buildings first hand and what had been conserved like the vast glass case that contains shattered mobile phones and digital cameras retrieved from the island. I also read about the subject nearly every day, I read the transcripts from the trial, I read articles written by survivors, read and listened to their interviews and feedback on the work in progress. I also read quite a lot of academic research surrounding survivors and PTSD and what for some of them was their reality. The difficulties in holding down a job, drug self-medication and the disease of addiction featured, and, as the perpetrator had been dressed as a police officer, being frightened of the police, as well as problems in keeping a relationship going and the way that your own mind continues to brutalise you long afterwards; the nightmares that recycle the shock of what has happened – and not necessarily with the accompanying memory – when you might be doing something quite regular in the daytime like filling up the paper tray of a printer, or stepping out of the shower, or putting cereal in a cereal bowl, these very regular daytime activities. So it’s not just a question of surviving the attack on the day, for many it’s a question of surviving these attacks continually, over and over again and in myriad ways for the rest of their adult lives and having to find ways to acknowledge and manage that. That second survival, which is still ongoing, to my mind is another kind of heroism and trying to make sure that you’re as respectful of that as you can be is a duty that accompanies this book and this translation.
What advice would you give to anyone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize this year?
I would definitely dive in and read as many of other people’s translations as you can of poems written in the language you’d like to translate from. I’d recommend subscribing to Modern Poetry in Translation and joining The Poetry Library if you haven’t already. Both are national treasures. I didn’t really have an end or a goal in mind and certainly if I went by the number of rejections (or free wonky origami materials) I’d received, either for individual poems or for the translations, I would have given up long ago. This was strongly a for-love project. So my final piece of advice would be to enjoy the process and whether it’s a cup of tea, or a walk around the block, or opening a window to watch the city, or feeding the birds, reward yourself.
What made you choose 'Last Will' to translate?
My mum had shown me Nâzım Hikmet’s ‘Vasiyet’ (Last Will) a few years before I set out to translate it after I had asked her for her favourite Turkish poems. The poem resonated with me, and I admired Hikmet’s skill at balancing his love for his homeland with the sorrow of witnessing the injustices against his compatriots. Additionally, having lived outside of Turkey for most of my life I felt that translating this poem allowed me to connect with the country of my birth through one of the greatest poets of the Turkish language.
How did your interest in languages begin?
I was raised bilingual and moved to many different countries growing up, experiencing various cultures and languages along the way. I was always aware of the existence of different languages in these countries, but it wasn’t until I moved to Scotland and began French lessons that I felt a desire to actively learn languages. As I continued learning French, while also picking up Spanish, my interests turned fully towards languages once I was introduced to the poetry and literature associated with them and began looking at the more nuanced aspects of these languages, which led to a more detailed examination of the act of translation.
What was the greatest challenge of translating your chosen poem?
Although Turkish is my native language, I feel that my English is stronger and I can express myself better using it. Therefore, my first challenge was making sure I fully understood every line of the poem, paying special attention to word order. Conversely, there were some parts that made perfect sense to me in the original Turkish, but which were a challenge to translate accurately, such as verbs that were in the reported past tense, which are common in Turkish but can sometimes be difficult to translate succinctly into English.
The poem’s narrator, or subject, speaks at length about his wishes for death. The poet himself, Nâzım Hikmet, died not much later. How did you find translating an event that inspires fear in so many, especially given the similarities between the poet and subject?
The subject is painfully aware that he will die far away from his homeland, and thus, beyond this desire to die, there is a desire to die well and on his own terms, buried in the countryside of his land with a simple sycamore tree above his body. While translating this poem I was very aware of the fact that Nâzım Hikmet was denied this wish. He died in Moscow and his remains are still there. Thus, despite the dark subject matter, I felt that the best way to honour Nâzım Hikmet’s memory was to provide a translation that would do his poem justice and expose a new audience to his poetry.
What advice would you give to anyone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize this year?
I would advise them to pick a poem that resonates with them and which they really want to explore fully through the process of translation. Most importantly, I would say that anyone considering entering should go for it and enjoy the process! Translating a poem can feel very challenging but it can also be fun and can help you experiment with your own style of translation. It is also a great way to discover and explore different poems that you may not have encountered before and can be a great introduction to poetry in general.
Iona Mandal, 18-and-under Spotlight (commended), 16-and-under winner
How did your interest in languages begin?
If I’m honest, even before my interest in languages began to develop, I had an innate love for words in general. Despite being an incredibly shy and reclusive child, having moved to the UK from India at the age of two, I picked up English quickly and began writing poems early on. My mum introduced me to reading and writing Bangla (Bengali), my mother tongue. She brought me my first book of Bangla alphabets from London’s Brick Lane (Bangla Town). Besides this, as a family, we always spoke Bangla at home. Every time we visited family in India, I was gifted Bangla books to help me connect with my language and culture. I love my mother tongue and now write short stories for children in Bangla. Two of these have been recently published in reputed online magazines from Kolkata, India.
I attended a Jewish primary school in Birmingham when I moved from London. One of the delights I found there was discovering Ivrit (modern Hebrew) which I studied for two years. In secondary school, when Latin lessons began, I found that I had a knack for remembering vocabulary, spellings, and verbs. In the lockdown of 2020, I attended online Russian lessons, offered by my school. My interest in languages has only grown over time, and now, I study French and Spanish, which happen to be two of my favourite subjects in school.
My interest in languages has now extended into translation and I enjoy challenging myself to use my language skills to see which word best fits the language and mood of the original poem. When I chanced upon the Stephen Spender Prize and was commended for my Bangla poem in 2019, I was encouraged to try with more enthusiasm. Each year, I read Bangla poems and shortlisted a few favourites to translate for the Prize and in doing so kept the flame of my love for Bangla poetry alive. Right now, I am working on a translation project with a well-known Kolkata-based poet who has been translating my English poems into Bangla while I have been translating hers into English. Someday, we hope to publish a book and release it as part of the Kolkata Book Fair. I do not think this would have been possible had the Stephen Spender Prize not provided me with a starting point and the confidence to explore new languages and cultures. I am glad I am gradually extending my translating abilities into Urdu.
Three of your translations were selected as either commended (‘Demolition’ and ‘The Birds’ Eyes Open’) or winners in their category (‘Kolkata’s Jesus’). How did you pick each poem?
Until recently, my knowledge of Urdu was mostly restricted to Bollywood films from the subcontinent, as Urdu words are used in the dialogue along with Hindi. So when the opportunity for translating in Urdu came up with the Stephen Spender Prize, and especially because I am not a native Urdu speaker, I wanted to give it a try. However, I wanted to attempt the translation task by choosing a poem which was simple yet poignant. Although I do look for these qualities in any good poem, translating a short Urdu poem with a relatively lucid language and meaning seemed a wise choice in terms of feasibility for a first modest attempt.
I started by reading all the Urdu poems (using the online Urdu dictionary for help) on offer for this year on the Stephen Spender site, and both Inhidam (‘Demolition’) and Parinde ki ankh khul jati hain (‘The Birds’ Eyes Open’), in my opinion, seemed like poems which captured these sentiments perfectly. Moreover, both poems stayed in my mind for days after having read them. An emotional response to a poem can often be indicative of the fact that the poem speaks to you, and I think this is important to consider, especially when translating in a less familiar language. I was also tempted to delve into the works of female Urdu poets and the powerful work of Nahid Rana and Sara Shagufta could not be overlooked. Thanks to Rekhta, a fabulous repository on Urdu poetry (which was recommended), selecting my poems became a less arduous task, as often finding the right poem (or poems, in this case) can be the first big hurdle for one completely unfamiliar with the language. I would surely recommend Rekhta for beginners wishing the explore the beauty of Urdu.
Did you have a favourite poem to translate? Why?
The power of translation is immense. It is an incredible feeling to know that you are giving a long-dead poet’s work a new lease of life and enabling those who do not speak the language to experience the brilliance of the poet. Nirendranath Chakraborty’s poem ‘Kolkata r Jishu’, has always been a personal favourite. I consider the poem as one of Niren babu’s finest creations and it has a special place in my heart for its simplicity in language, visual imagery, and universality transcending time and place. In my humble attempt translating from Bangla, I tried my best to use the artistic licence of creative translation to help me retain both the beauty of its words and essence in fluidity. In the Urdu category, Parinde ki ankh khul jati hain (‘The Birds’ Eyes Open’) by Sara Shagufta was a favourite as a fine, poignant composition with lyrical quality and meaning that shone all throughout the poem and made me sigh at its embedded melancholic strain.
Your translations have the source languages of Urdu and Bengali. Were there any interesting differences you found when translating from each? Was one more difficult?
This may be a mixture between the nature of each poem and the character of each language, but I felt that both Urdu poems were much more lyrical in style (particularly, ‘Parinde ki ankh khul jati hain’) as compared to the Bangla poem which was more narrative and story-like in quality, weaving a real moment in life as seen through the eyes of the poet. In terms of structure, planning for the translation of the Bangla poem seemed less challenging, keeping in mind the original elements of the poem which I considered important to retain, such as how the translation would look on the page, the images or symbols used, and even the mood of the poet in the original poem.
Apart from the obvious language barrier as a non-Urdu speaker, the Urdu poems seemed more challenging especially since I was aiming to encapsulate the expressive sentiments hidden in them. I decided it was best to translate them literally to begin with. With Urdu being such a rich language, even a literal translation made it sound good in terms of flow, while leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. However, the rich treasure trove of Rekhta helped me immensely in enriching my Urdu vocabulary and understanding the subtle nuances of the language and I must admit, as I progressed, I enjoyed the journey of exploring Urdu even more. In retrospect, I was more creative in my approach with the Bangla poem, supposedly because as a native speaker, I was less rigid in translating the more abstract bits. It will be interesting to see how far I can pursue my love for learning Urdu and how it can help me develop further my current language skills.
What was the greatest challenge of translating your chosen poems?
There is often this inexplicable feeling of a poem not being quite right, despite one having spent a great amount of time and effort in translating it. Something often overlooked in translation is the individual or unique nature of the poem, including the difficulties of capturing poetic voice and mood. This in my opinion is much more challenging and difficult to tackle than the otherwise common obstacles pertaining to certain words getting lost in translation. In situations like this, I tried best to consider how the poet must have felt in the moment of writing the poem. This certainly held true for me while translating Nirendranath Chakraborty’s ‘Kolkata’r Jishu’. Hailing originally from Kolkata and experiencing the city’s rhythm and lifestyle on annual visits helped me imagine the setting and context of the poem and thereby overcome the challenge faced in translation. I also felt it was important to delve into the tragic life of Sara Shagufta to understand the underlying pathos which made her poem such a melancholic piece of work.
Additionally, each language poses its own translation challenges. Unlike Bangla (or many other languages), the Urdu script is written from right to left. Therefore, it is not just about reading the content, but also understanding the different ramifications of the script, for example, its impact on the length of the sentences. Multiple interpretations for the same word often pose challenges in translation, and this was particularly tested in the Urdu poem ‘Parinde ki ankh khul jati hain’, where I had to exercise my discretion in going for the word whose meaning best suited the context in translation. Translating onomatopoeic words can be difficult. This was the case with the word faḌfaḌātī from the Urdu poem ‘Parinde ki ankh khul jati hain’. I decided to use the word ‘flutter’, as it matched phonetically when I read it aloud, while keeping the meaning intact.
What advice would you give to anyone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize this year?
The piece of advice I would give to someone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize in the coming years is to give it a sincere try as there is always room for surprises! Entering the competition does not just help with connecting with languages outside the traditional approach of being taught them as part of the school curriculum and honing language skills, but it also helps with exploring the larger role that translation plays in terms of appreciating culture, history and communication from a more creative and flexible perspective. The Stephen Spender Prize is a wonderful platform to share poetry on the global stage and for translators to take pride in our shared heritage, as well as being given the opportunity of seeing how a poem blossoms from an idea which could perhaps otherwise remain nascent.
A common fear with translation is simply the act of it. I would suggest keeping your pen on the page, instead of overthinking whether certain words work or not. Editing can always be done later. The beauty of translation lies in the freedom of interpreting and expressing the poet’s words in whichever way you feel fits best. I think it is important to realise this. One needs to be honest in retaining the spirit of what the poet wishes to convey in your attempt towards translation. The soul of the poem is important and failing to consider this can make the words in translation sound too forced or overdone.
Choose a poem you can believe in and connect with for what it conveys. I enjoy reading good poetry and as a poet I have acquired over time a taste for good poetry which helps in shortlisting from a selection of what I wish to translate. I tend to look for poems which are simple in content and yet universal in appeal. In the past years, coincidentally, my poems were all free verse, posing fewer complexities in translations as regards rhyme, metre, etc. I think it is also important to consider how the poem sounds when read aloud, especially since poetry is often written for the purpose of being shared.
As with any competition, there is a chance that your poem will not win. I sent my entry in Bengali for the 2020 competition and was unsuccessful. If this does happen, I think it is important to value the experience and journey of translation, irrespective of the outcome. I did this and emerged a winner in 2021.
You can read the final translations and the translators' commentaries on the winning entries here.
Defying Hitler – The White Rose Pamphlets: A discussion with Dr Alex Lloyd and Ro Crawford
The team at the Queen's College Translation Exchange caught up with Dr Alex Lloyd, Fellow in German at St Edmund Hall, who runs the White Rose Project. The White Rose Project is a research and engagement initiative which explores the story of the anti-Nazi resistance circle 'The White Rose' / 'Die Weiße Rose'. Their latest publication, 'Defying Hitler – The White Rose Pamphlets', is set to be published on Friday 18 February.
What made you start the White Rose Project at Oxford?
It started out as a translation project. I had been invited to give a talk in Oxford to mark the 75th anniversary of the first White Rose trials and executions, and it struck me that translating the pamphlets collaboratively with students could be an exciting and profitable exercise. So in October 2018 the Project was launched at the Taylor Institution Library. Almost immediately the project began to expand organically to include a whole host of other activities.
How has the White Rose Project progressed over the past few years?
What began as a translation project has blossomed into an initiative that encompasses research, outreach to schools, and public engagement with partners beyond the University of Oxford and outside the UK. In a sense, though, everything we do is a kind of translation: translating and adapting the history and the texts into new forms. We’ve received generous support from The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) as part of their Humanities Cultural Programme Project Fund and Knowledge Exchange Fellowship scheme, and The Public Engagement with Research Seed Fund. We’re honoured to work with the White Rose Foundation in Munich and with the award-winning vocal ensemble SANSARA. Every year we’ve also run a translation project with students from across the university. This kind of collaborative work is essential and forms the foundation on which everything else rests.
How would you describe your experience of the White Rose Project?
I thoroughly enjoy running the White Rose Project. The resistance circle is not always well known in the UK, and it is such an important story to tell. Experimenting with new ways of bringing it to life, and doing so in a way that is grounded in research and work with today’s students, is a tremendously rewarding experience.
You’re releasing a book all about the White Rose Project in mid-February: can you tell us a bit more?
I’m very excited that 'Defying Hitler – The White Rose Pamphlets' (Bodleian Library Publishing, 2022), is about to come into the world. The book outlines the story of the White Rose and their resistance writings. There are also brief biographical sketches, suggestions for further reading in English, and historical photographs. Importantly, the book includes translations of the White Rose resistance pamphlets and excerpts from their letters, all translated by student members of the White Rose Project. I hope the student translators will find it a fitting frame for their excellent work.
We also spoke to Ro Crawford, a member of the Graduate Committee of the White Rose Project, for their perspective on the upcoming publication:
"I first became involved with the White Rose Project as a second-year undergraduate when I responded to a call for translators in autumn 2018. This was the first year the project ran, and we were translating the White Rose’s pamphlets from German into English. Because we prepared our translations of the pamphlets in small groups or pairs and then discussed them in seminars with the other translators, the whole experience was grounded in collaboration, which I loved. In our seminars we might spend an hour debating the translation of one word or phrase, and while this was at times frustrating, it was also a fascinating insight into the way people use language individually and often have very unique associations with specific words or phrases.
Now that I’m a postgraduate I’m a member of the Graduate Committee and helped design the activities of the project this year. We decided to ask for creative rather than literal translation, meaning that the new undergraduate participants didn’t have to know German. This is hopefully a step towards opening up the White Rose project – and translation projects more generally – to people beyond the languages faculty."
Unravelling Languages: exploring issues in equivalence
One of the many things I learned in my first year studying French and Philosophy at university is that I cannot speak French. Fluency has always felt distant, but I was expecting to emerge from my studies with some proficiency; instead, at present, I can barely string together a sentence more complex than je mange une pomme without the acute fear that I am misunderstanding each word, important grammar point, choice of syntax, and the appropriate étoffement.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that it is even harder than usual to be a good student during the coronavirus. The second is the simple realisation—which I am sure every language student has at some point—that language was even more complex than I made it out to be. The coagulation of use and sound into meaning, the way that grammar determines what kind of meaning can exist at all, and the cultural influences that more subtly distinguish a language: these are all ideas that I have only just begun to understand. Please take them with several grains of salt.
The Quest for Equivalence
In elementary school, I often relied on a Collins Mandarin-English dictionary to complete my assignments. If the enigmatic Collins told me that ‘有意思’ meant ‘interesting’, then I wholeheartedly believed him. In middle school, now learning French, I switched to the likes of WordReference, Linguee, and DeepL. By this point I knew that translation had nuance, and different words had different equivalents in different contexts. But despite this pervading sense of difference, the core of what I considered to be translation remained equivalence: the idea that it was possible for a text to ever ‘mean’ the same thing in one language as it did in another.
‘Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache’, writes Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, an inevitably imperfect translation of which would be ‘The meaning of a word is its use in the language’. I am sure that this maxim has its flaws, but I found it convincing—meaning undeniably depends on context, and language is nothing if not sounds in context. I did not fully appreciate, however, how impossible this makes it to actually learn one.
To exemplify: in English I must be ‘on the bus’, which would be sur le bus if directly translated; in French I must be dans le bus, or ‘in the bus’. Sur le bus in French implies that I am on the roof of the bus, while ‘in the bus’ in English places a strange emphasis on my exact location. One would say that the equivalent of ‘on the bus’ is dans le bus, and yet ‘on’ and dans are not equivalents in any other context. Even for the most basic of words—those words where we are told simply, dans means ‘in’, and sur means ‘on’—the tiniest shift in use entails that they cannot mean the same thing.
Often this difference in meaning is more obvious. Rêvasser in French translates to ‘daydream’ in English, but the use of rêvasser tends to be more judgemental. On the other hand, ‘狡黠’ in Mandarin translates to ‘crafty’ or ‘sly’, but its use does not lean as negative as either. And then there are those words with wholly unique uses that just do not exist in some other languages: the gustatory word ‘鲜’ is often translated in English as ‘fresh’, but this does not do justice to the distinct deliciousness that is 鲜, the taste of anything from a fish to a mushroom that is at once fresh, seasonal, and prepared in so delicate a way as to vividly bring out its natural flavour.
A sentence is a cluster of sounds, each with its own monstrous spiderweb of connotations, etymologies, and extremely specific uses developed arbitrarily throughout human history. To be fluent is to internalise every single branch of a hundred thousand spiderwebs, and to translate—if translation is thought of as equivalence—is to search for two sets that are perfectly identical.
Rocks, Stones, and Other Sounds
Stepping away from meaning as use, translation in particular becomes even more impossible when we turn to sound. For every word which seems to have interlinked sound and meaning, there are at least twice as many that do not, as Plato argues in Cratylus. And yet it is indisputable that sound matters.
Imagine a rock. Now imagine a stone. For many people, the mental image of a rock is rough and craggy, while the mental image of a stone is smooth and round. A better-researched example of this phenomenon is the bouba/kiki effect, in which people are shown a round object and a sharp object (below) and asked to decide which is ‘bouba’ and which is ‘kiki’. Numerous experiments, including Köhler (1947), Davis (1961), and Ramchandran & Hubbard (2001), amongst others, revealed a consistent majority labelling the round object ‘bouba’ and the sharp object ‘kiki’. There is a reason that we analyse sound in literature, after all.
Kiki (undeniably left) and Bouba (undeniably right)
Of course, the issue here is that no two languages sound alike. A sentence in one language never sounds the same in another, rendering the search for identical spiderwebs—for sound is built into connotation—futile. ‘Live’ in English, with its one syllable and straightforward pronunciation, reminds me that life is simple and fundamental; vivre in French, with its alliteration and luxurious v and r sounds, reminds me instead of pleasure and dynamic movement; and ‘活着’ in Mandarin, with its rising tone (as Mandarin is a tonal language) and homophonic link to ‘火’, the word for fire, evokes the vigour and diligence that come with staying alive. These are only my personal feelings, but they confirm to me that any small difference in sound can make equivalence impossible.
(And this is not even considering a language’s written appearance—the sprawling poetry of E. E. Cummings and Stéphane Mallarmé comes to mind, as well as typography at large, and I will never see ‘gossip’ or ‘chatter’ the way I see ‘侃’: words gushing like water out of a mouth, made human by the radical for ‘person’ on the left.)
Grammar, the Greatest Philosopher
But a language is so much more than its vocabulary: it is grammar, tone, and whole oceans of history and culture condensed into the smallest drops of speech. The components of one word are already messy, and the components of a sentence even more so. It is this messiness, ingrained in every language in its own way, that is so challenging to replicate.
I used to think of grammar as a set of rules. To express the same meaning of ‘green shirt’ or chemise verte, English grammar dictates that the adjective comes first, while French grammar dictates that it comes after and is conjugated based on the noun. And yet just as we use rules to build sentences around predetermined meanings, so too are these meanings predetermined by what rules we are building with in the first place.
When rules come together into a system, a broader picture begins to take shape. In French, all objects have genders, tenses are distinct, and sentences are strictly regimented by synthetic gender and number agreements. In English, the lack of grammatical gender and focus on word order instead of inflection may make the system appear more plain. In Mandarin, subjects can almost always be omitted, gendered pronouns only came into use in the 20th century, and scholars are still debating whether tense even exists. With this in mind, the thought arises: surely we are not just saying things in different ways, but also different things altogether.
Do ‘饿了’ (‘hungry’ with no subject and a particle indicating the present situation), j’ai faim (‘I have hunger’), and ‘I’m hungry’ truly mean the same thing? Surely what is presented here are instead three rival theories: hunger as a sensation joined to a subject only by implication, a feeling that a person can have and then lose, or a state that defines what a person ‘is’ in a certain moment. A language’s grammar is no mere set of rules—it is an ontological treatise. And so the translator’s dilemma builds.
Incidentally, this comparison to an ontological treatise is more justified than it may seem. One common complaint when studying philosophy is that almost everything seems inextricable from the language in which it is discussed. For example, much of the Western debate over personal identity—what is a person, and what separates them from their surroundings?—presupposes a clearly distinct ‘self’ and ‘other’, whereas ancient Daoist texts such as the 道德经 (Dao De Jing or Tao Te Ching) are full of wordplay meant to illustrate the world’s fundamental ambiguity. How much does the syntax that we happen to be familiar with distort the very nature of our thoughts?
Idioms and Idiosyncrasies
Returning to language, it is also true that in a more literal sense, we are saying different things altogether. The wide-ranging tone of translated works often results from the fact that some things are just more commonly said in certain languages, or else in such different ways that they cease to mean the same thing.
Here, some of my friend’s observations about Mandarin come to mind. When expressing opinions, Mandarin conversations are more likely to lapse into ideals; people often make broad statements that ‘人应该’ (or ‘A person should’) be a certain way, which could sound a bit pretentious in English. Amusingly, references to violence also seem more common. To convey her exasperation, my mother might say to me ‘我揍死你!’, which—retaining none of the playful tone—translates to ‘I’ll beat you to death!’. In the children’s cartoon Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, the child protagonist tells his foe at one point that ‘我抽你的筋!’, or ‘I’ll pull out your tendon!’. Even translated, these just are not things I hear nearly as often in English, at least not without substantial adjustments.
Of course, this is not to say that Chinese people are actually violent, only that certain kinds of opinions, jokes, threats, and so on sound more normal in some languages than in others. When translated to a language where this prevalence differs, the natural feeling that a sentence carries in its native language is inevitably usurped by something more foreign.
Nezha pulling out the son of the Dragon King’s tendon
But even when equally normal-sounding things are being said, the ways that they are expressed can be just as hard to translate. Charmingly, alongside its violence, Mandarin also happens to be more poetic in tone. The same small talk about the weather can change from basic description in English to a stream of idioms in Mandarin, with varying levels of sophistication: ‘a sunny day’ might become ‘阳光明媚’, or ‘the sunlight is bright and beautiful’; ‘fresh air’ might become ‘风朗气清’, or ‘clear wind and pure air’; and ‘a rainstorm’ might become ‘瓢泼大雨’, or ‘heavy rain spilled from a ladle’. Many are used in similar contexts, but they are not at all the same; regular Mandarin can result in seemingly dramatic English translations precisely because of this essential difference.
Indeed, from sound, to grammar, to any cultural or linguistic features in general, English and Mandarin seem to have no shortage of essential differences. In light of this, another question emerges: how naturally should such distant languages be translated at all?
Consider the saying ‘speak of the devil’, put forth by another friend. Translating into French, quand on parle du loup is a straightforward solution; though loup means ‘wolf’, their uses are very similar, and both languages share cultural associations around wolves and devils. In Mandarin, there is also in fact a saying with a very similar use and even syntax: ‘说曹操，曹操到’. However, this ‘devil’ is instead 曹操 (Cao Cao), a famous warlord during the Three Kingdoms period. Although he may partially coincide with wolves and devils as a symbol, he is most certainly not a shared cultural icon, and something feels disingenuous about treating him as another equivalent. Ultimately, my friend concluded that it was still a reasonable translation, but the fact that it gave her pause shows how even similar tone, syntax, and use do not always overcome the complex barrier of culture.
So where does this leave us? The extent of the differences I am presenting can be challenged, but it is undeniable that language is complex, and that translation is hard. To talk about language at all is ‘as complicated a business’, writes St. Augustine in the De Magistro, originally Latin, ‘as interlocking and rubbing the fingers of one hand with the fingers of the other, where it is scarcely discernible…which fingers are itching and which are relieving the itch’.
Shall we then abandon modern language for propositional logic, where the only ‘words’ are true-false propositions, quantifiers, and the most basic connectives? Shall we refuse to tell each other ‘I love you’ because its meaning is neither analytically nor synthetically falsifiable? The tapestry of any language is an unbelievably vast and tangled mess of spiderwebs—shall we torch them to the ground?
Obviously, the answer here is no, and not just for practical reasons; there is great beauty to be found in dissecting and recreating ambiguity, however frustrating it sometimes becomes. Translation as equivalence is impossible, but as rough approximation—which I am only now fully realising it to be—it is an indispensable tool of the present day. Spiderwebs are beautiful precisely because of their complexity, impermanence, and frequent asymmetry. In a world where all communication must travel along their branches, it is important to see them in full; and it is also just quite fun, because it is only through this meandering system that we can enjoy such things as conversation, literature, and meticulous analyses of language to begin with.
Jennifer Sloyan is a second year studying Philosophy and French at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, with some proficiency in Mandarin and other East Asian languages.
Translating Medieval violence: What’s acceptable for children?
Knights and dragons are such a fixture of children’s literature that they seem to find their way into the least medieval settings imaginable. Not only is there even a Postman Pat episode on the topic but, since I started writing this, I’ve discovered that there are two. But have you ever stopped to think about how strange this is? Dragons are bloodthirsty monsters, while the business of knights is, well, violence. It might be characterised as violence in the service of their country, or to protect damsels in distress, but it’s violence nonetheless. The purpose of those swords isn’t simply to shine, but to kill – or at the very least, to threaten to kill. And yet we think of these characters as not just child-friendly, but obvious material for children’s stories. Why?
Fitting knights and their world into children’s literature isn’t a new idea, but goes back well over a hundred years, to Victorian and Edwardian children’s authors who made use of medieval texts in their search for new material for young audiences. Drawing on the past is never politically neutral, and it certainly wasn’t for these writers, who were getting involved in a contemporary passion for the Middle Ages which was so influential that many of the things we think of today as medieval are actually products of the nineteenth century. So why wasn’t this politically neutral? Countless words have been written about this, but to cut a long story short and then simplify it, there was a desire to identify the beginnings of English culture and democracy in a pre-Norman-Conquest past which was shared with other supposedly ‘Germanic’ (itself a complicated and loaded term) regions like Germany and Scandinavia. Given this background, maybe it’s not surprising that writers at the time decided that the Nibelungenlied, a thirteenth-century German epic, which also exists in various different Scandinavian versions, would make a perfect children’s book. After all, it featured not only those knights and dragons, but also other fairy-tale staples like kings, queens, princes, princesses, treasure, prophecies, and battles.
Unfortunately, the Nibelungenlied also has pretty non-child-friendly features: sex and sexual violence; betrayal and (mass) murder; the decapitation of a child; burning people alive; drinking blood from corpses; the parading of the decapitated head of one prisoner in front of another; the beheading of an unarmed man; and – to close proceedings – the brutal killing of a woman. Basically, the knights behave like the warriors they are – but it’s worth pointing out that, generally speaking, the violence itself wasn’t exactly a problem for our writers. The real issue was that much of the violence is directed (and partly carried out) by a woman, our main character, Kriemhild, as we’ll see if we take a closer look at the story.
A scan of the Hands translation of Das Niebelungenlied.
In the first part of the narrative, a brave prince called Siegfried, after killing a dragon and acquiring various superpowers, marries a beautiful young princess named Kriemhild. However, after ten years of living happily ever after, Siegfried is murdered by Kriemhild’s relation, Hagen, with connivance from her brother, Gunther – an unimaginable betrayal – and his body left outside her door. For good measure, Hagen also has Kriemhild’s treasure, a gift from her dead husband, stolen and sunk in the Rhine. The second half covers Kriemhild’s decades-long search for revenge and its exceptionally bloody climax. After being complicit in the deaths of hundreds of men, not to mention her own child, whom she uses as bait to get the violence underway, Kriemhild orders Gunther’s death and decapitates Hagen herself – at which point she’s hacked to pieces by a bystander, who is outraged at seeing a knight (however wicked) killed by a woman.
Turning the Nibelungenlied into a children’s story obviously wasn’t going to be just a matter of translating it from Middle High German into English and putting it in the hands of young Victorians. The mostly fairy-tale-like first half of the narrative was quite easily adapted for children, but the second part presented many more problems because the plot basically follows Kriemhild’s violent quest for revenge. Now admittedly, it could have been worse – the Scandinavian material features the female protagonist killing her children, baking them into pies, and serving them to their father. At least Kriemhild’s limit was putting her son in a situation which she knew would lead to his death. One common solution was only to adapt the first part, perhaps summarising the revenge plot in a few sentences. These adaptations would usually bring in some Scandinavian material, which had the advantage over the German version that the fight with the dragon didn’t take place ‘offscreen’. This particular violence only involves a man and a monster, so it could appear in its full gory detail, including Siegfried’s post-fight bath in the dragon’s blood. But there were some writers who decided that they were just going to go for it and adapt the whole thing. Let’s take a look at two of them.
First up, Lydia Hands, author of Golden Threads from an Ancient Loom, subtitled Das Nibelungenlied, adapted to the use of young readers. She was ahead of the curve by publishing in 1880 – most English-language children’s adaptations of the Nibelungenlied came along after the English premiere of Wagner’s Ring cycle in 1882 drew attention to the material. Hands deals with the difficulty of translating Kriemhild’s violence by finding an explanation which would make (legal) sense to her audience: Kriemhild was mad with grief at the death of her child. You’re probably thinking that this is a bit rich of Kriemhild, since this is entirely her own fault. So Hands simply neglects to translate that part of the text. In her version, the boy’s death comes as a terrible shock, causing Kriemhild to faint in horror. When she wakes up, ‘a frenzy, as of madness, possessed Criemhild; her enemy should not escape, even though her own life should be the penalty’. Then she orders the hall to be burned down with hundreds of men inside. It’s the death of her son that triggers Kriemhild’s madness, and her madness which triggers her indiscriminate violence. Insanity was a routine defence in nineteenth-century law courts, and it means that Hands can keep all the violence – and she really does – without undermining contemporary expectations of women. It doesn’t excuse Kriemhild, and she doesn’t get a happy ending, just a marginally less violent death, but it relieves her of her moral responsibility and any knock-on consequences for society.
This wasn’t enough for Gertrude Schottenfels in Stories of the Nibelungen for Young People in 1905. There’s no violent death for Kriemhild’s son, and Kriemhild herself is kept at some distance from the violence. Eventually, Hagen and Gunther are brought to her by a knight, who makes her give ‘her word of honor that he, and he alone, should be permitted to put them to death’. So really, when Kriemhild orders them to be beheaded ‘according to the custom of these olden times’, she’s just following a knight’s suggestion. This Kriemhild is allowed to live, and the closest we get to a condemnation is being told that she was ‘once gentle and beautiful’, implying that she no longer is. But she’s neither dead nor disgraced, and the spectacular body count isn’t attributed to her.
Maybe this is as close as we get to an answer to my starting question. Compared to the other violence in the Nibelungenlied, knights’ (and dragons’) violence isn’t considered a big deal. As long as you can translate away the unacceptable violence, you can keep the rest – no matter how extreme.
Mary Boyle is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and a Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford.
On bread rolls and the imperfection of translation
Bread rolls aren’t the most academic of topics, and before beginning my first year at Oxford University, I certainly did not expect to spend a quarter of allocated tutorial time discussing them. Yet at 11.15 on a misty October morning, this is exactly what I found myself doing: during a translation tutorial, the German word Brötchen had sparked a heated debate surrounding small breads, and the different terms for them around the UK. While seemingly insignificant, the discussion shed important light on an aspect of translation I had previously overlooked: the inevitable bias introduced by individual, subjective world views and experiences.
When reading, we each subconsciously overlay personal expectations onto the original text; the experience of reading is a communication more between the reader and themselves than between original author and reader. You read in your own voice, apply your own subconscious prejudices and expectations, which are moulded by your individual upbringing and perspective. Mounin’s statement that “no two people are ever quite talking about the same thing, even when they are talking about the same thing”, despite referencing two people talking in different languages, quotes this same concept of acute individuality, and can equally be applied to two speakers of the same language. While I may have pictured Tesco mini rolls, someone else may have envisioned a Sainsbury’s crusty bap, a seeded bun, or even a traditional German pretzel.
Such discrepancies, which exist between native speakers of the same language, are only amplified by the added layer of foreign language, where differing cultures widen interpretative possibilities. Translation brings such differences to the forefront of consciousness, highlighting and exposing unique interpretations of the source text, embodying and capturing one’s own “experience of reading”. When published, such subjective interpretation is solidified into objective text. Translators are thus inextricably involved in the making of the translated text’s meaning: a meaning directly informed by their own personal reading of the text; a meaning which, to foreign audiences, is also assumed to encompass that of the original text itself. In this way, translators leave invisible marks on the works they produce; most often not in the presence of a word, but in the absence of what could have been said; in the silence of conscious and sub-conscious decision-making.
Therefore, while the exact English equivalent of Brötchen cannot exist due to cultural difference, an accurate, but nevertheless inevitably divergent, translation can aim at attempting to replicate the essence of Brötchen with an English audience in mind. Accuracy can never be ‘perfect’, nor exactly replicate, nor identically translate the author’s original meaning – instead, accuracy entails a loyalty to the source text in both its style and substance, a loyalty that is limited by the bounds of subjectivity and multiculturalism. While ‘bun’ has connotations of a vessel for burgers or hotdogs, ‘mini loaves’ conveys size and variety in accordance with the German association, but falls short of suggesting a national food, frequently consumed. Altering the image to something like ‘porridge’ attempts to replicate such traditionality with a view to English audiences, but diverges greatly from the author’s original image, as well as being limited to its status as a breakfast food – a limitation Brötchen do not have. Furthermore, not all English audiences may be familiar with porridge in the same way that the author is familiar with Brötchen – and so arise the immense difficulties in intrapersonal, cross-lingual and cross-cultural exchange. Translation can never be neutral or impartial – and, in a conflict of individual minds, languages and cultures, translators can never hope to exactly relay the author’s intended meaning or image.
Not to mention the often-considered challenges of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary: this additional layer of subjective textual interpretation makes ‘perfect’ translation impossible. Some would despair that translation is thus made a worthless exercise; after all, is there any point attempting a task whose ‘perfection’ is inherently unachievable? Yet this pessimistic outlook grossly misunderstands the aim of translation, as well as its art and beauty.
The concept of targeting the ‘perfect’ translation is deeply misguided. In this context, perfection is taken to mean an exact rendering of the original author’s words, meanings, implications and cultural associations – a translation perfectly identical to the original, but in another tongue. This in itself sounds ridiculously paradoxical. What would be the point of other languages and cultures, if all experiences were so identical and standardised across the globe, that a text translated from Korean to Portuguese could have the exact same meaning and significance? The concept of such perfection thus relies upon a global society in which cultural barriers, differences and quirks are muddied into a homogenised world view, codified culture and mass-determined way of thinking – in other words, a mechanised world where individual languages, cultures, and humans become identical, algorithm-controlled automata. The beauty of the world, with its rich wealth of cultures and individuals, is exemplified through translation’s impossibility. Attempting a ‘perfect’ translation – attempting to remove these cultural-linguistic challenges – also inherently implies a removal of global diversity, or at least a dangerous ignorance of it. To apply this logic, somewhat comically, and return to baked goods: imagine the lack of variety, flavour, and interest offered by a world with only one type of bread, and with one blanket culture for which this bread had the same usage and cultural significance.
It is for this reason that I have put ‘perfect’ within quotation marks when referring to translation; such a concept, with its implication of a mechanised dystopia, is unlikely ever to exist. Attempting ‘perfection’ within the field of translation is thus, ironically, a flawed outlook. Perfection suggests the idea of an objectively defined end-goal; translation, as previously discussed, is inherently subjective; an art form so fluid cannot be bound within perfection’s immovable parameters. I am also hesitant to describe translation as ‘perfectly’ unique or twist the idea of perfectness to describe translation in any way, as the word also conveys a sense of cleanliness – a certain sterility, when translation should be experimental, and to some extent messy: reflective of the challenge it presents and the creative, personal response it evokes.
The impossibility of ‘perfect’ translation does not make translation in itself worthless. In fact, I have argued the opposite: ‘perfection’ would strip translation of the rich literary and cultural variety created by flaws and subjectivity; it should be neither attractive nor attainable. Impossibility is not a negative term; an inability to exactly replicate the source text is not something to despair over, but rather something to rejoice. It is this very impossibility, caused by the infinite potential interpretations of a text, that lends translation both value and attraction, making possible the practise as we know it today.
Haley Flower is a second-year student studying German at Somerville College, Oxford. Her decision to apply to Oxford for a language degree was largely informed by enjoyment of translation, especially verse translation, in its providing of opportunities for creative exploration.
‘Discovering’ translation: from school to university
I studied foreign languages at GCSE and A-Level, and now I am starting a degree in French and Russian, so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I liked about studying languages: the satisfaction of being able to communicate, studying the history, politics, and culture of foreign countries, and finally getting my head around complex bits of grammar. However, during lockdown I discovered a new linguistic passion which I, and I think many other school-aged languages students, had completely overlooked.
Throughout my GCSEs and A-Levels, I felt that translation was nothing more than the question at the end of the exam paper, a final hurdle to jump before leaving the exam room. I think this is a significant problem in the current modern languages curriculum, that translation is undervalued. This certainly isn’t helped by the unwaveringly prescriptive mark schemes used in GCSE and A-Level translation questions, where sentences are split into small units for which, if your translation closely matches that supplied by your exam board, you earn a mark, and if not – nothing. The problem here is that it discourages any form of creativity in translation, instead making it an exercise in guessing how the exam board want you to translate a sentence. I found this incredibly frustrating, as perfectly good translations were turned down, not because they didn’t make any sense, but because they didn’t match the mark scheme. This was through no fault of my teachers, who frequently suggested that the mark schemes were by no means the pinnacle of good translations but, ultimately, we were there to pass the exam, so the mark schemes won.
As a result, I didn’t think twice about translation having any deeper purpose or value until we were plunged into lockdown last year. I found myself, as a Year 12 student wanting to study languages at university, searching for ways to develop my language skills independently, both out of pure interest and with the ulterior motive of the looming UCAS personal statement. Soon I had signed myself up to an online course called ‘Working with Translation’ run by Cardiff University, which showed me translation in a new light. Instead of focussing on choosing the ‘correct’ words and syntax to match a mark scheme, the course posed much bigger questions along the lines of ‘is a good translation one where you can’t notice that it has been translated?’ and ‘when translating, should you try to replicate an author’s writing style, even when technically incorrect, or instead favour correct use of the target language?’. It was ‘big questions’ such as these that made me realise how much more there is to translation than initially meets the eye, and that it is a holistic process requiring not only lexical and grammatical accuracy, but also a great deal of creative and even philosophical thought.
It was also during this time that I stumbled across the Queen’s College Translation Exchange. One of my A-Level teachers came across the first schools translation competition, which later became the Anthea Bell Prize, and suggested I could give it a go. So, I set to work translating some of Albert Camus’ La Peste (‘The Plague’). Finally, I had the opportunity to translate something out of the confines of an exam paper or textbook, and to think more creatively about how I might convey Camus’ text in English. It was very refreshing not to be asking myself ‘does this match the mark scheme?’ constantly, and I noticed myself actually enjoying the translation process, rather than treating it as a sort of necessary evil.
Following this, I came across several other opportunities through the Translation Exchange. I took part in the pilot session of the International Book Club for Schools, in which we discussed Ana María Matute’s The Island, and I found it fascinating to discuss the translation of a book whose original language I didn’t know. I have now participated in three further sessions, all of which involved insightful discussion of these ‘big questions’ about translation that just aren’t included in school curricula.
Through the Queen’s Translation Exchange, I also came across the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry translation. I chose to translate Josef Brodsky’s Don’t Leave Your Room due to its uncanny relevance to life in lockdown, and my interest in translation once again grew as I got to grips with the unique complexities of translating a poem, especially regarding rhyme, rhythm and metre. I needed to translate even more imaginatively than I had done before, and the process took a lot longer than I expected! After many battles with Russian syntax that I just couldn’t get to sound ‘right’ in English, and numerous other challenges, I had produced a translation which, albeit far from perfect, had yet again made me really think about translation, and to analyse and evaluate my choices of word and phrase far more deeply than I had before.
Fast forward a year and, having just finished my A-Levels, I became involved in the Queen’s Translation Exchange Re-viewing the World project. Having perused the different texts on offer to be reviewed, I settled on Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth. Celestial Bodies was originally written in Arabic, making it perhaps an unusual choice for me, considering that there were texts available in French and Russian. However, this was my reasoning – I chose a text that was further outside of my comfort zone, so that I could look at it more objectively, without being influenced by knowing how it may have been rendered in the original language. Indeed, I was glad of this decision because, throughout the novel, one of the things that really struck me was the fact that words relating to Omani customs, clothing and cultural phenomena were frequently not translated, but simply transliterated. At first, as someone with very limited knowledge of Omani culture, and none whatsoever of the Arabic language, I admit this often left me a little confused; however, this soon made me think ‘how much should we translate?’. I suppose this struck me less when reading French and Russian texts before, as I had a better understanding of both their languages and cultures.
On the one hand, arguably a key goal of translation is to make a text fully understood to those who can’t read its original language, which would suggest that all of these phrases should have been translated. Yet, as an English reader, surely it’s right that I feel somewhat separated from the culture of the novel’s setting, as at the end of the day it is unfamiliar to me, and should be kept that way in translation? I still don’t really know the answer to this, or if there is one at all, but it was my increased involvement and interest in translation that led me to even consider translation in this light, as a mixture of art and science, creativity and discipline.
Now, I’m preparing to start a French and Russian degree at Oxford, and contrary to what I might have thought when I first considered a languages degree, one aspect of the course that I’m really looking forward to is translation. Over the last year or so, my understanding of, and interest in, translation as an outright discipline has increased enormously from my extra-curricular pursuit of the subject, so I would really urge future young language-learners to do the same – to look at translation beyond the curriculum, considering it far more deeply than simply marks to be earned in an exam paper. Most importantly of all, budding linguists should give it a go – choose a text (maybe a short poem or story) in a foreign language, and think deeply and creatively about translating it, outside the confines of exam pressures and mark schemes.
James has recently finished his A-Levels in French, Russian, English Literature and History, and now studies French and Russian at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He enjoys reading a diverse range of English and foreign literature, and more recently has become fascinated by the process of translating it.
Translation and its Failures: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz at UNIQ 2021
Having grown up in Germany and gone on to spend almost all my university years in the UK, I have often thought about what it means to study my own language from abroad. Doing Modern Languages at Oxford, for me, has inevitably made translation a part of both my daily life and my academic self-expression. I have used English to say what I think and feel about literature in my native language, often triangulating with French as a third pole on my linguistic planet.
In the largely joyful (yet sometimes disorienting) linguistic muddle of these years of study, I have found a strange kind of reassurance in the example of W.G. Sebald. The German-born novelist, who lived in the UK until his death in 2001 and spent decades teaching his native language at the University of East Anglia, draws an extraordinary wealth from a life spent navigating between multiple languages and cultures. I believe that he has taught me a lot about what can be gained from integrating a sensitivity translation into the study and the practice of literature, about what a successful life in translation can look like, but also about what remains untranslated, unsaid, incomprehensible, at the very core of our personal histories.
Earlier this summer, I had the chance to teach a seminar titled ‘Translating W.G. Sebald’ as part of Oxford’s UNIQ summer school. With a group of young Germanists about to enter their final year of sixth form, we spent our session discussing a 2011 essay by Anthea Bell, translator of Sebald’s last novel Austerlitz and namesake of the new Queen’s College Translation Exchange Prize for young translators, before turning to a passage from the novel where translation itself takes centre stage.
Bell opens her essay by questioning the necessity of her own role. She notes that Sebald was completely fluent in English and could easily have self-translated, or indeed written in English in the first place. It was due to personal preference alone, then, that he let his texts pass into the English language through the hands of a translator. In the seminar, we asked ourselves what might have been the reasons for this choice. Did Sebald want to keep the English-speaking mainstream audience in the country where he lived at an arm’s length, letting them access his writing through a third-party translation alone? Did this mean that Sebald himself could remain elusive, at a distance, freed from taking responsibility for writings which were no longer fully his own? Such a view imposes itself so long as we see the translated novel as a lesser version of an original, which represents the text in its purest form. This would make the bilingual author’s refusal to self-translate appear as an almost cruel decision, deliberately excluding English-speaking readers from accessing the full truth of his writing. Throughout our UNIQ session, however, the possibility of a second, more hopeful version of events emerged.
Bell speaks very fondly of the exchanges she had with ‘Max’ Sebald, as his friends called him. We learn that the very writing of Austerlitz became enmeshed in these interactions between author and translator, complicating the assumed chronology of a pre-existing original and derivative translation. When Bell was given her first sample to translate, the novel was in fact not yet finished. The typed and hand-written letters traveling back and forth between the two (via snail mail, for Sebald refused to use computers) transformed writing and translation into simultaneous, collaborative processes, in which the translator’s questions and concerns could directly impact the shape a still-unfixed original takes. In this exchange, Sebald was happy to give up much of his authority, accepting that his text would be transformed by its passage into another language, and embracing the value which could be gained in the process. Bell describes: ‘Some authors ask a translator why a certain phrase can’t be used in English, as if the translator were to blame, but not Max; he knew that language develops of its own accord, and his account of Austerlitz’s nervous breakdown, when language fails him, is eloquently moving’.
Bell suggests that Sebald saw failures in translation as the expression of a more fundamental break within language itself. A sense of deep-seated untranslatability, which is not limited to a text’s movement between languages but relates to all forms of linguistic expression – paradoxically – emerges at the very core of what Austerlitz seeks to express.
This concern is closely connected with the novel’s subject matter. The text reconstructs the life of Jacques Austerlitz, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the Kindertransporte scheme settling Jewish children from German-controlled territories in the UK. Austerlitz himself is a character who constantly risks getting lost in translation. Having grown up with an English-speaking family, his native Czech has become an almost forgotten language to him, resurfacing spontaneously and uncontrollably as he returns to his childhood home in Prague. Digging deeper into his family history, Austerlitz must confront yet another – uniquely threatening – linguistic universe: that of the German language, which is forever marked, it seems, as the language of the Nazi perpetrators.
As we witness Austerlitz gathering evidence about the fate of his mother by studying H.G. Adler’s German-language account of life in the ghetto of Theresienstadt, it becomes clear that processes of translation are embedded in the fabric of Sebald’s novel. A fragmented story travels through H.G. Adler’s German account into the protagonist’s English and back into the German of Sebald’s narrator, before finally passing into the hands of Anthea Bell, whose translation, one might say, simply adds a link to a much longer chain of transmission.
In the passage which describes Austerlitz’s reading, the traumatic history of the Holocaust coincides with those utterly normal struggles every learner of German will have faced: ‘The long compounds, not listed in my dictionary, which were obviously being spawned the whole time by the pseudo-technical jargon governing everything in Theresienstadt, had to be unravelled syllable by syllable.’ Bell’s translation decides to preserve these words in their original German form. She keeps terms like Barackenbestandteillager, Zusatzkostenberechnungsschein, and Menagetransportkolonnen as foreign bodies in her English text, set apart on the page in italics. Her English-speaking readers will therefore have to do as Austerlitz does and decipher them syllable by syllable. Or they will leave them untranslated altogether, perhaps feeling that more fundamental kind of incomprehension in front of the horrors of life in Theresienstadt, which no dictionary or translator can remedy.
In a way, we might say that the protagonist’s experience is rendered more faithfully in English than in German. A reader of the latter may quickly brush over the words which challenge Austerlitz’s comprehension, barely slowed down by the monstrosity of those compound nouns. Readers of Bell’s translation, on the other hand, will live through the incomprehension experienced by the protagonist. They might make the same attempts to translate and decipher – and yet, will be led to the recognition that they can never fully grasp the historical reality to which these words relate.
The passage powerfully demonstrates that translation and its failures, literary expression and its breaking points, are integral parts of Austerlitz. Anthea Bell’s English translation gives new life, new linguistic and cultural realities to what may be called a pre-existing, translational potential in the text. The hierarchy between the original novel and its translation is thus dissolved. The author and the translator alike circle around a centre of truth which can never be accessed in full, incessantly reminding the reader of the limitations of all attempts to make sense. Despite these frustrations, an extraordinary collaborative process takes place, creating unexpected possibilities for empathy and connection across time and space.
I believe that this painful-yet-fruitful process can provide a great deal of encouragement to aspiring linguists and translators. Against the gnawing feeling that, even as they master grammar rules and struggle through vocabulary lists, the perspective of non-native speakers will remain inferior, approaching but never reaching the native speaker’s natural familiarity with a language, the case of Austerlitz suggests that much can be gained from it. The non-native speaker is uniquely attentive to language precisely because it causes trouble and requires effort. New dimensions of meaning develop as the text travels between languages. The very notion of the original is transformed as it is placed within in a longer chain of mediation which reaches across time and space, spanning multiple human minds and linguistic systems. Once language is no longer assumed as a natural given, we may start to see some of the troubling cracks in its surface, the moments where making sense becomes impossible and a more fundamental kind of untranslatability seems to affect all forms of linguistic expression.
I am glad to have experienced this precious outsider’s position with the languages I have learnt and grateful to have glimpsed it even in my native language, through the contributions of my teachers, course mates, and students throughout the years. I hope that I was able to share some of this feeling with this year’s UNIQ cohort and am convinced that the Anthea Bell Prize and the Queen’s College Translation Exchange will enable many more such moments in the future.
Bell, Anthea, ‘A Translator’s View’, The Essay, BBC Radio 3, 07 December 2011, print version accessed via Five Dials, https://fivedials.com/fiction/a-translators-view/, accessed 14.07.21. Audio online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b017t1j6, accessed 27.09.21.
Sebald, W.G., Austerlitz, transl. Anthea Bell (New York: Modern Library, 10th anniversary edition 2011).
Hannah Scheithauer (BA, MSt) is a DPhil candidate at The Queen’s College, Oxford, pursuing a Clarendon-funded research project on transnational memory landscapes in contemporary French and German literature. She holds a Stipendiary Lectureship in German at Jesus College. You can find out more about her via the Modern Languages Faculty and Jesus College websites, and also via Twitter.
Translating Blake's The Tyger: Creative translation in action
The endurance of a text is put to the test every time it is read. There is no greater test, in any case, than translation into a foreign tongue. Often, too, the most enduring combinations of phrases, and the images they convey, are the most simple - or deceptively so: the nursery rhymes we learn, universal jokes, prayers, anthems. William Blake’s poetry suffers from such labels, but at least in the United Kingdom, there are few people that haven’t had his The Tyger thrust under their eyes at some point in their schooling, or maybe in a scene from Mean Streets. Tate Britain just last year dedicated a blockbuster exhibition to Blake’s works, word, sound and vision all included.
Higher education gives you a false sense of security when reading. The ability to skim becomes a tendency to do so, and when you realise that ‘surface reading’ isn’t quite enough, shame creeps in. Such as in reading The Tyger. I was lucky enough to spend a part of my year abroad as an English teaching assistant in a school in the 13th Arrondissement of Marseille. With some of the more linguistically advanced teenagers, I dedicated the term to a creative translation - the Queen’s College Translation Exchange’s own method, exported to France - of Blake’s The Tyger. The process and the result were more than rewarding.
Over around five sessions with Salsabil and Inès, both 13, we introduced the figure of Blake and his poetic mission, and then set to work on our translation, taking occasional breaks to reproduce Blake’s original engraving (as of yet unfinished…). Following the creative translation method, most words were glossed. Yet what was incredible in the final work was the subtlety of the choices of tenses - the French past historic, for example - and the remarkable rhymes that came out, almost perfectly mirroring Blake’s ending. In fact, by the end of it, I was almost sure that the penultimate verse in French was even more beautiful than Blake’s own.
Blake’s The Tyger stands the test of time, as you might expect. But rather than translation testing its endurance even more, I should revise my opinion: it enriches it, lends it shades that we simply cannot compute in monolingual readings and cultures. And so creative translation should have a place in schools across the globe. You can be sure - if this was the first example of the method used in France! - that there could have been no better home for its first trial than Marseille, as polyphonic and multilingual as it is. Congratulations to Salsabil and Inès, the latest to show the potential to stand in the footsteps of local wordsmiths Mistral, Pagnol, and, for what it’s worth, IAM and Jul.
Traduction de Salsabil et Inès, 13
Tigre Tigre, brillant lumineux
Dans les forêts de la nuit.
Quelle main ou quel oeil immortel
Pourrait façonner ta terrible symétrie?
Dans quelles profondeurs, quels cieux lointains
Brûlait le feu de tes yeux?
Avec quelles ailes ose-t-il voler?
Quelle main ose saisir le feu?
Et quelle épaule, & quelle habileté
Pourrait tordre les muscles de ton cœur?
Et quand ton cœur commença à battre,
Quelle main affreuse? & Et quels pieds affreux?
Quel marteau? Quelle chaîne,
Dans quel fourneau était ton cerveau?
Quelle enclume? Quelle prise inquiétante
Ose saisir ses terreurs mortelles?
Quand les étoiles jetèrent leurs armes
Et arrosèrent le paradis de leurs larmes:
Sourit-il face à sa création?
Est-ce que celui qui a fait l’agneau aurait pu te créer?
Tigre Tigre, brillant lumineux
Dans les forêts de la nuit.
Quelle main ou quel oeil immortel
Pourrait façonner ta terrible symétrie?
Marseille, December 2020
Jack Franco is a final-year French and Philosophy student at the University of Oxford. You can find out more about the Creative Translation Ambassadors scheme here.
Anthea Bell Prize 2021: Interviews with the Judges
The Anthea Bell Prize for Young Translators is a new initiative launched by the Queen’s College Translation Exchange, bringing creative translation into Modern Languages classes across the UK. In 2020-21 the competition ran across four languages (French, German, Mandarin, Spanish), covering all year groups at secondary school from age 11 to 18.
We caught up with two of the judges for the 2021 prize, Anam Zafar and Jessica Rainey, to discuss their experiences judging the Anthea Bell Prize.
What is the value of the Anthea Bell Prize, in your view?
Jessica: A prize like this gives students a chance to step away from learning goals and immerse themselves in a real-world task that is nonetheless joyful and playful. It encourages a view of language not as something that has right or wrong answers but something that has multiple solutions, endless possibilities.
Anam: I’m so glad the Anthea Bell Prize exists. I hope it continues to flourish in the years to come. It urges students—and teachers—to consider language learning in a different way: for the competition itself, students are provided with a glossary alongside the text they have to translate. This shows them that being a linguist isn’t about being a walking dictionary, it’s much more to do with being creative with words.
But it’s not just about the competition element: participating schools also receive creative translation teaching resources to use throughout the academic year, in the run-up to the Prize. Trying translation at secondary school level could open students’ eyes to one way in which they could integrate languages into their future careers. As for those who don’t currently enjoy language lessons, perhaps this fresh take on using language (in terms of the focus on creativity) will change their minds. I really believe the Prize is an effective way for more students to consider keeping multilingualism in their lives, for life.
Would you have enjoyed taking part in the prize when you were at school?
Anam: Absolutely! While I loved French lessons at school, I could never quite picture how I could use languages in a career. I did end up studying French and Arabic at university because I couldn’t see myself studying anything else, but still had no idea what I’d do for a job after that. It was only towards the end of my undergraduate degree that I realised that translation was a “thing” that people did for work. It would have been helpful to have realised this in secondary school: there were moments where I nearly went for a different degree because I really didn’t know if a language degree could pay my bills, or satisfy my strong creative streak. I was so wrong.
Jessica: I struggled with the immersive aspect of language learning in school. Listening was my weakest skill, which was problematic because I couldn’t understand many of the instructions in class. English literature, on the other hand, was my favourite subject – reading and writing my strongest skills. I do not recall a single instance of translation occurring in school – I’m not even sure it was mentioned – and yet it would have provided a hook into the language for me, for my particular skill set. In short, yes, I would have loved the challenge and creativity of this prize, and the reassurance of writing in my mother tongue.
As a judge, what was your experience of the prize?
Jessica: In the spirit of Anthea Bell, I was looking for creative flair. While excellent understanding or flawless presentation is important, this prize is all about creative translation. So I could overlook minor errors for flashes of inspiration, a willingness to step away from the source text and make the translation their own. Contrary to the perceived ‘invisibility’ of translators, I wanted a strong sense of the student behind the translation.
Deciding on a winner was tough though, because how do you compare entirely different and unique flashes of inspiration? One student might have created a new metaphor, another changed the names of the characters to something equally resonant in English. One student might have found a way to reflect the rhyme scheme of the original, another produced a beautifully evocative poetic ending. I was grateful we could nominate highly commended entries, because so many of the translations deserved recognition.
Anam: I had a lot of fun. I’d encourage all translators to give it a go, whether with this prize or similar ones. It’s a great feeling to be supporting the next generation of language learners. There was a wonderful variety in the selection of texts for each level: a graphic novel, a sports article, a poem and a Booker prize-winning novel. The judges were advised to balance creativity with accuracy when judging the entries. And that’s exactly what a great translation is – it’s faithful to the original author’s intentions, but that doesn’t mean the translator can’t have fun with their words.
What were your impressions of the submissions to the prize?
Anam: It was absolutely heart-warming to read the submissions, and to see the effort that each and every student had gone to. They had me ooh-ing and aah-ing out loud. I’m pretty sure I literally fist-pumped a couple of times too. I wish I could have given out more prizes than I did. I want every single student who participated in the competition to know that they should carry on translating and engaging with other languages, and I want them to know that their multilingualism is a valuable resource which the world needs. Amidst news of fewer and fewer students choosing to study languages at school and university, with more academic institutions closing down their language programs, I hope initiatives like this can turn the story around.
Jessica: Reading the submissions was a delight – the willingness of students to have a go, the determination to first understand a tricky section, then work out how best to put that into words in English. I loved seeing the variety of solutions. Curiously, perhaps, I loved seeing the crossings out, the reworkings. There is no single solution in literary translation, and seeing the process was a sign to me that students had genuinely engaged.
How can we continue to engage young people in translation and in reading international literature?
Jessica: There is real momentum at the moment: this prize and the work of the Translation Exchange and the Stephen Spender Trust mean there are strong advocates – and a lot of passion – for engaging young people in languages. But there is also potential for so much more: I would like to see more translator/author readings in schools or aimed at young people; long-term school projects involving translation are another possibility – producing a pamphlet of translated poems, for instance, or translating and performing short plays.
Anam: The Anthea Bell Prize is a great place to start. I think sometimes, young people think that it’s all or nothing with learning languages: either they have to end up speaking and writing like a native, or they have to give it up. But when it comes to translation, it’s not about knowing all the vocabulary and grammar by heart. As a translator, online dictionaries and grammar websites are my best friends! We really need to convince young people of this. I’d also urge teachers to look up the fantastic work of the Stephen Spender Trust and Shadow Heroes, who deliver incredibly innovative translation workshops in schools.
In terms of reading international literature, World Kid Lit is a wonderful online initiative promoting children’s books in translation. On the website, there are book reviews and recommendations for children and young people of all ages, and we’ve also got resources for teachers and parents. In our increasingly multicultural, hyper-globalised world, it’s so important for children to be exposed to other cultures. Reading international literature is a brilliant way to do this. Young people just need to try reading a book that’s been translated into another language, and then they’ll realise there’s nothing strange about it. It’s just like reading any other book, and might even be more interesting, because the characters could be living anywhere in the world, living a completely different kind of life!
Entry to the 2021-2022 Anthea Bell Prize is now open: what advice would you give to any students or teachers considering getting involved?
Anam: I’d advise teachers not to hesitate, just sign up! As well as entry to the Prize, you get creative translation teaching resources for the entire academic year! Who doesn’t love getting someone else to do their lesson planning?
As for students, if you’ve never tried translation before, don’t assume it will be too difficult or that you won’t like it. You won’t know until you try. And don’t worry if your translation turns out completely different to your classmates – that’s actually what we want to see! There are an infinite number of ways to translate the same text.
Jessica: The competition provides a framework for students according to ability, which means they can piece together the initial translation. The key phase is then taking that literal version and turning it into something that sings. Constantly ask yourself questions: what is the writer saying or implying? how would we write that in English? could that metaphor be adapted to have greater resonance for the reader? does the dialogue sound natural? But the most important thing is just to have a go! And have fun doing it.
The Anthea Bell Prize for Young Translators 2021-2022 opens on 30 September. Teachers can sign up here.
Language myth-busting: 6 common myths about language learning, and why they're false
I can still remember the first French words I said. As a student of French, that’s quite lucky, isn’t it? “J’ai les yeux bruns et les cheveux marrons,” I repeated in my panicked head about fifty times before it was my turn to speak up in a Year 5 class. My teacher frowned, then praised my good pronunciation. It was all that silent, self-conscious mouthing, I reckon. Languages simply weren’t interesting to me - they were stressful, they made me feel stupid, they were difficult. I would never use them. I thought that languages were for the middle classes only, for those who could afford ski trips and holidays abroad. For me, as for many students, ideas like these most likely set in before the classroom.
Luckily, my recent experience working with some fantastic schemes, including Oxford UNIQ, the Queen’s College Translation Exchange and the Stephen Spender Trust, has introduced me to individuals who have helped me to see beyond these and other misconceptions about language-learning. Here are some language myths that once plagued me, and how I now understand them.
1. Languages are a useless skill.
Many people think that languages are useless - you learn one at GCSE, then you forget all about it for the rest of your life. However, the fact that most British people don’t speak more than one language is in fact hindering our economy - by £48 billion a year, according to a recent study. Professionals with language skills are highly desirable, and enable you to offer your services to a wider audience and a wider range of countries. Only 30% of firms say they have no need for foreign-language skills, according to a 2013 survey by the Confederation of British Industry.
Languages have been shown time and time again not only to be beneficial to your career, but also to brain development, making it easier for you to learn other skills and boost your focus. Language-learning improves your memory, as well as developing your cultural awareness and broadening your mind. These are all desirable soft skills for employers.
2. Languages will only ever be used on holiday.
Perhaps they will, if you let them. But your language can be everywhere - online, written down in books and newspapers, spoken - if you let it. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” The power of languages for connecting to other people cannot be underestimated!
3. “Only posh people speak languages - normal people like me just speak English.”
Half of the world is multilingual - it’s in fact the people who only speak one language who are the odd ones out here. When you factor in all the people who speak another language, but not quite fluently, then that number goes up. Many people associate being able to speak another language with being posh - especially when these languages include perhaps Spanish, French or German. But anyone can learn a language - and it doesn’t have to be one that’s considered ‘posh’ or high-status in the UK.
4. “I’m just not good at languages, I can barely speak English.”
In the UK, we have this perception that we can barely speak English even as native speakers. Ask any non-native speaker about this and they’ll likely laugh: English is a hard language to learn, so any proficiency is frankly impressive! Many of us are native English speakers, and that’s really valuable.
However, just because you may have had bad experiences with learning a language before does not mean that you’re “bad at languages”. It might mean you didn’t get on with your teachers, or were more interested in something else, or found it boring. No one is born bad at languages - as humans, we spend the first few years of our life dedicated to learning our native language. And if you can do it as a baby, you can definitely do it as a teen or adult.
5. Knowing a language means you are 100% fluent, all the time.
The millions of people who can speak two or more languages are shaking their heads right now. This is very much not true. Many people may speak a little bit of another language, or only be able to speak about certain topics. This doesn’t mean they don’t know the language. It’s not a requirement of learning a language that you continue to learn it until you know every word, every bit of grammar, and have native-level pronunciation. Even people who have spoken two or more languages for a long time can have trouble remembering words in one or the other, or switching between their different languages. Making mistakes doesn’t make you a failure when it comes to languages!
6. To learn a language you need to buy lots of books and courses, and spend all your time on it.
Life gets in the way of learning sometimes, and languages are no exception. Studies have shown that spending even 15 minutes a day on a language can help you improve. Building on the point above, you’re not necessarily learning it to be perfect at the language, especially whilst you’re at school.
Learning a language doesn’t have to be expensive - the internet has so many resources available for free, in every form you can think of. Whether you download an app or watch Tiktoks in your second language, it’s all a valid way of learning.
Whether you’re considering learning another language, or maybe just trying to find a way to enjoy your language lessons at school, dispelling these myths about language can hopefully show that there’s a lot of enjoyment and skill to be found in learning a language - imperfectly, bit by bit, through not giving up. What do you have to lose?
Rebecca Smithson is a fourth-year French & Linguistics student at Merton College, Oxford.
On Translation with Olivia McCannon
Olivia McCannon’s Exactly My Own Length won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. Her experimental poem sequence, The Archives of Z, is forthcoming, and Beauty and Beast, a collaboration with Clive-Hicks Jenkins, appears late 2021 (Design for Today).
She is on the steering committee of the Anthropocene Research Group at Newcastle University, and her AHRC-funded doctoral research investigates 'the renewable energies of poetry and translation’.
We asked Olivia what drew her to translation and whether she identifies more as a writer or translator.
There’s a quotation I love that has just surfaced in my mind in response to your question and which I’d like to start with. It’s from an essay by the French-Canadian poet Nicole Brossard, where she writes about translation as ‘a new genre of the impossible, as our return journeys from the worlds of imagination and fiction to those of reality, always have been and still are.’
This really resonates with me. I LOVE translating poems. When I discovered that it IS possible to do the impossible, I felt I had found a way of working with words that was uniquely fulfilling, and that I could learn from for the rest of my life.
This leads into your excellent question about writing and translating, and the similarities and differences between these practices, something I wrestle with constantly… At the moment, this is where I’m up to.
I believe that no poem, no translation, exists in isolation: each is made of living tissue, literary DNA strands that join and bind and pass on life. Poem, translation, are equally ‘creative’, both are ‘made’.
Any viable literary world is created with momentum and energy, with the embodied senses and emotions, the warmth and breath, of an imagining, inventive human – with, and within, everything that surrounds them.
I’m not alone in thinking and affirming that literary translators are writers, and should be considered in that way. The positive consequence of this for the reader, is that they become free to read and enjoy a translation as a piece of creative writing forging intimate relation with another piece of creative writing – instead of being encouraged to feel shortchanged. It’s all in the presentation. A translation is a kind of miracle, not a counterfeit.
So many notions of literary value are imported from structures associated with monetisation, where ‘product’ has a legitimacy and visibility that ‘supply chain’ does not. Poems, translations, are equally likely to be circulating in vertical literary economies as they are in horizontal literary ecosystems, and this is always important to consider. But surely literary creation lives its best lives in transformations, shifts, turning points, repurposings and sideshoots – it thrives when it is in motion.
I would love to get away once and for all from the idea of a poem as a static ‘original’ and a translation as some kind of lesser imitation of it, as this leads to all kinds of damaging misunderstandings which impact on the way that the translation – not to mention the translator – is perceived, and valued.
However, there is a clear and crucial difference between writing a poem and translating a poem, which is this: that the translation is read with a particular critical expectation, it must define itself in relation to some other text and context. This immediately places it in an ethical framework, it is always under investigation. A poem is also intimately connected to other poems and people and places, but its relationships may not be so apparent, or investigated.
I think it is helpful to clarify what is meant by a ‘translation’, on a case-by-case basis. With two texts in front of me, what I would always seek to understand is, not ‘which came first’, or ‘which has most authority’ – but ‘how are these texts and contexts related?’ A translation is above all a relational network.
I’m interested in the uses of a kind of interlingual ‘translational writing’ practice, conceived as ‘ecological’, rather than ‘extractivist’. That is, a practice which is not exploitative, which doesn’t ‘mine’ a literary text for raw materials, which are then transformed, and sold on, invisibly.
This isn’t, by the way, some kind of facile value judgement on a perceived strand or school of practice (I don’t believe such a thing exists), but simply an attempt to acknowledge, through one metaphor or another, that individual approaches vary widely, in particular when it comes to ethics, and that it is always of interest to attend to this.
I welcome the vast spectrum of ‘translation’ practices that are currently flourishing, within and beyond the literary: this brings great energy and variety, and potential, to the field. But I want to appreciate the distinct and unique contributions and values of these often very different practices (and philosophies) which are smothered when ‘translation’ is used as a blanketing term.
What interests me most, is to recognise a particular writer/translator’s commitment to understanding and sensing the depths and complexities of the languages they are handling, and above all, the explosive, expansive capacities these differently shaped languages are capable of awakening within each other.
To give an example, I might consider the work of the French-Canadian poet Louky Bersianik (1930–2011), to be an ecological, relational form of ‘translational writing’. Notably in a sequence of poems she wrote, called ‘Maternative’ (1979), which I’m translating at the moment. This is because, within the text, her writing radically and intimately subverts the Greek and Latin roots of French, its patriarchal foundations. She is writing in French, but her investigation is interlingual, and speculative.
At the same time, the poems I’m writing at the moment, The Archives of Z, a random series of artefacts gleaned by extant data harvesters from the landfill site of the future, are also a kind of ‘translational writing’, in that they too reveal and repurpose the hidden languages within ‘language’.
The relic tongue of these poems is infinitely learning and repurposing other tongues: those of the birds, of space missions, of climate, economics, politics, of contamination, of ruin, of death, of birth, of the sea, the cosmos, machines, rocks, the deep past, the emergent future etc.
Z is the generative, transgressive principle of life on Earth: surviving as transforming.
I feel somehow that an ecological ‘translational writing’ practice is most likely to be transgressive – in that all life on Earth is creative, it experiments, fuses, surpasses, to survive. Countering moves can also be constructively relational, they bring transparency, dialetic and debate – setting thought turning.
So I’m interested too in how transgression is often a necessary part of activism. Protest movements seeking to overturn unjust, necropolitical, laws, institutions and systems, use civil disobedience as a way of holding Power to account. Change, as the potential to be ethical when the status quo is toxic.
In this era that some are calling the ‘Anthropocene’ (and others the ‘Plantationocene’ or ‘Capitalocene’ etc), there is work for translational practices that investigate and challenge the asymmetries of human and more-than-human relation, that corrode and transform the concepts and stories, the languages inside languages, with which humans structure their behaviours.
I seem to have come a long way from your original question! But maybe all I’m driving at in these musings, is that I want both my translating and my writing to make terms with the huge environmental, societal and conceptual shifts that are happening, here and now – to be part of that work of exploring relation with care and rigour, sharpening blunted categories, and resensitising deadened, and deadly, systems. And that I hope to discover their renewed usefulness, in doing so.
You can find out more about Olivia's work via her Twitter.
An interview with Cate Hamilton - International Day of Multilingualism 27 March 2021
We're delighted to welcome Cate Hamilton to the blog this week.
Cate is co-founder of Babel Babies, language classes for children aged 0+, and founder of The Language Revolution, a campaign to change UK attitudes to languages. She also co-founded the International Day of Multilingualism, celebrated this year on 27 March.
Rebecca caught up with her about #ITD2021.
What made you so interested in languages and language awareness?
I remember loving words from the earliest age. There’s an apocryphal family story of me trying to teach my younger brother (then only 18 months old) to say ‘bannister rail’. I was 3! Didn’t know much about the process of language acquisition back then. I loved reading stories with lots of word play (Roald Dahl was a favourite when I was little) and funny poetry by Michael Rosen. I’ve always thought words were great fun. I then studied French from about age 11 and my favourite thing was to compare the French and English words – why were some so similar and others completely different? Sadly the Latin teacher retired and wasn’t replaced, but I think I would have studied Latin if I’d had the chance. No one ever told me there was a subject called Linguistics and that you could study it until I was already at Oxford studying English and French. So really I came to language awareness through literature and playing with words, and very much later through the more pure linguistics side of things. I like stories about words (etymology) and the history of languages. English has a brilliant history – full of invasions and brutal borrowings!
What role does multilingualism play in your life and career?
After university and a stint in marketing, I qualified as a French and English teacher. I taught French in a satellite suburb of Glasgow and it was a real eye-opener to see how little the kids knew about their own city, never mind what was beyond the Maccy D’s on the Great Western Road. Even though there were pupils from around the world (many of them asylum seekers), “languages” just meant a bit of French or Spanish in school and had very little to do with experiencing new cultures or perspectives, or even the way pupils themselves used language. I then taught English in a grammar school and there was quite an old-fashioned approach to rote learning grammatical structures and meta-terminology. Hardly any of it stuck for the pupils as it just meant nothing to them, being so far removed from what they perceived language to be about. They were supremely demotivated by the curriculum, and honestly so was I by the time I’d taught for a few years.
Then as a new mother, I realised my baby was communicating with me right from the start. This came as a shock even though I was a languages teacher! It ignited my curiosity about language acquisition. I wanted to find out how many languages I could feasibly introduce him to before he got ‘confused’. Handily my good friend Ruth Ahmedzai also had a new baby and we experimented with languages together, setting up Babel Babies in 2011.
My work has been much more multilingual since then. I’ve taught thousands of people songs in ten different languages, and learned a lot more about how people acquire more than one language. Now I am studying Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition at the University of Oxford, and hope to delve into some PhD research about the role songs could play in teaching lots of languages. Everyone I meet remembers Frère Jacques perfectly from school, even if they don’t know what the words mean! What if we could harness that power somehow?
In 2020 I gathered sixty contributions together and published Multilingual is Normal: An Anthology of Voices, Talking About Talking. It was made in a month from launch to publication day, and was a great way to put my design skills to the test as well as loads of fun to edit. I particularly like Megan Gaston’s comment: “The question shouldn’t be: How many languages can you speak? But rather: How many languages can you live, breathe, borrow and learn? How much humanity can you absorb?” I love that. For me, this sums up the role of multilingualism perfectly.
In your work with Babel Babies, are there any misconceptions about multilingualism that you face?
Oh definitely! The most common misconception is that children will be confused if they learn more than one language at the same time, and that bilingualism results in a speech delay. I’ve trained early years staff in several nurseries about how multilingual children acquire language. Staff have told me that even speech therapists sometimes tell them that bilingual children should be assessed six months later than monolingual children because delays are inevitable with more than one language. This simply isn’t true! Bilingualism does not cause speech delays. Monolingual and bilingual children are equally likely to experience a speech, language or communication impairment or delay, which is nothing to do with how many languages you have around you. It could be caused by a hearing problem, for instance, in which case you wouldn’t hear any of the languages, or a processing difficulty that arises when trying to bring words together before producing them.
The other common misconception is that it’s pointless teaching children under the age of 2 about languages, since they can’t speak yet. Again, this is entirely missing the point that children are avidly paying attention to language (even from before birth!) and actively acquiring language right from their earliest moments of life. Babies up to around 10 months old can detect even very minor differences between sounds in languages they have never heard before. So starting languages early is a great idea. Not only are babies expert language detectives, singing is a great activity for bonding with young children and has benefits for parents’ mental health too.
On the International Day of Multilingualism (IDM) website, you state that the IDM originated from a Twitter discussion. Was this the first conversation of its kind that you’d had, or had the idea of a celebration of multilingualism already come to you?
It was my friend Thomas Bak, who is a neuroscientist with a keen interest in multilingualism both personally and professionally, who came up with the idea for celebrating multilingualism on 27th March. We had recorded some podcasts together for The Language Revolution and had been talking for months about how to unite the many excellent grassroots initiatives around multilingualism run by our friends, colleagues, and Twitter contacts. Gathering around the #multilingualisnormal hashtag and trying to create an online place to connect, regardless of timezones or geography, seemed like a simple way to celebrate the diversity of what everyone is doing anyway. There’s honestly nothing special about multilingualism: it’s the most normal thing in the world! Sometimes in the UK, multilingualism seems exotic and unusual, but that’s because English is such a dominant language. If you go for example to Singapore, India, or South Africa, multilingualism is absolutely standard. Speaking one language is actually the exception, since at least 60% (perhaps even 80%) of people around the world are multilingual as a simple matter of daily routine.
Why is celebrating multilingualism so important?
Personally I felt that I’d missed out on years of potential multilingualism because I grew up in rural Worcestershire, and only learned French and German at school. I want my children to be aware of languages and cultures beyond their immediate surroundings, and it’s always my children that inspire me to celebrate multilingualism. I don’t feel the excuse that ‘everyone speaks English’ is a valid reason for not having a go. English is made up of German, Old Norse, French and Latin, with tons of borrowings from other languages (even our lockdown staples of sofas, pyjamas and pizzas!) I’m passionate about helping people see that they are already multilingual, even if they ‘only speak English’. So for me it’s really about shaking off the tired stereotype of British people being rubbish at languages, because it’s definitely a tired old cliché and holding us back! If we celebrated multilingualism, including English, perhaps we would reverse the worrying decline in language study in the UK… I live in hope!
Have you encountered any problems when setting up the International Day of Multilingualism? Have you experienced any ‘wins’ regarding the IDM?
The IDM has been really well received around the world. We reached 1.6m people in 2019 with the #multilingualisnormal hashtag, even though Thomas only thought of the idea at the start of March! In 2020 we were newly locked down, which meant we could not organise a physical event to visit the Rosetta Stone as we had planned. But we still reached over a million people. Hopefully in 2021 we can reach even more with your help!
Besides celebrating online on the 27th March, how can we celebrate multilingualism for the rest of the year?
That’s a great question! I think there’s a misconception that multilingualism means being fluent in lots of languages, but we are keen for people to celebrate every little bit of their language(s). Perhaps the word ‘plurilingual’ is more apt to describe having a little bit of different languages in our linguistic repertoire, which we use for different purposes depending on the people and contexts we are speaking with/in.
As a teacher, I would love to see schools celebrating the languages of their EAL pupils through encouraging translanguaging as part of their thinking and learning processes, and bringing English literacy, MFL and EAL closer together. It always seems such a shame to me that English and ‘foreign’ languages are kept so separate, when really all languages share a great deal in common.
Michael Rosen suggested keeping a WOW Wall of Words in our podcast together, and this could be a great way of encouraging children to notice language, little phrases, funny idioms, meaningful words to them, and bringing them together. On Twitter we regularly tweet with #multilingualisnormal so everyone is welcome to join the hashtag and celebrate multilingualism all year round. People talk, it’s just what humans do!
2021 marks the third celebration of the IDM. Where do you see the future of the International Day of Multilingualism?
It would be fantastic to see it grow and become an official day for celebrating multilingualism in any shape or form. There’s no agenda really, but we are delighted to be working with Richard Simcott from the Polyglot Conference this year to create an online space for talking about multilingualism from daybreak in NZ to midnight in Hawaii on 27th March. Perhaps one day we will have a conference in person? Bringing people together around a common purpose is what languages do best, isn’t it?
Interview by Rebecca Smithson
Cate interviewed our Director Charlotte Ryland on The Language Revolution podcast. You can listen here.
The Stephen Spender Prize: The Winners 2020
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. 2020 saw a record number of entries, with over 1,300 poems translated out of 80 languages. We are pleased to feature here interviews with three of the winners: Megan Turtle (16-and-under), who translated a poem from Russian; Maryam Zaidi (18-and-under), who translated a poem from Italian; and Stuart Lyons (Open), who translated a poem from Chinese.
I chose to enter the Stephen Spender Prize to challenge myself to use my language skills to translate a poem – something which I have never done before. I really enjoyed the puzzle of choosing words that best fitted the language and mood of the original poem even when there wasn’t a direct translation.
How did you pick a poem to translate?
I have studied Russian for four years now, but before entering the competition, I had never looked at or read any Russian poetry so finding a poem was the first challenge. When I came across Brodsky’s poem ‘Не выходи из комнаты’, I knew I had found the perfect poem. I was immediately drawn to its strict rhyme scheme, beautiful use of language and ingenious word play. After a little digging on the internet, I found a recording of Brodsky reading the poem aloud. This was like finding gold! I listened to the recording over and over again to understand the way the poem sounded and the power of repetition. It proved invaluable when I was beginning the translation process because as a beginner, I do not have the ear of a native speaker and so a reading of the poem was just what I needed.
Was this your first translation? What did you learn from the translation process?
This was not only my first translation of a Russian poem, but my first translation of any poem. I really enjoyed the process of selecting words and weaving and rearranging them into an order that best reflected the original poem’s meaning and mood. The power of translation is immense, and it is such an incredible feeling to know that you are giving a long-dead poet’s work a new lease of life and enabling those who do not speak Russian to experience Brodsky’s brilliance.
What was your biggest challenge in translating this poem? Why?
The biggest challenge that I faced in translating the poem was maintaining Brodsky’s strict AABB rhyme scheme. I did consider abandoning rhyme at one point, but I stuck with it because it is rhyme that unites the poem’s six stanzas and draws the reader through the poem, from beginning to end. Rhyme, along with meter, is vital if a poet wishes to make language lyrical and so I really wanted to maintain this musical quality in my translation. My favourite rhyme in the poem is in the fourth stanza: 'боссанову' (bossa nova) and 'босу ногу' (bare foot). They are pronounced in an almost identical way yet have very different meanings. This was difficult to reflect in English, so I chose to instead use internal rhymes such as 'undresses, caresses'.
In your commentary, you mentioned that you felt the poem was particularly pertinent to the UK in lockdown. Did the coronavirus pandemic affect your translation process in any way?
Yes, the coronavirus pandemic definitely affected my translation process. It was during lockdown that I translated the poem, and I chose the poem largely because of its relevance to life under the shadow of Covid-19. I was drawn to the elements of the poem that were closest to my experiences of lockdown and so I spent more time on these phrases to make sure anybody who read my translation could find little pieces of their lockdown experience stitched into the fabric of the poem.
What was it like to be involved in the virtual awards event?
The virtual awards event was a wonderful opportunity to listen to the other winners and commendees of both the adult and youth categories read their translations aloud and witness the personal connection that everyone had to their chosen poem. Prior to the awards event, the youth category winners and commendees also got the opportunity to attend a virtual poetry workshop with Kate Clanchy which was a fabulous chance to discuss how each of us came to translation and the languages each of spoke or are learning. It was amazing to talk to people who were bi- or even trilingual, as well as those who had translated a poem from a language they had never studied before. We also wrote and then shared some poems of our own.
What advice would you give to someone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation next year?
The piece of advice I would give to someone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize next year, would be to just have a go! I had never translated a poem before, and I don’t read or write any poetry myself, but it really doesn’t matter. Choose a poem that you like and have a connection to and just begin. I also found it useful to decide before beginning the translation process what elements of the original poem were most important to me. What components do you want to preserve? Maybe it’s the rhyme scheme, the meter, a repeating image or symbol, the way the poem looks on the page or perhaps the mood that the original poem’s language creates. This is really helpful because it gives you some structure when you begin translating and means you always have the original poem in your mind, your eye and your ear.
I chose to enter the Stephen Spender Prize for a change in experience. I’m really interested in learning languages, and this prize allowed me to explore language as not merely a tool for communication, but also from a creative and flexible perspective; translation of poetry provides a sort of freedom in expression which I hadn’t explored that much.
How did you pick a poem to translate?
At school during Italian literature, we started looking at differing styles of Italian poetry: Leopardi, D’Annunzio, Montale etc. Because of that, I looked into Montale and came across ‘I limoni’ which immediately resonated with me. Off-the-bat the poem shows that it doesn’t focus on the ‘superior’ poetry of laureate poets. This non-aggrandising, non-florid style and, most importantly, the personal aspect of the poem drew me to translate it.
Was this your first translation? What did you learn from the translation process?
‘I limoni’ was my first formal translation of this kind - I’ve been more used to the linear type of translation that is usually taught for use in essays and exams. It was refreshing to be able to go through this creative translation process where you have more artistic licence. I learnt that with this kind of process, it’s not a case of whether something is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, it’s much more fluid. I also realised that sometimes it’s really beneficial to just walk away from your work for a while, and then come back to it with fresh eyes.
The judges commended your translation for ‘its lyric sensibility and ability to inspire hope through an appreciation of nature's bounty’. What do you think of the final result of your translation? Would you do anything differently next time?
I think the final result of my translation was effective in the manner I wanted it to be. I wanted to do justice to the incredible subtleties and range of emotions that are expressed by Montale - for example this sense of nostalgia and ultimately the sense of the poet’s contentment. We as humans experience these feelings seen in ‘I limoni’ universally; I attempted to make this atmosphere, that is so clear in Italian, equally felt in English, and I’m very glad that the judges recognised it! To answer the second question, I don’t think I would change anything, not because the translation is perfect, but because I wouldn’t want the translation to end up sounding too forced or overdone. Working on any creative form too much takes away the certain ‘je ne sais quoi' of the end result.
What was it like to be involved in the virtual awards event?
It was unique in that the videos of everyone giving renditions of their winning poetry were quite diverse in their location, delivery and mood, which was fun to see. We’ve had to adapt to this covid-19 world, and I think that it’s great that we can still have awards events, even if they’re virtual.
How do you think you’ll progress with your language skills?
I’m trying to keep up my language skills at university, and I think that the only way to progress is to practise as much as possible and to enjoy doing it. I’ve also just started to learn a new language, and it’ll be interesting to see how that’ll help me develop my current language skills.
Will translation play a role in your future, do you think?
I’m not completely sure what I want to do in the future but I’m currently in my first year at university studying art history, and I have a great passion for art and fashion - so I’d like for languages to play a large role in my future in terms of communication, culture, travel and the art world.
What advice would you give to someone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation next year?
I would say it is a really wonderful opportunity to hone your language skills and apply them to something a bit more creative in contrast to how languages are usually approached as a subject in the curriculum, for example. I would also say that even if you are questioning applying - just give it a try; you might surprise yourself.
What was your process for selecting a poem to translate?
It happened by chance. Xu Zhimo attended my old college King’s College, Cambridge, as a research graduate in 1921-22 and studied English Literature and Moral Science. He fell in love with the English Romantic poets and set himself the goal of reinventing Chinese poetry with western rhythmic and rhyming schemes and everyday language. He became one of the most influential intellectuals in China and his iconic status was underpinned by his death in an aircraft accident in 1931. Today, his poem ‘Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again’ is recited by students throughout the country.
There is a Xu Zhimo Memorial Garden across the bridge at King’s which, in non-Covid times, has been visited by thousands of Chinese tourists each year. Although my career has been in industry, I am a fellow commoner of the College and thought it would be a good idea to write a book to mark the centenary of his arrival. I discovered ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’ in the course of my research. It contains a wonderfully vivid description of the Cambridgeshire sunset seen through a sort of Chinese lens. Xu describes the phases of the closing day in a poem that is beautifully observed, and he achieved what no other Chinese poet had done, the successful transfer of English rhythm and rhyme into Chinese vernacular. I decided to choose this poem as one of 24 which will appear in my book ‘Xu Zhimo in Cambridge – life and poetry’ which is due to come out in spring 2021, and anyone who would like to know more is welcome to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
In your commentary for the Stephen Spender judges, you give some detail on how Joyce’s Ulysses impacted Xu Zhimo’s style. Did you consult Ulysses, or any other works for that matter, during the translation process? If so, what did you hope to glean from them?
When Xu came to Cambridge, he had already read The Brook Kerith which was published in 1916 by the Irish novelist George Moore. The book created a stir not just for its supposedly blasphemous account of Jesus but for its minimal punctuation and long paragraphs. In the last chapter of Ulysses, Molly’s monologue, James Joyce was strongly influenced by Moore’s innovation. I looked through both texts – it was some years since I had last read Ulysses – to understand Xu’s drivers. As Xu explained in his introductory note to ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, ‘A snake does not need feet in order to move, and a poem does not need punctuation.’ He described the final pages of Ulysses as ‘pure prose, pure as cheese, silky-smooth, as clear as a stone altar in a church’.
Given these comments, it seemed obvious to me that the double inverted commas that occur three times in the standard Chinese text of ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, as well as one exclamation mark, were interpolations by a later editor. Xu overcomes the need for punctuation through the clarity of his writing. At the time, this was a revolutionary step, and it was an experiment that Xu did not repeat in this particular form. However, it helped me to plot the development of his poetic writing. For example, in some other poems of his Cambridge period, Xu writes using the Chinese equivalent of iambic pentameters but in a continuum without textual line breaks. On the other hand, he is the first Chinese writer of sonnets, which he models on Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and on one occasion uses Edward Lear’s limerick form. He also makes regular use of rhyming quatrains, following Wordsworth and Blake.
You’ve previously translated Latin (you mentioned The Odes of Horace in your description of your experience with SST). How would you say it differs from translating from Chinese?
In any verse translation, the aim, I believe, should be to convert the original into English poetry that stands up in its own right. Horace wrote his Odes in metres derived from the Greek lyric poets who lived and sang five hundred years earlier. The Alcaic and Sapphic metres are what articulates the poetry. My aim was to convert his Odes not into Greek or Latin rhythms, but into rhyming verse that would strike a chord with the English reader. Take these two examples:
1. felices ter et amplius
quos irrupta tenet copula nec malis
suprema citius solvet amor die.
Thrice happy those and more than thrice
Whom an unbroken love knot ties;
No harsh word will their true love fray
Until they reach their dying day.
2. huc vina et unguenta et nimium brevis
flores amoenae ferre iube rosae,
dum res et aetas et sororum
fila trium patiuntur atra
Here, send for wine and perfumes sweet,
The flowers of the rose soon dead,
While age and circumstance permit,
And the three Fates spin their black thread!
I found translating from Chinese much more difficult. In order to understand how the poetry sounds, it’s first necessary to transliterate the Chinese characters into pinyin. In my case, I was armed only with an ancient GCE in Modern Standard Chinese, an Oxford Chinese Dictionary, and a magnifying glass. Only when you understand the Chinese sound as well as the meaning, can you begin the poetic task of translating. Sometimes, too, there are hidden meanings in the Chinese character itself. For example, the ‘farewell flute’ in ‘Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again’ conveys meaning not just through the sound 笙箫 (‘shēng xiāo’) but through the bamboo signs on top of each character.
Turning to ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, the rigour and consistency of Xu’s rhyming scheme develop as the poem progresses. In the fifth stanza, the pinyin clearly calls for an ABABCC sequence, and it may be helpful if I try to explain the challenges and process of translation:
wǎnxiá zài tiánlǒng mò shàng
mò shàng tián lǒng xíng rén zhǒngzhǒng
báifà de lǎo fù lǎo wēng
qū gōng késòu lóngzhōng
nóngfū gōng bà huí jiā
jiān chú shǒu lán kǒu xián gū bā
The low fields in the fens are separated by raised tracks that can escape flooding. I could have ended the first line with a number of one-syllable words: track, lane, road, field. The clue lay in the third line, which translated simply and rhythmically: ‘white-haired old women and old men’. In the second line, I liked the rhythm and alliteration of ‘walk folk of all kinds’, but held ‘kinds’ in reserve, bearing in mind the alternatives of ‘sorts’ or ‘folk’ for the last word. The determining line was the fourth: ‘qū gōng késòu lóngzhōng’, which literally means ‘bend stoop cough senile’. I opted for a contrast between bodies and minds, which could rhyme with ‘kinds’, and I preferred the alliteration and assonance of ‘splutter’ to ‘cough’.
In the stanza’s last couplet, the final line gave little room for poetic licence. Xu’s basket had one syllable too many, so I chose ‘trug’ which gardeners will be familiar with. The challenge was how to find a rhyme for mushroom. Xu had only used six syllables in the fourth and fifth lines; an English translation demanded more. Besides, I felt Xu had missed a trick artistically in the baldness of his description: ‘nóngfū gōng bà huí jiā’, meaning ‘farmers stop work return home’. That is how I came up with the near rhymes ‘rush home’ and ‘mushroom’:
sunset glows on the field-ridge lane
on the track through the field walk folk of all kinds
white-haired old women and old men
bent bodies stoop splutter senile minds
farmers stop work and prepare to rush home
shoulder hoe hand trug mouth bite mushroom
Was there anything in the original poem that you found difficult to convey? Why?
The entire process was challenging. First, Xu Zhimo is describing the phases of a Cambridgeshire sunset as seen through an acute Chinese eye, and he uses imagery not all of which is familiar to the English senses. Secondly, he uses many duplicated characters: sometimes, but not always, I was able to recapture them, as in ‘lush lush dense dense shagginess’ (stanza 1, line 3), ‘hugger-mugger hush hush’ (stanza 2, line 1) and ‘pip-pip-pitter-patter afloat’ (stanza 3, line 4). Thirdly, accurate translation is not enough in conveying poetic sensibility. The original poet’s thoughts and images have to be conveyed in a manner that strikes an emotional chord with the English-speaking reader. In the case of ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’, Xu expresses a series of images in discrete unpunctuated lines, and each one requires a word picture that is as striking and evocative in English as in the original Chinese.
What was your biggest challenge in translating this poem? Why?
The biggest challenge was whether I could be brave enough. Brave enough not to compromise, not to worry about what the judges might think. Brave enough to write what I believed was true and truthful, a poem with which Xu Zhimo would have been pleased. Probably the third stanza, which one of the judges described as ‘irreverent’, is the bravest:
a bold star arrogantly rides
like a bumptious little boat
braving cloud-billows cloud-tides
pip-pip pitter-patter afloat
in a blink the dusk-blaze subsides
see you later mate
For those who raised their eyebrows at the last line, I should say that the meaning is precisely that given in the Oxford Chinese Dictionary.
Knowing, too, that my translations and my future book, would be scrutinized by Xu Zhimo’s family, did I have the courage to explain the fourth line of the sixth stanza: ‘fat smug fluffy beijing retires’, a rather cruel reference to Xu’s young wife? The poem was written in spring 1922, after he had read Ulysses. It was not published until July 1923. But the scene Xu describes is the summer of 1921 when his marriage with Zhang Youyi was breaking up. Her condition was due to her being in her first trimester of pregnancy.
Was there anything rewarding about the process of entering the competition? If so, what?
It was only after I had translated my first version of ‘Wild West Cambridge at Dusk’ that I thought it was worth searching online for a competition where it could be judged against its peers. The Stephen Spender Prize came top of the list for poetry in translation. What was rewarding came six months later. When I was told that my entry had been chosen as winner of the open category, I nervously reviewed it. Even though I had won, I felt it would benefit from a couple of improvements and was enormously grateful to Charlotte Rylands for giving me her permission. So the process of entering the competition led to a better poem that would otherwise have been the case.
What was it like to be involved in the virtual awards event?
I was very impressed by the range and quality of the entrants, particularly the younger people. I made a video as requested of myself reading the poem, and invited friends and family from across the world to be at the event. It’s amazing how good things can come out of bad. Because of the lockdown, the reach of the virtual awards event was phenomenal. I had viewers from the USA, Canada, Tanzania, Hong Kong and China. Xu Zhimo’s grandson sent a message of appreciation. Everyone was particularly touched by the achievement of the younger competitors.
What advice would you give to someone considering entering the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation next year?
From reading the judges’ comments and the other prizewinning entries, I formed the view that the quality of the poem selected is paramount. A good translation of a boring poem will not cut it. A slightly flawed translation of a brilliant poem may well be recognized. So my first word of advice is: choose a poem that you really believe in, a poem that moves you. My second is: try to convey the spirit of the poem, not just the words, in your translation. And third, avoid a ‘free verse’ translation, if you can, and respect the rhythms and the rhyming scheme of your model.
Virtual Adventures in Collaborative Translation
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 , Médecin de campagne , and Première Année .
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.
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.‘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.
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’.‘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.
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.
A Review of Impostures by al-Hariri, trans. Michael Cooperson
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
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.
A Poetry Residency with 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
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 Ajax – 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
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,
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
'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
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.
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
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
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
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: 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
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.