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Talking Translation at London Book Fair 2016

  • By Kayla Simpson-George
  • 22nd April 2016
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Our programme intern, Kayla Simpson-George, attended several translation-focussed events at this year's London Book Fair. In the blog below, she reflects on some of the themes and issues that were highlighted.

This year’s London Book Fair took place 12-14 April at Kensington Olympia, attracting more than 1,000 exhibitors and 20,000 visitors. Free Word were one of the partners for the Literary Translation Centre, the hub for publishers and translators. Over the three days, several topical issues were explored by a specialist panel.

Free Word’s Translator in Residence, Marta Dziurosz, opened at the Literary Translation Centre on Tuesday 12 April by chairing the discussion ‘Non-native Translation: Is it time to rethink where good translations come from?’ Alongside Marta, the panel included Polish-English literary translator, Tuesday Bhambry; translator of Chinese fiction, Nicky Harman; journalist, author, Turkish-English translator and academic, Maureen Freely; and freelance translator, Julia Sherwood.

Among the panel and within the world of translation, there are mixed views on whether non-native translators should translate into English. Some follow the view that a translator’s second language will never be developed to a high enough standard to be able to translate into English from it. On the other hand, there is the view that “the proof is in the pudding”, as Marta expressed on several occasions. If a translator believes that they can translate to a high standard of English, then I share the same view of some on the panel that they should be allowed to do so.

There was a lot of discussion about what being “native” really means. Julia Sherwood spoke of the fact that more people are now truly bilingual, and I find this to be a good point. In a society where people have such diverse backgrounds, it is not uncommon to be born in one country but brought up in another, speaking one language at home and another with friends. This ambiguity makes it difficult to say that one should only translate in their “native” language.

Nicky Harman suggested that, unless a language is your first language, you shouldn’t translate into it. There can often be mistakes in copy because of how different the languages are; from letters in the alphabet to the misinterpretation of particular phrases and colloquialisms. Nicky went on to use dictionaries as an example, saying how a direct translation does not always express what an author intended to say. Nicky works mostly with Chinese translation, and, for her, the division between Chinese and English is very clear. She would never attempt to translate into Chinese as she believes she wouldn’t have an adequate understanding of the language.

Another view focussed on co-translation and the relationship between translator and editor, working together to make sure copy is correct and registers well.

The question of non-native translation wasn’t resolved within the hour, but with the topic being so controversial within the translation industry, there was never going to be an easy answer. One thing that came through clearly was that, while there is much disagreement about non-native translation, ultimately it comes down to the ability of the translator. As Maureen Freely said, ‘every translator needs to find what suits them best’.

On Wednesday I attended the discussion ‘Translator as Activism: From politics to cultural change, how translators are changing the world through their work’. This panel was chaired by the chief executive of Writers’ Centre Norwich, Chris Gribble, and speakers included manager of English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme, Erica Jarnes, and literary activist, poet and publisher, Kadija Sesay.

For me, activism within a translation context is all about finding a way to connect people’s stories through literature. The discussion focused on the role a translator plays within countries where there is limited freedom of expression, and also how access to literary resources can help develop international writers and get their work translated.

Kadija Sesay works closely with African writers and poets and believes that writers should be encouraged to tell stories in their own language, and that we should look at understanding each other’s cultures through language. Current schemes exist, such as the African Poetry Library Initiative which supplies small, user-friendly poetry reading libraries on the African continent. This supports poets by giving them access to contemporary poetry.

There is much being done in the literary world to get more international authors published and translated into English. Erica Jarnes runs English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme, which seeks out the best literature from around the world, and there was talk of English PEN’s upcoming work on translation and activism being set up in the next few years.

Erica shared her view that translation gives people a voice:

Writers from prisons, in exile and refuge, those perspectives are important and we are moving away from translators being invisible to working with writers to get their voices heard.

One issue touched upon was the role the translator plays and the responsibility they have to their authors. For example, if an author has come from a country of war, censorship and corruption, even though the book is not necessarily being published in their home country, would there be consequences if word got back? Would the author’s or translator’s life be in danger? Though of course, an awareness of the risks doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done, and there is actually an increase in translators applying to work in contested areas.

These were just two events of the many that took place throughout London Book Fair. English PEN’s Literary Salon had a variety of guest speakers, including Russian author Alisa Ganeiva, who spoke about her latest novel The Mountain and the Wall; Sonia Draga presented a short introduction to the Polish book market; and the Literary Translation Centre hosted an intriguing discussion about promoting international writers, and how translation has changed over the years.

This was my first London Book Fair and it was such an exciting atmosphere. Of course, I didn’t have time to go to all of the talks and stands that I wanted to, but what I was able to attend was insightful, provoking and a lot of fun. I look forward to attending next year.

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