International Translation Day

International Translation Day event at King’s Place on Friday 5th October 2012 by Roland Glasser

(this article originally appeared in issue 40 of In Other Words)

Not so long ago, a literary translator’s year was a long and somewhat lonely one. In late November, we would gather for the Translators’ Association AGM, and a litany of not-so-good news that the red wine and friendly greetings could only partially assuage. April would find us braving the hugger-mugger of London Book Fair, hoping to make that vital publishing connection. With any luck, we might just stumble upon an equally weary fellow-translator with whom to share a cardboard cup of cruddy coffee.

Now though, there’s a pleasing seasonality to our year. The Literary Translation Centre makes LBF a joy rather than a chore, and International Translation Day gets the year going with a bang!

As befits its growing popularity and scope, ITD has moved to the larger venue of King’s Place. The day started with a spirited consideration of the state of our translation nation, ended with the awarding of the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, and was filled with an exciting range of seminars and talks.

State of the Nation
Although ‘publishers of translation are still the poor cousins of the industry’ (Christopher Maclehose), the picture is far from bleak. Alexandra Büchler revealed the exciting research being done by Literature Across Frontiers to discover who is really reading what. For example, it’s virtually pointless to focus on translation as a percentage of the whole (the famous 3%), since that includes genres such as cookery or celebrity biography (both accounting for massive sales, but neither likely to be the focus of translation anytime soon). Once you focus on serious literature and drama, the figure rises to 4.5%.

Jonathan Ruppin (Foyles) pointed out that in our globalised culture, ‘fiction is the way people explore the world around them’. At Foyles, they always have a table loaded with staff picks of translated fiction, although we might dream that one day translation shall dwell happily alongside native English literature on the same table! But why only fiction? Boyd Tonkin was not alone in wanting to see much more translation of good non-fiction. Of course, the problem with non-fiction of a journalistic nature (as Christopher Maclehose pointed out), is that today’s news gets old very quickly, making it hard to sell a book a year or so down the line. That said, other types of non-fiction may increasingly find a home outside of conventional publishing, such as through museums or galleries.

Finally, Alexandra Büchler reminded us that we shouldn’t forget the many ways that we access literature beyond books, such as through blogs, magazines (Words Without Borders; Transcript) and at live events.

Reader engagement
What could be more engaging than asking the world’s readers for their book tips? Ann Morgan is close to completing a fascinating project: to read one book from every country in the world in the course of a year ( She knew it would be a challenge, but hadn’t bargained on the flood of suggestions she started to receive just a few hours after publishing her first blog article. Ann is to be applauded not only for her feat of reading derring-do, but also for her well-researched and carefully crafted articles that have stimulated such a wonderful international conversation about literature.

But narrow-minds still inhabit the publishing world, unable or unwilling to fully grasp that reader engagement must include all readers. I was shocked to hear the relatively young co-owner of a fairly new small publishing house question the usefulness of some blogs: ‘what does some 20-year old know about whether a book is good or not?’ she snorted. The audience visibly shuddered.

Poetry in Translation
Speaking in soft, Welsh tones, Stephen Watt revealed that he translates because he is a poet and is therefore interested in languages he doesn’t speak. He explained how he worked with Persian poet Ziba Karbassi. They sat together at a table, her own literal English translation of her text in front of him. As she read the original, he paid careful attention to her body language, to the rhythm and timbre of her voice. This was a truly collaborative process.

Clare Pollard mentioned how many poetry readers deliberately avoid reading poetry in translation. They don’t see the point. Clare, however, is an ardent defender of translated poetry, but insists on the need to make it work in English for the word geeks. She champions the work and ethos of the Poetry Translation Centre, which brings poets and linguists together to produce translations of other poets’ texts.

Nowhere is the tension between meaning and form quite as vital as in poetry translation. How much weight do you give to the sound, the metre, the rhyme? How much to the sense? Stephen explained that different literary cultures place more or less emphasis on meaning or form. For example, the Hungarian poetic tradition places great importance on rhyme, and so it’s really important to keep it. However, the opposite is the case in certain African traditions.

Finally, Clare made the very important point that it is misleading to judge poetry popularity by book sales alone, since most poetry is experienced in other ways, be it readings, magazines or greetings cards.

Funding Translation
Christoph Jankowski (of the European Commission’s Cultural Programme) gave us some good news about EU funding of translation. Apparently, submissions relating to projects for translation into English are nearly always successful, as long as there’s something in the work that will enrich the European cultural space.

Koen Van Bockstad, Director of the Flemish Literature Fund, explained that they fund up to 60% of translation costs (including for graphic novels/comics); 100% for poetry or if the work is one of the 25 or so titles considered to be in the Flemish literary canon. He also mentioned alternative models such as crowd-funding, subscription or sponsorship from the private sector, although he stressed that none of these potential methods should be used as an excuse to cut public funding. Indeed, the Flemish regional government is currently experimenting with a scheme where every €1 crowd-funded would be matched by them.

Promotional Strategies
Rosa Anderson from Fiction Uncovered and Bethan Jones from Harvill Secker ran through some promotional strategies they have used to generate interest over the past year. Fiction Uncovered had a pop-up radio station (FictionFM) broadcasting from Foyles for 20 hours over four days, in addition to a podcast and a live stream on their website.

Harvill Secker have their International Writing blog, which is updated every Thursday to tie in with #translationthurs on Twitter. Ah yes, Twitter! The key seems to be to keep the dialogue active and fresh once you’ve engaged with your audience. @harvillsecker has approx 3,000 followers – what people like most is consistency of messages and tweets.

The Vintage podcast is a monthly 30 minute arts programme (no need to fight for space on Radio 4), allowing the publishers to speak directly to listeners/readers. The podcast (whole programme and individual interviews) is downloadable from iTunes. They reckon this has brought 37% more traffic to the Harvill Secker website in the past year.

Getting started in Translation
Experienced translator Amanda Hopkinson and former Free Word Translator in Residence Rosalind Harvey held a capacity crowd of emerging and aspiring literary translators enthralled as they talked about getting started in translation, discussed training and mentoring options, and dispensed generous helpings of advice and wisdom!

Other seminars
ITD participants also enjoyed seminars focussing on Translation in Schools, Touring and Live Literature Events, and The Rise of the Small Press, with contributions from acclaimed literary translator Sarah Ardizzone, teacher Sam Holmes, Sarah Sanders of live literature production company Speaking Volumes, Eleanor Livingstone of StAnza (Scotland’s International Poetry Festival), And Other Stories editor-at-large Sophie Lewis, and Marek Kamierski of Polish/English bilingual publishing house OFF-PRESS.

Shakespeare in Translation
Dominic Dromgoole and Tom Bird gave us a fascinating look behind the scenes of the amazing Globe to Globe season this summer that saw 37 of Shakespeare’s plays performed in 37 languages. They spoke of how cosmopolitan London was in Shakespeare’s time (‘swilling with languages’), of the English companies who toured Northern Europe to great acclaim, and that in many (mainly Eastern European) countries, Shakespeare’s plays have arguably become considerably more revered and well-known than in Britain. We learnt that not only is King John one of the most popular plays in Armenia, but that Prospero, Hamlet and Ophelia are all common first names there.

Next we were treated to a smörgåsbord of clips of international stage and film versions of Shakespeare’s plays, accompanied by insightful and highly engaging commentary from Tony Howard of Warwick University.

Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize
Chinese was the chosen language for the third annual Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, following Spanish last year and Arabic in 2010. First prize is a six-month mentorship with experienced literary translator Nicky Harman.

BCLT National Programme Director Daniel Hahn discussed the art of translation with Nicky Harman, writer Andrei Kurkov and Harvill Secker editor Briony Everroad, who explained that the prize was established to encourage the next generation of literary translators. Speaking from the floor, acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz spoke of how her experiences as a mentor had taught her much about her own practice.

Finally, Philip Hand walked onstage to accept the prize for his translation of Han Dong’s story The Wig (runners-up were Michael Day and Graham Faulkner). You may read Philip’s translation here.

The Long Day Closes
International Translation Day 2012 was a great success all round, with a wonderfully wide range of contributions, opinions, information and connections flowing through Kings Place’s warm wooden spaces.

See you next year?

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