I've been thinking about what happens when writers talk about translation, and when translators talk about our work. Mostly I've been thinking about it because I saw Adam Thirlwell and Cees Nooteboom last week, talking about translation. But there have been a few other things on my mind, like the website Authors & Translators and a recent translation slam and that Radio 4 show I wrote about a while ago.
So here's what I think has been happening: I think that informed readers in general have become more interested in the translation process and in translated literature. It's a wonderful, delightful thing, but I'm not sure why it's happened.
It could be because translators have become more vocal now that we can make ourselves heard via the internet. In my experience, many translators are rather introverted – not the kind of people to shout about our work on a soap-box. I sometimes wonder if that's because we're used to hiding behind a writer, or whether we choose our profession because we want someone to hide behind. But blogging or even tweeting is an unobtrusive way to communicate; nobody's forced to listen but if they want to hear what we have to say, they can.
Another reason I find plausible is that the internet gives us myriad niches to talk about obscure things, like international fiction. If I imagine the internet as a school playground, then the very odd kids gathered in one corner talking translation seem to be exerting a strange pull on some of those playing marbles in the middle, merely by having an interesting and passionate conversation. And some of the odd kids in another corner, the ones talking about their own writing, are getting lured in as well.
I mean, a lot of people who talk about books are writers, maybe unpublished ones or maybe famous ones or maybe the kind who've been meaning to write a novel for years now but never quite... And now they've started to talk about translation, because of the general fascination or because they've always been the kind of people who like to talk about Tolstoy. Many of them have been on the receiving end of translation, and a few of them have tried it out for themselves (Franzen, Thirlwell, Parks...). But the problem I see is that the two conversations aren't coming together. So what we often get is writers talking about translation in the form of anecdotes about their experiences, and translators talking about writing and translation separately.
The problem with anecdotes about translation from non-translators is that most of the funniest ones are about where it goes wrong, usually on the word level. That's what Nooteboom gave us in Berlin this week, and of course we all laughed awkwardly, and that's what David Baddiel gave us on Radio 4 in August. Thirlwell tried his best to balance out the negative with his sheer enthusiasm for the act of translation and for the new possibilities it opens up. He sums it up in an interview (German) with Die Zeit - although the anecdote about Flaubert is actually about Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot. But without a translator on the stage, or involved in the conversation, the narrative of this kind of talking about translation is often arranged around things getting lost, or misunderstood, or simply not working. What we rarely hear about is the creative input involved – very possibly because some writers simply aren't fully aware of it.
And then we have the translation slam. I've never been to one but I do have to rectify that as soon as possible. I think part of the point is for translators to show (and tell) what we do and how many ways there are to go about it. Danny Hahn and Rosalind Harvey talked about it in the Independent the other day. There, Simon Usborne calls the writer/translator split illustrative of "a cultural difference between symbiotic trades". I rather like that. Ros Harvey puts it like this: "Translators are often described as writers with less ego. It's nice to be behind the scenes putting an author on a world stage
but it's also nice to win a bit of glory."
There are occasions when writers and translators take the stage together, though, and what I'd like would be to see those events shift their emphasis slightly. In the past, the standard format would be something like: chair, translated writer, translator. Chair asks writer questions, translator interprets and possibly reads from her work. On one shocking occasion, a chair introduced the writer at length and told the audience the translator's first name only. I think we've been changing the game over the past few years though. When And Other Stories organizes readings with writers and translators, for instance, the translator is asked questions of her own. I've been on stage with writers I've translated using a fairly simple format, where we ask each other questions and then let the audience ask us some more, with short readings in between. And in Berlin, the International Literature Award invites both writer and translator on stage for chit-chat. But while one event I saw at this year's International Literary Festival featured both writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus and his translator Thomas Pletzinger, another left Ben Marcus's translator Thomas Melle firmly out of things and had an actor reading his words. The odd thing is that in both cases, the translator is a novelist in his own right.
So here is what I'd like: I'd like people who organize events or radio programmes or conversations about translation to involve both sides of the equation at the same time. I'd like writers to deflate their egos enough to make room on stage for translators' smaller ones. I'd like translators to learn to speak for ourselves in public rather than only as interpreters for our writers, and to inflate our own egos a little. I'd like to see exactly the conversation that took place between Adam Thirlwell and Cees Nooteboom, only with a translator having her say too. Yes, that's it.