The Polish–English literary translator reflects on the UK’s EU membership referendum – its tone and its aftermath – and considers the role of literary translators in this brave new world.
Meet A: Italian, fiercely bright and talkative in fluent English – it’s hard to believe he only arrived nine months ago. There’s R, shy about his Portuguese even though he used to help his mother with her translation work. B and G bicker jovially in Spanish all the time, but they both turn in honest, thoughtful writing about the difficulties of settling in the UK. Y writes in Spanish too, about being of Moroccan descent and being called „moro”.
They are all teenagers, students at a school in south London whom I met for a few weeks to do some creative writing and translation, in my capacity as the Free Word Centre’s Translator in Residence. They all went through the wrench of migration when they were very young; compared to them I had it easy when I moved from Poland to the UK in my late 20s. They will all grow up in a country going through a gigantic wrench of its own.
It’s impossible to predict the long-term consequences of the referendum. If these young people choose to stay in the UK, will their identities be subject to increased scrutiny, their multilingualism and difficult-to-pronounce surnames a cause for suspicion? If they stay and naturalise (are they not natural enough?), will they need a visa to attend a university in their birth country? How much more difficult will they find it to be in touch with all parts of who they are? If they chat with a friend in Portuguese on the bus, will someone tell them they were voted out of the country and should leave? Nobody knows, but this much is certain: people like them – people like me – were used in the lead-up to June 23rd as shorthand for everything that is wrong with the status quo.
The aftermath of the referendum was quite an emotional rollercoaster for me. I was angry that it called into question principles I valued in this country. I was angry that it would throw the UK into economic and political disarray. I was furious at the inevitable deepening of social divisions and the limitation of opportunities for science and culture. I felt a bit sorry for myself, for the years I spent learning and teaching English, immersing myself in British literature, culture and habits, translating English novels into Polish. In fact, I translate and interpret both ways – into and out of Polish – and have mediated between these two languages in more ways than I could have imagined when I first began an MA course taught entirely in English (although it was based in the good old Polish city of Sosnowiec).
Somewhere in Poland there’s a tape recording of a three-year-old me singing ‘Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?’ in a reedy little voice. I have my opinions about the right way to eat a scone (cream first, jam second) and the funniest sentence in Withnail and I (we can discuss it over a quadruple whisky). All this sticks in my craw slightly: now it seems like the UK doesn’t return the feelings.
More than for myself, I felt sorry for the people who felt so out of place in their own country that they were compelled to vote ‘Leave’, and immensely sorry for the immigrants who have been quietly (maybe illegally, probably precariously) working night shifts in hospitals, at Tube stations and for construction companies to keep things going. To say this was a slap in the face for them is an enormous understatement.
I felt grimly gleeful about the whole sorry spectacle and morbidly interested in how the UK intended to deal with this unprecedented situation. You want ‘Keep calm and carry on’ to feel like a real challenge again, not just a slogan on a tea towel? Here you have it.
I am aware that some people voted ‘Leave’ for reasons unrelated to the issue of immigration. However, what it means for those millions of us who live in the UK and are more than one thing, have more than one home (or none), more than one language, more than one passport (or none), is that suddenly another layer of decisions about us will be made without us. We’ll be present in this country only as shorthand, if at all. One would think that the UK – of all places – would have already processed both the idea that you might go abroad to improve your economic situation and the idea that it is possible and even desirable to integrate people from elsewhere into your society. But it seems there is some way to go on this.
Like immigrants, translators are more than one thing; we reach beyond, we mediate, provide hospitality, carry across (choose your favourite metaphor). We have found other cultures which fascinate us and which we feel have something valuable to say about being human. We’ve travelled, eaten surprising food, listened to music with unexpected rhythms, got lost in alien streets – and we’ve considered ourselves richer for all that, and wanted to share it.
Maybe we feel so frustrated by this new reality that we want to act.
My plea to translators is: go for longhand. Go against the tendency to simplify or eliminate. Put in the effort, in whatever way suits you best, to emphasise nuance. Remind people (readers, students, pupils, friends, users of local libraries, reading groups, festival audiences, community groups, prison writing groups, courts, cultural organisations, policy makers, neighbours, everyone else) of the worth of abundance and openness. If you can, go beyond the page and into volunteering, lobbying, creating opportunities. Other languages and cultures have sustained us – there’s no better time to return the favour.