The founder of Babel festival reflects on its genesis and investigates the role of translation and multilingualism in fostering community.
Babel, a literary festival focused on translation, was created in 2006 in Bellinzona, the tiny capital of the Italian side of Switzerland. Cultural debate had largely been exiled from the media at the time, and was seeking refuge in public space. For us, this meant large, lively crowds gathered, determined to listen to authors discussing their work. We chose to expose this invigorated audience to one of the most neglected yet fundamental aspects of literary creation: translation. Back then, a translated book would still often be published without mention of the translator’s name.
Things have changed considerably, and I’m proud that we played a part in this process in our own way, offering workshops for literary translators, writing articles, organising conferences, publishing books and collaborating with likeminded institutions. From the very beginning, we understood translation as something deep and urgent. Ricoeur discusses translation as ‘linguistic hospitality’: a practice that prompts you to meet the other in their land in order to be able to invite them into your own home. A translator must master the structure of a foreign language, but also the particular ways it is used in different contexts and its cultural significance. In a wider sense, this is a model for other kinds of hospitality, which is particularly pressing and necessary in a multicultural and migrating world, a world in transformation and transit.
Throughout the years, Babel explored regions with translation at their very heart. The Balkans, that tangle of linguistic and historical similarities and clashes. The ‘United English of America’: writers who migrated to the US from all over the world and adopted English as their writing language. Palestine, with myriad diasporic languages and the seeming impossibility of return. Francophone Africa, and the struggle for artistic liberation from relentless cultural colonisation. The Caribbean, with its unique appropriation and reinvention of what colonial powers left behind: the French, English, Dutch and Spanish languages and literary traditions.
In 2016, after Babel’s 10th edition, we decided to shake things up. In June, we organised a one-day Babel in London, inviting authors from the world over who had adopted English for their writing language. I wrote London as a Second Language, a small book that will now be published in an expanded version, asking a dozen foreign authors living in London to write about their city and second language. And in September, we invited London-based foreign writers to Bellinzona, for a ‘Greater London’ edition.
This allows me to shift this text from the ‘Atlas’ element of our experience to the ‘English PEN’ one. The major discovery of this year-long work on London is that the diversity of people on any one of its buses is far from represented in what I must now call the establishment (a word I’ve never used before because I’ve never trusted it). The variety of languages and cultures in the city seems to be seen as an issue to be somehow tolerated, rather than as richness, potential or exhilaration. Working with young people from around the world, we witnessed the forbidding of mother tongues at school and a general lack of interest in any experience prior to their arrival to the UK. Working with writers from around the world, we heard resentment for the demands of editors and agents: ‘explain more for the English reader’, ‘fit in more with the English tradition’.
Conserving traditions is definitely important. But at what cost? Is immovable denial of the vitality of what’s happening outside the canon really worth it?
To be confronted with such issues at the core of London’s literary scene came as a surprise: London is multicultural, yet its culture, and especially the literary one, remains monolingual, both in the strict and the metaphorical sense.
This experience helped us appreciate something about where we come from: how Swiss multilingualism is not simply a reality, but a mental attitude that considers the variety of languages a positive asset. Far from being a nationalistic outburst, this is a vital effect of linguistic hospitality in action. So, it makes a lot of sense that Babel was created in Switzerland; at the same time, we now believe that Babel itself can approach others, bringing with it the gift of openness to the multiple, complex and fertile effects of translation in all forms.
I am writing this in Ramallah, where I discover that in Arabic the word adab means both ‘literature’ and ‘good manners’. We have just launched a new project: Specimen – The Babel Review of Translations, a multilingual and typographical web magazine. The launch took place at art biennale Qalandiya International, where the theme was ‘This sea is mine’. Specimen was created in a region of lakes: along the coast of most lakes the sentence ‘This lake is mine’ would be uttered in the same language. Along the shore of a sea, the sentence ‘This sea is mine’ is pronounced in many different languages. Just like the seashore, Specimen aims to host a variety of languages, publishing texts in any language, translated into any language, in a non-systematic way that contrasts, in its streamlet way, an oceanic claim of the English language: that it rules the waves.
‘The pages of the sea are a book left open by an absent master,’ writes Derek Walcott and, after a week of immersion in the Arabic language, I hear the sea’s unwritten pages now turning from left to right.