Diego Marani, Italian author of the highly acclaimed New Finnish Grammar (2011) and The Last of the Vostyachs (2012), sat quietly and unassumingly at a table before a modest yet eager audience of some thirty people. He was accompanied by the translator of his two most recent novels, Judith Landry, whose translation into English of New Finnish Grammar has been shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize. In discussion with Dr Matthew Reynolds, fellow and tutor in English Language and Literature at St Anne’s College, whose interests lie particularly in creative translation, Marani talked openly about a range of issues.
Drawing on his experience as a Policy Officer for the European Union’s Directorate-General on Interpretation, he communicated his careful and refreshingly inconsistent thoughts on nationalism, cultural difference, linguistic barriers, and how the restrictions these divisive systems impose can be overcome. By refusing to tackle tricky issues such as cultural relativism, ethnic nationalisms, geographical borders and so on, Marani conveyed in his peaceful and modest tone his belief in language, in all its multiplicities, as a route to international understanding – through the eradication of xenophobic mythologies and an engagement with the richness other cultures have to offer. As Marani talked about his work for the EU, as a translator and as the inventor of his own mock-language, Europanto (which consists of words from a variety of European languages, so designed that they are comprehensible to anyone in the continent, nationality irrelevant), it became apparent that his day-job and his creative output reflect one another in a dialectic that moves between the practical and the poetic, a mutually beneficial relationship worthy of admiration.
With these sentiments in mind, then, it seems apt that this was the first seminar hosted by Oxford University’s new Student PEN group, the second of its kind to be established outside London. English PEN is part of an international network, a worldwide fellowship of writers promoting free expression and the movement and sharing of literature and literary community across national borders. The organization campaigns to reform laws that curb free expression, as well as for greater access to literature, for writers in prison, and for free speech on behalf of minority groups such as asylum seekers and refugees. Marani, as a self-professed ambassador of these values, provided a perfect opening discussion for the beginning of Oxford Student PEN’s career.
Oxford Student PEN’s next event will be the Official Launch on Friday 15th June, 3-6pm in Oxford University’s English Faculty. It will include a panel discussion on literature and protest, a showcase of recent work by Oxford translators, and a keynote address. All are welcome.
Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.
This report originally appeared in The Oxonian Review.