Speakers: Emily Kasriel (executive producer The Forum, BBC World Service) Michael Caines (assistant editor, The Times Literary Supplement); Dr Shirley Dent (associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; co-author, Radical Blake); Miguel Fernandes Ceia (MA Creative Writing student, Birkbeck; editorial assistant, Writer’s Hub); Adrienne Loftus Parkins (founder/director, Festival of Asian Literature). Chaired by David Bowden, co-ordinator of UK Battle Satellites
David kicked off the evening by introducing the ‘Battle of ideas’, which is neatly summed up on their website as such: Since its inception seven years ago, the Battle of Ideas festival has sought to debate the challenges facing society, dig beneath the surface and understand what lies behind the headlines.
With a panel of industry insiders, David initiated the ‘globish’ debate by making reference to recently awarded literature Prizes which have themselves been the subject of national and international debate over the past few weeks.
The awards in questions were the Man Booker and the Nobel Prize, so naturally the debate started with questioning the very purpose of the awards, both nationally and internationally. David questioned whether the purpose of such Prizes was to commend the literary quality of a book or merely a tool for the industry to spark a debate.
It was already starting to make my head spin. Some ideas touted were that seeing an obscure title with an ‘award winner’ sticker might encourage people to pick up something they’d never think of reading ordinarily, or it could garner the title more attention than it might otherwise. This is certainly the case with the Booker titles, both for winners and nominees. The debate then strayed into sales territory and the panel discussed whether Prize judges should go for books that will benefit from a sales boost, or just go for what they think will appeal to the mass audience if it won. Dr Shirley Dent felt differently about awards and accolades, suggesting that judges should really be thinking about “whether a book showed that we were going forward in literature or whether we are standing still”.
Each panel member approached the debate from their own personal point of view, and all were clearly passionate about the subject. Some participants and audience members approached the discussion from a multi-lingual perspective while others (myself included) only read and spoke English. The debate was taken in so many different directions it could have gone on for hours, weeks, months even.
David stepped in to throw with some more thought provoking questions:”What’s the relationship literature has to its nation?” Miguel Fernandes Ceia, a native Portuguese speaker who works as a translator and writer, suggested that “literature is a way for people to speak as a collective, it is especially important for people who haven’t previously had a voice”. He then went on to ask whether or not it mattered that the work had to be ‘good’ if it was expressing something which hadn’t been spoken before.
Adrienne Loftus Parkins moved the conversation forward by highlighting the fact that in the 21st Century, we have so many influences coming and going, each author or group of authorities can only take on so much in their work, suggesting that translated literature shouldn’t be considered as Nationalistic.
Dr Shirley Dent disagreed, arguing that literature has always been nationalistic, citing Shakespeare as her example. She went on to say that even though the work was written centuries ago, it still has relevance today, as it covers universal themes – love, hatred, betrayal. She argued, however, that the work could never have been written now, as it contains references so specific to the time and place in which it was written. Dr Shirley Dent was the most romantic of all the judges, arguing that translated literature should communicate universal truths, and still be able to tell you something about the culture in which it originated.
The conversation quickly moved on to the suggestion that in some ways, the world is getting smaller, so people are reading more translated fiction. We are able to travel to the far flung places and now want to read about them in anticipation of our travels, instead of having to travel there in our minds.
However, the panel felt that translation will never ‘take over’. The UK and USA are the traditional publishers of literature, and are going to publish their own first and foremost and will never let translations be the main body of their work. Perhaps it’s the public’s fear of ‘the other’, and a feeling that translated literature must offer something completely new to be deemed worthy of translation. It was also suggested that with so much literature available in English, readers won’t turn to translation because they feel they just don’t need to; writers have been to those foreign lands and have done the translating of the culture for us.
The current quality of translation was also touched upon; some felt that the standard of translation – particularly out of English into other languages – is slipping. Steve Job’s autobiography was cited as a prime example here. The book was in such high demand from bookshops that a team of 5 different translators was employed; this inevitably resulted in the text reading like a patchwork of different interpretations. And that’s another thing that emerged from discussions; the quality of translation can really affect the way the reader interacts with a novel. Translation is not just about turning one language into another; each translator will have their own interpretation of the text, which is perhaps why we have so many varying translations of classics such as Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.
One audience members asked whether, with the development of technology, one day we will see automated translation done by a computer. As anyone who’s ever used babelfish or any other online translation engine will know, these translations are not accurate and the panel felt that the technology will never be sophisticated enough to do as good a job as a human; these human interpretations are in no way replaceable by machinery.
After the lengthy and sometimes complicated discussion, the panel retired to the pub – a well known English tradition which is understood worldwide.
Report by Mel Jones
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/battlesatellitethenewinternationalliteratureinanageofglobish/