From the moment I set myself the goal of reading a book from every country in a year back in late 2011, this project has challenged what I thought I knew. From the question of how many countries there are in the world, to the issue of what makes a book ‘from’ a particular nation, I have repeatedly found myself obliged to question and rethink my assumptions.
Apparently clear distinctions break down when you view them through a global lens. Factual writing blurs with fiction; genre boundaries warp and snap. Even the notions of what storytelling is for and what counts as a book prove flimsy and unreliable in the face of traditions and publishing processes that operate differently to those we are used to in the anglophone world.
A few weeks ago, another distinction that I had imagined was clear-cut crumbled before my eyes. I have long held great admiration for translators. In my book, Reading the World, after considering the many images often used to try to encapsulate what practitioners do when they move a story from one language to another, I reached the conclusion that reading a translation was akin to borrowing another person’s eyes. That person, I felt, should be credited as co-creator of the work – something that the #namethetranslator campaign has done a lot to encourage. Still, it had never occurred to me to question whether the boundary between translated and non-translated might itself be permeable.
That changed when I attended the Multilingual London Festival, a collaboration between SOAS University of London and the Museum of London and part of the ‘Multilingual locals, significant geographies: a new approach to world literature’ project. Celebrating the fact that the UK capital is home to more than 300 languages, the online event featured conversations between multilingual, London-based writers such as Aida Eidemariam, Selma Dabbagh and Aamer Hussein, as well as readings in a range of tongues from poets including Caasha Luul Mohamud, Nada Menzalji and Jennifer Wong.
Speaking to a shifting gallery of Zoom audience members (who numbered around 80 at any given time during the two hours I was logged on), the speakers in the first session shared insights into their process and the way their multilingualism had informed, challenged and enriched their writing. ‘Language is always a political issue,’ said Shazaf Fatima Haider, describing how her novel, How it Happened, became a place to lay to rest the tension she’d experienced between Urdu and English growing up in Pakistan.
Using the textures of spoken Urdu, she had embarked on a process of ‘Urduisation’ of English that helped her to reconcile the languages and the power imbalance they represented. Nevertheless, this fusion was not without its critics – ‘you’ve destroyed English,’ one relative told her when he read the book.
In response, Ethiopian-Canadian Eidemariam talked us through the labyrinth she had to negotiate in order to plait together Amharic and English in her award-winning memoir about her Ethiopian grandmother, The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History. It was, she explained, a process of challenging her own assumptions and looking for resonances between the two traditions – a process in which the linguistic cultures’ shared biblical roots proved invaluable. Often, things turned out to have rather different meanings than their surface translations might suggest. The Amharic term that translates literally as ‘breast mother’, for example, signifies a patron rather than a maternal figure – something that caused a degree of confusion in the research process.
Both writers had to decide the level of Amharic and Urdu that a non-speaker could cope with in the nominally English text. With some publishers being rather conservative about the level of foreignness they believe readers will tolerate, this was not easy. In the end, however, they arrived at similar conclusions. Although she accepted having a glossary, Eidemariam decided to ‘push back against the need to explain’ and trust the context of the story to supply the understanding readers needed. Shafaz, meanwhile, took the decision to ‘write for the people in the know’ because ‘they are the ones who will notice’.
I found these insights particularly illuminating, as they chimed with certain decisions I’d been making about technical language in what I hope will be my next novel. While the terms I was working with were not from a foreign language, they were nevertheless from a linguistic sphere that may be unfamiliar to many general readers. Like Eidemariam and Shafaz, I had opted to write for those in the know, trusting the context to supply the sense.
On that basis, although I was moving between registers and they were moving between languages, we three writers were doing similar kinds of work – using language to bridge gaps and translate experience between different groups of people. Perhaps instead of being a binary concept, translation (much like memoir and fiction) was more of a sliding scale, moving from books in their original languages, through books infused with the rhythms and terms of other worlds and tongues, then works in fusion languages such as Spanglish and Hinglish, to volumes in which the words were written by someone other than the original author in order to make them intelligible to a fresh audience.
Once again, the concepts I thought I understood were shifting and remaking themselves before my eyes. After nearly nine years of international literary exploration, I still had so much to learn.