New TEDx talk: what I learned reading a book from every country

Earlier this month, I was honoured to be one of the speakers at TEDx Hanoi. Taking place at the city’s United Nations International School, the day-long event presented a fascinating collection of talks around the theme ‘Toward a Global Community’.

While Professor Kourosh Kayvani, founder of Aurecon’s Design Academy and mastermind behind the technicalities of Wembley stadium in the UK and the flagship football venue in Doha, reflected on the potential of engineering to solve problems, environmental activist Huong Le spoke about #SaveSonDoong, her campaign to protect the world’s largest cave from insensitive commercial development. There were also talks on career advice, architecture and the role that history can play in helping us live wisely – this last presentation was given by former diplomat Madame Ninh, a very inspiring person and prominent figure in Vietnam, who was constantly surrounded by young women eager to learn from her.

There were also several great presentations and performances from school students, among them Minh Quan Do, an aspiring poet and poetry translator, and South Korean yo-yo player, Hyunjoon Choi. And for those keen to do more than simply sit and listen, there were improv comedy workshops and self-defence classes in the breaks, as well as the opportunity to take a virtual tour of the majestic Son Doong, about which Huong Le spoke so powerfully.

For me, the event was special for three reasons. Not only did it give me chance to visit a new country and meet some fascinating people, but it also allowed me to reflect on what reading the world has taught me six years on from my original quest. This was exciting as there have been so many interesting things that have happened since the project, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to share some of the more recent insights I have gained from interactions around stories from elsewhere.

Thanks to the organisers of TEDx Hanoi for a very inspiring day and a wonderful trip.

Picture by TEDxHanoi on flickr.com

A new work from Turkmenistan

People often ask me about the unpublished manuscripts I encountered during my 2012 quest to read a book from every country in the world. Have they been picked up by publishers? Are they available for other literary explorers to read?

The answer is mixed – while some of the works, such as Juan David Morgan’s The Golden Horsehave appeared (albeit briefly) in English – several deserving books, chief among them Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, remain off-limits to anglophone readers.*

Getting translated works published can be an uphill struggle, so I was very pleased when Glagoslav Publications took on The Tale of Aypi, the first novel ever to be translated from Turkmen into English. Its author, Ak Welsapar, kindly shared it with me in manuscript form during my project and it’s great that it’s now commercially available.

Late last year, I received more news from Welsapar. Glagoslav Publications were bringing out another book by him – a collection of short stories. Would I be prepared to write a foreword for it?

I accepted gladly and am delighted to announce that the collection, Death of the Snake Catcher, translated by Lois Kapila, Yossef Azemoun and Richard Govett, was published last month. Containing stories written during Welsapar’s time in his homeland and over the decades since his exile, the book is an intriguing insight into life in one of the most closed societies on Earth, as I attempted to explain in my foreword:

‘Although the stories may appear very diverse, a closer look reveals a number of common themes and tropes at work. The power of the unexplained is among the most prominent. As in The Tale of Aypi, a book that is haunted by the ghost of a girl who died some centuries before the story takes place, the uncanny has a strong influence. The ground shifts constantly beneath our feet, leaving us uncertain what to expect and what to trust.

[…]

‘In other stories, this sense of uncertainty spreads to engulf everyday objects. People cannot be trusted and neither can things. Even the most innocuous-seeming of occurrences – a love affair, two carts approaching a crossroad, a man writing at a desk – can turn treacherous and become the thing that destroys your life. As Jummi, the luckless team leader in “One of the Seven is a Scoundrel”, says, “these days one of your two eyes can become your enemy.”

‘For readers, these sudden shifts in significance are as instructive as they are unsettling. Faced with a reality that may never be quite what it seems, we find ourselves ill at ease. Like a citizen in a society overseen by a fickle dictator, or a writer working in the shadow of freedom of expression-limiting rules the specifics of which are left at the discretion of individual censors – as was the case in the Soviet era – we can never be sure what is safe. It is as though Welsapar writes us into the world he has left, letting us taste the bitterness of living in constant fear of recrimination for offences, or faults in interpretation, we may not even realise we have committed.

[…]

‘Yet, although the stories frequently tackle dark subject matter, there is a lightness to the writing that lifts it out of the gloom that might otherwise swamp these pages. We see it in the optimism of young lovers and in the determination of many of the characters to achieve the dignity of leading an independent existence – no matter how limited and basic that might be. What’s more, hopefulness pervades the title story, in which two mortal enemies – the snake catcher and his prey – meet and in so doing discover that they have made each other what they are. Although their identities are built at least partly on their mission to destroy one another, the story hints that the world might nevertheless be big enough to contain them both. As Welsapar explained when I asked him about the collection: “People should never forget that we are only part of a great life, a cosmos, and it does not become a person to take living space from other living creatures. Only the weak strive to destroy one another. The strong learn to coexist.”

‘For all the difficulties he and his characters face, the belief that a better reality is possible underpins Welsapar’s writing. Just as he continued to work in the face of what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles when he was first blacklisted and forced to endure seeing his books destroyed, so the people he portrays retain faith that survival is its own reward and that tomorrow may bring better things. Even if “the most important thing, the secret thing, maybe, slips away as always, and remains unfathomable”, the effort to express what can be expressed and live what can be lived is worthwhile.

It is great to see this second work of fiction from the only Turkmen writer with a voice in English hitting the shelves. Congratulations to Ak Welsapar and to Glagoslav Publications for continuing to champion this author.

* Thanks to Catherine for alerting me to the fact that Ualalapi is now available, published by Tagus in 2017.

Picture: ‘Golden statue of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, first president of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat‘ by David Stanley on flickr.com

Happy Boekenweek!

You might not have noticed that it’s Boekenweek, but if you visit the Netherlands in the next few days it definitely won’t pass you by. Since 1932, this annual ten-day celebration of all things bookish has been one of the highlights of the Dutch literary calendar.

In addition to a range of events, promotions and parties, the extravaganza launches a written work. This Boekenweeksgeschenk (Book week gift) is given out in bookshops whenever someone buys a Dutch-language title and to people joining libraries. Published by the Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek (Collective Promotion for the Dutch Book), these texts are usually written by famous homegrown authors, although this is not always the case – the 2001 offering came from British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie.

This year’s title is by Belgian-born Griet Op de Beeck. Sadly, being on the wrong side of the North Sea, I can’t easily get my hands on a copy – and I would struggle if I did, as my Dutch leaves more than a little to be desired.

As a result, I was delighted to receive a Boekenweek gift that I could more readily enjoy. Netherlands-founded publisher World Editions has been sending out packages of three of the Dutch novels on its list to mark the occasion. These comprise Esther Gerritsen’s Craving, a funny and arresting exploration of a difficult mother-daughter relationship told in the shadow of terminal illness; Renate Dorrestein’s The Darkness that Divides Us, an account of the way a murder sends shockwaves across a childhood; and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me to Love.

I can particularly recommend the last on the list: chilly, strange and quirky, it tells the story of a boy living with his reclusive mother on a remote island in the aftermath of his father’s disappearance into the sea. It also chimes neatly with the 2018 Boekenweek theme of ‘Nature’.

What’s more, the good folk at World Editions obviously appreciate that reading is hungry work, as they kindly included some Dutch treats of another kind: Stroopwafels. Never having tried these caramel-filled delights before, I’ve discovered that they are almost as moreish as the books. Oh dear…

How do you judge translations?

On Wednesday, I featured a graphic novel that had been shortlisted for a new literary prize as my Book of the month. Last night, the winner was announced. The inaugural TA First Translation Prize went to translator Bela Shayevich and editor Jacques Testard for the English edition of Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time.

Although all the shortlisted titles would have been worthy winners, the selection of Shayevich and Testard for this honour (in which the prize goes entirely to the people who brought the text into English and not to the original author) is great news. Belarusian Nobel laureate Alexievich’s work is as challenging as it is important (her Chernobyl Prayer was one of my #WITMonth picks back in 2016). It surely demands special skill to convey its polyphony, while maintaining a sense of cohesion.

It’s also great to see a literary prize that shifts the focus entirely onto the craft of recreating a narrative in another language. Too often, translators are overlooked when books from elsewhere are discussed. Indeed, several of the works I read during my 2012 round-the-world literary adventure, failed to mention the name of the person who had written the words in them.

Yet recognising what individual translators bring to – or even leave out of – a text is often impossible for those who only read the secondary version. Consequently, judging translations without referring to the original works requires an unusual approach, as prize-founder, writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn explained when I asked him to tell me a bit more about the thinking behind the TAFTP award:

‘Most translation prizes fall into one of two categories – either you’re really judging the translation as an act of translation (ie. with an eye to the process, what happens in the journey from the original to the new text, what the particular challenges, solutions, frictions might be), or you’re basically judging the new text as a stand-alone thing which just happens to have its origins in another language. This prize isn’t quite either of those.

‘I’ve judged what used to be called the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, where translations-into-English are appraised alongside books written in English; and in our meetings we barely mentioned the translation process at all. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Man Booker International were the same – you’re judging works of English, not discussing the “translation” aspect as a distinct thing; these are just English-language books which happen to have two authors, who – in the event of a win – will share the prize. (As a translator, I like being judged this way, incidentally.) Meanwhile, those prizes that look at the translation as a-thing-in-relation-to-an-actual-original (so have perhaps a different idea of what makes a translation great) need to be judged by a quite different process – you’re dependent either on judges being able/willing to read originals (single-language prizes, for example) or having a big team of multilingual assessors who can report on this aspect on the judges’ behalf. (Even this new little prize of mine had nearly twenty languages among the submissions. We judges have four between us.)

‘I’ve only once before judged a prize like the TAFTP, where the judges read only the translated books and yet it’s the translator and not the writer who gets the cheque – that was the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation. It’s a slightly tricky one, since we aren’t reading the originals, yet at the same time we’re absolutely rewarding the translator’s role rather than the book generally. Here the author doesn’t get a look-in at all; if we’re giving a prize for a translation, it should in theory be possible to reward an awe-inspiring translation of a mediocre book, above a good translation of a masterpiece… In practice, of course, it’s not always easy to avoid being swayed by things that are seductive manifestations of the writer’s skill; and nor is it always realistic to think that as readers we can accurately isolate different people’s contributions anyway. (We make assumptions about such things all the time without realising – when I read a fine novel in English, my assumption is that, basically, the author wrote a fine novel in English for which s/he should be rewarded, rather than that the author wrote a catastrophically awful novel, which some poor editor basically had to rewrite in order to make it functional…)

‘In other words, the whole thing’s a bit messy. But we talked about that in the judging meeting, too – one of the most fun bits of judging any prize, in my experience, is trying to work out what it is you’re all looking for, and whether there’s some way of articulating that. We certainly can’t pretend there’s a scientific measure. Maybe in the first instance it just comes down to whom you ask to judge, and whether, as in this case, they’re people whose instincts you trust, and who understand how translating and writing and editing work, even if articulating quality is harder to do in the abstract than just “you know it when you see it”.

‘It’s sort of impossible to do, in some senses, but I did have two very wise fellow judges (a great translator and a great editor) to help me in the process. We had no way of knowing what the relationship of the translation is to the original, and yet there’s a lot we absolutely could tell. Did it work as a piece of English? How did the voices sound? If there were English jokes, were they funny? Etc. etc. We could get a sense, too, of whether a translator is having to do something particularly demanding. Our winning book is a dazzling piece of polyvocal English writing, and Bela Shayevich and her editor made the dazzling things happen in English. Of course, it’s possible that it’s a “bad” translation if the original is, say, a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony with lots of funny jokes – in which case, yes, this translation truly is an utter travesty (but I’d be surprised if that was the case); the new work would still be a masterpiece, of course, but then perhaps not a translation…’

As with so many things connected to international literature and cultural exchange, there are no easy answers to the question of how we ought to weigh translations. But that’s part of the fun.

Incidentally, if any Russian speakers know of a 64-page illustrated children’s book about a pony that’s been badly misrepresented in English, I’d love to hear more…

Picture from the Society of Authors website.

A book club with a difference

A few weeks ago, I had an exciting invitation. Audible, the UK’s largest providers of digital audiobooks, were launching a Listening Club. Once a month they would select one title to invite readers to discuss. They had decided to launch the club with the audio version of my debut novel Beside Myself, narrated by the wonderful Lisa Coleman. Would I be available to come to their London studio to take part in a recorded discussion with a small group of listeners to help get the conversation started?

The studios were in one of a number of glamorously converted warehouses near the Barbican. Brightly decorated, with bird-print wallpaper on the kitchen ceiling and large breakout spaces containing foosball and table-tennis tables, they were a world away from the tiny cluster of little black booths where I recorded the audiobook of  The World Between Two Covers in 2015.

They also contained the most beautiful piece of book-related art I have ever seen: Storylines, a huge reworking of the London Underground map, with book titles replacing station names. I was amused to find that the novels populating the area of north London in which I grew up seemed particularly dark, and included The Exorcist and Psycho.

The experience of talking about your work with readers can be mixed. Although it’s always nice to hear that people have engaged with your work, you often find yourself answering the same questions over and over again. When it comes to Beside Myself, a psychological drama about twins who get trapped in the wrong lives, I rarely get through a conversation without having to explain that I’m not a twin and that I have never been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, unlike the main character of the novel.

This discussion was entirely different. Attended by three listeners, among them my friend, writer Rosie Fiore, who had received an invitation entirely by chance, and chaired by Audible editorial assistant Holly Newson, it explored many of the novel’s themes in great depth: nature versus nurture, the role of education and whether personality consists of what we are or of what others project onto us.

I particularly enjoyed talking about what the audio form can add to a novel, as my experience has been that narrator Lisa Coleman brought a huge amount of interpretative richness to the text. Indeed, as I explained in the discussion, it was her idea to make some of the voices in the central character’s head those of people in the novel – an extra layer that had not occurred to me.

The first Listening Club question went up on the Audible UK Facebook page yesterday and the recording of the discussion will be released soon. Watch this space!

How much do Arabic speakers read?

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This week I had the great honour of being one of the speakers at the Knowledge Summit in Dubai. It was the third annual conference organised by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) to champion the sharing of expertise across borders. I was one of more than 60 speakers brought together from all over the planet to debate a range of issues, challenges and opportunities facing the world today.

The subject of my panel was a tough one: ‘Future Foresight – Against Ideological Extremism’. Alongside presentations from several other distinguished speakers – including Ambassador Theodore Kattouf and Dr Jawad Anani, the Jordanian deputy prime minister for economic affairs – I spoke about the potential of reading and storytelling to build bridges across ideological divides and to help us recognise and celebrate our common humanity.

As it turned out, I was not the only speaker at the conference extolling the virtues of books. On the second day, in the hour or so before I had to leave for the airport, I managed to attend a session on ‘The future of reading in the Arab world’. This discussion saw speakers including Dr Najoua Ghriss, professor at the Higher Institute of Education and Continuous Training in Tunisia, and His Excellency Jamal Bin Huwaireb, managing director of the MBRF and cultural adviser to the government of Dubai, presenting the results of the Arab Reading Index 2016.

Driven by the foundation’s belief in reading as a great tool for cultural exchange and enlightenment, the ARI set out to test a rather shocking claim: that Arabic speakers read for an average of just six minutes a year. Incredulous that this could be the case, the MBRF in partnership with the UNDP carried out the most wide-reaching survey of reading habits the Arab world has ever seen.

Around 148,000 people responded across 22 countries. The results showed a clear challenge to the common assumption that, as Jamal Bin Huwaireb said publishing professionals had often told him at international book fairs, ‘Arabs don’t read.’ In fact, according to the ARI, Arabic speakers read for an average of 35 hours a year, with people in Egypt reading for 64 hours annually, as compared to countries with much lower reading rates, like Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoros.

The revelations didn’t stop there. Exploring the types and format of reading material popular among respondents, the survey showed that social media and news websites account for a sizeable chunk of the written words Arabic-language readers consume and that ebooks win out over print volumes.

Jamal Bin Huwaireb put this last point down to the low print runs and the relatively high cost of physical books in the region. He appealed to publishers to do more to make books accessible for all readers.

‘Publishing houses are not performing their responsibility,’ he said. ‘If not enough copies of a book are published, and we don’t increase those [numbers] and make the price suitable, it means that the coverage of a book is not enough.’

All the panellists agreed that, although 35 hours of reading was in a different league to 6 minutes a year, there was still a long way to go. For Dr Ghriss, some of the challenges ahead involved finding ways to support families in instilling reading as a habit in children and ensuring that the quality of the texts people consume is good. She hoped that further analysis of the data would help her and colleagues to develop suitable strategies, in addition to the initiatives already under way, among them new laws to help encouraging reading in schools and in the workplace, and the development of the Dubai E-library.

This was important, she said, because reading was a vital tool for the social and economic development of nations. ‘We can’t envision a community or society acquiring knowledge without being a reading community,’ she said.

I left for the airport feeling encouraged. At a time of funding cuts for many arts organisations closer to home, it was inspiring to see a government putting such emphasis on the importance of the written word and its potential to advance and enrich people’s lives.

As I know well from my year of reading the world and from excellent blogs such as Arabic Literature (in English), the Arabic language has a wealth of wonderful homegrown stories. I hope initiatives such as ARI mean that even more readers discover them.

Would you like to receive a book chosen by me in 2017? Enter Postcards from my bookshelf now!

Reading the world through libraries

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Last week I had the great honour of delivering the 26th Annual Mortenson Distinguished lecture at the University of Illinois in the US. The Mortenson Center was founded through the generosity of C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson, who believed that librarians sharing information is one of the shortest and surest roads to world peace.

Since 1991, the organisation has provided training to 1,300 librarians from more than 90 countries. It has also raised $2.5m-worth of grants to strengthen skills and modernize libraries. So you can imagine my delight at being asked to contribute to the final celebrations marking its first quarter-century.

The visit turned out to be much more than just a speaking engagement. Shortly after I landed at Urbana-Champaign, I found myself sitting with a group of librarians in a Chinese restaurant. They had been attending a workshop on global studies and were full of ideas

The next morning, following a jog round campus and a brief spell going over my notes, I was picked up by Rebecca from the centre and taken to the library in which the Mortenson Center is housed.

Although the no-gun signs on the doors felt forbidding, the library was anything but. I was delighted to see a large number of students enjoying the space in the subterranean building – built that way so as not to overshadow a historic experimental corn field, one of the first of its kind.

I particularly liked the board of questions posted up for graduate researchers to answer, featuring a query as to whether Jack and Rose would both have fitted on the floating door in the film Titanic. This, along with several others, was addressed in great detail.

There was no time to ascertain the answer, however, as Rebecca whisked me off to the Mortenson Center, a small but intriguing space filled with gifts brought by many of the librarians who have visited over the years. A string of prayer flags hung over the sofa area, while a cabinet by the door of director Clara M. Chu’s office boasted ranks of trinkets, dolls, ornaments and mementos.

After lunch, the first of my events was a Chai Wai (or public dialogue) with former Mortenson Center director and author Marianna Tax Choldin. Her latest book, Garden of Broken Statues: Exploring Censorship in Russia, is a compelling and moving account of her decades-long fascination with the Soviet Union and Russia, which she has visited more than 55 times over the course of her career. It considers the personal and social effects of censorship and reveals the importance of a concerted effort to understand the past.

Chaired by former American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom director Barbara M. Jones, the discussion proved lively and wide-ranging, as you can see from the video of it here. Though the audience was small, there was no shortage of questions and we covered everything from the intriguing Japanese film Library Wars: The Last Mission (definitely on my to-watch list) to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a classic to which both Tax Choldin and I refer in our books.

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Next came the investiture of the Mortenson Center’s third director and distinguished professor, Clara M. Chu, and a celebration reception. Then it was my turn (you can watch the video of the lecture if you’d like to see how it went – my presentation starts at about 17.53).

Saturday was my last day in Illinois and Clara Chu and I spent it visiting Springfield, home of Abraham Lincoln, often said to be the US’s greatest president. There, alongside a welter of insights into Lincoln’s rise from lawyer to world leader, his efforts to champion the abolition of slavery, the horror of the American civil war and the pity of the great man’s assassination, I learned an interesting fact: each president has his (or perhaps one day her) own library. For every American leader, there is a small army of people sorting, ordering and safeguarding the historically significant documents associated with their time in office so that others may learn from them.

Important though books are, my visit to Illinois reminded me, they are limited without the people who organise, promote and – all too often – have to fight attempts to keep others from reading them. Librarians are at the forefront of these efforts. And as books such as Ali Smith’s Public Library and Other Stories demonstrate, they have been essential in drawing out and shaping many an aspiring wordsmith.

This is one of the reasons why I’m also delighted to have got involved with another library-centred organisation recently. The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative aims to make more resources and techniques available to librarians to help them encourage readers to explore books from around the world.

Founded this year and already numbering 345 members, the project will run workshops, produce catalogues featuring excellent translated books and suggest tactics such as pairing unfamiliar works with popular titles to help readers venture further.

‘It’s about recognition,’ says translator and publisher Rachel Hildebrandt, who founded GLLI. ‘Very often librarians know what the patrons like. It’s sometimes enough to get someone to pick up a book that they might never pull off the shelf.’

Both the Mortenson Center and GLLI are funded by donations and would appreciate any help you can give (click the links to find out more). Hopefully, soon librarians everywhere will have the tools to help anyone who wants to to read the world.

Pictures courtesy of the Mortenson Center for International Library Progams.

Edinburgh: extreme storytelling

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For the past three years, I’ve spent a portion of August in Edinburgh. In fact, twelve months ago I was there to speak at two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – a wonderful experience.

But even when I don’t have an official reason for going, these days I tend to feel the call of the north when the brief British summer glimmers into view. And, marvellous though the book festival is, I have to confess that another extravaganza in the Scottish capital has first claim on my heart: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Running since 1947, the annual four-week celebration of all things performance-related is the largest arts festival in the world. This year sees more than 50,200 performances of 3,269 shows from 48 countries taking place across the city.

The variety is extraordinary. If you want to witness South African dancers transforming themselves into a 16-legged beast, you can find that in After Freedom Productions’ I Am Rhythm. If politics is your thing, you could take yourself along to a garden shed in South College Street and get involved in the reading of the 2.6m-word Chilcot report into the Iraq War (or you could have done until it ended after 284 hours and 45 minutes last weekend). And if it’s comedy you’re after, you can take your pick from the hundreds of aspiring stand-up comics and famous names gurning from posters fixed to every lamp-post, phone box and – likely as not – person who stands still too long on the Royal Mile.

The venues are as different as the acts they house. While specially erected tents accommodate some of the bigger shows, numerous shops, businesses, bars and institutions throw open their doors to host performers in their basements, back rooms, lecture theatres and garages. This year, there are 294 performance spaces operating in the city – among them a venue in Blackwell’s bookshop.

Depending on what you choose to go to, you could find yourself wandering the halls of Edinburgh university, scrambling into the store room of a shop, or squeezing into a police box or camper van (both of which have been used for shows in previous years).

As I writer, I always find the Fringe hugely inspiring. I love the energy and excitement. I relish the inventiveness of the performers, and the weird and wonderful characters you encounter both on and off stage.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about it all for me is this: for all their diversity, each of the 3,269 shows is an attempt to communicate something. Every time the house lights go down in venues large and small, someone is trying to tell a story that will hold the attention of a frequently tired, sometimes rowdy and occasionally downright difficult audience for an hour.

Meeting this challenge every day for the best part of a month requires performers to have guts, energy and a creative approach. This may involve mining episodes from their lives for material, as comedian Alice Fraser does in her show The Resistance, which draws on her childhood in her Holocaust-survivor grandmother’s ramshackle home in Sydney. They may get the audience to take part in the action, as happens in the moving and wonderful play Every Brilliant Thing, in which members of the public are drafted in to play characters in the story.

They may take a historical episode and use it as the framework for their performance, as magician David Narayan does in The Psychic Project, a show based on American studies into the possibility of using mind readers as spies in the late-twentieth century. Or they may make it up as they go along, the way that improv-comedy group Austentatious do with their hilarious improvised performances of a never-before-or-since-read Jane Austen novel inspired by a title provided by a member of the audience.

Not every show works (although I should say that I enjoyed all four of the above). But in many ways, that is beside the point. The attempt to communicate is what counts, the daring to take the conch and step to the front of the stage.

As I return to my desk this week and attempt to pick up the threads of the draft of my next novel, the stagefolk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival will be my inspiration. They will remind me that though storytelling can sometimes be a messy, intimidating business, it is also a great wonder and privilege because of the opportunity it offers human beings to connect.

None of the joy and power that has filled my last few days would have been possible without the bravery, determination and ingenuity of those performers, who each found their own ways to share their stories. What matters is finding the gumption to try.

Photo of posters and fliers at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (2012) by Jim Forest on Flickr.com.

On the trail of international crime writers

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This weekend, I went undercover. Officially, I was hosting one of the tables at the ‘Kill Me Quick’ author dinner as part of Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, one of the biggest events dedicated to crime and thriller writing in the world.

That was my alibi for being at the Old Swan Hotel, the handsome hostelry where, in 1926, murder mystery queen Agatha Christie was discovered hiding out after she disappeared for 10 days, sparking a massive search. However, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate, I had ulterior motives for lurking at the scene of the crime: with the schedule promising events involving some of the leading genre writers from around the world, I was eager to do a spot of literary spying.

And so it was that I caught an earlier train up to Yorkshire than I needed and, flashing my author pass and a smile, slipped into two Saturday sessions dedicated to crime writing from beyond the Anglo-American world.

The first was ‘Murder Out of Africa’, a discussion bringing together several writers of novels set in the continent. Something of a mystery emerged when the panel, chaired by prolific British novelist NJ Cooper, walked in, however: with the exception of Nigerian writer Leye Adenle, everyone else taking seats on the stage was white. Indeed, had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of Margie Orford, whom Adenle had replaced at short notice, the participants would all have been Caucasian.

This, Cape Town-set thriller author Paul Mendelson explained when an audience member raised the question towards the end of the session, was to do with what London-based publishers selected for release. Nevertheless, Adenle was quick to point out that a number of black African authors are making names for themselves and that the African crime fiction becoming available to Western audiences is increasingly diverse.

The representation problem aside, the discussion was fascinating and wide-ranging, taking in a number of issues specific to writing murder mysteries in the continent, as well as challenges that all novelists face. Afrikaans author Deon Meyer spoke about his sense of the perception among many Western readers that African crime writing cannot be entertaining because the setting has so much darkness and violence. This was not true, he said: he and his peers did everything to make their books as thrilling and suspenseful as any comparable work (and judging by Meyer’s sales figures and the fact that his books have been translated into 28 languages, he is certainly doing something right).

Indeed, if anything, Meyer felt readers should be a little wary of the much-vaunted craze for Nordic noir. ‘Just ask yourself how much credibility do crime writers have from countries that have no murders,’ he quipped.

The question of misogyny came up (barring NJ Cooper, the panel was all male, although this would not have been the case had Orford been there). Cooper challenged Mendelson to speak about the extreme violence against women in The Serpentine Road and opened the question up to consider whether misogyny was a common theme in African crime writing.

Adenle was quick to counter this. Such misogyny as does exist in African writing and cultures, he said, was the result of the introduction of Christianity, with its teaching that the man is the head of the household. Prior to this, many African cultures were matriarchal. Polyandry was practised in some tribes and there are historical accounts of powerful queens, such as the Hausa Muslim warrior Amina. One of the many consequences of colonialism had been the swapping of one set of myths for another, with the attendant blind spots and prejudices.

A question on process brought a fascinating insight into the working methods of writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, aka Michael Stanley. Having started out as academics, the pair were used to writing collaboratively with other colleagues and so, when they came up with the idea for a crime novel, it seemed only natural to work in that way, with one drafting a section for the other to edit and visa versa. Now living on different continents, they find the time difference particularly useful: ‘We can write 24 hours a day,’ said Sears.

Next up, came ‘France Noir – Le Roman Policier’, another panel discussion bringing together thriller heavyweight Pierre Lemaitre, award-winning translator Frank Wynne (who interpreted where necessary), prize-winner Bernard Minier and SJ Parris (aka Stephanie Merritt), whose Conspiracy is set in 16th-century Paris. Funnily enough, Merritt’s memoir The Devil Within, was one of the books I drew on during my research into bipolar disorder for my novel, Beside Myself, so it was fascinating to see her speaking on quite another topic.

As with the previous event, the discussion covered a lot of ground. An interesting revelation came when Frank Wynne observed that he had been largely responsible for the English-language titles of Lemaitre’s works, several of which diverge from the French originals. I wanted to ask him about his reasons for settling on Blood Wedding for the most recently published book. While it’s no doubt arresting, the phrase has strong associations with the Lorca play of the same name and I wondered whether this was deliberate.

The forest of hands that went up at the end meant I didn’t get the opportunity to find out at the time, but this morning on Twitter Wynne gave me this explanation: ‘yes, very cheeky but deliberate. Not that it refers to anything in the text – the French title couldn’t easily be translated. In Robe de marié the missing final E means it’s not wedding dress but bridegroom’s dress – the 1st is subtle, the 2nd clunky.’

Lemaitre provided a powerful insight into the importance of anglophone publishing deals. His international success took off when he signed his English-language contract, with numerous other foreign-rights sales following. ‘For any French writer, the most important translation is English,’ he said. ‘Even if you never sell a single book to an English reader. Much better to have failure in English than a roaring success in another language.’

Countering the suggestion that French noir books are particularly gruesome, Minier, whose 2011 novel The Frozen Dead starts with the grotesque murder of a horse, pointed out that nothing could be more violent than some of the things found in Shakespeare. ‘It’s a question of degree,’ agreed Lemaitre. ‘My wife has been asked how she could have married a man who could write such horrible things. The response is: how can you buy a book by a man who can write such horrible things.’

The discussion also brought up a contrast in the way that crime fiction is perceived in the anglophone and francophone worlds. In France, it seems, there is a less sharp divide between literary and genre fiction, with authors of crime books often scooping prestigious awards. Indeed, Lemaitre himself has won the Prix Goncourt. This, the writers agreed, was due to the legacy of authors such as the Belgian creator of the detective Maigret, Georges Simenon. His simple style was praised by André Gide, who claimed Simenon had raised crime writing to the status of great literature and, in so doing, had revealed something missing in French literary works.

I could have stayed listening to the discussion for hours, but time was marching on and as the dinner hour approached, I was obliged to slip away to my room and wriggle into my thriller-writer disguise for the evening. Forty-five minutes later, I slunk into the green room and stood looking round at the cluster of well-known authors – Christobel Kent, MJ Carter, Joanne Harris and James Runcie to name but a few. I hoped none of them would finger me for a spy.

A translation joust

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One of the most popular suggestions during my year of reading the world was that I should read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote for Spain. Although I didn’t choose it for the project (I felt tackling Ulysses for Ireland was challenge enough given the average pace I had to maintain of reading one book every 1.87 days), I did tuck into the 1,000-page classic the following year, while on holiday in Priorat – near some of the regions through which the would-be knight-errant passes on his adventures.

I read Edith Grossman’s translation and very much enjoyed the book, finding the descriptions surprisingly fresh and vivid. Still, full of derring-do though the narrative is, I never imagined it would lead me to witness a real-life battle. Until yesterday.

Last night, in a packed room at the British Library’s Conference Centre, award-winning translators Margaret Jull Costa (who generously volunteered to help translate a book from São Tomé and Principe for me during my quest) and Peter Bush met for a ‘translation joust’, the latest in a series of such duels that various translators have staged in recent years. The pair had produced rival English versions of the famous windmill scene from Cervantes’ masterpiece and, with the prompting of chair and fellow translator Daniel Hahn, set out to defend their choices.

The results were fascinating. Going line by line – and sometimes comma by comma – the wordsmiths challenged one another’s decisions, revealing some powerful insights into their working methods as they did so.

As a comparison of the opening lines of the translations shows, the two versions were strikingly different:

Just then, they spotted thirty or forty windmills on that same plain, and the moment Don Quijote saw them, he said to his squire: ‘Fortune is directing our affairs far better than we could have wished, because look, friend Sancho, there before us stand thirty or more fearsome giants, with whom I intend to do battle and to slay each and every one of them.

And with their spoils we will begin to grow rich, for this is a just war and we are doing God a great service in removing such a plague from the face of the Earth. MJC

With that they spotted thirty or forty windmills in the nearby field and Don Quixote immediately said to his squire: “Sancho, my friend, Lady Luck has sorted things better than we could have ever hoped.

Just take a look at those thirty or so humungous giants I shall attack and obliterate in a moment and the ensuing spoils will be the start of good times for us, because mine is a just war, and I’m doing God a great service by wiping such an evil horde off the face of this earth.” PB

What emerged from the discussion was that, while Jull Costa had endeavoured to get as close to Cervantes’ original as modern English would allow and wanted to preserve Don Quixote’s high-flown way of speaking, Bush had set out to create a version that would be different from all previous translations. In part as a reaction against what has gone before, his Don Quixote is not above slang and colloquialisms.

It was, as one audience member observed, as though Jull Costa had built the sense of the absurd inherent in the original, whereas Bush had reflected the novel’s humour by taking a more directly comic approach. This sort of distinct character to a text, Jull Costa said, was essential for a translation to live.

An interesting insight into the process came when the pair considered how they had arrived at rather different descriptions for the location of the windmill-giants – Jull Costa has them ‘on that same plain’, whereas Bush situates them ‘in the nearby field’. It transpired that, rather than seeking a literal translation of the Spanish ‘en aquel campo’, each had pictured what they read the original to mean and then found a way to render the image in English.

The questions did not only come from the chair. At several points, audience members pitched in with sometimes rather passionate objections or challenges. The word ‘desaforados’ proved particularly controversial. Although both translators had focused on its connotations of scale – rendering it as ‘fearsome’ (MJC) and ‘humungous’ (PB) – one native Spanish speaker felt that it would have been more appropriate to translate it as ‘rampaging’.

‘I don’t know what it means in any dictionary. I tell you what it means to me!’ she said.

For me, as a writer, it was also fascinating to hear the translators talk about their approach to creating a finished written piece. Peter Bush revealed that he had produced 10-12 drafts of his extract, while Margaret Jull Costa said that for a joust like this she would normally do nine or 10. These would include a careful first draft, a second draft read against the original, a period of leaving the text, and a session of reading the translation out loud to catch any repetitions and clunky rhythms.

Though not everyone in the room may have agreed on the interpretation of ‘desaforados’, there can be no doubt that our enjoyment of the evening was unanimous. With last week’s good news that translations made up five per cent of printed fiction sales in the UK in 2015 (a 96 per cent rise in volume on the figures from 2001), let’s hope we will see many more such events.

Picture by Oren neu dag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons