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

My time in Edinburgh

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I’ll admit it: I was nervous. Although my quest to read the world has taken me on many adventures and seen me speaking to a wide variety of audiences – from 20 Women’s Institute members in a school hall in Lee to 300 Procter & Gamble employees in Geneva – I had never faced a challenge quite like this. As I walked into the authors’ yurt, backstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I couldn’t help being aware that I was here to take part in one of the most renowned literary events in the world.

Now, I’ve been in a yurt or two before (I once gave a talk in one in Canterbury), but I have never seen one to compare to this. Sprawling over an area about twice the size of my flat, it was made up of a series of conjoined octagons, which created pleasing little alcoves furnished with benches and cushions, where you could sit and prepare before your event. There was a luggage area, and tea and coffee, and an array of tempting snacks, and everywhere you looked you spied well-known, bookish faces, as though the world’s literary supplements had come to life and deposited their occupants here.

There wasn’t much time to take in the scene, however, as Dutch writer Gaston Dorren (with whom I was appearing) and I were quickly whisked away for press photos. A festival staff member led us round the back, past the bins, to a studio area. Four photographers appeared from another yurt and began shouting instructions: ‘Ann, look here!’ ‘Look there!’ ‘Put your hands on your hips!’ ‘Look up at the sky, Ann!’

Then, after a brief pre-talk chat with chair Rosemary Burnett, Gaston and I made our way to the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre, where our event, ‘The World in Words’, was due to begin.

I’d had an anxiety dream the night before that no-one came to watch us, but when we walked out on stage I was delighted to see that the room was full. Gaston kicked off proceedings by reading from his witty and fascinating book, Lingo: A Language Spotter’s Guide to Europe, I read a bit from Reading the World, and the discussion quickly got going, helped along by Rosemary’s questions.

Afterwards, we went to the bookshop to sign copies and chat to members of the audience. I was particularly pleased to meet several people I have been in touch with virtually over the past few years, among them Catharine Cellier-Smart, a blogger who lives on Reunion Island, where she is one of only two ‘sworn translators’, who help local people by translating official documents.

A brief respite and then it was back onstage, this time with award-winning translator, poet and critic, Michael Hofmann. Hofmann’s criticism is renowned (indeed, he was described in the festival programme as ‘one of the most fearlessly outspoken literary critics writing in English today’), so I was more than a little in awe of him. He was very gracious and kind, however, and went out of his way to put me at my ease.

Our discussion, chaired by Society of Authors chair Daniel Hahn (another award-winning translator), explored the concept of world literature, and some of the many challenges and joys translators and readers experience when trying to access stories from other linguistic and literary cultures.

I spent the following day recharging and seeing a handful of the more than 3,000 shows being staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this month (among them In His Own Write, a groundbreaking performance of the Beatle John Lennon’s nonsense book).

But on Wednesday I was back at the literary festival, this time as an audience member. Queuing for a talk on ‘What is the Nation State, Anyway?’ by academics Frank Bechhofer & David McCrone, I was delighted to bump into Gaston Dorren. We sat together to watch the event, which turned out to be an intriguing examination of Bechhofer and McCrone’s research into attitudes to national identity in England and Scotland. According to the pair, it’s helpful to think of national identity as a set of cards (made up of markers such as birthplace, language, place of residence and ethnicity), which each person will play differently from situation to situation. I found this very interesting as working out what makes a book count as being ‘from’ a particular nation was one of the big questions I had to grapple with during my year of reading the world.

Afterwards, Gaston and I repaired to the authors’ yurt where we spent a happy hour discussing writing, languages and our next book projects. I was also pleased to have a chance to say hello to my former creative writing tutor, Paul Magrs, who was preparing to run a readers’ workshop on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The final event of my visit was ‘Where I’m Writing From’, a discussion between authors Petina Gappah and Nell Zink about national identity and writing. As a Zimbabwean living in Geneva and an American living in Germany respectively, Gappah and Zink had a lot to say on the topic and there were plenty of laughs along the way. I was particularly struck by Gappah’s comments on the danger of expecting a writer to speak for a nation because, as she said, ‘writing about is not the same as writing for’ a place or a group of people. And I was thrilled to hear about her collaborative project to translate George Orwell’s Animal Farm into Shona – the first time the novel has ever been published in an indigenous African language.

When the applause died down, it was time to head off to the station to catch the train back to King’s Cross. My Edinburgh adventure had lasted three days and involved a round trip of more than 800 miles. Yet I felt I had travelled much further than that.

Book signing in Covent Garden

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Book signings are funny things. You do your talk and read your extract, and then you sit at a table, crossing your fingers that someone will have liked what you said enough to actually buy your book.

Sometimes you can wait a while. Other times, as happened when I gave a talk at a bookshop in south London recently, you are surrounded by so many people asking questions and wanting to talk about books that the signing itself is a bit of a scramble – I think several people went home with rather eccentric variations on my signature that day!

What always makes the experience better, though, is when people I know through the project are there. After my Around the World in 10 Books event with Scott Pack at the Bath Literary Festival a couple of weeks back, I was delighted to be joined at the signing table by Robin Patterson, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe. Scott and I had discussed Our Musseque, the Angolan novel by José Luandino Vieira that Robin had translated, and it was great to see Robin signing copies of that book.

Of course, it’s not possible for many of those who I’ve met virtually on my reading adventures to get to events in the UK. People who follow this blog are spread all over the world. My stats show that it has been viewed by folk in well over 200 territories, including in many places like Mayotte, New Caledonia and the Northern Mariana Islands that didn’t feature on the UN list I worked from for my quest. So the chances are that many of you won’t be in Covent Garden at 6.30pm next Tuesday evening.

But if by some miraculous chance you are in London that day, I’d love it if you’d join me for an event I’m doing at the wonderful Stanfords bookshop on Long Acre in Covent Garden. If you come along, you’ll get to hear me speaking about the project, how it started, some of the amazing stories and people we encountered along the way and how the book developed – and ask any questions you want (within reason…).

And if you haven’t been to Stanfords before, you’ll discover one of the world’s best travel bookshops into the bargain.

Hope to see you there…

Reading the World – an evening with Ann Morgan, Tuesday 24th March, 6.30pm at Stanfords, 12-14 Long Acre, London WC2E 9LP. Tickets £3 (redeemable against the cost of Reading the World) available here