Rethinking translation: The Multilingual London Festival

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.

Picture: ‘London 11-08-2012‘ by Karen Roe on flickr.com

World bookshopper: #5 Word on the Water, London (various locations)

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So far, I’ve had to go to all the bookshops I’ve featured in this series. But this week, a bookshop came to me.

I was doing some work for a client in Haggerston in east London, a stone’s throw from the Regent’s Canal. The weather’s been pretty miserable lately, so I decided to take advantage of a dry spell to go for a lunchtime walk beside the water in the company of an audiobook (Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – such an enjoyable listen).

No sooner had I ventured onto the towpath than I heard it: orchestral jazz drifting over the water, lending the Watchmaker a jaunty backing track. Once I’d walked over a humpback bridge, it came into view: a barge topped with a sail-like canopy and bristling with shelves of books. I knew what it was before I was close enough to read the sign outside: this was Word on the Water.

I’d heard of London’s only floating bookshop before. Chuntering up and down the Regent’s Canal for the past six years, it has become something of a (shifting) local landmark. There was a petition to save it when it lost its mooring last year (the campaign won and the barge will soon be moving to a permanent site near Granary Square).

In fact, I’d even seen it once or twice during my time working at the Guardian offices near King’s Cross in 2012. Back then, I’d been too absorbed in reading and blogging about one book every 1.87 days to be able to spare the time to venture aboard.

Luckily, this week was a different story.

An eclectic array of secondhand titles awaits me on the shelves and ledges on the outside of the boat. The Illustrated Guide to Egyptian Mythology rubs shoulders with a book about Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. There are novels by Anne Enright, William Faulkner, Will Self, Annie Proulx, Sena Jeter Naslund and Dave Eggers. Studies in European Realism, a biography of Federico García Lorca and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City Bombay peer up at me, while the obligatory Jo Nesbø stares out from a shelf. Things are kept simple by a flaking sign, which informs me that all paperbacks are £3 or two for a fiver.

Inside, the arrangement of the barge’s deceptively extensive stock is more regimented. The fiction bookcases run alphabetically, with a separate section for classics. Meanwhile, the Harry Potters have a shelf all to themselves, nestled beneath a window, through which I watch a shoal of learner canoeists windmill past.

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Small though it is, the bookbarge feels homely and inviting. There is a corner sofa on which you can imagine whiling away an hour or two as the woodburner crackles nearby (sadly, I don’t have this luxury, being on my lunch break).

Quirky antiques and ornaments nestle in odd spaces: a typewriter here, an old telephone there. Up near the entrance, a statue of the Buddha presides over the steps down into the belly of the barge.

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As is the case with many secondhand bookshops that rely on the cast-offs of anglophone readers, who often don’t read many translations, for their stock, the selection of books originating from other languages isn’t massive. However, I do happen upon Nick Caistor’s translation of The Hare by Argentine writer César Aira in the fiction section.

What Word on the Water may lack in international literature, however, it easily makes up for in passion. When I go to pay for the Aira, co-owner Jonathan Privett talks warmly about his experience co-running the barge. He tells me that sourcing titles from charity shops and house clearances is one of his favourite parts of the enterprise, and that he wouldn’t change his 20 years in the book trade for anything – even if the rewards are rarely financial.

‘I love doing this,’ he says. ‘If it was about making money, I would have got a job.’

Before I leave, Jon kindly poses for a photo with his dog, Star, who has been punctuating our conversation with some enthusiastic barks as she waits for Jon to play fetch with her on the towpath.

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As I climb out of the boat, he invites me to come back and do a reading from my novel, Beside Myself, sometime. I might just have to do that.

Then again, perhaps Word on the Water will come to me…

A drink on the South Bank

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The first week of October was a rather busy one, what with my event at Henley and a trip up to Wigtown. So what better way to unwind than with a drink back in my home town?

This is I duly did at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre last Wednesday night, in the company of drinks writer Richard Godwin, broadcaster Georgina Godwin, and a warm and friendly audience.

It was a pleasure to a share a stage with Richard Godwin for two reasons. Firstly, as he has just launched his book, The Spirits: A Guide to Modern Cocktailing, Richard is a mine of information on all things alcohol-related and he entertained us with anecdotes about some of our best-loved tipples.

Secondly, having been very dutiful in his research, Richard mixes a pretty mean drink himself. This he did for Georgina and me, presenting us each with a Remember the Maine, a vermouth-based cocktail. It was made to a recipe from The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Drinking Book or Around the World with Jigger, Beaker and Flask, first published in 1933 by American author Charles H Baker. Godwin had chosen this beverage partly because of the international theme of Baker’s book, which he felt would complement Reading the World.

The drink certainly helped proceedings go with a swing – no doubt thanks in part to the extra spray of absinthe Richard gave the glasses just before he served them!

A most enjoyable end to a packed week of travelling, reading, meeting new people and talking about books. Cheers!

Picture by cheddarcheez

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

A Luxembourgish artist’s story

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Back in October, I received a rather unusual invitation. It was to a private view of Inside Out, an art exhibition at the Luxembourg embassy – or Luxembourg House as it’s known – in London. Not being an aficionado of Luxembourgish art, I was nonplussed at first. Then my eye caught the name of the painter whose work would be on show: Robi Gottlieb-Cahen, the writer/artist who generously sent me the manuscript of his trilingual Minute Stories (since published by Éditions Phi) so that I could have something to read in English from Luxembourg back in 2012.

Delighted at the chance to meet the man himself, I headed over to Wilton Crescent in Knightsbridge one evening after work. After hanging my coat up in a side room under an imposing picture of Queen Elizabeth II, I made my way into a high-ceilinged space lined with a series of artworks painted in Gottlieb-Cahen’s distinctive style – created by layering acrylic paint, ink and other pigments and then using acid to craft the image (you can see examples on Gottlieb-Cahen’s website).

I spent some time wandering among the works, admiring their eerie beauty and sometimes disturbing darkness, and it wasn’t long before I recognised the artist from the photograph on his exhibition leaflet. There he was, standing beneath the painting pictured above, engaged in an animated conversation.

I went over and introduced myself. Gottlieb-Cahen greeted me warmly and we spent several minutes reminiscing about the projects that brought us together and discussing his latest work.

The darkness I’d identified in the paintings was a central theme, he explained. Although he was a very positive, upbeat person, a lot of his works portrayed suffering, some of them drawing on the experiences of his relatives, many of whom were killed during the Holocaust. He did, however, always try to include some suggestion of hope in his creations.

‘My wife says for me it’s either psychotherapy or painting,’ he said with a grin. ‘I choose painting.’

He chooses words sometimes too. When I asked about his writing, Gottlieb-Cahen told me he had recently finished another collection of short stories, which he was hoping to place with a French publisher. Like Minute Stories, this collection featured some of his artwork alongside the text, although there were more words and fewer pictures than in the previous book.

As I said goodbye, he promised to email me one of his recent pieces. This he did a few days later and, testing my school-girl French to its limits, I read ‘Souvenir d’un pantalon à anges’ (Memory of a pair of angel trousers), a quirky story about a liaison that goes wrong when an innocent question leads the narrator to reveal the cruel and obsessive war he has been waging against slugs in his back garden.

Like Gottlieb-Cahen’s paintings it contains a mixture of lightness (in the form of many laughs) and more sinister elements. If it’s representative of the rest of the collection, French-language readers have a treat in store when Gottlieb-Cahen finds a publisher.

Meanwhile, if you’re in central London and fancy checking out his artwork yourself, Inside Out remains at Luxembourg House until 9 January 2015. Just email londres.amb[at]mae.etat.lu to make an appointment to see it.

Picture courtesy of Robi Gottlieb-Cahen

Can you help me read the world?

In 2012, the world is coming to London for the Olympics and I’m going out to meet it. I’m planning to read my way around as many of the globe’s 196 countries (yes, I count Taiwan) as I can, sampling one book from every nation.

I want to read a story from Swaziland, a novel from Nepal, a book from Bolivia, a… well, you get the picture.

It’s going to be tough — according to the Society of Authors, only 3 per cent of the books published in the UK each year are translations. There are plenty of languages that have next to nothing translated into English. Then there are all the tiny tucked away places like Nauru and Tavalu (I know, I hadn’t either), where there may not be much written down at all.

Some countries have a culture of almost exclusively oral storytelling (alright, get your giggles over with now). Others have governments that don’t like to let works of art leak out to corrupt westerners.

And that’s not to mention the whole issue of what constitutes a national literature in the first place. Is it by a person born in that place? Is it written in the country? Can it be about another nation state?

Frankly I don’t know. I’m hoping I’ll figure out the answers (or at least my answers) to some of these questions en route.

What I do know is I can’t do it by myself. As anyone who’s dropped in on my A year of reading women blog will realise, I tend to stick mostly to British and North American writers, with the occasional South African, Australian and Indian thrown in. My knowledge of world literature is shamefully anglocentric.

So I need your help. I need you to tell me what’s hot in Russia, what’s cool in Malawi, and what’s downright smoking in Iceland. I hope to get as good a list together as possible in advance so I can hit the ground sprinting come New Year’s Day.

The books can be classics or current favourites. They can be obscure folk tales or commercial triumphs. All I ask is that they capture something of the character of a country somewhere in the world — oh, and that they’re good.

With thanks to Jason Cooper for the idea.

Picture by Steve Lennon