Translating: it’s more than language

Translating: It's more than language, 18 September 2014, Open Book Festival, Fugard Annexe 1, Cape Town.


Panelled by Sefi Atta, Philip Hensher and Felicitas Hoppe, and chaired by Derrick Higginbotham of UCT, this session turned out to be a whole lot of fun! Each panellist started off by reading an excerpt of their work. Atta read:

The great ones capture you. This one is illuminated and magnified. It is a photograph of an African woman with desert terrain behind her. She might be Sudanese or Ethiopian. It is hard to tell. Her hair is covered with a yellow scarf and underneath her image is a caption: “I am powerful.” […]

I am powerful, she thinks. What does that mean? Powerful enough to grab the attention of a passerby, no doubt. She hopes the woman in the photograph was paid more than enough and imagines posters with the prime minister at Number Ten and the president in the Oval Office with the same caption underneath, “I Am Powerful.” The thought makes her wince as she steps off the walkway.

The image is evocative, the audience in attendance. Until Hensher read an extract from his novel, that is. Humorously descriptive of Thatcher’s England, The Emperor Waltz (also the title of a Strauss waltz) – like Hensher himself – is on point in a rather acerbically ironic way. Next we were swept into the fairytale-like short story read by Hoppe whose work has, until now, been translated into other languages but not into English. And though I was unable to capture it all on paper, I heard her read “The poorly shaven lovers stand in pairs … I am not happy and I don’t intend to be so.” I love this line instantly.

First on the hot seat, Hoppe explained that the short story she read was based on a Grimm fairytale and that much of her work entails this kind of translation – an interpreter of other texts. Of course her work has also been translated in the more conventional sense. “But it’s naïve,” she says, “to believe that a translation is still your book. You give it away.” She concedes she was worried about the rhythm, but then states that she’s really happy with the translation: “the translator was truly inspired.”

Hensher does not share this enthusiasm for translation and tells of an acrimonious relationship with his French translator. “It can’t be he said, she said,” Hensher’s translator told him, “it must be he utters, she mutters, he murmured…” Of course the audience was in stitches again, especially as he told us how he went looking for French texts with he said, she said. But still the translator wanted his way!

Atta joined in the lament. “You’re too gracious with your translators!” she said to Hoppe. “I concede a lot,” she added, “but I do it begrudgingly!” Hensher nodded in agreement and then the conversation shifted from translation into different languages to ‘translation’ from UK English to US English. This for me was an important point because it starts addressing the monopoly of translation into English, but also the publishing industry’s American monopoly. In particular they spoke of how American publishers refuse to have ‘strange’ words in the title. Someone even asked Atta why the protagonist in A bit of difference had to have a Nigerian name (Deola) and why it could not simply have been an English name like Kate. Well, umm, because like, it’s about like a Nigerian woman and stuff! Somebody really asked this?

“And what of Americans exchanging boot for trunk and that kind of thing?” asked Atta next. “Not a single American publisher would dare!” exclaimed Hensher. And yes, I believe in his case this is true. This also highlighted a very crucial aspect for me: translation does not occur in a vacuum; it is a process which involves numerous parties with different expectations, demands and capabilities. Add culture, language, politics, ethics and aesthetics into the mix and you know why time and again translation is considered nothing but a fraught business. To sum it up, translation is a thorny, rickety, mucky kind of a thing, but sometimes out of the blood and dust something precious and worthwhile emerges – a book which allows us to access different ways of seeing and being in the world.

Tagged , , , , ,