After a quick chat and a coffee, the day kicked off with a panel discussion on the rise of the reader. Representatives from the publishing industry and the Booker Prize Foundation talked about the importance of the reader in today’s world, at a time when social media is continually gaining in influence and anyone and everyone can engage in conversation about what they are reading and what they want to read next. Although this of course involves people from all walks of life, not just translators or linguists, I was often told by my MA tutors that no one ever reads a book more closely than a translator, who has to recreate the story in their own language. We also had many a lengthy discussion about the translator’s role as a writer, which was a subject that came up in this session. The idea of translators and authors working together to produce well-written novels was floated – and caused a bit of a stir, as a room of literary translators wondered whether to be offended at the suggestion that we might need an author to help us write a high-quality novel. I for one am very aware that translators need to be able to weave a story effectively and captivatingly, whilst also remaining loyal to the author’s original work, and believe that literary translators are very capable of doing so. Having said that, I did value the point that many authors who write in languages other than English are also translators, and I certainly agree it would be great to get more British authors involved in translation. The lack of authors at this event (at least on the panels) did stand out to me so perhaps this is an area where more networking could be done and ties between authors and translators strengthened in general.
The second session I attended was about selling translations and involved a panel of booksellers and publishers. The first important message was that independent bookshops are currently in a very strong position, although as always translations are proving much harder to sell than original English-language fiction. I especially enjoyed the debate about where to place translations in the shop – in Dulwich Books they are in a separate section, whilst at Foyles they are mingled in with the non-translations. I personally love the idea of being able to browse specifically for new translations without getting distracted by other great titles, but at the same time I see it could make translations easier for others to ignore. Having never been to Dulwich Books, and living only a short train ride away, I will just have to go and have a look around and see what I think! The prevailing view, whatever the layout of the bookshops, is that there is room for translators to become much more involved with bookselling after publication. This was all a bit far in the future for me, as a translator who is still very much ‘emerging’ and has not yet completed a book-length translation, but it was still fascinating to hear about the events that translators can take part in to raise awareness of their books, as well as the possibility for publicity via social media and in interviews, for example. I look forward to a time in the future where I can take this advice on board myself and encourage people to read my own work!
After a buffet lunch and a quick networking session with the Emerging Translators Network, I returned to the auditorium for a discussion of ‘translator speak’ with editors from Peirene Press and Granta, and literary translator Shaun Whiteside. A group exercise of trying to guess whether various extracts were translations or original-English works led to a very interesting discussion of how much freedom a translator has in their work, and how much an editor can or should intervene. There seemed to be a general feeling that translators should have the courage to stand up for what they believe the author wants to say and to have more freedom in how they express this in their own language. Another important issue raised was the idea of easing readers into the book on the first couple of pages, so editing a bit more heavily to start with and then easing off to allow the original style and foreign flair to really shine through. This has the benefit of potentially preventing readers being put off reading a translation, but Shaun Whiteside expressed the viewpoint that this is not always fair to the author. Why should an author who frequently writes in very long sentences, for example, be reduced to shorter sentences in translation? Does that really give readers of that translation an idea of the author’s work or style? The main thought that stuck in my mind is how willing we are to tiptoe around readers of translations, making the reading process easier for them instead of stretching them and making them work perhaps a bit harder to really get to grips with the novel. It is a difficult question and there is almost certainly no definitive answer, but I can’t help thinking it’s a shame to make significant changes to a work just so readers can perhaps go so far as to pretend they are not reading a translation at all. The session certainly threw up some complex and important issues and it was thoroughly enjoyable.
After another quick coffee break came the final session, with everyone all together again in the auditorium. A couple of extracts from translated plays were read by a group of actors and then they and the translators discussed the process of translation, rehearsing and editing (covering issues such as rhythm, humour and the difficulty of transferring cultural differences). The session was incredibly engaging and it was very interesting to approach translation from a slightly different angle. This was followed by the presenting of the 2015 Found in Translation Award to Ursula Phillips, a translator of Polish literature. It was a very positive way to finish the session and was nice for everyone there to be able to share in her success.
The final drinks reception provided a last chance to do some networking and, all in all, it was a very rewarding day. Freelancing has the potential to be a very lonely job (however passionate a translator you may be) and it is essential to have that contact with other translators whenever possible. I came away feeling reinvigorated, with my head buzzing with even more book titles that I now want to get my hands on. Languages, literature and translation are all important parts of my life and I really don’t think you can beat spending a day in the beautiful British Library with likeminded people, talking about books. I can’t wait for next year!