This piece about contemporary translation in the UK was first published on Versopolis, The European Review of Poetry, Books and Culture ( via Activist Publishers and Institutions Translate | Versopolis), commissioned by Professor Fiona Sampson.
by Dr Rebecca May Johnson
We are in a time of politics in the UK. — Of course, we always are: but the 2016 European referendum and the 2017 snap General Election saw people old and young feel the measure of their power again. They felt the power of pen marks on paper to upend the murky calm of the way things are, to grow flippers and swim against the overwhelmingly strong current of ‘common sense’ that usually dictates the course of events in Britain.
While the Brexit vote may feel in retrospect to many like a devastating act of self-harm and a confirmation of the worst undercurrents of xenophobia, it was also an act of public disobedience. This disobeying of received political wisdom has continued with the persistence of Jeremy Corbyn despite widespread consensus, among his own parliamentary party and broadsheet and tabloid media even of the left that his politics were “foolish”. The young, angry and hopeful felt the contours of their political muscles and flexed them: 64% of young voters voted in the General Election, and 62% of those voted Labour. Such disobedience is an act of imagination and a bet that they ( we ) can make the future differently.
Such a future will exist on the page, too – and is already doing so. The mood of political intervention and a growing sense of empowerment is evident among publishers and the young curators running some cultural institutions too. A new generation has been remaking the literary world in a more diverse and radical way, and translation is at the heart of it.
In response to a talk at the 2015 Hay Festival and republished in the Guardian by novelist Kamila Shamsie about the low numbers of women winning literary prizes or sitting on panels, grass roots publisher And Other Stories – founded chiefly to bring challenging, ‘mind-blowing’ voices into English – pledged to publish only books by women in 2018. It has made good on its promise and so, next year, we can luxuriate in the numerous exciting books that have sprung forth from their extremely positive discrimination. To name some: the first ever translation into English of Argentinean modernist writer Norah Lange’s Personas en la sala(probable title, ‘The People in the Room’) by Charlotte Whittle, a reissue of Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy’s novel Sweet Days of Discipline translated by Tim Parks, a Lithuanian novel, Fish and Dragons by Undinė Radzevičiūtė about the painter Castiglioni and his time working in the Chinese court, a Catalan novel by Alicia Kopf Brother in Ice, translated by Mara Faye Lethem, that takes in autism, contemporary Catalan politics and the history of polar exploration and a Dominican novel by Rita Indiana, (title TBC).
Another activist publisher intending to alter the status quo is not-for-profit Tilted Axis, co-founded in 2015 by self-taught Korean translator Deborah Smith: in 2016 the first translator to share the International Man Booker prize with her author, in this case Han Kang for The Vegetarian. ‘Tilting the axis of world literature from the centre to the margins allows us to challenge that very division’, is the declared intent of the publisher. The beautifully designed paperbacks they’ve put out so far have brought previously unheard south and south-east Asian voices, including Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, into English. The publication of her book Panty, translated by Arunava Sinha, received rapturous reviews for its erotically-charged exploration of religion, nationhood, gender and sexuality: it shocked audiences in its original, Bengali language. In July, Tilted Axis will be publishing violent, haunting and formally experimental debut, The Impossible Fairytale by South Korean writer Han Yujoo and translated by Janet Hong. The book launches with a bilingual reading at The Free Word Centre on July 10th.
In a more philosophical vein, new feminist publisher Silver Press, founded by two editors from the London Review of Books, Alice Spawls and Joanna Biggs, and the communications director of Verso, Sarah Shin will round off their first year by publishing the theoretical forbear to Elena Ferrante. Don’t Think You Have Any Rights, first published as Non credere di avere dei diritti by The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective (La Libreria delle donne di Milano) in 1987, puts forward the group’s arguments for ‘female entrustment networks’. The idea is that women seek out symbolic mothers and symbolic daughters (age not dependent) to support and validate each others’ lives ‘among but independent’ of men: a lived embodiment of Luce Irigaray’s critique of the symbolic register defined the Father, the phallus. To entrust oneself, co-founder Luisa Muraro wrote, meant to “tie yourself to a person who can help you achieve something which you think you are capable of but which you have not yet achieved.”
A heartening show of awareness that translation is an important means of cultural advocacy and mediation (in the wake of the inward-turning Brexit vote) is the British Library’s gesture outwards to the world by appointing its first ‘translator in residence’ for two years, co-funded by the AHRC’s ‘Translating Cultures’ project. Jen Calleja who translates from German, is a published poet and is working on her own first experimental novel (as well as playing in numerous punk bands) is making her first move in the new role, the ‘Translating Gay Identities’ event, in September. A panel chaired by Calleja, with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, who translated the first Arabic book to be launched in a gay bookshop, and Lawrence Schimel, a writer and translator of queer prose and poetry from Equatorial New Guinea, Spain and Zimbabwe, will explore the ethics of translating sexual identities.
Arts Council England has also put its money where its mouth is in the most recent round of grant allocation, just announced, by funding the Poetry Translation Centre for another four years. Activism is at the core of the Centre’s practice, which focuses on translating, publishing and touring poets from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In particular, its regular workshop series brings new poets from countries like China, Mauritiana, Georgia, and Jordan into English through non-specialist collective sessions, facilitated this season by poet Clare Pollard. These workshops are free for refugee or unwaged and inexpensive for the rest, and participants work collectively to produce translations. In doing so they challenging traditional ideas of the sovereign, solo authorial voice. The results, including the original text and literal and collective translations, are published on the Centre’s website, creating a huge archive of work, free to read. Visit their podcast too, to listen to readings of translated poetry and discussions of the translation process.
Two more books to look up. Published last year by Test Centre, Sophie Collins’ Currently and Emotion: Translations , edited and with a theoretical Preface, is an exploration of the possibilities of poetry translation. Including Anne Carson, Lawrence Venuti and Yoko Tawada alongside emerging practitioners, the volume sets out to challenge dominant concepts of the translation as a literary service that facilitates access to foreign texts, instead foregrounding the translator. The selection privileges work by and from female translators, and tends towards work that reveals the complex power dynamics in each act of translation, negotiating them in innovative ways.
Forthcoming in September from the London-based publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions is The Little Art by Kate Briggs. Part essay and part memoir, Briggs draws in a history of controversial translations of writers from Thomas Mann to Andre Gide, and puts forward a case for understanding the history of translation as a form of domestic, feminine labour.
Finally, there’s the project that I am involved in as a researcher, the AHRC-funded “Poettrio” project based between Newcastle and Roehampton Universities. We (me, and colleagues Dr Francis Jones, poet Professor Fiona Sampson, poet Professor Bill Herbert and Dr Sergio Lobejon-Santos) are constructing translation laboratories in Rotterdam and Newcastle and placing high profile Dutch and English poet-language advisor-poet trios together and to see how they work, how they feel and the kind of poems they produce. Results – assessed qualitatively and quantitatively through some serious analysis of data TBC.
As a further part of this project, I’m curating a Translation-as-Collaboration event on 20th July in Newcastle, where practitioners from across the UK will present collaboratively translated work across media (film, music, art) and even within languages (e.g. a feminist English, a Scouse English, diasporic Englishes), posing the question: when you translate – what are you bearing across? I am particularly excited to see artist/researcher Heather Connelly’s (of Translations Zones) and academic Gabriela Saldhana’s performance exploring the embodied position of the translator, problematising the process of speaking for another and through another. All welcome!