Found in translation

Eight things we learnt about translation on International Translation Day

It’s not just about taking books from one language into another.

“Why do you translate?”
“I really like the idea of world peace.”

It was a packed day at the British Library. Over a hundred translators, publishers, writers, actors, literary agents, readers, students and enthusiasts came together to celebrate International Translation Day 2017, organised by the British Library in collaboration with Free Word Centre and English PEN.

The day started with an Opening Plenary on UK’s changing demographics and politics and its impact on translations, especially in the post-Brexit era. Speakers for this session included award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone, poet and translator Vanni Bianconi, professional linguist and PhD candidate Francisca McNeill and Professor of Bilingualism Adrian Blackledge, chaired by Erica Jarnes (managing director, Poetry Translation Centre). This was followed by debates and ideas around translations and its impact on gender and sexuality, human rights, children’s literature, Arab literature or political activism.

The day ended with the most unique mass-translation workshop conducted by an East London-based theatre group, [Foreign Affairs], where our translations were brought to life on stage right under our noses!

And in the process of the discussions, debates and declamations, here are eight take-aways from the day:

Translation is linguistic hospitality

We have all heard the old “perfume bottle” analogy when it comes to translation. You can transfer perfume from one bottle to another with as much care as you like, but something will always be lost in the process. However, the opening plenary at #ITD2017 introduced the concept of translation as “linguistic hospitality”. Vanni Bianconi, a poet and translator from Italy, and the founder and artistic director of Babel, a festival of literature and translation, compared the process of translation to making one language a comfortable home for another home.

Pictures are the words children find to play into words”: Sarah Ardizzone

Despite the range of languages discussed during the day at British Library, including English, Arabic, German, Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, one of the most interesting revelations was about a book published in a language we have never heard of. A children’s book titled Du Iz Tak? has been written in a completely mysterious, playful, and invented language, made up by the insect protagonists of the book. It is a book where words and translations hold no meaning because stories and ideas can be translated into pictures, understood perfectly by young and curious minds.

A hidden treasure of sounds and poems

In a session on translating poetry, we were introduced to an easy way to discover poets and poems from Albania, Bahrain, Guatemala, Belarus, Ukraine, Zimbabwe and 80 other countries on an online platform, where we can read and listen to over 10,000 poems by over 1,200 poets, along with over 16,000 translations. Lyrikline helps you experience the joy of diverse, multilingual, contemporary poetry, and we took 20 years to hear about it.

You can translate for the stage

Theatre translation is an emerging field of practice, bringing theatre artists and playwrights from around the world closer to one another for collaborations and productions. [Foreign Affairs] is an East London-based theatre group which produces “thrilling and engaging site-found physical theatre rooted in translation”. The group has remixed versions of works by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, applying choreography, words, and audio-visual technologies, as well as a variety of contemporary themes, to drama classics.

They conducted the closing session at the ITD celebration by conducting a mass-translation workshop for all the participants and attendees. Speaking different languages, we came together to work on short pieces of theatre, translating them into a language of our choice, and watching them come alive on stage at the end of the workshop.

An enthusiastic school librarian makes a huge difference

In a session to discuss what might be considered offensive while translating children’s literature, and who the gatekeepers should be, translator Daniel Hahn pointed out that it is a depressing fact that, in general, school librarians are rarely interested in children’s literature. One such passionate librarian from the South-West of England has started a platform called Library Mice for children’s literature, where she recommends the right books for every age (while also strongly supporting the No To Age Banding campaign). You can read from the “French Friday” section or the “Fabulous Five” section, for instance, or discover a new picture-book a week.

Arabic literature in translation spiked after 9/11

There was a session dedicated solely to “Translating Arabic”. The revelation: Interest in Arabic literature in translation saw a massive increase in the West after 9/11. There was a sudden curiosity about Arab culture and politics.

Translations impacts gender in language

Translation has in the past not only reproduced different texts and cultures for wider audiences around the world, it has also had a significant impact on some linguistic traditions along the way. ShengChi Hsu, a PhD student from the University of Warwick, talked about the most fascinating history of gender in modern Chinese.

The third person pronoun “ta” had always denoted “human” (as opposed to “man” or “woman”). There was no need for a gendered pronoun until they had to translate female pronouns from European languages, in the early 20th century. This led to the invention of a new pronoun in the language, denoting “woman”. As a result, the hitherto genderless pronoun “ta” automatically became a masculine pronoun and continues to denote a masculine identity. A remarkable instance of translation affecting the mainstream vocabulary of modern Chinese.

And what exactly is International Translation Day?

This day is celebrated on September 30, in celebration of St Jerome’s feast. St Jerome is considered the patron saint of translators, and is best known for translating most of the Bible into Latin from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, as well as for translating parts of the Hebrew Gospel into Greek. The celebration of this day has been promoted by FIT (International Federation of Translators) which was set up in 1953. Since 1991, FIT has ensured that International Translation Day is observed every year on this date, as a means of showing solidarity with the worldwide translation community. It was officially recognised by the UN only in May 2017, however.

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