Scots Wrote

I attended an interesting, varied conference at the end of September: Scots Write, organised by the Society of Authors. The event was held in Cumbernauld, and it was a treat to have sessions on writing, translating, marketing and technology within easy travelling distance, with keynote speeches from well-known figures from the world of publishing.

While I can’t hope to capture everything I learned – especially from the useful sessions on ergonomics and combining writing with life – I hope to provide a flavour of the event.

The conference was loosely themed around the concept of Ikigai, which is perhaps most easily illustrated using a Venn diagram. It is a way of balancing passion, mission, vocation and profession which can certainly also apply to translators.

The first plenary session I attended was given by Jane Johnson, who described how her life had developed and shown her the path she now follows as an author. Jane introduced us to interesting ideas about writing, including thinking of writing as engineering. You may be afraid of causing an accident by changing something, but initial trial-and-error attempts can then be edited to make them safe, and new mechanisms that ultimately don’t work can be put back as they were.

Jane also addressed the issue of cultural appropriation: is it appropriate for a writer to speak through characters whose cultural background they don’t share? She turned the question around, asking what would be lost if everyone only wrote about what they knew.

She had looked into a family story about a kidnap from the Cornish Coast in 1625, tracing the Barbary pirates responsible back to Morocco. She thought it would make great material for a novel; a trip to the country for research brought her greater understanding of the people involved and their background (and triggered fascinating events in her own life).

Indeed, several speakers at the conference mentioned that developing a sense of empathy with the characters you’re writing about is an effective way to avoid many of the pitfalls associated with cultural appropriation. This particularly sparked my interest, as I believe empathy is an essential component of the translation process, too. In order to reproduce someone’s words convincingly in a different language, you need to be able to empathise with the speaker.

In a session aimed largely at non-translators, Ruth Martin and Daniel Hahn explained how translators produce ‘Exactly the same book, except for all the words’ in their talk on ​translating and being translated. They explained how translators can ‘make culture travel’ and promote ‘listening to one another’s stories’. One challenge literary translators face is to increase the proportion of translated literature sold in the UK, which currently lies (well) under 5%.

In terms of illustrating the process of translation, Daniel Hahn provided a classic example of a translation constraint. This was also a great one to choose for an audience of authors:  Georges Perec’s OuLiPo novel ‘La Disparition’. This book was written in French without using the letter ‘e’; Gilbert Adair translated it into English, also without using the letter ‘e’, (as ‘A Void’). This major, overriding limitation meant that many of the words, and indeed meanings, in the original French could not be transferred into the translation. Yet the translation did fulfil the same purpose as the original – it was also an exercise in applying this rule of ‘avoidance’.

Session attendees also experienced translation constraints as part of a practical exercise. These were images and rhymes in the children’s picture book Daniel had brought as a sample source text. On one page, a set of ‘before’ images were described; on the facing page, a set of ‘after’ images were also described, in language that rhymed with the ‘before’ descriptions. The nature of the book meant space was limited to one or two words for each image. This shows how inventive translators may need to be to meet their translation objectives!

Another successful illustration of the difference word choice can make was the first line of Camus’ L’Etranger, ‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’. This has been much-discussed, and it clearly makes a difference to the tone of the opening whether ‘maman’ is rendered as ‘my mother’, ‘maman’, ‘Mummy’ or ‘Mama’ (which can be read as if it’s pronounced ‘mumma’ or ‘mahmah’, both with different connotations). Even brief examples can provide plenty of food for thought!

Back at my desk after the weekend conference, I found myself refreshed after seeing writing and translation from several new perspectives. My own attempt to balance passion, mission, vocation and the translation profession continues…