Translating History

In December I spent a very productive week at Stirling University taking part in a group workshop entitled Traduire l’histoire. This was the first in a series, La Fabrique des Humanités, organised by ATLAS – Association pour la promotion de la traduction littéraire.

The series brings together translators working in both language directions: a rare UK-based opportunity to discuss translation and more in French as well as English! It was interesting for me to find out more about the worlds of literary translation and academic history in France and Belgium. I gained greater insight into US English too, as the other 3 into-English attendees were originally from the States.

The week included an introduction with Jörn Cambreleng of ATLAS on the Monday, and a talk by Dr Michael Rapport on the Thursday about ‘What historians want from translators’. We also visited The Pathfoot Press, a small ‘hand press’ printer based on campus.

In the workshop sessions proper, 3 hours were dedicated to each participant’s text. With everyone having read and prepared the source texts in advance, this was an opportunity to really get to grips with the whole extract submitted.

The proportion of time devoted to discussing the context, approach to take, and details of the text itself varied according to the translator and source material. The manuscript I’m working on is ‘history’ in the sense that it’s a primary source; all but one of the other participants were translating secondary sources.

I was the only into-English participant approaching the subject from a translation background, rather than a history one (both tutors were experienced translators, and Siân Reynolds worked as a history professor too). The tutors and attendees provided lots of knowledge about history, methods and more for me to absorb. Hopefully the historians gained from the translation input too.

I have found it pretty much impossible to sum up the experience, not least given the intensive nature of the study during that week and the variety of material we tackled. Suffice it to say that this was a mind-broadening experience, which also deepened my knowledge. And what a great opportunity to get to know my colleagues!

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…


Conference snapshots

My ITI Conference was jam-packed with impressions; here are some short snapshots of events I attended.

Karen M. Tkaczyk provided a thorough and knowledgeable insight into one strand of her work, editing non-native English. As in all areas of this business, managing customers and their expectations comes into play. Karen finds it useful to ascertain whether the writer she’s editing is likely to welcome – and learn from – her explaining the corrections she makes. This saves time all round, as she doesn’t explain to people who won’t listen, but does benefit when receptive customers learn not to make the same mistakes in their next paper.

Alison Hughes provided many helpful ideas for the translator faced with a creative text, including an emphasis on lateral thinking. Flow and style are paramount, and liberties may therefore need to be taken with the individual words. Thus you might end up searching for the right-sounding word, or one that fits with the other words used: there are websites to help you find rhymes or words starting with a certain letter.

Alison’s co-presenter Adriana Tortoriello helped me think of a creative text as multisemiotic, a combination of verbal and visual meaning. In this context, the visual aspect of the words is also important: you might say that in an advert, typeface is to text what intonation is to speech. And tone of voice is key to conveying the ‘personality’ (e.g. brand) which the source text embodies. Again, translators need to ascertain the level of work customers want – a new lick of paint for their vehicle, or a complete overhaul?

I was intrigued by the idea of the ‘TED-style’ talks, new to Conference this year. I heard Richard Davis speak about whether agencies (like his, winners of the ITI Corporate Member Award) are ‘servants of the dark side’. He deliberately defied expectations, and showed the added value agencies provide from an unexpected angle or two. After asking the audience what they thought the ‘point’ of agencies was, Richard explained his view.

I found it interesting to note that agencies build up experience through the sheer volume of jobs they handle, and that experience is retained even when individual employees move on. This enables them (in theory) to foresee and help pre-empt problems. Similarly, agencies with several in-house employees can dedicate resources to managing terminology and other repositories of knowledge which can help achieve the best translation.

I was a Singing Translator once again this Conference. For anyone who missed the show, a video is available here (or search for ‘ITI Conference Day 2 916’ on YouTube). Please note the pun inherent in the choice of song: ‘Memory’ from the musical ‘CATs’!

– This material was originally written up for the ITI French Network newsletter. You can find out more about the French Network here. –

Renewed Interest

I have begun to share some ‘pre-blog’ items that may be of interest:

Here’s an article written for the ITI’s Scottish Network on a renewable energy industry event I attended. Among other information, I gathered a useful overview of developments in Scotland and in UK policy.

This event was held by the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany in 2013, against the backdrop of an impending Scottish Independence referendum. It’s interesting to look back on the uncertainty in the UK constitutional, political and policy landscapes which even then was said to be affecting business prospects. The Chamber is now holding events to help its members prepare for Brexit, including one in London on climate change and emissions trading.