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Breaking down barriers

Barriers, like promises and piecrust, are made to be broken. Or broken down, rather. Translators, like teachers, are great breakers-down of barriers, though, like them, they are almost always undervalued.

This autumn our minds and our media are full of images of razor-wire fences as refugees, fleeing war zones, try to cross borders legally or illegally in search of a safe haven. The UK, made by immigration and with a long and honourable tradition of giving asylum, is nonetheless often suspicious of the Foreign; and at present, looking out on an almost apocalyptic displacement of peoples, is more inclined to erect barriers than to break them down.

It may not be far-fetched to associate this present aversion with our characteristic unwillingness to cross the language barrier and enrich our own literature with writing from other countries and cultures; though again, through a thousand years runs a counter-tradition of welcoming in and benefiting from foreign tongues. The near-hegemony of the English language is a very mixed blessing, for us and for foreign writers who will now sometimes choose English in preference to their own native speech. I’ve just met an author from Gaza who has written one of his novels in English, and nobody thinks that very strange. Yet it would be very odd to meet an English writer who had written a novel in Arabic, would it not?

We are not the only nation to be fiercely protective of its cultural heritage. The French Académie Française, established in 1635 and still going strong, has fought consistently against the importing of English and American words, although it seems to be losing the battle in, for example, the field of technology. Nevertheless the French translate more than five times as many books into their language, as the British or Americans do (though this number includes much pulp fiction that some might say is not worth translating). But translated literature having so important a share of the total book-market may account for the fact that, on the whole, French translators are also better paid than their British colleagues, and the job of translating is, unlike in Britain, a widely-recognized and respected one.

Image: Atypical welcome, by Quinn Dombrowski CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

I have been very privileged on several occasions to spend time translating novels in the Translation Centre in Arles, run by the Centre International de Traduction Littéraire. In this centre, which is as good an image of the breaking-down of barriers as you would want, you meet translators from all over the world translating French texts into their own literatures. Last year, when I was translating Flaubert, my colleagues at their own tasks were from Serbia, Russia, Iran, Iceland, and France. On the site (once home to Van Gogh) there is also a Fabrique des Traducteurs, where students can discuss problems of translation with their tutors. This spring the focus was on Portuguese literature, in the autumn they will hold the first Franco-Korean sessions.

There is no such centre in Britain. Important work is done by the British Centre for Literary Translation in Norwich, where an annual summer programme for translators is held; and by courses held in association with the Translators’ Association, for example at Free the Word. But we also need something more permanent on the Arlesian model, where translators from all over the world can get together, work and talk to one another. Translation is a fascinating and much misunderstood vocation, and such an institution would raise morale and at the same time demonstrate how important we think it is to break down those barriers.

Contrary to popular belief, translations do not leap on to the page ready-made. Most take many months, even years, much creative effort and a great deal of revision. That is why translators quite rightly sometimes feel aggrieved when their work is not properly credited on the cover of books, or on radio and in newspapers. Members of the Association frequently complain about this, but the outcomes to such complaints are not always successful.

It feels sometimes as if translators complain a great deal: about lack of recognition, lack of money, lack of time. But on the plus side it should be said that in addition to OUP and Penguin, who continue to update their publications of translated classics, there are a number of small presses now in Britain that regularly seek out and publish work in translation: Bloodaxe, Smokestack, Arc, Anvil, Comma, And Other Stories, Portobello, Quercus, to name but a few. The magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, started by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort not long after the erecting of the Berlin Wall, has for the last fifty years acted as a portal for poets from all over the world, and will soon bring out an anthology of poems which will demonstrate the continuing importance of breaking down those barriers and of asserting the human values that unite us all.

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