The Power of Translation: Nick Barley introduces Daniel Hahn, Kari Dickson, and Misha Hoekstra

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq.
16th August 2017

Many events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival are hard to ignore. In some respects picking events to go to is rather like sifting through a longlist, narrowing it down to a shortlist, and deciding who gets the prize of your attendance. We all have our own views about what is, or was, or will the best event this year. However, when a contending event is chaired by the Director of the Festival, who was also the Chairman of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize panel, and the event includes a fellow judge who happens to be the Festival’s go-to-guy in matters of translation, and one of the other participants translated one of the shortlisted books, AND the remaining participant is a fine translator in her own right (reviewer pauses here for breath), that event has to be on the mother of all shortlists.

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Setting aside the issue of whether literary prizes help perpetuate an attitude to fiction where gatekeepers tell us what is and is not ‘literary fiction’ as opposed to popular fiction, this event was outstanding for the way it gave an insight into the art and science of translating. It was so fascinating that by one third of the way though I forgot I had to review it and found I had stopped taking notes. So what follows are impressions. This will not be the last time I will say this, but an hour, with forty-five minutes of chaired talk and fifteen of questions and answers is too little for events like this. On the other hand, the audience leaves with its curiosity whetted and a book or two on their shopping list. Nick Barley, in the chair, steered things with great ease, and the early intervention of a question from the auditorium about dialect enabled him to bring that very issue to Kari Dickson, who recently worked on a Norwegian text full of dialect. The Norwegian language exists without the burden, some would say, of a ‘Received Standard’ version. The country’s population is roughly the same as Scotland’s, but spread out over much further. Every town – every village, every valley, according to Kari – has its own dialect, and all are regarded as valid ways of speaking Norwegian. But translating a remote Norwegian dialect into English is a different matter. In the UK dialect and accent are the fuel of value judgments. So rather than translate into an identifiable dialect from a British region, Kari chose to construct one. That’s not without its problems when, in two adjacent lines, someone shouts “A want t’fuck,” which looks as though it ought to be Lancashire-speak, and someone says ‘thar’ for ‘there’, which seems distinctly Appalachian.

The problem of whether to translate a well-known Danish phrase by using its well-known British equivalent was also raised. Misha Hoekstra translated Dorthe Nors’s Man-Booker shortlisted Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Those words are a precise translation of how learner drivers are taught the skill of turning in Denmark. So why not call the translation ‘Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre’? The answer is that the English translation also goes on sale in North America, where the routine for turning a car is taught differently again. So the decision was made to stick to a direct translation. But then there was how to render the idea of a pedestrian crossing – in the end that became the transatlantic ‘crosswalk’.
Misha and Kari gave us readings in Norwegian and Danish, and if beforehand we had been tempted to think of all Norse languages as being somehow interchangeable, hearing them spoken in juxtaposition highlighted their differences in sound and cadence.

Perhaps the ‘star of the show’ – if that is a valid description – was Daniel Hahn. He is no stranger to the Festival, and when asked to speak about the books that had made it onto the Man Booker International shortlist he spoke rapidly, fluently, and clearly. If there was anything I would liked to have time to ask him directly, it would have been a follow-up to his remark in answer to a question from the audience about punctuation. The questioner had noticed a difference between the speech marks used in Norwegian and English texts. Although the question had been directed to Kari, Daniel intervened to say that the practice was to aim for the most ‘neutral’ usage in the target language. It had been in my mind to ask about the danger of assuming that the target language in a translation, particularly if it is the translator’s own, is somehow a neutral medium. But I didn’t get the chance to ask it, and it didn’t really matter.

Yes, these sessions often seem to short, and yes they often raise more questions than they answer, but that’s no bad thing. And as long as the Festival keeps serving up events like this, I’ll be only to happy to go along to them.

Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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