I wish you could have been there. At an event presented by the Writers’ Centre Norwich as a part of their National Conversation series, the fiction writer Ali Smith presented her arguments for literary translation. She refused to patronise her audience and draw the usual slow line from language to ‘civilisation’. No, she assumed we were more intelligent than that; less bigoted than that.
I simply do not have the skill to repeat the way that Ali Smith said the things she said. She said things many of us already believe – but she said them with a certainty and fluency that showed them to be self-evident. She did it so well she reminded us that language is not only expression but – beyond that – language is pleasure.
Worldly, eloquent and open to ideas, Ali Smith’s talk was itself an argument for how we could be better read. She spoke specifically about parochial realities in the UK and how damaging – no, how insane – they are. Without a knowledge of others “how do we measure where and who we are in the world?” She corrected herself: “how do we know anything, ever, if we don’t look beyond ourselves?”
“Do we want to be idiots?” she asked.
We have a complex problem – Ali Smith never suggested that literary translation alone would fix it. She was just making the very fundamental argument that unless we have facility with more languages, more cultures, more systems of thought, we will lack the insight to examine and evolve our own structures and belief systems. Speaking of the writer WG Sebald, she said that for him language was “always a matter of ethics”. “Language is bigger than money”, she said. “Language is about a different kind of worth”.
Ok, so you know this and I know this but how often do we work for it? I am speaking now to fellow citizens of the country in question. Every day, I feel sadder for the UK and more certain that insularity (and the ignorant self-importance that comes of that) is destroying thought in this country and will eventually destroy the country itself. We have problems that go much deeper than government. We sit back and accuse America of isolationism but I wonder sometimes if inside our minds we are on our way to being much worse.
Ali Smith suggested we throw our full weight behind teaching languages to young children (the line from here to civilisation being obvious). Because, she said, it is at that stage of life that language sinks into us “like butter into toast”. And if we can operate in more than one language, our structural understandings naturally multiply.
This thread was picked up in the subsequent discussion on stage between Ali Smith and three other writer/translators – Margaret Jull Costa, Xiaolu Guo and Daniel Hahn. Xiaolu Guo who writes in both Mandarin and English (and has been learning French and German), pointed out that new languages have given her new identities. She suggested they were also distinctive identities. She said technically wrote more freely in her Chinese language while morally and politically she was freer in English. “The key is difference”, she said.
With a casual and playful brilliance, Xiaolu Guo built on Ali Smith’s original presentation. She talked of a long view of language in which languages evolve so much in interaction with each other it is impossible to speak of them as being distinct. The English we speak is not itself a parochial language, she pointed out, even where its speakers are. She looked sardonically into a future in which we all speak “African Chinese” as a consequence of a Chinese occupation of the continent of Africa. She was also more resigned to the current dominance of the English language. “It comes back to the bankers probably”, she said. Xiaolu Guo cautioned us against thinking the UK was the worst place in the world – at least there is still fiction at the front of bookshops, she said.
A few months ago, I described International Translation Day as feeling like relief. It was the same feeling that I had listening to Ali Smith, Xiaolu Guo, Margaret Jull Costa and Daniel Hahn. I would add to that this point: at both events I learnt eclectic interesting things about other people and places in the world:
Ali Smith told a story told to her by Professor Gillian Beer – that reading translations of Virginia Woolf had helped her to understand what Woolf was not saying, in English. Xiaolu Guo wanted to mention that Ezra Pound was not only a fascist. She pointed out that if he hadn’t translated into English previous Italian translations of Chinese poetry, then Imagism and Modernism would have been poorer for it. Many jokes were told about the Chinese translation of Finnegan’s Wake, which has been its translator’s life’s work. We were told that Haruki Murakami’s Chinese translator has written about how he translated Murakami without knowing what spaghetti was. Did you know that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a steady bestseller in China? Someone – I can’t remember whom – suggested that with her knowledge of Latin American literatures, Margaret Jull Costa was well poised to lead a cultural movement.
I intend to spend more time with translators, in future. Ali Smith suggests we should pay them better.
Sunila Galappatti, Commonwealth Writers
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