In these divisive times, when fear and misinformation fill our headlines, it is vital that we look to what unites us. I believe that what unites us, how we connect at a human level, is the telling and sharing of stories. Stories can cross borders, break boundaries; they translate and transform as they travel countries and centuries.
As a festival programmer, I am fortunate to embark on a wonderful literary voyage discovering books and writers from a myriad of places around the world to bring back to Edinburgh audiences for 18 days in August. It is increasingly important to realise that this audience is no longer an English language audience: it is becoming bilingual, even multilingual – 140 languages are now spoken in homes across Scotland. And as a result, we need to learn to find the stories that connect (with young people in particular), to champion the validity and equality of all languages, to create an environment that welcomes everyone’s home cultures, backgrounds and heritages. When creating this year’s literature in translation programme, Trading Stories, we have followed some unifying themes.
“A journey through the parts of the body and the stories of others… an exploration of life’s possibilities: an adventure in human being.” Gavin Francis
Myths and fairy tales echo and resonate through time. The translation and re-translation of classic tales gives creative energy to today’s writers, from Christina de Luca’s retelling of the Kalavala to Jo Morgan’s astounding Anglo-Saxon inspired verse poem At Maldon. For me, this is captured by two of my favourite discoveries from this year: Ian Crockatt’s Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: The Viking Poems of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney and Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations by Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B.
Ian’s new translation of skaldic poetry is a beautifully evocative portrayal of the period, showing the importance of the poet in documenting history. At a time when the British population is being reduced to stereotypes it is refreshing to see that even in the 12th
century our national identity was in flux. Jean-Pierre Filiu’s graphic novel is a sobering insight into the Middle East. Its opening chapter retells the legend of Gilgamesh but as it progresses the character’s words morph into the infamous statements of Bush and Cheney at the opening of the Iraq war drawing comparisons between the Stele of the Vultures with the photos from Abu Ghraib. Filiu is placing our near history in context, reminding us that our experiences don’t happen in isolation, and that we sadly fail to learn from history.
When politicians and media are looking to the future, thirsting for the new, contemporary writers are looking to decipher our pasts, to recontextualise our experiences, to enable us to understand our world better. It is no coincidence that the title of Johannes Anyuru’s novel A Storm Blew in from Paradise draws its inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s angel of history metaphor.
“The attitude of English speakers to foreign languages can be summed up thus: let’s plunder, not learn.” Gaston Dorren
In this global age, we suffer from continually perceiving the English language as existing in splendid isolation and omnipotence in spite of the fact that languages influence, inspire and rub up against each other. In recent years, as the acclaimed translator Daniel Hahn has shown, audiences have expressed real engagement with the process of translation, rather than intimidation or disinterest. Events like Hahn’s translation duels capture the creativity of the translator: one person’s nightclub is another’s discotheque. The Spectacular Translation Machine uses the medium of the graphic novel to invite the public to become translators themselves, injecting fun and energy into a seemingly academic process.
Translators themselves are working hard to make themselves visible, appearing alongside their authors or on their own to discuss the art, industry and cultural identity of translation. Rosamund Bartlett and Maureen Freely have written insightfully on the topic, while translator and essayist Michael Hofmann and literary globetrotter Ann Morgan have both explored what it means to be a reader of international fiction. In turn, authors like Petina Gappah, Nell Zink, Aleksandar Hemon and David Almond have been drawn to translation projects to better understand their craft as novelists.
“That moment where opposites meet is the most fertile of points, for the mind, for the soul, and for the arts.” Ali Smith
The Festival looks to find the connections between books and authors, placing writers together to present different perspectives on a shared subject. Mary Costello’s Academy Street and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian foreground young women looking to escape the patriarchal societies of Ireland and South Korea; Kirstin Innes and Melinda Nadj Abonji explore marginalised communities in Scotland and Switzerland; Johannes Anyuru and Dan Gunn’s novels look at war, migration, identity and alienation from 1930s Scotland to 1970s Uganda. Connecting international and UK-based authors is particularly important, enabling global writers to tap into local audiences and placing domestic writers into a worldwide context.
This process of connecting writers and finding new perspectives also applies to non-fiction. Belgium’s Erwin Mortier has written a beautiful memoir on his mother’s dementia, The Stammered Songbook, while Marion Coutts won the Wellcome Book Prize with The Iceberg – both explore how language defines our identity. Portugal’s Susana Moreira Marques and Raymond Tallis both confront the final chapter of life, one of all societies’ hardest topics, and give meaning to death.
By opening up routes to international authors, programmers, publishers and cultural organisations can offer audiences and readers the coordinates of recognition and reflection that enable them to journey through the landscape of other people’s lives and life’s possibilities, so that we can all find our own adventures in human being.