Translators of the world, unite!

International Translation Day kicked off last Friday for its fifth annual year at the British Library. It’s a spectacular day where translators from all walks of life can gather and get the raw, immediate advice that can only come from all being in a room together in person. (It’s also probably the only day in the year when you can walk up to somebody with a cheese and pickle sandwich in your hand and ask which languages they speak without looking weird.) International Translation Day is living proof that, no matter how different the languages we work with may be, through the wonderful and myriad complexities involved in translation – from the theory of translation itself to the publishing and marketing of translated works – we will always share a common ground.

Many of the issues and approaches in publishing translation were laid out in the opening plenary, where there was a cross-sectional dialogue between professionals working across the book publishing and literary industries. Sarah Braybrooke from Scribe gave a humorous and uplifting presentation on how to effectively publicise books ranging from Hans Fallada’s Nightmare in Berlin to Marie de Hennezel’s Sex After Sixty. She also had excellent advice for translators: approach publishers as if you were a publicist. Ana Pérez Galván from Hispabooks spoke about the tremendous number of books being published, which leaves little space for translation. For Rebecca Servadio who is a literary scout (a kind of ‘matchmaker for writers and publishers’) that issue transformed itself into a simple problem of time: how to choose from the 150 books coming in every month?

ITD was not just about sharing problems; it was also about being inspired by success. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, won the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. For the first time, the £50,000 prize was split evenly between writer and translator, increasing the validation and attention to translators around the world. Smith joined Charlotte Collins – whose translation of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was shortlisted – for a discussion and masterclass aimed at early-/mid-career translators. Smith recounted how her decision to learn Korean came out of a desire to learn another language, and only happened relatively recently in her life. Smith and Collins both shared their translation process with the lucky audience, comparing previous and newer translations of the same passage in a ‘before and after’ format; it really highlighted the sheer amount of time and labour that went into making even the most minor of changes. When asked what the best advice Smith had for ‘how far’ you could stretch a translation, she recalled what somebody else had said to her once: ‘Until it breaks.’

After lunch (where the cheese and pickle sandwiches made their appearance), I joined English PEN’s informal meeting on translation and activism, hosted by Rebekah Murrell and Cat Lucas. We started off by laying down a fundamental point: translation – the breaking of cultural barriers, the championing of new voices, the radical reimagining of another’s thoughts – is, inherently, activism. What followed was a great discussion between experienced and emerging translators who were interested in activism both in the UK and abroad. Most of us agreed that there need to be stronger networks that link translators with activism, for example having ’emergency networks’ for translation in precarious situations. Other issues included the need to link students in educational centres and universities to the potential opportunities for activism outside of their own institutions. Clearly, there is a desire to combine translation and social justice in a bigger way, and this still needs to be developed in order to mobilise an effective means for change.

Although I am only a beginner in translation, I decided to attend a workshop aimed at experienced translators on ‘multilingual creativity’. In most cases I find it always beneficial to be around people who have a much more advanced knowledge and experience in your chosen field, and this time was no exception. The panel began with Simon Coffey from King’s College discussing translation in primary and secondary education, the need for more in-depth translation in classes, and the removal of certain languages from GCSEs. When one person asked why that had occurred, he replied, ‘Have you ever heard of Michael Gove?’ In the same panel, Ellen Jones, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary’s and criticism editor of Asymptote Journal gave a fascinating presentation on multilingualism in literature, with examples from Asymptote itself. Acclaimed poet and former editor of Poetry Review Fiona Sampson spoke about her experiences with her works being translated. There were a lot of energetic responses from translators in the audience, and one question in particular stuck in my mind: how to translate words in a foreign text that already appear in English, but denote a specific class or status to that particular culture?

In the closing plenary, one of International Translation Day’s quirkier traditions is to include a speaker who comes from outside the world of literary translation, but who holds important wisdom about how artistic meaning is conveyed. Previous speakers have included composers Helen Porter, Helen Chadwick and conductor Charles Hazelwood. This year, Dr Kyra Pollitt – who has spent more than two decades translating and interpreting between signing and speaking communities – gave the final presentation. Her doctoral thesis explored sign language poetry and the surprisingly difficult task of translating their visual grammar for those who do not understand sign language. A fascinating introduction to a new and evolving medium of Signart!

While it was not possible to attend every workshop and event, the chance for everyone to come together at the end of the day and share their experiences proved that what we learn about translation never happens in solitude or in a void. International Translation Day is still young, but it already has a dedicated cohort of people who have been coming for years, and who have travelled from all parts of the world. With translation on the rise, it’s not hard to imagine that International Translation Day 2017 will bring with it a host of a new issues to explore, more successes to celebrate, and a deeper commitment to translation as a vocation and an intellectual pursuit.