Monday, December 03, 2007

Stephen Henighan on Translation

Stephen Henighan, as the editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, acted as host for the launch of Ryszard Kapuscinski's I Wrote Stone on Friday, November 23rd at This Aint's the Rosedale Library. His introduction on the importance of translation was very well received, and he's agreed to let me post it here.

This Ain’t the Rosedale Public Library
November 23, 2007

Stephen Henighan

Good evening! Dobry wieczór!

Welcome to the launch of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s I Wrote Stone, which is also the launch of the Biblioasis Translation Series.

This is both an evening in which to celebrate and an evening in which to remember.

It’s an evening to remember because, of course, we had hoped that Ryszard Kapuscinski would be here with us this evening. Tonight, as Biblioasis sets out on the path of a new translation series, we take the opportunity to honour a Polish writer who died earlier this year.

But we also honour the political and aesthetic act of literary translation because it is through translation that most of us discovered the magnificent writing of Ryszard Kapuscinski. As many of us are aware, in 1958 Kapuscinski went to Ghana to cover Africa for the Polish Press Agency. Over the next four decades he developed into the world’s most original and literary foreign correspondent. A simple reporter became a writer of layered, metaphorical depths with an unerring eye for terrifying details. These details leapt to life in part because Kapuscinski was not simply another stringer for the BBC or CBS. As a Pole, he looked on Africa with the eye of a man whose own country had descended into violence in his childhood; among the legions of foreign reporters describing refugees in Africa, Kapuscinski may have been the only one who had himself been a refugee.

Over four decades in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Kapuscinski witnessed 27 military coups. He was jailed on a number of occasions. He was sentenced to death four times, but always escaped. He wrote books about Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, The Shah of Iran, The Soccer War between El Salvador and Honduras, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of independent Angola. These books have been published in 31 countries, almost always in translation. Indeed, I’m certain that many of us here tonight discovered Kapuscinski’s writing by reading English translations of his articles in Granta magazine. Personally, I remember wincing, white-knuckled, each time Kapuscinski rammed another burning roadblock in Togo or talked his way out of a dungeon where he was awaiting execution.

What none of us knew, of course, was that the swashbuckling reporter and daring prose stylist was also a poet. Only when Diana Kuprel and Marek Kusiba brought us a manuscript of their translations of Kapuscinski’s poetry did we become aware of this side of his literary career, which was little known outside Poland. Tonight, therefore, we’re delighted to be launching only the second-book-length translation ever of Kapuscinski’s poetry.

Diana Kuprel is going to speak about Kapuscinski’s relationship with translation, the act that made it possible for people all over the world to imbibe a Polish writer’s vision of Africa, the act which meant that at least one of the outsiders writing about Africa wasn’t from a country that had formerly colonized Africa, such as Britain or France, or a country that was aspiring to colonize it, such as the United States (and today we would have to add China).

Before Diana speaks about Kapuscinski and translation, I’d like to talk about Biblioasis and translation.

Biblioasis is a literary press run by Dan Wells out of his home office in Emeryville, Ontario, just outside Windsor. Biblioasis publishes ten or twelve books a year of Canadian fiction, poetry and literary essays. In 2005 Biblioasis published a book of stories called Yesterday’s People by a Canadian writer named Goran Simic. Since Goran’s first language is Bosnian, or the Bosnian version of the Serbo-Croatian, depending on how you want to frame it, these stories had to be rendered into English, a job that was done partly by Goran himself, partly by Dan Wells and partly by other people. These stories about life in Sarajevo during the war in former Yugoslavia are the first work of translated fiction published by Biblioasis, even though no translator’s name appears on the title page.

This experience got Dan thinking. At the same time, that Dan was thinking about translation, I was growing more and more frustrated with the sheer quantities of great writers who were translated from their own languages into other languages, often into four or five other languages, but whose work was not available in English. Because, alas, our vision of globalization is too often that globalization means that everything of importance happens in English. This attitude, in combination with certain pernicious trends in the publishing and book selling industry, means that less and less gets translated into English these days. Of the 100 best-selling paperbacks in the United Kingdom in 2004, only two were translations. Every day we hear of the importance of China, yet how many of us have read a Chinese novel? Brazilian, Indian and contemporary Arabic writing remain enigmas. Even as the United States and Latin America grow more and more integrated, younger Latin American writers are failing to get published in translation in the U.S. as the older generations, to which Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende belonged, were published. Now that Central and Eastern Europe no longer supply us with politically useful dissidents, we have ceased to translate the region’s literature, as we did in the 1980s. No longer do English-Canadian undergraduates regard translations of Martie-Claire Blais novels as vital reading, as many did in the 1970s, nor do young English-speaking readers elsewhere receive substantial exposure to current French-language fiction from Europe, Africa or the Caribbean.

All this means that English-language prose is less innovative than it used to be. Writers in most cultures read in several languages; their engagement with their own language is nourished by their experience of delving into the literatures of other languages. Major writers in other traditions, such as Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, or Javier Marías in Spain, or J.M. Coetzee in South Africa (now in Australia) or Haruki Murakami in Japan, are also prolific translators. This is not true in North Atlantic Anglophone culture. The monolingual writer is a postmodern, Anglo-American invention. Try to imagine Jane Urquhart or Barbara Gowdy or Douglas Coupland or Guy Vanderhaeghe undertaking a literary translation. The image is almost surreal; this simply isn’t the way in which our writers approach literature. In ages prior to ours, when all writers, by definition, were multilingual, literature’s nature as an entity whose lustre was burnished by the fretting-together of different linguistic strands was so obvious that it did not need to be stated.
Since our writers are not translators, and since no reader, in any event, can hope to learn very many languages well enough to read their literature, we need translation.

The lifeblood of our literary culture depends on it. Literary movements gain fresh life through translation. Think of the most influential reading trends of the twentieth century: 19th century Russian fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, French existentialism in the 1950s and 1960s, Latin American magic realism in the 1970s and 1980s. All exercised a powerful influence on English-language prose, and all were made possible by literary translation.

When Dan Wells and I met and shared our preoccupations and decided to found the Biblioasis Translation Series, we agreed that we were looking for a kind of specificity that acknowledged a work of literature as a product of a place and a time, that acknowledged it as a creation of a particular translator grappling with a particular book in a particular context. For that reason, just as Ryszard Kapuscinski did not hide his identity as a Polish reporter in Africa, we decided that we would not hide the fact that ours were Canadian translations of world literature, and that a Canadian translation is just as legitimate and original and engaging as an American or British translation, and may be even more essential than those translations because it is bound to diverge in some respects from the assumptions of those more powerful cultures.

In contrast to some publishers these days, we decided that we were not going to hide the fact that our translations were translations. We were not going to hide the translator’s name, or banish it from the front cover. On the contrary, we would boast about our translators, just as Avon Books used to boast about Gregory Rabassa’s prowess in translating Latin American literature during the 1970s, or Penguin Classics boasted of David Margashack’s ability to render Dostoyevsky into 20th century English in the 1950s. We would recognize that translation is the most intense form of engagement with literary language that exists, an endless sifting and sieving of words for the kernels of their meanings, an improvisation which is never finished and is never satisfactory but which yields the miraculous act of transporting one culture into the realm of another, of causing the collisions of words and genres and concepts and histories and passions and fantasies which fissures and hybridizes literatures and yields new forms.

At the most simple level, translated literature opens up the world. Let me close with one very obvious example of this. The second book in the Biblioasis Translation Series is going to be the novel Good Morning Comrades by the young Angolan writer Ondjaki. I never would have got interested in Angola, I never would have travelled to southern Africa and met Ondjaki, had I not read an exquisite description of the first week of Angolan independence in a book called Another Day of Life by a Polish writer named Ryszard Kapuscinski. That book was made available to me by translation, and in turn we will soon be making an Angolan writer available to readers in Canada by way of translation. That Angolan novel is, in part, about Angola’s relations with Cuba. In addition to providing readers in Canada with a different view of Africa, it will provide them with a fresh perspective on Cuba. Beware! Translation is dangerous! Every act of translation connects part of the world to another part in a way we never could have expected; and this connection makes possible another connection, which makes possible another connection which in turn will make possible other connections in the future, and this web of connections is called culture, and it cannot exist without translation.

Thank you. Dziekuje bardzo.


Mary Soderstrom said...

What a great speech! Literature in translation does indeed open up the world.

One of the pleasures I discovered after moving to Montreal and learning French was the whole world I had missed before I learned the language. Luckily, many of the best writing in French is available in excellent English translations now. Would that there were more of the efforts like Biblioasis other langugages, because there are not many of us who live long enought to gain competence in more than two or three.



mieke koppen tucker said...

And don't forget that even when we do have some knowledge of another language, or are learning one, then translations help us read the original. Right now I'm reading the wonderful novel "Nada" by Carmen Laforet with the translation by Edith Grossman at hand. We need more translation courses in modern language departments too. Enough with all that communication stuff!