Roundtable: On Translation

In May 2017, during the tense weeks leading up to the opening of negotiations on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivered a speech in Florence which drew applause from his audience, and scorn from British right-wing media. Halfway through his speech, he switched language. ‘I’m hesitating between English and French,’ he said, ‘But I’ve made my choice. I will express myself in French because slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.’


The move was mostly gestural – calculated, and delivered with a glint in his eye – but revealing nonetheless: our split from Europe would begin first through language. The EU had once been happy to extend itself towards us, and to translate its edicts into our language. Now, we would need to do the translating; the burden to understand and to be understood would be ours. But why had we ever assumed it should be any other way?


In contemplating Brexit, and its questions of language, identity, nationalism, cooperation and compassion, we found we were in fact contemplating the issues of translation. Our roundtable is a chance to grapple with these ideas and to explore how language, and by extension translation, has the power both to let in and keep out. Or, as Khairani Barokka describes it, to be ‘absence, sanctuary and weapon’.


During the course of the roundtable, participants talked about Brexit, colonialism and xenophobia, representation and accessibility, vulnerability and empathy. Alongside a consideration of the work of professional translators, they discussed the often unrecognised (care) work of interpretation that happens in immigrant communities every day. They noted the importance of oral cultures and multilingual texts, and the liberating power of not translating a text. They recognised that we all live in translation.


In her book-length essay on translation, This Little Art, Kate Briggs describes a somewhat similar language ‘switch’ to Juncker’s. In Helen Lowe-Porter’s English translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, two characters suddenly start speaking French to one another, drawing the reader’s attention to the artifice of their reading experience. ‘I come up against the belief I suspended,’ writes Briggs. ‘So this was never in English, then. This was always in German.’


As Briggs argues in her book, translation challenges our beliefs as readers, and as citizens. If the following discussion reveals anything it’s that translation allows us to hold two, or more, conflicting ideas in our minds at any one time; it reminds us that no language or literature belongs purely to one country; it models collaboration over individualism; and shows how uncertainty is as important to art-making as certainty. After all, why should we have to make a choice, like Juncker? Hesitating between one language and another can be the most exciting place to start from.



ŽELJKA MAROŠEVIĆ: Issue 24 of The White Review will be published around the time of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, as it stands. As we contemplate that moment and the nationalism that led to Brexit, I want to start by asking: is translation into English always a good thing? What are the dangers of making a text English, so to speak?


RAHUL BERY: There was a Guardian Longread article recently that basically presented English as a virus. And I kind of agree with that. I’m almost dismayed at how much people speak English. There’s a bit in Flights by Olga Tokarczuk where the narrator is talking about being in airports and she says how she feels sorry for English people because they don’t have a private language. Everyone can understand them. And it’s like, what about us poor native English speakers, if you don’t have any other choice but to speak in English? You know, English may be the language of commerce in airports but it’s also my private language. It’s the only way I can express myself.


And you’re right, we always talk about translating literature into English as if it’s this wonderful, novel thing, but that also implies that no one can read in any other language. I’m often dismayed at the spread of English rather than happy about it. I know there’s a kind of utopian element to it as well. Maybe I should be happy that the Tower of Babel thing is finally wearing off the human race. But I don’t really see it like that.




KATE BRIGGS: I work in an international art school in Rotterdam where the teaching language is English. The students come from all over Europe, some from outside of Europe, and we all work in English. Some of my colleagues are working in their second language – they’re German, Serbian or Dutch.


I think it’s really important to make it into a question. Because I think the problem is when it goes without saying that, of course this is what we’re doing because this is our pragmatic language of sharing and communication. The problem is when it’s not even raised as a potential issue, or something to think about and deal with, especially when I’m asking the students to write in English as their second or even third language.


Fluency is power, isn’t it? The fluency of having an easy, unquestioned relationship with a language that is the dominant language, is a power, is a privilege. So an awareness of those dynamics are really important. I know for myself, when I’m trying to express myself and be articulate in French, it’s different to what I’m doing right now. And so that demand we make of the non-native English speakers is a demand. And it should be something that we are constantly thinking about and aware of.


But I know the question was about translating. An argument I’ve heard made which I think is true, is that it’s because bilingualism is so much more of a rarity in the UK, compared to say in the Netherlands, that we are so celebratory and excited, or overexcited, by receiving translations into English. So this idea of: let’s actually generate new prizes for translation, that’s specific to an Englishspeaking culture.




JAKOB STOUGAARD-NIELSEN: In many other places translation is seen as a norm, it’s not something you’re particularly concerned with, it’s not a genre you choose your literature from. And it gets more attention. I agree with your point, Kate, that a multilingual society is probably more prone to receiving literature in translation and they are probably more open to the possibility of reading literatures from other countries. And why, for instance, should Romanian everyday life stories not be as interesting to people here as stories from Kansas in the US? There’s something not quite right in terms of what we choose to pay attention to.


And we do see this leading, I think, to the kind of isolationism that Brexit is an expression of. This sense that we don’t get anything of value from other language areas in Europe. I think that is underpinning it. So on the one hand, I think it’s important to say that the diminishing multilingualism in English school systems, in the general populace, over the past twenty years has had a huge impact on the way that we understand translated literature. However, strangely enough, there are more books than ever published in translation in the UK. I mean, we hear about the low percentage of work in translation – about 5 per cent of mainstream literature is in translation – but we also have to recognise that the UK is the biggest publishing market, with Germany, in Europe. And it comes from a wide range of languages – most of it is in French of course – but it does come from a wider range of languages than in most countries. If you go to Denmark, where I’m from, you will have a much higher percentage of translations, but they will predominantly be from English.


It’s about curiosity. Lawrence Venuti, the famous translation scholar, said that English publishing was xenophobic and imperialist at the same time. There is a history behind global English that we are a little bit ashamed of. But I think that is too simplistic. It’s not completely untrue, but it does not account for the incredible number of publishers and translators that work in this country and the number of readers who actually do read in translation. So I don’t think the problem is availability because, according to Literature Across Frontiers and the research project ‘Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations’, which I co-led, over the past ten years there’s been a growth of sixty-nine per cent in terms of published titles. The problem is, are they being read? Who are they being read by? The biggest problem as I see it – it probably maps onto Brexit – is that there is a lack of diversity in the readers of translated literature, and it has a sort of skewed social basis. So it is very much the citizens of metropolitan areas who have access to and are being pushed to reading literatures in other languages.


KHAIRANI BAROKKA: I have ‘native fluency’, an interesting phrase to think of, particularly in the context of nationalism, and considering I’m an Indonesian citizen and nothing else, in both English and Indonesian, writing, reading, and performing in both, and translating as well as interpreting from Indonesian to English and vice versa. On the one hand, I adore English as an art form, but on the other, Indonesia has hundreds of languages and, as is the case around the world, an urgently dangerous language extinction rate, particularly for mainly oral languages. In a country with fewer resources due to its history of theft by Western countries, curricula are increasingly devoted to the English language to the exclusion of Indonesian and other literatures, because of the economy, and this is terrifying to me.


I wrote a poem recently called ‘money for your english’ for the Asian American Writers Workshop that speaks to this. Hopefully, more translation of languages within Indonesia into English and other languages will increase the viability of native languages. There is a history behind global English, as you say, that is imperialistic, as there is of Indonesian within Indonesian national borders, but it is also the present and future. Often a notion is presented that there is only one English or Indonesian, as opposed to multiple regional dialects, usually created by imperialism, colonialism, and creative responses to them, i.e. Singlish in Singapore; or sign languages, also often disregarded as ‘proper’ languages.




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