Sebastian Smee, Net loss: The inner life in the digital age (#BookReview)

Book CoverIf you’ve been reading my blog recently, you’ll already know why I am reviewing Sebastian Smee’s Quarterly Essay edition, “Net loss: The inner life in the digital age”, but to briefly recap, it’s because it inspired a member of my reading group to recommend we read Anton Chekhov’s short story, “The lady with the little dog”. What wonderful paths a reading life can take, eh?

Smee’s aim in his essay is, he says,

to dig into this idea that we all have an inner life with its own history of metamorphosis – rich, complex and often obscure, even to ourselves, but essential to who we are. It is a part of us we neglect at our peril. I am interested in it because of my sense that, as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.

He commences the essay, though, by admitting that he uses social media – a lot. And not only that, he also admits that he knows that he is “handing out information about myself to people whose motives I can’t know. I feel I should be bothered by this, but I’m not, particularly.” He’s not bothered because they know only know “superficial stuff” about him, such as his phone number and age, what sports teams he supports, the music he listens to and where he does the weekly food shop. From all this, he  says, they can probably guess how he’ll vote, but, he says, and this is a big but, “they cannot know my inner life”.

This is where Chekhov’s “The lady with the little dog” comes in because Gurov discusses his inner and outer lives, making clear that the inner life is where “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people”.

The digital age is, as Smee says, making huge incursions into our lives. Children, “from a young age, are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online” and, for all of us, “it gets harder to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it”. This is true – to a degree – though there are many of us who do carve out alone-times for ourselves. For me, this includes never being plugged in when I walk. That is definitely my alone-time. As is my yoga time, and bed-time when my phone is in another room, while my book is with me!

But, what is this inner life? How do we define it? Smee says it includes “apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil”. He feels that, today, “we can no longer assume that it has its own reality. To the extent that it exists at all, it seems to have no place in public discourse. Even in discussions of art, it is ignored, thwarted, factored out”. Hmm, I haven’t consciously thought about whether, when discussing the arts, we refer to our inner lives, whether we share our innermost feelings about what we see, hear or read, but I’d have thought we do. Yet, if Smee is right about what he calls “the obscurity and unknowability of our inner selves”, then have we ever?

Anyhow, Smee explores what “self” is and how various writers and artists have viewed it. Chekhov’s Gurov, for example, felt a tension between his inner and outer lives; while American filmmakers Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin, he says, portray our identity, our inner selves, as something flexible, as something messy, splintered, and defined by our relationships with each other.

Smee talks about the effect of social media, like Facebook, on our selves. Trustworthy studies, like one in the American Journal of Epidemiology, he says, “find that use of Facebook correlates with diminished wellbeing, both physical and mental”. Correlation doesn’t mean causation of course but the implication is there. Smee returns to his question about how much companies like Facebook really know about us, about how accurate their profiles are.

He talks throughout the essay about algorithms, because that is how social media software works. Their algorithms that deal “with big and disparate data sets can see patterns where they couldn’t previously be detected”. This has “proved incredibly useful in business, medicine and elsewhere”. However, these algorithms “still struggle to cope with the messiness and idiosyncrasy that inhere in individual human beings.” Can they, will they ever be able to, gain access to our inner lives? It’s hard to say, he says, because “individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think”.

Throughout his discussion, Smee draws mostly on writers and artists, rather than on philosophers and psychologists, to explore his topic, to exemplify his arguments. And so to this question of quantifying individual reality, he turns to Cézanne, who conveys in his art that

life … is not hierarchical, like a newspaper article, or linear, like an algorithm. It is fluid and multifaceted … Instead of cause and effect, there are only clusters of interlocking circumstances which mysteriously give rise to new circumstances.

Will, I wonder, this inherent instability save us – and our inner lives?

Social media will, of course, continue to keep trying to access our selves. One way they do so is by trying to capture as much of our attention as they can. And yet, Smee goes on to argue, our inner lives, “the very things that move us the most”, are, in fact, “the hardest to share”. Chekhov knew it was hard to do. Moreover, he knew that sharing our inner selves “can also be a betrayal of the primary, inward experience.” Touché.

Smee also makes an important distinction between private and inner life. Privacy is linked to political freedom (and power), he says, “to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others”. It’s “a shallow concept”. Inner life, on the other hand, as he argues throughout the essay, “may be elusive and impossible to define”.

And yet, says Smee, it’s this inner life that can erupt into hate, as we see played out on social media, the trolling, the never-ending vindictiveness. He references Frances Bacon’s paintings, arguing that they “dramatise a tension between the psyche’s darker compulsions and a pressure felt within civilised society to conform, to stifle emotions, not to lash out.”

Do we want these inner lives unleashed? (In a way, though, we then know what people really think?!) However, the question that most interests Smee is why are these negative aspects of our inner lives being unleashed? He suggests that it’s what all the artists (the filmmakers, writers and painters) he quotes are expressing – “an apprehension that we are alone”. This is where, Smee proposes, social media comes in with a solution:

One response to this panic, it seems to me, is to disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

But, to really protect our inner lives, he believes, we need the converse: “to pay attention again to our solitude, daring to hope that we might connect that solitude to the solitude of others.”

So where does the essay leave us? Early on he argues that

Once nurtured in secret, protected by norms of discretion or a presumption of mystery, this ‘inner’ self today feels [my emph] harshly illuminated and remorselessly externalised, and at the same time flattened, constricted and quantified.

It’s easy for us to say, yes, yes, yes, this is so, but I wonder whether this too is just a feeling? And whether, in truth, our inner lives remain as obscure and unknowable as Smee describes in the essay – and therefore as rich as ever? Net loss is a fascinating essay to read – particularly for “arty” types who love allusions to writers and artists. He makes pertinent points about the way social media operates and gives us much to think about regarding the inner life, but in the end leaves us with more questions than answers – which is perfectly alright. The one immutable, however, is that whatever we think is happening, the inner life is worth protecting.

Lisa (ANZLitlovers) reviewed this, as did Amy (The Armchair Critic) who discusses it at some depth including delving into what Smee doesn’t do.

Sebastian Smee
“Net loss: The inner life in the digital age”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 72
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2018
ISBN: 9781743820698

Monday musings on Australian literature: NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

Don’t worry. I know this is the second Monday Musings post in a row inspired by the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, but when I wrote last week’s post, I felt that one on the Translation Prize in this suite of awards would be an appropriate follow-up. It’s not the start of a Monday Musings trend!

I know I don’t need to say this to readers who come here, but reading works by people from other cultures is so critical to our ability to understand our world and the people in it. However, funnily enough, not all of that literature is written in the language/s we read! Hence, the importance of translation. Unfortunately, translation doesn’t have high visibility in Australia, partly, I presume, because of our geographic isolation and our attendant monolingualism. Yet, there are many* in Australia who speak more than one language. It surely behoves us, for a start, to read more from the cultures living amongst us.

Jane Sullivan wrote an article in The Age back in 2005 about the state of translation in Australia, and made this comment:

In Australia, the market for translated work is very small and publishers are rarely willing to take the risk of commissioning a translation. While the Australia Council supports translation of Australian writers’ work into other languages, it does not usually support Australian translation of foreign literature into English.

I wonder how much has changed since then? (Do read the article, if you are interested. Sure, it’s a bit old now, but it has some interesting things to say nonetheless, including suggestions that things were changing.)

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

Now, I have written about translation before, particularly in my review of Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly Essay and in a Monday Musings on Australian literary translators, but have never focused on the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize. I’m rectifying that now!

The Translation Prize is offered biennially, and is currently worth $30,000. It has been offered, I believe, since 2001. According to the State Library of NSW, it was proposed by the International PEN Sydney Centre and is funded by Arts NSW and the Community Relations Commission for a Multicultural NSW. Its aim is “to acknowledge the contribution made to literary culture by Australian translators” and it “recognises the vital role literary translators play in enabling writers and readers to communicate across cultures and ensuring that dissident voices are heard around the world”. (This latter is probably where PEN, particularly, comes in.)

The prize is awarded to translators (not to particular translations) who translate into English from other languages. Meaning, I suppose, that it is geared to broadening the reading of the English-speaking Australian public.

The winners to date, as listed in Wikipedia, are:

  • 2001: Mabel Lee: Chinese
  • 2003: Julie Rose: French
  • 2005: Chris Andrews: Spanish
  • 2007: John Nieuwenhuizen: Dutch and Flemish
  • 2009: David Colmer: mainly Dutch
  • 2011: Ian Johnston: Chinese and Classical Greek
  • 2013: Peter Boyle: French and Spanish
  • 2015: Brian Nelson: French
  • 2017: Royall Tyler: Japanese

Raphael Jerusalmy, EvacuationBy this schedule, the next prize will be awarded this year, and the shortlist has been announced: (Names are linked to the judges’ comments.)

  • Harry Aveling: translates South and South-east Asian literature, including Indonesian, Malay, Hindi and French. He has translated Pramoedya Ananta Toer (but my 1991 edition of a Toer novel was translated by Max Lane)
  • Steve Corcoran: translates French philosophical and literary works.
  • Alison Entrekin: described as one of the world’s leading translators of Portuguese
  • Penny Hueston: mostly translates contemporary French literature, and is a Senior Editor at Text Publishing. (She translated Jerusalmy’s Evacuation – my review.)
  • Stephanie Smee: translates mostly French, specialising in children’s literature, but does other work too.

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountainsThis year there’s also a “highly commended”, Omid Tofighian. He’s not on the shortlist because he doesn’t have “the substantial bodies of work” of the shortlisted translators, but is worth special mention, they say. Some Australians will recognise him as the translator of No friend but the mountains by Kurdish-Iranian poet and Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani. He has also translated a number of articles by Boochani. The judges argue that Tofighian merits this special commendation because of that point about translation allowing “cultures to converse and voices to be heard that might otherwise remain silent”. (Quite coincidentally, I bought No friend but the mountains the other day. The enthusiastic bookseller said it was a great book and specifically told me to read the Translator’s Note! She didn’t need to tell me that because I always do, but I loved that she did. This book had special challenges for the translator because the book arrived via thousands of text messages from Boochani’s phone).

Anyhow, have you noticed something about all this? By far the majority of the translators listed above work with European languages. This is, to me, astonishing – but perhaps it shouldn’t be, given our still obviously Euro-centric attitudes. Are we still so myopic – is that too harsh a word – that we only want to read European literature when we leave our own?

So, hmm, I checked my own reading … and discovered that, since starting this blog, my reading of translated works has been 25% Asian, 15% Latin American, and the rest European (mostly, I admit, Western European), so, who am I to talk?

What about you? 

* According to the 2016 Census, just over one-quarter of Australians speak languages other than English at home.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Contemporary Australian literary translators

Today’s Monday Musings was inspired by the shortlisting for the 2018 Stella Prize of Iranian-born Australian-based writer Shokoofeh Azar’s The enlightenment of the greengage tree. I first came across this book when Lisa (ANZLitLovers) reviewed it last August, commenting in her opening paragraph that the novel “is an exciting development in Australian publishing” because it was written in Persian by Azar and translated into English by Adrien Kijek for publication by Wild Dingo Press. I wonder how many other speakers of non-English languages in Australia would like to write – or do write – but are closed off from the majority of us because of a lack of support and money for translation?

I have written about translation here several times before, but in this post I want to specifically name some current Australian literary translators, many of whom are based in our universities. We do, in fact, have many literary translators, but I’m going to select just a few – somewhat randomly – to give a sense of the breadth of translators we have here.

Stuart Cooke and Juan Garrido Salgado

Sydney-born Cooke has lived in Hobart and Latin America, but is currently a lecturer in creative writing and literary studies at Brisbane’s Griffith University. The various bios I’ve seen for him describe him as a poet, critic and translator. I’ve picked him because one of his translation interests is the Aboriginal song poem. In 2014 he published a translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s Bulu line: a West Kimberley song cycle. His other translation interest is, apparently, Spanish. In 2007 his translation of Juan Garrido Salgado’s Once poemas, Septiembre 1973 was published.

And, just to complicate things a bit, this Juan Garrido Salgado is a Chilean immigrant to Australia (1990). His poems, says Red Room Poetry, have been widely translated, and he himself has translated works by Australian poets – John Kinsella, Mike Ladd, Judith Beveridge, Dorothy Porter and MTC Cronin – into Spanish. He has also translated five Aboriginal poets into Spanish for Espejo de tierra/Earth mirror poetry anthology (2008)!

Linda Jaivin

When I chose this post, one of the two translators to pop into my head – before I went to Google – was Linda Jaivin whose Quarterly Essay, Found in translation, reviewed a few years ago. American-born, she did Chinese studies at university in Rhode Island before spending time in Taiwan and Hong Kong. She’s perhaps a bit of a ring-in here because she doesn’t seem to have translated novels or other sorts of books, but she is a professional translator whose work has included subtitling (into English) Chinese films like Farewell My Concubine. She has written a memoir, The monkey and the dragon, about her experience as a translator in China. And, she’s an associate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.

Meredith McKinney

Ogai Mori, The Wild GooseThe other Australian translator I remembered, before Googling, was Meredith McKinney. The daughter of the great Australian poet Judith Wright, she has made a name in her own right as an expert in and translator of Japanese language and literature. She lived in Japan for a couple of decades but is now a visiting fellow in the Japan Centre at the Australian National University where she teaches Japanese-English translation. She has translated both classic and modern Japanese novels and short story collections. You can see a pretty comprehensive list at GoodReads. Her translation of Furui Yoshikichi’s Ravine and other stories won the 2000 Japan-US Friendship Commission Translation Award.  A few years ago I bought her translation of The wild goose by Ōgai Mori (Finlay Lloyd) but it still, unfortunately, languishes on the TBR.

Ton-That Quynh-Du

Pham Thi Hoai, The crystal messengerVietnamese-born Ton-that Quynh-Du came to Australia in 1972 under a Colombo Plan Scholarship. He has worked as a translator, court interpreter, and as an academic at Deakin University, Monash University and the Australian National University. His translation of Pham Thi Hoai’s novel The crystal messenger – a book that has been on my bedside TBR for some years now – won the 2000 Victorian Premier’s Award for literary translation. (This award is now, unfortunately, defunct. I believe it was called the SBS/Dinny O’Hearn Prize for Literary Translation, and was only awarded three times, in 1997, 2000 and 2003. What a shame.) His translation of this same author’s collection of short stories, Sunday menu, won the 2007 ACT Book of The Year Award. While he mostly translates into English he also does some translation into Vietnamese (as does Pham Thi Hoai, who now lives in Germany)

Kevin Windle

I chose Kevin Windle as my fifth example because I found, via Google, that last year, 2017, he won a rather prestigious award, albeit one not known to most of us Australians. It’s only awarded every three years by the International Federation of Translators (FIT), and is the Aurora Borealis Prize for Outstanding Translation of Non-Fiction Literature. A press release said that “his work, translating into English from nearly a dozen different languages, and across a wide range of subject areas, is described by his supporters as ‘reliably brilliant’.” How I’d love to be descried as “reliably brilliant”! London-born Windle has worked at the University of Queensland but is now emeritus fellow in the School of Literature, Languages, and Linguistics at the Australian National University, where his expertise is in Translation Studies and Russian. Indeed, the Words Without Borders website states that in 2014 he was awarded the inaugural AALITRA prize for literary translation from Spanish, and in 2015, second prize in the John Dryden competition for a translation from Polish. Although the Aurora Borealis Award was for non-fiction, he has apparently translated fiction, drama, literary biography, and linguistics and ancient history texts.

The above-mentioned press release for Kevin Windle’s Aurora Borealis win notes that the award aims

to promote the translation of fiction literature and non-fiction, improve the quality thereof and draw attention to the role of translators in bringing the peoples of the world closer together in terms of culture.

And that seems a perfect point on which to end, I think.

Do you read translated literature? I’d love to hear your favourites – or anything else you have to say about translation.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian literature in China

GrenvilleSecretRiverChineseNow I admit, right up, that this post is very much a toe-in-the-water sort of post. I know very little about the topic, but what I’ve come across I’ve found interesting and decided to share it. The thing is, we Aussies – those of us born here of Anglo parentage anyhow – tend to be monolingual. We also live in a fairly insular place, being an island ‘n all. Consequently, few of us I think know much about how well or far our literature travels. Occasionally, an Aussie book will do very well – say, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book Stasiland (my review) or Kate Grenville’s novel The secret river – and we’ll hear that it’s been translated into multiple languages. But mostly we tend to be fairly oblivious of these off-shore happenings.

I was therefore intrigued when, a few weeks ago, I found an article in Trove titled “Chinese interest in our literature” from a 1994 edition of The Canberra Times. It was written by Robert Hefner who was, as I recollect, the paper’s literary editor of the day. Hefner commences with:

I first met Chinese author, teacher and translator Li Yao six years ago [ie around 1988] when he was visiting Canberra with author Rodney Hall. Li had just met Patrick White, whose novel The Tree of Man he had translated into Chinese.

Wow, I thought, Hall and White are serious writers – that is, they don’t produce page-turners or simple plot-driven stories. How fascinating – how wonderful too – that our northern neighbours are interested in our literature at that level. Hefner was writing the article because Li was back in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival. He’d discovered that since that last meeting, Li had translated 15 more books, 8 of them Australian. These included Brian Castro’s Birds of passage, Patrick White’s Flaws in the glass, Nicholas Jose’s Avenue of eternal peace [a big seller in China], a short story collection, and Geoffrey Bolton’s A history of Australia. Hefner quotes Li, then associate professor in the Department of English at the International Business Management Institute in Beijing:

Translations of Australian books in China are welcomed by students and general readers, especially Patrick White. I translated A fringe of leaves and it sold 10,000 copies in Beijing. That’s a best-seller, even compared with Chinese authors.

Wow, again. Patrick White a best-seller in China? Who’d have thought?

Li told Hefner things were changing in China, that “people, especially young people” were “looking for something new”, wanting to “know another world, especially a world so far away as Australia”. They were also interested, he said, in how “China is seen through foreign eyes”. Consequently, his most recent translation was Alex Miller’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel The Ancestor Game, which is about early Chinese immigration to Australia. Li* hadn’t decided whom he’d translate next, but was “considering Tim Winton, David Malouf or Rodney Hall”.

Alexis Wright Carpentaria in ChineseThat was 1994. Was it a flash in the pan I wondered? I did some very scientific research, that is, I “googled”. And I found all sorts of things, such as the China Australia Literary Forum. It met in 2011, and involved “ten prominent Chinese writers” visiting Sydney for “in-depth discussions with Australian authors, and those involved in the translation and reception of their works”. The Australian writers they met included Judith Beveridge, Kim Cheng Boey, Lisa Gorton, Ivor Indyk, Gail Jones, Nicholas Jose, Julia Leigh, Shane Maloney, John Mateer, Michael Wilding, Ouyang Yu and Alexis Wright. The forum resulted, the report goes on to say, in the translation of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my review), which was launched in 2012 at the Australian Embassy in China. Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan wrote the introduction to the translation, and guess who did the translation? Yep, Li Yao.

A second China Australia Literary Forum took place in 2013, this time in Beijing. Eight Australian authors attended, including JM Coetzee. The eight Chinese involved included Mo Yan.

Apparently though, Australian literature had been read in China long before these last few decades. Back in the 1920s four Australian poets, including Mary Gilmore and Roderick Quinn were read. Ouyang Yu (whose Diary of a naked official I’ve reviewed here) is reported as having read a poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon in 1927. (All this came from a 2011 article in JSTOR which is not available freely on the web.) This article disproves the previously held view that translated Australian literature hadn’t been available in China before 1949. Indeed Ouyang Yu has written a paper about the reception of OzLit in China from 1906 to 2008. It’s an interesting survey article which looks at the history of Australian literature in China, including the interest in and value of different forms such as poetry, popular writing, literary fiction, and so on. He concludes by saying that Australian writers are now receiving Chinese awards. In 2009, for example, “Alex Miller became the first Australian writer to receive a Chinese literary award for his novel The landscape of farewell”.

I won’t go on, because I think I’ve made my point about Chinese interest in Australian literature. Quite coincidentally, I discovered a (now expired) call for entries from the Australian Association for Literary Translation for its AALITRA Translation Prize. This prize “aims to acknowledge the wealth of literary translation skills present in the Australian community” and awards prizes for translation of a selected prose text and of a selected poem. Each year a different language is chosen, and in 2016 the language is Chinese!

This is all wonderful for Australian literature, but what about the reverse? How much effort do Australians put into reading translated literature from other countries. If my record is anything to go by, not as much as I’d like – or should!

* I found a 2010 article in The Australian about Li Yao’s introduction to English-language literature. It was in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, and he read, “under the covers” at night, books like Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice! This little comment reminds us too that availability of Australian (or any non-Chinese) literature in China hasn’t had the simple trajectory my post might imply!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Translated fiction, Australian-style

Having just read and reviewed Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly essay, Lost in translation: In praise of a plural world, I thought I’d research the state of translated fiction in Australia. Jaivin doesn’t spend a lot of time of this particular issue, but in her concluding plea she says:

Publishers need to consider how to prise open their lists in order to let more translation in.

In other words, while she argues that students should learn foreign language/s, she also recognises that we can’t be across all languages. We should therefore have easy access to translated literature. However, in my experience and I’m sure that of Australian blogger Tony, who specialises in translated fiction, it is not easy to find material here and so, all too often, we turn to overseas publishers and distributors.

That said, there are some local sources of translated fiction. And there are – and have been – Australian translators of foreign fiction (besides, of course, Linda Jaivin). I have written before on this blog about poets Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell who translated Russian poetry into English.

The easiest type of translated fiction to find in Australia is of course the classics. It is not hard to find Russian, French and other classics in English in most decent bookshops. It is also relatively easy to find translated works by the better-known contemporary writers from non-English cultures. Random House Australia, for example, has published Japanese writers like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. But they do not make it easy to find their translated books. They categorise fiction by genre/form, so if you search under crime, say, you will find translated works by, for instance, the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. It should be easy enough for them to add a category for translated works to help those of us who’d like to seek out non-English-centric works.

Many of Australia’s smaller independent publishers also publish translated fiction. For example, Text Publishing, probably the largest of the small presses, is currently publishing Diego Marani (whose The last of the Vostyachs I reviewed recently). On Text’s Fiction page is the category Translated, which takes readers to a list of around 60 titles.

Other small presses publishing translated works include:

  • Brandl + Schlesinger lists translated works as one of its focuses. Its list includes Russian author Igor Gelbach, and Hungarians István Örkény and György Dalos.
  • Giramondo specialises in “innovative fiction” and, while it is one of the smaller publishing houses, it includes translated fiction in its list including a work by French-Australian Catherine Rey.
  • Scribe, which has won the Small Publisher of the Year award four times since 2006, publishes foreign language authors such as Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker. Bakker won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Twin, which is one of his books published by Scribe.

I have to admit that I don’t know all these authors, but it’s great to know they are here!

As I was researching for this post, I came across the website for the Australian bookseller, Booktopia. Of course, as an Australian reader, I’ve known about them for some time, but I was pleasantly surprised when they popped up in my Google search for “translated fiction Australia”. Booktopia, I discovered, do, like Text Publishing, include translated fiction in their side-bar categories though, intriguingly, the click-through categorisation goes like this:

|- Fiction
|- – Fiction in Translation and Short Stories (in a box labelled Subjects)
|- – – Fiction in Translation

Odd, that, the grouping of “Fiction in Translation” and “Short Stories” but at least Booktopia provides a path for readers to find translated works. Go Booktopia I say! They currently have 1862 titles in their list. There’s a lot of crime there, but they also carry classics, popular contemporary fiction (by such writers as Allende and Zafón), and books from independent publishers like Peirene Press, which is well regarded as a publisher of European literature in translation.

It’s probably a bit late for Christmas shopping, but why not include some translated works in your summer (or holiday) reading plan? Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of sourcing and reading translated literature.

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation: In praise of a plural world (Review)

Linda Jaivin, Found in translation Book cover

Courtesy: Black Inc

Reading synchronicity strikes again! In the last couple of months, the issue of language, translation and culture has been crossing my path – in Diego Marani‘s The last of the Vostyachs, in Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, and on Lisa’s blog post about the AALITRA Symposium on Translation. I was consequently more than happy to accept a review copy of the latest Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation.

Now, as some of you know, I have mixed feelings about reading books in translation. I want to read them because I want to read not just about but from other cultures. Not being fluent in all the languages of the world, the only way I can do this is to read works in translation, but when I read a translated work I am very conscious that there is a mediator between me and the work. This bothers me. Linda Jaivin, herself a translator, knows exactly what I mean:

… it is absurd to speak of issues of literary style, rhythm – or any aspect of a translated work aside from its structure, characters and plot – without acknowledging that the language of the text is at once a creation of the translator and an interpretation of the author …

And she gives good examples to support her statement. I was pleased to see her acknowledge this, because she knows of what she speaks! But, this little point is only a very small part of Jaivin’s wide-ranging, entertaining but also passionate essay. Jaivin, if you haven’t heard of her, is a multi-skilled woman: she subtitles Chinese film and television and translates Chinese text; she has worked as an interpreter; and she has written novels, stories, plays and essays.

As a reader and lover of words, I enjoyed Jaivin’s discussion of the technical and philosophical challenges faced by translators. She peppers her discussion with an eclectic but fascinating array of examples. And she quotes other translators, such as Edith Grossman who wrote that

a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation … no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly.

Take swearing for example. How we swear is highly cultural. Swear words, Jaivin writes, “expose what is forbidden, what is permitted and what is held sacred” in a culture, and consequently “can  throw differences in worldviews into sharp relief”. However, you’ll have to read the essay, if you want to see her examples!

I was intrigued by her argument that translations of classics go out of date! So, this means that the Spanish will always read the same Don Quixote but English speakers are very likely to read a different translation depending on which one is currently in vogue.

“… a culture doesn’t grow just by talking to itself …”

But, the critical point of her essay is not the act of translation. As the title of her essay implies, Jaivin is passionate about pluralism, and more, about cosmopolitanism. By this, she means not just living side by side, not just accepting each other, but “sharing a common vision”.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeFor Jaivin, “translation” is not a narrow concept. Its implications extend far beyond the “simple” translation of words from one language to another, because attached to language are meanings and ideas. When ideas are translated – via words – from one culture to another those ideas change. Jaivin describes how concepts such as Confucianism and yes, even democracy, change when they cross cultures. This can lead, she says, to misunderstanding but it can also provide “room for the kind of creative interpretation that allows cultures and the conversations between them to grow and evolve”.

She argues that, because of Australia’s particular history and geography, and because Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English, “Australia is … in a unique position to translate the shift from the ‘American century’ to the ‘Asian one’ …”.

Building successful international relationships, she believes, requires genuine communication, which includes knowing, recognising and respecting other languages. It

does not require the weak to adopt the language of the strong – as reliance on English threatens to do, given its global and frequently imperial reach.

Jaivin argues that learning a foreign language should be a compulsory part of year 12 and university education, because “we need to have every possible line of communication open to us” if we are to successfully traverse the changes coming.  Not everyone agrees. What do you think?

Linda Jaivin
“Found in translation: In praise of a plural world”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 52
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2013
ISBN: 9781863956307

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

Delicious descriptions: Diego Marani on translation

In Diego Marani’s The last of the Vostyachs, which I have just reviewed, the two linguists argue about language. The Russian, Olga, sees language as key to communication across cultures and to conveying plural meanings. She says to the Finnish Jarmo:

Your language has never known the dizzying heights of universality. No one studies it and all you can do is repeat it among yourselves, because it tells of a tiny country no one knows … our language is translated into a hundred others. A hundred other peoples want to understand us, and invent words in their own language which express our truths.

And hopefully, I presume, to then discuss respective truths heading towards mutual understanding!

For Jarmo though:

Translation causes a language to become solider; like blood in a transfusion, which is gradually tainted by impurities … By being translated, a language picks up meanings which are not its own, which infect it and poison it, and against which it has no defences.

Jarmo clearly has no interest in a global world! He’s not interested in change. In fact, at another point in the novel he says “change implies mistakes”. I’ve had many thoughts about change over my life-time but I must say this idea has not been uppermost.

In the next few weeks, I plan to review the current Quarterly Essay, Linda Jaivin’s Found in translation: In praise of a plural world. Having just read Marani, I think I am going to find this even more interesting than I had expected!