Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Same-same, but different: At last, a Booker Prize that reflects modern Britain

Here's my piece for the Atlantic on why the Booker Prize's new policy to accept all entries published in the UK - regardless of their authors' nationality - is morally right as well as artistically appropriate. If we can't judge a book by its cover, why should we judge it by its author's passport?

"Opening the nominee field to authors of all nationalities will reinvigorate competition, better reflect modern Britain, and reward innovation within the English language." So there.

Should Translators be Literary Tour Guides?

It's International Translation Day next Monday, and I stumbled across a great blog on the Free Word Centre's website discussing whether translators should provide cultural context - and if so, how much.

Canan Marasligil, a translator working in French and Turkish, argues that the work should be allowed to speak for itself, and readers should be allowed to wander through a story without being constantly told what they're seeing and why this is significant.

"(Extra explanations) assume that readers in one language, say English for instance, all have access to the same cultural references, and would not understand any culturally foreign references," he writes. "It would mean that as translators, we would think about readers as being part of a specific market. I don’t that this is our job. Personally, I believe in the capacity of all to understand a piece of creative work."

Moreover, Marasligil says, over-eager translators can be horribly patronising and have a tendency to reinforce "exotic" stereotypes. After all, no one ever thinks it necessary to explain what a croissant is. (The same, by the way, goes for italics. I am constantly undoing italics added by copy-editors. Italics are like saying, watch out, here's a foreign word... take a deep breath... here it comes... spaghetti.)

Nicky Harman, a translator of Mandarin, believes that cultural and historical context can help us understand subtle layers that would otherwise have escaped us. He gives the example of reading Shakespeare without understanding the role of the court fool at the time: you might still enjoy the play and catch some of the nuances, but you would probably get more out of it with a bit of help.
"Expecting the reader to appreciate a book without understanding the context in which the writer was writing and, even more importantly, what he or she was trying to do, is to do the writer an injustice," Harman argues. "This is especially true when readers are unlikely to know much about a history and a culture far removed from their own experience."

While Harman has a point, Marasligil's argument carries more weight. True, cultural footnotes can teach us useful facts. But ultimately, they distance us from the story and the writer. Translators who keep adding explanations are like tour guides who herd us through a crowded market, urging everyone to keep following the red umbrella. We are the visitors, the strangers, the gawkers, obediently trotting along and taking in neatly packaged bits of information while already looking forward to lunch.

Marasligil's approach - leaving the reader to figure out that a simit is a sort of Turkish sesame bagel - may initially seem more demanding. It throws us right into the bazaar without telling us what's going on. But here's the thing: no one told the people in the bazaar what's going on, either. All of us are constantly trying to figure out what's going on around us and where we're all heading. The one thing that might just help us get there is not a dictionary of baked goods, but human connection and understanding. What better way to achieve that connection than to dive into a story that is not your own, allow the force of the narrative to carry you along, and become a different person in a different world until you close the book?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Harry Potter and the Good Literary Deed

Today I went to sign some copies of Love and Other Wars at Goldsboro Books, a gorgeous little bookshop on a backstreet in central London that inspired Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books. They're super supportive of unknown writers (like me!). So when an obscure military guy by the name of Robert Galbraith published a crime novel a while ago, they ordered lots of copies, unlike other bookshops that ignored him and banked on well-known crime writers instead.

Galbraith was very reserved, not surprising given his military background, and they had to send the copies to him to be signed.

And then... the news broke that Galbraith was JK Rowling. The publisher re-printed thousands of copies mentioning the JK connection. Which meant Goldboro was suddenly the owner of dozens of extremely rare first editions signed "Galbraith" (later copies were signed JK & Galbraith).

When I prodded them today for more gossip, they eventually revealed that they'd received a personal thank-you note from JK for championing her book when few others were interested. You might think they'd frame it and put it in their window, but that's not their style.

The fact that a Harry Potter tour group was standing outside the shop as we chatted, marvelling at the model for Diagon Alley, somehow made the whole story all the more magical.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Pacifists and the Centenary

Interesting piece in the Guardian on anti-war campaigners challenging the 'glorious conflict' narrative of World War One and planning to highlight the treatment of conscientious objectors:

"Anti-war activists, pacifists and others are challenging the narrative of the official programme marking the centenary of the First world war"

I just glanced at the comments section for the piece. Several readers seem to think that remembering the plight of conscientious objectors, or criticising the glorification of violence, somehow taints the memory of those who died in the war. This argument assumes that conchies and soldiers belong to opposite groups, and should feel hostile towards each other.

In reality, many of the most vocal pacifists in the 1920s and 1930s were former soldiers or ambulance workers who had witnessed the horrors of war first-hand. They were not against soldiers: they were against war.

Dick Sheppard, one of the founders of the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s, had served as chaplain in a military hospital in France during World War One. A couple of years ago, I interviewed his daughter, who recalled his great sympathy for the soldiers who flocked to his pacifist sermons at St Martin-in-the Fields, Trafalgar Square. They had heard enough firebrand sermons about the glories of warfare. Here was someone who understood them and did not try to glamourise their suffering.

t's a myth that conchies are somehow naive or don't understand war. The truth is that many of them understand war all too well - and know they want nothing to do with it.