Archive for August, 2012

The Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival, Nick Barlay, was a judge for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and that interest in translated fiction carried through to the programming of this year’s festival.  There was a series of events discussing the art of translation and many others with international authors of which I attended a goodly number.  It soon began to feel as if all these authors and translators were having an ongoing conversation with each other.  This is my summary of the salient points and the translator tricks that were identified.

Day One 11.08.2012
Gerhard Bakker confesses to thinking that his novel The Detour was untranslatable.  The reason being it is a novel about the translation into Dutch of a poem by Emily Dickinson – the novel ends with the translated poem.  How, exclaimed Bakker, can you translate a novel like that?  David Colmer’s answer was to insert clues and the Dutch words at appropriate moments in the text so that the final page, which must be in Dutch or the whole point of the novel is lost, does not come as a shock to the English reader.

Day Three 13.08.12
David Bellos, translator of Georges Perec and Ismail Kadare, maintained that the idea of an untranslatable language is absurd.  Language is always meaningful and, therefore, always translatable.  He claimed that the idea of a literal translation is an oxymoron given that literal means from letters and that letters have no meaning. He was galvanised into writing his recently published book on translation Is That A Fish In Your Ear by the oft-quoted myth that a translation is no substitute for an original. The status of translators, he said, shows the way that a culture feels about itself.  The UK and USA are quite secure and so translators are allocated a modest place in the social hierarchy.  In Japan, however, the translator’s name is often printed in a bigger font than that of the original author!  However, as a word of warning to all translators everywhere, he reminded us that translators were publicly executed in the Ottoman Empire, if those receiving the message didn’t like it.

Anecdotes from his own translating career: Bellos maintained that his English translations of Kadare from the intermediate French feel closer to the original in that they have restored Albanian character names.  As he doesn’t speak Albanian, he can’t say if they are better.  Only an Albanian speaking very good French and English would be able to make that judgement.  As for translating Georges Perec, he claimed there are huge swathes of Perec’s prose that are quite mundane and not at all difficult to translate.  He kept his secrets about translating Perec’s fancy linguistic pirouettes close to his chest.

Day Ten 20.8.2012
Translation Duel: Spanish with Bernardo Atxaga, Rosalind Harvey and Frank Wynne, chaired by Daniel Hahn

One author, two translators

A sell-out event (who says there’s no interest in translation) during which the translators sat centre-stage.  I attended a German equivalent last year and was interested to see how the format worked for a language I’m not that familiar with.  It does because the discussion about language is fascinating.  Take one short story, two translators and the resulting translations, although technically correct, bear very little resemblance to each other when compared sentence by sentence.  Bernardo Atxaga’s  short story about a man, an unfriendly dog and a herd of cows posed some interesting challenges.  When for instance does a dog tranform from an it to a he/she in English?  When do animals scutter?On a more abstract level, discussion about what makes a good translator culminated in this quotation from Edgar Keret:  Good translators are like ninjas.  As soon as you see them, they stop being any good.

Day ?? Pertinent comment by Anonymous
It is not possible to attend events about translation and translated fiction without the inevitable question about why so little is translated into English – the oft quoted 3% cent.  So I apologise to whoever said the following, but I was too busy wondering why this thought had never struck me before,  to note it down.  He (that much I do remember, Frank Wynne perhaps?) pointed out that Anglophone literature covers many cultures and continents that there isn’t the imperative to translate to the level of 40% of all publications that is reached in France.

Day 17 27.08.2012 Gained in Translation:How the Best Translators do it

Sarah Ardizzone, Marion Bourbouze and Daniel Hahn

An event in which two literary translators, Sarah Ardizzone and Daniel Hahn, discussed their craft with Marion Bourbouze, the Head of Marketing for the Scottish Book Trust.  And what were their top tips? 1) Find yourself a good editor (Sarah Ardizzone) 2) Wear two hats: the first being the translator’s hat, the second that of an editor of an anglophone audience (Sarah Ardizzone) 3) Become a good reader in the foreign language and a good writer in English – note you do not need to be a perfect speaker of the language you are translating (Daniel Hahn) 4) Avoid the author who thinks his English is good enough to make final decisions and 5) Don’t be afraid of editing the original by changing the text or sequence of chapters, if it’s not working in English.   As Daniel Hahn said, a translator lives with a book for 3 months.  If there are mistakes to be found, and frequently there are in books where the editing culture is not as rigorous as in the UK, a translator will find them!

Interestingly both translators came to the profession by chance.  That’s less likely to happen these days when literary translation is becoming increasingly professionalised.  Daniel Hahn, who is also programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, discussed the mentoring programmes that are now in place for budding literary translators, particularly those seeking to translate from a language other that French, German and Spanish.  Apparently there are enough of those to go around.

Plenty of food for thought whether you read translated fiction or not.

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James Runcie and William Brodrick

Sometimes you go to an event expecting a good old chinwag about crime fiction and end up with something on a completely different level. That’s what happened when William Brodrick stood up to talk about his 4th novel, The Day of the Lie. Except he concentrated on the issues that preoccupy him, talking about the novel only in passing.

Brodrick’s major preooccupation, not out of keeping for an ex-Augustine monk, is that of good and evil and the choices that individuals make. Are people born evil? Is evil a wound or a choice? Can damaged people make undamaged choices? Can those who perpetrate evil ever be redeemed in this life? And indeed does any of that make any difference to the victim? The choice to do good is just as interesting, he said, as he proceeded to quote from James Runcie’s book. This, he said, sums up the nature of his own preoccupation.

“The problem of good. If we are all animals why are some of us good, kind, altruistic when we do not have to be? The capacity to behave morally is as interesting as the will to behave badly”.

“Ah, the question of the selfish good,” Ben intervened.

“But that is not always the case.” Sidney replied. “Some people are selfless. They are good without any expectation of reward. It is almost or perhaps it really is, natural to them.”

After thanking Broderick for this act of generosity, James Runcie spoke of his interest in the relationship between comedy and darkness and of religion and history. Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death, the first in a series of 6, intended to document the changes in society during the past 60 years, is set in 1953. It was the year that marked the end of rationing, the discovery of DNA and Sundays were not days for supermarket shopping or trips to the garden centre.

He agreed with Broderick that the advantage of having a clergyman detective is the moral framework that is automatically inherited. The change of emphasis from a whodunnit to a whydunnit.

During audience questions Broderick was challenged about his assumption that damaged people can make undamaged choices. The opposite assertion is a problem for a novelist, he said. I have to be able to show character development otherwise there is no story. Both authors were asked to name their literary influences. Brodrick read widely, starting with Chesterton’s Father Brown stories which he found disappointing. He couldn’t find anyone writing the books he wanted to read, so (like many others) he began to write them for himself. Runcie’s response went something like this: This will sound pretentious and absolute b******s, given that my stories are bubble and froth vignettes intended for television, but noone does guilt like Dostoevsky. So I’m sticking with him.

The big question: Are the books any good?

Brodrick’s The Day of the Lie starts in Poland in 1981, during a period of great moral choice. Brodrick said he soon realised that he couldn’t investigate 1981 without going back to the days of World War II … and he couldn’t do that justice either without going further back into the 19th century. This sounds like a complex historical thriller to me set within the moral framework that comes with investigating cleric, Father Anselm, a Gilbertine monk. The audio book has been duly reserved from the library.

I picked up Runcie’s Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death following the author’s sterling chairing of Hilary Mantel’s event. Its 392 pages consist of 6 chronological short stories in which the endearing young cleric Sidney James finds himself pulled, reluctantly, into a series of investigations of ever increasing complexity and moral dubiety. People are more willing to divulge their secrets to a cleric than to a police officer, as Sidney’s best mate and fellow beer imbiber, Inspector Keating, well knows. Sidney is more prone to analyse the whys and wherefores rather than the mechanics of a crime. Although he has a few blind spots with regards to his own behaviour – one has a feeling that without the inhibitions imposed by the dogcollar, our Sidney could be a bit of a lothario. Talking of dogs, when he is gifted a 4-legged friend for company, Sidney promptly names him Dickens. What’s not to love?

Bubble and froth, Runcie said, and it’s true, although amid the comedy and lightheartedness, there are some heinous crimes. Considering how busy I’ve been at the EIBF, I raced through these stories in about 4 days, loving every page and every minute I spent in Sidney’s company. Heartily recommended for cozy crime fans.


Can’t wait for the next installment of Flavia de Luce? There’s no need. Courtesy of Bloomsbury, I have two copies of Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death to giveaway. Copies to be sent to address in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland only. To enter, please leave a comment below. Winners to be chosen in some random fashion on Monday 3rd September.

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For the last 4 years Ron Butlin has been Edinburgh’s Makar (poet laureate), a position which he finds an honour and a privilege, and which has enabled him to pen many poems, some to commission, others inspired flights of fancy, about a city he so obviously adores. Many of these have now been published in a wonderful, illustrated collection, The Magicians of Edinburgh.

These accessible poems visit the famous and not so famous sites, resurrect historical luminaries, report on current events (not all complimentary) and project the city into an at times surreal future. In addition to being marvellously entertaining, they served as a terrific companion and a 5-star guide to this bookwormy tourist wandering the streets during festival time.

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Together with two musician friends, Butlin put together a fringe show in which some of these poems were set to specially composed pieces. The show may go in tour. If it does, I urge you to avail yourself of the opportunity to attend. In the meantime, here are details of the set:

1 The Magicians of Edinburgh
(Celebrating the revitalisation of the city since the 1970’s. Who are the magicians? Read to find out.)
2 The New Towns Response to the Threat of Global Warming
(Of Bankers and the New Town)
3 How can the words I love you …?
(The winner of a charity auction paid £610 for this love poem to his wife.)
4 Edinburgh Love Song
(In which the various districts of Edinburgh seranade each other)
5 Oor Tram’s Plea tae The Cooncillors o Edinburgh
(In which the tram which used to stand on Princes Street – until it lost its planning permission – makes an impassioned plea to Edinburgh Council.)
6 Something to look forward to
(Of moons and Majorca. This poem contains the best line in the collection – Memories are something to look forward to – and I’m certainly looking forward to memories of this year’s trip to Edinburgh.)
7 Come Evening
(A reflection on time and life.)
8 The Gondolas of South Bridge
(Sheltering from a downpour in a bus shelter on South Bridge, Butlin imagines an alternative transport initiative.)
9 David Hume takes a walk on Arthur’s Seat
(The famous philosopher takes a final hike to the top of Edinburgh’s extinct volcano.)
10 EH1 2AB
(A serious poem about the homeless woman who froze to death on Lothian Road.)
11 Beware
(Of Edinburgh’s dark wynds and closes)
12 Dancing In Princes Street
(As you do during rallies, festivals and building works.)

Can you imagine a more varied and entrancing sequence of poetry? There are many more in the volume and, thanks to the generosity of the publishers, Polygon, and to celebrate the fact that 700 copies have been sold in the first two weeks of release (exceptional figures for poetry), I have two signed copies to giveaway. So whether you’d like to revisit Edinburgh or make a virtual first visit with Butlin’s poems as an introduction, just leave a comment below. Competition open internationally. Winners will be chosen in some random fashion on Monday 3rd September.

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The biggest advantage of staying in Edinburgh for a few days is not spending 4 hours a day commuting to the festival.  This frees up time to:

1) Attend more events and even (sssh) other festivals such as The Fringe
2) Wander the streets searching out the odd locations that appear in literature set in Edinburgh.  Such as the bus-stop by Poundstretchers on South Bridge. (I did say odd, didn’t I?  More to follow ….
3) Grab unforeseen opportunities that may arise.  Such as interviewing a favourite author face-to-face!  Even more to follow ….
4) Stay later and enjoy the square when it’s quieter, pop in and out of the free Unbound shows that are held in the Spiegeltent at 21:00.  This is quite an eclectic programme. This year, had I been in Edinburgh on the right nights, I could have attended a literary death match, le freaked-out with Nile Rodgers.  On the nights I was there, I experienced (can’t say I enjoyed) the electrical poetry evening which seemed to comprise of poetry produced by synthesisers.  I did enjoy, however, the Cargo vs McSweeney’s event on Monday 20.08, in which authors read their short stories published in the Elsewhere anthology.  You never know who will appear on the Unbound stage.  Big names appearing on Monday included China Miéville and David Vann. The latter, when he wasn’t cracking up at his own pitifulness, read a true story from his recent book, Dirt. As you can see from the photos, the evening was enjoyed by many.

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There are disadvantages too; mainly

1) Attending more events leaves no time for reading.
2) Meeting people leaves no time for blogging.
3) Wandering the streets of Edinburgh means passing by many bookshops with the associated strain on the bank account.
4) Exhaustion!

I’m home now for 3 days. Will be back in the square for the final day.  Once my batteries are recharged, I shall begin the process of reliving it all via the blog.

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The first 9 days of the EIBF have been busy – very busy, if you consider that I travelled into Edinburgh 6 times, attended 15 events and spent 2 days decorating the hall. Also read 2 books.  No wonder the blog has been unable to keep up.  In fact, put into context, my 3 posts to date look like a sterling effort.

The final 8 days are going to be even busier.  So busy that when I drive in tomorrow morning,  I’m not going to go home until Thursday evening!  I will have mobile technology with me so I may post in the meantime.  Most likely I shall be tweeting, technology permitting.  (Let’s not talk about that embarrassing moment during Thursday’s story shop ….)  The blog will catch up in more detail when time permits.

In the meantime, here are 5 6 top memories and associated pictures from Week One.

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6) Release of Elsewhere – an anthology in 4 volumes of short stories written especially for Edinburgh Book Festival.  OK – so the stories were first published on the Edinburgh Book Festival Site but I’ve been hankering after the printed page since forever.  I hanker no longer.

5) Laughing till I cried at A  L Kennedy’s event as she read an essay of the trials of writing in a wooden summerhouse with only demented woodpeckers for company.  She has written a series of essays about the writing life which will be published next year.  Something to look forward to.  And it was so good to see her looking well again after a period of ill health.

4) The Classics theme.  I had some good teachers but none of them made literature as much fun as did Simon Callow (Dickens), John Mullan (Austen) and Alexandra Harris (Virginia Woolf).

3) The Edinburgh Book Festival Mindmap (I need to find the person who designed this.  It is a work of genius.)

2) The Hilary Mantel event

1)  The Sunshine!  It has rained but only on what were supposed to be my rest days.  In the main, however, umbrellas were used as sunshades this week!  Herewith may I put in an order for more of the same during the next 8 days at least.

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Hilary Mantel 14.08.2012

She’s here …. at last!

The EIBF isn’t pure undiluted pleasure, you know. It comes with horribly anxious moments for someone who cannot access the online ticket facility on the day the box office opens and who knows that plan A i.e buy own ticket, just won’t cut it. This was the event I was not prepared to miss and it took twitterish machinations, of which Thomas Cromwell himself would be proud, to ensure that I was able to take my seat on the night. (As it transpired both plans B and C bore fruit … no matter, I was taking no chances.) Herewith profuse thanks to my fellow conspirators.

Let joy be unconfined!

So it may surprise you that this report will not be a full one. Most of the proceedings have already been recorded in the reports at Every Book Has A Soul, Cornflower, plus the transcription of the author’s words in the Guardian. I’m going to concentrate on the efforts of the unsung hero of this event, chairperson and novelist James Runcie, which turned what was always going to be a great event into something extraordinary.

Starting with the assumption that everyone in the audience had read the book freed him from discussing the novel Bring Up The Bodies superficially. Instead, after Hilary Mantel had read the scene in which Henry falls in love with Jane Seymour (pages 26-29), Runcie concentrated on matters of technique, for instance:

- Use of pronouns. He (paragraph 1) becomes you (paragraph 6) becomes we (paragraph 14). Yes, said Hilary Mantel, I want to bring the reader into the time and place of Henry’s entourage. I want the reader to be there with them, moving forward with imperfect knowledge into an unknown future. I want the reader to see through Cromwell’s eyes, not to judge with hindsight but to make decisions with him and to conclude that they would have acted in the same way.

- The modern vibrancy of a text infused with Shakespearian effects from the high language of rhetoric to the crudity of the servants in Cromwell’s kitchen.

- The particular inspiration of Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2 in which Mark Anthony through rhetoric turns a crowd into a mob. Mantel particularly fascinated with spin and transformation building, she said, turning points in every scene – even the quiet ones. It is her way of dealing with historical inevitability. The reader already knows the end but not the torturous way it is arrived at.

- The focus on reducing units of time as Anne Boleyn’s life comes to an end: from days to hours to minutes to seconds. Anne’s hope of a reprieve was realistic. Henry was capricious.

The time for audience questions came too soon. Don’t worry, said James Runcie, if you have no questions, I can go on. I wish he had. I could have listened to this kind of textual analysis for the full 17 days of the festival.

The big question: Is the book any good?

Do you still need convincing? It is brilliant, though when I first read it, I thought not as good as Wolf Hall. I was chastised in the kindest way at the event, although I still maintain, perhaps churlishly, that in reacting to her critics and simplifying the text by clarifying who He is, Mantel has penned some clumsy insertions of the He, Cromwell kind.

My biggest issue is that Bring Up The Bodies acts as a revisionist history – a veritable wobble in my glass. Prior to reading this, feisty Anne Boleyn, was my favourite of Henry’s queens – probably based on the classic and sympathetic figure in Anne of A Thousand Days. Well, there’s nothing sympathetic in these pages. In fact, it is a portrait laced with Cromwellian venom. On page 38 he describes her thus:

Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tynburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.

As events progress, an emnity develops between Anne and the man who made her. One that culminates in a kill or be killed standoff. We all know the ultimate victor in this and how he gained the victory. But perhaps we’re not aware of just how calculating Cromwell was in seizing a half-truth to bring down a queen. We are after reading this. Anne may have been indiscrete, vengeful and ultimately unlikeable, but she was not Catherine-Howard-stupid. As one convinced of Anne’s innocence and, therefore, the innocence of the men who were sacrificed to Cromwell’s political objective/personal vendetta, I’m not capable of suspending my moral judgement in the way Mantel wishes. It is actually quite chilling though, just how reasonable Cromwell’s murderous thought processes become when reading these pages.

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From left to right: Linden MacIntyre, Gerbrand Bakker, Juliet Swann

Exchange one:
Gerbrand Bakker reading chapter one of his novel The Detour is unceremoniously interrupted by the 9:00 tatoo fireworks. He raises his voice and continues. When he completes his reading, he sits down and says And am I glad I only write short chapters.
Linden MacIntyre who had previously read from his novel Why Men Lie quips And I want to know why there were no fireworks for me!

Exchange two:
Gerbrand Bakker (Winner of the IMPAC with his novel The Twin): Are you aware how much money is involved in winning the IMPAC?
Linden MacIntyre (Winner of the Giller Prize with his novel The Bishop’s Man): Oh yes. Very well aware!
I love it when authors respond to each other in the way these two did, aided (and sometimes abetted) by vivacious chairperson, Juliet Swann. The event begins to sparkle and everybody benefits. Gerbrand Bakker, who was initially quite reticent, claiming he find it difficult to talk about his novels, is brought out of his shell and the discussion that followed revealed many points of similarity between the two novels. For instance:

- MacIntyre’s novel is about why men lie, Bakker’s novel is about why people lie.

- Both novels are written from a women’s viewpoint (although both were initially conceived with male narrators).

- Both explore the difference between autonomous solitude and isolation and the need for human beings to connect with each other.

- Place is of paramount importance in both. MacIntyre claims that geography becomes a character in its own right in his stories. A trustworthy one because geography doesn’t change in our lifetime. Bakker cannot begin to write a novel without knowing the setting and, outdoor type that he is, (he came to the festival having just walked half the West Highland Way), he knows North Wales very well.

The big question: Are the novels any good?

Why Men Lie: I came to the festival knowing nothing about this novel. So all details are literally straight from the author’s mouth. The novel is the third in a trilogy, the second of which was Giller prize winning The Bishop’s Man. According to the chair, however, Why Men Lie, works as a standalone and she recommends diving right in. The premise of that novel is that all men lie either to get something they want or to avoid something they don’t. The lying starts with their mothers. In this novel, the female narrator who after a period of autonomous isolation believes she has found the perfect man, and for a while it appears that he is … until a moment of crisis. MacIntyre’s reading showed us the moment of crisis (though with a voice like his I could have happily listened to the whole novel) and he said things go downhill from there. Intriguing – the novel has gone straight to my wishlist.

The Detour: I picked it up and though the action was hardly earth-shattering discovered I couldn’t put it down. The psychological profiles of the characters here are fascinating, though their behaviour is not always explained. It’s a novel that Bakker wrote with the sole intention of understanding the poem by Emily Dickinson – A Country Burial. Bakker has mixed feelings about Emily Dickinson believing that a lot of her poems were less than great. He’s not very enamoured with her as a person either and those feelings show in the novel. His protagonist, Emilie (or is she), has fled to North Wales to come to terms with an event that only she knows about. She has abandoned her thesis on Emily Dickinson, for the qualitative conclusions shared by Bakker, and yet she is intent on translating, breathing life into and acting out, the words of A Country Burial. Let’s just say in the course of this and in the course of a novel where noone is telling the truth, she manages to lose all my sympathies. Yet still I read on … The translation of a novel which Bakker himself considered untranslatable, because it ends with a Dutch version of Dickinson’s poem, is seamless. David Colmer has pulled some nifty translating tricks out of his hat and Bakker admires him greatly for it. Moi aussi.

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