Travel broadens the mind. The idea to dedicate an issue of The Stinging Fly to new writing in translation was borne out of a trip to Romania in December 2011 to attend the Bucharest International Festival of Literature. While there, I participated in a panel discussion on the short story and the question of translation came up—or rather a number of questions came up.
Here in Ireland and in the UK we’ve grown accustomed to tossing around questions about the short story. Is the form experiencing a revival? Are short stories becoming more popular with readers? Is this growing popularity on account of the availability of new digital reading platforms? Or shortening attention spans?
Questions of translation barely arise—and certainly they are not raised with anything like the same sense of urgency as they were in that crowded room in Bucharest. Writers need readers—and they want to have as many of them as possible. Writers working outside of the English language—particularly those who write in less widely spoken languages like Romanian, or Croatian, or, indeed, Irish—are confronted with the translation barrier. The writers I met in Bucharest were interested in hearing what I might have to say about translation, and in learning more about what opportunities exist to get their work out to a wider audience.
So that got me thinking. We have featured poetry in translation on a fairly regular basis and it has long been an ambition that we would carry more translated prose. It has been easier for us to access translated poetry; poets themselves tend to be more actively engaged with translation and its possibilities.
I was given a further nudge towards doing this issue while scanning the bookshelves in the apartment of my Bucharest hosts: Philip Ó Ceallaigh and his partner, Alina Purcaru. It was Alina’s collection that impressed me more: a treasure trove, mostly consisting of books in Romanian, by authors from all over, as many contemporary titles as there were classics. The names of the familiar American writers were there, and British and Irish ones, but also old and new novels from Germany, Hungary, Russia…
To cut to the chase: not enough translation happens in Ireland—and, as a result, readers miss out. So the aim of this special issue is to do a little bit to redress that. I hope it will lead to a greater appreciation of the value of translation and of the translator’s art. And that we will in future have more work in translation, more often.
I would like to thank Nora Mahony for all her enthusiasm, guidance and expertise in helping to bring the issue together.
For this issue, we asked a translator working from each language to translate the magazine’s title and strapline. Already, this required many translators to work outside their mother tongues, potentially ignoring regional differences within each language. A few cocked an eyebrow at the gerund. Then there’s the nicely balanced pair of phrases across the comma. And how about those non-gender-specific writers and their non-genre-specific writing? E-mails poured in about the Fly. Was it stomoxys calcitrans? A housefly? A horsefly? A stable fly? A reference to Bilbo Baggins? Pleasingly, the name came from a translation, no less, of The Last Days of Socrates, in which the city, like a lazy horse, needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. Plato’s original was a gadfly, responded another; ‘what a can of worms (or maggots, I suppose, given the context)’.
I lay this out not simply to expose what a pedantic lot we translators are, but to give a potted example of how much goes into our every reading, rereading and translation of a text. At first glance, Ireland seems to have a sound appreciation for same: we have an active Translators’ Association; offer world-class translation degrees, one purely literary; host a full calendar of international events; and put more than our fair share of foreign works in English onto the stage. Yet Ireland produces few translated foreign books; no doubt because the small publishing industry here is challenged enough by its UK neighbour to welcome many new voices from further afield.
While working in London, I was somewhat jokingly labelled as someone who ‘spoke languages’. A Spanish manuscript or Swedish layout would be dropped on my desk, because if I didn’t read the relevant language, surely I’d know someone who would. Partly on the back of this experience, I founded Parkbench in Dublin five years ago: we source foreign-language readers and literary translators for English-language publishers and arts organisations. I have learned just how much a translation benefits from the right translator: one who is as well positioned as they can be to understand the author and their works, and, crucially, to know what questions to ask. As per our title translation exercise, opinions vary wildly on what makes a successful translation: Claire Kilroy’s essay gives us the author’s perspective on how essential this Q&A session can be to the process, whereas Susan Tomaselli goes one step further, underlining that a new work is created by that process.
This latter notion can be a step too far for authors, but is it for readers? With our selections for this issue, we have sought to highlight and celebrate the cross-pollination of language and literature by providing Stinging Fly readers with entirely new works from thirteen countries. We hope you enjoy them.
Find out more about the issue/order your copy here.
The issue will be launched on Thursday July 18th in the Long Room Hub, Trinity College, Dublin 2. Doors open 6.30pm. All welcome.