Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British Library

It’s not often that I’m down in London and able to swank around all the amazing literary and German-language events here, but that’s the joy of sabbatical! Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to go to an Open University-sponsored event on Writing, Creativity and Translation at the British library, with German literary hero Birgit Vanderbeke, translation hero Jamie Bulloch, and new literary heroes Jordi Punti, Miha Mazzini and Maja Visenjak Limon.

I first encountered Vanderbeke’s work eight years ago, when I taught Geld oder Leben (Your Money Or Your Life) to first year students at Trinity College Dublin, and was enchanted by how angry the students were at the critique of capitalism in the seemingly guileless novel. How dare Vanderbeke suggest that there might be a way of living outside capitalism! How dare her deceptively simple prose lead the teenagers into an unexpected linguistic critique of marketing! I developed a healthy respect for her dark literary arts.

The British Library didn’t showcase one superstar, though – it created a brilliant, transEuropean dialogue on literature between five brilliant, opinionated and collegiate literary experts. I livetweeted the discussion under the hashtag #wct, if you’re interested in reliving the experience via breathless Twitter, but what’s missing there is the repartee, the translation heresies and the shared vision of European literature that emerged.

Translation heresy was definitely a theme – Limon confessed to translating into her second language, Bulloch to not knowing or caring much about literary theory, and Vanderbeke vigorously asserted that translation had to disrespect, indeed destroy the text to bring it closer to a new audience. Quite fabulous.

But even more moving than the translation heresy was the passionate commitment to translation in evidence. Although all three writers declared emphatically that writing with a translator in mind would be impossible, all three argued that translation is essential to literature, and indeed to human communication – it allows us to see the human in someone who is far away. Punti argued eloquently that European culture has in fact been constituted by inter-European translation, from the first Catalan translations of Dante in the fifteenth century onwards, and that Europe can be seen as a space of distinct but interlinking translation traditions – the Mediterranean tradition, the Slav tradition, and the declining but crucially important U.K. tradition.

There were many more insights in the mix, from discussions about new readability and the influence of Anglo-Saxon plot-driven fiction on other languages, to concerns about the number of national literatures that are becoming increasingly insular. I even managed to ask Vanderbeke and Bulloch a question about the Nachleben of Vanderbeke’s Muschelessen: what does it mean to have a text translated almost 25 years later? (Vanderbeke said that this book is an exception, it has stayed alive through readings and dialogues and constant publications ever since she first wrote it in 1989). I didn’t get a chance to tell her how delighted I was that her work managed to outrage my students so thoroughly eight years ago, but instead I left with a new reading list and a renewed passion for translation – an even more important gift.