Lost and found in translation: writers discuss the complexities of literature across frontiers

Mikael Niemi, Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, George Blecher, Sarah Waters, Veijo Baltzar, Maria Peura, David Vaughan (left to right), photo: author

Last month Prague hosted Bookworld, one of Europe’s major international book fairs. Writers from around the world, whose work covers a Babel of different languages, converged on the Czech capital. As part of the event, six of the writers got together to talk about how literature can play a role in helping to build understanding between cultures. A lively discussion emerged, chaired by Radio Prague’s David Vaughan.

Of the authors who took part, two write in Finnish, one in Swedish, two in English, and one in French. I asked each of them, where they feel at home and not surprisingly got some pretty diverse answers.

“It’s a hundred kilometres north of the Polar Circle,” says Mikael Niemi, “sitting by the fire, beside the river with a fishing rod by my side.” Mikael comes from the fascinating region of Tornedalen, where Swedish and Finnish mix. His highly entertaining autobiographical novel Popular Music from Vittula has been an international bestseller.

Mikael Niemi,  Jean-Marie Blas de Robles,  George Blecher,  Sarah Waters,  Veijo Baltzar,  Maria Peura,  David Vaughan  (left to right),  photo: author
Jean-Marie Blas de Robles was born in Algeria, but has lived in many parts of the world. His latest novel, Where the Tigers Feel at Home has just been translated into Czech. “I only feel at home in my language,” he says, “in my mother tongue which is French. This is my only home, my own personal jungle.”

“I have two main homes and lots of homes in my imagination,” says the American writer and journalist, George Blecher, whose life strides the Atlantic. “One of them is in the centre of Manhattan, where there’s lots of noise. There’s a police station across the street and a fire station. So there are constant sirens going. And then I spend a good deal of the summer in a tiny little town in Denmark, where there’s no noise and I take care of roses.” George’s collection of stories, Other People Exist, has also just appeared in Czech.

Sarah Waters has been nominated twice for the Man Booker Prize and is one of Britain’s most successful contemporary writers, best known for her novels Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, both exploring lesbian sexuality in Victorian England. “I grew up in a pretty rural part of Wales,” she says, “but moved to London and have lived in London and certainly done all my writing in London for over 20 years. But I feel Welsh and a Londoner. I think the great thing about London is – like lots of big cities – that it is a diverse city. There are lots of different cultures, not just ethnic cultures – all sorts of cultures.”

And back to Scandinavia, and the Finnish Romany author Veijo Baltzar, whose novels have covered many aspects of Finnish Roma life, history and legend. He has also written poetry, drama, librettos and short stories. “Because I am a Gypsy,” he says, “I am a citizen of the world. I am at home wherever there are good and interesting people. Finland is where I live and it’s my homeland. I find it easiest to write amid the hectic life of the city, but I also love the depths of the forest.”

Maria Peura
And we stay in Finland with Maria Peura, who writes about her home in Lapland, and is best known for her novel, On the Edge of Light. “I live in south Finland, and my home is in Lapland in north Finland. I think the roots are very important for me, and I think it’s important to live far away from my roots, because it inspires me so much that I miss my home all the time. I think it’s also a luxury that I can very often travel to my roots, to energise myself there.”

Before we hear some extracts from the conversation that followed, here is a short extract from Veijo Baltzar’s novel, Phuro, capturing vividly the lost world of Romany life in Finland before the Second World War:

The women, for their part, were dressed in long skirts, colourful blouses and flower-covered ruffled scarves. Older women had shawls on their shoulders as well as scarves and wide rings with stones on their fingers which sparkled like the bejewelled eyes of the Prince of Darkness. Around their necks hung necklaces of jangling golden coins and bright cameos shone on their breasts. The maidens' rings were narrower and their stones were a modest red or blue. Around their necks were thin strings of pearls. The littlest girls also wore golden earrings. It was if all the gypsies in the world were on the move this day to honor the patriarch of their tribe, and it appeared as if they were carrying all the gold and riches of the world on themselves. The meadow was filled with purple and luster.

This extract reminds us how much has been lost through war and through the process of cultural levelling that has continued in the last sixty years, forces that have undermined Europe’s linguistic and cultural diversity. But it is not all doom and gloom. We join the discussion at a more optimistic point, with George Blecher pointing out that if we look at nature itself, we find a rather encouraging inclination to create diversity.

George Blecher
George Blecher: “Biologically there’s a tendency to create new things, to create variety, rather than to flatten out and get rid of diversity. So even though we’re doing our best to destroy diversity, in cellular terms, life wants to create diversity. That may be a faint hope, but it seems to me to be true.”

But the problem of disappearing languages remains. For example, Mikael, you spoke earlier about the decline of various languages in northern Scandinavia. With the loss of a language, it is like the loss of a species in a sense, isn’t it?

Mikael Niemi: “Our Finnish minority language is disappearing and it’s spoken by about 20 or 30 thousand people, but the language of my grandmother’s ancestors – it was the South Saami language – is today spoken by about 200 people in the world, most of them very old. So I can follow this language disappearing and it fills me with sadness. So what do I do? I bought a dictionary. So I have the words written down. And why are they disappearing? It’s always the same story. People are ashamed of their language. And that’s an interesting process. How can you become ashamed of your language?”

Maria Peura: “I think we need to look at how we talk to our own children. Which traditions and legacy we pass on to them. It’s very clear that if parents consider their language important, they should pass it on to their children. This is a question of self confidence, something that is often lacking in Finland. The same is true for dialects. The dialect where I come from is very particular, and it’s a great part of my identity. Sometimes you have to find the courage to leave your roots and your language, but you must find a way back to it again. You need to have the confidence to do this. But even though it is important to preserve languages, what is even more important is for us to influence one another, to be in contact with others.”

Veijo Baltzar
Veijo Baltzar: “I was born in a sauna. I am a nomadic Gypsy. That was back in the 1940s. In those days begging and travelling were something different from today. They didn’t mean a return to the slums. But the value systems of society have changed. The market economy has created standards and stereotypes, and Gypsies are left out of this world. We Gypsies need to start writing and talking about the values that we hold. We are socially excluded in many countries, because our values and traditions are not considered useful. We must develop our own literature – a nation cannot exist without writers. We lack self confidence, it is only too easy to humiliate us. It is high time for us to stop being Gypsies and to be called by our proper name of Roma. We need to be taken out of the hands of the social services, and to be embraced by the Ministry of Education.”

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles: “I’ve already said that I consider my language to be my homeland, and I take that very seriously. I don’t feel very French, but rather Mediterranean, which includes several countries, including Africa, where I was born, where I like to travel and live. My real basis and root is the French language, in which I work and write.”

Lost and gained in translation

We then went on to talk about translation – and the possibilities and problems that emerge when literature is carried over from one language or culture to another. I began by reading an extract from Mikael Niemi’s book, Popular Music from Vittula, which shows just how difficult it can be crossing the language barrier. The scene comes when an African preacher comes to address the congregation in a church in Pajala, in the rural depths of northern Sweden, and his Swedish interpreter is suddenly taken ill:

He thought for a moment, then switched from Bantu to Swahili. Many millions speak Swahili, including many Africans up and down their continent. Unfortunately, not many people in Pajala are acquainted with it. He was confronted by a mass of blank faces. He changed language once again, and tried Creole. His dialect was so specialized that not even the local French teacher could work out what he was saying. He was getting a little heated and tried a few sentences in Arabic. Then, in desperation, a couple of phrases in Flemish that he’d picked up while in Belgium on ecumenical business. But contact was zero. Nobody could understand a word he said. In remote areas like this, you had to speak Swedish or Finnish. He was desperate by now. Tried one final language. Bellowed it out so that it rebounded from the organ loft, roused an old lady from her slumbers, scared stiff a small child, who burst out crying, and set the pages of the lectern Bible a-flutter.

That extract reminds us of the complexities of living in a world of many languages. I won’t betray what language the African preacher was speaking – to find that out you’ll have to read Mikael Niemi’s wonderful novel, Popular Music from Vittula. But let’s get back to the panel discussion, starting with Sarah Waters, talking about translation.

Sarah Waters: “Handing your book over to a translator is an act of trust. You have to trust that your translator stays as true as they can to the spirit and hopefully the letter of your novel. But of course you know it will become in a sense a new novel. I had one interesting experience here in the Czech Republic with my novel Tipping the Velvet, which is a Victorian melodrama really, and ends with its heroine discovering true love and happiness among late Victorian socialists in the East End. For me, and I hope for lots of my readers in the UK, this is a very romantic vision of early socialism, the workers’ movement, people becoming politically active in a new way. But in the Czech Republic, what I’ve found is that people are very resistant to the socialism at the end of the book, because, of course, your history is so different. I hadn’t really anticipated how that would be and it’s been fascinating for me.”

Mikael Niemi: “You’re really in the hands of the translators. That’s very true. So you never know. I have a Swedish friend with a very good memory, speaking also Portuguese – a very rare combination – and he was reading my book in Portuguese, having read it before in Swedish, and he asked me: ‘You know, when the grandmother is dying in your book you wrote that the bodyweight was two grammes lighter, but in the Portuguese book it’s fourteen grammes lighter.’ We were very confused. In another part they were driving a moped much faster than in the original book. So we had a translator who wanted to make it a little bit better. But then we had another thought. We went to the English edition, where two grammes was translated as half an ounce, and half an ounce is exactly fourteen grammes. So that’s the reason. It was translated in two steps. So you never know what you’ve lost, or what you’ve gained.”

When Maria Peura’s novel, At the Edge of Light, appeared in English, the publishers pointed to an element of humour in it. One of the critics wrote that he looked desperately, but in vain, for the humour. This is a problem that arises not just in translation, but also more generally, when you cross cultures.

George Blecher: “I’ve written some articles about translation, because I do a lot of translation, and one maxim that I’ve probably heard from someone, but I use myself, is that a translation is better or worse than the original. It can’t really be the same. I write for a Danish newspaper in English and since I can read Danish, I’m always impressed by the translations – by how well I read in Danish, because my translator – it isn’t that he changes anything exactly, but rather he finds what I really meant. If the prose is at all murky, he clarifies it. It’s a kind of love relationship, at its best.”

Maria Peura: “I always find it useful to consult with my translator. When my work was being translated into English or Czech I worked very closely with the translator. The translator notices things that I would have missed or wouldn’t have considered important. Things that I thought were clear have to be explained, and when I have to explain things I get the feeling that I don’t know how to write, that I’ve let my readers down. I’m afraid that as a consequence I’ll end up writing too clearly, explaining too much, to make sure the translator can understand.”

I think we have a consensus that literature from our various literary cultures needs to be got across through translation and publishing. What do you think should be done at a political and commercial level?

Sarah Waters: “Between writers and readers there is a vast industry of book production and, certainly in the UK, I think publishers and booksellers need to change. I get the impression that in the Czech Republic there’s a very strong tradition of independent bookselling, which is wonderful, but in the UK that tradition is being lost as smaller booksellers are being pushed out, getting taken over by big chains, which have a very centralized book choice. They’re choosing a narrower and narrower range of books. Publishers are also choosing a narrower range of books. They want the same book over and over again really. They all want Dan Brown, I think, and this means that quieter voices or diverse voices aren’t even finding their way into the bookshops. That needs to change.”

Jean-Marie Blas de Robles
Jean-Marie Blas de Robles: “To be quite frank, I think the only thing we can do is to try to write our best, to create literature and poetry. It’s only in seeking excellence, that we can make progress. I don’t think we can bring about a rapprochement of cultures artificially – through politics or economics. I’m very pessimistic concerning these artificial attempts.”

George Blecher: “I think it would help if President Obama would just take an hour each week and just get on the television or the radio and read a book out loud to the whole nation. So it wouldn’t be a bad idea to work from the top down.”

Mikael Niemi: “This is for everyone, for the writers, for the readers: Read for your children, read out loud for your children. That’s where literature started for me, and I hope it will be for my children too. Read out loud, be together with a story.”

That was the Swedish writer, Mikael Niemi, ending that extract from a discussion that took place last month at the international Bookworld book fair here in Prague. The participants were Maria Peura and Veijo Baltzar from Finland, Mikael Niemi from Sweden, George Blecher from both New York City and Denmark, the globetrotting Jean-Marie Blas de Robles, who writes in French, and the London-based Welsh-born writer, Sarah Waters. Many thanks to them all for giving us a flavour of the many-layered world of writing in today’s Europe and beyond.