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A brief history of intercultural awareness

International Translation Day took place at London’s Free Word Centre last week. It was a fascinating happening, interpreting translation and its values – its ability to represent the world, its power to revitalise, regenerate, teach, exercise, enthuse, convey one apex of language into another – from plenty of angles. There was a touch of interlocking fire about it: wherever you turned, you were caught. There was, for one thing, a great emphasis on mentoring which I particularly liked in an age when we’re constantly losing continuity. Another part of the day was the launch of the report of the Global Translation Initiative, which for two years has been exploring literary translation and its possible future. The GTI full report, Taking Flight, can be downloaded here. My own contribution to the report, “A brief history of intercultural awareness”, is printed below:

In the dry brown town of El Toboso in La Mancha, early morning and late afternoon, the streets are full of sheep, trotting tangily past with a clamour of bells; the descendants of those same sheep that a sixteenth-century knight of fiction once rode into with his lance, believing them to be an army of his mortal enemies who only looked like sheep because a sorcerer had changed their shape. To a twenty-first-century city-dweller the sight is still simultaneously prosaic and enchanted: to the contemporary urban eye a herd of sheep is a remote, inscrutable quantity, and the herdsmen who pause, smoke, and watch expressionlessly for stragglers as outlandish as that distant fictional figure.

El Toboso is real, ancient and ordinary, but it too has its elements of fancy. Another of its sights is the casa de Dulcinea, the restored farmhouse of the “empress of La Mancha… mistress of my most hidden thoughts” – accolades bestowed by a lanky, complex, deluded hero on a woman who didn’t exist. As if to pay further tribute to the power of that hero’s imagination, a couple of streets away and across the square from the church of San Antonio Abad at the Instituto Cervantes is a library of many editions of the novel in which he appears. They are here because the institute’s curator once had the idea of asking the internationally famous to donate a copy of the Quixote to its collection. In its first-floor showcases you can see signed copies that once belonged to the actor Alec Guinness, to Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Benito Mussolini and others.

Some of the ideas that Miguel de Cervantes’ novel continues to stir into being – what constitutes reality, the attraction and repulsion of unfamiliarity, how vital to us as humans the made-up elements of reality are – are also an often unacknowledged interplay in our everyday lives. But if we tend to behave as though we live in a purely factual world, our curiosity about the world and its sensations confirms our need for non-factual inputs; our impulse to absorb the world’s otherness by seeing, listening, reading for ourselves has a strong component (as for Quixote) of the might-be and the not-yet known and the emotions that go with them. In order to know, to make sense, to quell our fears, we tell ourselves stories (as Quixote did) and consume others’. This absorption is never purely factual. For instance, we feel the settings, narratives and characters of films, plays, novels to be authentic (or not) on aesthetic rather than objective grounds; and we feel different places, cultures and people to be imbued with a romance of difference. Why is there no alternative to the word “exotic”, when we know it to be the most abused of clichés? Postmodernism has not relativised our understanding to the point where we see everything as constructed, subjective, fictional; but our curiosity is a yearning to bring the “outside” (“exotikos”) inside by whatever means at our disposal. Storytelling is both about gaining more knowledge and reconciling our desires and fears of otherness. Recent research at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, has suggested that we don’t just tell stories to “present” and make sense of ourselves, we also “adopt” the stories of others as though we were the protagonist.1

In literary terms, it is routinely asserted that in Britain (and often the anglophone world) we are resistant to this wider curiosity; that islands are traps, and we are provincially insular; that, linguistically, our sense of superiority and self-sufficiency as English-speakers makes us less receptive than the owners of other languages and cultures. Is it so?
If it is, it wasn’t always. Before passing on from the Quixote, at the Castilian university town of Alcalá de Henares, in the house where Cervantes is supposed to have spent his boyhood, there is another library, of first editions of his novel. Though he died a year after the second volume was published (in April 1616, the same month as Shakespeare), he had lived long enough to see his Quixote become the first international fictional bestseller. The first translation had appeared in 1612; others took the novel to France, Belgium and Italy. But that earliest translation, by Thomas Shelton, was into – you’ve guessed it – English, beginning a British relationship with this quintessentially Spanish novel that deepened through the eighteenth century and fundamentally influenced its writers, Tobias Smollett, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne and the rest.

Translation’s role in establishing the “most central novel” in world literature2 is thus itself central and enduring (the Quixote’s most recent English translation, a superb version by Edith Grossman, came out as recently as 2004). It might even be argued that anglophone readers have had more access to the Quixote and to sixteenth-century Spain than Spanish readers have, for, re-translating him from time to time, our Quixote never gets marooned in one century, while his Spanish-language double becomes ever more archaic to modern Spanish readers.

In fact, literary translation’s ability to regenerate its sources, over and over again, driven each time by new language and imagery, lends it a particularly renewing perspective. Turning books outwards to other cultures, growing and reviving their appeal, translation helps to navigate literature through space and time. And not only that: Harold Bloom, echoing the professor at Erasmus University, has pointed out that Cervantes’ novel “so contains us that, as with Shakespeare, we cannot get out of it”. For that crucial invention of ourselves, Cervantes’ translators continue to deserve some of the credit. The books we read in translation from day to day may be more modest in their claims to greatness, but translation’s invitation is still an expansive one. It humbly offers to facilitate our curiosity; it also wants, to borrow the title of English PEN’s recent anthology, nothing more nor less than to make the world legible.3

Yet such intercultural traffic, we know from experience, doesn’t come out of nowhere. The willingness to be curious, as child psychologists tell us, needs to be stimulated by attention and example. From the 1980s to mid-1990s the readership for translated work in the UK declined to a point of stagnation. The ambitious British Centre for Literary Translation had opened in 1989, but it was perhaps ultimately our revival of interest through pivotal historical events (the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet Communism; the Balkan wars; middle East conflict; and 9/11) combined with a revolution in news-gathering that tended towards the personal and the narrative – citizen reporting, blogs, social networking – that jolted us to look outwards again.

From 2000 to 2002 I travelled through Europe, on a meandering Quixote-like course, to record some radio programmes on the rise of the European novel. In the BBC’s commissioning of the first series and its re-commissioning of the second were signs of a change in anglophone attitudes. Maybe the programmes themselves changed a few more attitudes; but in terms of reader numbers our curiosity continued to need stimulus. In these circumstances, in 2004, English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme decided to expend its main energy and funding on helping to promote and market translated literature. As deputy chair of the WiT committee at its foundation, I had a hand in that decision, for which there was a clear rationale. By supporting the promotion and marketing costs of a translated title – so often at the bottom of the publishers’ heap of priorities – with an emphasis on staging readings and events with authors and translators, you build both readers, and readers’ curiosity; you reassure publishers that there is a viable market for translated fiction and non-fiction (rather than just “a good cause” to be ministered to); and you create leverage by which the funding programme itself becomes more widely known, attracting new clients and collaborations to the process. Writers in Translation’s reputation today, after six years of operation, suggests that it has to some degree accomplished all those things, and gone a long way towards redistributing readers’ and publishers’ literary priorities.

The vitality of all literature rests on an insistence: that we question historical experience, seeking the individual in the communal and the communal in the individual. That seeking is bound for inconclusion, because the sense of who we are is never fixed, but a constituent part of our engagement with a changing world. At the most personal level, a book is a work made by an individual about his or her world for another individual; as much as a metaphor, it’s a request from writer to reader: Here I am, as a human being. Do you recognise anything? Are we both human beings? (The Quixote, by the way, is a supreme example of that request for recognition. In the ingenious knight’s delusions we find, are entertained by, and forgive our own.) At a collective or communal level, a book is something different: a form of awareness, a signifier, a cultural specificity, that its text both conserves and seeks to communicate. Translation takes that awareness beyond its own specificity and makes it part of our intercultural traffic through linguistic empathy.

Theories of translation need not, perhaps, concern us overmuch here. But what cultural weight does that intercultural awareness, and the work of translation that facilitates it, have? First, it opposes the surly borders thrown up by concepts of “national literature”; it creates relations between writers and readers, and readers and readers, that dissolve not only literary barriers but barriers of economics, politics, nationalism, and cultural materialism. Being European (for instance) becomes not about living in the shrunken simplifications of euro-Europe, dependent on a ready-made cultural Europe of cappuccino and city-breaks or a political Europe whose ideals and ambitions are principally economic, but about sharing an experience with readers in Estonia, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, or Sweden. In that experience lies the profound promise of relations and understanding. Through such experiences we understand, for example, that others want and need the freedoms we have – as we have seen nightly in recent TV broadcasts from Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya, although anyone who had been reading Naguib Mahfouz, Ahdaf Soueif or Alaa al-Aswany would already have known very well what journalists in Cairo and Benghazi have been telling us. We also understand that we must not lose our own freedoms through complacency, political misdirection or fear. These are vital human and political matters; to all of them translation is essential.

Is it possible to measure intercultural awareness? There are social and cultural conditions that make it more likely: the extent and effectiveness of language teaching, the ease and levels of travel/emigration, the outwardness or lack of it in schools’ teaching of geography, history and literature, the inclusiveness or provincialism of the prevailing political and media climate. Yet even in the absence of healthy levels of most of those conditions – as in the last decade in the UK – a healthy landscape of literary translation can produce a healthy level of “awareness without borders”. In Britain in the last ten years or so our own landscape has changed almost out of recognition, with the revival of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the introduction of the Man Booker International Prize and the annual Sebald Lecture on the Art of Literary Translation, the arrival of a new generation of more experimental small publishers, abetted by new technology, and the blooming of a thousand translation blogs.

This evolution is one to which PEN’s Writers in Translation programme has contributed through both its funding and initiatives, including its online World Atlas and collaborations with other agencies. Writers in Translation is reactive, as grant-giving bodies tend to be, but in the energy of its reactions – in particular its energetic participation in the planning and realisation of marketing campaigns for every book it funds – it is widely acknowledged to have added value and influence to the UK translation scene. Its insistence on the mutual value and visibility of translator and author has helped improve translators’ standing. Its willingness to reflect on its own activity, and to seek to operate outside its comfort zone and that of translation generally, has helped produce flexible strategies to support a wide variety of books and situations. It has worked not only with publishers, authors and translators but with festivals, libraries, book fairs, conferences, schools and external agencies to reach new readers and enthuse existing ones. Marked against these criteria, it has made a significant impact and become a valuable practical model.

How much WiT might be capable of leveraging our awareness further is a question to which its committee must continue to address itself. While one of its rules of engagement – the strict requirement for a funded title’s content and intention to conform to PEN’s Charter – may be interpreted more widely in future, the other – that both title and translation must show literary excellence – must not. There remains more that can be done, and some ground to make up. A secondary feature of the programme has been its sample translation and reader’s report scheme: basically the provision of a synopsis, report and English-language sample of a book that has not yet found a UK publisher, which is then made available free to publishers. So far the sample translations commissioned by WiT have generally not resulted in English publication of the book in question. A reason, if not the reason, for this failure is that the programme has not established its brand as a source of worthwhile, innovative texts as well as it has established itself as a marketing funder of energy and judgment. Another area in which the programme might expand its activity is among the UK’s constituency of refugee and migrant writers, poets especially, who have no access to usual publication channels in their own language.

It is, of course, absolutely vital above all that Writers in Translation continues to operate, as it can exceptionally well within English PEN’s embrace, as a respected champion of literature beyond national and linguistic borders and beyond conventional literary expectations. In the diversity of its constitution – writers, translators, publishers, literary journalists, scouts and agents – it has become a benchmark for critical judgment, independence and commitment in the UK translation scene, free of the prejudices and partis pris not just of insular publishers, provincial politicans and trivia-hungry media but of all special-interest groups – including perhaps even translators! However it changes in the future, it must retain that disinterested passion.

I don’t want to end on a moralistic or triumphalist note; and there is one further annotation to be made to the brief history of intercultural awareness I’ve attempted here, which offers us an opportunity to calculate the consequences of dismissing or denying the value of that sort of understanding. It takes us back to the first-floor room at the Instituto Cervantes at El Toboso. Here, among the showcases and donated copies of Cervantes’ novel, there is a single, green-bound, bulky volume that is an exception to all the other editions in the library. It is not an edition of the Quixote, as all the others are, but of the German epic poem Das Nibelungenlied pointedly sent in its place, and dedicated to the Cervantes Society in El Toboso by the German Reichskanzler in his own hand, “A Hitler, 1. Juli 1933”.

1 Rolf Zwaan, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, vol 22, p 1196, in New Scientist, 12 February 2011.

2 In a poll of 100 contemporary writers in 2002.

3 Making the World Legible: Five Years of Writers in Translation, ed. Julian Evans (London 2010)

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