Thursday, 27 June 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Lost in translation (2)

The book I translated for a friend studying at SOAS at the end of 2010
There's a reason why this blog's been on hiatus for a few weeks. Apart from the expected travails at this time of year - chiefly exam grading, both for my school and for one of the UK's national exam boards - I've also been grappling with something less expected and equally interesting. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally I do get some translation work in. This has taken me on a fascinating odyssey through all types of texts, from horoscopes and mobile phone contracts to academic texts on Kabylian woodwork. This time it was a legal transcription of proceedings, and while I have no training whatsoever in the law, it did make me see why people find this field exciting: the thrill of seeing all of these big companies at loggerheads with one another, combined with the intellectual challenge of wrangling with their weasel words and coded messages, means you're certainly unlikely to have a boring day in the office. But what is it that grips me about translation in general?

On a practical level, it enables me to put the theories learned in the translation module I took at university to good use. It also gives me the opportunity to further ameliorate my French. Having studied the language formally from the age of 11, and informally before that, I still constantly strive to improve. Living just outside of Paris since 2008, having a French husband (previously boyfriend) since 2005 (as well as the built-in French inlaws that came with him), and working in a bilingual environment all help - but I do not yet consider myself to be fluent. So anything that helps to increase fluency can only be a good thing. However, this has to go hand-in-hand with intellectual or emotional reward, otherwise I wouldn't continue to do it. Otherwise, it's the same as trying to get a reluctant child to do their piano practice: there's a clearly tangible goal involved, but if their heart's not in it, it's potentially of little use. So why else?

Being an English teacher, my first love naturally lies with the English language. And as I only translate with French as the source and English as the target language, translation also selfishly allows me to indulge my love of English. There's something challenging and beautiful about trying to equate exact meanings, craft an eloquent turn of phrase, and recreate the original text's tone and effects. While this is clearly a form of intellectual development, it's also, to me, a form of spiritual development, taking me to a higher plane of description and clarity. Striking a balance between these two elements is always tricky, but like any good brainteaser, it leaves you feeling immensely satisfied once you've solved the problem by unlocking meaning.

This all makes translation sound like a very solitary activity. While indeed it can be this, thanks to many translators working alone at home, it's also tremendously collaborative, which is particularly facilitated thanks to advances in technology. As well as being able to speak to colleagues through VOIP providers such as Skype, or hold conference calls through software such as Saba, emails and online discussion fora also enable translators to bounce ideas off each other in writing, in one space. In addition, thanks to my husband being French, it's occasionally useful to be able to pick his brains too! Less facetiously, though, this all means that you don't have to feel lonely while working alone, allowing you to know that wherever you and your colleagues are in the world, and whatever time zone you work to, you can still work successfully as a team on a project. This combination of teamwork and independent discipline has its own value, too, again when it comes to developing as a person.

Translation's intrinsic value also has roots in languages' natural variegation and humans' deeply-seated affinity with rhythm and musicality. Languages all have their own individual sounds and rhythms, and that's before you even get to tonal versus atonal languages. We all respond differently to these and tend to value variation in what we hear. For this reason, it naturally follows that reading (and being able to read) texts in their original languages also delivers satisfaction. However, translators equally recognize that being able to read texts in a translated form is better than not being able to read them at all, and so are able to feel that we deliver a practical service. Beyond this, comparing translations on a critical level also brings its own enjoyment, in much the same way as listening to different versions of the same song can (and, hey, look, I spoke about this recently too).

But with applications to sit foreign language exams continuing to fall in the UK (only 43% of students were entered for a foreign language GCSE in the UK in 2010, compared to 75% in 2002), is there a danger that translation could be a dying profession? Hopefully not: Michael Gove's new curriculum plan is set to make the study of languages compulsory from the age of seven, and on top of this, rising university tuition fees could also be in the translation profession's favour, as students turn towards more practical courses that stand a greater chance of being of real use post-graduation. A quick search on the website of university applications service UCAS turns up 15 providers of translation courses available for entry in 2014, including at such prestigious universities as Cardiff and UEA. Several of these courses involve practical placements in the workplace. Further to this, the world of translation is working hard to promote itself through events such as International Translation Day, which is celebrated at the end of September each year and is supported by several major bodies, including The British Council, The London Book Fair, and The Translators Association. Launched in 2010, it focuses on debates, translator residencies, mentoring schemes, among other projects. In addition, translation prizes such as the Stephen Spender Prize continue to thrive, while taking care to include categories for children in an attempt to hook the next generation.

All of this helps to improve accessibility not only to translation as a profession but also to translated works of literature. Even if you consider that you know little about languages, chances are that you have been touched by translation. Stieg Larsson, Paulo Coelho, Elie Wiesel all, apart from being men, have one thing in common: without translators, you'd have heard of none of them.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music (Stephen Fry and Tim Lihoreau)

--The blurb--
"In his Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music, Stephen Fry presents a potted and [...] rambling 700-year history of classical music and the world as we know it. Along this musical journey he casually throws in references to pretty much whatever takes his fancy, from the Mongol invasion of Russia and Mr Khan (Genghis to his friends), the founding of the MCC, the Black Death (which once again became the new black in England), to the heady revolutionary atmosphere of Mozart's Don Giovanni and the deep doo-doo that Louis XVI got into (or 'du-du' as the French would say).
It's all here - Ambrose and early English plainsong, Bach, Mozart (beloved of mobile phones everywhere), Beethoven, Debussy, Wagner (the old romantic), right up to the present day."

--The review--
"Stephen Fry...national treasure...", opens a certain Weebl video. And certainly very few could argue with that. Beloved by many, he frequently graces our television screens, not least as part of legendary comedies Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, as well as (more recently) on intellectual TV pop quizzes such as QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. He also regularly graces the nation's bookshelves thanks to his autobiographies and books on poetry. In 2004, he released his Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music in partnership with Tim Lihoreau, a musician who works closely with radio station Classic FM. Although the book is ghostwritten by Lihoreau, Fry's inimitable style and humour comes through strongly, and the idiosyncratic and at times paradoxical nature of this is also encapsulated in the book's title, which combines modesty and deliberately gross exaggeration in equal measure.

This Lihoreau-Fry lovechild has many merits, presenting the history of classical music in a concise and accessible manner. As Fry rightly points out on multiple occasions in the tome, there's nothing wrong with accessibility. So what if someone only knows Grieg's Hall Of The Mountain King from the Alton Towers advert? It's better than not knowing it at all. However, one could also argue that it's a little like reading Harry Potter or Twilight: great if you're reading, but not so great if you never move on to anything else. One of the many joys of classical music (and indeed almost any music) is the seemingly endless scope for the analysis of different interpretations, and just as many of us have multiple copies of Cry Me A River, Summertime, Blackbird or Somewhere Over The Rainbow kicking around, we fulfil different needs by having several recordings of, say, Handel's Giulio Cesare, and infinitely exploring its various nuances and emphases. This is something that is little mentioned (if at all) by the Fry-Lihoreau team - but then again, this book is only billed as being an introduction to classical music.

The introduction is eased all the more by Fry's signature sense of humour, which of course has been a key element in marketing this book to draw his fans in. Be that as it may, though, some might consider that Fry's particular brand of humour rests significantly on tone of voice and comic timing, making this book better as a radio series (which is, incidentally, how it originated) or even as a television series (we are still waiting). Nevertheless, this is not to say that the pages never raise a chuckle, and they are packed with brilliantly British puns throughout, referring to everything from Jim'll Fix It (perhaps not so politically correct in these times, but never mind) to The Beano. The authors also do cover a vast period of history in a relatively short space without skimping on detail, but some of this space is meaningless filler (which would arguably be cut out for TV or radio) and some of the space is devoted disproportionately to the composers that Fry just happens to like best (but then again, I would say that, as I'm a devotee of Ancient Greek music and will always feel that it deserves more attention).

To end such an ambitious project was always going to be awkward, and Fry's observations towards the end of the book (that the focus has shifted more towards artists and reality TV now than towards composers themselves, and that film music is perhaps the new classical music) are perfectly salient, leaving the reader with plenty to contemplate. While he has tried to end the book on a contemporary note, the danger of this was always that his conclusion would date quickly - some of the groups he mentions, such as Amici Forever, who were busily popularizing classical music at the time of the book's publication nearly ten years ago, have already disbanded. Future edits should probably take account of this by offering up a more general conclusion, perhaps without mentioning specific names unless their place in history is safely assured (mentioning Pavarotti, for instance, is probably not too big a risk). Ultimately, though, despite these pernickety criticisms, a totally unscientific experiment perhaps proves that the book has achieved its aim of popular appeal: when offered up to a class of twenty fifteen-year-olds for free, alongside an autobiography of Bagpuss' creator and two CS Lewis books, this was the only one to be snatched up instantly.

other works by Stephen Fry
The Liar (1992)
Paperweight (1992)
The Hippopotamus (1994)
Making History (1996)
Moab is my Washpot (1997)
The Stars' Tennis Balls (2000)
Rescuing The Spectacled Bear (2002)
The Ode Less Travelled (2005)
Stephen Fry in America (2008)
The Fry Chronicles (2010) 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

On the death of Iain Banks

The death of Iain M Banks today, at the age of 59, has rocked the literary world, who loved him equally for his science fiction as for his more general fiction. The death of a young personality is always shocking, but sadly not increasing in rarity, and will particularly resonate not only with his fans but also with anyone who is of this age themselves or has a close relative of this age, as they are confronted with mortality on a closer level (as someone in their mid-twenties with a father in his mid-fifties, I cannot imagine losing my father at this age - and yet I know those who have lost theirs at this age, and even younger). However, to lose a personality with such universal appeal is perhaps even rarer. Banks was a writer of extraordinary breadth, covering dystopia, crime, economic crisis, materialism, terrorism, war, substance abuse, God, science, dreams and more - and all with a touch of irreverence and wit.

Unsurprisingly, he also covered the subject of death, and was set to do so again in The Quarry, which will be released in June 2013. Despite Banks' pleas to his publishers to bring the release date forward in the hope that he would see The Quarry's publication, his terminal cancer diagnosis was unsparing and all-pervasive. A sixth sense perhaps lured him to begin his final novel - which, ironically, has a hero dying of cancer, even though Banks was unaware of his own diagnosis until he was 10,000 words off finishing The Quarry. In it, he appears to have broadened his horizons yet again as a swan-song, this time featuring a young narrator on the autistic spectrum whose father is staring death in the face thanks to the Big C. Given my interest in both fictional and non-fictional books based on autism, and particular Asperger's Syndrome, I await the publication of The Quarry with bated breath - not only to indulge personal interest, but also to see Banks' final masterstroke.

So what do fans treasure as Iain Banks' legacy? A quick sweep of his website proves that they prize his imagination, innovation, humour, ability to apply himself to whatever genre he chose, energy and intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, his "[refusal] to allow his fame and success to compromise his principles" is something that we can all take as an example - not just great writers. However, in the pattern of so many great writers, Banks will perhaps achieve even greater fame after death, with his work reaching even more readers. I know I'll be there buying The Quarry in June - and looking into even more of his other books too.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro (Joao Cerqueira)

 --The blurb--
"When God receives a request from Fátima to help prevent a war between Fidel Castro and JFK, he asks his son, Jesus, to return to Earth and diffuse the conflict. On his island, Fidel Castro faces protests on the streets and realizes that he is about to be overthrown. Alone, surrounded, and aware that the end is fast approaching, he plays his last card. Meanwhile, Christ arrives on Earth and teams up with Fátima, who is convinced she can create a miracle to avoid the final battle between JFK and Fidel Castro and save the world as we know it."

--The review-- 
As the world becomes less religious and more irreverent, literature reflecting this attitude has become increasingly common, with Joao Cerqueira's novella, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, fitting neatly into this category. However, there is no danger of Cerqueira being subversive for the sake of it; his mischievous and tongue-in-cheek style of writing is innovative and all his own, blending the mild blasphemy of Jean-Louis Fournier (author of God's CV) with the outright mockery of Joseph Heller (as manifested in his classic Catch-22). Cerqueira makes us think hard straight away thanks to his Chomsky-like strategy (informing us glibly that the Fidel Castro, JFK, Jesus and God characters bear no relation whatsoever to the real historical figures), making it difficult - in a fun way - for the reader to separate cultural associations from the words used.

While occasionally a little convoluted, and with more direct speech being a potentially positive addition, Cerqueira is by turns wryly funny, deeply ironic, and a provider of hugely effective descriptions and richly layered yet accessible metaphors. Equally, Cerqueira's focus on situations and events rather than on character development is a further masterstroke, making individuals seem like pawns at the plot's mercy. These aspects all combine to make The Tragedy of Fidel Castro highly competitive with the very best satires in its blackly humorous portrayal of a sobering reality.

In addition to this, Cerqueira owes another debt to Joseph Heller - his patchwork approach means that we cut between scenes rapidly and cannot always see immediately how they fit together. However, this is not necessarily something to take badly (whereas the author's intermittently patronising footnotes are). Ultimately, the story's iconoclastic and mildly atheistic standpoint makes the story deftly layered, making it merit rereads by all satire-lovers.

other works by Joao Cerqueira
Devil's Observations (2010)
Blame It On Too Much Freedom (2007)
Art and Literature in the Spanish Civil War (2005)