Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2013

“Translation and …” – AALITRA Symposium on Translation, 9/11/13


Today I attended a very interesting symposium on translation.  The event was primarily intended for translators and there seemed to be university academics as well, but I was welcomed as a blogger who’s interested in translation, not just reading in translation, but also in translation issues.  And there are more of these than might at first meet the eye…

There were presentations from Chi Vu, Nicholas José and Linda Jaivin, and it was introduced by Brian Nelson.  Chi Vu is the author of the novella Anguli Ma;  Nicholas José is the editor of the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature, and also an award-winning novelist and author of many books including Paper Nautilus;  and Brian Nelson is the translator of the Zola novels I’ve read most recently, The Ladies Paradise and The Fortune of the Rougons.  Linda Jaivin writes erotic fiction but she was a presenter at this event in her capacity as a translator of Chinese film and author of the forthcoming Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

The focus of the symposium was on:

  • creative practice, and how translation is a collaborative form of creative art
  • diasporic practice i.e. translation from/by communities in diasporas
  • translation and film

Nicholas José talked about how new forms of publishing are often collaborative.  He reminded us that books in the 18th century were by subscription, and in the face of new challenges confronting the publishing industry, there are now experiments with this form of subscription publishing (e.g. crowd funding). These ventures hope to capitalise on and support a new interest in world literature, partly driven by the more cosmopolitan nature of modern cities, partly by globalisation, and sometimes deriving from universities.

As an example of collaborative publishing, José gave the example of a Spanish language novel, Down the Rabbit-Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, who is also a translator himself.  The novel is published by And Other Stories,  a publishing house born out of frustration with the limited opportunities for translated titles to reach the public.  The novel is about a Mexican boy whose father is a drug lord, and because of that the boy Tochtli leads a very circumscribed life.  The author uses a sophisticated mix of Spanish and the indigenous Mexican language to scrutinise the adequacy of languages for expressing thought.  The boy has a very advanced vocabulary for his age,  and the names of the characters are all animals in the indigenous Mexican language e.g. the father’s name means ‘rattlesnake’.   José noted that the absurdist disorientating experiences of the novel are suggested to English-speaking readers by its title, an allusion to Alice in Wonderland, which is also an absurdist work.  This type of helpful cultural approximation is an example of a translator drawing on a different culture in collaboration with the author.

Publishing ventures deriving from a university context include the Dalkey Archive and in Australia, Giramondo.  These are small independents supporting translating and creative writing.    Although José thinks that translation can’t be equated with creative writing – even when it’s self-translation – because there are complex constraints, but he does see the product as a literary creation because the author and translator together  create a new text.

Translation is enabling, and it has a history of prestige in intellectual circles.  For example, in the early 20th century, Chinese intellectuals welcomed translations as a way of being introduced to other ideas and even today Chinese intellectuals welcome the work of such authors as J M Coetzee and his ways of thinking about the right of animals, a philosophy which is very different and striking for Chinese readers.  And for us in the English-speaking world, many of our contemporary ideas are derived from translations, such as ideas from French theoretical enquiry e.g. Derrida’s deconstructionism and post-modernist theory.  Sometimes, José said, translators are critics of the ideas they translate and sometimes the notes and introduction mediate and supplant the original. which is a further form of translations as enablers.

He also talked about poetry, about the forms used in different cultures, an example of which is haiku, but also the sonnet which was originally not an English form.  He says it’s also interesting to see how forms that have evolved in an English context are adapted when they cross over into different cultures.

Someone asked the question: what about the difference between translation which follows the original in a very transparent way even to the point of occasionally being clunky, compared to modern translations more attuned towards the reader.  Constance Garnett’s 1904 translation of War and Peace, for example, uses language closer to the style of writing in Tolstoy’s era, whereas the Pevear-Volokhonsky (2007) is more modern.  It is said that Tolstoy didn’t have a great ‘style’ so his writing adapts well in translation, whereas Flaubert is more literary in style and therefore harder to translate because the translator has to search for approximations.

One of my reasons for wanting to read translations is to learn about other cultures, but I think what you might learn about a culture depends on who’s choosing to publish it.  For example, IMO the prize-winning Korean Please Look After Mom, was chosen for translation into English because that kind of sentimentality sells well in the certain English-speaking markets, whereas the  much more interesting Dalkey Archive Korean books reviewed by Totally Dublin are for a different audience.  José says that this is gate-keeping which occurs with any kind of literature, but I think it’s more so in translations because of the limited number of people who can read the original for the sifting process.

It was lovely to meet Chi Vu and  have a chat before proceedings got under way.  She is the author of Anguli Ma,  a book which I found fascinating (though I now realise that at the time of my reading, there were many complexities which I failed to grasp).  Chitalked about process of writing her novella, and it soon became apparent that it is a very sophisticated creation indeed.  The story derives from a Buddhist folk tale in which a serial killer meets the Buddha and is reformed. The original story wasn’t very long, so there was a lot of room for invention, and she was drawn to the tale because of its theme of redemption.  She was also keen to set her story in the Vietnamese community – it concerns her that Australia’s artistic output doesn’t reflect the diversity of Australian life, but she also didn’t want to write something claiming to be  ‘representative of the whole community’.

What was so interesting about her talk was the way she negotiated between her two languages, and the final form of the novella.  Chi’s first language is Vietnamese, but her dominant language is English.  She can read Vietnamese but not write it.  She remembers the moment when she first thought in English instead of in Vietnamese, a foreign thought in her head, coming from inside her! She said it was liking growing a third arm! She also talked about the concept of a 1.5 generation, that is, coming between the first and second generation, born overseas but growing up here.  1.5 generation writers are in a strange cultural landscape, usually thought to be somewhere between both cultures, but often actually only on the margins of both.  (Chi was quoting someone else here, but I didn’t catch who it was).

Who translates who, Chi said, is crucial.   Historically, there were always unequal power relations between cultures, supported by translation as a one-way relationship.  What she meant by this was that it was colonisers who chose that the ‘foreign’ language would be translated into the language of the dominant partner.  Her insistence that while translation began as a form of communication, but was never neutral and never equal, derives, I think, from her origins in a country colonised by the French.  Someone was translating, someone was being translated, which makes the original the object of the exercise, not the subject.  It involves power relations.  IMO this is not something that would concern most monolingual Australian authors, who would regard translation into English as the norm, and simply practical.  But Chi’s thoughts about this suddenly triggered memories of reading Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book which remixes the Waanyi language into the narrative.  There is no glossary, and why should there be?  Wright is simply expressing her ideas in a language spoken on this continent for 40,000 years or more.  It’s up to us to pay respect to that and make sense of it.

There were many problems for Chi to solve when creating this Anguli Ma: she found that writing it as realism just wouldn’t work.  It couldn’t convey the ‘how’ of the 1.5 experience, and it was also clumsy for providing the content.  She ended up choosing the English genre of ‘gothic’ to portray a spectrum of characters because the genre enabled her to incorporate extremes of moral transgressions, double moral consciousness, and dreams and visions.  She said that she wanted to resist being colonised by the English language, and so she deliberately used some Vietnamese language forms even though it disrupted the flow of the language a bit, and she also used Vietnamese in an impressionistic way as well.  So now her title Anguli Ma is more than a subject from a Buddhist folk tale, it’s a symbol of transformation as well.

Linda Jaivin, whose subject was film subtitles, began by talking about the ‘Bergman Effect’.  The Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman gave the world the impression that Swedes are ‘verbally challenged’ despite the fact that he made many ‘jolly comedies’ for the domestic Swedish market.  But he knew that these comic films wouldn’t translate well and that verbose subtitles would ruin a film – and he wanted to make a name for himself on the international stage.  So the ‘Bergman Effect’ came to mean films that have intentionally less dialogue so that they will ‘work’ in an international context which is dependant on sub-titling.  Jaivin, however, deals with what she called the ‘anti-Bergman effect’ because she translates Chinese film, and Chinese is a very verbal culture.  It’s very literary and very layered,  so that jokes, for instance, can have references to something Mao said that drew on the work of an ancient poet, which in turn drew on an even older culture.  This kind of cultural coding is a great challenge to anyone trying to translate it because, for example,  a four- syllable saying meaning ‘a man who loses his horse’ really is an allusion to a very old, very long story about the ups and downs of life.   She gave another example of a current acronym which references old Mao slogans in an ironic way – impossible to translate so succinctly.

Jaivin told many funny anecdotes about the naming of films and characters.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to name a character with a literal translation, and sometimes it’s not.  For example, Mr Money can be appropriate, but an old peasant name like ‘Two Necks’ isn’t because it would be a distraction to English viewers who would be wondering why he was called that.  (Conversely in English, if you tried to translate Linda literally it would mean ‘snaky’ whereas it doesn’t have that connotation in English).   On the other hand, some names are coded for social backgrounds and historical moments e.g. a name like ‘Great Leap’ means the person was born during the Great Leap Forward.  But sometimes a translator just can’t convey such complexity in the short space of time that a subtitle flashes across a screen, and film makers just have to accept compromises.

Movies: we watch them, we listen to them, and with foreign films, we have to read them.  And that takes time.   If someone is speaking slowly subtitles can be longer, but they are mostly only on screen for a second or two, so some content has to be omitted.  But Jaivin gives viewers credit for being able to deal with this and to ‘read’ other aspects of the film to make sense of it. Of course, sometimes, with more sophisticated films, there are conflicts between what’s on screen and what’s being said, and that’s deliberate.  But it can look ‘wrong’ when the subtitles don’t match the action and although a native speaker understands why the action is different to the dialogue, a person reading the subtitles thinks the translator has got it wrong.

Linda says that there is resistance to foreign films, and often trailers obscure their foreignness by not showing any dialogue. This amused me, and I shall watch out for it next time I’m at the Palace….

I don’t watch much film, and very little of that is Chinese films, but this was a very entertaining talk, and I shall look out for Jaivin’s Quarterly Essay on this topic.

Many thanks to Elaine Lewis from AALITRA for facilitating my attendance at this interesting event.   It was very refreshing to be in a room full of bilinguals, people who don’t think there’s anything odd about reading, writing and thinking in another language!  I hope I haven’t misrepresented anything that was said, and will cheerfully correct any errors that I’ve made.

27/12/13 An apology

Revisiting this post when writing my review of Found in Translation, in Praise of a Plural World (Quarterly Essay no 52) I realised that I had spelt Linda Jaivin’s name incorrectly throughout it.  I have now corrected my mistake, and offer my sincere apologies to Linda.


  1. What a fabulous opportunity, Lisa! Thanks for sharing.


    • Hey, Dagny, I met Brian Nelson, who translated all those Zolas! I asked him if was doing any more, and he said no, he was working on something else, an author I didn’t know. But he said that the translator of the latest in the Oxford series (L’Argent) is a colleague of his, and he can vouch for her translations being very good, so I’ll get that one for my steadily growing collection too. BTW I am on the home run with Balzac, not many to go now and I will be finished!


      • Yes, Nelson’s name caught my eye. I’ll pass his comment about the colleague doing L’Argent on to the Zola group. Cliff recently announced there that it was in progress.


  2. Your point about the biased sampling of what gets translated is one I’ve been thinking about too. I recently came across a New York Times article arguing that because being published in the U.S. or Britain is held in such high esteem in India, Indian literature is being warped towards books likely to appeal to Americans or Britons, rather than to Indians, which I find quite troubling.


    • Yes, I see what you mean, an interesting (if slightly too contemptuous) article. I suspect that this is a trend that’s not just an Indian issue, it’s a result of globalisation. I don’t read ’em myself, because they’re not generally my kind of book, but I hear about books that seem influenced by the popular US/UK market here in Oz too. And it’s not just the content and the genre, it’s the actual style of writing – direct, straightforward undemanding narratives that limit what an author can achieve with them…
      Sad really, that so many people are content with that, but fortunately there are enough indie publishers who refuse to play that game and they can sell to an international market too and apparently still be profitable.


  3. A shame I missed the session – I would have liked to attend this (although I doubt my wife would have appreciated my leaving her with the kids all day…).

    As interested as I am in the translators and books though, I’d love to have more oversight as to the publishing of translations in Australia. I don’t think a lot gets done in comparison to the US/UK, and most of that is just a filter-on effect of what has already been published there. I know that a few books are new translations, but I don’t really have much information about that.

    Ironically, with my focus on literature in translation, I really know little about what goes on here and have much better relationships with overseas publishers (I’ve really struggled with Aussie publishers – I don’t think they want to know me, to be honest…).

    I’m also not really aware of a lot of focus on translation in the Australian blogging scene – is there anyone out there that I’m missing?


    • Hmm, it’s very hard to know because translation is an unsung art, a point made again and again yesterday. Publishers rarely provide any info about who’s done the translating, they could be Aussies or they could be from Timbuktu for all the reader knows.
      And bloggers who blog it don’t necessarily note who the translator is, or categorise or tag their posts to enable gathering translations together.


  4. I’m not talking about the translators as much as about the books (I know of several Aussies who work as translators). What I mean is that many of the titles that appear here are merely delayed versions of books already released in the UK/US. There are a few original releases, but not many as far as I can tell.


  5. Also, when I talk about translation bloggers, I mean people like me who really focus on it. I’m wondering if I’m all alone down here in that regard…


  6. […] aside about the limitations of dialect, which had extra resonance for me after I attended the AALITRA symposium on translation this week.  There are many references to switching from dialect to Italian, an allusion which […]


  7. I was there too, it would have been nice to meet you !


    • Oh no, Angelique, I would have liked to meet you too! And you know, I wore my little ANZ LitLovers lapel badge so that people I know only in a virtual way could find me, I think maybe it’s a bit too discreet LOL.
      There will be another opportunity before long, I hope:)


  8. Great report Lisa. I would have been fascinated to attend that. Like you, I always take note of the translator and include his/her name in my bibliographic details. I don’t seem to find much time to read a lot of translated literature but those that I do read seem to always make the translators name pretty clear on the title page. However, last week I was visiting some friends who showed me a book they were reading. It looked like it might be a translation but it wasn’t on the cover or on the title page. Eventually I found it in the small print on the back of the title page. That was disappointing.

    I have a love-hate relationship with translations. I want to read them for the cultural interest as you say – to not limit myself to only a percentage of the world’s literature – but I hate having a mediator between me and what I read, no matter how good that mediator is, because I like to read what the author wrote. I won’t stop reading translated literature because I have no choice, but I’ll continue to feel bothered by it. Funnily enough I feel less strongly about films in foreign language – perhaps because language is only one part film. I probably like the Bergman effect films!


  9. sorry for time to get round to comment great report ,I like tony find it annoying when translators are forgotten ,,I think part about style of translation is always on going war and peace has been worked over that many times some change names and translate the french bits others don’t I think the best is recent Oxford which was a gentle update on a older transltation as translations can date as english dates and sometimes new translations can bring great books back to life like Grossman version of Quixote ,all the the best stu


    • You must be very pleased to see so many translations on the IMPAC Dublin longlist!


  10. […] of the Vostyachs, in Gabrielle Gouch’s Once, only the swallows were free, and on Lisa’s blog post about the AALITRA Symposium on Translation. I was consequently more than happy to accept a review […]


  11. […] going to this event because I’m interested in translation issues, and I had a great time at the last symposium I attended. (I met Dr Brian Nelson, who translated so many of the Zola novels that I […]


  12. […] Lover is Linda Jaivin’s sixth novel, but I ‘discovered’ her when I went to a translation symposium where she talked about the perils of translating Chinese films for subtitles and then read her […]


  13. […] Lover is Linda Jaivin’s sixth novel, but I ‘discovered’ her when I went to a translation symposium where she talked about the perils of translating Chinese films for subtitles and then read her […]


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