Translating the Literature of Small European Nations

Excellent day yesterday in Bristol for the opening of the project conference of Translating the Literature of Small European Nations. The breadth and diversity of the programme, the range of languages addressed and the number of institutions from which speakers were drawn provided clear evidence of the importance of the chosen subject and the genuinely international interest it is attracting. I was particularly pleased to see that translation – as a concept and practice – brought together scholars working on a number of ‘lesser-taught’ languages, ranging from Catalan to Slovene, from Greek to Serbian, demonstrating the ways in which the future health of Modern Languages as a disciplinary field depends on the forging of such creative interactions around shared areas of enquiry and concern. The project to which the conference was linked was one of the ‘translating cultures’ innovation awards granted last summer. The original call invited applicants to reflect on the importance of the spaces, contexts, practices and agents of translation, whilst also exploring the the role of translation in processes of literary creation. These were topics explored by speakers from a variety of perspectives and in a number of different contexts.

An opening panel on theoretical approaches included papers by Marko Juvan on ‘World’ and ‘small’ Literatures, and questions of translation and transnational literary circulation in a Slovenian context; Josianne Mamo, on translation and multilingual writing (with the particularly striking example of Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s Bilingual Blues cited), and Ondřej Vimr, who gave a fascinating overview of questions of non-translation, the political dynamics of inter-war translation and bilateral cultural agreements, and supply-led as well as demand-led strategies of promulgating less translated literatures. A second panel on ‘Reaching the Market’ included: Paulina Drewniak’s analysis of translation, transmediality and the Polish example of Wiedźmin / The Witcher; Olivia Hellewell, on key actors in the Slovene literary translation market; and Richard Mansell, on how a Catalan literary translation gets to the market.

A session after lunch focused on ‘Poetry in Translation’: Ivana Hostová explored English translations of Slovak poetry; the poet and translator Stephen Watts presented his work on an archive of poetry translated into English; underlining the need to go beyond systems, statistics & economics to understand the circulation of poetry in translation, he described the creative collaborations to which poetry translation can lend itself; and Paschalis Nikolaou spoke about translation and re-translation of Cavafy, his ‘globalisation’ as a poet, and the ways in which his poetry has triggered other forms of creative translation. The final panel contained papers on ‘Exporting Literature’, with Şule Demirkol Ertürk analysing the role of publishers in re-contextualizing and legitimating literary translations, through the example of re/translations of Tanpınar’s Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü / The Time Regulation Institute; Gunilla Hermansson and Yvonne Leffler providing historical texture in a reflection on gender, genre and nations drawing on their current project Swedish Women Writers on Export in the Nineteenth Century, including fascinating discussion of the imagined translations of the Romantic poet Julia Nyberg; and Uroš Tomić and Milan Miljković reading Serbian culture in translation.

Delegates celebrated the work of a number of publishers – Francis Boutle Publishers, Istros Books and Shearsman Books – committed to the circulation of the literatures of small European nations in translation, and also addressed a number of factors, ranging from the ideologies of soft power to the commitment of individual translators, determining what gets translated and what does not. The day concluded with a discussion of contemporary translation practices and strategies, with a focus on questions of ‘readability’ and domestication, and an emphasis – echoing Stephen Watts’s earlier comments – on the benefits of collaborative, creative approaches.