Michael Edwards elected to the Académie Française: language, nation, translation

The announcement last week that the poet, critic, translator and academic Michael Edwards had been elected to the 31st Seat of the Académie Française (left empty after the death of novelist Jean Dutourd in 2011) was met, for rather different reasons, with a certain incredulity on both sides of the Channel. It is true that Edwards, British-born and for many years employed at the Universities of Warwick and Essex, does not appear to match common expectations about those who are elected to join the ‘Immortels’ and who are accordingly charged with regulating matters relating to the French language (although it is often forgotten that their pronouncements are only ever advisory, in clear recognition that public use of language is ultimately beyond prescription). The Académie has of course long been flexible in its membership, and being French-born is certainly no criterion for belonging to it. What is important is the individual’s relationship to the French language. Among the current académiciens are therefore François Cheng (born in China), Assia Djebar (born in Algeria) and Amin Maalouf (born in Lebanon), and previous members include the Argentinian-born Joseph Kessel and Romanian-born Eugène Ionesco. The bilingual Julien Green was the first non-French national to be elected an académicien in 1971.

What seems more interesting than questions of nationality or country of birth — and what seems to have been omitted from the majority of press reports – is the role of translation in Michael Edwards’s career. Not only has his poetry has been written and published in both English and French. Early contact with poets on both sides of the Channel – both British (Tomlinson, Gascoyne, Hill…) and French (Bonnefoy, Jaccottet, Deguy, Roubaud, Jabès…) – led to the launch of the journal Prospice, a publication committed to the development of links between poetry in the different language traditions, activity also evident in contributions to the Times Literary Supplement. Edwards has subsequently written widely on translation, and has used translation in his own work as a passeur, introducing Raymond Mason, Geoffrey Hill and Charles Tomlinson to French readers, and ensuring equally that Char, Delahaye, Roubaud, Queneau and Bonnefoy have travelled in the other direction. Reflecting on a life in translation, and on the challenges inherent in living between languages and in recognizing that translation never means equivalence, Edwards told The Guardian: ‘French is not just another language, it’s another way of understanding the world, a way of being, of sensing emotion.’


‘Haiti in a Globalized Frame’

I have just returned from Florida State University, Tallahassee, where I had co-organized an international conference, ‘Haiti in a Globalized Frame’. The main organizer was Martin Munro, who has recently been appointed as Director of FSU’s Winthrop King Institute. Martin is one of the leading international specialists on Francophone Caribbean literature, and this was the first of what is likely to be a number of major Caribbean events at the Winthrop King under his directorship, as the Institute, inaugurated in 2002, now enters its second decade.

It is exciting to see such events organized in Florida, a state in close proximity to the Caribbean and home to many of Caribbean heritage. This latest conference continues the tradition at FSU of arranging events with focus on Francophone Caribbean—and in particular on Haiti. Last time that I was in Tallahasseee was in February 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the January earthquake in Haiti, for the event ‘The Francophone Caribbean and North America’.

The recent conference theme was inspired in large part by the scholarship, writings and other cultural production of many of those at the conference—Kettly Mars, Leah Gordon, Dany Laferrière, Edouard Duval-Carrié, David Geggus, Michael Dash, Matthew Smith and others—who have explored the place of Haiti in the Americas and in the wider Atlantic, and have also focused on the relationship between, on the one hand, national culture and history, and, on the other, their diasporic dimensions.

This conference also developed questions explored in the events organized by the Leverhulme Trust-funded Oxford Caribbean Globalizations project, 2008-11, in which Martin and I were both external partners. That project focussed critical attention on differing engagements with globalization produced in the Caribbean cultural field. It also acknowledged the extent to which the diversity that characterizes the cultural and social realities of the Caribbean region—arguably forged in the context of earlier forms of globalizations—has been an enduring source of inspiration for Caribbean artists, writers and intellectuals. It questioned the relationship of the Caribbean to the globalized world, explored the role of the Caribbean in historical processes of globalization, and analysed the implications of contemporary globalization for the region today.

The emphasis on a ‘globalized frame’ at the FSU event reflected a number of related concerns. First, there is a need to situate Haiti within concentric circles, national, regional, hemispheric/continental, Atlantic and global. Also there is a need to understand ‘globalized frames’ historically. Despite its long periods of economic and political isolation, Haiti has always been an important global centre, and a particularly modern entity. Born out of the anti-colonial struggles of displaced peoples, an amalgam of diverse languages and cultures, it is quintessentially and irrevocably a creation of global modernity, an integral part of the Americas and of the broader world. These are aspects linked to the international impact of Haitian revolution. Haiti was the centre of a new energy that upset established orders across the globe, throwing up a set of challenges, changes, and paradoxes, the effects of which can still be felt to this day.

In Haiti’s subsequent history, it has remained a global centre, and the country’s triumphs and struggles—and their implications and meaning—have always overflowed their immediate temporal and spatial contexts. Through its diaspora, Haiti is firmly part of international circuits—the conference reflected the ways in which the country persistently and often defiantly exceeds and go beyond its Caribbean borders, and has shaped the history and culture of the broader Americas and the world in significant, if often hidden and obscured ways.

Finally, contemporary globalization continues to have a significant impact on Haiti as it adjusts and responds to the political and social upheaval of the past decade. In the context of the 2010 earthquake, it is important to understand international responses. The earthquake gave Haiti global visibility and triggered a global response. More than ever, we see the presence of the world in Haiti—in UN, NGOs—raising urgent questions about national sovereignty and autonomy, and also, with the outbreak of cholera, causing us to question the ways in which this global presence has compounded existing problems and challenges. Also, with the global comes globalization, not least in its economic and ideological forms, and a belief by some that Haiti’s future lies in its integration into the circuits of global economic production, no matter what the implications for food security, for the environment and for the development of a national infrastructure fit for all.

We enjoyed three days of panels, plenaries, discussions and other sessions, as well as films and exhibitions, all of which brought to light Haiti’s role in shaping history, culture, politics and thought beyond its borders and throughout its history.

Translation and Reception: 21st-Century French Fiction in the UK

Translation and Reception: 21st-Century French Fiction in the UK

Friday April 12th 2013

at the French Institute, South Kensington.

Organised by the Society for French Studies and the French Studies Library Group,

with the collaboration of the Institut français.

This event will bring together some of the most important agents in the production and reception of contemporary French fiction, in France and (primarily) in the UK:  reviewers and critics, literary agents, editors, translators, academics and librarians, to promote a better understanding of the processes of selection, translation and mediation, and of why this matters.

Speakers include writer, critic and ex-Le Monde journalist Patrick Kéchichian; the publisher Claire Paulhan; Hélène Fiamma of the Bureau du Livre; Kerry Glencorse of Susanna Lea Associates; translators Peter Bush, Ros Schwartz and Siân Reynolds; Stéphanie Lenne and  Melissa-Laure Mayer of the Institut’s library and Culturethèque; Geoffrey Mulligan (editor with Harvill); David Platten (researcher and writer on French crime fiction); Marcella Frisani of the CESSP-EHESS in Paris. The ‘case-study’ session will focus on the work of crime novelist Fred Vargas.

Advance booking is essential.

See here for the full programme and booking details.


Translating legal cultures

News last week of the Justice Select Committee’s report, ‘Interpreting and translation services and the Applied Language Solutions contract’, underlined the importance of high standards of translating and interpreting to the maintenance of any equitable judicial system. An article in last week’s Guardian reported that the outsourcing a year ago has been ‘nothing short of shambolic’, with the result that trials have been caused to collapse and suspects have been unnecessarily remanded in custody; at the same time, evidence of regular mistranslation by unqualified interpreters clearly compromises the credibility of the legal process. According to the report, central to the reported chaos has been the failure of the Ministry of Justice to understand the complex nature of court interpreting work. Outsourcing also led to a reduction in remuneration, meaning that many qualified professional interpreters with experience of legal translation have boycotted the new arrangements, with the result that an inadequate volume and quality of interpreting services have been available to courts and tribunals. The report is a substantial one, and the evidence included provides a fascinating insight into the intricacies of court interpreting work as well as into the practicalities of being a professional translator. I was particularly struck by the evidence of one professional translator, who underlined the extent to which court and legal interpreters require specific skills that are not required in interpreting in other fields: ‘We need to understand how long it takes to learn a foreign language to a certain standard, in order to be able to interpret from and into it within a specific sector. First of all it takes decades to learn the language itself and later you need to obtain a specific set of skills that are required in order to interpret. You need to be able to translate legal terminology within seconds during a court session and sometimes it is very difficult even for the best interpreters out there. You need to take into account that it is a job that requires due diligence, great listening and verbal skills, ability to transfer a vast amount of information that is encrypted in a different language within a short time frame.’

The ‘Translating Cultures’ theme is of direct relevance to explorations of the importance of language and interpreting in the legal sphere. Of particular interest is the project in this area at the University of Glasgow on ‘Translation and Asylum Claims: Matters of law, language and silence’, full details of which are available here.

National heritage: mobility and exchange

I spent a very enjoyable and informative day last Friday in Cambridge at the inaugural workshop, co-ordinated by Abigail Brundin, of the ‘Translating Cultures’ network on ‘National Trust libraries: an untapped resource. A pilot study of Italian holdings at Belton House, Lincolnshire’. Around 150 of the properties for which the National Trust has responsibility in the United Kingdom contain collections of books, a number of which have been in situ in the house libraries for several centuries or more. Some of these collections are of great national significance, and it is clear that their contents represent an invaluable resource for those interested in the history of private book collecting and ownership in the United Kingdom. Although little research has been conducted on the majority of these libraries, the project of cataloguing them, under the inspirational leadership of the Trust’s Libraries Curator Mark Purcell, is now underway, and the results are being made available to readers and researchers via Copac. The network project is centred around a pilot study, focusing on the collection at Belton House in Lincolnshire, where the Trust has its second largest library (with over 11,000 titles). This collection – the largest to be catalogued in its entirety by the Trust to date – is extremely varied, but contains significant numbers of early continental books acquired by members of the Brownlow family during the Grand Tour. It is this material that will form the basis of an exhibition, ‘The Brownlows: Books and Continental Travel’, running from March to November. The workshop was devoted to questions of mobility and exchange in Great House collections, and it opened with a fascinating session on the migration of books and ideas, including a paper by Guyda Armstrong on questions of translation revealed in the Chatsworth Boccaccio, and presentations by John Gallagher and Dunstan Roberts on the place of language learning, book buying and reading in the culture of the Grand Tour. What emerged was a complex picture of printed books as objects in motion that travel in their own right, physically in their owner’s baggage or through translation – and in the process permitting language learning, acting as mementos of the journey, representing the traveller’s acquired knowledge, and ultimately serving as a reminder that ‘national’ heritage is itself the product of processes of intercultural mobility and translingual exchange. A concluding panel on private libraries as cultural history provided an opportunity to address questions of collaboration between academics and those in other sectors. It highlighted the very real challenges of working together in this way, but also underlined the genuine benefits of seeking innovative ways to ‘translate’ the outcomes of research in non-academic venues and to non-specialist audiences. An excellent illustration of the potential of ‘translating cultures’ to allow us to think, research and communicate in new ways. The exhibition at Belton House opens on 2 March 2013.

Languages in the news: from multilingualism to monolingualism

Languages have been firmly in the news this week as analysis of the results of the 2012 census—the first to ask detailed questions about language use—have  revealed growing linguistic diversity in the UK, whilst UCAS figures for university applications have recorded yet another drop in the numbers of applicants to specialist language courses in universities.

Census data released by the Office of National Statistics shows that, after English and Welsh, Polish is now the main language spoken in England and Wales, with more than half a million speakers among the UK’s 56.1 million residents. The next main languages with large numbers of speakers reflect patterns of migration from south Asia, and include Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati. And Arabic, French, Chinese and Portuguese also continue to have important communities of speakers. The data suggests that over 100 different languages are spoken in the UK, with 49 of these having more than 15,000 users. What emerges from the figures is a sense of the UK as a linguistic patchwork, with—often for evident historical reasons—clear concentrations of speakers in certain locations: Ealing for Polish, Leicester for Gujarati, Kensington for French, and Manchester for both Cantonese and Mandarin. One million households have no members for whom English is a main language, although most of these remain to a greater or lesser degree bilingual since only 138,000 people were recorded as not being able to speak English at all.

The statistics reflect social and cultural transformations evident in much recent research, such as further diversification of the linguistic landscape of our towns and cities, the existence of a increasing number of young people in our schools who are bilingual, the need for multilingualism to be acknowledged in social policy and supported through innovation in translation practice. The fear that globalization and people’s ever-increasing mobility would lead to a monoculture characterized by growing levels of monolingualism appears to remain a distant one, although it is important to stress that the proportion of the population living ‘in translation’ remains a minority: English remains the main language for 92 per cent of the 50 million residents aged three or older, and the appetite amongst the wider population for acquiring higher level language skills appears to be decreasing. The UCAS figures reveal yet another in-year decline in applications for language degrees: -6.1% for European languages (compared to -11.2% in 2012); and -6.7% for Non-European Languages (compared to -21.5% in 2012). It will be argued that the statistics disguise an increase in the number of Higher Education students taking non-specialist language tuition, but there is a persistent need for us to acknowledge the risks inherent in a continued national decline in the number of specialists with high level language skills and the other attributes that accompany these – i.e., linguistic sensitivity complemented by the well developed intercultural competence  that comes from a formal period spent abroad. The role of higher tuition fees is evidently putting university applicants off four-year undergraduate language degree courses, although the actual cost of the third year abroad is greatly attenuated by a reduced fee, by the potential to earn an income as a language assistant or intern, and by the availability of Erasmus grants. Moreover, employers are emphasising more than ever the very clear advantages enjoyed by linguists in what is an increasingly competitive graduate job market. If we witness a further drop in applications in twelve months’ time, what is currently an already alarming situation will no doubt escalate into a crisis. It seems essential that those of us teaching modern languages in Higher Education must continue to work with our allies in other sectors—commercial, cultural, diplomatic…—to make the case for languages and to highlight the risks of widening monolingualism in what is a stubbornly and increasingly multilingual world.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search