Sunday, April 28, 2013

Translators Without Borders

While most of us must generally do work that earns us a living, we can often donate our time and energy and maybe even some money once in awhile. It is important to give back to our communities whenever possible.

So I encourage you to sign up with Translators Without Borders. This way, you can take on the occasional volunteer translation job, knowing you are helping others. You can of course also contact a charity or other volunteer organization and offer your time and skills.

Volunteering need not be onerous; a few hours a month is enough and it's wonderful to feel that you are helping others.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Round-Up of Articles

My colleague Jo Drugan, who also teaches translation, sent me this fascinating story about historical vocabulary and anachronisms. For translators, finding language that suits the context can often be very challenging, and may require research.

This is another article sent by a colleague, this time Kate Griffin, who also works for the British Centre for Literary Translation. Happily, this article discusses how translation is becoming more visible in the US in academia.

Research often suggests that knowing multiple languages is good for us, but this article states that speed-learning a language is good.

If you can read Swedish, this piece claims that “poets are dangerous as translators”.

And sticking with Scandinavia, if you a want a laugh, watch this video to learn some Danish.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Croatia via Iraq

I had never read a Croatian novel, though I’ve been to Croatia, until a few months ago. Here’s my review of that Croatian novel in English translation. The review was published in Wales Arts Review.

Our Man in Iraq
Robert Perisic, translated by Will Firth
202 pp., New York: Black Balloon Publishing, 2013.
Reviewer: B.J. Epstein

I must confess: as far as I can recall, Our Man in Iraq was the first book I’ve read that is set in Croatia. And what an introduction to the country it is.

Robert Perisic’s Our Man in Iraq is about Toni, a journalist who grew up in a rural village and now lives in Zagreb, the capital city, with his girlfriend, an actress whose fame is steadily growing. Besides dealing with his feelings of insecurity due both to being a country mouse as well as to having a partner who is suddenly more successful than he is, Toni makes the mistake of sneakily getting his boss to hire his Arabic-speaking cousin to be their newspaper’s reporter in Iraq. Unfortunately, Toni’s cousin Boris doesn’t seem terribly mentally stable, so Toni ends up ghost-writing Boris’s articles for him. Understandably, this eventually leads to Toni getting in trouble, especially when Boris stops communicating with his family and they fear that he’s been lost and go to the media about it.  Meanwhile, the war in Iraq rages and reminds the former Yugoslavians of the terrible war that they lived through, and the current war between the generations that they seem to be experiencing as well. Apparently Perisic is known as an anti-war writer in Croatia, and that comes through very clearly in this novel.

While this plot might sound like a strange combination of seriousness and slapstick, it actually works quite well. The subjects and styles shift, and you just have to give yourself over to the story. Our Man in Iraq explores topics ranging from journalism to good versus evil, from relationships to the effects of war. And in Firth’s translation, Perisic’s prose is often lovely and thought-provoking.

When Toni and his friend have returned to university after serving in the war, he finds that people’s attitudes towards them have changed, and their own attitudes have changed as well. “During this period the world fell apart. Nothing was permanent, authorities faded and people flinched before us. We realized that we belonged to a generation that had a moral advantage because it was defending all those old folks accustomed to the molds and models of socialism. Lost as they were, they patted us on the shoulder as if they were thanking us for something. We vocally despised socialism and they agreed with us on that. We despised their life’s experiences and they agreed with us on that too. We disdained all they’d done and stood for, and again they agreed with us. To leave no doubt that the future belonged to us, we rejected everything that until yesterday had been of any worth. They agreed with us on all that.” (p. 27) As one might expect, Toni too is later forced to confront the things he thought he stood for, and the choices he made, or thought he had.

As he puts it, “I’d fled to Zagreb and become a city boy; here I went to a thousand concerts, lived with an actress who played avant-garde dramas, I acted cool, and did everything right. The fear of someone thinking I was a redneck made me read totally unintelligible postmodernist books, watch unbearable avant-garde films, and listen to progressive music even when I wasn’t in the mood. I was terrified of everything superficial and populist. If something became too popular, I rejected it. Even in moments of major inebriation when I felt like singing a popular peasant song I stopped myself. I maintained discipline. But in vain. All at once they were breathing down my neck again. I thought I’d given them the slip, but now they’d encircled me, having used Boris as bait, and were closing in for the kill.” (p. 104)

You’ll have to read Our Man in Iraq to see if Toni breaks free or if he ends up trapped, or both.

I’m so pleased that more publishers are publishing literary translations, and that more of these translations are from languages other than French or German. It’s essential that we learn about other people, other cultures, and other “life’s experiences”, and fiction is one of the best ways to do this. Think of each translation as an Our Man in… book, so Our Man in Iraq serves as an Our Man in Croatia, letting us know a little bit about what is going on in Croatia. But of course we must remember that each translated text is only one story. We need many more translations so that we can get access to more stories. One can only hope that publishers such as Black Balloon will continue this important work.

Our Man in Iraq is in a sense about trying to control what is actually uncontrollable. “We try to make sure things don’t get out of control. There’s always that danger here on the slippery edge of the Balkans. Here we always squabble about what we’re allowed to enjoy and what not.” (p. 115-6) Whether those in the Balkans are allowed to enjoy Our Man in Iraq or not I can’t say, but those of us in English-speaking countries certainly can, and should.

Saturday, April 13, 2013


On my last trip to Sweden, I finally discovered Språktidningen, a fascinating magazine on language. I promptly bought and/or borrowed all the issues I could find.

In one issue, there was an article about the Romani language and how there are many words in it that are derived from Sanskrit, and most of them have to do with the basics of life, such as bread, yellow, water, wheels, and more. The article, which was by Per Westergård, also talks about the different names of the ethnic group. The big question when it comes Romani is whether it is “one language with different varieties or if it really is many different languages.” This is the same topic sometimes discussed regarding Swedish/Norwegian/Danish, among other languages.

In the same issue, I read an article by Nils Svensson on “uncreative writing”, or using the words of others. For example, Caroline Bergvall made a “compilation of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno from the 47 English translations.”

In another issue, I read an article by Karin Westin Tikkanen about people who get tattoos with Latin phrases such as “memento mori” and “amor vincit Omnia”, and an article by Fatima Grönblad on code-switching, where people use two or more languages ​​in the same call. It was also interesting to read that research has shown that more Iranian mothers in Sweden speak Swedish with their children than Iranian fathers do, and it seems that “the benefits of using Swedish in everyday life - to integrate and achieve gender equality – take precedence for the women over their feelings about their mother tongue.”

In each issue, there are short reviews, news, discoveries, games, and questions and answers about language - both English and Swedish, interestingly enough. Then there is a column about people who work with language, such as a language consultant, a tweeter, a speechwriter and, yes, even a translator - in the issues that I got hold of, there were articles by Anders Bodegård, who translates from French and Polish to Swedish, and by Jan Stolpe, who translates from French and Greek to Swedish.

I really enjoyed this magazine and look forward to catching up on it on my next visit to Sweden. I recommend it to those of you who can read Swedish.

Monday, April 08, 2013

London Book Fair

It’s time for the annual London Book Fair. I don’t think I can go this year, but I urge those of you in the UK who can to do so. There are plenty of translation events (many organized by the BCLT), and it’s always great to meet fellow translators, writers, editors, publishers, and others.

Another thing I like about events such as the LBF is how you can almost do an ethnographic study there. The different countries (and different publishers and organizations) have very different stands, and the stands often reflect their culture. It’s fascinating to go talk to people from, say, Saudi Arabia, then Nigeria, then China, then Finland, then Mexico, and so on. It’s almost like travelling the world in just a few hours.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Links on Scotland

I noticed that I had a number of links to articles about Scotland, its language, and its culture, so I thought I’d combine them in one post.

Scotland is a gorgeous country, and I’ve really enjoyed the trips I’ve taken there. Gaelic is on the list of languages I’d like to learn one day.

The first article is on the language of the Picts.

Next, here is a piece on the death of a Scottish dialect.

Here is an an article that explores whether there is a formula for Scottishness (can there ever be a formula for any cultural identity?).

And if you want to learn Scottish Gaelic, you can check out this website or the tips on the BBC Alba site.