Borderlines: Writing in translation

In a recent column in The Guardian, Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein) writes: “Translators transport nations into other nations; they are the first to reckon with distant modes of feeling. Even their mistakes are evidence of a positive force. Translation is our salvation: it draws us out of the well in which, entirely by chance, we were born.”

This year’s Festival offers a wealth of opportunities to be drawn out of that well — by both translators who undertake the slippery, fraught and attentive task of rendering a novel from one language to another, and writers whose work, via translation, allows for new audiences to enter into their realm of experience.

Here are a few names to mark down on your list. 

Who: Emily Wilson

Key work: Ὀδύσσεια (Homeric Greek), attributed to Homer and published as The Odyssey in English

In a nutshell: The Odyssey needs no introduction, having been kicking around the Western canon since the 8th century BC. One reason that this version is particularly notable is that although there have been more than 60 translations into English over the years, this is the first to have been translated by a woman. Another is that it’s such a joy to read: lean, musical, accessible and plain-spoken, Emily’s version captures the humanness of this well-worn tale, revitalising it in a way that feels deeply contemporary. “I don’t like archaism—I think the assumption that you get closer to archaic Greek by using archaic English doesn’t actually follow at all,” Emily has said.

Who: Maria Tumarkin

Key work: Axiomatic

In a nutshell: Russian-born Maria Tumarkin is a professional translator — Russian to English, English to Russian, Spanish to Russian, Spanish to English — and the author of four books of non-fiction that deal variously with notions of place, trauma, history, language and the migrant experience. The latest, Axiomatic, is out in May and has received early praise from the doyenne of Australian literary non-fiction, Helen Garner: “Nobody can write like Maria Tumarkin: she charges headlong into the worst and best of us, with an iron refusal to soften or decorate; sentences bare of artifice, stripped back to the bone, to the nerve; fired by raging grief and love.”  

Who: Kapka Kassabova

Key work: Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

In a nutshell: “A foreign language is a paradoxical escape: it takes you out of yourself, but also back into yourself to places you didn’t know existed,” writes Bulgarian-born, Scotland-based Kapka Kassabova (who speaks Bulgarian, Russian, English, French and Spanish). “To translate is to travel this unpredictable landscape. To live between languages, as in my case, is to be constantly moving over untrodden territory, negotiating internal and external boundaries of identity and meaning.” Border is a psycho-geographic study of the border zone between Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. In writing it, she tracks culturally specific words and concepts from those border regions that resist translation into English: living legacies of cultures that exist in liminal realms.

Who: Xue Yiwei

Key work: 白求恩的孩子們 (Mandarin), published as Dr. Bethune's Children in English

In a nutshell: Xue Yiwei’s fragmentary, cross-cultural novel Dr. Bethune’s Children tells the story of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who died on the front lines of the Communist resistance to the Japanese occupation in 1939, and was eulogised in Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. Banned in China for its portrayal of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests, and subsequently published in Taiwan in 2014, the book illustrates the very human consequences of the distress and repression that have marked an entire generation. Fascinatingly, the book was originally written in English before Xue translated it into Chinese — the current English version, translated by Darryl Sterk, is based on Xue’s Chinese version. 

Who: Junot Díaz

Key work: Lola (Spanish), published as Islandborn in English

In a nutshell: With a Pulitzer-prize winning novel, two short story collections, and now a children’s book under his belt, Junot Díaz is one of this year’s most anticipated guests. Junot was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in Central New Jersey, and his writing is particularly alert to issues of belonging and dislocation that come from living between two (or more) countries and languages. Though his range is broad, his work tends to address the diasporic experience and asks questions like: what does it mean to acquire a new language? What does it mean to have a parent on one continent while you live on another? And what does it mean to dream of a different land while you are living in what’s supposed to be your home?