Between 11 and 18 November 2019, I attended the Translators’ Residency at Cove Park. My participation as a drama translator was kindly supported by the Language Acts and Worldmaking Small Grants scheme.
At the end of our week-long Cove Park translators’ residency we did an informal sharing of our work to an audience of each other (fellow translators on that 2019 residency) plus a handful of guests.
Our audience attending that frosty Saturday was small. Not many make it to Helensburgh, and that suited us non-performers just fine. They were engaged brains all. There were Tunnocks tea-cakes and wine [Cove Park’s 21st century ‘translation’ of Sir Toby Belch’s “cakes and ale”.]
In the spirit of Cove’s “benign negligence” towards artists and their creative processes we were told it was fine if we didn’t have any ‘product’ from that week to share. A previous translation of ours could have given just as good a feel of our work. That trust is rare from funders. And I think it’s why Cove is so successful at nurturing artists. TRUST pays off. In the end, though, we did all have work from that week and wanted to share what we were both wrestling with and enjoying so much.
Hearing the original makes a huge difference. A publisher or a theatre producing a translated play would almost never get that original audio, but at Cove our audience did. It was very special to hear even a paragraph of the original in Hungarian, German, French, Japanese, Turkish-German (or is it German-Turkish?) and Brazilian Portuguese. If you didn’t understand that language, you felt the original texts’ pace, rhythm, emotional tone and shifts. The audience noted that was something they never usually got to hear. And it tickled them.
As did hearing the work at the very start, while it’s still ‘live’ and changing. Before the translation is locked in. Sharing early is rare for translators. We tend to work alone in our rooms until it’s finished. At Cove’s sharing each translator felt how it connected to the listener (reader). Or not. This sharing required bravery. And it was a revelation about the very people you’d spent the week with. We learnt things about each other’s tastes and preferences in writing. The rhythm, pace and style of the original was what had attracted each of us to translate that particular work.
We heard the story being told. Alongside its original. Sensed the style of telling. The WHY of its attraction. We all learnt more from hearing even a page of the literature than just the dry sentence ‘I’m translating a French/Japanese/Scottish/Dutch/Brazilian story.’ WHICH story, by which writer, makes all the difference.
Which form as much (poetry, novel, short story or drama). We were surfing across forms and times in history. Each of us bringing the originals to new readers and audiences in another language, another country. Muriel Spark in Brazilian Portuguese and Kathleen Jamie in French sat alongside a brilliantly futuristic Japanese novel in English. A Hungarian play about 20th century people-trafficking sat alongside a 17th century French play about a funder and the artist they enable. An Updike-like short story from Germany alongside a female tale journeying the Russian border-towns. Short stories alongside non-fiction. Plays next to novels. These were dialogues of form as much as country and language. And the sum of both sides was greater than their parts.
At the start of the week someone had jokily announced a rule for our evening discussions: don’t mention the B(rexit) word. But we couldn’t not.
At its best, the very act of translation is a political act. Sharing other worlds. Other cultures. Other reactions. Conquering isolationism. In the context of the extremes of nationalism rife in the world today, such sharings feel more vital than ever.
Katherine Mendelsohn is a translator of plays written in French. Recent work includes contemporary plays by Togolese-French and Libyan-French writers. Katherine was the Literary Manager for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh from 1999-2012. Prior to that, she was Literary Manager of the Gate Theatre in London. She has been made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her work with Francophone writers on UK stages.
In November 2019, Katherine and another translator, Jozefina Komporaly, received funding from Language Acts and Worldmaking to take part in Cove Park's Translation Week. You can read about Josefina's experience here.
Founded in 1999, Cove Park is a charity and arts space overlooking Loch Long and the Firth of Clyde, just one hour from Glasgow, on Scotland’s west coast. It hosts national and international artists from all cultures and career stages, supporting them to create, develop and share new work, through a unique programme of residencies, commissions and collaborative projects. Since 2000, Cove Park has hosted over 1,500 artists and its former residents include Margaret Atwood, Ann Carson, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Mariana Castillo Deball, Alasdair Gray, Beca Lipscombe, Tom Morris, Ciara Phillips, Elizabeth Price, Charlotte Prodger, Simon Starling, Christos Tsiolkas, Louise Welsh and Jan Verwoert.