Found in Translation: Adam Thirlwell leads an all-star discussion about his Multiples project

The line between faithful translation and personal literary endeavour was well and truly interrogated today in an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The writer Adam Thirlwell was joined by translator Daniel Hahn and the novelists John Banville and Nadeem Aslam to discuss their audacious collaborative project Multiples.

The genesis of the work began with Thirlwell some years ago, as a project to see how novelists would fare as translators of the work of writers they admire. That project has ballooned in size to become the book Multiples – a collection of 61 stories in 19 languages that counts some of the international community’s most established writers among its contributors.

What makes Multiples unique among literary collections is the way it showcases how translation evolves a story – each piece is featured up to five times, translated from the original by one writer and then again from their translation, until the final text is quite radically different to its original. As the original translator is the only person to ever see the text that all the translations will ultimately stem from, the phrase ‘literary Chinese whispers’ can be used to sum it up quite nicely.

John Banville, fresh from his own sell-out Book Festival event, found himself for the first time considering his work as a translator, and the art of translation himself. Banville stated ‘I don’t even know if [what I did] can be described as translation’, and called the process of writing his contribution to Multiples ‘challengingly philosophical’, as it forced him to consider questions about where translation stops being a faithful reproduction and becomes the work of an entirely new writer. When considering his experiences of having his own work translated in the past, Banville said ‘It’s like making movies of your books: you just have to hand it over’, arguing that translation is, in-and-of itself, a creative act that has to bring the translator’s own voice to bear on the piece. Daniel Hahn, chair of the event and experienced translator, said that he had ‘translated four novels of a Portuguese writer and [hoped] he has a voice in English now’, giving an insight into how a dedicated translator sees their role in a writing process.

The panel generally agreed that translators of literary works were not as valued as they should be and that a good translator did not necessarily attempt the closest possible rendering of the text in a new language, but instead, as Thirlwell eloquently put it, tried to ‘capture the essence’ of the work. He observed that the translations in Multiples that tended to work best were the ones that had an ‘internal consistency’.

The novelist Nadeem Aslam brought a very interesting perspective to the discussion while discussing his own work and his bilingualism. Aslam was born in Pakistan and moved to Britain as a teenager, and when asked by a member of the audience if he would ever consider translating his own work (he writes in both English and Urdu) he answered that he wouldn’t because ‘the language I write in is the language I have to be surrounded by’. For Aslam, it seemed that the language a text was written in is inextricably tied up in its locale, subject matter and cultural orientation, and to try and divorce the two would be like ‘swimming in a swimming pool with no water – there would be nothing to support me’.

The discussion moved to translations of great works – Hahn observed that if we say we’ve read Tolstoy it is taken to mean we’ve read an English translation of Tolstoy and questioned whether we can really say we’ve ‘read’ Tolstoy unless we’ve read it in Russian. Banville mentioned Samuel Beckett and his works and how he felt the language breathed more and ‘gained a richness’ in English that it didn’t have when he wrote in French.

The conversation could easily have gone on for much longer than the hour it had, and picked up where it left off in the cue for book signings and continued into the Book Festival bar.

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