Bestselling Authors Abroad: The Society of Authors event at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival

It’s good to be able to claim that an event is the first of its kind – not the fact that I was asked to chair it (although incidentally that was a first), but rather that this was the first talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about translation out of English: in other words about translation as a major cultural export. The authors who took part, Julia Donaldson and Peter May, are both bestsellers abroad (Donaldson is translated into a staggering 64 languages), but they are not alone. Translation of English-language books into foreign languages is a major business that dwarfs the tiny percentage of books translated into English.

It was a sell-out event which was encouraging. Translation, albeit usually featuring foreign authors and/or their English translators, has become a regular strand of the EIBF programme – in no small part thanks to translators themselves, including Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz, and many other members of the Translators Association, which is part of the Society of Authors. So it was excellent on this occasion to turn the tables and hear about the experience of being translated into foreign languages and the advantages and occasional pitfalls it brings.

To warm up the house, Julia Donaldson and her husband were joined by a few others, including myself, in a multilingual performance of the opening scenes of the Gruffalo. That was followed a little later on by a reading of a passage from the latest Italian translation (by Chiara Ujka) of the final book in Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, read with great flair by Giorgio Granozio. In between the conversation ranged widely over various aspects of translation. Translators do not always get in touch, I learnt, and sometimes the book just appears. However, other translators go to great lengths to understand the finer points of, in May’s case, Gaelic traditions on the isle of Lewis, and even the Scottish education system.

Both authors found the translation of book titles arcane at times. Obviously it involves more people than just the translator: after all, the marketing department need a title that will sell. Peter May, whose first novel in his Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, was originally published in French, said that he actually preferred the title it was given: L’île des chasseurs des oiseaux. Another of his books, Freezeframe, will be published with the French title L’île au rebus – even if that might remind readers of a rather well-known Scottish detective. Sometimes it’s not even a question of foreign languages: American publishers unhappy with the word “tiddler” wanted to call Donaldson’s book of that ilk, Small Fry.

Many of Donaldson’s book are in rhyme, making them that much more tricky to translate. However, her translators are often authors themselves, and even poets – she mentioned the Irish translator Tormod Caimbeul, and James Robertson her Scots translator.

Talking about book promotion was also interesting: Peter May lives in France and he notes a big difference in the type of promotion and the venues. France does not have the large chains that are so dominant in the UK and the States, and instead has retained a wealth of independent bookshops. Moreover, literary festivals are widespread, and come in all sizes. The downside, if there is one, is that he is expected to speak French. Donaldson added that independent bookshops survive on the back of the the Net Book Agreement: a hardback novel may cost 22 euros when first published, compared to the discounted prices we find on this side of the channel.

Both Donaldson and May were supportive of a recent Twitter campaign, #namethetranslator, still actively promoted by the Translators Association. This focuses on ensuring that the translator is named – in the book itself, but also in publicity materials and, particularly, in book reviews. May stated that his first French translator took a share of the royalties. He went on to add that translation is about so much more than a word for word equivalence: the art of the translator is the same as that of a writer, involving enormous creative input to convey the spirit of the text. And for that the translator should be duly credited.

The event ended with a number of questions confirming that the topic of bestselling authors abroad had struck a chord with the public by focusing on a different facet of translation and selling books.

The SOA event at EIBF happens yearly and we are currently discussing our session for 2016 – watch this space!

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The Modest Biographer: John Aubrey

Ruth Scurr’s new biography takes an innovative form – although being a lecturer, at Cambridge, she is hesitant to admit to doing anything so dangerous as innovation.  Nonetheless, it is innovative and she may well have just launched a new vogue in biography or more precisely literary studies.  What she has done is to give John Aubrey, the writer famous for his brief lives of others, his own voice, his own life, in the form of a diary.


Aubrey lived from 1626 to 1697, through the unrest and chaos of religious upheaval and two political revolutions. Ruth Scurr maintains it was this that made him dedicate his own life to preserving the past, not only buildings, artefacts, books and letters, but above all the detailed description of individual lives. Yet Aubrey, she said, has been unfairly portrayed as a gossip. Instead, quite the reverse seems more likely: he sought to preserve trust at all costs, by not publishing the Brief Lives until those he described, and he too, were “rotten in the ground, as medlars”.

The event was chaired by Stuart Kelly, undoubtedly one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable critics attending the Festival. He started by asking Ruth about friendship and the biographer: to what extent, as a biographer, do you have to befriend the person you are writing about? Ruth Scurr’s first book, a biography of Robespierre, created a neat comparison: how do you approach the blood-stained monster of the Revolution vs the quietly assuming man of letters? However, Ruth answered evenly that the biographer is like a painter, and you have to find the resonance between you and the subject. Much easier to do, she admitted, in Aubrey’s case, but she clearly also succeeded with Robespierre. This is confirmed by Hilary Mantel, writing in the TLS:

Just as Scurr understands the powerful religious impulse behind Robespierre’s thought, she also understands revolution. […]

Many years later, when he was an old man, Merlin de Thionville was asked how he could have brought himself to turn against Robespierre. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘if you had seen his green eyes . . .’

It seems doubtful whether Merlin or many others ever got close enough to see his green eyes. Scurr seems to have got closer than most.

But back to Aubrey: the astonishing nature of Scurr’s book has been endorsed by many reviewers, but none possibly in more forthright terms than Stuart Kelly this morning: “I’ll cartwheel down Princes Street,” he said, if this book doesn’t win an avalanche of prizes next year. Stuart, we’d love to hold you to that, but (sadly) I think you’re right and so your acrobatic skills will have to be put to the test another time!

One of the brilliant solutions offered by this “diary form” is that it enables the biographer to cope with gaps, or silences, in the archival material. In any historical life there are bounds to be moments, months sometimes stretching to years, when the biographer doesn’t know what the subject was doing.  Hence, the usual formula:  “In the meantime, he/she must have continued to …” (and you fill in the dots for what might be the most informed guess). Instead, the diary allows you to leave the gaps: not every day requires an entry.

John_AubreyScurr said that it had been easy to find Aubrey’s “very distinctive” voice, and to include his sometimes flamboyant turns of phrase. Her own gift for the telling detail echoes the ability of Aubrey “to find the small, defining details that make a person who they are”. The example she gave was his description of Thomas Hobbes who was nicknamed “Crow” at school because of his jet black hair.  It is for this ability and for the desire to preserve such details that Aubrey is sometimes referred to as the “father of biography” – a phrase Ruth Scurr found a little too catchy.  “What about Plutarch?” was her reply.

Scurr admitted that her overall concern in using this form was to include as much material as possible. She compared it to restoring a tapestry: some areas have remained more frayed and worn, but nothing has been consciously left out.  However, to say that by using this invented diary form the biographer writes herself out of the picture is, according to Scurr, incorrect: the writing is still subjective, and the historian remains in control, selecting and rewording, notwithstanding the overall intention to make objective use of the materials.  And those materials, his books and papers in the Bodleian, the Royal Society archives and elsewhere, are certainly richly rewarding, despite Aubrey’s fears that they would not survive.

Thank you, Ruth, for a wonderful event and for giving John Aubrey, this most modest man, his Own Life.

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Masters of their craft: Louis de Berniere and Joanne Harris

Louise de Bernière is an exceptional raconteur, not only on paper but also on stage. He was talking to Sara Davies this afternoon at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about his new book, The Dust that Falls from Dreams. Can you believe that it is 21 years since the block-buster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? That really shook me!

IMG_0451The Dust that Falls from Dreams starts in 1902, Edward VII’s coronation year, and it was inspired by his grandmother’s story. Her diaries still survive, although he said that were sadly they were not that interesting: a lot of detail about the weather! However, she had a childhood sweetheart who was killed in action in 1914. As Louis de Bernière said: it’s a strange thing, but if he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have existed. The main character, Rosie, is loosely based on his grandmother – only loosely, because, as the author said, the whole point about writing fiction is to tell magnificent lies!

the-dust-that-falls-from-dreamsAsked about the research needed to write this and his previous books, LdB replied that the trick is to forget most of the research you do. In an earlier book, Birds without Wings, he made the mistake of researching too much.  Now he’s realised that the trick is not to do it all up front. If you do, you have notebooks and computer files filed with information that is very hard to manage. Instead, you should research what you need, when you need it: then write, possibly even chapter by chapter.  Research, he said, gives you the confidence that you know what you’re talking about: “the invisible background”, he called it.  That said, his novels are dense with detail, but it is managed in such a way that “the characters tell the history”.

Although the anniversary of the First World War has been marked by an outpouring of fiction, Sara Davies noted that Louis “hit some notes that I haven’t read before”. In particular, his description of the sheer exhilaration of flying, the boredom of those left at home, the horrors of the Front (LdB read an extraordinarily moving passage about the death of horses at the Front).

Next up this afternoon I squeezed into a packed tent to listen to Joanne Harris talk about The Gospel of Loki. I have to be frank here and say that I knew very little about this before she started to talk! Again, like Louis de Bernière, Joanne Harris is a great speaker and the discussion with her chair, James Runcie, was excellent. Clearly, the Norse sagas have been part of her life for years and she read them compulsively as a young girl (her mother “approved” because they were educational). A few years ago, when Joanne’s own daughter was about the same age, Joanne retrieved a 1000-page unpublished manuscript (vast!) written when she was about 18, which had since been languishing in a drawer (or a trunk!). The result was Runemarks and Runelight.  Now comes The Gospel of Loki: Loki (who has always been her favourite character) is the quintessential trickster, a demon who comes as an outsider to Asgard.

gospel-of-lokiTalking about fantasy, Joanne spoke of the timeless quality of the Norse tales: they are stories about who we are and where we come from. Originally written to make life more bearable, now, given the present times we live in, we need this sort of fantasy even more.

A key theme of Joanne’s fiction is disruption: stories are all about disruption, she says. Outsiders arrive in a community and “things” happen. Sounds familar… Chocolat. Nonetheless, the moral ambivalence of the outsider, the villain, or the trickster fascinates us. The Gospel of Loki is written in the first person because she wanted to find the voice of Loki that doesn’t appear in the Edda: he is the ultimate unreliable narrator because he lies, yet his story resonates with us.

Note to all fans: there will be more to come – Joanne spoke of her next challenge: she plans to write about the post-Ragnarok and to set the Norse gods in the present-day! Now that will be interesting!

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Edinburgh Book Festival: Day 1

Miracles (at least of the meteorological variety) sometimes happen and today certainly was one: this is the start of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the sun is shining! Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

I went to two events today. First up Translating Julia: the Julia in question being Julia Donaldson.  This was by way of research because I am chairing an event with Julia and Peter May on Tuesday. This afternoon’s event was in the children’s programme and I have to say there was a lot of wonderful entertainment and also a lot of wonderful noise! She had children up on stage performing What the Ladybird Heard, James Robertson reading from his Scots translation Whit the Clockleddy Heard, and two brilliant illustrators – Lydia Monks and Nick Sharratt (the latter illustrated her book What the Jackdaw Saw including signing for deaf children). The title “Translating Julia” related to the translation of Julia’s words into different languages (Scots) and mediums (illustrations, signing, drama). One important fact gleaned from this afternoon’s event was The Gruffalo has now been translated into 65 languages – shortly to be joined by four more versions in Scottish dialects (Shetland, Orcadian, Dorrit and Dundonian – look forward to that!). Daniel Hahn, a well-known translator himself, was in the chair – he noted sadly that as he always translates into English, he’ll never have a chance to have this sort of fun with Julia’s words.

The Fountain Overflows, 1956 dust jacket

The afternoon’s second event was chaired by Lennie Goodings of Virago who was joined by three stellar authors: Sarah Waters, Maggie Farrell and Jackie Kay. The event was titled “The Female Gaze: Classics by Female Writers” and each author talked about a book from the Virago Modern Classics collection that had inspired or influenced her. The choices were, respectively, Rebecca West (The Fountain Overflows), Molly Keane (Good Behaviour) and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes were watching God). What a great conversation, revealing layers of influence and fabulous writing both past and present.

Some memorable snippets:

Jackie Kay: “Good writers even though they go out of fashion never go out of orbit. Someone will always throw a boomerang to get them back.” Thank goodness!

Sarah Waters described The Fountain Overflows as “a great stuffed carpetbag of a book”, which she then admitted was brilliantly controlled and structured by its author.

Molly Keane

Molly Keane at Ardmore, Co. Waterford

Maggie Farrell said that rabbit mousse must be the most revolting dish imaginable, and at the beginning of Good Behaviour it becomes an instrument of genteel matricide.  Her 2011 introduction to the ebook edition says much the same, but it’s good to read it in print. Talking of her own book, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie also added how valuable the VMCs (Virago Modern Classics) had been for capturing the “voices” of the 1920s and 30s. Keane was exemplary in that respect.

In response to a question from the audience, the conservation then shifted to bookselling with all three authors adamantly defending the independent bookseller: “once they’re gone, you can’t replace them”.  Word Power Books in Edinburgh got a good clap. Jackie Kay rounded on Amazon, giving full licence to tweet, that she loathes Amazon and what it does to the indie book shops. Lennie Goodings also signalled the presence of – one up for publishers supporting local bookshops!

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