Translating for Publication: Non-fiction.

I was delighted to be asked to give a paper at the Summer Meeting of the ITI Scottish Network, held in “sunny” Dumfries this past weekend.  In a room full of translators, including many who are highly experienced in technical and other areas of translation, this might have been daunting, but the “Scotnetters” are extremely friendly and welcoming (also I am an insider, as it were, having been a member of the network for several years, albeit not always present at meetings!).

A panel of four literary translators had been lined up and, despite minimal even zero forward planning, our talks neatly interlinked, moving from Ingrid Price-Gschlössl on the advantages of a scholarship/bursary when starting out as a literary translator, to my own paper on non-fiction (more below). Then, after an excellent lunch eaten al fresco on the manicured lawns of the Crichton Estate, we enjoyed Beth Fowler‘s presentation on “getting started” – in her case, by winning the Harvill Secker Young Translator’s Prize in 2010 – and a fascinating insight into translating Nordic crime by Kari Dickson.

The four of us were joined at a closing roundtable by Nathalie Chalmers, Kim Sanderson and Renate FitzRoy. They all had experience of literary translation in one form or other, which made for a lively discussion.

I hope this may well mark the start of more regular workshops on literary translation around Scotland, and not only south of the border!

For the record here are some excerpts from the introduction to my own paper:


I read an article while I was preparing this whose title was “YAWN NO MORE. Americans and the Market for Foreign Fiction”. It’s an optimistic piece based on the outcome of the Global Market Forum at BEA, Books Expo America, held in the last week of May, which suggested that at long last the US too has woken up to the fact that translation can offer an extraordinary wealth of experience to US readers. Or, to use the words of Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders, who was talking about America’s long-standing aversion to reading in translation: “It’s a first world problem that inhibits us from understanding the rest of the world.”

That aversion produced a famous, largely anecdotal statistic, namely that only 3% of all books published in the US (in English) were works in translation. It became so well known that a trend-setting website was named after it (Three Percent), founded by Chad Post at Rochester University. Chad and many other campaigning voices, in America and elsewhere, but above all here in the UK (Maureen Freely, Ros Schwartz, Daniel Hahn, just to name a few), have ensured that this figure is gradually increasing – only slightly in numerically terms – but, more importantly, literary translation is now a KEY feature on the publishing scene, at fairs and festivals. Perceptions are definitely changing. These are exciting times to be a literary translator!

There is certainly no room for complacency, though, and particularly – and this turns more towards my own field, non-fiction – when you add into the mix another ingredient, which is that broadly held misconception that literary translation only relates to works of fiction.

As a historian, as well as a translator, I find it intriguing how our understanding of literary translation has developed over the centuries.  Religious texts are a whole different field, of course, but we could start by mentioning the forty-seven-strong team of translators who worked on the King James Bible, whose 400th anniversary we celebrated in 2007. But in general, from the Elizabethans and Jacobeans onwards, we continue to find a strong presence of what we might call now “non-fiction” translations: religious, political and courtly tracts were popular subjects for translation in seventeenth century England.  Machiavelli’s Art of War was translated as early as 1560 (through French – i.e. as a double translation) by Peter Whitehorne; The Prince had to wait for well over a century after it was originally written before it appeared in English in 1640, translated straight from Italian, thanks to Edward Dacres. However, well before that, we know that Henry VIII and certainly Thomas Cromwell, read The Prince in Italian.

This brings up an important point: that for centuries, most educated men and women read in a foreign language. Even in the 19th century – one of the greatest eras of the European novel – elite British society had little need of translation, particularly from French and Italian, thanks to the Grand Tour.  This was accompanied – to quote Terry Hale, in the Oxford History of Literary Translation (edited by Peter France and Kenneth Haynes) – by a “patriotic general public unsure of the moral value of foreign literature” – and by literature here, he means novels, drama and verse.[1] However, the trend of translating continental fiction rose during the century as more new French, German and Russian novels were translated. Translated non-fiction, on the other hand, remained relatively stable, accounting for nearly 56% of all translations in 1830, and 50% in 1890.[2]

So to return to that popular misconception that literary translation only relates to works of fiction, the translation of non-fiction has an extremely long and respectable history: it is certainly literature.  It is just the rarity of it today (as a small subset of that 3%) that may make it seem “stranger than fiction”.

A clear signal of the status of non-fiction translation comes from the International Federation of Translators FIT which has a dedicated prize, wonderfully named the Aurora Borealis prize. Its purpose is “to promote the translation of non-fiction literature, improve the quality thereof and draw attention to the role of translators in bringing the peoples of the world closer together in terms of culture.”

Other points that came up in the discussion were the importance of contact with the author, the wide variety of methods used to tackle research, and also our approaches to managing a book-length project, which included different experiences of working with copy-editors.

All in all, it was an excellent day with really useful insights from all the other panellists and from the audience. Thanks too to the organisers of the meeting, Marion Greenway and Corinne Durand, as well to the ScotNet convenor, Pierre Fuentes.


[1] Terry Hale, “Readers and Publishers of Translations in Britain”, in Peter France and Kenneth Haynes (eds), The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, Vol. 4, Oxford 2006, p.36

[2] Peter France and Kenneth Haynes, “The Publication of Literary Translation: An Overview”, in Ibid, p.137 (Table 2)

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Elizabeth Jane Howard: a short tribute

It was with great sadness that I heard this afternoon of the death of a wonderful writer whose work I really only got to know well recently through writing an interview for a forthcoming issue of the Historical Novels Review.

Elizabeth-Jane-HowardI first read The Light Years with my book group last year and enjoyed it so much that it led me on to the next books in the quartet that make up the Cazalet Chronicle. It was a real delight then to hear that Elizabeth Jane Howard, then aged 90, was writing a fifth book in the saga and I was thrilled to be given a chance to interview her for the magazine. When a preview book of All Change appeared, I read it with enormous pleasure: this was an author still brilliantly able to capture the essence of human nature, noting intimate characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, and setting it against a postwar world of rapid change, but also new beginnings.  Women and children are portrayed with the greatest sensitivity: the former because Howard always has been a strong female voice, and the latter because with nearly a dozen grandchildren, she is not short of raw material for observation!

“Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Tribute” will appear in the February issue of Historical Novels Review.


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Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy on 2013 Notable Fiction List

It’s that time of year (again) and The Washington Post has published its “Notable Fiction of 2013” list (here).  A tweet from Arcadia highlighted the fact that Miklos Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is on the list, quite a feat for a book whose first volume was published, in Hungarian, in 1934.  What is really heartening is that the English version was published by Arcadia, a leading independent publisher of translated fiction. Moreover, the translation was by the author’s daughter Katalin Bánffy-Jelen and Patrick Thursfield, appearing under the title The Writing on the Wall in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Thursfield met the author’s daughter in the 1990s and together they worked on the translation for several years. Certainly a labour of love and dedication given that the three volumes total some 1,500 pages.  Their translation of the last volume, They Were Divided, won the prestigious Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize in 2002 and the translators received their award in Oxford from Umberto Eco. This is the beautiful cover of that edition.

Banffy-They Were DividedOn the website of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize I found these memorable and rousing words: Common European thought is the fruit of the immense toil of translators. Without translators, Europe would not exist; translators are more important than members of the European Parliament.’ (Milan Kundera)

For good measure, here’s my review of that prize-winning translation. It appeared in Solander in 2007.

Miklós Bánffy, They Were Divided, trans. by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, Arcadia Books, 2007 (original text 1940), £12.99, pb, 326pp, 1900850516

The lost world evoked by this classic novel is an epic tale of love and bittersweet nostalgia, washed down with a liberal draught of derring-do.  The setting is Transylvania and Hungary in the decade leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, when a seemingly inexorable course of events culminated in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the collapse of this once great country.

Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, of which They Were Divided forms the third part (not having read the others was certainly not a drawback), was published just before the Second World War. In his foreword to this reprinted edition, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes the aristocracy as “throwing away their spectacles and fixing in monocles”.  Indeed, they were so pre-occupied with the endless round of parties, shoots, love affairs, gossip and Anglophilia, that they totally failed to notice the “writing on the wall”.

The personalities of Balint Abady, his fatally flawed cousin, László Gyeroffy, provide an extraordinary insight into a society that disappeared without trace, as well as portraying human nature in all its frailty and complexity.  In this, inevitable parallels can be drawn with Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I was fascinated by the descriptions of Denestornya, the Abady residence, and of his mother, the Countess Roza.  Definitely a European classic in a prize-winning translation. [Lucinda Byatt]


Minutes after finishing writing this post, I discovered that Patrick Thursfield died in August 2003, so this revival of interest in this brilliant translation is also a fitting tribute, keeping his work alive.  Much more about Thursfield and about the translated trilogy can be found in this wonderful blog post by Neglected Books.

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The Great Tapestry of Scotland… again

The Great Tapestry of Scotland was completed in the summer and currently holds the record for being the world’s longest embroidered work. It attracted some 30,000 people when it first went on show during August at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and there are already plans for a repeat display in 2014, between July and September (no coincidence about the timing, surely?!).

Since October it has been housed in a wonderful setting, along the coast, about 10 miles east of Edinburgh. I visited Cockenzie House this afternoon and was again amazed at the quality and detail of the panels. With 160 panels on show, you can’t help but notice something new every time. However, what also struck me was that the tapestry engages visitors so completely that complete strangers start talking to one another, pointing out details and commenting on the events the panels represent.  Surely the sign of a successful exhibit! 

20131116_150700For good measure, here is the panel we helped to embroider, The Great War panel (no. 118). My mother and I were both involved, but so was my grandmother on my father’s side – or more to be more precise, we included the badge of the Women’s Hospital Corps to which she belonged.  Many of the stitchers working on the panels spanned the generations and that, too, made it a very special project to have been part of.

20130615_223130Cockenzie House is a unique late 17th-century manager’s house, now owned by the community and seeking to raise funds to establish it as a wonderful public location for future generations.

Cockenzie-follyThere is an extraordinary Gothic folly in the garden, built by one of the Cadell family – possibly Hew Francis Cadell – in the 18th century. The building material is said to be Icelandic lava fragments, which were used as ballast. The word ‘Hecla’ (on the facade) appears to refer to the Hecla volcano on Iceland.

The tapestry will certainly help to boost visitors to the house and gardens, and it also pays tribute to the skill of the tapestry’s designer, Andrew Crummy, who comes from Port Seton/Cockenzie and whose workshop is literally next door, in what used to be the Cockenzie Schoolhouse.


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