Writing up Scotswrite 2017

It’s been a spectacular team effort, but we made it! So just as 2017 is closing, it seemed about time to write up my bit about Scotswrite 2017.

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The conference was held in September this year and organised by the committee of the Society of Authors in Scotland. It took us a good eighteen months (plus) to organise, and none of it would have happened without the energy and creative input of Linda Strachan and the great team of SoAiS volunteers who make up the Committee – more about us below.

The aims of our weekend conference were to empower writers by enabling them to learn from experts and to expand their knowledge of the craft and the business of writing, and to encourage them to network and share ideas. A key feature of the conference was diversification for writers, enabling them to confront the challenges of finding new creative and financial streams.

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 10.43.20These aims were summed up in what proved to be an inspirational choice of logo – thanks to Linda Strachan, our Chair, and to Giorgio Granozio for the blue&white pen-nib design.

Ikigai – which is similar to the concept of wellbeing – represents a number of intersecting themes that worked extremely well as a focus for the entire conference. The themes represent passion, profession, vocation and mission, which link with the four phrases: ‘what you’re good at’, ‘what you love’, ‘what you can be paid for’, and ‘what the world needs’. Our conference programme strands focused on these four different areas, and also included physical and mental wellbeing specifically for writers. We found that this worked very well and the Ikigai themes were appreciated in delegate feedback.

We fulfilled the aim to offer specialist knowledge to our delegates by focusing on a number of key areas: legal rights (in this we were well supported by the legal team from Gillespie MacAndrew), technology (the writing software, Scrivener), the business of writing itself, and a focus on specialist writing skills, like translation (thanks to Daniel Hahn and Ruth Martin for their session – here at the signing panel with Denise Mina!).


In the run up to the conference we had concerns regarding the creative heterogeneity of our delegates (different writing backgrounds and genres, different ages and expectations) but we found that by focusing on diversification in writing, and by using the interlinking Ikigai themes, we were able to turn this into a major strength which was noted by delegates in their feedback.

We offered fifteen breakouts (full programme here) on a wide variety of topics and genres, and feedback from delegates commented on the success of this strategy, offering the possibility to move beyond habitual areas of interest and explore new genres (including radio, TV, and writing for children and young adults). We were also able to include all publishing options, from traditional, small and independent publishers, as well as self-publishing (Joanna Penn’s masterclass and keynote talk on self-publishing were highlights for many delegates). We were all inspired by Joanne Harris‘ opening talk, and by Jane Johnson‘s insights into her own professional and creative story.

We fulfilled the conference aim to encourage networking and the sharing of ideas in a number of ways. The feedback from delegates confirmed that the welcoming and inclusive atmosphere provided excellent opportunities for networking. Our programme was intentionally designed to allow space for networking, and our social events were also appreciated in this respect (not least, the ceilidh!). We were also keen to move beyond the physical constraints of the conference by encouraging delegates to use social media. One feature that worked well in this respect was to offer a prize for the best Tweet. The twitter feed for the conference confirmed the overall impression that the conference had been – to quote Kevin MacNeil – “engaging, illuminating, provocative and friendly. Bravo!”.

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Of course funding for this was crucial and Scotswrite 2017 was generously supported by Creative Scotland, with National Lottery funding. Other companies hosted, funding in kind, sponsored sessions, and provided support in many ways.

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At a personal level, I and, I’m pretty sure, all the Scotswrite 2017 committee faced the (not unexpected) challenges of taking large chunks of time out of our normal working/writing lives to dedicate to the organisation. We were undoubtedly helped enormously by having a professional coordinator, Jenny Kumar, to guide us, and also in choosing a hotel – The Westerwood, Cumbernauld – whose efficient staff went a long way to making the weekend run without a hitch (barring a couple of missing bathrobes, and the odd hairdryer or two!). And did I mention the excellent food – and the cake?


For the Society of Authors in Scotland, the conference has given both members and non-members a fantastic occasion to network and benefit from the strengths of membership/friendship, as well as the professional experience of Society of Authors itself. The SoA acts as a trade union for writers of all kinds and its leverage can prove invaluable to writers whose interests are all too often dwarfed by those of publishing companies. Delegates were able to learn more about the benefits of membership of the Society and were introduced to the different membership options now available, including student membership.

For those not attending the conference a number of blogs, articles and podcasts are now available, all of which have disseminated the information and discussions held during the conference to the wider community of writers, aspiring writers and readers in Scotland. To mention a few of the many blogs… Kim Sanderson, Claire Wingfield, Sasha Greene, Philip Paris…. and the extensive Twitter feed using the #Scotswrite2017

From another perspective, the London office of Society of Authors was made aware of the strengths of the committee running its Scottish regional group: the Society of Authors in Scotland. We hope that the conference has deepened the head office’s understanding of what its Scottish members expect and how best to meet their needs.

A question frequently included in feedback from delegates was ‘when’s the next one?’ For the volunteers on the committee, the organisation of the 2017 conference was a steep but valuable learning curve. (Ok, you can re-read that as: “extremely hard work, which we won’t undertake again in a hurry, and we wouldn’t have managed anyway without Jenny Kumar!) But we’ve taken some time since the end of the conference, in September, to ensure that the “learning outcomes” (ah, the pleasures of educational jargon…) have been documented and basically a “conference-in-a-box kit” (add a committee… some gin, whisky, and hey presto!) has been filed away which we hope will prove useful in the future.

The overall response from delegates to Scotswrite 2017 showed without a doubt that the conference responded to a number of key needs in the writing community in Scotland. It may not happen for two or more years, but in due course a new voluntary committee will be able to build on the Scotswrite 2017 conference. They’ll bring their own fresh ideas to meet new expectations from writers and to respond to the relevant challenges of the moment.

Any volunteers?

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The Image of the Translator – Past, Present, Future

Today, 30 September, is St Jerome’s day, aka Eusebius Hieronymus, aka the patron saint of translators. He was an extraordinary character in many ways. He was born in Stridon, near present-day Ljubljana, Slovenia, in c. 347 C.E. and died in 419/20 at Bethlehem, Palestine.

Having spent some years as a hermit, in the desert of Chalcis, he undertook most of his translation work when he was secretary to Pope Damasus I, and then later in the monastery he established at Bethlehem. He learnt Greek, Hebrew from a Jewish convert – while in the desert – and sought out original documents, including the copy of a Hebrew gospel alleged to be the original Gospel of Matthew. He was an outspoken advocate of Origen’s exegetical methods and translated several of his homilies – although in his later life he was to turn against Origen (185-245 CE).

Jerome’s culminating work was, of course, a revision of the Latin version of the Gospels on the basis of the best Greek manuscripts. Then, when in Bethlehem, between 391 and 406, he produced a Latin translation of the Old Testament on the basis of the original text.

The iconography of Jerome during the Renaissance varied, as can be seen from just these three very well-known examples: the rather affluent figure – dressed in a cardinal’s robe – portrayed by Antonello da Messina, the hermit rendered in all the agony of his suffering in the desert by Leonardo, and finally shown as a semi-clothed ascetic, in an engraving by De Barbari. Of course, there are plenty more images, and plenty more learned comments on them, too.

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Jumping forward a few hundred years, the importance of women translators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been highlighted by several recent studies. As many have noted, translation was one of the few fields open to women. It even allowed some to earn a living. Examples include Sarah Austin (1793-1867) and Lucie Duff-Gordon (1821-69): both worked from German to English. Lucie Duff-Gordon is even better known for her own work, Letters from Egypt, a notable contribution to the travel literature of the time.


Lucie Duff-Gordon

Just one more example from the late nineteenth century, Constance Black (better known as Constance Garnett), who was born in Brighton in 1861 (and died in 1946). She graduated in classics from Cambridge, but her interest in socialism led her into the circle of exiles from Tsarist Russia. She took up translation in the early 1890s, having learnt Russian from the revolutionary journalist Felix Volkhovsky. Garnett’s translation of Anna Karenina was published in 1901, and she made her second trip to Russia in the summer of 1904, immediately after completing War and Peace. As Rosamund Bartlett writes (author of ‘Tolstoy: A Russian Life’, and translator of ‘Anna Karenina), “arguments have raged for decades” over the merits and flaws of Garnett’s translation and those of the Maudes. “Having lived in Russia for so long, the Maudes had flawless Russian, as well as Tolstoy’s imprimatur, while Garnett’s less advanced linguistic skills were compensated by her greater literary sensitivity.” Anyone who’s read the Pevear & Volokhnosky translation, or indeed the one by Anthony Briggs (whose dialogue is probably insuperable), will know how Garnett’s literary English phrasing sometimes overrides Tolstoy’s meaning.


Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890s. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/06/23/socks-translating-anna-karenina/

And this brings me to the present and future: well, I can hardly produce pictures of today’s translators – in various states of (un)dress, seated in front their computers! (guilty as charged). However, I will say that they are extraordinarily well-trained, far more so than in the past. Nowadays, a masters in literary translation or translation studies is virtually compulsory before you can make a start as a literary translator. When I started in the late 1980s, I had a Ph.D., it’s true, but in history rather than in translation. So far, it’s served me well: my first book was for the great Bolognese historian and anthropologist, Piero Camporesi: The Fear of Hell was published in 1991. Since then, I’ve worked on other fabulous books, by historians, sociologists and art historians, not to mention endless articles and shorter pieces. My latest books (since 2014) include:

Antonio Foscari, Frescos in the Rooms of Palladio: La Malcontenta (1557-75). Lars Müller, 2014

Marzio Barbagli, Farewell to the World. A History of Suicide. Polity, 2015

Antonio Forcellino, Leonardo. A Restless Genius. Wiley, March 2018

Sandro Carocci, Lordships of the Mezzogiorno, Viella (still working on this one)

I’ve taught translation at University of Edinburgh for the past few years, which is both a pleasure and a privilege. Some of these young linguists – who are in their fourth year  – bring fabulously fresh insights and clarity to their work, even though for many of them, this is the first time they’ve done any formal translation – certainly at university level.

Together with other younger translators, whom I’ve met through the Translators Association, in London, or more frequently at ScotNet, the Scottish branch of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, they are the translators of the future: well placed to bring increasing numbers of translated works, from a wide range of languages, to fascinate, enthuse, and educate (in the broadest sense) readers here – of all ages.

Let’s smash those barriers and do what we all do best – carry words across cultures and build bridges that unite, rather than divide, the world.

The good news is that books, in all forms, are here to stay, and that the market is expanding – as are the different publishing models available. We’ve hardly even started on self-publishing for translators – either working for a self-published author or doing it for yourself. For a taster of what’s possible, try Tina Tenneberg’s article at Free Word.

What’s more, while Google Translate is improving all the time, it’ll be hard to replace the human translator!

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(courtesy of Google Translate – https://translate.google.co.uk/)

Happy International Translation Day, everyone!

Posted in Cultural history, Italian translation, translation, translator | Tagged , ,