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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Two books in one week!

This week has been a bit like Christmas… two new books arrived, one of which I had translated and the other I edited.

The first parcel came from Lars-Müller, a Swiss publisher with whom I’ve worked before, and it contained three copies (as per contract!) of Antonio Foscari’s third book about Palladio and Villa Foscari, aka Malcontenta.  In this latest addition, the author focused on the frescos in the villa. The book has been turned around at record speed since I only started to translate the texts about a year ago and we were still looking at proofs in early August.

frescosHere is the blurb from the back cover:

Frescos within Palladio’s Architecture: Malcontenta 1557-1575 explores the superb fresco cycle of Malcontenta in the context of key political and cultural events in Venice and the patrons’ family commitments between the late 1550s and 1570s. The author Antonio Foscari successfully proves – in contrast to prevailing opinions – that it was completed in stages over a period of almost fifteen years. Recognition of this long duration allows the fresco cycle to be seen as an aide-memoire that testifies to changing circumstances in the patrons’ lives.  The author reveals ideological discrepancies in the iconography as well as themes that, until now, have been undecipherable and sheds light on the stylistic evolution of Battista Zelotti, the artist who is the protagonist of the whole cycle. Beyond that the book shows the determination with which Andrea Palladio attempted to supervise this artistic project over the years, and how, when it escaped Palladio’s control, it threatened to compromise a clear perception of his perfectly proportioned architecture, and therefore the very essence of his cultural message.

For me personally one of the best aspects of working on this book was that I was able to visit Malcontenta in early May.  It was a wonderful experience and very moving to see the frescos after writing about them at such length. We were lucky with the weather and it was warm enough to be outside on the terrace before and after dinner.

IMG_5703The second parcel that arrived contained a book that I edited earlier this spring.  It is a charming and very unusual memoir by Victor Eskenazi titled Thanks for the Buggy Ride. Memoirs of an Ottoman Jew (Libra Kitap, Istanbul, 2013).  I recommend it for its quaint picture of Istanbul, Vienna and Milan in the years between the two World Wars.  The author moved to London before the outbreak of the Second World War during which he fought for the British.  The tone is never nostalgic but instead immensely uplifting:

Time has passed, but I have no regrets for what I have not done or will no longer do. When life comes towards the end, one stops looking ahead because the road has already been eventful. Old wounds cease to hurt and memories soften and lighten the spirit.

Eskenazi-Thanks for the Buggy Ride
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Translating a genre: the Historical Novel

This article was published in Historical Novels Review (Issue 65, August 2013, pp.10-11); see link here 

Language is key to discovering other countries and communities and sharing their lives in the present, not to say centuries ago. We can, of course, read historical novels, many of them brilliant, set in foreign countries and written by Anglophone authors. The breadth and depth of secondary sources (in English) available to them is growing all the time, especially now that the academic study of history has moved towards a more nuanced, intimate and inclusive study of the past. For all that, unless an author is steeped in that “other” culture, and – I would argue – can read its language, there will inevitably be aspects of that society that remain elusive. This is where translated historical novels can prove so valuable – if the translation lives up to expectations. As Edith Grossman, a leading literary translator, writes in her excellent book Why Translation Matters, “Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savour the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own perceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.”1 No one would disagree, yet fiction translated into English continues to represent but a tiny percentage of what we read.

The European Union Prize for Literature serves to highlight notable works of fiction, forming a platform to promote the circulation of literature within Europe, primarily through translation. Since it was founded in 2009, all EU member-states have been eligible to compete, approximately once every three years. Among the prize-winning authors, several have written historical novels. A prizewinner in 2010, Goce Smilevski’s novel, Freud’s Sister, appeared in translation in 2012 (Macedonian; Christina E. Kramer, Penguin). But Smilevski is in the minority. Others have not made the “transition” into English. Two winning historical novels that struck me were Török Tükör by Viktor Horvàth, about the Hungarian city of Pécs under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, and Palveränd by the Estonian Tiit Aleksejev, a story of the Crusades in the last years of the 11th century. Short of learning Hungarian or Estonian, I can only hope that the books will one day be published in English.

freud's sister

Arguably, the barriers to translation into English are even higher for historical novels since some editors seem determined not to challenge us. Admittedly, publishers have to be sure that the novel to be translated meets the exacting standards of native English readers of historical fiction (standards that have been boosted by the arrival of big-hitters such as Mantel). Readers’ expectations are high, particularly at the literary end of the publishing spectrum, which is where the translated novel usually sits. A publisher must be doubly sure of fulfilling these requisites before investing in a translation. Indeed, translation costs are often seen as the proverbial “straw” that sways the decision whether to publish or not.2 This is particularly shortsighted in view of readers’ declared interests in exploring unfamiliar historical settings, getting that different angle, reassessing preconceptions. Some critics have even accused publishers of underestimating their audience, since readers are not afraid of translations, as is sometimes asserted.3

The new technologies and new media will certainly change this area of publishing as well, making the process simpler. Translators and authors can work together to bring a novel to the market as an e-book. This type of relationship is still in its infancy, but there is enormous potential for further development, provided, of course, that quality is carefully maintained. Amazoncrossing was set up in 2010 and is already having a significant impact. AmazonCrossing’s goal is “to bring more of the world’s great authors to a global audience” and, after just three years, it is already publishing more books in translation than the top independent presses in America, with 24 books published so far in 2013 compared to Dalkey Archive Press’s nineteen.In late June, AmazonCrossing made headlines by selling one million copies (print, audio and Kindle) of Oliver Pötzsch’s historical novel series, Hangman’s Daughter (German; Lee Chadeayne). The real problem here is retaining a high quality of translation, and a quick glance at the Amazon reviews for some of these books shows how difficult this can be, especially since, not knowing a foreign language, we have to trust that the translator will respect the author’s choice of register and terminology.

National literary prizes offer rich pickings for choosing books for translation, and this is where many editors start their search. However, there are several prizes at the other end of the process: namely for fiction already translated into English. Two of these are the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) awarded annually for a translated work published in the United Kingdom, while the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) is “an opportunity to honor and celebrate the translators, editors, publishers, and other literary supporters who help make literature from other cultures available to American readers in the United States.”

trieste-dasa-drndicThe shortlisted titles for the IFFP in 2013 included two historical novels: Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century (Spanish; Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Pushkin Press) was highly commended, and Trieste by Daša Drndić (Croatian; Ellen Elias-Bursac, MacLehose) won the IFFP Readers’ Prize. Elif Shafak, one of this year’s IFFP judges and also an award-winning novelist, commented: “In a world where a deeper cross-cultural understanding is a rarity and literature in translation is still not generating the interest it deserves, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize swims against the tide.”

Chad Post (University of Rochester, NY) set up the blog Three Percent in 2007, and the first edition of the Best Translated Book Award followed in 2008. In the past two years, shortlisted historical novels have included A New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Italian; Judith Landry, Dedalus), Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar (Portuguese; Thomas O. Beebee, Texas Tech University Press), and LightningA Novel by Jean Echenoz (French; Linda Coverdale, The New Press). A title to look forward to later this year will be Echenoz’s novel, 1914 (French; Linda Coverdale, The New Press). Other prizes are gradually including more translated fiction, as in the case of the Man Booker International Prize, but several still exclude translated works – a case in point being the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Returning to the Three Percent website, this is the figure that used to be quoted as the percentage of translated fiction (although this includes drama and poetry, thus lowering the figures for fiction even further). However, literary translation has unquestionably been revitalised in the past few years. There is a new optimism, and that percentage is slowly creeping up. This was confirmed by a report from Literature Across Borders (published in December 2012, its data refer to three sample years: 2000, 2005, and 2008). It concludes that 2.5% of all publications and 4.5% of fiction, poetry, and drama (literature) in the United Kingdom are translations.5 I was interested to note that the Historical Novels Review itself confirms that the “three percent” barrier may have been slightly dented, with 3.7% of books reviewed in the last seven issues being translations.6

4The past fifteen years or so have also seen the appearance of several independent houses specialising in translation. Exemplary publishers like Harvill Secker have been joined by Arcadia Books, MacLehose Press (Quercus), Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Europa Editions and others already mentioned. These smaller presses are championing some of the most innovative authors from around the world, and helping to chip away at our linguaphobic barriers. I asked Gary Pulsifer (Arcadia) about José Eduardo Agualusa. He told me that he met “José Eduardo at the Lisbon Book Fair some years ago and was intrigued by Creole. To my mind it’s one of Agualusa’s best, if early, books. It should have been a contender for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but Agualusa (and his translator Daniel Hahn) got there in the end of course, with The Book of Chameleons.” Both books are set in Angola, the first in 1868 while the latter is more or less contemporary… and is narrated by a gecko. Quercus recently introduced English-speaking readers to Mikhail Shishkin’s work, The Light and the Dark (Russian; Andrew Bromfield, 2013). Although epistolary rather than purely historical in form, this novel is clearly a major addition in terms of the English-speaking reader’s access to contemporary Russian literature. Lastly, Peirene will publish Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts (Polish; Philip Boehm) in September, an acclaimed Polish bestseller about the Holocaust.

altai-coverOur reading habits may be on the verge of becoming a little less insular, but we still lag far behind other countries. A few figures sadly make the point quite clearly: “in Poland a staggering 46% of books published are titles in translation, in Germany over 12%, in Spain around 24% and in France around 15%.”7 It is a truism that translation allows literature to travel. We appear to want to take the journey, but are we being offered the right destinations? With new publishing developments on our side, readers should demand to read the best of world literature, including historical fiction. So casting aside that over-used cliché “lost in translation,” why not start with Altai (Italian; Shaun Whiteside, Verso 2013), which was recently described by Ian Sansom as “unputdownable…historical fiction as a form of cultural protest.” The authors, collectively known as Wu Ming, could probably teach translators a thing or two in that respect.

1. Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters, Yale University Press, 2010, p.14.
2. Suggested rates are published by the Translators’ Association, part of the UK Society of Authors; the American ALTA and ATA occasionally run compensation surveys. English PEN recently launched grants to support translation, and some EU funds are also available.
3. Books in Translation: It’s Time for Others to Join the Fight, Publishing Perspectives, February 15, 2013 [accessed 26 June 2013]
4. Chad Post, Three Percent, 6 June 2013. [accessed 25 June 2013]
5. Dr Jasmine Donahaye, Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland, December 2012. Literature Across Frontiers, Aberystwyth University, UK. Available online from [accessed 25 June 2013]
6. These data were very kindly supplied by Sarah Johnson.
7. See note 3.

About the contributor: LUCINDA BYATT is HNR’s features coordinator. She teaches courses on Early Modern Europe and translates from Italian.

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Witches and Wicked Bodies: Professor Charles Zika on the Witch of Endor and much else

At an informal seminar held in the Dean Gallery (also known as Modern Two, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) this evening, about twenty-five of us – a mix of university staff and Ph.D. students from various fields, mainly history and history of art, but also anthropology – gathered to hear a fascinating seminar given by Professor Charles Zika of Melbourne University. It was part of a series of events organised to coincide with the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies, open until 3 November.

Witches and Wicked Bodies

I’m certainly no specialist on witchcraft but the visit of such an eminent specialist in this important field of early modern European history (touching on many aspects of social, cultural, and church history, all of which do interest me) was too good an opportunity to miss.

Although primarily a historian, Zika said he often calls himself a “visual historian”, because of the prime role played by images in early modern Europe, an era where literacy was far from universal, and therefore the visual was a key channel for messages of all kinds. Like words, he said, images too have multiple meanings and the challenge for us is to try and decipher them, even though we no longer have the same frames of reference.

His talk focused on two themes, primarily on his current research on the Witch of Endor, and secondly on the reception of these images and, more broadly, the changing nature of the depiction of witchcraft between the period up to around 1590 and then from around the 1620s onwards.

The Witch of Endor (read Samuel I 28: 3-14) is the subject of a forthcoming book by Zika and this evening he focused in particular on Andrew Lawrence’s etching (included in this exhibition; c. 1730-1754, engraving, 47.1 x 29.8 cm: see British Museum here) of Salvator Rosa’s painting of the same subject in the Louvre (1668, oil on canvas, 275 x 191 cm; Lawrence’s etching reverses the composition).


A couple of fascinating points came up: Salvator Rosa’s painting was exhibited in the Vatican at the enthronement of Pope Clement X (1670-76) and Rosa’s was the only work by a living artist.  Why was it chosen? There was no real answer this evening, but I’m sure Zika will answer the question in his forthcoming book.  However, Lawrence’s copy raises other equally interesting questions: Lawrence was a Huguenot (he was buried in France as a heretic) and he dedicated his etching to Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754, no less than the royal physician to George II and a prominent literary patron and philanthropist). A question that came up in the second half of the seminar was the extent to which artists “believed” in witchcraft: as a Huguenot, was Lawrence merely documenting a fashionable trend (cf. Handel’s opera Saul (1739) contains a dramatic scene involving the witch/pythoness/medium)? Or was there more to his interest?

Zika also focused on changes in the nature of the witchcraft and magic portrayed between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, essentially from the “home-spun magic and ‘weather’ witches” – involving cauldrons, pots and potions – of the pre-1580s to the erudite, invocatory and initiatory rites of seventeenth-century magic (magic circles, wands, books, etc.).  To discuss this we moved into another of the exhibition spaces where Zika focused on Jacob de Gheyn II’s work, Preparations for a Witches’ Sabbath (1610; also British Museum, here). What was interesting about this work was that Zika suggested (following Claudia Swan’s ground-breaking research in Art, Science, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland. Jacque de Gheyn II (1565-1629), CUP 2005) that De Gheyn had produced it as an engraving to increase its circulation – again prompting the question, why and why then? The changing attitudes to witchcraft by the first decade of the seventeenth century (the scepticism of the Spanish inquisitors in 1610 marked a turning point in Spain) is part of the answer, but also a morbid/comic fascination in the subject – which explains the inclusion of black humour in many of the works. Zika also mentioned the wealthy, educated society of Leiden in which De Gheyn worked, which provided a lucrative market. Seeing the work on the gallery wall here is probably misleading since it was unlikely to have been displayed so prominently by contemporary seventeenth-century owners.

De Gheyn

Incidentally, another gem of the evening was the fact that images of women on broomsticks first appeared in depictions of the French tradition of the Danse macabre. From there they were then incorporated by Breughel into his works.  However, “flying” is not really the point (Zika says he knows of only five or so images of actual flight), and instead “riding” (whether on a goat or broom – or horse as seen below) has other quite distinct allusions.


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