Thursday, August 16, 2012

Notes from the Edinburgh International Book Festival: Day Four

The Edinburgh International Book Festival has finally arrived! I'll be hanging out there for the rest of the week and posting highlights from author events each day. I wrote a few weeks ago about the books I needed to read by now. I haven't managed all of them but I've put a comfortable dent in the pile. My Kindle couldn't have chosen a more inopportune time to break, but at least it's given me a nice excuse to peruse the Charlotte Square bookshop between shows.

Tuesday, August 14

David Bellos
English translator of French author Georges Perec's novels as well as the 2005 Man Booker Prize winner for translation. 

The event was roughly centred around Bellos' new book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (a nod to Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). It's still on my pile, but if it's anywhere near as interesting as Bellos in person, it'll be a witty and insightful read. With every sentence he uttered I felt an increasing number of neurons fizzing in my brain. It was fascinating stuff.

Bellos' profound observation: Translation presupposes we're all different because we speak different languages, but that we're inherently the same, because the same meanings and emotions have to exist in each language to be translatable.

Greatest misconception: that translators provide a word for word interpretation of the original work: "a literal translation is an oxymoron, a nonsense." When you translate the salutation "how are you?" you translate the meaning of the words, not the literal interpretation, and so it is with a book or a film.

Fascinating fact: The way conference translators (who mainly work for the U.N) have to listen and speak (in another language no less) at the same time. If you want to see how difficult it is, watch the news one night and repeat word for word what each person says. Humans are programmed to speak, then listen, so the brain power required to do both is phenomenal.

Questions I came away with: How much of the translator goes into each work? How challenging is it to replicate the author's style in another language?

Hilary Mantel
Mantel discussed and performed a reading from her latest novel Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which began with Wolf Hall and will end with The Mirror and the Light.

I could've listened to Hilary Mantel speak for much longer than an hour. Her brain power shines out of her like a beacon.

My light bulb moment: When Mantel read almost by heart. It was a strange revelation, that the brilliant sentences she was stringing together were the product of her own mind.  Usually the author/reader relationship is a shadowy one, so it was a thrill to hear from the person who produced such a work.

Inspirational words: There are heaps to choose from, but what resonated most was Mantel's commitment to working at the edge of her ability. It was a theme she returned to over and again during  the hour. It's easy to settle for what's safe, but what then would be the point of getting on your horse? (a reference to her girlhood dream of becoming a knight errant.)

Best insight into her craft: Her description of how King Henry VIII came to fall in love with Jane Seymour. Henry had known Jane for years, so how did he come to view her in a romantic light? "My job is to make sense of what's happening on a human level." She says a romantic novelist would've placed the reader in the garden at Wolf Hall with Jane and Henry as they wandered. But she wanted to draw the reader into the nuances of history. When Thomas Cromwell looks down at them through the wobble in the glass, that's a real historical blip. Figures are in your sightline for one minute, and then bob out. You have to keep changing your position.

Each day photographer Chris Close puts up candid and beautiful shots of authors. Colm Toibin's genuine belly laugh is my favourite out of this lot.

Tomorrow: highlights from Alexander McCall Smith's laugh a minute appearance.


  1. Thanks Amy...a fab synopsis of the event so far. Your musings on translation are similar to how I feel about the role of the curator/exhibition designer. You only have to think about how a story changes in its telling (bit like chinese whispers) to see how fascinating it can be. Enjoy x han

  2. That's such a good comparison Hannah - the translator/curator becomes an integral part of the book/exhibition once the works have passed through their hands.