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Being a translator | Simona Škrabec

Monday 6 August 2018 - 12:49pm

Simona Škrabec

From 21 to 24 June 2018, PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) met for its annual conference in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. More than 40 delegates from PEN Centres across the world came together to discuss the linguistic situation in their respective countries and their activities to support translation and linguistic rights. Simona Škrabec, Chair of the TLRC, gave the following closing speech.

Biel/Bienn, Théâtre de Poche, 23 June 2018

During the past two days of debates, round tables and poetry readings, a lot has been said about languages, politics and repression, but also about our personal hopefulness. As members of our organization, we all believe we can transform society with our command of the poetic word. Let me try to summarize the atmosphere of this gathering in a brief, improvised reflection about my own reasons for feeling so strongly committed to the PEN International’s Mission.

Yesterday, during the first poetry reading in Robert Walser’s house, I sat next to Zambian poet Nicolas Kawinga and we could not stop joking and laughing in the way only poets do, poets who love life and take it very seriously but need to distance themselves to observe it and to reflect on it. This morning, I suddenly remembered how beautiful Nicolas’ name is for me. For Slovenian children, at least until my generation, Nicolas represents the figure of Miklavž, the old man with a white beard that brings presents to children. In Eastern European countries and in Germany this happens on December 6th, quite early in comparison with the usual Christmas calendar. The name Nicolas itself is for me like a sound of childish joy in the middle of a cold, snowy winter. The presents we used to receive were uncomplicated gifts like some mandarins in a bowl or just a plain orange. Nowadays I know, because I live in Barcelona, that the citric fruits are picked during that time of the year. From November to February, the oranges and mandarins are harvested. While at the centre of the continent the snow lies on the ground, on the coast, lemons and oranges are collected. For me, these small presents were like a slice of sunshine in midst of dark winter days.

In my little village hidden in the woods, Miklavž was part of the most ancient, pagan memory. A man dressed in bishop’s costumes went about in the streets and looked for children to separate the good ones from the bad. The old fellow disguised in cleric clothes walked the empty streets into the evening, after it was already dark, in company of the “demons”. These were young boys, in those days some were my school friends, whom I recognized unless they wore funny clothes and masks.

One time, a group of demons caught me and the boys painted my face black, with a strong-smelly mixture of shoe polish and cinder. This symbolic violence is, of course, full of prejudices and ancient fears that surface disguised as a strange, barbaric game that children play not knowing what they are doing.

I do not remember it as something dark or dirty that I should simply forget or at least hide. This little incident, as uncomfortable as it may be, represents for me the capacity that maybe only children have to enter into the terrain of the unknown or the forbidden. My face painted in black, was, however, a sign of my desire to be what I was not, the desire of being able to cross a boundary, to go beyond my own identity.

At age twelve, I experienced for the first time, how it feels to be the foreigner, the unknown, a person who is not recognized as a part of the community. When I arrived home, my father, who is not originally from our region and knew nothing about this ritual, did not recognize me. He was upset and angry and I could not understand why. When the colour of my skin was changed, for him the order of life was somehow altered and he was unable to accept it. I experienced then, for the first time, that what can be funny for children, might be painful for adults. His skin is darker than the skin of his neighbours. He is a man born in the south of the Balkans and never adapted to this kind of strange Slovenian customs. He saw reflected in my face, covered with shoe polish and cinder, the rejection this same community showed him all the time. This was why he was so angry and so upset.

Catalan poet Maria Mercè Marçal, who studied Classic Greek, once defined the poet as somebody who experienced at an early age the sensation of losing a home. To write poetry, she said, the person needs to experience the sensation of relocation. The poets know that nothing is permanent, but provisional. The Greek word “metaphor” means literally to relocate, to move from one house to another. This is what we do as poets all the time. We try to understand how people who are different from ourselves, feel and think. Poetry is not something that is just beautiful. Poetry is a way of looking at things. Thus our capacity of feeling compassion, what others may feel when defeated or expelled, is one of the most important elements of our literary work.

Susana Swarz, in her moving intervention about the genocides committed in South America against native people, said that nobody should pretend to have the right to talk in the name of another person. This is especially important for the victims of atrocities like those she denounced. It is important because we need, as much as possible, to hear the voice of the victim, the voice of those who lost precisely the right to speak and to be heard. We should not speak for them, but try to understand their unheard voices. We should denounce the injustice, but we should not, I repeat, try to speak in another’s name.

This “shift” of being able to understand what does not belong to our own experience is essential to poetry and to any kind of compassion. We need to awaken the sensibility to learn how to deal with experiences that are beyond our own direct knowledge, experiences that we feel are difficult to share as our own, that are sometimes even contrary to our own beliefs or our capacity to imagine. To be human means to be able to understand what is not part of our immediate surroundings. As humans, we can feel and imagine things that do not belong to our way of life or to our own historical memory. All humans have the capacity to understand “metaphors”. We all are able to understand the meaning of displacement. We all know how it would feel to lose our own home.

Translation is, therefore, not just a professional skill of being able to transfer words from one language to another, so that they are comprehensible to a foreign audience. Translation is a way of directly experiencing the world. It confronts us with an unknown reality. Accepting the possibility of translation means that we do not see the unknown as something fearsome. The unknown for a translator awakes curiosity. To be able to translate means to be sensitive enough to accept realities that are beyond our known world. How far can I see in a context that is unknown to me? How far may I go into a place that is unfamiliar to me? Any person that speaks more than one language knows this existential uncertainty. To be able to translate, one must have the courage to cross the boundary that separates the familiar from the uncertain. A translator very soon discovers that he or she can be right in one context, but terribly wrong in another. Changing home and moving from one place to another allows us to discover that in other places things are different. We cross frontiers to see more, to understand better, to learn how to see and understand more and better. This is why we all gathered here.

What did we learn in Biel/Bienne?

We learned a lesson about the geopolitics of writing, an example of what can be found as a result of the influence of different alphabets. Dessale A. Berekhet explained that in Eritrea there is a generational cliff because of a sudden change in the alphabet and that, as a result, fathers who stayed in the country sometimes cannot communicate in writing with their children who are often driven into exile. In Mali, Ismaila S. Traore told us about written 'monuments' in Arabic script, which enable a connection with other African countries in the sense that Islam and Arabic languages are part of African heritage too, but which the rest of the world ignores because we are not used to studying texts written in Arabic characters. In Kazakhstan, Vladimir Kartsev told us, there is a big discussion about the advisability of abandoning the Cyrillic alphabet, introduced because of Russian influence. The decision to use Latin script, let me add, has nothing to do with the desire to be part of Western Christian Europe, but because of the Asian languages which are part of the Turkish linguistic group. The Turks decided, despite their predominantly Muslim population, to use for their modern language Latin letters and thus the desire to be part of the same cultural zone.

All written languages are built as a result of similar political decisions. Languages belong to incredibly complex zones of influence not at all easy to describe. Religion, the power of empires and ideologies made our languages what they are today.

On the other hand, the big picture of a linguistic map of geostrategic zones should be contrasted with the micro-level, precisely because we are gathering here, in Switzerland, in the bilingual city of Biel/Bienne. I am sure you all noticed the paintings of both of Robert Walser’s brothers in the museum we visited. The drawings of the “invisible” life of small insects and wood birds depicted with all detail speak about the diversity of life, of the fact that it is impossible even to imagine all the little things that surround us.

It is the same with languages. Each language is a profound, incommensurable network of relationships. Each singular individual has a voice that is his own and this voice cannot be replaced with another. A language is a shared code, but without individual voices, it does not exist. It takes a real effort to learn a language precisely because we have to accept a voice of the group to be able to communicate with it. With this adaptation, we lose a bit of our own individuality and our own way of thinking.

Robert Walser here in Biel/Bienne, or Franz Kafka in Prague at the beginning of the 20th century, both living at the margins of the German speaking Empires, show us how terrible the experience of living and writing in a completely purified language is. Their writing expresses the void, the emptiness of a subject who was forced to adapt himself to a model of language that was not spontaneous. The anguish and the solitude of their characters reflect also this fact.

During the past two days, we learned how set apart Switzerland is, even in its German-speaking part, from the violence implicit in the desire to impose a standard literary language. What I admired most in the conferences about the Swiss linguistic landscape we attended is that the authorities at all levels afford people a freedom of choice. “Be who you are”, is the motto here, be proud of your own identity. It does not matter if we are talking about a young immigrant child who is unable to speak any of the country’s official languages yet. He or she will learn it, no worries. In Switzerland, it is most important that a child does not feel ashamed of his or her origin. A Swiss peasant boy does not need to abandon the dialect of the village he belongs to. In this country, language does not sanction social division. Language does not separate people between those who share progress and have a modern life, and those who will always remain in a backyard of history.

If each citizen is proud of being how he is, if the state recognizes the importance of each individual voice, then order, discipline and progress is achieved without enforced obedience. Order as a Swiss trademark is not an empty idea, but achieved through this complex process: individual, free decisions to be an active part of society.

The recognition of each other’s identity is the best way to stop bigotries, shame and hate. We are wrong to think that the most important element of progress in Europe is the homogenization of the body-nation. One state, one language is not a good recipe for successful modernization. The most important element is freedom. Freedom is the fundamental characteristic of progress in the political and economic sense. The Swiss model of tolerance, mutual understanding and commitment to foster communication skills from an early age is the key to the country’s economic prosperity and political stability.

“No one is illegal in this world”, said Tomica Bajašić in this verse of his poem about his new-born daughter. The poet looks into the eyes of the baby and says, “You are too small to know your own name”. The only way they have to communicate, the father and the little baby of this poem, is looking each other into each other’s eyes and feeling the depth of human eyes, of the human soul. In our eyes, we keep the memory of our own humanity.

The message of how to be human is simple and we heard it in a beautiful parable by Robert Walser. “Be good”, the Swiss writer said. That is all.

As we all know, Elisha July from Zimbabwe wrote a poem about being lost on his first day in this small Alpine town. He came to Biel/Bienne earlier than most of us and had to stay in private accommodation the first night. Looking at the map, searching the location on the Internet, he was not able to find it. Nothing helped. Then he returned to the hotel and asked again. There was a very simple instruction: “Follow the canal”. He followed the canal and found the guesthouse immediately.

Biel/Bienne is a city divided by a canal. As Elisha told us, this canal can be used as a secret guiding line. Let’s try to read his poem as a metaphor. If so, then we can say that every individual has a subterranean, invisible current that guides each one of us. We all have our own canal to guide us. If we get lost, we can forget the labyrinth of the city streets; we can switch off our mobile phones and keep the map in our pocket. We will not get lost if we follow the canal, if we follow our heart. This is what we did during these two days in Biel/Bienne. We followed our hearts.

Thank you!