Translator and writer Fiona Rintoul

Fiona Rintoul on Translation

Translated writing doesn’t just help us to understand other people and other cultures; it helps us to understand ourselves.

September 25, 2015

In 2012, I attended the annual Leipzig Book Fair at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut as part of a translators’ tour. At the opening ceremony in the famous Gewandhaus concert hall, the Leipzig book prize for European understanding was awarded. That year it was split between the British historian Ian Kershaw for
The End and the US historian Timothy Snyder for Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

This tells you everything you need to know about the difference between German attitudes to translated writing and British attitudes. It is pretty much inconceivable that a major literary award in the UK would be split between, say, a German and an Austrian historian, for translated works dealing with British history. I also rather doubt that the British government shells out to bring English-German translators to book fairs in the UK in a bid to interest them in British literature. Of course, it doesn’t need to. A huge amount of British literature is translated into German each year.

The compliment is not repaid, as the 2013 study by Literature Across Frontiers shows. We may feel like the winners in this equation, but in fact we are the losers. There is no better way to enter another culture than through translated writing, especially translated fiction. I still remember the thrill of discovering Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins in my local library as a teenager. Instantly, I was transported to postwar Paris. Nothing else can do this for you.

The situation in the UK is particularly bad in the case of German fiction. Only a handful of contemporary German writers are translated into English. That’s one reason why our understanding of Europe’s largest economy isn’t all it could be – and frankly it shows and shows us up.

But translated writing doesn’t just help us to understand other people and other cultures; it helps us to understand ourselves. As the Kershaw/Snyder award shows, Germany is open to seeing its own past through the eyes of others, however painful that may be. We, typically, are not. And yet this is the greatest gift of all. Robert Burns understood this when he wrote: ”O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.” Translated writing has that power in only we would use it.

Fiona Rintoul is a writer, journalist and translator. Her first novel, “The Leipzig Affair”, won the Virginia prize and was serialised on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. “Outside Verdun”, her new translation of Arnold Zweig’s first world war classic, “Erziehung vor Verdun”, was published in May 2014 to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. You can find out more about her on her website.


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