Presentation Speech for The Marsh Award.

The Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation 2005.

Begun in 1996, the Award honours the translators of children's books by giving once every two years an honorarium of 3000.

The 2005 recipient was Sarah Adams for her translation of The Eye of the Wolf from the French of Daniel Pennac, published by Walker Books.

The award is made at a celebration held at the Arts Club. I was asked to make the presentation after giving a fifteen minute talk of which the following is the text:

Make a list of the books that are important in our literary heritage, and you find that at least fifty per-cent of them are known to most of us only in translation - from Aesop's Fables and the Bible to Tin Tin and Anna Karenina. It needs to be said that translations are just as indispensable to our religious, philosophic, political, economic, scientific activity, and indeed to every aspect of our lives. Translators are the synapses of our culture. Their work connects us to other, different ways of living and thinking and imagining, and the connections they make enrich us.

A particular example of this struck me the other day as I was passing the local school. A class was singing the Eastertide hymn that begins 'There is a green hill far away, without a city wall.' I was made to sing that hymn when I was their age. The first time I heard it I wondered why a hill would need a city wall. Funny what teachers assume children will know. No one explained that in this now rare usage the word 'without' didn't mean that the hill lacked a wall but that it was outside a walled city. Nor did anyone mention the rather more significant fact that the hill referred to was in reality neither green nor a hill but the city's rubbish dump.

At the same time, I was given the impression that this hill was in a green and pleasant land, a place of rolling hills where sheep could safely graze, tended by shepherds dressed in picturesque clothes. It was only when I visited the Holy Land many years later that I discovered what a completely mistaken impression this was. Now I know that the country being imagined, and the language used to describe it, were to be found much nearer home, to be precise, the Cotswold escarpment of southwest Gloucestershire. How do I know? Consider a couple of quotations and a few brief phrases.

Quotation number one:

'In the first made God nought of heaven and earth. The earth forsooth was vain within the void, and the darknesses were upon the face of the sea, and the spirit of God was upon the waters. And God said, Be made light, and made is light.'

The second quotation:

'In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water. Then God said, let there be light, and there was light.'

The first quotation is from the translation of the Bible by John Wycliffe, who used the Latin of the Vulgate as his source. The second is by William Tyndale, who used the original Hebrew and Greek as his sources. If you were asked to give the Marsh Award to one or the other, which would you choose?

Now the phrases:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
With God all things are possible.
In Him we live and move and have our being.
Am I my brother's keeper?
Ye are the salt of the earth.
The signs of the times.
Eat, drink, and be merry.
Scales fell from their eyes.
The powers that be.
The patience of Job.
 

We still use these phrases and many more in our everyday speech four hundred and seventy years after William Tyndale first wrote them down. I say 'wrote them down' because I don't think he made them all up.

Tyndale was born, brought up and began his professional life as a priest in the Vale of Berkeley in southwest Gloucestershire. His aim was to translate the Bible into the best vernacular of the common people. To achieve this he chose as his model the speech of the people among whom he lived, structured by the rhetoric he had learned in school from the Latin and Greek masters, combined with the storytelling constructions of the Hebrew, a language which, incidentally, he taught himself because there were very few people in the England of his time, including among the clergy, who knew it. Because he never visited Palestine and had little idea of what it was like he set the Bible story in his native countryside, the Cotswolds of southwest Gloucestershire. Tyndale's Bible isn't solely responsible for this image of Palestine; many hymn writers and illustrators are even more responsible; but that's where the popular impression of a green and pleasant place and the language that conveys it has its roots.

Tyndale published his translation in stages, but before he could complete all of it he was burnt to death at the behest of Henry the Eighth and the Bishop of London, who didn't want ordinary people to know what was in their holy book. A case of state censorship. Political expediency had changed sixty-five years later, when the task was finished by a committee and published by King James the First as the Authorised Version. More than seventy per-cent of this classic of English culture is Tyndale's work. His influence on our literature is too little studied and cannot be over estimated. To give just one example, without William Tyndale it would have been impossible for a boy from an insignificant little market town who never went to university to write the supreme works of art we know as the plays and poetry of William Shakespeare.

For his qualities as a translator - his scholarship and his sensitivity to the nuances of his source language and to English - Tyndale could well be counted the patron saint of translators. He is also an example of how influential they can be. Yet how many of our people, even sophisticated and educated readers, know about Tyndale and his importance? How often are translators and their work discussed, especially in schools? The Marsh Award honours translators for children. We must thank Brian and Aleksandra Marsh and the Marsh Christian Trust for sponsoring the Award, the Arts Council for a grant towards publicity costs, and Borders the booksellers for making a splash of the short list in their shop windows. We must also thank the members of the jury, who gave their time and experience to the task of selecting a recipient. But I'm afraid their task is not as onerous as I wish it were, for the simple reason that so few translations of children's books are published in Britain. The figures usually rolled out at this point are that for instance in Sweden, The Netherlands and Germany at least 35 per-cent of children's books are translations, whereas in Britain the figure is never more than five per-cent and is usually less. And it's this last point I'd like to talk about for a moment.

We often remark that we need translations because they bring literature to us that is significantly different in several ways from our own. The books chosen for translation present a view of the language culture from which they derive, and either confirm or disturb our own. To some extent therefore, all translation is a political act.

My experience, especially during the time I was publishing translations of children's books in the early 1990s under the Turton and Chambers imprint, was that there were many superb books, within the European languages let alone others, that no one in Britain or the U.S.A. would translate because they were too different from our own. I thought then, and still do, that we are too narrow, too insular, in our choices.

But I also know from experience how difficult it is to break the closed circle which goes like this: Publishers don't publish more translations, and especially not those of books very different from our own, because they don't sell. They don't sell because there is an ingrained Anglo-American prejudice against translations. I'm reminded of a review of one of our T&C books, which commended its language for being, as the reviewer phrased it, 'a model of simplicity and clarity, in spite of being a translation.' [My italics.] How do we break this narrow-minded circle and remove the prejudice? The general rule should be: make a fuss, identify, display, discuss, celebrate, explain, and study at all levels from reception class to Ph D. The Marsh Award is certainly a step in the right direction. I'd like to suggest a few more possibilities.

As I've just mentioned reviews, let's start there. We need reviewing which takes an informed approach to translations, always mentioning the translator and commenting on the quality of the translation itself, as well as pointing out the appealing differences of the books. We need special features on the books, articles about translators and their originating authors of the kind devoted to our own authors and illustrators. We need articles in the journals that specialise in education, suggesting ways and means that teachers can introduce their pupils to translations.

Teachers, school and public children's librarians should be encouraged to mount displays of books in translation - themed perhaps by language of origin, or connecting themes, or an author, and so on. Translators should be invited much more often than they are to speak to pupils, especially in secondary school, and to students in teacher education. Inset courses are needed to inform serving teachers.

More could be said about all these points, but I want to spend the rest of this brief time on the publishing of translations.

At the moment, if publishers bring out translations at all it is an ad hoc business, a book now and then, chosen for reasons that aren't immediately obvious, to me at least. These lone rangers are too few to make much of an impression and easily get lost in the crowd of other titles produced at the same time. I don't deny the difficulties of publishing translations. I know them very well from my experience with Turton and Chambers. But that same experience taught me that a different strategy is essential if we are to get anywhere.

Turton and Chambers was a two-person business, operating on very little money, with no promotional or sales support. I have to say, not as a gripe but only because it's pertinent to this discussion, that our five-year attempt to improve the state of translations for children was pretty much ignored by the print and electronic media, including I'm sorry to add, the specialist children's review and educational magazines. Even so, by the time our money ran out, we had shown that the publishing of translations could be a viable business, given two provisions.

The first is that in order to succeed, the editorial, promotion and sales resources of a large publisher, like Random House or Penguin, are needed.

The second is that it isn't only more translations that we need but a coherent editorial policy for their choice. All publishers have to ask themselves whether they are mainly publishers of individual books or of authors. The great publishers have always been publishers of authors, their choice being dictated by personal taste and by a view of what the current state of literature required to enlarge and enrich it. Think, for example of William Heinemann, Jonathan Cape and The Bodley Head in their independent heydays. The few great publishers of individual books have succeeded by the strength of their presentational design. Think of Penguin at the beginning. Later they combined the two: they published authors - all of D.H. Lawrence, for example - as well as individual books in an imprint with a memorable identifying appearance.

This is exactly what we now need for translations: a well resourced publisher who devotes a sector of their list to translations, which are published for clearly understood and coherent editorial reasons, and with an impressive identifying appearance. Given this, it would take about five years, publishing five to ten titles a year, to build up a list of sufficient strength and impact to produce break-even sales. This is exactly what was happening with T&C when we had to give up.

The vicious circle I spoke of can't be broken by readers. Books have to be in print and easily available before they can be read, and they have to be available in sufficient quantity and range of appeal to make an impact if we are to bring about a change in the prevailing negative attitude to translations. Imaginative and sustained publishing can break the circle. But not without a similar determined attention to what the publishers do by those of us who review, sell books, run libraries, and teach.

A lot more could be said about all these matters, but it's time for the important part of this evening's celebration: the announcement of this year's recipient.

Aidan Chambers 2005.

 

 

 

 

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