One of the many treats on offer at this year’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words in Sheffield was an evening with Meike Ziervogel and Hamid Ismailov. Meike Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press, a small independent publishing house in London dedicated to publishing short works of European fiction in translation. Hamid Ismailov is a writer in both Russian and Uzbek, now living in the UK and whose recent book, ‘The Dead Lake’ , translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, was published by Peirene in 2014.
The conversation ranged across a spectrum of challenges involved in the ‘art’ of translation. At one point on the spectrum lies the challenge of conveying an utterly unknown environment, that of the Russian steppe, to the English reader. At another point lies the challenge of understanding and communicating the ‘soul of the book’ : Meike Ziervogel talked about, in her role as editor, shortening the sentences of a book about the nomadic Kazaks to convey the sense of forward movement.
Differences between languages in terms of their syntax prove challenging- Hamid Ismailov told us that Uzbek, like German, places the verb, with all its information about tense and agency, at the end of the sentence. Other nuances are employed earlier in the sentence to hint at, for example, time frames, which then fall away, because unnecessary, in English with our simple basic syntactical arrangement of subject, verb and object- the falling away being then a kind of translation loss. I was fascinated to hear from Meike Ziervogel that because of the larger lexis in English, English readers will expect more variation of language than German readers. ( So when translating a German paragraph with two ‘schließlichs’ and one ‘endlich’, as I’ve just done, would I do better searching for three alternatives in English, rather than settling for the two in German?).
It was this kind of simultaneous short and long focus on the part of both publisher and writer which for me was the gift of the evening: an ability to get right down to the building bricks of the language, the choice of individual words and sentence structure, while at the same time sensitive to the broader sweep of both the language and the ‘soul’ of the book, and how to convey this. And with the added bonus of the Sheffield writer Rachel Genn chairing the discussion and asking such thoughtful and pertinent questions of both guests, the evening was an absolute delight.
Many thanks to Meike Ziervogel and Hamid Ismailov for coming to Sheffield and for Off the Shelf for your fantastic programme!