Last night we travelled Europe in the space of an hour and a half without leaving the comfort of our seats in the CCA Club Room, as we took a guided tour of literature in translation with Donal McLaughlin at the helm. A friendly introduction from Derek Parks welcomed Donal – a founding member of the Scottish Writer’s Centre – to a crowd of both familiar faces and new visitors drawn in by the evening’s enlightening subject matter. While managing the twin disciplines of writing and translation is obviously a little more than ‘just a piece of cake’, Donal’s insights over the course of the evening demonstrated a lightness of touch that belied his wide-ranging talents.
Opening the first half of the event which focused on his own writing, Donal offered a response to the question ‘Why I Write’ from his inclusion in the Best European Fiction 2012 anthology. His reasons were as myriad as they were revealing: ‘to see if I can’, ‘because my granny bought me books when I was wee’, ‘because it worked the last time.’ Further readings from his two collections of short stories brought home the importance of McLaughlin’s heritage to his writing, both as a child in Derry and his life in Paisley growing up in the early 70s.
an allergic reaction to national anthems & other stories (Argyll 2009) offered a view into the life of Liam and his family, a vast and varied tribe, bursting with personality. In addition to a reading of the title story of the collection, Donal treated us to a reading based on a real-life childhood anecdote, in which a young Liam awaiting the harsh discipline of the belt in a bleak school corridor sees a portrait of the Virgin Mary on the wall and implores her for absolution. We don’t want to spoil it for you, but the Blessed Mother might not be all that she appears. Following a zig-zag structure, McLaughlin’s ‘Liam stories’ are punctuated by standalone stories that traverse the borders of both country and family in both collections.
beheading the virgin mary & other stories (Dalkey Archive 2014) follows the same structure, and in addition to a reading of the title piece Donal discussed anxieties surrounding the connotations of such a title in the current world media climate. Donal is no stranger to engaging with political and historical narratives, as a reading from his fiction entry for Best European Fiction 2012 closed the first half of the evening with a sombre look at the Troubles through the eyes of an adolescent Liam on the cusp of adult understanding.
The first person to be included as both a writer and a translator in Best European Fiction, Donal has since been short listed for the Best Translated Book Award (USA) and was awarded the Max Geilinger Prize 2015 in April this year for ‘his achievements as a mediator of Swiss writing in the English speaking world.’ Returning in fine form after a short interval, the second half of the evening brought Donal’s work as a translator to the fore. An earlier admission that he ‘doesn’t write poetry’ proved a smokescreen for the introduction of his first translation – Shards (Edinburgh Review 2003), a raw and powerful collection by the late poetess-in-exile Stella Rotenberg. From her, Donal offered the wisdom that ‘we have nothing but our flesh and vulnerability’ and his bittersweet recollections of their meetings showed the strength of his relationship, not just with this extraordinary women but with all of the writers whom he has translated.
For the time being we made our base in Switzerland, as Donal recounted his experiences translating the works of Urs Widmer, including his two loosely biographical novels My Mother’s Lover and My Father’s Book (both Seagull Press). The two travelled to India together and toured both novel and translation in tandem, a process which seemed to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between both versions of the text. Similar concerns embodied a discussion of his translation of Zbinden’s Progess (&other stories 2012) by Christoph Simon and a reading introduced us to the lively octogenarian whose life story is revealed on a pilgrimage to the bottom of the stairs.
Remaining in Switzerland, our horizons began to broaden as McLaughlin introduced the work of Maria Cantieni, in particular her novel The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons (Seagull Books 2014) which is nominated for this year’s EIF First Book Award. Donal spoke of the translation process involved in presenting a narrative that celebrates the love of language, which the young narrator collects throughout her journey to fit in as an immigrant in adoptive limbo in 1970s Switzerland. Language and communication were key to his translation work on Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz (Freight Books 2013). McLaughlin echoed Lenz’s reluctance to enforce a concept of ‘dialect’ in his writing, offering instead the view that both he and Lenz ‘created a voice for the character.’
Speaking of the translation of his own work into other languages drew the evening towards Eastern Europe, and it was difficult not to be moved by the story of how a Slovene translation transcended the boundaries of language in a reading by the sadly deceased translator’s husband. Donal’s work has also been translated into German, offering a unique opportunity for him to work alongside the translators in his second language. Further afield, a discussion of Abbas Khider’s The Village Indian (Seagull Books 2013) found us making our way from Baghdad back to Europe in a narrative that recalled the physical and cultural displacement of refugees so tragically familiar in the recent news.
Closing the evening, Donal book-ended this broad-ranging discussion of fiction and translation by echoing the question he had answered at the outset, offering us an insight to the process behind ‘Why I Translate’. He paid homage to a varied education in languages both at school in Paisley and at Strathclyde University, and spoke of the boundary-defying capabilities of translation, and how he ‘can’t be doing with narrow nationalisms.’ Most powerfully, and perhaps most importantly, he ended by saying ‘I translate because not everything that needs to be said is first said in English.’