What I Learned from My First Translator’s Residency

Anikó Szilágyi is a third-year PhD student in Translation Studies at the University of Glasgow. She spent two weeks this summer at the Hungarian Translators’ House in Balatonfüred, Hungary, working on her translation of a 1967 Hungarian novel titled Győzelmes Gábriel [Gabriel the Victorious] by György Méhes. She recounts her experience below.

Satellite image of Lake Balaton. Source: NASA
Lake Balaton

I have many fond memories of visiting Lake Balaton in Western Hungary as a child. It was, and still is, the place to go if you wanted to get away from the bustle of metropolitan Budapest and enjoy the sun, the water, and – if you are old enough – the excellent Balaton wines. The region grew into a major tourist destination in the late 19th century, and today it attracts large numbers of domestic tourists as well as visitors from surrounding countries every summer. But this year I had a different reason for visiting this beautiful part of the Hungarian countryside: I went not as a tourist but as a translator.


Balatonfüred is one of the most popular resort towns on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. It became a centre for literary and cultural activity in the 1800s with writers, politicians and other prominent public figures as regular visitors looking to relax, socialise, or work. Mór Jókai, the great nineteenth-century novelist, wrote his masterpiece The Man with the Golden Touch [Az arany ember] in his summer house in Balatonfüred, which was translated into English and published by Corvina Press in 1963. Starting in the 1940s, the home of cultural historian Gábor Lipták served as a literary salon for almost four decades. Lipták’s will stated that the house must become an artists’ residence after his death. The building was renovated in the 1990s, and on 21 January 1998 the first translators’ house in Central and Eastern Europe opened its doors.

The Hungarian Translator’s House is operated by a Budapest-based foundation of the same name. It hosts translators from any linguistic and national background who translate out of Hungarian, offering 2-8-week residencies and stipends to cover living costs and contribute towards travel expenses. Applications are open all year round, and applicants have to submit a proposal, a publications list and, where possible, a contract or expression of interest from a publisher. When I applied in March 2015, I was sceptical about my chances of securing a place: translating into one’s second language is often frowned upon in literary circles. I was pleasantly surprised when (after waiting for a few weeks, then sending a reminder) I got a short reply: “Your application has been accepted. When would you like to come?”


When I stepped off the train in Balatonfüred three and a half months later, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. Not having to worry about money was reassuring: Glasgow University had generously funded my flights between Glasgow and Budapest, and I knew the stipend from the House would cover all necessary expenses during my stay. I had never been offered a residency before, so it was hard for me imagine how I would live for the next two weeks. I decided to walk to the House from the train station with a badly printed Google map in hand, and, naturally, got lost. Getting to the House was a relief.

Entrance hall with 16th-century table
The Lipták Memorial Room

I was received by the summer intern, Ági, who showed me around the gorgeous Lipták Residence. I immediately felt at home. The house was well-maintained and yet retained an old feel both inside and out, and it was full of beautiful antique furniture, original artworks, and, of course, books. There was an inlaid dining table in the middle of the entrance hall which, I later learned, dated from 1563 and had ended up in the House by accident, thanks to some Soviet soldiers who had allegedly traded it for wine. The shared facilities included a well-equipped kitchen and dining room, a library on the upper floor, and a sizeable garden. All six rooms were either en-suite or came with a separate bathroom and toilet.

My room was small but lovely. A fig tree right outside my window provided some shade as well as privacy (and I tasted a fresh fig for the first time in my life). I had my own PC, which I didn’t use because I preferred my own laptop, a huge desk, and a smaller table perfect for keeping dictionaries to hand. There were a few shops within walking distance, so I went food shopping every day, more for the exercise than for the food itself. I spent most of my time in my room working on the translation, but there were also opportunities to socialise with other residents and build professional relationships and friendships.

Dictionaries, phone and photocopier – anything to make the translators’ work easier

I was initially aiming to finish the book during my residency, which would have meant translating about 50,000 words in fourteen days. Given that most non-literary translators get through a maximum of 2000 words per day, and that literature takes a lot longer, this was optimistic, to say the least. I quickly realised my plan was far too ambitious, but it was fine: I comforted myself with the thought that quality took precedence over quantity, and aimed to make good use of House’s resources instead of trying to get through as much translation material as was possible. The various monolingual Hungarian dictionaries held in the House’s collection came in handy, because these are not accessible online. I also rediscovered the standard bilingual dictionaries I had been using before I moved to Scotland.

My workstation

I never doubted the benefits of the peace and quiet the Translators’ House could offer, but I was curious about whether and how these would affect the quality of my translation. Quality is, of course, notoriously hard to measure, but having now proofread the six chapters I completed at the House, I can see a change in the quality of my target text that is unlikely to be attributable solely to the unevenness of the source text. In other words, I think I was translating much better by the end of my residency than at the start of it, and this, I suspect, has more to do with the mindset I was able to get into than the source text becoming objectively easier to translate.

New additions display on the upper floor
Translators’ House flag

It was a bittersweet moment when the two weeks were up. I was pleased with my work and excited about going on holiday with my family, but I also felt like staying because I had more work to do and more translation questions to discuss with my colleagues and friends. I ended up producing about half as much text as I had hoped, but of much better quality, and I even unexpectedly bumped into a prominent English translator of Hungarian fiction, Bernard Adams. I interviewed him over coffee and cake, and we remain in regular email contact, which is essential in a small field like ours. I haven’t yet found out if I could come back to the Translators’ House next year to continue the same translation, but I will certainly try. I will be a few months from submitting and in sore need of breathing space and professional support, and I can’t think of a better place that provides them both.



Defining the Indefinable: Preliminary Thoughts on Comparative Literature and Translation Studies

Alessia Zinnari is currently an MLitt student in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow, after having completed a Master’s in Translation Studies at the University of Turin. Her research areas are 20th- and 21st-century women’s writing; Italian, English and Latin American literature; narratives of illness; and psychoanalytic literary criticism. Her reflection on the two disciplines was originally delivered as a conference paper at Comparative Literature at Glasgow: A 10-year Anniversary Celebration on 6 March 2015.

When someone asks me what I am studying, my answer is: ‘Comparative Literature’. The most common response to this is an expression of confusion on my interlocutor’s face. This is because everyone has heard of Comparative Literature, but few of them know what this discipline is about. In a quest for a definition of my field of study, the most inspiring I have encountered so far is the one given by Dr Elwira Grossman, Director of the undergraduate programme in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. She says that ‘the comparatist is a person with intellectual curiosity; an open mind with the courage to confront unknown cultures, unfamiliar writers and texts.’ And, I would add to that: ‘a comparatist is someone who is not afraid of languages’.

Dr Grossman’s quote contains some keywords that aptly represent the attitude of the comparatist. There is intellectual curiosity, which is the first ingredient of any respectable researcher; there is openness, which implies courage, and then we come to my favourites: unknown and unfamiliar, two words with negative prefixes. This ‘negativity’ makes Comparative Literature a discipline which is born to represent ‘otherness’, to resist what can be labelled as ‘authority’ or ‘authoritative’, and, more in general, to escape any type of definition. Translation Studies is similar in this respect. Further negative expressions worthe bearing in mind are the concepts of untranslatability – related, obviously, to Translation Studies – and the idea of indefinability – related to Comparative Literature.

Non-definition means uncertainty and, especially in our age – which, to quote Haun Saussy, is an ‘age of globalization’ – people can’t bear uncertainty; therefore, ideas of indefinability and untranslatability constitute the main challenge for Comparative Literature and Translation Studies scholars, who are linked together by this desire to study the impossible and the indefinable. This exploration of the unknown could be seen as some kind of a romantic or abstract thought, but in fact it is not. What are not exploring outer space, but embracing the history of our languages and cultures, our very own history as human beings, as Marxists would agree. As argued in The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature,

Comparative Literature is a quixotic discipline. Its practitioners press against institutional constraints and the limitations of human capacities as they try to grasp the infinite variety of the world’s literary production. Comparatists venture into art history, musicology, and film studies, while interdisciplinary work draws on insights from anthropology to history and from psychology to evolutionary biology. […] Comparative Literature programmes take many forms and show a protean tendency to shift over time in a single setting, shaped and reshaped by changing faculty availability and the sometimes uneasy dynamics of relation with the departments around them.

Is Comparative Literature like an amoeba? “Acanthamoeba” by http://enfo.agt.bme.hu/drupal/en/node/11277 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If we consider, then, Comparative Studies as a field in constant transformation, it is interesting to refer to what Gail Finney wrote for the 2014 State of the Discipline Report, using the metaphor of the amoeba to describe Comparative Literature:

Just as an amoeba feeds itself by assimilating other tiny organisms, skilfully enveloping them with its single-celled, permeable body, practitioners of Comparative Literature take in other fields of knowledge that nurture and enrich their literary studies. It is my prediction that Comparative Literature will keep moving in this direction and will therefore continue to change. Like the amoeba, the etymology of which (from the Greek amoibè, or ‘change’) reflects its protean nature, the discipline of Comparative Literature will persist in evolving.

This ‘protean’ nature is what makes Comparative Literature an area that can represent ‘the other’ and open to infinite possibilities of knowledge.

In Against World Literature, Emily Apter presents translation as ‘a tool for decolonisation’, and, quoting James Boyd White, ‘as a means for justice’. Put this way, Translation Studies and Comparative Literature can be seen as two sister disciplines, which couldn’t really exist without one another, and without having a political and ideological significance. The question this raises is, to what extent do translators know the cultures of the languages that they translate? And of course, the other way around, to what extent do comparatists know the languages of the literatures they are studying? Answering this question is important because when engaging with a translation or a culturally connoted study there is always some sort of political implementation; showing respect and sensitivity to this ‘tacit’ political nuance present in every text is one of the ethical duties of the good comparatist/translator.

Therefore, we need to reflect on how to develop both a linguistic and a cultural knowledge when translating or doing comparative research: it is only by combining linguistic and literary skills that we can reach an optimal analysis/translation of a text, whether scientific or literary. The key to success that every translator or comparatist should keep in mind is that only by studying and knowing foreign cultures can we understand and deconstruct our own. Again, Comparative Literature seems to be particularly effective in bringing together a variety of other disciplines – such as history, sociology, linguistics, philosophy – to investigate our culture through its literary production, confronting different ‘words’ and also diverse ‘worlds’.

In one of the contributions to Comparative Literature in the Age of Globalization, Jonathan Culler references Saussure when he says that ‘the most precise characteristic of any discipline is to be what the others are not’. I think of Comparative Literature as the discipline that can be what the others cannot because they are, somehow, limited by their own strict definitions, while us comparatists, even knowing the risks, are brave enough not to care about labels, as this is the only way to embrace the unknown.

Taking Stock of Subtitling

Díaz Cintas
Dr Jorge Díaz-Cintas

We were lucky to have Dr Jorge Díaz-Cintas come to the University of Glasgow to give a lecture titled “Taking Stock of Subtitling.” This coincided with the launch of a new postgraduate course ‘Subtitling Film & TV’ for students on Glasgow’s MSc in Translation Studies. Dr Díaz-Cintas has published widely on Audiovisual Translation, and is currently Director of the Centre for Translation Studies (CenTraS) at University College London, and Director of the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation (ESIST).

Dr Díaz-Cintas was quick to highlight that when we refer to subtitling, we are considering a medium of translation, rather than a genre; indeed, we are not always working with films, but also with TV programs and adverts, for example. What is most important in subtitling is that the content with which we are working is presented through two channels: the audio and the visual, sound and image.

After drawing attention to this common misconception, Dr Díaz-Cintas proceeded to describe the various modes of AVT (Audiovisual Translation), beginning with revoicing. This covers four different methods which involve editing or adding to the soundtrack: interpreting, dubbing, voiceover and narration. Dr Díaz Cintas pointed out that dubbing can sometimes create fiction within fiction. For example, dubbing can be so well done that some Spanish viewers may believe that Brad Pitt speaks perfect Spanish – his dialogue is usually dubbed using the same voice actor, so Spanish viewers could be led to believe that the voice they hear whenever they see him on screen is indeed his own voice. The second AVT mode is called rewriting, which includes subtitling and surtitling, the latter referring to the captions used at opera shows, for example. Accessibility, a sub-discipline within AVT, was also highlighted as a big area of development at the moment. This covers subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, which may be interlingual (between languages) or intralingual (from dialogue to written subtitles), re-speaking (a sort of semi-live subtitling) and audio description for the blind and partially sighted.

Following this overview of AVT, Dr Díaz-Cintas talked about the boom in the field which is occurring due to technological advances in audiovisual material. For example, the switch from analogue to digital has meant that there are now more translations to be done; a DVD can hold multiple subtitle files and soundtracks. With new developments occurring all the time, such as the merging of TV and internet, and online film databases such as Netflix and Amazon, content is much more accessible than before, and needs to be translated into many more languages in order to reflect this. Viewers expect subtitles; they expect to be able to watch whatever they want to, with a translation that they can understand.

Not only have viewer expectations developed, but so has the role of the subtitler. Where previously subtitlers may have been responsible only for the linguistic elements of the workflow, now they are expected to have much more technical expertise: they must be able to use video editing software and subtitling software, set timecodes, and produce subtitle files. In addition, the guidelines they must follow are also changing: as people become more used to reading from screens, reading speeds increase. As the shape and size of televisions change, we may be able to include more characters per line. Subtitlers are using more experimental techniques to see what might work best for viewers.

One thing is clear: audiovisual translation appears to be so closely linked to technology that it is growing and changing with it all the time. Subtitles are now being used for language learning, and companies are trying to develop CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tools which can be used in subtitling; fansubbing is really taking off and there are various types of freeware available that can be downloaded free of charge, and have the capabilities required to produce a set of subtitles.

Another popular area for research at the moment is 3D subtitling: new methods need to be designed for subtitling 3D films, as the strategies used previously will not work as well for 3D media. Subtitling generally appears to be moving towards a more creative approach, with previous restrictions on character count being tested on a regular basis; one new strategy is to also consider the amount of space each individual character takes. For example, an ‘m’ requires more space on the screen than an ‘I’, and this may affect the subtitler’s lexical choices. New TV screens are much bigger, which allows for more room for the subtitles, and people are becoming more and more accustomed to reading from a screen. Scholars looking to undertake research in AVT are really spoiled for choice at the minute!

Dr Díaz-Cintas’ talk was very informative, and he left us with some useful practical information, including some subtitling freeware which may be of interest: Aegisub, Subtitle Creator and Subtitle Workshop.

Useful organisations for those with an interest in subtitling include:

ESIST (European Association for Studies in Screen Translation)
Subtle (Subtitlers for Excellence)
ATAA (Association des Traducteurs et Adaptateurs de l’Audiovisuel)
AVTE (Audio Visual Translators Europe)

Hannah Silvester is a second-year PhD candidate in Translation Studies. She is developing strategies for subtitling non-standard French in English. Hannah also delivers technical workshops on the new Translation Studies MSc module ‘Subtitling Film & TV’.

‘I Heaved the Weight of Five Thousand Years to Meet You’: Translation Slam at the Dundee Literary Festival

Our guest writer Madeleine Campbell attended a ‘literary duel’ between two translators of a poem by Chiew-Siah Tei. Starting with the titles, the English renditions of the Chinese work were dissected line by line to reveal challenges arising from translating poetry between this language pair, raising theological and linguistic questions along the way.


Malaysian-born novelist and poet Chiew-Siah Tei participated in the 2014 Dundee Literary Festival (22-26 October) in two different capacities. Firstly, she was invited to discuss her second novel, The Mouse Deer Kingdom, with Scottish PEN’s Rosemary Burnett. Chiew, who writes in English and Chinese, also volunteered one of her poems for the Translation Slam, in which the poem’s two translators, Esther Tyldesley and Yueshi Gu, were to ‘pit their linguistic wits against one another’. Chaired by Rosemary, the Slam started with Chiew-Siah Tei’s account of her writer’s residency in Sicily, a month-long experience she shared with other writers and artists in Palazzolo Acreide. At first she found that she was being stared at. Surmising that the local population didn’t often see people from East Asia, she reflected that, although invaded often, Sicily had never been invaded by people from the Far East. Chiew came to Scotland ten years ago and since then has been writing in English. As she walked the rocks and hills around Palazzolo Acreide, however, a poem came to her in Chinese rather than English. The slam, facilitated by Rosemary, proceeded line-by-line through the ‘rival’ translations of this poem.

From the two versions of the poem’s title it was already apparent that Yueshi’s translation style was more literal than Esther’s. Yueshi’s intention was to be as faithful to the source as possible, while aiming for every line to read as verse. Her title read: ‘I Heaved the Weight of Five Thousand Years to Meet You’. Esther explained that she wanted her version of the title, ‘A Meeting Delayed by Five Thousand Years’, to be short and also that she didn’t want to repeat it in the first line, which in the source text is identical to the title of the poem. When asked for her opinion as author, Chiew remarked that it was difficult to comment: as an English speaker herself, her own translation wouldn’t be a translation but rather a rewrite—but in this instance she would probably have left out Yueshi’s ‘to meet you’. For the first line of the poem Yueshi kept the same text, as did Chiew in Chinese, while Esther’s version read: ‘With the burden of five thousand years I came here to you […]’. Chiew noted that ‘five thousand years’ represent the weight of Chinese history, and hence in this sense the word ‘burden’ is superfluous.

Discussion of the third line held the promise of an interesting theological digression, with Yueshi translating : ‘[…] The gods were resting also, on this Sunday afternoon’, while Esther, observing that God rests on Sundays in Catholic countries, offered: ‘God too was resting on that Sunday afternoon’. However, Yueshi’s alternative was based on dual considerations, neither of which strayed into deep esoteric territory: from the grammatical point of view, the Chinese language doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural forms, even for ‘God’, therefore she was able to interpret quite freely. Further, in the context of the poem, which several lines later recounts how the UNESCO World Heritage Site to which the poem referred was conquered by ‘[…] soldiers of ancient Greece, of Rome, of Arabia, of Normandy and Spain’, the plural form seemed appropriate. Although Chiew confirmed that she was in fact invoking a Christian God, Rosemary reiterated that in matters of translation, it is a decision-making process where there is no right or wrong answer. Esther, who teaches Chinese at Edinburgh University, concurred and acknowledged how full of ambiguity some of this ancient language can be. She also noted that in Chinese, tenses act as way-markers rather than serving a central semantic function, which leaves plenty of scope, for example, between active and passive forms.

The Q&A revealed the translators’ background and approach to poetry to be quite different, and this was reflected in their differing versions of the text. Yueshi, a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese who provides Chinese language services (www.silkword.co.uk), studied interpreting at Heriot-Watt University and has written poetry in both Chinese and English. Esther, who has a BA in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MA in Applied Translation Studies (Chinese) from Leeds, doesn’t write poetry but translates novels and biographies. Esther observed that every word, every line is a decision, and you can balance unattainable nuances in one line with more accurate equivalence elsewhere in the text. Yueshi flagged up the importance of taking the target audience into account. One question from the audience related to whether the translator should be cited in publications, drawing a parallel with the art world, where print makers, who were not acknowledged in the past, now increasingly tend to be named contributors to the published product. Chiew stressed that she had great respect for translators and noted the encouraging example of a recent literary festival in Penang, Malaysia, where a special session for translators took place, and was likely to become a regular feature. Rosemary thanked the participants for an enlightening session, both for their versions of Chiew’s lovely poem and for an insight into the process, which highlighted a range of features of specific interest when translating from the Chinese language.

Rounding up, Rosemary announced that PEN Scotland was committed to promoting translation and to holding more such events in the future. This was a fascinating session for readers and writers, translation practitioners and poets alike. Knowledge of Chinese was not necessary to appreciate how the two translators’ creative and imaginative resources were brought to bear in distinct ways to address the challenges they faced. The author’s presence and generosity of spirit in giving the translators free rein underlined the divergent tensions and loyalties under which translators operate: every translation is an original contribution, yet its genealogy is de facto dependent on the author’s text and on cultural context in both the source and target languages. As Yueshi concluded, ‘translation is a re-creation, but without the source there would be no translation’. It is only fair that translators and authors should both be acknowledged.

How Corpora Can Help You to Translate Better

How can corpora be useful to translators? This was the main question Dr Ana Frankenberg-Garcia of the University of Surrey asked in a talk recently delivered at Glasgow titled ‘Corpora in Translation Practice’. Although she was careful not to “spoon-feed the answer”, she made a convincing case for translators using corpora to help them with decision-making during the translation process in a number of ways. But, before we delve into their benefits and potential difficulties they might pose – what are corpora?


Corpus means ‘body’ in Latin, and in the context of linguistics it refers to a body of texts. It could be described as a collection of texts assembled for the purpose of linguistic study. So the first important thing to note, as Dr Frankenberg-Garcia pointed out, is that it is not a random collection of texts but a principled one – for example, you need a collection of legal texts if you want to find out something about legal language. Secondly, it needs to be a collection of natural texts, that is, they can’t have been written specifically for the purpose of linguistic study – they have to be ‘out there’ already prior to the beginning of the investigation. Thirdly, the collection has to be representative, meaning you need a large number of texts in your corpus if you want to get meaningful results. And finally, the corpus has to be in a digital format to be processable. Corpora are commonly used by linguists in a subfield of linguistics called corpus linguistics.

Dr Frankenberg-Garcia’s talk started with the very interesting observation that “translators use language that is not their own.” What about bilingual translators, you might say, who are native speakers of both the source and the target language and therefore ‘own’ them both? Well, they are still working with words someone else strung together, so in this sense their starting point is always somebody else’s language. But of course translators also often work with languages that are not their first, so they can’t rely solely on their own judgement. There are various tools they can use to deal with problematic words or constructions: they can ask a native speaker, consult a dictionary, ask questions on an online forum, etc. Or they can “query a corpus.”

What are the advantages of looking at a corpus over all these other options? First of all, corpora reflect how people use language, rather than what they know about it (and you will often find that if you ask a native speaker friend about the usage of a particular word or grammatical structure, it turns out they have no idea what the rules are – they only know how to follow them). You can also consult millions of texts in a very short time, and it would pose obvious difficulties if you tried to do the same by asking people. Dictionaries have many uses and often provide sample contexts for entries, but due to constraints of space and time these will inevitably be limited.

Dr Ana Frankenberg-Garcia

So what sort of things can we ‘ask’ a corpus? Dr Frankenberg-Garcia cited the examples of concordances, frequencies, collocations and word lists. Concordances display all the occurrences of the search term (word or string including alternative word forms, so ‘opinion’, ‘opinions’, etc.) Bilingual concordances are particularly interesting to translators, as they reveal the various ways in which a given word can be translated into another language – of course a bilingual corpus is required for such operations. Frequencies can tell us how commonly a word or phrase is used. Dr Frankenberg-Garcia’s example was ‘in my opinion’ vs. ‘to my mind’, where the search results show that the former is much more prevalent in academic language, and the latter in spoken discourse. Collocations are strings of words commonly used together, and corpora can answer questions like “what verbs can I use before [insert noun]?” Corpora can also help us to generate – and compare across languages – lists of words typically used in certain types of texts (e.g. pharmaceutical).

It seems clear that these functions can indeed facilitate translation, and yet corpora are not widely used by practising translators. As Dr Frankenberg-Garcia explained, this is partly to do with education and awareness. “Training translators to use corpora takes time”, and corpus linguistics modules offered by universities are rarely geared specifically towards translation. There is also little incentive coming from the industry to use corpora, in contrast to other computer-aided translation (CAT) tools like SDL Trados. While it can certainly improve the quality of translations, the use of corpora offers “no obvious productivity gains.” Translators therefore might be put off by the initial time investment required, even though corpora are arguably easier to use than other, more popular software.

While the worldwide community of translators might need a bit more persuasion, it’s good to know that the option is there. Many online corpora are now freely accessible. Translators of English are very well catered for, but there is also an increasing number of corpora available in other languages, and it is also possible for translators to build their own. Below is a list of corpora recommended by Dr Frankenberg-Garcia, who continues to train translators and raise awareness of the opportunities afforded by using corpora in translation practice.


Business Letter Corpus


Real Academia Española – Corpus de Referencia del Español Actual (CREA)

COMPARA (English and Portuguese)

OPUS: the open parallel corpus


Sketch Engine

Intersemiotic Translation and an Indian Summer in Kiev

Madeleine Campbell graduated with a PhD in English Literature from Glasgow in 2014, and is now working as a researcher, writer and literary translator. She was recently in Kiev to give a paper entitled ‘Intersemiotic Translation of Mohammed Dib’s Poetry’ at Language – Literature – the Arts: A Cognitive and Semiotic Interface
(25-27 Sep 2014, Kyiv National Linguistic University). She writes about her experience below.


From the air Kiev is a city divided by a wide river and a broad wooded area. Serried rows of identical high rises crowd what its citizens call the Left Bank to the East, while the old city to the West sprawls in an open weave of ochres and pale yellows with irregular shapes of lingering greenery. From the angle of the landing aircraft the chalk-white buildings appeared to be leaning as they absorbed the last of the evening rays against the diagonal line of the water, in a manner reminiscent of the elongated reflections of Port Vendres in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s painting La rue du soleil in the South of France. As I stepped out in the unseasonably cold evening air, the after-image of the massed metropolis somehow evoked a 50s science fiction novel I couldn’t quite place.

Modern replica of The Theotokos of Vladimir, donated by the American diaspora to Mykhaylivs’kyi zolotoverkhyi monastyr (St Michael’s Goden-Domed Monastery)

A keynote speaker from Holland had been advised by his university not to make the journey, and a Polish Professor had been made to take out extra insurance, which explains perhaps how it was that I came to be given VIP treatment (for which I was very grateful), even though I was there to give a humble paper along with over 120 researchers in one of the conference’s five plenaries. The Ukrainian Association of Cognitive Linguistics and Poetics, which was founded in May 2012 and has some 100 members, was holding its first conference under the aegis of Kyiv National Linguistic University. The Greek characters of the Association’s logo, γ λ π (gamma, lambda, pi), stand for ‘glossolalia, linguistics, poetics’ to reflect its key areas of enquiry. The letters are encircled by a sweeping C, almost closed to an omega, to symbolize the all-encompassing domain of the cognitive disciplines.

The conference, brought together by Prof. Olga Vorobyova (Kyiv National Linguistic University, Ukraine) and Prof. Elzbieta Chrzanowska-Kluczewska (Jagellonian University, Krakow, Poland), gathered scholars and researchers from the fields of linguistics, psycholinguistics, literary theory, philosophy and philosophy of language, cognitive and neuroscientific studies, non-verbal semiotics, art theory, artistic semiotics and any combination of these. The breadth and diversity of subjects covered conveys the refreshing ambition and reach of this conference, effectively bridging traditional divides between disciplines to achieve a more holistic perspective of the cognitive and semiotic dimensions of creative works. In addition to three days of presentations this inspiring event, attended primarily by researchers from Ukraine and Poland, featured a roundtable discussion organized jointly by Olga and Elena, entitled ‘Languages, Literatures, Works of Art – the Texts of Our Experience’, and another on terminology.

Over 120 presentations in five plenaries pointed to a vibrant postgraduate and postdoctoral scene

In the context of ekphrasis there was some discussion on thedifference between, for example, multimodality – which is the juxtaposition of different media – and transmodality, or intermediality, where one modality crosses over into another. Said Olga Vorobyova, ‘the methodology is eclectic, we need to clarify the boundaries’. At the same time, when discussing boundaries and frames, she stressed that ‘looking through just one theoretical or cultural window no longer works’ and wondered whether this young interdisciplinary field was now undergoing a sort of ‘post-cognitive eclecticism’. Professor Olena Morozova from the University of Kharkiv (more commonly referred to as Karhov, which reflects the Russian pronunciation) gave a paper on the emerging discourse on transparency in the arts and humanities, noting that it ‘is the result of the mind’s output, not input’ and questioning whether greater transparency was a function of evolution or degradation, citing for example David Brim’s The Transparent Society to reflect on its ultimate desirability.

The many presentations pointed to a vibrant postgraduate and postdoctoral scene, and most were given in the Ukrainian language. As the only participant from the UK I was privileged to benefit from excellent interpretation provided by Julia, who is currently writing up her doctorate on redundancy in the English language. On the rare occasions I was left to my own devices, I applied myself to guessing the gist of the presentations by deciphering the Cyrillic script displayed on the presenters’ powerpoints. This was greatly assisted by the common Greek etymology for much of the terminology: words like ‘mimesis’ and ‘diegesis’ in the context of John Constable, William Golding and Neil Gaiman for example, sounded intriguing. Fortunately for me this presenter was fluent in English and graciously filled me in after her talk. In her paper entitled ‘Diegetic Aspects of Gothic Architectural Images through the Prism of Narrative Scenarios’, doctoral candidate Natalia Kolbina from Pottava National Pedagogical University analysed mimetic modes in Gothic architecture, citing Gaiman’s 2-dimensional London in Neverwhere – which she read first in Russian then English − as an example.

Flowers and pictures of loved ones on Maidan Square, a poignant reminder of last winter’s pro-EU revolution

The Association, known as UAClip, plans to publish a monograph in English of the proceedings of the first event and to hold biennial conferences. In the plenary suggestions were put forward to make the event more international by providing more presentations in English, and to hold the next conference in Odessa (2016). Although not finalized, a conference theme was proposed to explore the intersection of information theory, psychology and political studies and their applications. By way of illustration, Professor Svetlana A. Zhabotynska (Cherkasy National University) explained that one topic may revolve around how the cognitive maps fostered by a country’s education system and media create territories that are not reflections of reality. Lviv was suggested as a possible venue for the following conference in 2018.

On a closing tour of the city, a timid sun ushered in more clement temperatures as we walked through Mariinsky Park and across the precarious Bridge of Love’s gaping wooden planks, hastily nailed together after it was damaged in last winter’s pro-EU Maidan Revolution. Kiev was taking small breaths as we stared across the placid Dnipro river, taking in sweeping views of both sides of the city with the sweet smell of autumn. My guide said they always have an Indian summer in October. Let us hope that it lasted long enough for gas supplies, which had just been cut off by its suppliers under pressure from Russia, to be restored before the continental winter sets in. The slogans on billboards on the way to the airport said ‘Ukraine Will Win’ (Ukraiina permozhe).

A Good Time to Blog

BTBA-winning translator Ottilie Mulzet (Source: The Quarterly Conversation)

Why? Because Translation Studies is a growing discipline. We can see this when we look at what’s happening in Scotland, but it’s also true on an international scale. Literary translation in particular is enjoying a revival. American scholar Edwin Gentzler has recently pointed out that translated literature is flourishing in the US, so much so that it is appropriate to talk about a “translation turn in creative writing.” We also have more hard data about what translations are published in what languages, because literary organisations are becoming more focused on collecting such data. This means that we can follow trends and compare national corpuses more easily.

Let’s look at translation in a global context first. A number of recent initiatives have challenged the idea, once commonly held (although hardly ever expressed explicitly), that the English-speaking world ‘doesn’t need’ translated literature because it is somehow self-sufficient. Words Without Borders, for example, is a new-ish website aimed at enriching English-language world literature by promoting translation. They also publish translated volumes, like the anthologies Literature from the “Axis of Evil”: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Other Enemy Nations (2007), and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes of the Middle East (2011). Asymptote is an international journal of literary translation, which publishes four freely accessible online issues a year, each packed with translations, essays and interviews. PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International has over 100 autonomous, local centres worldwide, and translation is a vital part of their global fight for freedom of expression.

Similar initiatives can be found in the US. The University of Rochester launched the Three Percent website in 2007, inspired by the claim that only about three percent of literature published in the US is in translation. Three Percent has its own literary prize, the Best Translated Book Award, which in 2014 was awarded to Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai for Seiobo There Below [Seiobo járt odalent], translated by Ottilie Mulzet, and to Italian poet Elsa Biagini for The Guest in the Wood [from two separate anthologies, L’ospite and Nel Bosco], translated by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.

The UK has a number of organisations dedicated to promoting literary translation, such as the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT), Literature Across Frontiers, and the Poetry Translation Centre. Notable British awards for translation include the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the British Centre for Comparative Literature’s John Dryden Translation Competition. Many of these awards and literary bodies have been founded in the new millennium, indicating a renewed interest in translation. Various UK cities participate in European Literature Nights, a lesser-known but remarkable initiative that brings world literature to local audiences across the continent.

This brief overview has been necessarily selective and can only hint at the pace at which translation and Translation Studies are growing worldwide. We’ll take a closer look at translation in Scotland next.

(You can find links to many of the websites mentioned here under ‘Resources’.)