Speech for The Marsh Award.
Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation 2005.
in 1996, the Award honours the translators of children's books
by giving once every two years an honorarium of £3000.
2005 recipient was Sarah Adams for her translation of The Eye
of the Wolf from the French of Daniel Pennac, published by Walker
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:
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.
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.
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
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 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.'
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?
God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.
and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock,
and it shall be opened unto you.
God all things are possible.
Him we live and move and have our being.
I my brother's keeper?
are the salt of the earth.
signs of the times.
drink, and be merry.
fell from their eyes.
powers that be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
could be said about all these points, but I want to spend the
rest of this brief time on the publishing of translations.
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.
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.
first is that in order to succeed, the editorial, promotion
and sales resources of a large publisher, like Random House
or Penguin, are needed.
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.
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.
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
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.