Lost and found in translation – Fellows’ seminar by Rúnar Vignisson

3 June 2019

“Does it matter in what language we express ourselves? Would the world be a better place if the Tower of Babel had never been built and we all spoke the same language? What would be lost, if anything?” asked Rúnar Vignisson, Director of the Creative Writing Programme at the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Iceland and the first STIAS fellow from Iceland.

Vignisson presented a seminar to STIAS fellows which consisted of two parts – the first “the voice of a threatened language, the Icelandic language, lamenting its fate and what it entails – in English” and the second describing his longstanding project, a five-part anthology of short stories from around the globe translated into Icelandic.

Vignisson - 1 STIAS fellow Rúnar Vignisson  during his seminar on 23 May 2019

The reading provided Information about the status of the Icelandic language which is under threat largely due to globalisation and access to media and digital communication and technological innovations only available in English.

“UNESCO estimates that up to 3000 languages will disappear by the end of the century,” said Vignisson. “Icelandic could be extinct within 100 years.”

“A language can disappear very fast,” he said, “despite having been spoken for thousands of years.”

“The youth are now surrounded by other languages – mostly English – and are losing contact with their roots,’ he added. “Icelandic is seen as inadequate in the globalised world – it’s not cool, it has too many syllables.”

“It has a hard time keeping up with technology – and is one of the least supported languages in digital speech-processing apps.”

“Basically, like many other languages, it’s threatened by lack of use and respect,” he said. “And in losing a language we lose parts of our culture, our pasts, ourselves.”

He also pointed out that when governments introduce measures to preserve national languages these are often seen as “isolationist, nationalistic and politically incorrect”.

Vignisson then went on to provide information about his anthology project. He pointed out that when he started the project 25 years ago the attitude towards Icelandic was very different. “Preserving Icelandic then was a holy cow, it was seen as defining our identity. Attitudes have 33changed a lot since then – scholars are more pessimistic.”

The goal is to provide Icelanders with masterpieces of the short story form, many of which had never been translated into Icelandic. It’s the first project of its kind in Iceland.

“I believe there is enormous cultural value in a well-researched anthology,” he added. “I have found many of my favourite authors in anthologies. Anthologies are like a pollination system that allows literary works to be disseminated from one part of the world to another where they put down roots and inspire readers and writers.”

The anthology is divided into five volumes by continent with three already published – North America in 2016, Latin America in 2017 and Asia and Oceania in 2018.

“They are very different volumes,” said Vignisson. “The conception of the form and subject matter vary greatly demanding different things from the reader.”

“We made a big effort to find stories from countries not usually represented in the West. The Asian and Oceania anthology includes stories from parts of the world which are geographically the furthest away from Iceland. I’m proud to present stories from that part of the world.”

“We were very conscious of the need to be as ethnically and gender diverse as possible,’ he added. “The works cover one century. From the 1960s onwards female writers became more prominent within this genre.”

“We also wanted to ensure it was reader friendly – in paperback – something that could be read in bed. Not just for scholars and students.”

The stories are arranged chronologically to give an historical dimension. Notes are also included to provide background information.

“The hope for those reading all the volumes is that their worldview will be different.”

Thus far the full anthology includes 74 stories collected from 54 countries. Work is now moving forward on the African anthology which should be published later this year. Vignisson is using his time at STIAS to expand his access to African literature and and scholarship.

“Africa has huge literary output – there is a huge selection to choose from.”

“We are very open to suggestions of good short stories from Africa – especially those in other languages than the colonial ones. We also don’t have enough women authors from Africa. Men have historically written more and we don’t want to include something just because it’s a woman author but, obviously, this is a sensitive issue.”

Translating challenges

Vignisson spoke of the challenges the project has experienced of which finding translators has been the major one.

“It’s been a challenge to find translators and people to compare the translations to the originals. We have had to resort often to using an intermediate language but this, of course, means some loss of framing, context and style.”

“Sometimes it seems an impossible task to translate. Every language comes with a whole world. You can’t bring all of that across, and it is also complicated to bring the past to the present.”

“The stories have to stand for themselves in a new context.”

“Editors themselves are, of course, conditioned by the literary context in which they work. We have tried to broaden our horizon by taking advice from local people and travelling. We also rely on other anthologies. We can’t pretend to be specialists on all these countries, but it’s a start.”

“Judging quality is obviously very complex. You have to depend on intuition. Each story has to have something different. Although we have no theme and are striving for diversity, there must be some coherency, some overall narrative. We originally wanted a story from every country but we couldn’t convince the publisher so we are including the best stories we find.”

“We hope we are making a contribution to world literature as well as to preserving the Icelandic language. Obviously an anthology from Iceland won’t skew the literary hegemony like an American one would but that, in a way, gives us some freedom.”

In discussion, Vignisson addressed the difficult topic of what constitutes a good story.

“You could give 90 definitions,’ he said, referring to the estimated number of stories to be included in the anthology. “A good story is one that appeals to someone like me who has read thousands of stories from around the globe. It’s a story that surprises me, that has something new to offer. However, I’m also culturally conditioned so I have to keep the readers in mind.”

Co-existence not extinction

He also pointed out that he is very interested in the multiple languages in use in South Africa and in how different languages and mixtures are used for different contexts.

“South Africa has 11 official languages,’ he said. “I would like to understand how they co-exist. It’s important to understand how languages survive. Icelanders will never be mono-lingual again but can Icelandic and other languages co-exist? Is this the way to save Icelandic?”

“I suppose many would ask why we are bothering to translate into a language that has so few speakers and may not be spoken a few decades from now? But if we lose Icelandic completely much of our culture will be lost. We have a literary heritage from the 1300s which we can still read in the original. However, it’s harder for each generation to access.”

“We have to reach the youth,” he added. “On social media they are mixing English and Icelandic – effectively creating a new language. Written Icelandic is still fairly clean but spoken is different already. I think a blend would be a bad outcome. We need to find ways to become fully bilingual, to continue to speak about the world in Icelandic while at the same time being able to converse with the outside world.”

“I’m working with teachers to find innovative ways to bring more joy into the teaching of Icelandic through writing. I’m advocating for allowing kids to create in the language for that always brings joy. Spelling and grammar can be taught through writing. The government has implemented new measures to support Icelandic literature and publishing and is trying to do something about the digital issues. So there is a movement beginning.”

“Language is the soul of your being,” he concluded. “We have to embrace and nurture our culture and traditions. When you read in your mother tongue, you read with the whole body, not just the brain.”

“Does it matter in what language we express ourselves? Would the world be a better place if the Tower of Babel had never been built and we all spoke the same language? What would be lost, if anything?” asked Rúnar Vignisson, Director of the Creative Writing Programme at the Faculty of Icelandic and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Iceland and the first STIAS fellow from Iceland.

Vignisson presented a seminar to STIAS fellows which consisted of two parts – the first “the voice of a threatened language, the Icelandic language, lamenting its fate and what it entails – in English” and the second describing his longstanding project, a five-part anthology of short stories from around the globe translated into Icelandic.

The reading provided Information about the status of the Icelandic language which is under threat largely due to globalisation and access to media and digital communication and technological innovations only available in English.

“UNESCO estimates that up to 3000 languages will disappear by the end of the century,” said Vignisson. “Icelandic could be extinct within 100 years.”

“A language can disappear very fast,” he said, “despite having been spoken for thousands of years.”

“The youth are now surrounded by other languages – mostly English – and are losing contact with their roots,’ he added. “Icelandic is seen as inadequate in the globalised world – it’s not cool, it has too many syllables.”

“It has a hard time keeping up with technology – and is one of the least supported languages in digital speech-processing apps.”

“Basically, like many other languages, it’s threatened by lack of use and respect,” he said. “And in losing a language we lose parts of our culture, our pasts, ourselves.”

He also pointed out that when governments introduce measures to preserve national languages these are often seen as “isolationist, nationalistic and politically incorrect”.

Vignisson then went on to provide information about his anthology project. He pointed out that when he started the project 25 years ago the attitude towards Icelandic was very different. “Preserving Icelandic then was a holy cow, it was seen as defining our identity. Attitudes have 33changed a lot since then – scholars are more pessimistic.”

The goal is to provide Icelanders with masterpieces of the short story form, many of which had never been translated into Icelandic. It’s the first project of its kind in Iceland.

“I believe there is enormous cultural value in a well-researched anthology,” he added. “I have found many of my favourite authors in anthologies. Anthologies are like a pollination system that allows literary works to be disseminated from one part of the world to another where they put down roots and inspire readers and writers.”

The anthology is divided into five volumes by continent with three already published – North America in 2016, Latin America in 2017 and Asia and Oceania in 2018.

“They are very different volumes,” said Vignisson. “The conception of the form and subject matter vary greatly demanding different things from the reader.”

“We made a big effort to find stories from countries not usually represented in the West. The Asian and Oceania anthology includes stories from parts of the world which are geographically the furthest away from Iceland. I’m proud to present stories from that part of the world.”

“We were very conscious of the need to be as ethnically and gender diverse as possible,’ he added. “The works cover one century. From the 1960s onwards female writers became more prominent within this genre.”

“We also wanted to ensure it was reader friendly – in paperback – something that could be read in bed. Not just for scholars and students.”

The stories are arranged chronologically to give an historical dimension. Notes are also included to provide background information.

“The hope for those reading all the volumes is that their worldview will be different.”

Thus far the full anthology includes 74 stories collected from 54 countries. Work is now moving forward on the African anthology which should be published later this year. Vignisson is using his time at STIAS to expand his access to African literature and and scholarship.

“Africa has huge literary output – there is a huge selection to choose from.”

“We are very open to suggestions of good short stories from Africa – especially those in other languages than the colonial ones. We also don’t have enough women authors from Africa. Men have historically written more and we don’t want to include something just because it’s a woman author but, obviously, this is a sensitive issue.”

Translating challenges

Vignisson spoke of the challenges the project has experienced of which finding translators has been the major one.

“It’s been a challenge to find translators and people to compare the translations to the originals. We have had to resort often to using an intermediate language but this, of course, means some loss of framing, context and style.”

“Sometimes it seems an impossible task to translate. Every language comes with a whole world. You can’t bring all of that across, and it is also complicated to bring the past to the present.”

“The stories have to stand for themselves in a new context.”

“Editors themselves are, of course, conditioned by the literary context in which they work. We have tried to broaden our horizon by taking advice from local people and travelling. We also rely on other anthologies. We can’t pretend to be specialists on all these countries, but it’s a start.”

“Judging quality is obviously very complex. You have to depend on intuition. Each story has to have something different. Although we have no theme and are striving for diversity, there must be some coherency, some overall narrative. We originally wanted a story from every country but we couldn’t convince the publisher so we are including the best stories we find.”

“We hope we are making a contribution to world literature as well as to preserving the Icelandic language. Obviously an anthology from Iceland won’t skew the literary hegemony like an American one would but that, in a way, gives us some freedom.”

In discussion, Vignisson addressed the difficult topic of what constitutes a good story.

“You could give 90 definitions,’ he said, referring to the estimated number of stories to be included in the anthology. “A good story is one that appeals to someone like me who has read thousands of stories from around the globe. It’s a story that surprises me, that has something new to offer. However, I’m also culturally conditioned so I have to keep the readers in mind.”

Co-existence not extinction

He also pointed out that he is very interested in the multiple languages in use in South Africa and in how different languages and mixtures are used for different contexts.

“South Africa has 11 official languages,’ he said. “I would like to understand how they co-exist. It’s important to understand how languages survive. Icelanders will never be mono-lingual again but can Icelandic and other languages co-exist? Is this the way to save Icelandic?”

“I suppose many would ask why we are bothering to translate into a language that has so few speakers and may not be spoken a few decades from now? But if we lose Icelandic completely much of our culture will be lost. We have a literary heritage from the 1300s which we can still read in the original. However, it’s harder for each generation to access.”

“We have to reach the youth,” he added. “On social media they are mixing English and Icelandic – effectively creating a new language. Written Icelandic is still fairly clean but spoken is different already. I think a blend would be a bad outcome. We need to find ways to become fully bilingual, to continue to speak about the world in Icelandic while at the same time being able to converse with the outside world.”

“I’m working with teachers to find innovative ways to bring more joy into the teaching of Icelandic through writing. I’m advocating for allowing kids to create in the language for that always brings joy. Spelling and grammar can be taught through writing. The government has implemented new measures to support Icelandic literature and publishing and is trying to do something about the digital issues. So there is a movement beginning.”

“Language is the soul of your being,” he concluded. “We have to embrace and nurture our culture and traditions. When you read in your mother tongue, you read with the whole body, not just the brain.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

 

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