WRITING CAN BE a dangerous activity and none know that better than writers in exile, those who have been driven from their homelands because it was not safe to do their work.
The first anthology of its kind, Speaking in tongues: PEN Canada writers in exile provides insight into the immutable realities of life as both a new Canadian and a writer in exile. The anthology collects experiences of translation, a deceptively simple term, whose many meanings are deciphered in its twelve essays.
The mosaic of perspectives illuminated in Speaking in tongues are as distinct as the points of origin from which the writers come, including Iran, Albania, the former Yugoslavia, Mexico and Ethiopia. While diverse in their experiences, the authors share an important similarity: they have undertaken the formidable task of making a new home for themselves and their writing âe" a process of translation, both literally and metaphorically.
Writer Saghi Ghahraman notes in the bookâe(TM)s foreword, âeoeTranslating the self into another self through another vocabulary is what we face, after we have made the crossing safely. It is the last border, and it is invisible, and it is there during the translation period that we slip away.âe
For these authors, translation is not merely an act of linguistic and cultural interpretation. It is also a political act, an act of compromise and betrayal, of negotiation and survival, of invasion and violation.
In order to capture the essence of literature originating from another language and culture, literary translations often require genre manipulations and adaptations reflecting the translatorsâe(TM) bias that inevitably betray the original works. Zdenka Acinâe(TM)s essay, âeoeLost and Found in Translation,âe compares a spontaneous moment on a Toronto subway, in which the universal language of laughter was enough to share an unspoken sentiment among fellow riders, to the deliberate process involved in literary translation as one akin to shaking hands with the devil.
But translation is also survival. In Senthilnathan Ratnasabapathyâe(TM)s âeoeTranslating the Global Language,âe translation is a performance required by citizens of the so-called developing world to negotiate the cryptic language of visa terms dictated at border crossings. While an element of savvy is a necessary skill for residents of most Global South countries for travel to the North, successful translation can also represent an escape route from further persecution.
Translation is also, at its most basic, about finding the right words to be able to reach out to unknown readers and have thoughts understood, regardless of language. In âeoeTranslations of Misunderstandings,âe Goran Simic conjures memories of war, escape and momentary respite âe" tableaux from his past, untranslatable with the conventional use of a dictionary, open to the readerâe(TM)s interpretation. It is a process that necessitates the avoidance of empty everyday language used merely to navigate the quotidian, instead engaging in conversation of substance and meaning.
Translation can also be an aggressive intrusion, an indecent violation. In her essay, Fereshteh Molavi suggests that the universality of the English language exerts undue influence over most fields and subjects âe" science and technology, commerce and communication, arts and literature. This, she argues, frequently emboldens native English speakers to discriminate against non-English speakers. In this way, the tyranny of the English language silences other languages, confining them to the nether regions of the writerâe(TM)s mind and fostering fear about the death of oneâe(TM)s own mother tongue.
It is impossible to relate the poignancy and layered significance revealed by these essays through the mere snippets above. In fact, the very act of writing a review requires the reviewer to engage in her own act of translation, together with her own acts of betrayal. Nonetheless, an understanding of the ubiquity of translation âe" a habitual part of communication that often goes unnoticed âe" is one of the most telling insights that readers will glean from Speaking in Tongues.âe"Alex Samur
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