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Hay Festival 2017: Samanta Schweblin, Hari Kunzri, And Ann Goldstein

A photograph of Samanta Schweblin and Hari Kunzri at the Hay Festival

On the afternoon of the first Saturday, Hari Kunzri and Samanta Schweblin, together with a translator for the latter, gathered on stage with Claire Armistead.

I’d read Schweblin’s book but Kunzri was new to me; his book is about collectors and cultural appropriation, quite different to Schweblin’s look at chemical agriculture but perhaps with a similarity in the way both books care about countries.

Schweblin said that the ‘rescue distance’ of her book (which is the Argentinian title of it) was something she invented rather than anything she knew of people doing. (She likes the English title, Fever Dream, but believes it’s disadvantaged by the suggestion that the dream is more prominent than the worries of the mother for her child. Of the ‘dream’, she said, “I think it’s real… it could be a dream… I would like to play with both up to the end of the book, about the ties that bind us”.)

Armistead asked about the worms in the book. “I was playing with the idea of chemicals,” said Schwebin, “because she [the main character] gets poisoned… the point of your fingers start to feel like worms.” She said the physical effects of the chemicals are very real. The author later said that the novel has not changed anything in the country.

Schweblin likes to put words in the reader’s head that aren’t on the page, words one must figure out and that make you want to asked questions. “I feel I’m a short story teller. Tension is so important.”

Kunzri became interested in the idea of the haunting quality of music. Haunting is both a metaphor and not, he said. It’s an experience and you can never forget the distance in time – static, for example. He spoke of the early days of recording when audio was physical – vibrations created discs. His story is partly about how white people used black music. “I’m interested in who gets forgotten and who gets remembered.”

A photograph of Ann Goldstein taken at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Sam J Peat.

There was much for Elena Ferrante’s translator, Ann Goldstein, to talk about with Daniel Hahn. To use a common phrase the stage was a full, if small, house.

Goldstein recently quit her job as a copywriter after 45 years; though it was not stated, one can assume this was in part due to Ferrante’s success overseas. She did not learn Italian until her mid 30s; her speaking skills are not as good as her written skills. She goes to Italy a couple of times a year and is always translating something. The job role itself was an accident; a book had been sent to her newspaper editor and she read the book and liked the idea of working on it. The finished result was published in the New Yorker.

On the subjects of problems when translating Italian to English, Goldstein noted gender; the syntax is more flexible in Italian. Her feeling is that Italian is a musical language and hard to capture. Sometimes English has to fill in, she said, and Italian has suffixes that can change a whole meaning so you have to be careful. You can never find a word that will have all the same nuances, or syllables. You have to decide what is most important. Hahn summed it up: it’s never as simple as changing words for other words, and different people privilege different things.

“If I haven’t read the book [prior to translating]… I’m typing and reading at the same time and that is exciting,” Goldstein said later. The first time round you miss things. When Hahn pointed out, in regards to translation decisions, that a person may have no idea what might happen in later books, Goldstein replied that that is true in her case. She couldn’t get ahead of herself in the story. The later books hadn’t yet been published – in any language – for her to be able to know what would happen.

The translator had to go through editors to get information about Ferrante’s translations. She still does, even now. Hahn noted that Ferrante has said she trusts Goldstein and Goldstein said she had read a translation of one book but not the Neapolitan novels. ‘I thought it was important for [Ferrante] to have a voice, a public voice, in English. So many people liked her books, even if I couldn’t speak for her, I could speak as someone who knew them.’ This is why she goes to festivals.

In the USA, 30% of published books are translations; that hasn’t changed. But that lack of change is good when there are more books being published overall. In the last 15 years, the UK sold 5.5 million books and a very good percentage were translations.



July 17, 2017, 4:55 pm

My goodness, what a pleasure to attend such an event.

You really do bring us such an eclectic collections of books/authors.

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