Dispatch from Translation Day at Oxford University

There is more wisdom in a poem than a poet herself possesses. Though necessarily incomplete, translation captures some of that expansive heritage.

‘I live half an hour away from Gaza. Two years ago, when we began work, we were at war.’

It’s an overcast day, and soft light floods into the room, filled with students, writers, academics, and publishers. I count translators from at least four languages, but these are only the regular faces I know. Many others have come into Oxford especially for the day, drawn by a rich programme of talks, readings, and workshops. Up front, the Israeli poet Agi Mishol is telling us how she and her translator, Joanna Chen, started collaborating on their recent volume of Mishol’s verse, Less Like A Dove.

‘We were hard at work on a poem when it came. The siren caught us with dictionaries open, and there was nothing we could do. We found ourselves laughing and panicking in the same language.’

Chen, like Mishol, speaks with a poet’s careful precision, and laughs and nods at the memory. They are joined, on the panel, by Adriana Jacobs from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and open the session by reading some of the earliest poems Chen translated for the book. The poems are about place and displacement, and their voices, in Hebrew and English, rise and fall in turn. Call and response: a present-day liturgy of sorts.

What drew Chen to Mishol’s work, Jacobs asks? She rattles off a list of qualities, including Mishol’s deft use of colloquial language, and the way she has ‘a finger on the pulse of where Israel is today’. Chen’s recollection of how she first encountered Mishol’s work, however, is far more personal. Having found a volume of Mishol’s verse on the death of her parents, Chen—whose own mother was then ill—kept the book with her ‘like an amulet.’ ‘I felt like I knew her before I met her,’ she says.

In turn, Mishol praises Chen’s ability to ‘make electricity between words.’ She was persuaded to put her work in Chen’s hands, she tells us, because Chen understood that ‘translation is an act of generosity.’ The translator, after all, must contain another writer’s being in her words – a huge responsibility. ‘I trust her,’ Mishol says simply. Mishol has also translated some of Chen’s poems into Hebrew.


Their panel is late in the afternoon, after a genre-bending conversation between Shakespeare scholar Ewan Fernie and novelist Ulrike Draesner, entitled ‘Radical Translation, Radical Transformation: Shaping Shakespeare in 2016.’ A parallel session has poet and translator Sasha Dugdale—recently shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, and Editor of Modern Poetry in Translation—in dialogue with Charlie Louth, a translator of Rilke and Holderlin. Earlier in the day, other panels have touched on a smorgasbord of translation-related topics, from how to translate psychoanalysis or literature from the Spanish Civil War, to finer points like ‘The Challenge of Subtitling,’ which is the focus of a workshop run by the Oxford German Network.

All these sessions have been brought together by Eleni Philippou, who, in addition to being a wonderful poet and scholar, works tirelessly as coordinator of the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) network. OCCT was founded in late 2012 to promote research in translation and world literature, and soon found itself supporting and celebrating a range of literary and scholarly projects—apart from the annual Translation Days, it also runs an annual conference, hosts regular seminars and workshops, and curates a journal (OCCT Review) as well as a book series (Transcript).

Organizing the day’s events on top of these other projects, Philippou tells me afterwards, was ‘quite a task.’ The team behind OCCT began planning for the programme as early as February, and wanted to ensure the representation of non-European languages, as well as to ‘commemorate major historical and cultural events through translation’ – this year being the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the 80th Anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. In addition to the programming and paperwork, Philippou had to put on ‘a few weeks of intense publicity’ to ensure that the day’s events did not fall below the radar of Oxford’s wider academic and writerly communities.

I wonder: is it all worth it? Philippou’s response, as always, brims with optimism. Translation, in her eyes, is ‘a gesture of openness, of cultural exchange, and empathetic generosity.’ Especially when Britain’s airwaves are filled with nationalistic and anti-immigration sentiment, Philippou hopes that events like these bring home the message that translation is ‘not simply an act of transcribing words from one language into another, but a process of social and intellectual dialogue.’


Her words remind me of what I’ve heard throughout the day, from writers, translators, and readers alike. Of course, there is plenty about literature that is culturally specific, even lost in translation, but there is something in the act of translation nonetheless that kindles human connection and makes empathy possible. It has, after all, brought these writers, translators, and readers together in a small English city, from all the peoples and places they call home, to ponder and to share.

Mishol puts it best. Why is translation important, Jacobs asks? ‘It is not because people love or die in a different way in English,’ says Mishol, to a ripple of laughter. Instead, it’s because of what the ‘small details’ of any language can tell us about the people who speak it. In Hebrew, there is a saying that ‘life and death are in the hands of the language.’ It is a language with so many layers, Mishol explains, that ‘every word is connected to a whole family,’ and there is more wisdom in a poem than a poet herself possesses. Though necessarily incomplete, translation captures some of that expansive heritage.

The task and value of translation comes across even more powerfully at the last session of the day, where the winners of the Oxford-Wiedenfeld Translation Prize are announced. Administered annually by OCCT for book-length translations into English from any living European language, this year’s competition saw 110 nominations from a healthy range of big and small presses. The shortlist, announced in mid-May, includes luminaries like John Irons and Paul Vincent (for their joint translation of 100 Dutch-Language Poems) as well as debut novelists like Kamel Daoud (with John Cullen’s translation of The Mersault Investigation).

Poet and translator Patrick McGuinness, who chaired the panel of judges, begins his address on a sobering note, alluding—as Philippou does—to the decline of cosmopolitanism in public discourse, as well as the financial challenges faced by scholars and translators. ‘These are strange times,’ he says, ‘in which the study of languages is far from secure.’ And yet it is precisely in times like this that translation must be recognized for its worth. He congratulates all the shortlisted authors, translators, and publishers, and invites each to tell us more about the translation process, and read an excerpt of their book.

Since he is unable to join us at the event, I have been assigned to read from Don Bartlett’s translation of Dancing in the Dark, the fourth part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel My Struggle. Although I cannot read Norwegian, Bartlett seems to have worked into the text some of Knausgaard’s linguistic quirks—his long, tightly-structured sentences, unflinching narrative, even the blurred line between description and dialogue. I wish there is some way of reproducing the accents and inflections of Norwegian dialects. But as I read, I realize the text takes on a strange beauty of its own in English, and Bartlett’s translation is unlike any English novel I’ve read.

The prize is eventually awarded, jointly, to Philip Roughton for his translation of Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Heart of Man, and to Irons and Vincent for their translation of Dutch verse. Roughton’s publisher collects the prize on his behalf, while Irons, who is on the shortlist for the second time, and has travelled all the way here from Odense, comes forward to collect his. He steps up to the podium to thank the judges, and, in an unguarded moment, flashes us a huge, boyish smile that lights up the evening, and needs no translation.

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and Oxford Translation Day were supported St Anne’s College, New College, The Queen’s College, and The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities, as well as the late Lord Weidenfeld, who helped establish the Prize.


Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society.

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