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Major-Minor: Languages and Nations

Major-Minor: Languages and Nations
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Power Foundation Studio
16th August 2014
Previously published at The Mumble 17th August 2014

“In this age of globalisation, the English language has become increasingly dominant online and on the page. As an author writing in a different national or minority language how does this dominance affect your ability to tell your story and find an audience? Gaelic writer Martin MacIntyre and Arno Camenisch, who writes in Rhaeto-Romanic and German, join acclaimed translator Daniel Hahn to discuss.” (blurb on the Festival web site)

It’s difficult to know how to review a discussion. One angle from which to look at it might be the structure and the way it was chaired. Considering that it was to last forty-five minutes with fifteen minutes for questions and answers at the end, and to include readings by two authors, on that account it was spot on, tight, and well presented. Much credit goes to the chairman, David Codling. Of course a lot also depends on the qualities of the members of the panel, so let me introduce them.

Arno Camenisch reading from his novel 'Alp'. © Nick Barley

Arno Camenisch reading from his novel ‘Alp’.
© Nick Barley

Arno Camenisch looks like a diminutive version of Simon Baker, right down to the disarming smile. He has stage presence, whether reading in his native Rhaeto-Romanic – a ‘minority language’ from southern Switzerland – or talking about his work. Despite, or maybe because of, his occasionally having to appeal to fellow panel-members for help with a word or phrase in English, he displayed a dry wit and an unconventional way of looking at things. “My choice of language depends on the weather,” he says. “If it is raining I write in Rhaeto-Romanic. If it is windy or sunny, German… I grew up in a polyphonous village. There were many languages… But television was king. We believed more in TV than god.”

To Arno ‘the sound is the soul of the text’. Martin MacIntyre agreed, speaking of ‘music’ as being the key, and praising the sound of Arno’s reading. Martin was born in Glasgow to parents originally from South Uist, and learned Gaelic from them. His spoken Gaelic is precise and clear, and when he read from a recent novel we could hear that he was not simply bilingual but effectively trilingual, and the Gaelic was interrupted by both English and Glaswegian. Frankly, that was the first time I had ever heard a passage of Gaelic with the word ‘woggle’ in the middle of it! “What excites me about Gaelic is that everyone who reads it can also read English,” he said. “There’s a tension between the two.”

Arno Camenisch and Martin MacIntyre © Paul Thompson

Arno Camenisch and Martin MacIntyre
© Paul Thompson

Both writers translate from their ‘minority’ language into a neighbouring ‘majority’ language – from Rhaeto-Romanic to German, and from Gaelic to English. Daniel Hahn, national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, said “Translation is never about the language, it is about languages. The relationship between languages… We use the big languages as a bridge for translation of minority languages. This is not an unproblematic relationship.” He highlighted this problematic characteristic by the example of a translation from Welsh to English of the words of an old man who spoke only Welsh and knew no English at all. During the question-and-answer session I had the opportunity to ask him to clarify this. I made the point that if I was reading, say, I Claudius, I suspended disbelief and simply accepted that I was reading the words of a native speaker of Latin who was writing to me in Greek; so how was a translation from Welsh to English any more problematical?

Daniel Hahn © Paul Thompson

Daniel Hahn
© Paul Thompson

Daniel agreed, up to a point. “There’s a kind of sleight of hand going on when you read a translation,” he said. “We collude in that. We pretend we are reading it in the original language.” But then he made the very valid point that the relationship between Welsh and English, particularly in the context of the novel in question, is highly political, involving the identity of people where ‘to speak one is not to speak the other’. Martin MacIntyre reinforced this when he mentioned New Zealand writer Glen Colquhoun, who said that the problem was not that speakers of a majority language couldn’t ‘see’ the speakers of the minority language, but rather that they ‘couldn’t see themselves’. There is so much creativity in translation, not simply in how best to render a text literally, but how to find equivalent, analogous, or even vaguely similar concepts in two different cultures. “With modern Gaelic vocabulary, you are restricted in usage. It forces you to hone your prose in a different way,” said Martin MacIntyre. Such expressions sent us away from the event with much to think about.

 


Protest! The Rhetoric of Resistance

Protest! The Rhetoric of Resistance
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Scottish Power Foundation Studio
16th August 2014
Review first posted at The Mumble, 17th August 2014

“Spoken Word performance can be a tool of dissent, it can give a voice to the dispossessed – and it’s not all ranting these days. Join Phill Jupitus as Porky the Poet, Elvis McGonagall, Hollie McNish and Hannah Silva as their deft rhetoric confronts, parodies and overturns issues of political, domestic and social injustice. Fun performance, clever words, serious intent.” (blurb on the Festival web site)

Sometimes it’s a pity to have to review a one-off event and to publish that review in retrospect. How better it would be to be able to tell your friends “Go and see this!” I’m in that position as I write. I wish ‘Protest!’ was mid-run and you could all queue for returned tickets at the Box Office. As it was, the theatre was full for this one-off ‘shard’ (as Master of Ceremonies Luke Wright called it) of the Festival’s ‘Babble On’ series, and you couldn’t have got a return for love nor money.

Phil Jupitus  © Luke Wright

Phil Jupitus
© Luke Wright

We were launched into the stream of comic dissent by Phil Jupitus who, in the 1980s, quit a civil service job to become a poet, and who got gigs supporting bands “because I was cheaper than a support band”. Instantly there was a post-punk feel to the proceedings. To me this was a little odd, as though poetic dissent had started when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, as though John Cooper Clarke, Gil Scott-Heron, and Allen Ginsberg had been forgotten; or further back – the polemic verse of left-wing poets of the 1930s, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s political diatribes, Chaucer’s and Juvenal’s satire. Irony was never far away from Phil’s performance; praising the subversive nature of comics like The Beano and The Dandy, he led us in applause for D C Thomson, a newspaper publisher who (correct me if I am wrong) stubbornly maintained an anti-trades-union policy. Phil’s paean to The Beano had the kind of robust rhyme-and-metre scheme that lends a hobnail boot to humorous poetry. The audience couldn’t help laughing, in fact they couldn’t stop. Especially funny was his series of ten-line poems built up from the titles of Fringe shows (although I sincerely hope he decides to give ‘Sex with animals’ a miss this year!)

Phil provided what he and Luke referred to as the ‘glue’ between the other poets. Next up was Elvis McGonagall, and although this will irritate him no end, the comparison with John Cooper Clarke is inevitable. Substitute a Dundee accent for a Salford one, and you have the same facility for using rhyme, rhythm, and refrains. It’s tight, precise, and rapid-fire, with the likes of Margaret Thatcher (yes, she can provoke even from the other side of the veil) and Nigel Farage in his sights. There was a wonderful recitation of clichéd phrases in David Cameron’s voice, and, evoking Sir Harry Lauder, an address to Scottish voters who had not yet made up their mind about independence – ‘Stop your Swithering, Jock’!

Hannah Silva © Luke Wright

Hannah Silva
© Luke Wright

There was an instantly obvious dichotomy between the male performers’ work and the females’. The latter’s humour was gentler, the seriousness ramped up. Hannah Silva instantly grabbed our attention by speaking a series of broken semi-syllables into her microphone. Operating a recording loop by foot-switch and varying the same vocal sounds in pitch and stress, she built up multi-tracked layers in what can only be described as music, and suddenly over the top of that filled in all the missing semi-syllables to repeat and repeat Ed Milliband’s response to public sector strikes. Intricate, well thought-out, and damnably clever. I can say the same about her other pieces, one of which almost worked like a cumulative folk or children’s song where extra elements are added on at the end of each verse. Except there was nothing folksy, nothing juvenile in her gender politics, her direct expression about prostitution and the female underclass. What is difficult for me to describe is how this use of technology coupled with fragmentary speech built up atmosphere, evoked such a strong emotional response in me. Her repetition of the fact that forty percent of all soldiers fitted with a prosthesis return to war was particularly evocative in the hundredth year since the start of the Great War.

Hollie McNish got her points across by words alone. She sustained her technical power right through each long poem without flagging. Again it was sexual politics that were foregrounded. She was able to address serious issues in a vernacular setting – the facility with which she and her elderly grandmother can converse about earthy subjects which are an embarrassment to the mother/daughter generation between them. Hollie presented us with a wonderful poem about what turns her on, starting with bricks, going through a whole lot of other things including the laughter when a fart interrupts foreplay, before returning to bricks. Probably her best poem of the session was the one she wrote when breast-feeding her baby in a toilet, whilst being confronted by a poster of a young woman in a bikini tacked to the back of the door.

I spoke to Hollie after the performance, and put it to her that although it was possible to be more outspoken, more vitriolic, more insulting in an overtly comic work of art – a poem or a cartoon, say – the very fact that it is comic tends to draw its venom, to make an audience take it less seriously. By contrast, someone who enthralls an audience the way that she and Hannah Silva do and puts across a serious point, albeit with distinct threads of humour, has a greater effect and is not so easily dismissed. Hollie was happy and relieved to hear my opinion, as she had feared that the laughter her male colleagues got was a sign of greater impact. Not so, I kid you not.


‘The Ediniad’

Damo

Wandering around Auld Reekie on his own personal Bloomsday, wielding two golf clubs like trekking poles, singing his rock songs, declaiming his poetry, letting wind noise drown him out, stealing fruit from a greengrocer, is Edinburgh’s own Damo Bullen. His voice betrays that he wasn’t born in the city (nope, North West of England) but as a poet he’s wedded to the place, lives it, and has dedicated to it a whole collection of modern/traditional, old/new, familiar/weird sonnets – The Ediniad. An hour’s worth of this has been made into a film which you can see here – the film is wonderfully unpolished, the camera shake tastes like salt on your chips! I also have a longer review of the film on the Mumble web site, courtesy of Damo.

Damo 2