We Don't Have to be the A** of Europe

/ by Fiona Sampson
Curating this edition of the European Review has been a provocative pleasure. Provocative, because it feels as though we’ve only just begun our dialogue between practices: a dialogue that, as always, suggests a long perspective of possibilities: for collaborations, for aesthetic and philosophical exploration, and for creating new cultural moments and movements. Pleasurable, because it’s a privilege to take part in any such dialogue. I’ve been a literary periodical editor for over a dozen years now, and the pleasures of this form of creativity do not diminish. Bringing different texts together and helping them speak to each other, as well as to the reader, is an always surprising, endlessly enjoyable task.
 
I chose to give this edition of the Review a theme: it is concerned with translation and interpretation. For how else chose where to start? The UK is a small archipelago with a large population: 65.5 million and rising. Despite all the difficulties surrounding the arts in Britain today, the country has a correspondingly large number of writers and artists, who together make up a dense cultural ecosystem. Particularly since our official national cultural ambassador, the British Council, has directed its chief focus towards language learning, trade and industrial ties, this wealth of talent is largely unknown and underexposed in Europe and beyond. The contrast with the international presence of other European writers and artists is marked: and it is not, contrary to common misconception, purely the result of Anglophone cultural disconnect. Many of us would love to participate more widely.
Still, it’s impossible to showcase this wealth of talent  even in representative terms  within a single issue of the European Review: or indeed of any one review, festival or publishing house. Britain’s contemporary poetry alone would require a substantial anthology just to include living writers of international calibre. So, instead, I’ve chosen a theme that speaks to our appetite as British writers and artists for just such international engagement.
 
Translation and interpretation practices are fascinatingly intermixed, their boundaries flexible and sometimes even invisible. Writer, activist and scholar Rebecca May Johnson’s Panorama of some of the highly creative translation projects underway in today’s Britain highlights translation’s creative agency; its ability to reinvent not only works of art but even itself. The new wave of British translation practices is one of the many benefits of living in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society such as we have become; those of us who have been toiling in what has often felt like unpromising terrain for years are grateful for this swing in the zeitgeist towards a new engagement and curiosity.
 
These practices also speak fascinatingly to the equally flexible, and somewhat analogous boundary between composition and interpretative performance.  In contemporary art music, this boundary is simultaneously respected: and acknowledged by common consent to be the site of collaboration. The classical guitar has undergone a revival in the UK in recent decades, and our Interview is a conversation between Stephen Goss and Sean Shibe, leading performers from two generations. Goss is now a  distinguished composer, playing a key role in developing the repertoire for his own instrument but also composing for many other soloists, ensembles and orchestras across the world. 
 
But interpretation remakes works of art even within literary translation practice. In our Book review, Peter Salmon looks at two contemporary poetic remakings of the Iliad, both of them radical and selective rearrangements of material, one working to make Homer “come clear” in our new times, the other to subvert the poem’s much-mythologised notions of heroism.  My own Essay takes euphemism as an example of the kinds of rift in textual register and coherence  swearing is another notable example of this  that is itself a form of translation; and argues that the text in question reveals, through such translations, more than we thought we knew about both speaker and subject.
 
It seems that we in Britain will soon be “translated” out of the European Union, swept along by a feckless 50% who prefer a tabloid fantasy to the patient work of dialogue. But we can’t be translated out of Europe, whose history we share for good and ill.  As dictators the world over have discovered, history can’t be abolished. It remains inside their brutal now, one of the possible alternative worlds that may not be spoken of but is always ready to make a rift in the fabric of totalitarian narrative. 
 
And so, today more than ever, translation  that reminder of the plurality of possibility  is an essential practice in Britain. It’s essential in order to hear what is happening in other languages and communities. And it is essential because of its capacity to turn us inside out, on a dime, in a mirror, flip-flop, upside down. Translation is how we’ll fall through ourselves past dignity, past pride, until we find the wiser alternatives we harbour: just as Shakespeare’s donkey-headed weaver Bottom first did more than 420  years ago. Who knows, we might even find that we don’t have to be the Ass of Europe.
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Fiona Sampson

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