Small is great! A conference on translation and cultural transfer by Agnes Orzoy

Small is great: this was the title of an international conference held at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest. Organized by the Departments of Dutch and Scandinavian Studies at ELTE and the Centre for Reception Studies at KU Leuven, the three-day conference focused on the translation of smaller European languages.

And it was a real treat for anyone who cares about the literature of ‘small’ languages (aka ‘languages of limited circulation’ or ‘semi-peripheral languages’). In a span of three days, we heard lectures on such unlikely, fascinating topics as the vivid literary activity of Clarissa convents in Umbria and Hungary in the 15th century; literary translations under coercion if not at gunpoint from languages of the Soviet Union into Russian; how semi-colons and colons are used to reinforce national stereotypes in translation; how medieval Icelandic sagas helped forge the national identity of several nations; or the translation of minuscule Meänkieli literature into not-much-greater Transylvanian Hungarian.

There were lectures on the latest developments of translation theory which certainly convinced one that this field which not so long ago was regarded as a marginal one, a breakaway from linguistics and literary studies, started to live a vigorous life of its own. In perhaps the most theoretical talk of the conference, Reine Meylaerts (KU Leuven) discussed how complexity theory could be applied to translation studies, with its focus on phenomena, processes and unpredictability, and the insight that scientific reductionism comes at a price which may be too high.

Yet for many, the principal attraction of a research in translation and cultural transfer is the close interaction between theory and practice. In fact, some of the speakers shared the results of self-reflective research: translating literature, using their translations as part of their text corpus, and discussing their own strategies and decisions. Other speakers focused on translation as a way to convey ideology or to iron out any undesired irregularities of the original in order to accommodate the text to readers’ expectations.

Discussing translations from center to periphery involves studying agents, institutions and policies (e.g. cultural associations, funds, publishers, etc.) as well, i.e. the sociology and politics of cultural transfer. While the literature of certain small languages enjoys great prestige – Scandinavian literature is a case in point – a number of speakers mentioned the predicament of their literatures, which is due to the fact that the translation of these literatures is mostly supply driven, as opposed to demand driven. Therefore, state funding is inevitable for small languages until the desired aim, turning supply driven into demand driven translation, is achieved. Since in the case of small languages the main literary ambassadors are translators, training translators should be a priority, so the transfer of the literature of small languages would not rest on the shoulders of “respectable amateurs” whose translations are often published without any quality control. The Cunda international workshop for translators of Turkish literature is a great example for such an initiative.

If anyone was in doubt, this conference, boasting more than fifty participants from sixteen countries, definitely proved that the literature of smaller European languages is a rich, buoyant and diverse scene. For those who are intrigued: you can browse the abstracts here.

By Agnes Orzoy

 This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 4 April 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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