Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Changes at SELTA - 3

Continuing my serial post on the recent changes and developments at SELTA (at least one member has now resigned, and several have unsubscribed from the Google Group), I would like to draw attention to the response of one of SELTA's most senior members - the association's former Honorary Secretary. A marked feature of the attempt to hold a discussion within the framework of the recently-opened SELTA Google Group was the apparent unwillingness of committee members to come forward and state their positions. Indeed, some of them seemed reluctant to make any contribution to the debate at all, and to view the expression of criticism and dissenting viewpoints as a kind of irritant, or even a betrayal.

However, Tom Geddes, who until his recent retirement from the post had served as SELTA's Hon. Sec. for virtually all of its more than 25 years of existence, did respond to my letter which was published both on the Google Group and in this blog. He did so by email, but indicated that he would have no objection to my making his contribution public. I'm therefore reproducing it now, both for the sake of informing blog readers (especially those in North America) about what is apparently SELTA's current position, and in order, hopefully, to stimulate further debate on the issues concerned. The text of Tom's letter is as follows:

David McDuff sent me on 20 February a copy of a note he had written to the Google group headed “SELTA’s Changing Identity”. Let me just say that I haven’t seen any of the other material on the Google group site, but I’m not sure that that’s the best forum for discussing SELTA policy. I must also say that what SELTA does in the future is a matter for the current and future membership and committee. But I will offer some comments on the past.

Becoming Scandinavian rather than just Swedish has been mooted several times before. As David says, a number of us are involved with more than one of the languages and countries and there are indeed areas of common interest that could be represented under one umbrella. The idea was rejected for two main reasons: the Hon Sec (me), who was doing all the work of running SELTA, was unwilling to increase his workload further, and we had quickly expanded from a dozen members to the average of 50 we have maintained. Not only would a pan-Scandinavian coverage increase the membership, it would also entail liaison with all 5 Scandinavian/Nordic countries. That would also involve a substantial increase in workload, in effect multiplying that aspect by more than 5, because one would also be drawn into the delicate balancing acts of inter-Scandinavian rivalries.

I will mention a few examples of that experience already: One of the early attempts to create a Nordic group of translators was made by Terry Carlbom, Swedish cultural attaché, at the British university teachers of Scandinavian Studies conference at the University of Hull in 1981. It was a one-day session, billed as a Scandinavian Translators’ Conference. During the proceedings a number of participants with non-Swedish interests ostentatiously walked out and complained of being misled (instead of contributing from their interest-areas). We did however continue the concept, and I was involved over a number of years in the organisation of a Scandinavian Translators Day at these subsequent biennial university conferences: each one entailed a difficult balancing act of 5 embassies and almost as many arts bodies in the home countries. I’ll mention just two negative results: a talk on Norwegian book clubs that was primarily on the schedule to ensure parity, and the accusation by a Danish cultural representative that I had invited her under false pretences because she had not been allocated enough time on the programme. It required careful diplomacy to ensure there weren’t more such examples. I should also mention that even within SELTA, one member resigned because he thought (to my mind incorrectly) that we weren’t positive enough towards Finland. Yet all along we had made it clear that we were dealing with Swedish-language literature wherever published and had from the start liaised with both Swedish and Finland-Swedish publishers and the relevant cultural bodies in both countries. The Shaw Prize has been awarded to a Finland-Swedish book (indeed David McDuff was the winner), the judges of which included two SELTA members, and a celebratory event was provided and funded by the Finns. We have had a lot of support from the Finnish Literature Information Centre (FILI) in Helsinki, though admittedly the Finnish Embassy in London has not been as active with us as the Swedes.

We should also bear in mind the important aspect of financial support. Without financial backing from the Swedish Embassy we would never have continued to exist in the form we have, with a couple of meetings a year where people can actually meet. To try to get such backing from several or all of the Nordic countries together would probably prove impossible. Similarly Swedish Book Review would never had started if we had tried to get pan-Scandinavian financial backing: funds would simply not have been forthcoming. (My own minor involvement with Chris Moseley’s ill-fated attempt to start Amber, a Baltic-region cultural journal, gave me an insight on how impossible the task was from outside Scandinavia to attempt to co-ordinate the unco-ordinated.) If SELTA were to become Scandinavian, would it still publish just a Swedish Book Review, and if not, who would fund a Scandinavian Book Review?

Perhaps I should add that some of the points above also informed our decision to exclude American translators from SELTA, although we several times encouraged individuals there to form a parallel group. This eventually bore fruit when Laura Wideburg started STiNA (Swedish Translators in North America), and we provided her with a lot of background information on our own activities. Significantly, the Americans have gone for a specifically Swedish-language interest group too.

David mentions the groupings of Norwegian and Danish translators brought together by their respective cultural bodies. Rather than opening up a new dimension in SELTA, one could say that this demonstrated that SELTA did not need to exist: in many ways translators from Swedish could have continued to be gathered together at intervals by the Swedish Embassy or Swedish Institute and we could have been spared all this work! (That said, I do nevertheless feel we have achieved more by following the then Swedish cultural attaché’s encouragement to form ourselves into an association.) No Norwegian cultural representative was at SELTA meetings in 1982, but the Norwegian and Finnish cultural counsellors were at the November 1983 meeting, 2 staff from FLIC (now FILI) at November 1987. Kristin Brudevoll from NORLA attended the SELTA meeting in November 1992 (like David, I would have remembered it as being earlier than that - and I haven’t looked through later minutes). Kristin didn’t exactly “pop up”: she was invited because she was interested in what we were doing and to share experience and ideas. Throughout my secretaryship I sent copies of all SELTA minutes and newsletters to all the embassies and relevant cultural bodies of all the Scandinavian countries, to keep them informed of our activities. It goes without saying that we have a common interest. Beyond our central contacts with Sweden and Finland, NORLA was the only one to show an active interest in us, as far as I remember.

FILI of course has also arranged gatherings of translators from Swedish in Finland (from which, as with Norway, David and I have both benefited), but has chosen to do so through direct individual invitation rather than through SELTA. Nowadays application forms for visits to Finland are available to all SELTA members and others through the FILI website.

In brief, I think David’s idea is culturally sound from our perspective, but pragmatically unrealistic. And certainly not all Scandinavians would agree with our lumping them together, not least because in any joint activities there is a substantial danger that the others would regard Sweden as an overbearing big brother! Even though (after many years of nagging from us!) the Nordic countries now have neighbouring stands and joint events at book fairs, I cannot see their cultural activities integrating further in the near future.

I also disagree with David’s analysis of SELTA’s “changing identity” in the past. Our relative emphases on Sweden and Finland never changed. Only one of SELTA’s early meetings was held at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies, in April 1984. The first meeting venues were: 1. Sw Emb; 2. UCL; 3. Univ Surrey; 4.Mostyn Hotel, London; 5. SSEES; 6. Sw Emb; 7. Lampeter Univ; 8. Sw Emb; 9. Sw Emb; 10. Poetry Soc, Ldn. After that, primarily at the Swedish Embassy, but a further 3 at UCL.

We have never been under the supervision of Michael Branch, then lecturer in and later professor of Finnish and Director of SSEES: he was an associate member of SELTA, invited to join in the “Committee discretion” category because he did not qualify for membership but had studied Swedish, had obvious connections with and interest in Finland and wanted to join as a gesture of support for our activities. We were very pleased to have him (and I will say personally that he gave me some very good advice when I drew up the SELTA constitution - and he taught me Finnish!). He left amicably after several years when he thought we were well established and in recognition that his own interests lay outside the Swedish language and literature sphere.

I have just agreed with the SELTA Committee and the Editor of SBR to write a brief history of “SELTA - the first 25 years”, for publication in SBR next year. The length of this response of mine to David’s proposal makes me wonder if I can be succinct enough! One thing I should perhaps do, also next year, is to scan all the past SELTA minutes and newsletters and ask Peter Linton to put them on the members’ section of the website.

Tom Geddes 4 March 2009

See also in this blog:
The Changes at SELTA
SELTA, and the need to move on
The Changes at SELTA - 2

1 comment:

Eric Dickens said...

A few brief comments:

1) I do not understand why, as discussed in the "Swedish Book Review" (SBR), the North Americans were, in effect, persuaded to start their own organisation, rather than join SELTA. The new organisation was started in 2003-2004, as outlined in an article by Laura A. Wideburg in SBR 2004:2, page 38.

Laura Wideburg writes:

"I had written to Tom Geddes to inquire about membership in SELTA. He politely replied that membership was only open to translators residing in Europe, and suggested that it might be a good idea if I took up the call to form a similar sister organization in the United States for translators."

And so STiNA came along.


2) Why was it assumed that expansion would mean that the Honorary Secretary would have to increase his workload? I would assume that when an organisation broadens its scope, the committee would automatically co-opt new committee members from, in this case, North America plus representatives of translators from the other Nordic languages.


3) While I am fully aware of intra-Nordic rivalries, I do note that the magazine "Nordic Literature - Nordisk litteratur" managed to survive for over a decade. This magazine, as you all know, drew on all the Nordic countries for articles. Sadly, when I wrote the other day enquiring whether the magazine would ever be revived, I was sent the one-liner:

"I’m sorry to say, there are no plans to revive Nordic Literature.

Med vänlig hälsning/
Kind regards

Margareta Hedling
Koordinator / Coordinator"

No further explanation or discussion.