Tuesday, 10 March 2009

SELTA, and the need to move on

Some time ago I wrote the letter below to the new SELTA Google Group, in the hope that it might stimulate some open discussion of issues that have troubled me as someone who has been a member of SELTA more or less since the beginning, nearly thirty years ago. There are some things in the letter I wrote - more or less impromptu, and without the benefit of SELTA's records and archives - which are not true. For example, SELTA met at SSEES (the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies) only once, in 1984. Michael Branch did not "supervise" the meeting, but acted as host to the association on that occasion.

On the other hand, the letter does reflect the way in which I've perceived SELTA over the years, including the perception near the beginning that this was a truly independent organization which stood beyond borders and considerations of statehood, national identity, and so on. I feel that in some ways, because of its name, the society has gravitated towards being a group which, although it represents the interests of many translators from different Nordic languages, has come to be dominated by Sweden - not only in a cultural sense, but also in a political and social one. And that strikes me as unhealthy for a United Kingdom-based organization, which needs to maintain its separation from considerations of Swedish state foreign and cultural policy.

The letter didn't awaken the response and discussion I had hoped for. Tom Geddes, SELTA's former Honorary Secretary, wrote me a long emailed reply, but declined to take part in the discussion online - or even to join the Google Group. From the SELTA committee there was more or less silence, and what several members experienced as a thinly veiled hostility. Partly because of this, we decided to start this blog, in the hope that it might let in some of the fresh air that has been lacking at SELTA, which has felt increasingly like a closed environment. However, it is now time to move on, and I hope that after this we can proceed to shape a new context for interaction between translators of Nordic literature, a context which to our great relef will lack "background and baggage" as one commentator put it.

Here is the text of my letter:

SELTA's Changing Identity

The recent discussion of Nordic translation workshops and memories of past meetings and seminars, together with a reading of B.J. Epstein’s lively and interesting blog and her account of the events and presentations at last year’s Nordic Translation Conference in London prompted me to reflect on the history of SELTA, its background and origins. What follows is a personal observation, and my comments are merely those of a SELTA member who first joined the association in 1981, back near the beginning.

When SELTA first began its life, its gatherings were held in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) under the general supervision of the School’s director, Michael Branch. As my background was in Russian studies (I hold a Ph.D. in Russian from Edinburgh University), the location of the meetings was one of the factors that aroused my interest in the new organization and prompted me to join it. At the time, I’d recently completed a translation of the complete poems of Edith Södergran, a transnational European modernist poet whose work embraces Russian futurism as much as it does German and Scandinavian literature. The fact that she wrote in Swedish is almost coincidental -- she could equally well have written the poems of her maturity in German, or even in Russian, as she was fluent in both of those languages.

I found the concept of an association nominally dedicated to literary translation from Swedish, but also aware of the cultural and literary heritage of the whole of the North-East European region, including Finland and the Baltic countries, a stimulating one. Michael Branch’s considerable reputation as a Finnish scholar added to the interesting mix. In Finland, the crossing and cross-pollination of several cultures – Russian, Swedish and Finnish – is an important part not only of Finnish history, but of the history of Europe.

As time went on, however, in the activities of the group I began to note a growing emphasis on Sweden, and on Swedish (as distinct from Finland-Swedish) literature. This was understandable, given the name of the association – and several of the members were indeed best known for their translations of rikssvensk literature. It was not until the location of the society’s meetings moved to the Swedish Embassy that I began to realize that a subtle shift of priorities had apparently taken place – instead of the general Nordic and East European context, there was now a specific emphasis on rikssvensk writing and authors. This again was understandable – the Swedish Embassy was, after all, offering its facilities to SELTA, and was even offering to pay members’ travel expenses to attend meetings. However, I saw this development as a limitation, and I still do.

Yet still there was a paradox. In 1981 I’d recently edited an issue of the international literary quarterly Stand devoted to new Norwegian writing (I worked as a co-editor of Stand with its principal founder, the poet Jon Silkin, from 1979 to 1981). This special issue was funded by the Norwegian cultural authorities, and the translators involved included Anne Born, Robin Fulton, Roger Greenwald, Tiina Nunnally, myself and others. The preparation of the material involved an officially-funded visit to Norway, which I made together with Jon Silkin and his wife Lorna Tracy – we were hosted by the poet Terje Johanssen, and the trip was organized by Kristin Brudevoll. This contact was one of the factors that eventually led to the formation of the NORLA agency. So when at a SELTA meeting in 1982 a Norwegian cultural representative popped up and promptly invited several of the members present to a seminar in Lillehammer the following year, I was not too surprised. This, however, opened up a new dimension in SELTA – while the Lillehammer seminar proved to be very valuable in terms of the forming of new contacts between authors, publishers and translators of Norwegian (and Nordic) literature, it also muddied the waters somewhat – as of 1983, there was now an “unofficial” SELTA of translators from Norwegian!

Much the same thing eventually happened in relation to Denmark, where some SELTA members, including myself, found themselves being invited to international seminars usually grouped around the Copenhagen Book Fair. And then there was the considerable project of the Finnish cultural authorities (FLIC and later FILI), which involved not only lavish translation get-togethers but also individual all-expenses-paid “study visits” for translators, usually with a carefully planned programme of meetings with authors, editors and publishers.

In spite of all this, however, SELTA meetings continued to be held (as they still are) at the Swedish Embassy. As far as I was aware, the Swedish cultural authorities did not replicate the activities of the Finns, Danes and Norwegians in holding international translation conferences, seminars and workshops. They did, however, make rooms for translators available in Sweden - and they offered sample translation subsidies, paid for selected Swedish authors to visit the UK, and helped Swedish Book Review. But this support seemed rather modest when compared to the extensive budget outlay of the other Nordic lands.

Although I can see some rational justification for it, I still don’t really understand completely why our association is called SELTA – for if one examines its history, one sees that many of its members have been active in translating books from other Nordic languages besides Swedish – in the past, Joan Tate, Tom Geddes, Anne Born and yours truly all translated books from Norwegian or Danish or both, and I’m sure there are many other examples of this. I’ve even translated a couple of books from Finnish. Eric Dickens is well-known as a translator of Estonian literature.

So shouldn’t the society’s name be something like the Nordic Literary Translators’ Association? I’d be interested to hear others’ views about this, if anyone cares to respond. I would be particularly interested to hear from Tom.


David McDuff

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