I feel, and have always felt, a sense of ambivalence about conclusions. Sometimes, of course, they are unavoidable, but it’s surprising how often we try and force a sense of completion onto experiences and ideas that would actually retain far more of their force if left unfinished. There’s something glorious about loose ends and stray threads; puzzles with pieces missing and questions that can only be answered with more questions.
So in that sense, the best epilogues are always the ones that are simply new prologues; endings that look outward to other beginnings. It’s a quality I’ve always admired in novels and films: the sense that characters will resist that last, limiting border, and live on after the final page or reel.
More than any event I’ve done this year, Crossing Border made me think of the future. There is much discussion at the moment about the lifespan of literature. Is the novel nearing retirement age? Are books soon to go the way of the cassette tape, the CD, the phone that is just a phone and nothing else? I personally don’t think so. Crossing Border was a welcome reminder that fiction, like music, remains vibrant and vital. But it was also a reminder of what it is that keeps it vibrant, namely, translation.
Whatever the future of fiction is, it is dependent on the future of translation and, by definition, on the futures of translators themselves. Crossing Border is the only event I have been to where the art of translation (because, yes, it is an art) is given equal attention alongside the art of creation. In a previous column I talked about diversity and difference, and remarked on the horror of a homogeneous world. Fiction, like society, needs a plurality of voices in order to thrive. In maintaining that plurality, it is dependent on the work of translators.
Listening to the young translators talk over the course of the weekend, I was struck by the similarities between their motivation and that of the average young novelist. It’s not, after all, something anyone gets into for the money. Both writing and translation are, ultimately, labours of love. But at least for the novelist there is some vague promise of recognition. People who read your book will know, if nothing else, that you are the person who wrote it. But how many people can name a book’s translator? To what extent are people genuinely aware that, for example, the Dutch version of Idiopathy is effectively a collaborative text, written by two people: myself and Roos van de Wardt?
All of the translators at Crossing Border spoke of the difficulty of becoming a translator, and the difficulty of remaining one (i.e. of making enough money) once you have become one. I found myself becoming increasingly concerned. Given all these barriers, how on earth are we going to find all the dedicated young translators we so clearly need? After all, the task is clearly huge. Even to keep up with contemporary fiction would require a small army of translators, and that leaves aside the important work of bringing untranslated classics to a global audience. There are schemes and outlets aplenty for young writers – everyone is perpetually excited about the latest ‘new voice’. But if no-one translates those new voices each language will be served only by a literature it produced itself, and the result can only realistically be a dwindling gene pool of literary invention.
Events like Crossing Border are clearly, then, vital to the future of literature. Indeed, we need more of them. More opportunities for writers and translators to meet; more opportunity for reading audiences to hear translators talking about their work; and more opportunities for translators to show off their talents. As more than one translator mentioned, prizes are also important, both because of the much needed injection of cash, and because of the attention they bring to talented young translators trying to build a career.
But all of these things are, ultimately, things we expect other people to do. It’s all very well saying there should be more festivals, more money, more books. The real question is: what can we do right now? What can each of us do individually to help shape the vibrant and diverse global literary culture we all love? The answer, for me at least, is that we can read. Listening to my fellow authors read their work at the festival, watching their words appear in English on screens alongside them, I marvelled at the breadth of my own ignorance, and at what an extraordinary privilege it is to be able to experience the work of people whose language I do not share. It was a welcome reminder, if one were needed, that reading is as much a duty as writing, and that it is my responsibility as a writer to be the best reader I can possibly be. It’s all too easy to remain comfortably within the borders of ones own literary culture. We must, as readers, push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and it is translators who will act as our guides in doing this.