Literary Challenges across Europe

Posted by admin on 26 September 2016


  • 0

Written by Elena Cardona


Wednesday 20 July 2015, noon: I find myself scrolling my Facebook wall, looking for something intriguing amidst the several selfies of young girls in skimpy swim suits and other posts saying “Jesus loves you”. At the bottom of the page I come across Efe Duyan’s gripping post – an Istanbulite poet and architect – starting off with the words: “Good news and bad news.”

Duyan describes his personal situation five days after the failed putsch against president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. Yet “Not everything is terrible” (Duyan) as on the same day he receives the Plume anthology published in the United States, with one of his poems inside.


Efe Duyan Screenshot

I quote this moving incident from Efe Duyan’s Facebook post precisely because it captures the spirit of this article: one which seeks to discuss the challenges, difficulties and efforts that literature faces in order to travel across the diverse European milieux, a journey which at times seems problematic and impossible to achieve because of the hindrances encountered along the way, which range from linguistic, economic, social and/or cultural limitations.

As indicated above in Duyan’s quote, literature traverses in two ways: the participation of authors in literary festivals and translation workshops, where the authors promote their work in their respective languages, and the translation of literary works published either in the form of books, magazines or as online resources.

Translation is a question of embodying the world, the fabrication of memory, and a means of pertaining to movement, time and space. Having said that, Europe as a social-geographical space requires translation in order to perceive its distinct yet sometimes similar cultural, religious and linguistic traits, and its manifold historical episodes and conflicting memorial fractures. In his seminal work We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, Étienne Balibar conceives Europe as a space of translation. He maintains that translation – in its widest sense – provides the concept of “a new transnational society” (qtd. in Wolf 10), which consists of the common public sphere and the democratic political life.

Balibar, moreover, declares that translation could restore and push forward the idea of universal emancipation on an international level. In order for emancipation to unfold, measures and schemes must be implemented from below: organisations and existing structures in the cultural realm should guarantee a space for discussion, dialogue and production of new ideas, which are indispensable prerequisites for democratic participation (qtd. in Kaufmann).


Etienne Balibar (Foto: Tomislav Medak / Flickr)

Étienne Balibar (Photo: Tomislav Medak / Flickr)


These spaces promote the “transnationalisation of a cultural-political discourse” (Kaufmann) that emerges from the collaboration between the diverse cultural partners resulting in the fabrication of concrete suggestions. By the same standards, literature can serve as a means to achieve this mentioned emancipation in a divisive Europe: one which for the past few years has been confronting several challenges, varying from the human catastrophe unfolding on its doorstep in Syria and in the Mediterranean Sea, the influx of migrants coming from war-torn countries, the issue of border controls, terrorism, the economic crises and environmental issues, amongst others. As literature very often is concerned about these ongoing plights, translation of these multifaceted artistic works could serve as guidance towards emancipation across the European countries.

Being fond of a European cultural spirit, Umberto Eco opines that “The language of Europe is translation” as he believes staunchly that it will help flourish, foster and widen a cross-cultural dynamism. Yet translation is in itself a demanding task, especially when involving literary work. A translator is constantly confronting the challenge whether to produce a replica of the original work or an adaptation of it, especially when dealing with choosing the appropriate lexis, constructing the most suitable syntax or at times having to create neologisms when the language in which the literary work is translated is not equipped with the required terminology.

Every word or phrase carries a cultural baggage, which at times seems impossible to find its equivalent – in the translated language – if the translator is not in possession of the cultural, social, religious and linguistic knowledge of that country and familiar with the author’s broader works. The translator thus has to take the middle way during this process by being always loyal to the original text, and as Clare Vassallo suggests, one must also dig deep into the intention of the text so not to remain on the superficial level, as translation is about interpretation, knowledge and understanding (24).

Joe P. Galea, a Maltese poet and one of the authors during the 11th edition of Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (MMLF), also shares the same notions on translation as Vassallo. He insists: “Before I translate, I always read and read and re-read the text in front of me. I try to grasp the theme, the context, the rhythm, the spirit (soul), the emotions … Once I familiarise myself with these elements, I start producing this text in my native language [. . .] And I start doing this by respecting also the rhythm.” (my translation)

This “digging deep” into a literary work is a demanding, and at times a tiring task as it is succinctly highlighted in Galea’s own words: “The greatest challenge for me was to ‘occupy’ the spirit/soul of the poet who has written this piece, and to write from his/her perspective!” (my translation)

Translation therefore gets complicated because the translator is not only concerned about choosing the right words and rhythm, but must also immerse him/herself into the author’s soul and perceive the poetry’s compact language, its complex feelings and multiple meanings. While translation is a brand-new fabricated work, the author’s perspective and creativity should always be respected and preserved.

Additionally, poetry (more than narrative) encounters several other hindrances. One such example is the limited money that is devoted to poetry in translation. As poetry collections are lesser-read, notably in the smaller languages, they are usually less well-supported by strong commercial interests. Translation workshops try to outdo these hindrances by offering opportunities to potential authors and enable their poetry to be available and accessed by many. These workshops, such as that of the Literature Across Frontiers, aim for cross-translation in different languages while giving voice to smaller languages rather than only translating in bigger ones.

In this regard, during the 11th edition of the MMLF, Maltese poets Joe P. Galea and Abigail Ardelle Zammit, who write in Maltese and English respectively, translated each other works during the translation laboratory sessions – happening also prior to the festival itself – and decided to publish two bilingual booklets of their works, where the original work is accompanied by its translation: Mal-Waqgħa Tal-Weraq / A Scatter of Leaves by Joe P. Galea, translated into English by Abigail Ardelle Zammit, while Half Spine, Half Wild Flower / Nofsi Spina, Nofsi Fjur Selvaġġ by Zammit, translated into Maltese by Galea.


Joe P. Galea and Abigail Ardelle Zammit

Joe P. Galea and Abigail Ardelle Zammit (Photo: Virginia Monteforte)

Translation poses yet another problem when tackling innovative literature. The novel Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi by Alex Vella Gera springs to mind. Apart from gaining its popularity from an assassination attempt against Duminku Mintoff at the height of the 1980s, this novel captures the present-day reality of the Maltese society: a society in which the Maltese are constantly switching between the Maltese and English languages, to the extent of creating a Maltese-English or English-Maltese language. (Duminku Mintoff, or better known as “Dom” Mintoff, was an architect and also a politician. He served as Malta’s Prime Minister from 1955 to 1958 under the British rule and then following independence from 1971 to 1984. He is remembered for the establishment of a welfare state, together with infrastructural projects and the deepening divide between the Labour Party and the Catholic Church in Malta.)

The novel, which is written in Maltese and English, has substantial parts dedicated to Maltese-English or English-Maltese. What happens if one day this novel is translated? Will the Maltese sections be translated into English while the English text remains the same? What will happen if the novel is translated into other languages instead of English? Will the English sections be translated as well? As Alex Vella Gera himself admits, it is a huge challenge that the novel is translated and there are no such plans in the near future (Vella Gera).

I would argue that a translation of Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi is risky as the novel reaches its climax by this switching of Maltese-English/English-Maltese that creates an atmosphere of its own, which could only be felt and understood by those people who live within the Maltese society or are familiar to it. This novel is absolutely genius because of these parts which underline subtly several problems in the Maltese society and which are definitely lost or not well captured by translation.

In essence, literature has to confront several challenges to traverse diverse European countries; both the tangible problems each country encounters and hence reflected on its authors, and the complexities and dilemmas that translation itself offers. However, local and international literary organisations are helping to foster a culture in favour of a global literature, which is available to all, while minimising the challenges literary as well as authors find along the way.


Works Cited:

Duyan, Efe. “Good News and Bad News.” Facebook post. Facebook, 20 July 2016, Accessed 20 July 2016.

—. “Re: Inizjamed and LeuL.” Received by Elena Cardona, 19 August 2016.

Galea, Joe P. “Re: Festival.” Received by Elena Cardona, 2 September 2016.

Inizjamed. “Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival – Second Night – 26.8.16.” Facebook post. Facebook, 27 August 2016,  Accessed 12 September 2016.

Kaufmann, Therese. “Strategies of (Self-)Empowerment and Spaces of Resistance.” eiPCP, 2006, Accessed 5 September 2016.

Vassallo, Clare. “‘It-Traduzzjoni Hija l-Lingwa tal-Ewropa’ – Umberto Eco.” l-aċċent, vol. 14, June 2016, p. 24, Accessed 31 August 2016.

Vella Gera, Alex. “Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużu u t-Traduzzjoni.” Received by Elena Cardona, 2 September 2016.

Wolf, Michaela. “‘The Language of Europe is Translation’ EST Amidst New Europes and Chaniging Ideas on Translation.” Target, vol. 64, no. 2, 2014, pp. 224, 233. doi: 10.1075/target.26.2.04wol. Accessed 4 September 2016.