Monday marked the start of the 7th annual PEN World Voices Festival, a weeklong readings and events series which celebrates international literature and the authors, translators, editors, journalists, and publishers creating it today. This year’s festival features 100 writers from 40 different nations and includes over 60 events—many free—all over Manhattan. A full schedule of events is available on the PEN website.
If there is anything that mars the experience of each year’s PEN World Voices Festival—besides the fact that an increasing number of panels are not free—it’s that so many interest-piquing events are scheduled during the workday, making attendance difficult if you don’t have a few spare sick days to burn. Luckily, this year there are a handful of events scheduled around the lunch hour, including the three-part “Lunchtime Literary Conversations” hosted at NYU’s La Maison Française. The first of these conversations featured two authors whose work is yet unknown to English language readers—Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, a Norwegian author whose first novel, The Faster I Run, the Smaller I Am has been sold to Dalkey Archive and is, hopefully, forthcoming, and Ludovic Debeurme, a French graphic novelist whose 500+ page autobiographically-inspired graphic novel Lucille—about two teenagers struggling with anorexia, alcoholism, and more mundane trials of adolescence—is forthcoming in English translation next month.
It’s rather a hallmark of the World Voices Festival to pair unlikely panelists, hinging events on esoteric and unexpected similarities between, say, a British children’s author and a Finnish-Estonian novelist and playwright. Yesterday’s conversation was unusually theme-less, although moderator Kira Brunner Don (executive editor of Lapham’s Quarterly) did her best to keep the implied rationale of the pairing—introducing two celebrated international authors to an American audience—engaging by discussing Skomsvold and Debeurme’s respective experiences having their work translated.
Skomsvold read two passages from her self-described “lonely love story,” starting with a scene where her effacing, elderly narrator, Matea, recalls her childhood experience of being struck by lightning. After recovering, Matea meets her future husband who guilelessly presents her, on the playground, with a series of statistical probabilities of the same thing happening to her ever again. The passage reflected the type of whimsical sense of humor that is only comfortable when couched against a melancholy background, and showcased Skomsvold’s familiarity with mathematics and physics. Before she became a writer, Skomsvold planned to become a computer engineer (her book’s title is actually a play on relativity theory). In the end, her reading was, humorously, a bit more revelatory than some audience members would have liked: while providing an anecdote about a German translator, the sweetly candid Skomsvold casually spoiled the rather dramatic ending of her novel, to the giggling, gasping chagrin of many attendees.
Debeurme—who is less conversant in English and relied on the remarkably fluid and expressive services of his French interpreter to articulate his more complex answers—did not read his excerpt of Lucille himself, but rather had images from the book projected onto a screen while the moderator read from the English translation. It would certainly be difficult to get much of a sense of such a sprawling work from a minutes-long reading, but Debeurme’s simple, unbound illustrations were quite revealing on their own. He favors consecutive comic panels without borders, speech without bubbles or special delineation, deliberately maintaining white space on each page so as to allow the reader to set her own pace while reading. In fact, rhythm and “improvisation” play a significant role in Debeurme’s writing process. A jazz guitarist as well as an author and artist, he says he starts every book without a sense of what is going to happen next, and “improvises” until he can hear the character speaking in his head.
If Skomsvold and Debeurme have something substantial in common, it’s a generous respect for the art of rendering a tonally and stylistically accurate translation—one which specifically eschews word-for-word adaptations. Skomsvold described an early draft of the English translation of her novel, one which was linguistically accurate without replicating any of the playful wordplay which are indicative of her narrator’s speech pattern. She urged the translator to “get into her [narrator’s] way of thinking,” to create original turns of phrase and rhymes which the character could say, had the book been written originally in English. “It’s good to let [the book] go,” she explained, “to let it belong to someone else.” Debeurme recalled with approval several episodes where his translators had made changes to his text because of cultural context which would not be understood by readers of the translation. To prevent misinterpretation in a translated text, he said, it’s just as important for the translator to be conversant in the cultural perspective of the secondary audience.
Neither author expressed discomfort at the thought of their work being translated into a language they were entirely unfamiliar with. (Lucille has been translated into Korean, for instance, and The Faster I Run has been published in Spanish.) “It’s actually a relief,” said Skomsvold. “I say to myself, ‘it’s probably great!’”