Umberto Eco’s famous quip that ‘the language of Europe is translation’ takes on a particular resonance in the present moment when the future of Europe is called into question by the increasingly vocal presence of ethnic exclusivism across the continent.
Translators for their part are more interested in building bridges than burning them, more preoccupied with scaling walls than erecting them. In a period when whole swathes of humanity can be dismissed with a label (‘migrants’), translators can through their work give a voice to the voiceless, a face to the defaced. They do this through the careful, painstaking work of making the works and writings of others in the different languages of the world available in a language that can be understood. In other words, they contribute in a very concrete way to the development of the empathetic imagination, the ability to be able to imagine what it is to be somebody other than oneself.
As global interactions increase, as we look to co-ordinated ecological co-operation across the planet, as our cities become more multicultural and multilingual by the day, we need this form of imagination more than ever.
Literary translators, by welcoming the writings of other peoples into their languages and cultures, practice an indispensable form of hospitality, an openness to the world which means that we will continue to have one that we can live in and cherish. In doing so, of course, translators powerfully contribute to their own native languages and cultures. Luther ushered in modern German through his translation work. The translators of the King James Bible radically altered the fortunes of English, and the Irish Franciscan translators working in Louvain and elsewhere had a decisive influence on the emergence of modern Irish.
Yesterday we marked the opening of a new home for the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation in a beautifully restored Georgian townhouse on Dublin’s Fenian Street. A partnership between Trinity’s School of Languages Literature and Cultural Studies, Literature Ireland and the Dalkey Archive Press, the centre will champion literary and cultural translators as creative practitioners who connect the languages and cultures of the world by bringing the best of international literature to Irish readers and bring the finest of Irish literature to readers around the world.
The event, featuring readings of Seamus Heaney’s poetry in Russian, Hungarian, Polish and Mexican Spanish, paid tribute to Heaney’s contribution to literature as a writer and translator, and acknowledged Heaney’s strong support of the development of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation.
As Ireland prepares itself for a post-Brexit Europe, the work of the literary translator is more important than ever. We need to know more about the lives, histories and cultures of our European neighbours if we are to develop the long-term, resilient relationships that will survive the difficulties of disconnection.
Our neighbours need to be made aware of the singularly rich literary heritage of the island of Ireland and the riches we can bring to the European table. Literature Ireland has been remarkably successful to date in ensuring the translation of more than 2,500 works of Irish literature into the languages of the world. The country needs the services of the women and men who so diligently promote the best of our writing into their languages.
As our island has become home to speakers of more than 160 languages, hailing from many different backgrounds and languages, we can view literary translation as an indispensable part of our common citizenship. If it is a desirable but not always possible goal to learn the languages of the newcomers to the island, we can always use the services of literary translators to understand the backgrounds, the origins, the cultural depth of the new and not so new arrivals to Irish society. Literary translation brings the world to Ireland and Ireland to the world and we need this worldly conversation more than ever.
Michael Cronin is 1776 professor of French in Trinity College Dublin and incoming director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation