The adjective most often used to describe Shirley Hazzard—author of four novels and two collections of short fiction—has been “precocious.” Listening to her speak to Richard Ford at the 92nd Street Y as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, it was easy to see why. “How could a girl 20 years old have written that story?” Ford asked, after Annabel David Goff—another admirer of Hazzard’s work—had read a passage from “Harold,” the first story Hazzard ever wrote. Hazzard, now 79, small and a little frail, smiled as if it was only natural.
It transpired that, at 18 months old, Hazzard was able to recite the “The House that Jack Built” in its entirety, having heard it only once. Aged 16, having moved between Hong Kong, London, and Australia, she was engaged by the British Intelligence to monitor the war in China. At 20, working for the UN in New York, she sent a short story to the New Yorker because, she said, the UN was no place for a woman’s advancement, and she wanted “to do something for herself.”
Books, McCann said, take us outside ourselves—but works in translations can take us just a little further, to places we don’t know anything about.
Like Elizabeth Bowen, Hazzard is a writer who would rather that novels were just another part of life; she isn’t interested in discussing theory or technique. When Ford asked her which aspect of writing she found the hardest, she paused for a very long time, looking a little confused. “Well, writing cheques, I suppose.”
The talk came to a close with a reading from the start of her third novel, The Transit of Venus (1980)—a passage set “shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England”:“ It was simply that the day, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the field like hairs on end...” “We are so lucky to have the language we have,” Hazzard said, referring to the “flexibility” of English. Hearing her supple, epigrammatic prose, it was hard not to agree.
“The language that we have” was the subject of a debate at Le Poisson Rouge on Saturday afternoon. Aleksandar Hemon is the editor of the Best European Fiction 2010—an anthology of 35 short stories from across Europe translated into English, which has already sold 15,000 copies in the US. There was, he said, a paradox inherent in America’s relationship with translated works. On the one hand, only 3 percent of books sold in the US are translated, suggesting that this country is wildly unadventurous in its reading habits. On the other hand, Europe is a collection of countries divided by language; America and the English language provides a common ground, allowing an anthology like his to be produced.
With the Irish author Column McCann, Hemon made translation sound like a political movement. If there were more translations, he said, the quality of writing would improve. McCann took it further; if literature is an exercise in empathy, we need more works in translation “to be better to one another.” Books, McCann said, take us outside ourselves—but works in translations can take us just a little further, to places we don’t know anything about. “Liechtenstein!” he exclaimed, holding up the anthology.
Hemon—author of The Lazarus Project (2008) and Love and Other Obstacles (2009)—is a writer and editor who resembles a scientist both in his neat appearance and his analytical manner. After hearing Naja Marie Aidt, Valter Hugo Mae, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint read aloud the English translations of their work, he questioned them as if conducting a controlled experiment. How did they sound to themselves, he asked? “Like I’m not an intelligent being,” Hugo Mae responded.
Marie Aidt, a Danish poet and fiction-writer, said that she had grown to love the translations of her own work. But still, she said, she wanted to write in Danish, because it is important to start from a place of “emotional attachment.” The Danish for “milk,” she said, is “mælk.” For her, “mælk” is to do with “intimate, familiar things—like my mother.” Milk was, she said, was “just milk.”
Hemon, who writes in both Bosnian and English, understands that there is something lost in translation—but believes that there is much more to be gained. Translation should not seem alien or academic, he suggested. “It’s inherent to the act of reading,” he said—“an act of faith—allowing ourselves to be altered.”
Emily Stokes has written for the Financial Times and the Guardian. She lives in Brooklyn.