Fiction Fiesta: Literature in Translation

Cardiff’s Fiction Fiesta is an innovative programme of literary events which celebrates fiction and poetry from around the globe, in translation, alongside Wales’ very own home-grown talent. Taking place this year on the 18th and 19th of May, 18 authors, poets and translators met in two venues in the capital city and wove together a wealth of experience and stories, sharing work of their own, work by each other and work from absentees.

Included in the home-grown talent section was host Richard Gwyn, director of creative writing programmes in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University (where the event is partly held). He is a prose poet and novelist who is also a translator, most recently releasing A Complicated Mammal: Selected Poems of Joaquin O. Giannuzzi (CB editions, 2012), whose poetry Gwyn read at the festival, alongside his own, newer poetry, and poems from other foreign writers. Gwyn’s own poetry reflects his love for other cultures, as does the range of British writers invited to take part in Fiction Fiesta. The editor of CB editions, former poet Charles Boyle, also gave a reading. But Fiction Fiesta isn’t a vehicle to promote the work of Richard Gwyn; the man himself labours hard to ensure the work of other, often unfamiliar, writers is given the best platform on which to shine.

Wales’ most promising poet Tiffany Atkinson read from her forthcoming collection So Many Moving Parts, starting with ‘Hands of Flight Attendants’, read for those who had travelled so far to get to the event, which was followed by ‘Nine Miles Stationary’ (from Kink and Particle), about a traffic jam, read for everyone else. The latter, about a traffic-jam on the way to a funeral, to be more specific, included the fitting, wonderful line ‘though being on time would still have been too late.’

Atkinson, whose superb second collection Catulla et al was short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year 2012, gives regular readings outside the UK and was last year a guest reader at Argentina’s Rosario Poetry Festival, reading alongside Inés Garland, an Argentine short story writer and novelist who also read at Fiction Fiesta. For Atkinson, Fiction Fiesta is an ‘unusual and valuable festival which connects Wales to Buenos Aires and has formed a bond between the two cultures’.

Jon Gower, a Jack-of-all-trades kind of writer, took translation further with his exploration of replacement of language. About his mother, who suffered from dementia, he said, ‘During the gradual loss of language skills there was a brief period when she communicated with all around her by whistling, and a beautiful nightingale-like whistling at that’.

This confrontation with dementia is not too dissimilar to Deep Field, by Philip Gross,  in which Gross dredges the silence of a diminishing gift of vocabulary. Poems by Gross are currently being translated into French by Alexis Nuselovici (Chair of Modern Cultural Studies in the School of European Studies at Cardiff University) who chaired a lively session which considered the difficulties, and indeed opportunities, presented by having to translate from one language into another via a third bridge language.

Clare Potter’s theory about the translation of subconscious thoughts and silences was less convincing, although her descriptions of a battered New Orleans were stunning. She talked about visiting New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina, and gave the audience a taste by adding singing and melody to her poetry. One of the more animated and visceral readers at the event, she also read a few poems in Welsh, which led to a story about a visit to Washington DC, to represent Welsh culture along with Jon Gower as part of the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, where big American audiences listened to poetry read in Welsh with full appreciation, entertained by rhythms and feelings rather than concrete images, a miracle which wouldn’t often take place even here in Wales.

Completing the Latin American stable were Eduardo Halfon and Andrés Neuman. Halfon was born in Guatemala City. In 2012, one of his novels, The Polish Boxer, was published in English for the first time. Nueman’s Traveller of the Century was published in the UK earlier in the same year. Both writers are prolific in their first language. For both, though, pinning down their home country is not straightforward. Nebraska-based Eduardo Halfon is often reminded by his Polish grandfather that the first song he, Eduardo, learnt to sing, when he was two years-old, was Guatemala’s National Anthem. The writing of Granada-based Andrés Neuman is inspired by memories of political life in Argentina when he was a child. Autobiographical elements lacing the work of both writers, Neuman’s poems were punchless but his insights hit with a heavier weight, while Halfon’s short story (which will be added to new editions of The Polish Boxer), carried enough charisma and wordy gems to keep the attention of the audience.

The festival was brought back to Britain, albeit still away from Wales, by Bill (or WN) Herbert, a familiar face on the poetry scene who writes in both English and Scots. He has recently published a book in twin editions. Is this an egotistical act or is there merit to this decision? Herbert is well-travelled and has wandered even to the heat of Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, an unacknowledged country. To every person, to every place, to every philosophy, there comes an acknowledged and an unacknowledged truth. The twin editions of this book are Herbert’s attempt to reflect this. A collaboration (he was accompanied by Clare Potter), added for the occasion, for the book’s title poem, Omnesia, certainly gave the reading a wow-factor.

Patrick McGuinness uses fake and purported translations for his work. Once only known as a poet, now a Man Booker Prize nominee for his debut novel, McGuinness acknowledges, ‘Everything I know about what language can do comes from writing poetry’. Like Clare Potter and New Orleans, he describes the before and after of disaster, this time the revolution in Bucharest during Ceausescu’s reign. Though different for many reasons, there is still that reaction to the destruction, seeing parts you once walked through full of cranes and rubble, and not being able to find your way around even with a map of the city. Writing the novel The Last Hundred Days, inspired by these events, was a kind of recovery for McGuinness, although the strength of the book is ‘its refusal to pretend the narrator is more involved than he is’.   

To explore the use of translation in the way Fiction Fiesta does on a yearly basis will, sooner or later, be a stretch too far. But to merely celebrate translation and bring writers from Wales and overseas together in one room can surely outlast even the festival’s founder. Whether the festival looks further than Latin America seems unlikely, but there is a lot to explore there. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t want to bus it.