I recently attended (or listened to the recording of) two events with foreign authors and was struck by how different those sessions were compared to the ones with English-speaking authors. Of course, it is tricky to compare like with like, since they all had different organisers, but I have noticed this on other occasions and it infuriates me slightly. Let me explain.
The events I attended at the winter editions of the Hay Literary Festival and Cambridge Literary Festivals were with British or American authors, so there was of course no translator, and the interviewer or moderator was either a subject matter expert (Robert Macfarlane interviewing Merlin Sheldrake, for example) or else, even if a celebrity in their own right, very much willing to remain in the shadow and let the limelight shine on their interviewee (Marina Burns with Carmen Maria Machado, and I can’t even remember who was moderating the Sarah Holl/Sarah Moss conversation).
When the guest is a foreign author, even a Nobel Prize-winning one like Olga Tokarczuk, it appears the interviewer has to be very well-known in order to draw in the crowds – in this case, Elif Shafak. It was a good session, immeasurably helped by the presence of interpreter Marta Dziurosz. However, I did feel that some of the parallels drawn between the Ottoman Empire and Poland were stretching things a bit, and that Shafak’s questions were a bit too convoluted for someone not fluent in English to understand and reply to (Tokarczuk could mostly understand the questions in English but replied in Polish). This is not dumbing down: you can ask profound questions while being sensitive to the needs of those who speak English as a second (or third etc.) language and be prepared to reformulate.Nevertheless, this session did go in-depth and actually was focused on the interviewee, so well done London Review Bookshop.
The BBC Radio 3 interview with Romanian author Mircea Cărtărescu was supposedly focused on how his experience of living for many years under Communist rule made it into his fiction. However, because he is a ‘nobody’, i.e. unknown to British audiences, it couldn’t be a straightforward interview, so instead two further panellists were invited. Not professors of history, not translators, not publishers of literature from Eastern Europe or anybody who could have had an informed, deep conversation about this subject. Instead, it was Georgina Harding who visited Romania in 1988 and has written a novel set in Romania in the 1950s, and Philippe Sands who has never visited Romania and only really read Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years and Journals, which he was strongly recommending. And yes, I like Sebastian very much too, but there was far too much discussion of the English panellists’ thoughts and experiences rather than a serious discussion of the novel Nostalgia, which was supposedly what they were there for. Furthermore, Sands continually mispronounced Mircea’s name, even after the moderator pronounced it correctly several times) – you would think that checking with the author himself would have been appropriate if you have him there in person, wouldn’t you?
This constant mediation of anything from another culture, because it might be ‘too difficult’ or ‘foreign’ to British viewers or listeners is quite infantilising, almost offensive, I find. Does everything have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator? Do we really need stackloads of ‘Britishness’ to make the medicine go down? Why do we always end up with ‘celebrities’ presenting programmes rather than the experts (I would even venture to say that celebrities are probably more expensive than experts)? Paul Hollywood eats in Japan? Joanna Lumley and Michael Portillo hop, skip and jump just about everywhere? And even the recent Richard E. Grant journey through Spain, Italy and France via literary works – I enjoyed his enthusiasm, but did the whole experience have to be mediated through quite so many English-language authors writing books set in those regions and visits to British expats? The ‘Between the Covers’ programme moderated by Sara Cox is fun, but does it have to feature quite so many books in half an hour that there are only about 5 minutes left to discuss the actual book?
Call me elitist or living in a bookish bubble, but surely there is a place and an appetite for more in-depth discussion and expert guidance, like Francesco da Mosto’s Venice, or Mary Beard’s Ancient Rome, as well as more ‘mainstream’ TV programmes stuffed to the gills with celebrities opining about everything? I don’t blame the celebrities necessarily – nice money if you can get it, plus the chance to travel to exotic places – although perhaps they should at least attempt to get experts involved (sharing the fee, if necessary). Or are TV producers afraid that our attention spans have shrunk so irredeemably that we cannot concentrate unless there are lots of pretty pictures, dramatic statements and celebrities pretending to be ‘everyman or woman’? Look at the difference between Brian Cox’s first appearance on TV in The Wonders of the Solar System and the recent Wonders of the Universe, or the increasing cosplay of Lucy Worsley’s programmes on history.
That is a much wider topic, so let me return to the interviews with foreign authors. Don’t be lazy, TV and radio producers! Just scratch the surface and there will be lots of experts in academia, translation and publishing who are passionate about spreading the word for a particular culture and literature, and make sure that they do justice to these authors and their work. That is what a genuine building of bridges between cultures is about. Oh, and please ask how to pronounce their names!