On 12th March 2020, Comma Press will publish EUROPA28: WRITING BY WOMEN ON THE FUTURE OF EUROPE in partnership with Hay Festival, edited by Sophie Hughes & Sarah Cleave – a collection of 28 essays and short fiction by 28 women writers, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs from 28 European countries, on each of their visions for the future of our continent.
This International Mother Language Day, we invited translator and co-editor of this forthcoming anthology, Sophie Hughes, to write something about her work in translation, her take on the ‘mother language’ and how she found this related to Europa28.
Europe the Mother; English the child
As a literary translator, my ‘mother language’, English, is my toolbox, my most important asset. I also know that the term ‘mother language’ is contested in some academic and professional spheres, including my own, with many linguists preferring less sentimental terminology: ‘arterial language’, ‘L1’, ‘first language’ or ‘dominant language’. But even these terms are insufficient to articulate how we really use language today. My two-year-old-son just started to string together sentences, and what comes out is an unabashed and egalitarian mash-up of Italian (his ‘father tongue’) and English (his ‘mother tongue’): ready, steady, VIA! This utterly unique language will always be his ‘first language’, and yet, in time, life’s vicissitudes – his movements, relationships, and work – will determine his so-called ‘dominant language’.
For Europeans, having free movement and opportunities to work and love across the continent has always meant that, more so than anywhere in the world, one’s dominant language is likely to keep changing – kaleidoscopically, delightfully. All of Europe’s languages, in this way, are a kind of mother language for Europeans. It is of great sadness to me, personally, that the European Union has now, as I write and as we publish Europa28, this family album of resolutions and hope, lost one of her brood. But it gives me enormous comfort to think of that other Europe, the mother language: a fabrication, a product of teamwork, at once impressionable and resolute, historically rich and brightly contemporary, adaptable and resilient. It is, I believe, a language capable of telling all of our stories. The UK may have left the EU, but how bright a vision of the future we are offered in this anthology via UK’s Hilary Cottam’s defiant imaginative thinking and progressive spirit: ‘To grow together we must create new stories, new spells and experiments that give birth to new possibilities.’
Nowhere does Europe’s mother language speak louder than in EUROPA28: WRITING BY WOMEN ON THE FUTURE OF EUROPE, the anthology I was invited to co-edit by Hay Festival and Wom@rts with Sarah Cleave at Comma Press. And yet, of course, this book was to be published in one language, English (editions are also forthcoming in Croatian and Spanish, hopefully with more languages to follow). As well as commissioning the pieces with Sarah, my role was to find translators into English for all the pieces written in other European languages: I thought this would present me with a search for twenty-seven translators, with the UK text being written in original English. In retrospect it was completely ridiculous and not a little bit naïve of me to make such an assumption! English was the first language of choice for over half of our participants, which means that the anthology contains Englishes that are perfectly correct while at the same time rich with difference, idiomatic flair, novel inflections and rhythms absorbed from other languages. It was the most unusual editing job I’ve ever undertaken, and not only because it includes thinkers from all backgrounds and fields, and both fiction and non-fiction: thanks to the Europa28‘s writers and translators alike, I learnt a lot about editing the English language, what Jacob Mikanowski rightly calls a ‘behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief’. I learnt, thanks to the participants’ feedback and also just by means of their writing, that it is possible to reflect Europe the ‘mother language’ in English by not automatically reading strangeness and difference as error. I came to see English in our anthology as the child who receives the generous lessons of the mother.
As a translator myself, I was delighted to be the translation coordinator for a project of such breadth. More than a field of study or a profession, translation is a place where languages meet. And with those languages, ideas. Something has happened in the meeting of these twenty-eight ideas, something positive and constructive and that can really only be understood by reading the collection as a whole. Each text, in isolation, has its own plentiful merits, but the rubbing up of languages and ideas is what makes Europa28 a real feat of European collaboration, and a literary artefact to treasure.
Sophie Hughes, February 2020
Sophie Hughes is a literary critic and translator from Spanish to English, known for her translations of writers such as Laia Jufresa and and José Revueltas. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder. She has also been longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, the ALTA National Translation Award in Prose, and the PEN Translation Prize.