Salzburg Seminar on translation: From oral to written back to oral again?

It was Geety Dharmaraja of New Dehli, a beaming lady with an inescapable sense of mission and the founder of a stunning Indian translation project called Katha who made several of the most remarkable points at this week’s Salzburg Global Seminar on translation.

“Perhaps we are about to go full cycle”, she told the startled: “We started with oral traditions, moved on to written literature, and now get into oral story telling again!” And, wrapping it all up, she would proclaim upfront: “Gutenberg must not have to live!” Meaning something like who can be sure that the printed book on paper is once and for all the solution to our reading (and story telling) requirements.

Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron

Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron

We were sitting in the prestigious Schloss Leopoldskron (where theater director Max Reinhard had an apartment during the fesitval in the 1920s), with lots of snow outside, and ever more falling from a grayish sky, some 60 or so translators from 4 continents and experts in literature and translation.

Presentations and discussions were going in various directions: About the status of translating literature (and the poor working conditions for many translators), about models to foster translations, and yes, about funding and how to better organize funding. There was a wide spread consensus that much translation of main stream fiction can hardly be done and only find a publisher, certainly in the English speaking world, if the cost of translation is somehow dunded by a grant. So translation is very much a not for profit activity – with Harry Potter and the like being an exception.

I had the pleasure to give a presentation on our “Diversity Report 2008“, maping languages that, aside from English of course, are strong in translations, and others that struggle on the margins.

Salzburg Schloss Leopoldskron Library

Translators, as we all know, are a community of highly focused folks, busy with their craft. But in all our conversations, sometimes more openly, and sometimes only between the lines, the digital change ahead was the big question in the room: Can we still, for a while at least, do things as if nothing happened? And for how long? Or is change already here? And it was funny to realize how often someone acknoweledged that new things and new habits had already become part of the daily habits.

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