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In conversation with... Professor Charles Forsdick


Theme Leadership Fellow for Translating Cultures, Professor Charles Forsdick discusses the importance language, translation and the notion of voicelessness

I was born in Norfolk, and both my parents were language teachers. My mother taught French and Latin and my father taught German. From an early age I spent a lot of time on the Continent, so was surrounded by speakers of other languages, and it sparked an interest in a number of the areas in which I currently work. I was fortunate that my local school encouraged me to learn French and German, but also Latin and Greek, and I went on to study French and Latin at New College, Oxford. During my undergraduate years, I spent a lot of time with language activists in Brittany. It gave me a greater understanding of minority languages and the importance of language for identity, which went on to shape much of the work I have done since.

Translating Cultures looks at the importance of translating, interpreting and multilingualism to the arts and humanities. The emphasis in many projects is on translation as an exercise of moving within or between different languages and what that means for the creation, or loss, of meaning. But we’re also looking at a much wider, at times metaphorical understanding of translation, with people working on translation between different media, for example, translating music into sculpture. So the theme is really about taking the idea of translation and thinking about what it means right across the arts and humanities and not just in modern languages.

I wish I'd known...Seek out other voices

While establishing yourself in a disciplinary area, make sure you’re open to interdisciplinary curiosity. I was lucky as I did my PhD at Lancaster, a truly interdisciplinary campus. As arts and humanities researchers we’ve got a huge amount to learn from other fields. But there’s a lot to learn from outside the academy, too. When you’re undertaking research, think about how you can establish dialogues with organisations and people with relevant experiences outside the university. Being challenged by other disciplines, non-academic voices and international perspectives is absolutely crucial in producing the best research.

There’s a risk in Translating Cultures that we focus on the translating and forget about the cultures. It’s important to see translation as something that’s constitutive of culture – cultural renewal and dynamism all depend on it. Through Translating Cultures we’ve been challenging the idea that the UK has a monolingual culture. It concerns me that much of the current political rhetoric talks about British culture in a singular and homogenised way.

One of the challenges is to tackle the popular perception of multilingualism as an impediment rather than an opportunity for the UK, especially post Brexit. There’s a rich and diverse linguistic landscape in the UK at the moment. The heritage languages – Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Ulster Scots – show that Britain has never been monolingual, but at the same time we’ve got the arrival over the past 70 years of new migrant populations who have brought their own cultures and languages. In parts of London it’s not unusual to have more than 50 different languages spoken – that’s a huge linguistic resource in our communities that simply isn’t tapped.

The current language skills deficit in UK means for several decades we’ve been relying on highly talented linguists from abroad. Post Brexit, in terms of business and political negotiation, we’re going to need more linguists trained in UK universities, so there’s going to be a very rapid need to restore high levels of linguistic competence among graduates. But we also need people who understand heritage in Europe and beyond, and are able to operate inter-culturally. In the UK, there is a risk that languages other than English are being pushed out of the public and into the domestic sphere, in part as a result of the growing ‘linguaphobia’ we have seen in recent months. Such developments make it increasingly difficult to tap into existing linguistic resources we have in our communities.

What happens to a field like International Relations or Development Studies, which on occasion tend to conduct much of their teaching and research in English, when you factor in linguistic diversity in addition to geographical complexity? One of our concerns is the overemphasis of the English language and the assumptions in a lot of fields in academic study that things happen in English. A large grant went to Researching Multilingually, a project that asks researchers and teachers in a whole range of fields the extent to which they are acknowledging the importance of language. One of the main aims of Translating Cultures is to encourage people to think very clearly about the voices, ideas and concepts you miss if you only operate in English and with people who speak English.

In another major project linked to the theme, we have been working closely with NGOs about the notion of ‘voicelessness’. In order to listen to and communicate with voices that are marginalised, translation is absolutely essential. Projects are looking at language policies and assumptions around languages spoken in areas where NGOs intervene. A big priority is using the theme to help contribute to the Global Challenges Research Fund, where projects right across the Research Councils are aiming to address challenges faced by some of the most vulnerable people in the world. To maximise the impact of that research, and to learn from it, we need to foreground the place of language. We come back to the problem that the most vulnerable suffer from acute voicelessness, so it’s here that Translating Cultures can contribute.

We use class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality as key framing devices in the arts and humanities but we don’t talk enough about language and linguistic diversity. I hope one of the key legacies of Translating Cultures will be to embed the importance of language across all arts and humanities research. The other thing that excites me is the developing public interest in literature in translation. We’ve just launched a translator in residence scheme with the British Library, and Jen Calleja who has been appointed to that role is going to be helping raise public awareness of both the importance and value of translation. What’s emerged from the theme is the potential for education – among researchers and the wider community – around what languages are, why they matter, and what we miss out on if we don’t recognise their value.

My Life in Three Objects

Stèles, a bilingual anthology of poems by Victor Segalen

Front cover of Stèles, a bilingual anthology of poems by Victor Segalen

My PhD was on the early 20th-century French travel writer, Victor Segalen. He spent a lot of his adult life in China and one of my most treasured objects is a facsimile of one of his key poetry collections. It combines Chinese ideograms with French texts, and is printed as a Chinese book in a concertina-like continuous sheet of paper. It’s bound with two boards of camphor wood and yellow silk – it’s a beautiful object. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it reinforces the idea of reading literature as a ritual activity. You untie the silk binding, inhale the scent of camphor, and feel its weight of the covers and paper in your hands.

A wooden walking stick

Much of my own research is on travel writing, and I’m very interested in the return to pedestrianism in French, British and other literatures over the past 25 years. But I also walk a lot myself – both in the UK and abroad. I acquired this magnificent wooden walking stick when I was walking the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain for the first time (I’ve since walked parts of it four times). I hadn’t realised how arduous it was going to be, so I had to buy it en route! It combines my academic interest in walking with a more practical commitment to its many benefits.

A bust of Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint Louverture was the leader of the Haitian Revolution. In France (and French studies) there’s a foregrounding of the French Revolution as the foundational moment for the modern French state, and for a long time I didn’t realise there had been this parallel revolution in the Caribbean. Working on Haiti made me understand that French studies is not just about France, but about a whole interconnected network of French-speaking cultures across the globe.

The bust encapsulates inspiration I’ve drawn from working with Haitian colleagues and engaging with the country’s literature, history and culture. It’s an incredible place – post-colonial at the moment of its independence in 1804 150 years before the term was really invented. It constantly faces challenges of natural and political disasters but somehow, through its incredible literature, art and people, remains resilient and buoyant.

When the NGOs arrived after the earthquake in January 2010, many assumed everyone would speak French. In fact, only about six per cent of population do; the rest speak Haitian Creole. The situation brought about a fascinating moment of internationally crowd-sourced translation to help rescue services talk to people trapped in the rubble. It also highlights the issue of voicelessness that we aim – through an emphasis on various understandings of translation – to challenge in Translating Cultures.

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