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“We insist on our idea of people’s rights to think in their own language, to express themselves, to have an identity”

Interview with Simona Škrabec

By Ginevra Avalle

Oxford, 19th March 2019

Simona Škrabec has a degree in German Philology and Comparative Literature from the University of Ljubljana and a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the Autonomous University of Barcelona in 2002. She is currently a professor at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). She was a member of the Board of directors on Catalan PEN and director of Visat, a digital magazine of literature and translation. Since 2014, she has been Chair of the PEN International Committee on Translation and Linguistic Rights.

G.A. What is your role in PEN International?

S.S. I am the Chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, now for the second term. I have been elected in 2014  and next year, 2020, will be my last. So, I will not get to the Centenary, just for one year.

G.A. How did you hear about PEN International?

S.S. I am from Slovenia, although I don’t live there. PEN Slovenia is conceived as a public space for everybody, because the writing and literature have a crucial role there. Somehow it is more important than politics in a sense, especially in times of the communist rule. There was no such freedom of expression as you can have today, so writing was more important than you could suppose from a Western perspective. That is why I knew PEN existed all my life.

I was born and raised there. Then I met my husband and I moved to Barcelona when I was around 20 years old. It was the same time when Yugoslavia collapsed. I had to deal with very difficult processes, parallel to losing the country and building my new life and family. They were strange years.

G.A. How often do you go back?

S.S. I always go there. At least once or twice a year and I try to be a part of the Slovenian culture, to still translate and publish.

G.A. Is it difficult to be divided into two cultures?

S.S. We could talk about it for hours, of course. But yes. I try not to make it difficult, maybe this is my mission in life, to show that you can actually belong to at least two different countries and cultures and be perfectly normal, not divided, not schizophrenic, not nostalgic. You can have an ordinary family life, academic, writing career whatsoever. It just depends on how you take it. I try to make it fun, interesting, and binding. Because at the beginning it was hard to get integrated into the new country, which is normal. Barcelona has two languages, so if you really want to be integrated, you need to learn both of them, Catalan and Spanish. That was not easy. And then after a while I realised that what’s most difficult is not to get into a new society, but to preserve a sense of belonging to your country and origin. And specially the language. When you get detached from your first language there is a false belief that it will stay untouched for ever. And this is not true. If you are a writer, you have to write. If you stop using this language, it goes away. So, my struggle now is not to lose my knowledge and my sensibility also for Slovenian. Not just to write, as I do, in Catalan. But for me the important thing is to stay home and still be somebody that can still say things. It is like getting back what you got from your country. I was lucky enough to have another life. So somehow I feel gratitude for my home. I believe that is good that they know that there are other points of view. There is not a big difference between Barcelona and Ljubljana. It is still the Mediterranean.

G.A. Did it help you in your translation work?

S.S. Yes of course, I only do that. That is my life. My biography is not just my life, but really all the reflection and everything I write about. I do normally write essays about complicated issues, like literature. I also translate, basically because there is hardly anybody who can do it. It was a very good school. Because when you work with small languages, like Slovenian and Catalan you realise you actually have to do everything. You are the scout that funds the publishing house, and then you translate it, and then you make all the promotion yourself. And you get money, so that they can invite the writer, and then you make an interview with them… everything. You learn about it a lot. You translate poetry, and essays, and drama, and very long novels. There is not a lot of money or fame there, but it can be a very good life. It is interesting. If you jump in and work very hard, it is possible. And you actually build bridges that could not exist if you were not there. Which is very different than if you translate from Italian to English, for example. There are thousands and thousands of people living in both places, so you’d be one of the many.

G.A. What are you most proud of?

S.S. I did very strange projects in my life, apart from the more than 30 books I have translated. One of the things I did was when the Catalan literature was invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair. With a friend we organised a whole project about the relation between the German and Catalan culture for the last 100 years. So, we published a book which has two volumes of 300 pages with all the photographs, where we documented how writers, intellectuals and professors nowadays explain the part of the story they know best. It shows how important German culture and scientists, specially linguists, were to bring the Catalan language to the level of a modern European language.

I am a professor of German Language, I publish essays also about German writers. I don’t translate literary texts, but I do work on essays or more theoretical texts. From German there are lots of native speakers that can translate themselves, but there are not too many people who work on theory. So that is what I do.

G.A. Five years ago, in 2014, you became Chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. What are the Committee’s activities since you became the chair?

S.S. My first petition would be that the organisation took more seriously the work of the Committees, not just what happens during the Annual Congresses but also during the rest of the year. . A part of the meetings during the congresses in Bishkek (Kyrgistan, 2014), Quebec (Canada, 2015), Ourense (Spain, 2016), Lviv (Ukraine, 2017), and Pune (India, 2018), we organized the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee meetings in Barcelona (Spain, 2015), Johannesburg (South Africa, 2016), Bengaluru (India, 2017), Biel/Bienne (Swizerland, 2018) and San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico, Chiapas, 2019) and the Committee participated in some other important international initiatives in this field. . One of the changes that my presidency promoted, not just because of me, of course, is that we detached the Committee from our Centre and we brought it to a more international level. And now all the work is closer to the International Secretariat. Before it was just a European Committee, including almost only people from Europe, and it was a rather closed group of people. But it opened. It was years before I joined the Catalan PEN. In 1996, the TLRC promoted the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights that was adopted in Barcelona. After Spain came out from the dictatorship, linguistic issues were very important, and the Catalans started to work not only for themselves but for everybody in the world. Catalonia was recovering from 50 years of complete suppression of language. You had to rebuild everything, even the scholar system. So, it was a moment of power, of democratisation. They brought people together from around the world to speak about what linguistic rights actually are. Since the director-general of    UNESCO was at that time Federico Mayor Zaragosa (1987-1999), who knows the Catalan case very well, it was possible to have somebody on a high level to listen to these discussions about the necessity to establish linguistic rights for all the cultures in the world.

Carles Torner, the Executive Director of PEN International also comes from the Catalan PEN and he was very active in the 1990 to promote the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights.

In this last five years, the Committee put the accent on translation, which is something that has always been very important. You would always have someone in every congress proposing to have a list and money to work on translation. But it never works because the publishing industries have their own rules. For years it was just talking, but we weren’t able to publish translated books by ourselves. But the question about who is translating, and the knowledge about another literature and how the publishing business works. We have managed to put in the agenda of PEN International very practical things. It is not that we speak about linguistic rights in an abstract way, or just linked to an ordinary life. Literature is something else, you need to connect the repressed and marginalised languages with others. Because one of the causes of marginalisation is that they cannot connect with others as equals. World literature exists as a network. If you are not part of it, it’s very difficult. In the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, we started to talk about it first. And second, we started talking about oral cultures: literatures that are not yet there to start a consolidated written tradition, but they are existing cultures. And they have this need to express themselves in writing. This was not possible for them due to colonialism. The possibility of writing was suppressed. We worked on that last year in Pune, with Adivasi writers. We did that in Africa, and now in Chiapas to speak about indigenous languages which survive basically as oral traditions. They didn’t leave many literature monuments, and you know how important written evidences are to show that there is a tradition and that there is a capacity to keep your legacy for the next generation. We raise awareness of where the problems come from. When you see the most difficult case of exclusion, of suppression of culture, then you understand why it’s so difficult in your culture, for example, why it is so difficult in Catalonia to have a newspaper in Catalan, or in Tibet. It is the same struggle for power and against the  domination of more powerful cultures. It all comes from the same ideology that says a big language is progress and a small language is tradition and falls out of the modern world.

In that sense it is good that we manage to bring different people together. From my first meeting in Barcelona, when we worked with the Translators Manifesto from Quebec. It was written by scholars from Canada and the US. Then this initiative came to the Committee and was approved in Barcelona. We discussed it very truthfully and established it in the three official PEN languages, English, French and Spanish.  From these languages, the Declaration was then translated in many other languages. It was the first time PEN talked about what literary translation actually is. We discussed if it was a declaration on Translation or on Literary Translation. The Quebec scholars wanted it to be called Declaration on Translation. And all the other members were fighting for the title “Literary Translation”. It is very constructive. We started to work not in theory but about what is our everyday work on that level of literal translation, of literary scholars, of writers. Of activists in the sense of building a culture.

G.A. How have technologies changed translation?

S.S. New technologies allow for new forms of communication among cultures, but they cannot substitute translation. We are not talking about the same issue. Translation is important because through it you build a written culture. All this legacy is built through many different languages who are constantly in exchange. If you don’t exchange with others, you don’t progress. There is no innovation, the system closes. It becomes old-fashioned and eventually dies. It can happen to very big cultures, but the danger of isolation is of course bigger for small, marginalised cultures.

G.A. How can the legacy be preserved?

S.S. We have actually changed from the idea of just preserving languages and linguistic rights to building the capacity to communicate with others through translation, through openness. We bring people together; we make them listen to each other’s’ stories. Make them understand that their cases of repression and percussion are not unique, that there are others. There are initiatives to fight back and build a literary tradition that can be helpful to the people. That sense of identity, pride, remembering, overbearing the trauma. It is something that literature can do. We try to bring that to all the repressed cultures, instead of creating this commercial world-wide planetary industry where every book is the same and can be written in basic English. It is not the same kind of literature we are talking about. Translating is writing, it is one of the bricks you need to build your culture. This capacity is what PEN brings. We can’t be an agency for translations, but we can build people to then be agents on the highest level of their country. Because they understand how it works and know it is not only about money or attractive book awards, or nice stories. It is about what actually literature brings to the people.

G.A. Could you tell me about a case you have worked on?

S.S. This is actually one of the differences between this Committee and the rest of the PEN work. Language is something which belongs to the community, not to one individual. So, when we speak about PEN cases we are referring to a person. If you defend linguistic rights, it is not enough to save a person. A person can be a symbol of something. And these cases will be related to political persecution, to be helped by our network of protected writers. It won’t go to the Committee of Linguistic Rights. Because if you take a person as a representative of a national cause, then the political problems are huge. One of the ways to really upset power is to give power to a small nation, or language. So, the issue of Linguistic Rights is never only cultural, it is highly explosive in a political way. If you have the strategy to save an individual and change the world through that, that is case work. But what we do with Translation and Linguistic issues is, instead of insisting in this political dimension, we insist in the cultural dimension. We insist on our idea of people’s rights to think in their own language, to express themselves, to have an identity. Through that, we will change the world. If we try to do it in a directly political way, we will be charged on everything.

There is another effect which is not visible at first sight. If you recognise others, then you see your culture is also just a puzzle. It will always be full of people that come from other countries, that have integrated, old and young… If you respect difference towards the other cultures, you can respect difference in your own country. If you do that, then your society will be tolerant, democratic, capable of compromises. So, it is not just that we work on recognising those who have not recognition. We actually change the way in which we see the society, which is beautiful. That is what literature does. We do not only inform you about this strange tribal language spoken in a faraway land. This is not the most important thing. But that you realise, at home, how there are so many things that you never noticed because you were never able to listen or see them. In this context, we change the attitude at home and build more tolerance towards diversity. A society is always diverse. It is important that the consciousness on how we are able to deal with difference in every step. And make it not a shock, but interesting. We invite people together to speak. Sometimes it is easier to talk about these issues with strangers than with your people.

We had this meeting in Johannesburg. More than 20 African countries were present. We had representatives of English and French speaking countries in Africa, also from Portuguese and Arabic countries. It was something special. They never get together. Africa is divided in zones of influence, and they don’t talk to each other. We managed to listen to each other, to get to know what they do in the other side. We repeated something similar in Switzerland last year, where the Swiss governments of the different Cantons were very generous and paid a lot of money to invite delegates from African countries. We received more than 40 delegates from all over the world at the Committee meeting, and most of them were from Africa. We explained to them what the Swiss model is. It is a huge difference. You tend to hear that if countries have diversity and several languages there is no progress. And then you have Switzerland, to prove the opposite. They are so proud of their capacity to communicate and unite citizens that do not speak the same language. And how they have no problem to speak a strange German and have a terrible accent in French if you are Italian Swiss and so on. I believe that for some of the people who were there to discover this miracle of Switzerland, it is much different than only hearing about it. We had teachers from elementary schools, professors from university, professionals from the public sector, from institutes to promote Swiss literature abroad, translators… With all that you can see how to deal with that in a more mature, democratic way.

G.A. Do you have any texts about these meetings?

S.S. There is my text, my closing speech. It is already on the web, together with some poems. The same “miracle” happened in Bengaluru, in India. Each meeting was something special. We have the minutes of all these meetings. .

G.A. How many members are you working with now?

S.S. In each meeting we get more people, so the whole list is now more than a hundred people. Some of them have been there just once, others keep coming. You never know if you have a committee or you don’t have it. My rule is that everybody that wants to be there can be there. There are no restrictions at all. You don’t need to pay more or ask to be admitted.

G.A. What is the average age of the membership?

S.S. Oh, young and old, it is very diverse.

G.A. What would you like to see achieved with the Exhibition?

S.S. All this we have been talking about today. I think it is a very good starting point for somebody else, to bring it further. My duty is to put everything together and to give the present to the people who will come after me. The Centenary Archive will help organising all that, make it more visible. It is already there. All these activities, specially from the last year, have made the Committee very active.  

G.A. Can you tell us about the Committee before you became the Chair?

S.S. I was participating in it. The Chair was a Catalan philosopher, Josep Maria Terricabras, who was there for six years. I was then very active from my Centre, that is the reason why I was first proposed and then elected Chair. Before him there was a Chair for six years in Macedonia. I followed this from far away, I never went to the meetings back then. It was interesting but I remember that mostly Europeans came. The feeling was that it was not open, and it was hard to get in. The meetings were always in the Centre where the Chair was from. That changed during my presidency. We don’t organise the meetings with the Catalan Centre but with the Centre that invites us, like a congress. It is completely different, and this has opened the Committee to the world. We are present in the five continents, even Australia is now active. We have been in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, in north America, in Europe… We decide it depending on the money and the people.

G.A. How do you see this Committee in 30 years?

S.S. I think its importance will grow if the world goes in the right direction. It is actually the most important question: the future relies on the capacity of communication, and translation goes with it.

G.A. What about the relationship with other committees?

S.S. We work with other committees, basically all of them. Maybe not so much with the Peace Committee, but we have been the supporters of the linguistic issues surrounding many cases. With the Women Writers Committee, we have collaborated a lot. Repressed languages are mostly oral languages, and oral languages are transmitted through family traditions. That means that women are actually a very important factor which is often invisible. That is something we worked on with the WWC. We did not organise things together, but we work together, and many members participate in both.

G.A. Do the five Committees meet together apart from Congress?

S.S. No, just in the Congress, it would be impossible to meet otherwise. One of the changes we implemented is that now meetings during the Congress do not occur simultaneously, so members can go to all of them, from morning to evening. We try to organise the activities, for example, a “speed dating” between translators, authors and editors in the congress in Pune. We will repeat it in Chiapas, calling it “Amor a primera vista”. The most important thing about speed dating is not what we achieve but the form, because you get to speak to many people at the same time who share interests. They speak in couples, they see each other in the eyes and know individually who they are. Usually, in the congresses you have the speaker and then the public who is silent and listens. Except from the free time, there is no opportunity to meet people who are very interesting, who sit next to you, but you don’t know what they write, do, or are interested in. So, the speed dating is a way of showing people that they are all interesting, and that it is necessary to talk and get to know each other. It is a democratisation of the organisation, a weapon against exclusion.

G.A. Do you remember your first congress?

S.S. Yes, of course. It was in Kirgizstan. The journey through Istanbul was terrible. I almost missed my connection flight. I needed to be there since I was going to be elected Chair. If that flight left without me I wouldn’t make it. I got there in the middle of the night, at 3 or 4 AM. I was with other people of PEN. My luggage was lost. I had to wait and deal with all these post-soviet officials. So, when I arrived at the session I was so tired. There was another candidate for the position of Chair, a member from the Uyghur PEN. He was very ambitious, so I thought I would sit there for two hours, they would elect him as Chair, and I would wait until it was time to go back home. I was absolutely not expecting to be elected. Everybody had been presenting him as the candidate, and we were in Asia, so he played at home. But I was elected. It was not something I would have been expecting, but. I saw they believed in me, even though I was not sure I could do it. I knew the Catalans, but of course I had talked to some of the other members. I felt like at home. I said that in my Speech in Kirgizstan: my PEN family is the only place on earth where I can speak all the languages I can speak. You usually don’t get people of such different environments together.

G.A. Whatis PEN International to you?

S.S. For me it is my natural way of existing. I feel more at home here than anywhere. This openness and compromise are very important for me.

G.A. How did you start being so active?

S.S. I have always been. If you need a leader I am there. If you need a rebel I am there. It is not something I had to learn; it was inside me.

G.A. What is writing and reading for you?

S.S. It’s not part of my life; it is my life. It is like breathing. I simply exist like this.

G.A. When did you discover this?

S.S. I remember all the first times. When I first heard a story, when I learnt a poem by heart, when I first started to read by myself.. it is pure magic. When I first learnt to read in foreign languages, that is also magic. I could understand it by myself, without someone translating for me. I built my life around it. I am always in the same place; I always think about what happens around me.