Saturday, May 5, 2007

Serendipity, Part 1: The Bell and Funke Show

It's a symptom of the deep and lamentable divide between the United States and Canada that I only found out about this incredible children's literature conference by merest chance, and that few or no other Seattle-area librarians appeared to be there even though Seattle and Vancouver are less than three hours apart by car. But I found out in time to go, anyway. And I took notes. (Well, some notes.) And so I bring you this report from the True North Strong and Free, specifically from the student union building at the University of British Columbia, where the semester is over and so there are almost no students trying to get onto the computers at 6:30 8:00 on a Saturday night.


Actually, it's hard to know where to start. If you click the link above and check out the Serendipity lineup, you'll see why. (Also, my notes are incomplete and in many cases illegible, scribbled as they are on the backs of various programs and flyers. I have a renewed respect for Fuse #8's rampagingly detailed dispatches from all those soirees and previews. I'm afraid there will be no footwear in this report, and precious few desserts.)

Maybe best to start at the end, with what was obviously for many people the climax of the two-day program: a double presentation by Cornelia Funke and her English translator, Anthea Bell.

Anthea Bell spoke first. She is little and understated and elderly and wry and very British. She is also very brilliant, as demonstrated by her three-page list of translating credits in a dizzying array of languages, ranging from Sigmund Freud to all the Asterix books. She spoke about why she got into literary translation (it seemed like a "difficult challenge" and, she noted with some relish, she likes difficult challenges), her opinion of academic degree programs in literary translation (which runs along the lines of "I'm sure it's very fun to do, but it's not a degree that will make much difference to publishers; they just want to know if you can get the job done") and her academic background (in English Literature, not comparative lit, because at that time at Oxford you could only read one or the other and she wanted to take the philology course they had in Eng Lit).

Ms. Bell elaborated with passion about the importance of literature in translation, particularly for children, who are rarely bilingual, and who deserve the chance to read books from other cultures--books that are great, and books that are just fun and enjoyable. She quoted Samuel Johnson who, when asked what books a boy should be given to read, said basically that you should let a young boy [sic.--Samuel Johnson's sic., not Anthea Bell's] read whatever he enjoys so that he learns to like reading; he can pick up the "better" stuff (which at that time would have meant Greek and Latin works in the original) later.

Just before ceding the podium and picking her careful way back to her seat, she spoke a little about the Inkheart books ("tantalizing you," she said sweetly), the third of which Cornelia Funke has just emailed to her this week; it's sitting in her in-box, waiting for her to get back to England and get started reading it [gasps and murmurs from the crowd at this point]. "I've been asked to do a new translation of Kafka's The Castle," she said later in the presentation, "and I told them it will have to wait. [laughter and applause.] It's only fair; Kafka's been translated before."

Then Cornelia Funke got up. And she...she...well, she's about the most stunningly matter-of-factly self-confident human being I think I have sever seen in person, and that includes politicians and rock stars. She spoke without audio-visual aids and without notes. "I don't know how this will go," she smiled; "maybe you'll be really bored." But she didn't seem too worried.

Nor should she have been. She launched into the story of her literary journey (a theme all the presenters had been asked to address): growing up in a small town, books were her addiction, a "legal drug" that she couldn't get enough of. Her parents wanted her to pursue her talent for art, but she saw it as irrelevant and elitist and wanted to change the world. She became a social worker. But "you cannot live against your will do what you were born to do, and your gifts will pull and push at you and pain you" until you use them. So she entered the illustrator's program at the university after all, graduated, and got a job illustrating books.

And soon found herself bored with the picture books she was given to illustrate: "Children in classrooms, children in their rooms...German children's literature at that time was very realistic." She wanted to draw fairies and ogres, so she whipped up a little picture book of her own, which was immediately published. Nope; never had a rejection slip [mutters and groans from the audience].

And the rest is more or less history. She wrote and wrote and wrote (which she professes to find painless and joyful--provoking more envious groans from the crowd). She wrote Inkheart as a love letter to books and to her fellow reading addicts, and has been surprised to find it read and loved by many kids who formerly never read books. She lives in Los Angeles now, loves it, and is currently working on a screenplay she was asked to do by one of the producers (I think) of the Harry Potter movies--not a book of her own, but a project based on (an unnamed, super-secret) someone else's book that "very much relates to the fairy tales of the Germans". It's her first time working directly in English, and she's enjoying it, but she thinks she's only a reasonably good writer in English; not as good as she is in German.

When she sold the film rights to Inkheart she asked to be made a producer, and so she's had a say on the director and the cast (Helen Mirren is going to play Elinor), gets to see the rushes, and all that fun stuff. She feels it has "the darkness I wanted" for a film version of the book, and seems genuinely pleased with it, and with everything else in her life.

Finally, the author and translator sat down together, conversed briefly on mike, and then took questions. This was when I got to appreciate the full resplendence of Cornelia Funke's dark brown velvet skirt, and also the genuinely warm working relationship between the two writers, strikingly different as they are (short, tall; English, German; diffident, flamboyant). They obviously admire each other's talents, and feel that each is a better writer because of the other. Cornelia Funke even completely rewrote one of her early novels to make it more worthy for Anthea Bell to translate into English. "I felt so blessed that she put this beautiful glove about the hand of my language," she said.

Next up (but probably at much less length): Naomi Shihab Nye makes us all choke up, and Janet Stevens's technical difficulties.


Mary Lee said...

No need to try to live up to someone else's "rampagingly detailed dispatches." Yours is just fine. I wish I could have been there to hear Funke and Bell, and mostly I can't wait for the next book! And I can't wait to hear about Naomi Shahib Nye and Janet Stevens!

Elaine Magliaro said...

I love Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry. Can't wait to read your report about her presentation. J. Patrick Lewis is fun. I heard him speak at a children's literature conference in Maine a number of years ago. He's quite the prolific children's poet.

web said...

HOW AWESOME! I am so jealous of you getting to hear Anthea Bell!

MotherReader said...

Great report on the event. I don't generally take notes myself, so when I do they rarely make sense. That lovely quote would turn into "glove, words" in my hands.

Anonymous said...