The Arts: Subversive Voices from Abroad ; Tonight the Independent Awards Its Foreign Fiction Prize. Matthew Reisz Argues That, despite Their Resistance to Translations, the British Need Them More Than Ever

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THE VERY title is startling. Why on earth call the series of talks at London's South Bank "Dangerous Translations"? What could possibly be "dangerous" about a translation of Homer or Cervantes? In fact, it makes perfect sense. The British are notoriously resistant to translations - only about 2 per cent of books published here each year - yet they have nonetheless deeply influenced the ways we think and feel.

Virtually all Christians and most Jews in this country read the Bible in English, since few approach fluency in Hebrew or ancient Greek. Much of our understanding of 20th-century history comes from writers such as Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Proust, Gide, Genet and the Marquis de Sade taught us about certain kinds of sexuality long before they were treated as frankly and powerfully by local authors. It is hardly surprising, then, that defenders of sexual, political and religious orthodoxies have often turned on translators.

During the Renaissance, several scholars were burned at the stake, after their vernacular versions of the Bible were condemned as heretical - largely because they undermined the power of the Church by giving worshippers direct access to the word of God. And this is far from a dead issue. The Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed, the Italian and Norwegian ones seriously injured, because of their involvement in spreading Salman Rushdie's alleged blasphemies.

Introducing uncomfortable, subversive or simply new ideas into a culture from outside can be literally dangerous to its practitioners. And good literary translation is (or should be) dangerous, in the sense that it is demanding, intensely personal and involves the kind of risk-taking required of any serious creative activity. The five talks will illuminate all these interrelated themes.

Susan Bassnett, author of Translation Studies and Postcolonial Translation, opens the series next Thursday with a talk on "Translators on a Knife Edge". She examine issues of translation and nationalism. Fascist Italy, for example, saw it as an affront to its pride that the country needed any creative input from abroad. Yet translations of Shakespeare and Byron into suppressed languages like Czech provided a huge boost to national consciousness in 19th- century Europe. More recently, in the communist Prague of the 1980s, productions of Shakespeare were used to make subversive statements about power and authority that could never have been made directly. …