Saturday, 19 October 2013

PEN International Women Writers Committee | Reykjavik 2013

Minutes of meeting of PEN International

Women Writers Committee

Reykjavik, September 9, 2013
The meeting, part of PEN's International Congress,  was chaired by Ekbal Baraka, Chair, assisted by former chairs Judy Buckrich and Lucina Kathmann; the Minutes were prepared by Lucina Kathmann.

The pamphlet about the history of the Women Writers Committee was passed out. The new website was introduced. An idea to create a directory of individual women writers in all areas was changed and refined to result in a call for reports on the conditions for women writers in each area.

There was a spirited discussion of the fact that in almost 100 years of its existence, PEN International has never had a woman president. How do we change this? Some of the women attending said that even if a woman is elected soon, which we all hope, it is still a scandal that this situation has gone on so long. Many ideas were floated as to how to help get a woman elected at the next presidential election. We all agreed to talk about this matter with our centers and other contacts. We would like at least one strong candidate, if not more.

The Diversity website page devoted to members of the women writers committee is now functioning again. The site was hacked this year, delaying this project. This page is for the purpose of the women writers of PEN getting to know each other through our work. Anyone may participate.

How to participate:

Choose a text in English that will help readers understand who you are as a writer, put it with a photo of yourself and a few lines of biography mentioning which PEN center you belong to and send it to Marija Simokovic:

We reviewed the standing orders of the committee. Paul Finegan from the London office joined us in this phase. We made a few changes. Judy Buckrich will circulate the new standing orders with the changes. One effect was that according to the revised standing orders we needed an elected secretary, treasurer and other board members. We have had an informal executive, which we can keep, but this is a formal structure. Elections quickly put the following in place: Lucina Kathmann, secretary, Judith Buckrich and Sarah Lawson, executive members. We were unable to find a treasurer as we have no experience with a budget, though we understand that we might be getting money and thus requiring someone responsible to account for it and we will find a way to fill this post.

Sarah Clarke from the London office then joined us to talk about using international organizations, particularly the UN. Tsung Su of the Chinese Writers Abroad PEN and Lucina Kathmann of San Miguel,  Mexico, PEN have been attending the meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women  in New York since 1996. This last year PEN was able to read a statement in a formal meeting, the first time PEN has been able to get the floor in that body. The theme this year was violence against women, a theme of universal importance with which PEN has a particular competence: violence against women writers. Getting the floor was a great advance. Sarah's professional help and expertise in this organization certainly was instrumental in the PIWWC's enhanced powers.

Haroun Siddiqi joined us in representation of the International Board to tell us that there is finally money raised for staff and other help specifically for the committees. We are invited to think of ways that the board can help us. Later John Ralston Saul and Takeaki Hori joined us briefly. Their message was like Haroun's, that now there is staff and resources to help the committees and they invite us to make requests.

Ekbal proposed a conference in Egypt for next January, this would be a case in point of a way the office could help the PIWWC and it is being followed up. Paul Finegan is the particular staff person in charge of committees.

We began the individual reports which are always the highlight of the PIWWC meetings.

He Xiangyang from Chinese PEN spoke, translated by Wi Xinwei. She said there were many literary prizes won by women writers in China, that since 1919 there has been gender equality in China.  

Clara Franceschetti, from the French-speaking region of Switzerland, talked of a subtle discrimination that persists against women writers.

Ayako Sato, from Japan PEN, said that more women are being published in Japan now. Her center is going to feature the Mexican women journalists who have been killed in their next Women's Day program.

The Icelandic PEN delegates reported that, though there is a good situation in Iceland in general, newspapers have fired seasoned women and hired boys and there have been other forms of economic discrimination. They said “Sometimes we are blind to issues in our own country.” Women are not equally represented in important literary prizes, and a new prize especially for women has been instituted. At first that was controversial as perhaps being thought of as “second rate” but now it is popular.

Zeinab Diallo, from Guinea, talked about a new project, a compendium of testimonies about FGM, which are now in book form. Zeinab is looking for a publisher.

Itxaro Borda from Basque PEN lives on the French side of the France/Spain border. She talked about her situation as a Basque writer. Her center is now interested in LGBT rights and normalizing diversity among its members. She said “We come from a macho Christian society but are now liberating ourselves.”

Nancy Phiri from Malawi, is a librarian, writes children's books, sometimes in the Chichewa language. Her organization sponsors reading groups among girls.  Women are more frequently journalists in Malawi and find it hard to have their writing taken seriously.

Joyce Caplan from Scotland is a professor of Scottish literature. Her center is making a bid for the 2016 PEN World Congress. The issue of independence is currently important in Scotland. Her center does programs for International Women's Day.

Judy Buckrich spoke of an exciting literary and artistic subculture now active in Australia.

Women from Swedish PEN underscored the Icelandic women's observation that the majority of readers are women. They said the 90s were the golden era for poetry in Swedish, many of the poets of that era were women. The center does a Women's Day program and is involved in a project for the education of women in Afghanistan.

Lina Morselli from the Trieste center is interested in the Italian language and other minority languages.

Ekbal talked about the terrible civil unrest in Egypt, which she lives in. There have been three years of turmoil. In March of 2011 some women trying to celebrate International Women's Day in Tahrir Square were pushed out of the square. The people pushing them were the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi won his election illegally, then dismissed the only woman judge in the Constitutional Court. Insofar as the Islamic Brotherhood allows any women in public office, they are veiled and say nothing. They promote segregated schools with veiled women teachers for girls. Ekbal said, “The Islamic Brotherhood has two enemies, women and Christians.” She spoke of the churches that have been burned. “There are 10 million Christians in Egypt,” she said, “They are not a 'minority,' they are citizens.”

Berivan Dosky from the Kurdish PEN center, who was posted to Damascus and now is in Baghdad, talked of the terrible situation for Kurdish people (and everyone else as well) in Syria. Islamists are attacking and their preachers are condoning horrible things which have never happened in Syria before. For example, women are being encouraged to have sexual relations with many male fighters, whether by choice or by force, to help their morale to fight, the women's contribution to jihad. She also mentioned a woman writer in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, Suzanne Jamal, who has been threatened by Islamists.

Finnish PEN delegates reported that in the last two years their Women Writers Committee has had an event to talk about motherhood and writing, how these claims can be reconciled in one's life. They have also had Valentine's Day events celebrating diverse sexualities, as well as writing letters for prisoners.

Sarah Lawson spoke of the history of English PEN vis a vis the Women Writers Committee, why it is that she, an active mainstay of the PIWWC, nonetheless is almost always the only woman from English PEN at meetings. This time another delegate from English PEN was present, Fathieh Saudi, who is on the board of that center, so perhaps this situation can be improved.

A long-range idea was suggested: to generate a Declaration of Women's Rights parallel to the Girona and Peace Committee's manifestos. 

The meeting lasted a half hour longer than scheduled. Hardly anyone was willing to leave even though organizers of the next events kept encouraging us.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Still transmitting: why Nam June Paik matters

Dr Mario Relich, poet, academic, Secretary of the Scottish Poetry Association, and member of the Executive Committee of Scottish PEN, reflects on Korean American artist Nam June Paik's exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. Considered by many to be the founder of video art, Paik died in 2006.

Still transmitting
Why Nam June Paik Matters

I recently visited the only remnant of this year's Edinburgh International Festival, namely the exhibition of 'Transmitted Live: Nam June Paik Resounds'. I expected something in the way of possibly uninspiring installation art. In fact, it's a wonderful display of all kinds of musical/technological art-work inspired by Paik's 1963 exhibition 'Exposition of Music -- Electronic Television' in Wuppertal.
Paik in the programme notes is described as 'a pathfinder of media art, turning such technologies as television, video, satellite broadcast and laser into creative and experimental forms of art.' Highlights for me were a small, enclosed area devoted to the music of the Beatles at the time, and in the Georgian Gallery of Talbot Rice, a film exploring dance, from various cultures, together with shots of the likes of John Cage and Allen Ginsberg edited in visually intricate and really beautiful patterns. The exhibition in a way celebrates freedom of expression at its most playful, and the artist's legacy lives on at the Nam June Paik Art Centre in South Korea.

You still have time to see it, and give yourself at least an hour to appreciate its splendours, until 19 Oct.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Learning as you go

Harry D Watson is a translator in the Scandinavian languages. In this article he shares his experience of the 'pleasures and pains' of attempting to translate a poem in a language in which he describes himself as 'still learning': Faroese. The article provides an insight into the process and tasks of translation (a field in which Scottish PEN aims to increase its member-activity) as Harry describes how he tackled the poem Havin (The Garden) by the Faroese-born, but now Danish-based poet and film maker, Katrin Ottarsdóttir.

Learning as you go
a tentative attempt at translating a Faroese poem

My background as a translator is in the Scandinavian languages, and although Swedish is the only member of the group that I am comfortable speaking as well as reading – having lived and worked in Sweden as well as studying the language – the three mainland Scandinavian languages are so similar in their written forms that I have also on occasion translated from both Danish and Norwegian. However, my “first” Scandinavian language, which I studied at university in the 1960s as part of an English Language degree, was Old Norse, the ancestral language of Scandinavia which survives today in remarkably good condition and with a greatly increased vocabulary as modern Icelandic. And Icelandic has a close cousin in Faroese.

A couple of years ago I went on a cruise, a sort of Viking raid in reverse, to Iceland and the Faroes and returned with plunder in the shape of a dictionary of modern Icelandic and a Faroese language course, complete with CD. Fellow-translators, if no-one else, will sympathise with my choice of holiday souvenir. With some background in Icelandic, I made fairly rapid progress with my Faroese course, and before long I had taken out a subscription to the Faroese literary journal Vencil and was trying my hand at a few tentative translations. It may seem a foolhardy exercise to try translating literature in a language one is barely acquainted with, but I am a great believer in learning by doing, although I was quite clear from the start that I would need to liaise with the relevant authors, as any translator must inevitably do when translating work by living writers.

To illustrate the pain and pleasure of translating from a language one is still learning, I want to concentrate on my evolving version of Havin (The Garden) by the Faroese-born but Danish-based poet and film-maker Katrin Ottarsdóttir. Here is the poem in the original Faroese:


                Dreymarnir brotna í vøkrum havum
                ein rhododendron kveylar leivdirnar í seg
                gevur maðkunum enn eina grund at vera til

                suffini fara millum havarnar
                leita eftir meiningini í mjúku moldini
                undir blóðdropunum hjá kristusi
                heldur ikki hann veit síni livandi ráð

                í einum hava grør alt sum maðurin nertir
                hjartað lekur innistongd orð út í fingrarnar
                allir litir leskiliga lokkandi
                inni í húsinum er útideyðaveður
                skjótt noyðist hann at fara inn.

A literal translation would go something like

                The dreams broken in beautiful gardens
                a rhododendron coils its remains into itself
                gives the worms yet another reason to exist

                the sighs drift between the gardens
                looking for meaning in the soft earth
                under the drops of blood from Christ
                nor does he know what to do

                in one garden there grows all that a man touches
                the heart leaches locked-in words out of the fingers
               all the colours refreshing, beguiling
                inside the house is life-threatening weather
                soon he is forced to go in.

Hmm. A bit more work needed there, perhaps! And the “drops of blood from Christ” in the second stanza seems to strike a jarring note, in the context of a garden.

The initial response from the author contained both good news and bad news. Her initial comment, “Sær øgiliga gott út á enskum” (Looks awfully good in English), was heartening, but it was followed by “I think we have a bit of a problem with the tricky “the drops of blood from Christ”, though. In Faroese “Jesu Kristi blóðdropar” is the name of a sort of fuchsia that grows very well on the islands. I can’t find that specific name connecting to the garden plant in any English dictionary.”

Ahhh. My own face probably resembled a fuchsia as I read those words. Now Christ’s blood-drops in a garden started to make sense. Katrin informed me that the Faroese word for a fuchsia came from Danish. The Ordbog over det danske sprog gives Kristi bloddraabe (Christ’s blood-drops), with a couple of interesting illustrative quotations. Firstly, den Blomst, som de Lærde kalde Fuchsia, men som siden almindelig kaldes Christi Bloddraabe (that flower which the learned call “fuchsia”, but which has since been generally known as “Christ’s blood-drops”); and secondly, a line of verse: Fra fuchsien blodets tunge tårer trille (from the fuchsia trickle the heavy tears of blood).

Finally, a search for “fuchsia” in the online English-Faroese dictionary ( gives blóðdroparunnur (‘blood-drop-shrub’), so it does look as if the “Jesu Kristi” fuchsia is a special variant.

Was there an allusion to Christ’s passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, I wondered. According to Luke 22:43-44, Christ’s anguish in Gethsemane was so deep that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground”. Katrin confirmed my suspicion: “For me it would be best to somehow bring Jesus along by saying that the flowers of the fuchsia look like the blood drops of Christ or something like that. In order to give meaning to the sentence that even Jesus doesn’t know what to do. For Faroe Islanders Christ is never far away, even with not religious people”.

This inspired my next effort, which was

                under the flowers of the fuchsia
                that look like drops of Christ’s blood
                and he’s at his wits’ end too

                or alternatively

                and even he’s at his wits’ end.

The “at his wits’ end” phrase seemed to me a more faithful rendering of “ikki hann veit síni livandi ráð”, and Katrin agreed: “Sounds good. And in this case I like the latter version best, “… and even he’s at his wits’ end”.”

While we were in contact I took the opportunity to quiz her about another expression with botanical content that had me puzzled. I had translated ein rhododendron kveylar leivdirnar í seg as “a rhododendron coils its remains into itself”, which is literally what the Faroese says, but this didn’t sound to me like anything I could imagine a rhododendron doing. The poet’s response was swift: “Here kveyla í seg = eat greedily, stuff oneself, wolf (a meal) etc.” Well, in a British context rhododendron is often seen by gardeners and botanists as an “invasive species” which sucks all the nutrients out of the soil and allows nothing to flourish under it, so I suppose that could explain the “eating greedily” trope. How about “A rhododendron wolfs down all the leftovers”, or, “A rhododendron crams all the goodness into itself”, which conveys the sense of a rhododendron’s greediness, and also remains faithful to the Faroese í seg?

A further email from Katrin with useful suggestions resulted in the following slightly tweaked version:

                the dreams break in beautiful gardens
                a rhododendron wolfs down all the leftovers
                gives the worms yet another reason to exist

                the sighs drift between the gardens
                looking for meaning in the soft soil
                under the fuchsia’s flowers
                that look like drops of the blood of Christ
                even he is at his wits’ end.

Only one verse to go. Katrin suggested amending my

                in one garden there grows all that a man touches,
                in one garden everything grows that the man touches
                the heart leaches locked-in words out of the fingers
                the heart leaks locked-in words out into the fingers

This has the advantage of suggesting something like “green fingers”, expertise at growing things. What the man cannot express in words, he can express with his hands, making things grow and flourish in his garden, where the colours are “refreshing and beguiling”. I was rather attached to “leaches”, but losing a syllable with “leaks” probably improves the metre of the line.

We now come to one of the words in which Faroese excels – a term for nasty weather. If the Inuit have lots of words for snow (something that linguists now dispute), the Faroese certainly have plenty of terms to describe their bewilderingly changeable weather. Jonathan Adams and Hjalmar P. Petersen’s Faroese. A Language Course for Beginners (Stiðin, 2009) lists no fewer than 37 words and phrases for different kinds of misty and foggy conditions, with útideyðaveður – the term used in verse 3 of the poem – defined as “extremely bad weather”: three words, where Faroese makes do with one. The definition from the online Faroese dictionary goes one (or three) better, defining útideyðaveður as “extremely bad weather which makes it highly perilous to travel”. A fine definition, but not particularly useful for a translator of poetry! Hence my “life-threatening weather”, which is rather more concise while keeping the basic meaning intact.

The author’s suggestion for improving my two last lines was

                inside the house the weather is life-threatening
                soon he has to go in.

There is an obvious paradox here. Weather is usually what happens outside, but here the weather is inside. I take “weather” to be a metaphor for life, with all its problems and hardships. The garden is a little paradise, but although it provides a temporary refuge from normal human concerns, eventually the gardener has to return indoors to all the responsibilities and duties and burdens of normal life that await him there. The poet herself has not dissented from this reading of her poem.

So the (provisional) final version of the translation would be:

                the dreams break in beautiful gardens
                a rhododendron wolfs down all the leftovers
                gives the worms yet another reason to exist

                the sighs drift between the gardens
                looking for meaning in the soft soil
                under the fuchsia’s flowers
                that look like drops of the blood of Christ
                even he’s at his wits’ end

                in one garden everything grows that the man touches
                the heart leaks locked-in words out into the fingers
                all colours refreshing and beguiling
                inside the house the weather is life-threatening
                soon he has to go in
I don’t think I will be re-inventing myself as a Faroese translator any time soon, but this little exercise has certainly whetted my appetite for further translation experiments with this quirkiest and most idiosyncratic of the Scandinavian languages.


Friday, 4 October 2013

Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland

On Friday 20 September, 2013, the pamphlet Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland, written by Jean Rafferty and Alan Bissett was launched - a joint venture by Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society. In this article, Jean Rafferty describes the process of collaboration and highlights issues raised during the debate at the Saltire Society, chaired by Scottish PEN's President, Drew Campbell.

Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland

I wasn't expecting to have to censor myself at an event on freedom of expression. But just at the moment when the words fuck and off coalesced in my brain, I suddenly remembered there was a wee girl of about four in the audience. Having to search for the more discreet alternative of Get lost was a reminder that freedom of expression is not an absolute and that all societies have boundaries. The event was at the Saltire Society in Edinburgh, the launch of a new pamphlet, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland, written by me and the novelist, Alan Bissett. Where Scotland's boundaries will be at this crucial moment in our history, the moment when we must choose what we'll be as a nation, was what Alan and I had to wrestle with in the pamphlet, a new joint venture between Scottish PEN and the Saltire Society, who aim to stimulate debate about important issues in our culture. Ours was the third in a series. (The other two are A Plea for a Secular Scotland by Dr Richard Holloway and The Artist and Nationality by Meagan Delahunt.)

I hadn't met Alan Bissett before we started our dialogue, though knew he'd be fun as he describes himself on Twitter as your friendly neighbourhood Falkirk novelist. It was like meeting Tigger. As a child I refused to let my mum read me AA Milne's books, which I considered silly, (Ed. This seems like a rather draconian act of censorship from a champion of free expression.) but Alan, warm, unquenchably enthusiastic, and eminently likable, made the concept of the bouncy Tigger seem absolutely plausible.

We met up in a couple of trendy Glasgow cafes and chewed over Leveson, the McCluskey Report, phone hacking and football chants as well as halloumi salad and tiger prawns in garlic butter. PEN President Drew Campbell directed the discussion, otherwise known as refereeing.

Actually our views weren't so far apart that we had major disagreements, but we did initially approach the subject from different viewpoints. As a former journalist who often saw her best work dropped or altered for economic reasons, I'm dead against state regulation of the press— we censor ourselves enough already. Alan, on the other hand, was deeply concerned about some of the grotesqueries committed by the tabloids prior to the Leveson Inquiry. 'But freedom of expression is like a thread on your jumper,' he said. 'The more you unravel, the more you see how important it is.'

Just how important was flagged up by our chair for the event, PEN President Drew Campbell, who had recently attended PEN International's Congress in Reykjavik. He relayed the inspiring news that PEN America has instigated legal proceedings against the US government for breaking the Constitution by illegally spying on its own citizens. A number of European PEN centres, including Scottish PEN, are exploring European law for the possibility of pursuing their own governments for similar abuses of power. If there's one thing the Bissett and I agree on, it's that we don't trust governments.

Perhaps because the Saltire Society thoughtfully included a glass of wine in the price of the ticket, our audience needed no invitation to indulge in their own freedom of expression. 'Hmm, I thought we'd just have a question and answer at the end,' said Drew Campbell. He was wearing a tie for the first time since I've known him, but a tartan one in deference to the Saltire Society.

Richard Holloway made the point that laws are a blunt instrument in dealing with matters of freedom of expression, one we make in the pamphlet too. More startling was the fact that UEFA had consulted him about whether football supporters' songs were hate speech. I'm still trying to get my head around the thought of the former bishop standing on the terraces with a meat pie in his hand.

Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre commented that freedom of expression is not an absolute and is defined by each society at a particular point in time, which is why it's so important to us now, at the moment when Scotland will make itself anew, whatever choice it makes about independence.

There was much discussion on the future of the internet, with Ruth, the mother of the little girl who raised standards among some of us, deeply worried about the amount of pornography constantly being directed at us. Alan Bissett agreed. 'I'm particularly concerned with the pornification of mainstream society, since much of what we call pornography is in fact misogyny,' he said. 'But I can't work out how to resolve that with freedom of expression.'

My fellow pamphleteer had been the victim of extreme internet abuse, with some radical feminists objecting to him writing about the late Andrea Dworkin, whom he impersonates in his show, Ban This Filth! For daring to embody a female icon (otherwise known as acting) they had even branded him a rapist. Ironically, he was performing later that day in aid of the Edinburgh Women's Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre. Depending on his audience's reaction, he might or might not be stripping off. Pornography or art, who gets to decide? Sounded like it might be Alan himself, working out where the boundaries were with his particular audience.

If the multiplicity of voices at the pamphlet launch is anything to go by, Freedom of Expression in the New Scotland is only a starting point for discussion. In Scottish PEN we're proud to be taking part in it and to be working alongside the Saltire Society.

'It feels like a natural fit,' said Jim Tough, the Society's Executive Director.

It feels too like an exciting opportunity for us in Scotland. Not many countries have the chance to consider the basic freedoms they want in their society. We do. I hope people will read all of the pamphlets— and keep talking.
Note | Copies of the pamphlet can be purchased from the Saltire Society - at a special rate of £4 for members of Scottish PEN.