Literary high jinks…for little people too

deck chairsThis has been a summer of literary high jinks for me, from the trials and tribulations of translation summer school in London to the excitement of entering the authors’ yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Thanks Charles Oppenheim https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/blueprint-debate-copyright). In this summer of words, the ones that stuck out the most were both the quirky quotations on the famous Book Fest deckchairs and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s excellent summation that “writing is not just about putting words on paper, it’s about where you place them and what you do with them“.

Cottrell Boyce may indeed have had musicality in mind when he explained to children what it takes to write a great story, and his words definitely rang true for me at Wednesday night’s spellbinding music-and-words show in the Jura Bound programme https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/themes/jura-unbound. Writers’ Bloc (www.writers-bloc.org.uk), Edinburgh’s premier spoken word performance group, turned the increasingly popular musical storytelling trend on its head by making up an edgy story to fit the heady electronic soundscapes of Poppy Ackroyd (www.poppyackroyd.com) and John Lemke (www.lostinsounds.com). The result was an intoxicating alchemy of story and sound, fused to perfection in the evocative setting of a summer’s night in the Spiegeltent.

Ackroyd and Hemke’s densely emotive music merged with the electrifying stories to create something of an out-of-body experience for me (three Sauvignon Blancs may have helped!)

Illuminated… excited…. entranced….(tipsy?), “this is fusion” I thought. The fusion of sound, music, language, words. Making stories. Bringing them to life.

The intensity with which I experienced those stories made me realize why I love reading to children so much. The idea that words can reach us in so many different ways – reading, listening, watching, interacting, sensing, feeling, touching – crafting them together into stories across a variety of mediums, fascinates me. When you like something that much, you can’t stop wanting to share it, can you??!!

At Jura Unbound in Edinburgh, they got the combination of drama, suspense, story and sound just right. And it reminded me that, thousands of miles away in an Italian classroom, we’d been trying to do something similar this year, as we experimented with storytelling fusions, playing with words across mediums and language systems.

okay book lavangna (2)As a Scottish native with a passion for telling tales (the narrative variety, not the get-someone-into-trouble kind), it didn’t take the class of seven year-olds long to realize that the stories I was telling were actually the same ones they’d heard before, only the voice and the words were different. Same and different were important words in this project, as we aimed to mix up our stereotypes and play with storytelling styles. We started our journey into diversity with “Animali Di Versi” by Isabella Christina Felline and Roberta Angeletti.  adv_cover2Fish with feet and light-as-a-feather hippos in pictures and musical rhymes of varying length and language gave us a chance to talk about how we can play with words and ideas to tell any kind of story we want.

Little-Red-Riding-Hood_GENPB_WOur exploration of same and different through language as a multidimensional means of expression, continued into classic children’s fairy-tales and fables. We studied how a story like Little Red Riding Hood evolved not only into different languages, but also across different storytelling dimensions. Perrault’s classic may have started out a somewhat dark tale in French more than three hundred years ago, but it later travelled across countries, languages and mediums, to be rewritten in German by the Brothers Grimm, reinterpreted in kaleidoscopic colour in Italian by Bruno Munari (who offers up green, white or yellow Riding Hoods), given a comical makeover in Spanish by Antonio Rodríguez Almodóvar (translated into the Italian as “what really happened to Little Red Riding Hood” although not available in English yet), and retold enticingly in a quirky and beautifully illustrated new version by Scottish writer and storyteller Lari Don. http://www.laridon.co.uk/my-books/little-red-riding-hood/. Fusions spring to mind again as the written word in Lari’s version takes on new life in an audio reading available online.

Sleeping Beauty made a similar crossover, and the children in Altino were surprised when they were asked neither to read nor to listen to the story, but to watch it instead (on YouTube to boot) as we introduced them to Tchaikovsky’s opera adaptation.

And it didn’t stop there. Having played around with opposites and tested our lateral thinking abilities, we experimented with rewriting a classic by ourselves: in words, pictures, actions, and even symbols. One of the most emotional moments of the whole project was hearing an autistic pupil read out the class’s adaptation of Goldilocks written in PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System). Watching the children work together to delight each other with new and surprising stories was one of the highlights of my time with them.

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As I state in my profile, Geminis can be parallel people often inhabiting parallel universes and it’s interesting when these universes come together. The similarities, for instance, between what I’ve experienced at the Edinburgh Festival and what I’m doing in my other life in an Italian classroom were extremely reassuring while my professional translator persona (with my trying-to-raise-a-bilingual-child hat on) enjoyed the opportunity to open the children’s minds to the power of words and the concept of translation, just as they themselves are venturing into their own exploration of language. Thanks to translators, I explained, stories can travel across time and type to transcend native languages and national borders.

Which brings me back to the Edinburgh Book Festival and the fun and games to be had with language. Based on a literary experiment called Multiples organized and edited by author Adam Thirlwell, a series of multilingual antics were enjoyed in the Spiegaltent. Thirlwell and acclaimed literary translator Daniel Hahn invited the audience to join in a game of Chinese literary whispers, sending out a short text in English to the multilingual (but non-translator) audience, like a lamb to the slaughter perhaps given the results, with the request that we pass it around the room, translating it in and out of our respective languages. The end result was a brand new piece of writing that had very little in common with the original short text. This was proof of the power of subjective interpretation and personal style that professional translators obviously know how to keep under wraps (honest) when using their words to give voice to someone else’s. The acrobatics continued with a relatively simple text in French which went through some literary gymnastics to come out the other side as an exercise in suspense, broad Scots and text speak. Well done Daniel and Adam. You were TTLY GR8.

My own personal exploration of language this summer also brought me to two poets – John Agard and Benjamin Zephaniah – and I’ve written a little essay here Language in Agard and Zepheniah poems discussing how they use language very cleverly to discuss language itself, linguistic stereotypes and racial discrimination.

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