Turid Farbregd's speech on receiving the Karel Capek medal

by Turid Farbregd

Turid Farbregd’s speech upon receiving the Karel Capek Medal awarded triennially by the International Translators Federation.

"I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?"

This quotation is not from a translator, as you might expect, but from the American poet Emily Dickinson. She spent her life in seclusion much the same way as translators do.

The nature of our work presupposes that we are anonymus communicators, invisibly present in the works of literature we translate. But once a work is within the reach of the readers, we usually very eagerly look for recognition. The most highly appreciated recognition is that we receive from fellow translators since they are the best qualified experts. In this case, I have some doubts as to whether the jury has actually been able to examine my translations, but it is a tremendous honour to be awarded the Karel Capek medal. I am happy, grateful and moved. And I hasten to share the honour with the Estonian (and Finnish) writers whom I have rendered into my own Norwegian native tongue.

It was a stroke of luck that Estonian literature had so many outstanding qualities, but it was not aesthetics that made me a translator. It was a political decision to undertake the task. On my first visit to Tallinn, the Estonian capital, I experienced Estonia as a tremendous prison camp where armed Soviets kept the native Estonians shut up. My motivation was to tell the world about an oppressed people behind the Iron Curtain. In this case "the world" was Norway, my native country. For a long time, translation work was thus a struggle for freedom. Even though the Baltic countries have regained their independence, my incentive has not vanished. It has simply been superceded by a second, perhaps even stronger motive, namely, solidarity with those who are small and weak. Both motives seem to be well in accordance with the objectives of Karel Capek’s work for the oppressed. His literary production has fascinated me since childhood when the Norwegian broadcasting company made a radio play adaption of his novel The War of the Salamanders. Also later encounters with his production remain indelibly stamped on my mind.

Three years ago the Karel Capek medal was awarded the Czech translator Helena Kadeckova in Prague. She has been a dear friend to me since our first encounter in Oslo in 1969, only a year after the Soviet invasion of her country, as you remember. Helena has specialized on translations from the Nordic languages, among those Icelandic and Norwegian, into the Czech language. Thus it feels almost a family matter when the same prize is now given to me.

Since the paramount aim of my endeavours is to benefit so-called 'small' cultures, 'small' languages, i.e. languages of limited diffusion, it is a paradox that I have to express my gratitude in English, the very language that probably represents the greatest threat to the diversity of culture and to so many of the world's small languages. Consequently, if I am ever fortunate enough to win another award, I plan to present my thanks in the Estonian language. It is up to you to decide whether this a promise or a threat!

Thank you very much!