"Poetry is what gets lost in translation," said the American poet Robert Frost. But it's not just poetry that fails to translate, as the British Council's current Writer-in-Residence Zoё Strachan has been finding out.
Zoё follows in the illustrious footsteps of Booker-prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson and poet Lemn Sissay, who both spent time on American campuses with the British Council. She's halfway through her residency, which is run in partnership with the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. It's a six-week stint at one of the best creative writing programs in the world - a rare chance for writers from as far away as China, Iraq and the Philippines to meet and discuss their work. A flurry of novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters from across the globe descend on the relative peace of the American Midwest to talk, teach and learn from each other.
Of course, when there are lots of voices, there's the danger that conversations can get garbled. At a recent film seminar, visiting writers were invited to show movies from their home countries. A native Scot, Zoё picked the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man, in which sinister rituals take place on a remote Hebridean island. After the screening, a quizzical hand shot up in the back of the room. The hand belonged to a bemused-looking young Chinese student. "So when exactly did human sacrifice become illegal in Scotland?" she asked. "Was it in the 1970s?"
Thankfully, that particular misunderstanding was quickly cleared up. But the confusion illustrates a more serious point: the importance of making sure that the nuances of culture doesn't get lost in translation. Here at the British Council, we try to do just that. We describe what we do as "cultural relations." Broadly, that means we build trust and understanding between people in the UK and other countries. We encourage people to find points of connection, and understand their differences, through our work in the arts, education, English and societal issues.
There's a real appetite in the United States to learn more about different cultures, and literature provides a window into new, unfamiliar worlds. In Iowa, where the locals are famed for their polite reserve, curious students are asking our Writer-in-Residence where they can read more work by British writers - from Anthony Burgess to Jeanette Winterson. Art translates across national borders. "One evening, I was invited to a party where all the writers were supposed to bring a national dish and a couple of poems from their home country," Zoё recalls. "I couldn't find a haggis, but luckily, it didn't matter. What really transferred was the poetry."
In our work, every day we find that art is a powerful conduit connecting people and their diverse cultures. Residency programs like this one, that bring writers face to face with each other and with young people eager to learn, create the perfect environment to explore the road not yet taken.
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