Book Box | Unravelling the art of translation at London’s oldest bookstore - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Unravelling the art of translation at London’s oldest bookstore

Apr 13, 2024 08:03 PM IST

Two hot new reads are Charles Spencer’s boarding school memoir and the confessions of a Citibank trader. Plus, translations talk at London’s oldest bookstore.

Dear Reader,

Translators Donald Rayfield, Georgia de Chamberet & Dennis Duncan ( L to R) at Hatchards Piccadilly, London(Author) PREMIUM
Translators Donald Rayfield, Georgia de Chamberet & Dennis Duncan ( L to R) at Hatchards Piccadilly, London(Author)

On Monday evening, I attend an intriguing event on translation, at London’s oldest bookstore, Hatchards. They are launching a translation book club, and this is the very first session.

But before that, two hot new books in bookstores here. The first is Charles Spencer's A Very Private School, a memoir about being abused in boarding school. "The upper echelons of English society have long subjected their sons and daughters to the forced abandonment of boarding school”, begins Spencer, who is the younger brother of the late Princess Diana. Like many English boys, he was sent away to a stately-looking boarding school when he was eight years old, where the young boys were caned on their buttocks and abused in other ways. It sounds heartbreaking, and I am not sure I can keep reading. But then I do, and I am glad I did, for Spencer is a sensitive writer, and his reflections on English parenting that outsources the bringing up of such young children, and parental emphasis on repressing emotions in the interests of the "stiff upper lip" gives me a lot to think about. Especially because India has picked up so many of these British notions of ways to bring up children – in my family for instance, the boys were sent away to boarding schools like Doon School, in a similar way.

A Very Private School by Charles Spencer(Author)
A Very Private School by Charles Spencer(Author)

The second book is The Trading Game: A Confession by Gary Stevenson, a tell-all story by an East London boy who wins a trading game and becomes a billionaire Citibank trader but ends up getting disillusioned with financial markets and the havoc they wreak on economies. As a former banker, I am hooked after reading this tagline. When I pick up the book, I can’t put it down. It lives up to the hype around it. There’s much about the inner workings of trading rooms here, including the intricacies of foreign exchange swaps and interest rates, but it’s seamlessly woven into the story. If you want to understand how the financial markets are impacting the world and your life, and if you want to read a thrilling story set in high finance, this is the book for you.

The Trading Game by Gary Stevenson
The Trading Game by Gary Stevenson

But back to translations. It’s a pleasant day, 13 degrees and mostly cloudy, and I decide to walk to the discussion. The Piccadilly pavements are crowded with shoppers; this is the heart of tourist London, a few streets away from the Ritz Hotel and the very posh Fortnum and Mason department store.

But these streets are also the golden triangle for bookstores. There is the six-storeyed Waterstones Books close by. And if you carry on down Piccadilly and turn onto Shaftesbury Avenue, you are at Charing Cross Road, the once-upon-a-time heart of bookseller land. A few of these stores still survive, and the most magnificent of them is the five-storeyed Foyles bookstore.

Foyles Books, Charing Cross Road, London(Author)
Foyles Books, Charing Cross Road, London(Author)

Meanwhile, at Hatchards, I spy A Bookshop of One’s Own, in a beautifully bound blue and silver hardcover. It is the story of the women behind 68 Silver Moon at Charing Cross, a feminist and LQBTQ-focused bookstore set up in 1984. Silver Moon grew to be spectacularly successful, overcoming hate mail, arson and abuse. But, eventually, like so many bookstores in this area, rising rents forced the owners to shut down 17 years after they began.

There’s also 84 Charing Cross Road, which is twenty years of correspondence between Helene Hanff, a freelance writer living in New York City, and a used book dealer in Charing Cross. The two are dramatically different and you can see this from the style of their letters. But they share a love of books and you can see how this shared love magically transforms their relationship through their letters.

I am still absorbed with the books around me, when I realise it’s 6 pm and time to head downstairs to the biography section, to the conversation on translation. It’s a cosy space and about a dozen people are here, talking books and sipping wine.

At a round table sit the translators – Georgia de Chamberet, Donald Rayfield and Dennis Duncan. They speak of the importance of translation and how it can help readers understand other cultures and the world that much better. The conversation is peppered with fascinating book references from around the world. Donald Rayfield tells us how reading a poor translation of Hamid Ismailov's The Devil’s Dance drove him to learn Uzbek, so he could do a better job. Things worked out and both author and translator have received awards and acclaim for the project. The discussion made me want to read The Devil’s Dance, a book that interweaves two narratives. One thread tells the story of a 19th-century courtesan, and the other tells of the trials of a well-known Uzbek writer and literary dissident, who is imprisoned and executed at the hands of the Soviet state in the late 1930s.

Dennis Duncan talks of switching from being a computer programmer to a literary translator. "It’s not such a shift after all. As a programmer, you are translating instructions for the machine," he points out.

And then there are the problems of translations – how do you translate rhyme? How do you deal with different language structures?

"The problem about Russian is they get to the point right at the end of a sentence, very often you have to turn everything upside down when you translate. And that’s just one problem," says Donald Rayfield.

The translations club is reading Grey Bees by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov as its first book, followed by The Years by Nobel Prize-winning French writer Annie Ernaux and The Quarter by Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning Naguib Mahfouz. If you live in London or plan to visit in the next few months, do check details on the Hatchards website, the book discussions are open to the public, all for the price of a Starbucks coffee.

And if you’d like to listen to more on literary translation, check out Paraphrasis, a new podcast on the art and practice of literary translation, from the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard.

And until next week, happy reading.

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

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