This is such a fascinating book. Prior to reading it, I had no knowledge of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, of the mammoth task of compiling an authoritative list of all words used in the English language, citing printed examples of the use of each word… And in a time long before the advent of computers! I loved reading about the history of dictionary-making, including Samuel Johnson’s contributions to the task he set himself a century earlier than James Murray was asked to take on the role by the Philological Society in the late nineteenth century. The very idea that volunteers were recruited to carry out the enormous task of collecting words, and written evidence of their existence in quotations is simply incredible, when we consider the already vast collection of books printed by the end of the 1800s.
When we learn about the life and work of one of the most important contributors, William Minors, the story of the origin of one of the biggest dictionaries of the English language in the world becomes one of fascination, intrigue and grisly horror! Minors adds to the work of James Murray and his office staff whilst a patient in Broadmoor, built in 1863 and still a high security psychiatric hospital today. We read of Minor’s deeply troubled mind, how events in his past affected, and may have contributed to, his mental health, and how his sharp intelligence and well-read brain assisted him in his tireless work on the dictionary. He was actively encouraged in his labours by the hospital staff and governor, until he could no longer work due to illness, and his subsequent release and return to his family in America. So much is contained in the wonderful slim volume, I would definitely benefit from reading it again at some point.
For the past few weeks, our reading group has been participating in the first readers’ project connected with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. we have enjoyed reading two novels in translation from their original language into English: Trieste by Daša Drndic and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas. Some amongst us had read translated fiction previously in the form of classic literature such as novels by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Zola but it had been a while… We wanted to read modern fiction written by current authors and expand our reading horizons, so we applied to join in the project running alongside the consideration of books in the running for this prize. The project culminated in our attending a superb Readers’ Day with the other participating groups.
Some of us found it an enriching experience and gained a lot from reading these books (Trieste was voted the prizewinner amongst reading groups on the Readers’ Day), but some of us struggled with the translations of the books themselves – it seemed as though there was a good story to tell but meanings and nuances could often get lost in the transition into English.
Trieste tells the tale of an elderly woman whose son was taken from her during World War II because his father was a Nazi soldier, and how she waits all her life for him to return to her, certain that he will do so. This story is interspersed with names of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis and facts about the history of the First World War and events leading up to the Second.
Dublinesque is about a publisher at the end of his career having a life crisis but the story is rambling and disjointed. It did not engage me as a reader and felt more about the author dropping in numerous literary quotations and references to music. It also centred a great deal around James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, never having read that, the various plots and subplots around a trip to Ireland rather passed me by. Not my kind of a book. Sue, a member of our group…
On Saturday 18th May, we visited the Free Word Centre in London to share our interest and ideas with other reading groups, writers, translators and the fantastic organisers of the day. The programme of events was great. We listened to a super young Turkish writer talking about how she writes in English but works very closely with her translator when translating into her mother tongue, she doesn’t translate her own books! We watched interviews with authors and translators about their work, heard a fascinating presentation from journalist Ann Morgan who took a year to read a book from every country in the world (read her blog here) and watched a translation duel! this consisted of two translators of the Spanish language translating the beginning of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. We had a wonderful day and all enjoyed it so much! We should like to thank The Reading Agency, Booktrust, English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation for this opportunity. Needless to say, one of our next books to read will be the official winner of the prize, which was announced on Monday evening: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker.