Before I went to Sharjah Book Fair I was unsure how a bilingual literary festival would play out. But I needn’t have worried: the translation set up was great! There were two rooms with translation booths, and the voices of the interpreters would be channeled through the headphones above. It was so interesting to sit in sessions and listen to it by translation.
What was more interesting, though, was how generally multi-lingual the festival was. It was fascinating to see the mix of people in the audience at the Book Fair and to watch presenters flipping back and forwards between different languages during their presentations – for example, making a presentation in English then fielding audience Q&A in French and Arabic… amazing. I also discovered new languages, like Malayalam, the mother tongue of Kerala, which one poet described as ‘a language of poet kings and king poets’. Coming from Australia, where speaking a second language is something that usually only happens at home if at all, it was inspiring to see such worldly speakers and writers!
The book halls also represented many different languages, including one of four halls being dedicated to English (the majority of the rest were Arabic). The majority of the English books were textbooks, recipe books and kids’ books, but there were a few good stands with English literature, including translations.
I went to a translated session on translating the Qur’an, one of several translation-focussed events at SHJIBF this year. It’s a really interesting topic, especially in light of the discussions about translating Arabic works and making them more globally available that was taking place during the fest. I think there is a rising interest in translation in Australia at the moment, at least in literary circles and as a topic of discussion – generally I don’t think we’re reading many translations.
The festival organisers and volunteers speak excellent English and signage was bilingual so I never really felt lost. English is incredibly widely spoken throughout UAE, something I didn’t realise before I visited (in fact, the majority of schooling happens in English, from primary to university), which means that most residents can speak at least two languages fluently. Many speak even more. It truly is a very international and multicultural country, and it’s great to see that reflected in its literary events.