Tag Archives: translation

An inexplicable addiction

6 Mar
Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis

A joy to find this passage in the Freelance slot of last week’s TLS, written by the wonderful Lydia Davis:

“In spite of having translated during most of my life, I still don’t really understand the urge. Why can’t I simply enjoy reading the story in its own language. Or, on the other hand, why can’t I be content to write my own work in English? The urge is a kind of hunger; maybe the polite word would be appetite – I want to consume the text, and reproduce it in English . . . Or is translation merely a less demanding or anguishing mode of writing? The piece exists already in the other language, beautifully conceived and formed; now I will have the pleasure of composing it in English, without the uncertainty involved in inventing it. Or is it acquisitiveness? I want to take over something that does not belong to me, and by writing it in English, claim it. I don’t have a completely satisfactory answer. The desire to translate may be something of an inexplicable addiction.”

 

 

 

Poets who translate

27 Jan

Dome of Aghia Sophia

 

It is our last day in Istanbul, and the rain continues, as it has done since Friday evening, shrouding the Bosphorous in grey mist. Before catching a taxi to the airport we snatch a visit to Aghia Sophia, that magnificent evocation of the implausible. The days of translation, of this particular kind of translation, have drawn to an end. Yesterday evening WN (‘Bill’) Herbert, Zoë Skoulding and a certain Richard Gywn, along with our respective translators, Gökçenur Ç, Gonca Özmen and Efe Duyan read our work at the Nazim Hikmet Centre in Kadikö on the Asian side. We went by ferry through the soft rain, a rain almost as comforting as the sahlep we slurped, that peculiar sweet beverage of orchid root, milk and cinnamon, the liquid polyfilla of the Levant, as Bill calls it.

 

Istanbul reading

 

We had an early dinner at Çiya, one of Istanbul’s most successful new restaurants, whose owners have set out to collect recipes from lost corners of Turkey and recreate them in a modest but harmonious three-storey building. I should really say they have translated recipes found on research trips, dug up from family notebooks, dictated by aunts and grandmothers, and have brought them to an Istanbul all too well known for its predictable variations on ratatouille and lamb combinations as a reminder of the glorious culinary past of Anatolia. These recipes have been translated from a time and place distinct from our own, rejecting the universalist culture in which the staple has become ever more dull and tasteless.

It is easy to forget that translation is something we are engaged in, without option and at all times, from the very start of life.  It is an activity that is by no means confined to those who term themselves ‘translators’.

Early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. Maybe we don’t change that much in this respect, as we continue to translate others, and ourselves, in and throughout the course of a lifetime, with varying degrees of success. The fact that we exist as part of a functioning element within society (family, school, member of this or that group or organisation) consigns us necessarily to different modes of translation.

Literary translation concretizes and makes specific acts of translation that otherwise exist in our everyday lives. Poets who also translate join a community of international poet-translators who are enabled, through a process of collaboration, to sharing their respective poetry with new audiences. Many lasting friendships are made in the process, as well as dialogues being opened between cultures in essential and surprising ways.

This is what the organization Literature across Frontiers – under its indefatigable director Alexandra Büchler – manages to such good effect. In meetings across Europe practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who have different first languages but share another language in common (English, most commonly, but any language will do) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very stimulating process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they gel as a team. Working as a small unit has other benefits – there are always at least two perspectives – indeed, as many as four or five– on a single poem, and this multiplexity of approach can lead to small epiphanies in the act of translation. Translation is not only a linear and logical progression of a text from one language to another; it is also a process of revelation, an uncovering, de-layering: a transmutation of materials, an act of linguistic alchemy.

Sometimes, needless to say, translation goes all wrong. I have written about this before, in relation to restaurant menus, a constant source of entertainment for anyone who travels. But in the last few days, Istanbul has coughed a few examples of translation weirdness that are equally diverting. I post a selection below.

 

Dried Nute

 As Class

TITIZ

Two poems by Claribel Alegría

4 Oct

Claribel Alegría, who was born in Nicaragua in 1924, but raised in El Salvador, beginning a life of exile that included Chile, Mexico, Paris and the island of Mallorca, is a poet heavily influenced by the revolutionary struggles of the Central American peoples against the dictatorships of the middle and later parts of the twentieth century. She was closely associated with the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, and after the overthrow of the Somoza regime, she returned to that country in 1985 to help in the reconstruction process (which has since gone so badly wrong under successive, corrupt regimes, including that of Daniel Ortega). In her assessment of the poet, Marjorie Agosín has written of the ‘multifaceted work of Alegría, from her testimony to her verse . . . In this woman’s furious, fiery, tender and lovesick words, the marginalized, the indigenous recuperate spaces, resuscitate their dead, and celebrate life by defying death.’ While many of the early poems focus on the revolutionary conflict, Alegría has also written numerous love poems, as well as novels and children’s stories. As a feminist, writing of the marginalized lives of Central American women, her work has emphasized the restorative power of collectivity and continuity.

 

 

Towards the Jurassic Age

 

Someone brought them to Palma

they were the size of an iguana

and they lived off insects

and mice.

The climate suited them

and they began to grow

they moved on from rats

to chickens

and kept growing

they ate dogs

more than an occasional donkey

children left to roam the streets.

 

All the drains were blocked

and they turned to the open country

they ate cows, sheep

and kept growing

they knocked down walls

chewed up olive trees

rubbed their flanks

against protruding rocks

causing landslides

that blocked the roads

but they jumped over the landslides

and now they are in Valldemossa

they killed the village doctor

everyone was terrified

and ran away to hide.

 

Some are herbivore

and others carnivore

the latter have a kind of uniform

military caps that perch on their crests

but both sorts are dangerous

they wolf down plantations

and have fleas the size

of dinner plates

they scratch themselves against the walls

and houses fall down.

 

Now they are in Valldemossa

and they can only be stopped

by aerial bombardment

but no one can stand the stink

when one of them dies

and the people complain

and there’s no way

of burying them.

 

 

Letter to Time

 

Dear Sir:

I am writing this letter on my birthday.

I received your present. I don’t like it.

Always it’s the same old story.

When I was a little girl,

I would wait for it impatiently

I would get dressed up in my best

and go on the street to tell the world.

Don’t be stubborn.

I can still see it,

you playing chess with Grandfather.

At first your visits were infrequent;

very soon they became a daily occurrence

and Grandfather’s voice

began to lose its timbre.

And you would insist

and didn’t respect the humility

of his sweet nature

and of his shoes.

Afterwards you courted me.

I was just a teenager

and you with that face that doesn’t change.

You befriended my father

in order to get to me.

Poor Grandfather.

You were there

at his deathbed

waiting for the end.

An unforeseen mood

drifted around the furniture

the walls seemed more white.

And there was someone else,

you were signalling to him.

He closed Grandfather’s eyes

and paused for a moment to study me

I forbid you to return.

Every time I see you

my blood runs cold.

Stop persecuting me,

I beseech you.

I have loved another for years now

and your offerings don’t interest me.

Why do you always wait for me

in shop windows

in the mouth of sleep

under Sunday’s indecisive sky?

Your greeting is a locked room.

I saw you the other day with the children

I recognised the suit:

the same tweed as back then

when I was a student

and you were a friend of my father’s.

Your ridiculous lightweight suit.

Don’t come back,

I tell you again.

Don’t hang around any more

in my garden.

You will frighten the children

and the leaves will fall:

I have seen them.

What is this all about?

You are having a quick laugh

with that everlasting laughter

and you will keep on

trying to force a meeting with me.

The children,

my face,

the leaves,

all lost in your pupils.

Nothing will stop you winning.

I knew it at the start of my letter.

 

Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first appeared in Poetry Wales, Vol. 46 No. 3 Winter 2010/11.

 

 

Blanco with Claribel and Poetry Wales, February 2011

 

 

 

 

On Translation

5 Sep

The torero Julio Aparicio gored by bull, May 2010

An email from my Chinese translator in quite extraordinary English reminded me of the following article, brought to my attention by my friend Hugo Pooley last year. It is the report of a corrida that appeared in the Spanish newspaper El País on 22 May 2010. I had not realized computerized translation from google could offer such pleasures. Readers with a knowledge of Spanish will probably understand how some of the errors took place (e.g. cogida, from the verb ‘coger’ (to get, catch, gore etc) might, at a stretch, be translated as ‘a fuck’ following South American usage, but not in European Spanish, and after all El País is a European newspaper). The odd thing, as Hugo pointed out at the time, was that the machine should have latched on to that usage:

“The severity of the goring not perceived in the plaza at the time of the fuck. Gestures of pain were the bullfighter, who ran to the burladero for help, those who betrayed it seemed, in principle, a blow to the face, was, in fact, something more serious. Moments later, while still unaware of the extent of the wound, the horrifying photo published by the website of this newspaper ran like wildfire through the stands, and reassurances from the infirmary.”

La gravedad de la cornada no se percibió en la plaza en el momento de la cogida. Fueron los gestos de dolor del torero, que corrió hacia el burladero en busca de ayuda, los que delataron que lo que pareció, en principio, un golpe en la cara, era, en realidad, algo más serio. Momentos después, cuando aún se desconocía el alcance de la herida, la espeluznante foto publicada por la web de este periódico corrió como la pólvora por los tendidos, y también noticias tranquilizadoras desde la enfermería.

Then the subheading:

“Julio Aparicio is “conscious and stable” after he suffered serious fuck in Sales goring”

Julio Aparicio está “consciente y estable” tras la grave cogida que sufrió en Las Ventas

(‘Las Ventas’, the stadium in Madrid can also mean ‘The sales’ (as in shopping), which accounts for the anomaly in the last line of the English.)

Having now received three emails from China (of which more anon, gentle reader, if you can still bear to read Blanco’s blog after the shock of that horrifying photo), which have left me fearing the worst for the eventual outcome of one of my books in the world’s most populous country, I have been left wondering about the relative advantages of an automated translation, and whether it might not do a better job with my novel in Chinese than the current translators. Although inaccurate, it could actually be as effective in gaining the reader’s attention, and certainly more amusing, than the text it claims to translate.

I simply love the passage below, translated as: “hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces”. Found poetry.

For those interested in reading on, the automated google translation of the El País article continues below. For those able to read the Spanish, the original article can be found here:

The right-hander Julio Aparicio Seville has received this evening in a serious goring sales when faced with the first bull of your lot. The bullfighter has encountered and the bull rammed him with the horn right on the chin Toros de Juan Pedro Domecq, fourth-and fifth-back, well presented, disabled and very noble. Hats, Gavira, the second back and replaced by another of Camacho, outcast. Julio Aparicio: caught by his first bull. Morante de la Puebla: half cocked and perpendicular (silent) media (silent), two punctures and almost entire perpendicular. El Cid: two punctures and a half (applause), almost entirely fall (applause), thrust (ear). Plaza de Las Ventas. Friday, May 21. Sixteenth run of the fair of San Isidro. Full.

Everything happened seen and unseen. Actually, it was an unexpected event under the condition of the bull, named Sumptuoso, 530 kilos in weight, hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces. Aparicio drew out two splendid veronicas topped with half bursting with aroma. The animal showed their disability in the horse, where it was stung, came in the third of gay flags, and came to the crutch with the strength very fair. The right-hander in the media began its work with a faint first round of right hands, and continued at that hand with a lower weight. He left, and in the first stake, ran into the hindquarters of the bull, which made him lose verticality. Once on the ground instead of running away from the face of the bull, the bullfighter tried to get up pretending to wipe away the crutch. It was at that moment when the bull is found Aparicio’s face, with such bad luck that drove the peg over his chin and pulled him by the mouth. That moment that appears in the photos are not perceived in the ring, because, fortunately, the bull dropped its prey quickly. Thank goodness.

The bullfighter can tell which is the big news of the day. And it was also clear that the danger is always present in a square, but the bull has, as Sumptuoso, odor of sanctity.

It was not the only time grief. Minutes later, when El Cid crutches with his left hand to another good-natured, was hooked and tossed to the point it seemed that the horn had penetrated the right thigh up to the groin. It did not, and needed a satchel broken only under emergency sewing.

The returns that can give a bullfight … Perhaps this unknown file your exciting mystery. Who could imagine that a festival so nice on paper was about to end in tragedy. But this big-game life and death, is this party.

Haunted by the image of the python’s mouth out by Julio Aparicio, but with the quiet encouragement, continued a celebration featuring bulls Juan Pedro invalid Domecq, which, unfortunately, is no longer news. This farmer has found true, the sweetness the highest degree, to the same extent that it has lost power and greed. Two were returned, but could be more. All, yes, kind, loving, kind and affectionate. But that is a substitute for the bull. In the end, triumphed Manuel Jesus El Cid with the best of the afternoon, the sixth, but first, bullfighting was the high school veronica, great gift of the proposed lists, so many times drought hood.

She excelled, that is, Aparicio, then Morante received his first with a sweetest veronicas, pregnant packing, and, again, returned to infuriate the square with the second hat made fifth, which forced him to charge in a cape fans who knew a holy glory. And also starred in El Cid veronicas remove two extraordinary in its first, and returned to show off at the exit of the sixth.

The rest of the celebration just had the story of Manuel Jesus with the latter, which rammed and fixity length, and which understood by the right side with muletazos deep and emotional, in a work hardening and chaired by the connection. He missed the greed of the bull by the left side for the victory would have been great.

Anyway, the big winner yesterday Julio Aparicio, and with it, we win them all because the party is glad his good fortune.

 

 

 

The Discovery of Slowness

16 Aug

Tortoise of the Alberas, sunning himself

Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.

One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.

Tortoise with human hand (female)

Tortoise makes getaway

He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.

Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.

Some of my favourite lines from The Discovery of Slowness so far:

“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”

“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”

“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”

“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”

And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:

“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”

That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.

As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”

But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus?  But I digress.

It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.

I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.

 

Translation

9 Aug

 

All your stories are about yourself, she said, even when they seem to be about other people. I was not going to deny this, nor give her the pleasure of being right. So I quoted Proust, who said that writers don’t invent books; they find them within themselves and translate them. This seemed to do the trick, and she fell silent. I dipped my fingers into a bowl of scented water and started on the rice. An aftertaste of clay and leaves and metal took me by surprise. What is in this rice? I asked her. Mushroom stock? Shotgun cartridge? Earthworm? No, she said, peering at me through the candlelight, the stories that you haven’t written yet are in the rice. You must be tasting them.

 

 

 

Reading ‘Translation’ at International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, February 2011.

 

Spanish version by Sadurní Vergès, read by Melisa Machado.

 

From ‘Sad Giraffe Cafe‘ by Richard Gwyn (Arc, 2010).

Comparative Literature

13 Jul

While working on a translation, I need to break off to mark some student work. The last piece of writing that I have been translating starts like this:

The boy approaches the house. A pathway of larches. Leaves. A necklace of tears.

The student piece seems to take up the theme:

If you came close to the black windows you felt that inside there was something unseen, watching you as you stumbled back up the cracked path. 

I see the two passages as sequential. The story that emerges belongs to both of them and neither of them, but only occurs because of the confluence in time of these two passages meeting in me. Perhaps this happens all the time, and we don’t notice, because we aren’t watching.

The days are beginning to fold into one another too, like freeze-framed wingbeats, on repeat. All those nights spent in railway stations return at once, a desperate collision of memories, a thousand forms of sadness. Seagulls scratch at the window, their coarse sounds intended to lure me out. I drink tea and tell myself I am bound to resort to this anecdotal life, this song and dance, this carnival, this lark. In the house in the story there is either a malevolent force or a hunchback. Take your pick. There are always trees near these places, though by no means always larches. They presage some kind of flow between nature and the occupancy of the house. An ancient tree, its roots no doubt ploughing through the soil like subterranean antennae towards the house and its foundations, intent on burrowing beneath the building’s skin. The tree and the house enter a symbiotic relationship, though it is the tree that has made the first move.

On my desk, two pencils lie on a yellow notebook, facing north-west. If I follow the direction of their points for two hundred miles I will find the house and the tree. An exercise for a desperate man. Outside, I can sense the movement in the street without hearing anything or even looking; the day begins, as always, with a slow intrusion of medical light, rustling sounds behind a curtain, the opening of a door, or a book.

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