Tag Archives: translation

Fiction Fiesta, reality, and Alastair Reid

26 Sep

borges in library

The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.

Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.

Alastair Reid, who died in 2014

Alastair Reid, last year.

Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.

One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:

Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.

While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.

Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’

Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.

Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’

It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.

This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.


Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year's Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year’s Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff


Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta


This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015

No ideas but in things

21 Sep
The young Marcel Proust

The young Marcel Proust

Since I began teaching creative writing, some fifteen years ago, I have become accustomed to the sad refrain from younger writers that although they fervently wish to write – or perhaps ‘become a writer’, which may or may not be the same thing – they don’t have anything to say.

It was with some pleasure, therefore, that I noted, during my leisurely (i.e. very slow) re-reading of Proust, the following passage:

‘. . . since I wanted to be a writer some day, it was time to find out what I meant to write. But as soon as I asked myself this, trying to find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning, my mind would stop functioning, I could no longer see anything but empty space before my attentive eyes, I felt that I had no talent or perhaps a disease of the brain kept it from being born.’ (The Way by Swann’s, Lydia Davis translation).

But interestingly – at least for my purposes – the suggestion is made that the answer to his lack of inspiration might be found in the things around him, the very things, in other words, that are distracting to him:

‘ . . . suddenly a roof, a glimmer of sun on stone, the smell of the road would stop me because of a particular pleasure they gave me, and also because they seemed to be concealing, beyond what I could see, something which they were inviting me to come and take, and which despite my efforts I could not manage to discover . . . I would concentrate on recalling precisely the line of the roof, the shade of the stone which, without my being able to understand why, had seemed to me so full, so ready to open, to yield the thing for which they themselves were merely a cover. Of course it was not impressions of this kind that could give me back the hope I had lost, of succeeding in becoming a writer and a poet some day, because they were always tied to a particular object with no intellectual value and no reference to any abstract truth. But at least they gave me an unreasoning pleasure, the illusion of a sort of fecundity, and so distracted me from the tedium, from the sense of my own impotence which I had felt each time I looked for a philosophical subject for a great literary work.’

It is noteworthy here how Proust (through his young protagonist, Marcel) disavows any connection between these ‘objects with no intellectual value’, and his frustrated desire to write. For it is that very particularity, that sense of thingness (which always, as Proust suggests, is a cover for something else, something ineffable) that so often provides the starting point for a writer, if only he or she would look.

‘No ideas but in things’: the line by William Carlos Williams has been taken up as a mantra by teachers of poetry to students obsessed, like the young Marcel, with trying to convey deep philosophical concepts, and instead sinking in a morass of tired imagery, expressed through endless clichés of emotion and language.

I think this is the notion I was trying to convey in my post of 29th August. You can simply be drawn in by some aspect of the inanimate world without knowing why. Not that everything is a metaphor, precisely, nor even that every object is a cover for something else (Borges reminds us that a stone might want just to be stone, a tiger a tiger), but that, using Ricardo Piglia’s thesis of the short story as an analogy, every account, every story conceals within it another telling, a secret story, and it is the quest for this other story that leads young Marcel, in his walks with his grandfather near the beginning of A la recherche du temps perdu to understand that this great, almost suffocating desire to be a writer – a desire that one observes (though perhaps in a less astutely articulated form) in many young students of creative writing who likewise find difficulty in finding subject matter to accommodate their ambitions – might find the beginnings of a solution by looking at ‘things’ in the world, rather than heading straight for the ‘idea’.

Finally, an insight from Jane Smiley, in her 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, which drily sets to rest the maddening condition familiar to all writers of wanting to start a piece of writing, but managing to find any number of things to prevent them from doing so:

‘My definition of “inspiration” is “a condition of being stimulated by contemplation of the material to a degree sufficient to overcome your natural disinclination to create.”’

More notes on being a foreigner (I)

15 Jan


Staying for any extended period of time in a country where one is obliged to speak a language other than one’s own inevitably results in reflection about core identity. Core identity, if there is such a thing, presumes that there is an ideal and comfortable state of mind, in which one is most fully at home, inside his or her own in-group, probably speaking an idiomatic form of the mother tongue among fellow-speakers, who follow the contours and references of conversation in a more or less fluent fashion, and with whom one shares beliefs, principles and occasionally political beliefs.

The foreigner, as Alastair Reid so succinctly observed, does not share this happy resource – the true foreigner, it could be argued, will feel as much a foreigner at home as anywhere else, but that is a discussion for another day – and today I returned to Reid’s essay with renewed insights. Living almost entirely within another language for most of the day, the foreigner begins to notice how language carries with it such a quantity of associative and historical luggage that merely understanding the words only accounts for a part of the fascinating, and at times frustrating problem of making oneself understood. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that every word of a language has a personal history of association that a native speaker can trace back to childhood. Every phrase or idiom has a personal history, is laden with a particular taste or smell or music for the native speaker, and though the learner – even the fluent speaker – may acquire a series of associations of their own with the individual words of a language, it will never contain an entire universe, as does the memory of a native speaker. Moreover, the problem does not end there: as Reid wrote, “I am . . . aware of having, in Spanish . . . a personality entirely different from my English-speaking one – nor is it simply me-in-translation . . . I have often listened to simultaneous translation between two languages I know well. The meaning? Oh yes, the meaning is there; but it is just not the same experience.”

In the end, we have to arm ourselves with the anonymity of the foreigner, to prepare for disappointments and misunderstandings, and to accept that very rarely are these simply linguistic. To allow the late lamented Mr Reid the final word: “To travel far and often tends to make us experts in anonymity – but never quite, for we always carry too much, prepare for too many eventualities. One bag could have been left behind. We are too afraid of unknowns to ignore them.”

Life as an act of translation

12 Jan

day1 black cow on beach

Many and varied are the approaches to translation, and numerous its unsought consequences. There are those who become obsessed by the process even at the cost of progressing to the end of a piece of work. It doesn’t matter: before very long, everything becomes an act of translation.

So, after four days, we translate ourselves to the coastal park, the Reserva Costera Valdiviana, for the weekend. The land is given over to the Mapuche people and building is prohibited within the park zone. There are eight of us on the trip, and the plan is to rent cabins for the weekend. We arrive on Friday evening where we are greeted by our hosts, Teodora and Julio, who prepare pulmay, a dish cooked in layers of pork, chicken, sausage, chorizo, potatoes, and topped off with a thick layer of a shellfish called cholgas and choritos. This is a very good start.

In the morning we drive to Chaihuín, then south towards Laguna Colún along an unmade forest road for an hour, having to stop several times to move logs across the track, where the mud has piled thick. When the road runs out we walk through the forest, curving down towards a broad expanse of high dunes, overlooking the sea. There is practically no one here. Miles of unspoiled, empty beach. But what I hadn’t counted on were the cows, grazing, it would seem, on the beach, except that there is no grass, only sand. They come there for the algae, of which there are two main kinds hereabouts, cochayuyo (the large octopus kind) and lugo. The cows look pretty relaxed on the beach, even though they don’t seem to be making much effort to find the seaweed, of which there is plenty along the shore.

day1 octopus

Cuchaluyo seaweed disguised as an octopus to distract the cows

Blanco with bored cattle on beach

Blanco with bored cattle on beach

The only inconvenience is the flying insect known as tábano, and colloquially as coliguacho. You must not wear dark clothes: if you do they will hunt you down and harass you for the whole journey. If you wear white, they will ignore you altogether. Almost every beautiful place seems to harbour some resident bug whose only purpose is to persecute and sting people. I have foolishly brought a navy blue fleece, but I take it off soon enough, and my pale t-shirt holds no interest for them.

day1 coliguacho


day1 lagoon

We turn inland in the direction of an inland lagoon named Colún, where the plan is to swim, although, in the event, it is far too cold and windy. So our self-appointed guide tells us we have to cross more dunes – a frustrating and exhausting venture in which you slide down two metres for every one you climb, then – after a traipse along the summit of the dunes – towards green pastures; in fact, towards a grotto, somewhat alarmingly called the cave of the vulvas. The cave turns out to be more or less what it says on the label: a dark cavern filled with fissures carved into the rock and some aboriginal art. A battered lectern outside surprisingly provides information in both Spanish and English translation, but omits to inform who originally made the drawings and carvings inside the cave, or why. The place has not yet been properly researched or carbon dated. One of my companions says it was used as an initiation chamber by the indigenous people of these parts in pre-Hispanic times, but I no longer know what to believe. Climbing the dunes and sliding down the other side only to enter the cave of vulvas has made me dizzy. And there is still a long walk back, past the still motionless cows.

day1 dunes

day 1 dunes and green 2

day1 cave sign

day1 cueva sign spanish

day1 cueva

day1 cave paintings

day1 brown cow beach

day1 sea

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


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






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