I began translating, in a very amateur sort of way, when I first discovered the poetry of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only was my Greek inadequate to the task and I lacked any kind of self-discipline, but I was up against the superb existing translations of Edmund Keeley. I became easily disheartened by my feeble efforts and never stuck with it. It was much more fun to decode the English on restaurant menus, as many a traveller to Greece has discovered. Among the culinary delights I have encountered, both seen and unseen, are:
The Baked Thing
Greek with cheese
Bowel stuffed with spleen
Bait smooth hound
Custard of the Aunt.
All of these items of food have suffered the indignity of an over-literal translation by a scribe with faulty understanding of the target language (English), and while their entertainment value might be high, you are never sure what it is you are likely to be eating, unless of course you can read the Greek.
Some years later, I started a translation of Jean Giono’s novel Les Grands Chemins (which as far as I know has still not appeared in English) but was put off both by my frail grasp of French grammar and by the quantities of argot and slang. As with most of my endeavours at that period of my life, I had an unrealistic grasp of my own abilities.
However, I am nothing if not persistent, and having tried Greek and French and been found wanting, like a serial re-offender I thought I should try my hand at Spanish. When I had acquired enough of the language to read poetry without constant referral to the dictionary, I set about translating (or should I say despoiling) Antonio Machado – a bad choice, not only because he had been a challenge to far better translators than myself, but because his Spanish is, well, utterly embedded in the thought and landscape of Spanish – and I did not really appreciate or understand this at the time and thought that I was just not very good at translating poetry. However Machado really is more untranslatable than most, and perhaps this is the reason Don Paterson opted to go for much looser versions or interpretation in his collection The Eyes.
But with another Spanish poet, Jaime Gil de Biedma, I felt my translations begin to ‘work’ and moreover I could
sense an affinity with this writer that extended beyond the act of translation. There were English translations of his poems available but they seemed weak to me, and I wanted to make something better, do justice to his work in a way that his American translator had not: such is the arrogance of the beginner. So I worked on a few, sent them to a magazine, and they were accepted.
Later I was asked by the editor of the same magazine to work on skeleton or ‘crib’ versions of poems from Lithuanian and Slovakian, and make English poems of them. I agreed to do it, but it seemed a very risky affair, and nothing much to do with translation, more like playing darts with the lights off. I didn’t much enjoy the experience, but I have since taken part in workshops, working with poets who write in a language I do not speak, and if their English is good enough, it is possible to hammer out a good poem using an intermediary version – this is what the organization Literature across Frontiers manages to such good effect: in addition practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who speak distinct languages but share a third language in common (English, German, Spanish) 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 rewarding (as well as a tiring) process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they happen to gel as a team.
But the kind of work done by Literature across Frontiers is at a far remove from the sort of translation done by individuals who work directly from a language which they know well into a language in which they are fluent, which is the daily round of the professional translator. I do not claim to be any such animal, but three years ago I became so interested in the act of translation that I put myself through the ordeal of preparing for and sitting the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, the gold standard qualification for translators in the UK, and one with an astonishingly high failure rate (which I suppose keeps the Institute’s coffers topped up). I passed, so am now legitimately able to call myself a translator, although like nearly all the achievements I have realised over the years, all the hurdles I have overcome, there is always a sheen of scepticism about my own status, and I never quite manage to believe that the person with all the qualifications (and the nice suit and the office), the one called ‘Dr Blanco’, is actually me, but rather, he is an illusion.
What I am trying to say is that, like many people who do not admit it publicly, I think of myself as an impostor, a person impersonator, for many hours of the working day, and for this reason, ‘translator’ seems a very appropriate occupation. And why is this? Is there an association with the trickster, the coyote figure, or the dissembler? I think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking this – that there is something intrinsically fraudulent in the act of translation. You are trying to pretend that something is what it is not. So the trick is to make it sound as though it were not something that it is not, otherwise you end up writing translator-speak, with which we are all familiar from the study of Greek menus and garden furniture assembly kits.
The idea of translating into English is to make the words sound as though they were composed in English, which of course they were not, in the first instance. So we pretend, and share the pretence. If the translation is any good then we forget we are pretending. Simples.
But more than that, there is the profound satisfaction for the translator – something akin to the breaking of a code or the unravelling of a puzzle – when the correct phrase or expression slots into place, which makes translation, when it is going well, such a rewarding occupation. In Tim Parks’ absorbing essay ‘Prajapati’ (to be found in the collection Adultery and Other Diversions) he describes the pleasures and torments of translating Roberto Calasso’s Ka, on a very hot day. And at one point, as he kicks off his sandals to feel the cool of the tiled floor, he begins to spin off into the kind of meandering meditation that the act of writing often incites:
“I realise I am fascinated by models of the mind. By consciousness and representations of consciousness. Prajpati’s, Mahidasa Aitareya’s, Calasso’s, they are all hugely different minds from each other and from mine. I was never convinced by Leopold Bloom. And I sense that translation has something to do with this, this constant attempt to grasp difference, to overcome it, if only for a few moments, if only in the slippery surface of a text, to appropriate, but also to expand, to be there in Calasso’s study, understanding Calasso understanding Mahidasa Aitareya understanding the Rg Veda understanding Prajpati. Did they all find flies as irritating as I do?”
Norman di Giovanni, in his essay ‘A Translator’s Guide’ quotes Borges as saying “The translator is a very close reader; there is not much difference between translating and reading.” Di Giovanni finds this simple, clear approach to be in stark contrast to much of the talk, and theorizing about translation, which takes place, he says, on a “dizzyingly rarefied plane.”
The most helpful advice I have read on the craft of translation always keeps it simple, like Borges’ thing about being a close reader: understand the source text (decode it) and put it into language as clearly as possible (encode it). Working from these simplest of principles, and with the minimum of self-deception, are the kinds of rules even an inveterate self-doubter should find easy enough to follow.
And yet there is more, there is a twinge of excitement, almost a sense of vertigo, closely related to the type of exhilaration experienced when one’s own writing is going well (it is practically the same thing after all) which makes translation such a worthwhile occupation. Tim Parks finds this grappling with meaning to be like a constant exchange between the inchoate and the specific, between the undefined and the defined:
“Translation too is this, leaving the definition, the apparent definition, of the original, going through a state of indefinition, perhaps more original, in the Prajpati sense, than the original, where ideas are somehow held wordless, or almost, in my mind (I wish I could decide whether those ideas actually do become wordless) thence to reappear, gradually recompose themselves, from fuzz to clarity, or almost, in my own language.”
So much is contained by that ‘or almost’. Returning to Borges and simplicity, returning to the idea of an approximation. Perhaps that is the crux of all translation: it is an expression of the almost.