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.
The blog is founded on the idea that Blanco never spends too much time writing a post, unless it is an article, review or poem that has already been prepared or published elsewhere (i.e. recycled work, of which there is an irregular smattering). In other words the motivating principle is of spontaneity, of always allowing myself, in my writing, to move where the mood takes me, so I do not necessarily end up in a place where I thought I was going: I would go so far as to say that was the whole point of the blog – to begin a thought process and see where it takes me. This will sometimes mean that the title of the piece only makes sense in terms of something that appears towards the end, or is a fleeting thought that arises as a consequence of something in the blog that is not fully explored.
So what we have is a kind of diary, alongside a series of reflections – precisely as the subtitle proclaims – on the mutable universe. Like most things concerning the genesis of the blog, the words came without conscious forethought: but ‘mutable’ is key here: I want the blog to act as an archive – very much in the spirit of the work of my friend, the painter Lluís Peñaranda – of mutability, of fleetingness, of transience. The transience of those things that we explore, and the transience of ourselves.
Actually, the most apt description of what we have is labyrinth. A labyrinth is not only a metaphor for the questing self, and a means of self-transcendence: it is also a way of getting purposefully lost, of going up blind alleys, of plunging deeper into one’s own lack of knowledge and coming back with something unknown, of finding surprising routes to places we never intended going. Of noting that the exit to the labyrinth is sometimes marked Entrance to the Labyrinth.
And of observing what goes on inside the labyrinth when the geography will not stay still.
To be continued.
I set out on a journey, but the geography would not stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended going.
‘Restless Geography’ from Sad Giraffe Café (2010)
El ojo que ves no es
ojo porqué tú le veas
es ojo porqué te ve.
The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it
but because it sees you.
This morning, reading some poems by Antonio Machado, I am reminded of a trip we took to the province of Soria one July a few years back. Machado was for many years a schoolmaster in Soria, and wrote many fine poems about the place. I saw the trip as a kind of homage, but a purely literary excursion was out of the question, so we combined it with a visit to Navarra, and made a round trip.
We had driven down from the fiesta at Pamplona, and as we entered Soria after a two hour drive the temperature was registering forty-three degrees. Too hot to stagger around the town, we set out to Vinuesa, the nearest village to Machado’s Laguna Negra (Black Lake). This is walking country, between 1500 and 2000 metres in altitude: woods of dense beech and cedar, streams, waterfalls and lakes, in stunning contrast to the interminable dust-blown expanses of the meseta.
Machado´s narrative of the Laguna Negra concerns a local farmer who was murdered by his greedy sons in anticipation of their inheritance, and subsequently thrown into the lake, with weights attached to his body. The parricides themselves suffer an ignominous retribution, losing their way in the mist one night, falling and drowning in the very lake in which their murdered father was dumped. Wolves are said to surround the lake at night, symbollically howling out the bad sons’ shame. Machado’s poetry conjures this desolate and otherworldly landscape to grim perfection.
It was already dusk by the time we reached the lake, and we wandered among the huge boulders that mark its circumference. There were more beech woods and glades that centred on a pair of massive rocks. I thought of native Austrailian beliefs that a person can become incorporated into the landscape on their deaths, and began to consider the parricidical sons in a new way. Scrambling around this silent expanse of black water as the light fails, one could sense the presence of the legend like a virus on the air. Gazing up at the high rim of the volcanic crater the occasional tree juts out at an impossible angle. The stench of murder, the pervasive notion of return to the same deathly reserve of water, unmoving now except for a shimmering of ripples when a long black snake zig-zags between two small promontories. I like the place, but something tells me we should leave. Tripping over exposed tree-roots in the darkness we find the path again and descend to the car.
Machado has a more local significance, here in the borderlands of the Alt Empordá. In 1939, as the Civil War came to a bloody close, Machado, who had been active in support of the Republican cause, made his way to the frontier, very ill, and accompanied by his elderly mother. He tried to cross into France, but was held up because his papers were not in order. His attempted escape to France was echoed, in reverse, a year later by Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. I tried to capture this near-synchronous flight in a prose poem once, see below. In actual fact Machado died in Collioure, a few kilometres north from Cerbére, while Benjamin made the seven kilometres south across the mountains to Port Bou (see post for 7 August).
Here’s what happened. Antonio Machado, celebrated Spanish poet, was fleeing Spain and the advancing Francoist army. After a desperate journey through a defeated Catalunya, he arrived at the French border village of Cerbère. It was raining heavily. The authorities would not let him into France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Drenched by the rain and sick, Machado took refuge in a small hotel. He left the building once only, to watch the fishing boats in the small harbour. Shortly afterwards, he died. It was Ash Wednesday, 1939.
The following year, Walter Benjamin, the noted German polymath and essayist, arrived in the same village, coming from the opposite direction. He was fleeing the Nazis, trying to get to Spain. From Spain he hoped to catch a boat to America. The authorities would not let him leave France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Despairing at the state of the Europe he could not leave, while eluding the holocaust of which he would no doubt have been a victim, Benjamin chose to take his own life, using poison.
Antonio Machado was born on the same day – July 26th 1875 – as Carl Jung, the originator of the theory of synchronicity. Walter Benjamin had a low opinion of Jung, considering him to be a supporter of the Aryan myth, and accusing him of doing ‘the devil’s work’.
From ‘Walking on Bones‘ by Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2000)
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).
This morning, with the first light, I read Anne Carson’s long poem The Glass Essay, 38 pages and not a word wasted. Now every line feels engraved in my consciousness. What a rare occurrence this is. I sit up in bed, propped by a few cushions. Bed is a euphemism. We haven’t got around to buying a bed, in seven years. A mattress on the wooden boards, and a view across red rooftops to the bell-tower of the church. Early swallows skimming and diving. From time to time, while reading, I drift off, and occasionally it happens that I dream the words I have been reading, only to waken and find they are not the words on the page at all, but my own. So, reading Carson’s poetic discourse on Emily Brontë I drift into a dream where I am at the northernmost point of the north of a northern territory. Then I wake and continue to read. That way, reading is even more than usually a kind of collaborative experience.
I used to write quite a lot of poetry, but these days I find that the effort it takes to ‘make verse’ – as though straining towards a truth more profound or more lasting than the truth of prose – is not necessarily justified, or justifiable. By whom do I mean justified? By what measure justifiable? I do not know, I really don’t. But, mainly, I write prose.
And then how good it feels, and how rare, to sink into and absorb a poem as fine as this one. There are three themes to it: the
aftermath of a love affair between the narrator and a man she calls Law (he has his echo in her therapist, a woman called Dr Haw), a theme which constitutes the near past. Then there is an account of the life of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights (the distant past). Finally, the poem is cast in a present tense in which the poet (or narrator) is paying an extended visit to her mother, who lives on a moor in ‘the north’. The majesty of the poem is the way in which Carson threads the three narratives in and around one another, guilefully working each one so as best to extract the full flavour of the other two. There is such skill (and yes, it does appear effortless, which means it was hard-earned) in the composition of the poem. I stand in awe of this writing. To give some impression of the quality, here are three short passages from a single page:
‘When I was young
there were degrees of certainty.
I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.
Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands
occasionally disappear –’
‘It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,
when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore.
I switch off the lamp and lie on my back.’
‘Emily had a relationship on this level with someone she calls Thou.
She describes Thou as awake like herself all night
and full of strange power.’
Earlier in the poem she writes:
‘I have never liked lying in bed in the morning.
My mother does.
But as soon as the morning light hits my eyes I want to be out in it –
moving along the moor
into the first blue currents and cold navigation of everything awake.’
I too like to be awake at first light, but some days it is good to lie in with it, and read poetry as good as Carson’s.
‘The Glass Essay’ appears in Glass, Irony and God, published by New Directions (1995).
Imagine my surprise yesterday, when visiting one of our favourite beaches with friends (where I intended doing a little underwater fish-gazing with mask and snorkel) I spied a naked man washing his pit-bull in the shallows. Bending over it, lovingly washing its flanks in the plankton-rich waters of the western Med.
This is not a nudist beach, and while I have no objections to nakedness in principle, I do believe it has its proper place in civilized society. I know that many people think differently and they are entitled to set up their own recreational centres where nudism is de rigueur and you can even spend your summer holiday in such places, renting a chalet or a luxury apartment, surrounded by other nude persons. You can go shopping in the site supermarket with nothing on, and sit in the bar bollock-naked sipping your evening cocktail. Michel Houellebecq, once known as the enfant terrible of French Literature (and actually quite a decent poet, as his recent collection ‘The Art of Struggle‘ impressed on me) has written about such places at tedious lengths in his fiction.
But on a regular, costumed beach, it is my belief that bathers should wear a swimming suit. I have no particular objection to bikini tops being removed, but even that is probably only a matter of having become accustomed to it over many years. In the final analysis, I do not mind too much about public nudity either way, and it is really not my business what consulting adults prefer to do. But to have fully grown men parading with all their tackle hanging free, when there are young children roaming the sands around them peering inquisitively at the exposed genitalia, is – while filled with comic potential – not a vision I relish or one in which I wish to share. Nor are beer bellies and sagging tits, and heaving folds of cellulite, but here again I might stand accused of some kind of aesthetic fascism, and should probably stop there.
So, gentle reader, rather than offend your sensibilities by showing the perpetrator of this act of aggressive nudism (who I suspect was French), I have appended a picture of the stretch of beach an hour or so after he had left.
Personally, I like donning mask and flippers and swimming down, peering beneath the surface of the sea, at the underwater flora and rock formations, the hundreds of brightly coloured fish, starfish, octopi and the many other wondrous sights so gloriously described in the films of the late Jacques Cousteau.
PS Mrs Blanco has pointed out that this comes across as a rather pompous and stuffy post. I think, therefore, that I cannot have conveyed my point about the man with the pit-bull very well. To be blunt, there was something fishy about both his ostentatious nudity and the manner in which he washed his dog, as if, not to put too fine a point to it, he were accustomed to more intimate relations with the beast. I find it hard to put concisely: but there was an insalubrious quality to his washing of it that had to be observed in order to be appreciated.
And finally, as Alessandra has pointed out, dogs are not allowed on Catalan beaches in the summer. A fair point.
- Other than an early family holiday and a single trip to Barcelona in my early twenties, my first real taste of Catalunya was in 1984. Penniless and without purpose, I was walking down the coastal road from Port Bou to Llança on a June afternoon, when I was caught in a terrific rainstorm. A car pulled in and gave me a lift. The driver was the painter Lluís Peñaranda. So began a friendship that lasted until his death last December.
- I went to an exhibition of paintings by Lluís the year that we met and was astonished by his representations of the landscape of the Ampurdan, that rocky edge of the Pyrenees that flattens out into a plain flanking the Costa Brava. His work is pervaded by an elemental iconography of dark cypresses, multicoloured fish, silver moons. It is a parallel, but distinct landscape to the one the world knows through the work of another son of the Ampurdan, Salvador Dalí.
- Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. I returned to live in Catalunya in 1988, and settled in Barcelona. The city was preparing for the Olympic games, held in 1992. There was a chaos of excitement that little more than a decade after emerging from the dictatorship of Franco, Barcelona was presenting the new Spain to the world, or rather, the new Catalunya.
- Catalunya used the Olympics to inform the world that it was not Spain. Its policies of linguistic ‘normalization’ (the term used for the dominance of Catalan in all public documents and undertakings) and the fact that all state-funded education took place through the medium of Catalan created a new atmosphere: perceived as legitimate self-assertion by the Catalans; regarded less favourably by many other Spaniards.
- I left Barcelona in 1990, but returned many times over the summers that followed, staying with my young family at different houses in the Ampurdan area.
- In 2002-3 we moved to a small hill-village in Ampurdan near the French border (picture above). My daughters attended the local Catalan School and I worked on my novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away. The following year we bought an old and run-down property in the village. Linguistically and culturally, this area is very proudly Catalan (in contrast to the international and largely Spanish-speaking city of Barcelona). Since I had been coming to the area for twenty years, I had made friends with Catalan writers and artists and got to discover more about the history and culture of this small corner. The Albera Mountains, that extend from the High Pyrenees towards the sea, falling away towards the coast at the northern end of the Costa Brava, are home to many Neolithic remains, notably standing stones (menhirs) and a profusion of burial chambers. I am very fond of a burial chamber, although I have no wish to be buried in one.
There were many Jews in this part of Spain before the expulsions of 1492. Many of them converted at that time, and there is a widespread belief that Catalans carry a significant charge of Sephardic blood, whatever that means. Blood is blood. There are no races, only ideas about races, which are mostly based on wrong information or the contrasting prejudices of boastfulness (e.g. a proud Celt) and bigotry (too many examples to cite) . In any case, I like the idea of a dedicated ‘Village of Jews’ in the heart of the Alberas, on the edge of the Cap de Creus.
- Further back in time, Hannibal must have crossed these hills on his way to Rome from Carthage. With his many elephants. I find the thought staggering. How did the Celto-Iberian tribespeople view these enormous lumbering beasts and their fierce drivers? The thought led to notes towards a poem a few years ago, not one that I have ever thought to publish, but perhaps it contains the germ of another, better poem, which I will write one day:
Elephants passed this way. The children, once their initial terror had passed, stared big-eyed, while clutching their mothers’ skirts, pointing at the swinging trunks as the beasts lumbered across cornfields.
Warriors rode on the elephants, but paid scant attention to the villagers who lined this section of their route.
What were the elephants doing in this well-tended land? Where were their riders’ leading them?
It was said by some that they were heading towards a distant war.
Why would an elephant go to war?
Because they are driven there by the riders.
But how? The elephants are so big and strong. The riders are so puny.
The elephants go where they are driven because that is what they are accustomed to.
The elephants so large.
The riders so small.
The children of this hillside village will tell the tale of the elephants to their grandchildren. It will become myth.
The elephants will never be seen again. They will cross the mountain pass and head into the plains beyond, until they become an improbable vision on the horizon. Specks on a vast green canvass.
The elephants will not return.
– What country is this foreigner from?
– I don’t know.
– What’s his name?
– I don’t know.
– What does he do? What language does he speak?
– I don’t know.
– What’s your name, my good man?
– . . .
– What country do you come from? Where are you going?
– I’m from here. I’m a foreigner.
Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008) tr. from Catalan by D. Sam Abrams
I have travelled many roads
and have opened many paths.
I have sailed a hundred seas
and been shipwrecked on
a hundred shores.
Everywhere I’ve seen
caravans of sadness
proud people sad people
drunks in the dark, dark shade.
Lecture hall pedants
watch on in silence
thinking they’re smart
because they do not
drink wine in humble places:
bad people who carry on
like pests polluting the earth.
And everywhere I’ve seen
people who dance and play
when they can
and work the skin
from their four palms.
If they arrive exhausted in a place
they’re never asked
from where they come.
When they travel
they ride on the shanks
of an old mule
They never hurry
not even on fiesta days.
Where there is wine
they drink wine;
where there is no wine
they drink fresh water
Good people who live
and work, get by and dream.
And one day like any other
they go into the ground
Antonio Machado (1875-1939) tr. from Spanish by Richard Gwyn