Poems for staying at home (Day 24)
Today’s poem is another of my favourites from The Other Tiger, an extraordinary journey through family memory, in which the unsayable is said, and the tree of family is revealed to not know its roots. ‘Tree’ is by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando.
my father has a girlfriend of my age
my father says he cheated on my mother with six women
of those he fell in love with
my father always cheated on my mother
“always” could be reduced to fifteen or twenty years
my father and my mother became engaged at fifteen years of age
and were married as soon as they were legal adults
my mother is the daughter of a military man
my mother is the daughter of a military man they say was involved
in the death of che guevara and the nationalization of the gulf oil company
my father is the son of the right hand man of the president who led
the revolution of 1952
my father’s father was exiled by the father of my mother
i am the daughter of my mother and of my father
i have a sister and two brothers
my older brother has the same name as my father and the older brother of my mother
the older brother of my mother died in an airplane accident
they say that it wasn’t an accident
they say that the plane was sabotaged to bring about the fall of my military grandfather’s government that nationalized oil and tin
my younger brother has the name of sid campeador and of the younger brother of my mother which is also the name of her father
i have my name and the name of the older sister of my father who died during an epileptic attack in eastern bolivia
my father’s mother says that she was born in a place where the cemetery is bigger than the village, and the word love is not known
my sister has her name and the two names of my mother
my mother’s younger brother has his father’s name
– but never uses it –
my mother’s younger sister is adopted
– but this is an open secret –
i am the spouse of my spouse
i do not use the surname of my spouse
my spouse was the boyfriend of the second daughter of my mother’s younger brother
my mother and my spouse’s father had a fling
my father became somewhat jealous
my mother was sick with jealousy
she used to check my father’s pockets and phone him like a madwoman
i suffer from jealousy
my husband has cheated on me on several occasions
i have never been able to cheat on my husband
i haven’t dared
mother and father
the family tree doesn’t know its roots
it can’t see them
in the darkness and depth of the earth
there hidden underground
far from the crown
from the air
and from the branches
from the branches of this tree
hang the dead
my father’s mother’s brother
shot himself on christmas night
my father’s younger brother snorted cocaine until his heart stopped
my mother’s first cousin threw himself off the niagara falls
my mother’s father died of cancer of the pancreas
my father’s father died of pulmonary emphysema
it costs this tree to breathe
it doesn’t know its roots
surnames run all along its structure
they become transparent
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Fragmento de ‘Árbol’
mi padre tiene una novia de mi edad
mi padre dice engañó a mi madre con seis mujeres
de las que se enamoró
mi padre siempre engañó a mi madre
–siempre– puede reducirse a quince o veinte años
mi padre y mi madre se hicieron novios a los quince años
y se casaron al borde de la mayoría de edad
mi madre es hija de un militar
mi madre es hija de un militar que dicen estuvo involucrado
en la muerte del che guevara y la nacionalización de la gulf oil company
mi padre es hijo del hombre de confianza del presidente que hizo
la revolución de 1952
el padre de mi padre fue exiliado por el padre de mi madre
yo soy hija de mi madre y de mi padre
tengo una hermana y dos hermanos
mi hermano mayor lleva el nombre de mi padre y el nombre del hermano mayor
de mi madre
el hermano mayor de mi madre murió en un accidente de aviación
-dicen que no fue un accidente-
dicen que sabotearon el avión para que cayera el gobierno de mi abuelo militar que nacionalizó la gulf y el estaño
mi hermano menor lleva el nombre del sid campeador y el del hermano menor de mi madre que es también el de su padre
yo llevo mi nombre y el nombre de la hermana mayor de mi padre muerta por un ataque de epilepsia en el oriente boliviano
la madre de mi padre dice que nació en un lugar donde el cementerio es más grande que el pueblo, y que no conoció la palabra amor . . .
mi hermana lleva su nombre y los dos nombres de mi madre
el hermano menor de mi madre lleva el nombre de su padre
– pero no lo usa nunca –
la hermana menor de mi madre es adoptada
– pero ese es un secreto a voces –
yo soy esposa de mi esposo
yo no uso el apellido de mi esposo
mi esposo era el novio de la hija segunda del hermano menor de mi madre
mi madre y el padre de mi esposo tuvieron un romance
mi padre se puso algo celoso
mi madre era enferma de los celos
auscultaba los bolsillos de mi padre y lo llamaba como loca por teléfono
yo sufro de celos
mi marido me ha engañado varias veces
yo nunca he podido engañar a mi marido
no me he atrevido
madre y padre
el árbol familiar no conoce sus raíces
no puede verlas
en la oscuridad y profundidad de la tierra
allí debajo escondidas
lejanas a la copa
y a las ramas
en las ramas de este árbol
cuelgan los muertos
el hermano de la madre de mi padre
se pegó un tiro la noche de navidad
el hermano menor de mi padre aspiró cocaína hasta detener su corazón
el primo hermano de mi madre se lanzó por las cataratas del niágara
el padre de mi madre murió de cáncer de páncreas
el padre de mi padre murió de enfisema pulmonar
a este árbol le cuesta respirar
no conoce sus raíces
los apellidos recorren toda la estructura
se hacen transparentes
from Patria bastarda (2014)
Jessica Freudenthal Ovando, born in Madrid in 1978, is a Bolivian writer who lives in La Paz. She promotes children’s reading with the Colectivo Lee and teaches Spanish on the International Baccalaureate Programme. She received an honorary mention in the Premio nacional de poesíá Yolanda Bedregal for her book Hardware (2009) and since then her work has appeared in various anthologies throughout America and Europe. Her second collection, Demo, was published in 2010, Patria bastarda in 2014, and El filo de las hojas in 2015.
Banff journal: on Jaramillo, Borges, and living between languages
After a long day that a resourceful weather-forecaster might summarise as wet and irritating, my attention depleted by sleeplessness – mood, to continue the meteorological analogy, middling to crabby – I am due to give a presentation on the topic that brought me here to Banff: my translations of the Colombian poet Darío Jaramillo. This goes OK, although as it is a pretty informal affair I feel I am underprepared (if it were a formal affair, I would no doubt feel the same, or else the opposite). I talk about Darío’s work, how it is themed around Paradox, The Double, Loss, and Time (safe enough ground: who can contradict any of these things?) and I read a couple of his poems. My sleeplessness roars in the recesses of consciousness like a turbulent sea crashing on distant rocks. I stumble and sway between the uncertain home comforts of English and the rusty ambivalence of my Spanish. Someone points out what might be an instance of mistranslation in one of the poems, and of course I forget, while answering her, that I have already addressed and twice changed my mind about this line, as well as questioned the poet himself; someone else asks me a very good question that I can’t think of an answer to straightaway so I tell him that it’s a very good question and that I will think about it. I try to wind up within the allotted time, and then I remember that I forgot a quotation I like, about the occasion when Darío was selected by his High School to be one of the two students to meet Borges, on the latter’s visit to Bogotá in 1962. He was 15 at the time (Darío is on the right in the photo).
‘La única vez que hablé con Borges yo tenía unos impertinentes quince o diez y seis años y le pregunté por qué afirmaba tal cosa en una parte y exactamente lo contrario en otra. Borges me contestó que estaba claro que yo había leído sus textos más veces que las que él las había escrito.’
(The only time I spoke with Borges I was an impertinent 15- or 16-year old and I asked him why he had affirmed such-and-such a thing in one part and exactly the opposite in another. Borges replied that clearly I had read his texts more times that he had written them.)
The quotation neatly illustrates a point I was trying to make in my talk, but I forget which.
Of course, it is unlikely, in reality, that anyone would read the texts of a writer as many times as the writer herself, unless of course, it were the translator. Borges’ answer was a classic instance of authorial evasion, of which he was a master. His standard response to any interlocutor offering an ‘interpretation’ or critique of his work has been set down by one of his English translators, Norman di Giovanni, as follows:
On numerous occasions I heard his stock reply to anyone who laid it on the line and told him what some piece of work of his was really all about. Borges always smiled, humbly, and sweetly, and ‘Ah, thank you!’ would come his ambiguous put-down. ‘You have enriched my work!’
And this notion of doubleness, of being (at least) two different people depending on the occasion, reminds me of something that came up in conversation with Alastair Reid, when I visited him in south-west Scotland and which I recorded, thankfully, as he died only two months later. Reid was a friend as well as an excellent translator of Borges, and accompanied him on tour occasionally. He was aware, more than most, how Borges could be a different person, depending on whether he was speaking English or Spanish, a state of duality in which I often find myself. I will finish with this, as it is a theme which, finding myself amongst so many translators, may be of interest:
‘there was one time when we were at the PEN club in New York, Borges had agreed to give a talk, and as always he said ‘will you come and help me with la charla’ and he always said the same thing [to the audience]: ‘I would prefer if you could write your questions on pieces of paper’, and so we would have a little thing with scraps of paper, which we never bothered about, because I knew the things, the temas that would really get Borges talking fluently so I would make up the questions, [and] he’d say (secretive voice) ‘don’t bother about the questions – look at them and see if they’re interesting’ anyway at one point Borges said, [he] was talking about some poet or other . . . and he said ‘I too have written a poem, at least I refer to it as a poem’, and he said ‘and I will read some lines from my feeble effort’ . . . and I said to Borges: ‘you refer to your own poetry in a phrase that . . . you talk about mis pobres versos – that’s what critics say, you’re not really entitled to refer to your poems as your ‘pobres versos’’, and I said ‘sometimes, Borges, you use modesty like a club’, because that’s what he did, Borges was always apologizing . . . ‘and I have written two or three sketchy lines’ and then he would read . . . and it really was a tic that he had about apologizing . . . he was, as we might say, ‘well brought up’, extremely respectful, and then if he reverted to Spanish, and if Bioy was there, or some people he knew he would be very bawdy and nasty and jocular . . . he was gossipy in Spanish, but never in English . . .’
Landscape with Beggars
Landscape with Beggars
Juan Manuel Roca
The good people wonder
Why a tattered rabble of beggars
Block their prospect of the lilies.
If they don’t receive their ration of manna,
It’s due to their savage custom
Of blighting the landscape and the view.
More ancient than their profession
The beggars emerge from ancient catacombs
Or from remote cathedrals that raise their domes
Between hospices and hospitals.
As they go by they wound and poison the landscape
And the people give way at their passing
As if they were parting a sea
Which they stain with taunts and devastation.
A procession of smells and a procession of dogs
Go past with the wretched hordes. Town mayors
Watch them with watery eyes
While spooning out soup as thick as lava.
The priests seek them out like food
From a kingdom in another world
And describe to them the quarries of hell,
Although they seem to have lived there forever.
They are of another race, another country,
The beggars are dark strangers
Who live on the invisible frontiers of language.
Between them and us a coin makes mock,
A dark commerce in scarcity
Beneath the trinket shop of a relative of God.
On festive days they stare at phantom ships:
They extend their bowls and rough beds to no one
And in the atriums they only pile up scraps of miracles.
There is something of the scarecrow about their trade
Something of falconry about the eyes,
In the way they look at the doves’ bread.
A drunk and downcast man told me at the exit to the bar:
They could send them off to war, to serve as barricades.
The beggars don’t know where to go
When we are ordered to confine the wounded shadows.
The tourist guides, so as not to worry travellers,
Inform them that the beggars are extras
For a film being shot on the streets.
Perhaps they have emerged from a bad dream, from a factory,
From a dockside, from a mine, from a squat.
From the bad dream they bring the surly gaze of those who flee,
From the factory they retain the complexion of a prisoner,
From the docks the vice of loading bales of nothing,
From the mine hard and aggressive eyes,
From the squat an echo carried from the land of Nobody.
Ridicule and Mockery, two faithful dogs, are their companions.
This translation by Richard Gwyn first appeared in Cyphers Magazine, Ireland, 2014.
Juan Manuel Roca (b. Medellín, Colombia, 1946) is one of the most widely read and respected figures in contemporary Colombian poetry. A successful journalist and social commentator, he has a long association with the world-famous poetry festival in the city of his birth, set up in defiance of the long years of war and civil strife in his country. He has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Spanish prize, Casa de Ameríca de Poesía Americana 2009, for his collection Biblia de Pobres, from which ‘Paisaje con mendigos’ is taken.
Paisaje con mendigos
Las buenas gentes se preguntan
Por qué los mendigos interponen,
Entre sus ojos y los nardos,
Su amasijo de harapos. Si no reciben
Su cuota de maná es por su feroz costumbre
De llagar el paisaje y la mirada.
Más antiguos que su oficio,
Los mendigos vienen de antiguas catacumbas
O de remotas catedrales que levantan sus cúpulas
Entre hospicios y hospitales.
Al cruzar hieren y enferman el paisaje
Y las gentes se abren a su paso
Como si partieran en dos un mar
Que tiñen de dicterios y quebrantos.
Un séquito de olor y un séquito de perros
Van tras las hordas miserables. Los alcaldes
Los miran con ojos acuosos
Mientras cucharean una sopa densa como lava.
Los sacerdotes los buscan como alimento
De un reino de otro mundo
Y les describen las canteras del infierno,
Aunque parezcan habitarlo desde siempre.
Son de otra raza, de otro país,
Los mendigos son oscuros forasteros
Que viven en las fronteras invisibles del lenguaje.
Entre ellos y nosotros una moneda nos escarnece,
Un oscuro comercio de penurias
Bajo la tienda de abalorios de un pariente de Dios.
Los días festivos escrutan buques fantasmas:
No encuentran a quien extender yacijas o escudillas
Y sólo amontan en los atrios migajas de milagro.
Algo de espantapájaros hay en su oficio,
Algo de cetrería en sus ojos,
En su manera de mirar el pan de las palomas.
Un hombre ebrio y compungido me dijo a la salida del bar:
Podrían mandarlos a la guerra, servir de barricadas.
Los mendigos no saben dónde ir
Cuando ordenan que acuartelemos las sombras malheridas
Los guías de turismo, para no inquietar a los viajeros,
Advierten que son actores de reparto
De una película que ruedan en las calles.
Quizá hayan salido de un mal sueño, de una factoría,
De un muelle, de una mina, de una casa usurpada.
Del mal sueño traen la mirada arisca de quien huye,
De la fábrica conservan un color de presidario,
Del muelle el vicio de cargar fardos de nada,
De la mina unos ojos duros y pugnaces,
De la casa usurpada en eco llegado de tierras de Nadie.
Escarnio y mofa, dos perros fieles, los acompañan.
What Gets Lost
Few more irritating quotations are cited more frequently than Robert Frost’s famous old saw about poetry being ‘what is lost in translation.’ For the unconverted, and in honour of a recent re-reading of Reid’s poem in Edith Grossman’s excellent Why Translation Matters, here is Alastair Reid’s poem on the subject.
Incidentally, as if the ghost of Alastair were intentionally confounding the matter, there are two versions of this poem about the translation process: one can found in Grossman’s book (and which I reproduce below); the other, in the otherwise excellent Inside Out, edited by Douglas Dunn, contains variations in the English and typos in the Spanish. I am therefore going with the other. Both versions, needless to say, can be found online.
What Gets Lost
I keep translating traduzco continuamente
entre palabras words que no son las mías
into other words which are mine de palabras a mis palabras.
Y, finalmente, de quién es el texto? Who has written it?
Del escritor o del traductor writer, translator
o de los idiomas or language itself?
Somos fantasmas, nosotros traductores, que viven
entre aquel mundo y el nuestro
between that world and our own.
Pero poco a poco me ocurre
que el problema the problem no es cuestión
de lo que se pierde en traducción
is not a question
of what gets lost in translation
sino but rather lo que se pierde
what gets lost
entre la ocurrencia – sea de amor o de desesperación
between love or desperation –
y el hecho de que llega
a existir en palabras
and its coming into words.
Para nosotros todos, amantes, habladores
as lovers or users of words
el problema es éste this is the difficulty.
Lo que se pierde what gets lost
no es lo que se pierde en traducción sino
is not what gets lost in translation, but rather
what gets lost in language itself lo que se pierde
en el hecho, en la lengua,
en la palabra misma.
Alastair Reid (1926-2014)
Life as an act of translation
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.
The only inconvenience is the flying insect known as the tábano negro, 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.
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.
An inexplicable addiction
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.”
Traveller of the Century
Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here.
I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:
One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.
Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.
But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”
Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.
This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.
The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño
In La Universidad Desconocida, the collected poems that Roberto Bolaño’s widow, Carolina López, brought together after her husband’s death in 2003, she includes in the foreword an unpublished piece called ‘My Literary Career’ that Bolaño had scribbled in anguish after receiving serial rejections from all the publishers of Spain, which he lists fastidiously, and then: “under the bridge, while it rains, a golden opportunity / to see myself for who I am: / like a snake at the North Pole, but writing. / Writing poetry in the land of imbeciles.” Clearly Bolaño was under no illusions as to the readiness of the literary world to embrace his work. The poem is dated 1990, a year after The Third Reich was written, in longhand. We do not know what plans Bolaño might have had for the manuscript, which by the time of his death he had begun to type out and tinker with: it may well have come into print in a completely different form. Or not at all.
Udo, a German board-games champion, takes his girlfriend, Ingeborg, on holiday to the same hotel he last visited with his parents ten years earlier, as a fifteen-year old. They meet another German couple, Hanna and Charly, and with the help of a couple of local no-good-boyos called the Lamb and the Wolf, they do the nightclubs and bars of the resort by night and lie on the beach by day. Charly turns out to be a bit of a liability, and following a mysterious incident in which he appears to have assaulted his girlfriend, he takes his surfboard out to sea and does not return. Hanna and Ingeborg go back to Germany but Ido, a loner and a nerd, stays on in the resort, ostensibly to wait for Charly’s body to be washed up, but actually to carry out a forlorn pursuit of the hotel owner, Frau Else. At this point the narrative wavers, becoming repetitive and somewhat listless, and although there are hints towards a darker centre, there is nothing particularly threatening about the local lowlife, not even El Quemado, the disfigured South American who rents out pedal boats, and whom Ido adopts as his opponent in the marathon board game that gives the book its title. There are vague allusions towards a deeper connection with Nazi themes – notably with Frau Else’s husband, a tall, moribund character who seems oddly prescient of the writer Archimboldi in 2666 – but they only lead to dead ends.
As it is, The Third Reich, despite the promise of the opening half, is a strange and ultimately unsatisfying book. It feels incomplete, but that is not the problem: what this novel lacks is that paradoxical sense of intentional incompleteness, the unwillingness or refusal to tie up loose ends (perhaps because they retain more intensity for being left hanging) that is a marker of Bolaño’s mature style.
Ignore the cover blurb’s suggestion that this is the perfect place to begin reading Bolaño: it is not, and anyone unfamiliar with his work would be much better off reading By Night in Chile or The Skating Rink, another novel modelled on the seaside town of Blanes, where Bolaño settled in the 1980s. If it were not for the fact that it is an early work by a highly marketable author The Third Reich would probably not have been published. But for Bolaño’s many fans it displays, in emergent form, some of the themes and tropes that would be more abundantly explored in The Savage Detectives or 2666. Like those two great works, it is beautifully translated by Natasha Wimmer.
This review first appeared in The Independent, on 1 March 2012.
More thoughts on translation
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.
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) is ‘a fuck’ in 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, as machines are usually quite prudish:
“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.