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Landscape with Beggars

24 Mar

pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_cripples

 

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

20 Mar
Kiefer typewriter

Typewriter, Anselm Kiefer

 

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)

 

 

Tree

10 Oct

tree near corral

Today’s post is a translation of the opening fragment of the poem ‘Tree’ by the Bolivian poet Jessica Freudenthal Ovando (born 1978).

 

1.

my father has a girlfriend of my age

my father says he cheated on my mother with six women

with whom he fell in love

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

yet

mother and father

mother fatherland

mama milk-bottle

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

the suicides

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

poetic deaths

deaths

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 vanish

they become transparent

Translation from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn


 

Fragmento de “ÁRBOL”

1.

 

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

todavía

madre y padre

madre patria

pacha mama

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

al aire

y a las ramas

en las ramas de este árbol

cuelgan los muertos

los suicidios

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

muertes poéticas

muertes

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 desvanecen

se hacen transparentes

from Patria bastarda (2014)

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

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.”

 

 

 

Adam Thorpe and WG Sebald on Flaubert, time and sand

10 Feb

Flaubert

To a talk by Adam Thorpe, titled My nights with Emma B, in which the impressive Mr Thorpe, whose manner I found both stimulating and refreshingly self-effacing, reported back on his three years spent in the throes of translator-sickness, that peculiar ailment that has one hooked up, at times almost against one’s will, to some other writer’s creative process. During that time the translator must enter and inhabit the work more thoroughly than any other reader, if they are to produce work that is both reflective of the original, as well as contextually informed and sensitive to the needs of the present. After a stirring introduction by my friend Alexis Nuselovici, who threw down the challenge that “untranslatability was the stuff that Madame Bovary was made of,” Mr Thorpe kept me thoroughly engaged for an hour, something of a miracle considering how difficult it has been to concentrate on anything for more than ten minutes at a time over the past year. He stressed the key aspects of a successful translation: accuracy (i.e. matching the source text), style and music. I particularly liked his emphasis on the notion of rhythm, while at the same time explaining that rhythm is “the most appallingly difficult aspect of translation.” Thorpe is primarily a poet, and he understands better than most that rhythm is the single most essential feature of the creative process, something which Flaubert knew very well.

Thorpe's Madame BovaryAs for the Death of the Author – or his Absence, Thorpe was unforgiving towards the notion that Flaubert, as a novelist, was in any way “absent from the work.” “Nonsense,” he said. “I could smell him in every word. The text is saturated with him. He was a bluff, gruff companion.”

I am reminded of something, dimly, and reach for my copy of WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, where we learn of Flaubert’s “fear of the false which . . . sometimes kept him confined to his couch for weeks or even months on end in the dread that he would never be able to write another word without compromising himself in the most grievous of ways . . . He was convinced that everything he had written hitherto consisted solely  in a string of the most abysmal errors and lies, the consequences of which were immeasurable.” He believed that the relentless spread of stupidity in the world had invaded his own head, and the resulting sensation was one of sinking into sand.  According to Sebald’s friend Janine Dakyns (from whom the idea emerges), sand possessed enormous significance in all of Flaubert’s work. “Sand conquered all. Time and again, Janine said, vast dust clouds drifted through Flaubert’s dreams by day and by night, raised over the arid plains of the African continent and moving north across the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula till sooner or later they settled like ash from a fire on the Tuileries gallery, a suburb of Rouen, or a country town in Normandy, penetrating into the tiniest crevices. In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown . . . Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara.” The Blakean synecdoche of this image sets the heart racing. It gives a glimmer of the kind of inclusive, detailed understanding of the universe that so fascinated and appalled Flaubert.

 

 

 

 

 

Traveller of the Century

13 May

 

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.