Fish (and a flea?) in your ear

I like translating things. I was good at languages at school, studied French at university alongside English Literature. I was never especially fluent at speaking though, my main concern was always reading books. I’ve done versions of a number of French poems, took part in the European Poetry Translation Network years ago, working with others on Turkish poets Hulke Actunc and Lale Muldur, and contributed to preparing the way for an influx of Bulgarian poets via A Balkan Exchange, which also involved being translated into Bulgarian, a fascinating and infinitely more terrifying a process than translating was. (Our practice was a group one, involving literal versions to begin with, then hours of discussion and quite a lot of laughter. The photo above shows the Bulgarian poets Kristin Dimitrov, Nadya Radulova and VBV (Vassil Vidinsky to his friends) having a breakthrough with one of Linda France’s poems. Kristin has translated John Donne and Nadya Philip Roth, so they know when they’ve got it.)

I will also admit to having used translation as a metaphor for the function that arts development and arts funding can play, shuttling between versions of what art does and says and is worth in an attempt to let them talk to each other.

After reading David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation I think I understand better why I find the process so fascinating. It is a really accessible and ever-stimulating exploration of many facets and functions of translation, from manuals to laws to poems. I could simply urge you to read it, and I do, but here’s a few quotes and ideas from it, applied to the world of the arts, by way of a taster…

‘When you have to pay attention to more than one dimension of an utterance – when your mind is engaged in multi-level pattern-matching pursuits – you find resources in your language you never knew were there.’ Bellos is talking here about the challenge of meeting formal constraints – be that rhyme, or the size of boxes in graphic novels. (Ever thought how hard translating Asterix was?) But isn’t this the challenge of ‘arts advocacy’, and why it’s seemingly so hard? I can’t rid myself of arts campaigners being like stereotypical English tourists abroad who when someone doesn’t understand us, just repeat the same message, BUT LOUDER…

How Many Words Do We have for Coffee? – we are like mythical eskimos when we go into Starbucks. Refuse to use the right words, get the wrong thing, or nothing at all… Use any word you half recognise and you still might get something you didn’t want. (I don’t have to labour all these points, do I? Good.)

To colonial explorers natives had a myriad of words for subtle distinctions between exotic things but few words for the abstract things the colonisers needed to say – time, government, law etc. Bellos descrbes how ‘Trique, a language spoken in Mexico, has no word for ‘miracle’, for example, only specific words for ‘heal the sick’, ‘part the waters’ and so forth.’ He sums up the colonial attitude: ‘How could these strange folk be granted the benefits of civilization if the languages they spoke did not allow for the expression of civilized things? More particularly, the difficulty of expressing ‘abstract thought’ of the Western kind in many Native American and African languages suggested that the capacity for abstraction was the key to the progress of the human mind.’ Hmm, policy makers, funders and artists, anyone? Economists and the rest of us learning to speak their language so they don’t think we’re primitive, or destroy our primitive ways?

Q. Why is it hard to translate War & Peace into French? A. Because large chunks of it are in French to begin with, denoting the world of Russian aristocrats of the time, who would speak and write in French. So how do you depict Tolstoy’s shifts in French? (No great application to arts development, I just like this fact!)

‘Translation is the opposite of empire.’ Empires make you talk their language, they don’t tend to work through equal translations. To have equal relationships with power, maybe we need more arts and culture translators, and not to denigrate them?

This book inspired me to get back to translating poems, just for fun and enjoyment of the process. The great thing about translation is it’s craft, rehearsal, training and improvisation rolled into one, but you don’t have to be ‘inspired’. I have set off doing version of Guy Goffette’s poems, when I have time and brain-power left of an evening or weekend. Watch my poetry space for more on that. So to round off here’s a couple of rousing quotes about why translation is a really important process.

‘Translation does not come ‘After Babel’. It comes when some human group has the bright idea that the kids on the next block or the people on the other side of the hill might be worth talking to. Translating is a first step towards civilization.’

‘It’s not poetry, but community, that is lost in translation. The community-building role of actual language use is simply not part of what translation does. But translation does almost everything else. It is translation, more than speech itself, which provides incontrovertible evidence of the human capacity to think and to communicate thought. We should do more of it.’