“Don’t Start Me Talking: I Could Talk All Night.” -- Solitary translation and multiple conversations

Posted 1 year ago by Catherine Colwell

I like the travel in that idea of conversation between translator and translated – time travel and geographical travel

Sometimes the act of translation is described as a ‘conversation’ – the translator, the metaphor suggests, is in some sense talking with the author of the original work and together they are making a new work. This metaphor is also used quite a bit even within one language, for example when an author’s work is said to be in conversation with another’s, Susan Howe’s poetry being in conversation with Emily Dickinson’s. ‘Intertextuality’ is a form of this, or a form of its study.

I like the travel in that idea of conversation between translator and translated – time travel and geographical travel – and I don’t take the metaphor too literally. There is also something ecstatic in the idea of ‘being translated’ – I think of Sam Cooke’s song, “You Send Me”, when I think of a person being ‘translated’, though in this use of the concept there is a hint of wordlessness, of the ineffable. “I was translated!” is a statement of the sublime.

Unless, as I have had the privilege to experience, the translator is actually there with the original writers, there isn’t really a conversation going on. Or not going on, there. Bear with me, while I try to suggest how the conversation is alive and well in translation, but not necessarily in that relationship. 
 The dead really can’t speak back, and in the same way the inert text will have nothing to say once it has said it the first time.  It is the gratitude, excitement and range of other feelings and actions the translator experiences and takes forward after that first speaking which forms the conversation, but the conversation is outward, not back to the original text.

That first speaking! I can remember devouring Francis Steegmuller’s Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters, a book I had found in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton, and, reading the translated poems there, feeling almost as if I had found in Guilaume Apollinaire a friend, a poet who spoke to me, and still speaks to me, so strongly.

He never replies. He is, with a sweet melancholy perhaps true to his nature, a very realistic hologram of a poet to me, a mentor I can’t ask questions of but who can keep transmitting wisdom and sensation. Where do the questions go? They go straight through him into the contemporary world we all inhabit. The translation, in that first 'speaking', initiates so much. And then we - anyone -  talk about his, her, or their work to each other (and talk to ourselves about it). This means discussing their topics, their techniques, the context of finding the translation in the first place (the second hand bookshop in which their translated self was discovered), the nature of translation, the nature of a field of autumn crocuses (from one of his famous poems Les Colchiques), the nature of time travel and geographical travel.

And so it continues, because those are actual conversations, with actual people listening, returning thought, and so creating the energy for a return of thought in turn. The writer in translation has been the start of a conversation which, though they can’t answer back, doesn’t need to stop because it is widening and widening out among the living and will reach, with luck, the yet to be alive.


Richard Price is Head of Contemporary Collections at the British Library, and author of a dozen poetry collections, most recently Small World (Carcanet, 2012) and Moon for Sale (Carcanet, 2017). He was a participant in the Edwin Morgan Translation Workshop in 2017.

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