Translation as Tourism
Posted 2 days ago by John
Translation as Tourism
Pàdraig MacAoidh and Meg Bateman lecture in English and Gaelic at the universities of St Andrews and the Highlands and Islands respectively. Pàdraig comes from Lewis and is a native speaker of Gaelic and Meg comes from Edinburgh and learned Gaelic forty years ago in S. Uist. This summer they were among six poets representing Scotland at Edenkoben in the southern wine-producing area of Germany where, for more than thirty years, German poets have translated poetry from another European country with the poets present. Impressed and inspired by the ensuing discussions, they took up Tom Pow’s suggestion to have a conversation about their own experience of translation.
PM You’ve talked previously about translation being a ‘door kept ajar’. I’m interested in this beyond the bounds of poetic translation: as someone who lives and works in two different languages, to what extent are you translating between different selves, stepping through inner psychic doorways? And if so, what is that experience like for you?
MB Perhaps because I’m not a native speaker, I don’t feel that English and Gaelic give me different selves or different psychic doorways, but I definitely feel that words have different hinterlands in the two languages and certainly different musical options. The concept of a tree, boat or fairy usher in quite different connotations in the two languages. Additionally, there isn’t the choice of register in Gaelic that there is in English. But strangely, I’ve just become aware of a psychic difference: in English I’m an old leftist pacifist; in Gaelic, I’m wowed by the heroic ideal, so maybe there’s something in what you say. Now, you’re the native speaker. Do you have a separate Gaelic and English self?
PM It’s complicated. For me, one of the central things about writing (let’s start there), in any language, is the sense of a shock of recognition, or of misrecognition, that comes with a word, phrase, image or cadence: the realisation that you, or someone else, or the world, isn’t quite how you had previously imagined it. And this, of course, is one of the central experiences of translation – finding the word that cannot quite be translated, that reveals another world. And so I think I have different shocks of recognition in Gaelic and in English: the words obh obh and haoidh haoidh, for example, take me back to a childhood that exists primarily (or only) in my Gaelic self. There is lots of baggage (and ballast) in each language: I suppose the kinds of things I’d rely upon or fall back upon are different; the dreams I’d have. But these might be as rooted in places as in language: the memory of my grandparents’ tractor shed (that no longer exists) hovers somewhere between Gaelic and English; whereas the memory of the Alhambra, say, has little Gaelic in it for me. What is it that wows you about the heroic ideal in Gaelic?
MB I’ll tell you in a minute, but to return to the Gaelic and English psyche, it seems clear from your answer that your Gaelic psyche begins in infancy while mine doesn’t begin till my late teens; my memories of grandparents are full of the steep, narrow streets of the mill towns of Lancashire. My Gaelic memories begin with the people I have known and loved in the Hebrides and through what I have imagined through Gaelic literature, which brings me back to the heroic ideal.
I believe that the ideal of the warrior in Gaelic society encompassed not only self-sacrifice in protecting the tribe but also many other qualities rehearsed again and again in the panegyric poetry: the ability to provide through hunting, an aesthetic sense (revealed in the hero’s choice of weaponry), an intellectual ideal in giving good counsel, uniting allies and remembering songs, and above all an ideal of generosity in trickling the wealth of nature down throughout the clan. The warrior has a Spartan-like carelessness of his own survival: the survival of the clan is what counts – and this all in a pastoral economy, perhaps not so different from the warrior ideal among the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania.
So is the Alhambra a Spanish or an English memory for you? How do you relate to places whose language and history you do not know?
PM Ah, the Alhambra is neither. I’ve got enough Spanish to get by and so there wasn’t really a meeting outside language there, more a stumbling between Spanish and Arabic. The Alhambra – and Andalucia as a whole, the cante jondo, Lorca, the mudejar and mozarabe architecture – was my first encounter of the limits of the Christian world, of where it meets another religion and culture, and – to be honest – becomes something much more interesting, much richer and stranger. It was the meeting of Spanish and North African culture. And, rightly or wrongly, it gave me a sense of the muddled, composite and palimpsestic nature of Highland culture, even though the coordinates were quite different: the Celticism, the paganism even, lying underneath the Presbyterian Lewis imagination. The deserted spaces of the Spanish south, those wild-west filmscapes, felt the same to me as the Lewis moors.
But when I’m in a place whose language and history I don’t know I am … wary? Charged? I deeply distrust, but am fascinated by, the role of the ‘tourist’, by the superficiality of much travel and much cultural encounter.
So… I’m very interested in the way you figure people on the Trotternish ridge in your poem “Tròndairnis”: “homo sapiens a’ nochdadh an aon frèam a-mhàin, / is coltas air na ceumannan gu bheil iad nan stad” [homo sapiens caught in a single frame / on steps that momentarily seem to stand still]. Is there some kind of disjointed “tourism” of this sort going on here?
MB Not really, but we sometimes need to be tourists to see afresh. The tourists viewing the Trotternish ridge are at once conscious witnesses and exemplars of the fleeting presence of humanity in the ongoing processes of geology. Coincidentally or not, I pictured them in a place where dinosaur footprints have since been found!
That’s an interesting point you make about translation as a sort of tourism that lets readers enter new territory under the safe carapace of their own language, with subject, verb and object in the right order and jokes recontextualised. There’s a huge gain when peoples encounter each other through tourism or translation – your point about the arid plateaux of Spain and the saturated moors of Lewis. Now that our days of cheap air travel are likely to be numbered, translation appears to be the greener option.
Tourism is self-defeating as the further we travel in search of difference, the more similar cultures become. Is it also the case that the more we translate, the more homogeneous literature becomes? Should we worry? Cultures have always evolved through hybridisation, but what happens when a minority culture becomes more a show-case for cultural tourism than participation among its own members? What happens, for that matter, when learners with different cultural values become more vocal and even more proficient than some native speakers? These are the challenges of modernity, and challenges are the stuff of art. It happened before, when James Macpherson’s translations of Ossian, made for the consumption of the majority culture, reshaped how the Gaels saw themselves. Are you worried by these scenarios?
PM Not really worried. As you say, culture will always evolve, cultural values will always change. I think one of the possible roles of artists and writers is to try and help culture evolve in interesting ways, to carry some things from the past, to mix them with new. To imagine possible futures, without prescribing them or setting them in stone. Translation is crucial to this, but it also has to be strategic or, rather, canny. You don’t have to simply adopt English language material wholesale, but can always open different doors, bridges, sea-routes. (I think Gaelic could have great telenovelas, on the Latin American model). Even the Ossian kerfuffle, for all the exhaustion of arguments about authenticity and provenance, led to a necessary conversation among Gaelic speakers about the value of Gaelic myths and stories, about the place they had in the ‘modern world’. And there was a playfulness involved that can’t be underestimated: it is perhaps undue seriousness, excessive caution, any attempt to stop cultural change that would ultimately be most damaging for Gaelic (or any minority) culture.
MB Well, I agree. Rules are for breaking.
PM You translate (admirably) from your own Gaelic and the Gaelic of others into English. And you are a Gaelic learner. Does being a learner (with the cultural freight it brings) impinge on how you approach translation? Are there attitudes to translation that you feel disqualified from exploring?
MB As a learner I feel disqualified from being syntactically experimental in my Gaelic poems lest these explorations be construed as mistakes, but I think being a teacher impinges more on how I translate. I want to make a crib to the Gaelic poem whose rhythms evoke the original. There are some attitudes to translation that I feel disqualified from because I have Gaelic (learnt or otherwise). Hugh MacDiarmid and Alan Riach have undertaken ambitious, highly ornamented and inventive translations of major Gaelic poems like ‘Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill’ whose rhythms are quite independent of the originals. I would never fancy doing this myself because I am too much drawn to the original.
PM Is it more a question of faithfulness to the originals then, and the responsibilities that goes with that? You’d never try the exploded translations of Rody Gorman, say, where Dwelly’s dictionary spills over all of its alternatives into the English version? (For myself, often my first instinct is to translate freely, and then something gnaws away at me to be more respectful, more literal, more transparent, especially when I’m translating someone else. I don’t necessarily trust that gnawing voice).
MB ‘Faithfulness’ and ‘responsibilities’ are rather moralistic words and I like to make poetry a non-judgemental zone. I think Rody’s Sweenese translations are a tour de force, a laboratory of translation, a cunabula of a new form of English, but musical they’re not. It is the rhythmic variation and the interweaving assonantal rhymes that excite me about Gaelic verse (perhaps more than the meaning) and are what I want to echo in a translation.
PM They are moralistic, aren’t they? I’d share your unease with them, but I’m also interested in how such moralism – even piety or prissiness – crops up more with comments about translating than writing poetry: what is or isn’t ‘allowed’, the circumscribed role of the (anonymous) translator. But of course a poet doing a translation is not a simultaneous translator whispering in one’s ear in a debating chamber. As you say, the need, at the very least, to use the tools of rhythm and rhyme intervenes; the boat-of-translation you are creating quickly tacks off on a different course, caught by different currents and winds. Or in the case of the Sweenese, the boat is repeatedly picked up by waves and smashed against rocks, or turned into something new and utterly unexpected: there is, of course, the mischievous spectre of Flann O’Brien hiding behind any version of the Sweeney story as well. Which, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, brings me to the question of how translation is an enriching of cultures, with O’Brien – like Joyce before him – utterly bamboozling the English language through the way his language holds so many other languages, traces and echoes within it. What have you gained from reading work in translation that you couldn’t from just English or Gaelic sources?
MB I have gained everything: a sense of the unfurling tissue of humanity, of being part of a whole, from Baba Yaga propelling herself through my childhood dreams in her pestle and mortar to the bare aesthetic of Arthur Whaley’s translations of Chinese poems, to Basho’s deep roads to the north, Hermann Hesse’s archetypal split between the sensuous and the ascetic, the resigned patience with which Il Leopardi accepts the debasement of all he holds dear, the wisdom of the Buddha, Confucius and Christ to name but few, not to forget Pandora’s box/jar.
What about you? Can you say if anything has directly inspired you to try something new?
PM Without translation I wouldn’t have dreamt of the Escher-like mindscapes of Kafka, or the sheer demonic energy and uplift of the opening of The Master and Margharita. Or Anna Akhmatova standing nonchalantly at her limit (“We, my dear, are only souls / At the limits of the world”). Or Asterix. Translation is behind a poem (an English one) I wrote that has Odysseus travelling, ultimately, ‘home not home not home home’: it uproots you, and reroots you. On a banal level, all writing is some kind of translation, of the self to another self, or experience to text; but the most crucial translations for me are those that point to an energy I could never previously have imagined for myself, a quickening pulse, a world unfurling. That wonderfully disjointing translation: Once upon a time…