WHO MAKES LITERARY TRANSLATION?

This is the last of five instalments of work as the result of the 2017 Edwin Morgan Trust translation workshop. Three Portuguese and three Scottish poets met, under the guidance of facilitator Tom Pow, to translate each other’s work. The Portuguese poets were Andreia C. Faria, Ricardo Marques, and Miguel Martins. The Scottish poets were Jane McKie, Miriam Nash and Richard Price. From Portuguese into English, the bridge translators were Carla Davidson and Sophie Paterson; from English into Portuguese, the bridge translator was Catarina Nascimento. The co-ordinator for all translations was Carla Davidson. The Other Side of Silence, a pamphlet containing the other translated poems, was published by the EMT and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2017.


By Richard Price

Readers will have noticed the curious use of the word “with” after the name of the translating poet and then the name of a further translator. Here, Richard Price recalls why, unusually in literary translation, the bridge translator – the expert who provides the first gloss for a poet to work with – is credited in these translations. What, he asks, if this were only the beginning of a new frankness about the process of literary translation?

Some literary translators have a life-long relationship with the language and therefore culture from which they translate. Bilingual, they have a continuing and in-depth connection to the literature they translate and, it can only be hoped, to the culture they are translating into.

That isn’t always so, though, and I am a case in point. Like many poets who translate “from” other languages I have only a superficial understanding of the languages I translate from, if what is being done is translation at all. For example, I have schoolchild French, from some thirty years ago. This hardly accounts for my versions of Guillaume Apollinaire and Louise Labé, though I am proud enough of what I have made there.

But for a few poems, which I could not find in existing translation, my versions from the French rely on reading the originals in close consultation with as many translations as I could get my hands on. Sometimes those translators have an overlapping life as poets “in their own right,” sometimes not.

My versions of Sappho, Guido Cavalcanti, César Vallejo, and Virna Teixeira are a further order away from the bilingual ideal. I have to rely only on other translations, dictionaries, and biographical and critical study because I cannot read these languages. There is an argument that even if I could understand the contemporary ‘standard’ languages concerned, the very ancient Greek of Sappho, the medieval Italian of Cavalcanti and Vallejo’s Peruvian Spanish from the inter-war years were always going to be a challenge. Even Teixeira’s contemporary Brazilian Portuguese is an almost complete stranger to me, although at least with the poet, who speaks English and has translated my own work, I have been able to correspond in trust, verifying the sense and art of my English versions.

In the main, such detached translations have been made in solitude, in intense bouts where much more have been encountered than the poems finally translated. I have been propelled by both a belief in my own writing (though I know it risks the accusation of arrogance to say that) and a belief in the sharing element of translation. Sappho, Apollinaire and Vallejo have become guiding poets for my own work, while the way that I somehow translated Cavalcanti and Labé (without going into the details of this here) has helped me unlock possibilities in my own poetry which perhaps has almost nothing to do with these poets but could not have been done without engaging with making versions of their work.

While I have pictured this as an individual and personal act, just R Price Esquire having a tête-à-tête with the Big Foreign Poet across the territories, across the mere time continuum, blethering with Sappho on TimeSkype, closer examination reveals something completely different: the sheer crowdedness of all that labour of predecessor translators, of dictionary-makers, biographers, all the anonymous labour of publishers and printers, distributors and librarians, who have kept such creativity capable of reanimation. And that is before we consider the range of language-speakers themselves. Language is the greatest game of “keep the kettle boiling” ever created: all that astonishing effort to keep a language intelligible by using it, flexing, stretching it – singing it, whispering it, adapting it for leaky technical vocabularies, sustaining it in urban and rural variety, sustaining it in urbane colloquy, keeping it open to the outside, spitting it out in rage. These are just some of the life-sustainers of language. So, while it is sentimental and over-systemising to suggest that translation of the solitary kind I have described is in fact “collective,” it is surely true to say that translation is far more reliant on others than even translators themselves may admit or readers may perceive. This, by the way, is also true of poetry itself, but that is for another day’s discussion.

Working with Portuguese poets for several days of intense translation really was collective. This was conducted at the Scottish Poetry Library in an atmosphere where fellow Anglophone poets, though working on different poems, added to a highly motivated and inspirational atmosphere, sharing camaraderie and problem-solving across the linguistic divide. Directed sensitively by the poet Tom Pow, we worked together and we ate together, and we travelled across to Glasgow to visit, fittingly, the Edwin Morgan papers at Glasgow University: there are surely no better examples of a poet-translator than Edwin Morgan.

All that said, when it came to publishing the work in the Mariscat anthology, The Other Side of Silence, commemorating the project and disseminating a selection of the poems, I had pause for thought. How could I just have my name there beneath the title of a translated poem as the sole translator?

I needed to step back and think. Our process, as is the norm I believe for literary translation projects of this kind, had been to use “bridge translations” as the basis upon which we would then create our literary translations. These were line by line translations, with notes about ambiguities and possible contexts. The project had funded this from a freelance agency. The individual bridge translators had been fundamental to the process but they did not seek acknowledgement in any publication. Everything in terms of contract and in terms of expectations was more than above board. Perhaps like the highly skilled session musicians used in recordings of old, no-one, including the session musicians themselves, expected them to be cited “as part of the band” (though of course the bridge translators were acknowledged in the preliminary texts in the anthology) and, in this case, there was good feeling about the work everyone had contributed.

Yet, for me to appear as the sole translator, given the very specific and concentrated work the bridge translators had undertaken, unsettled me. This was partly pride I think – I don’t want anyone to think I am this terrific polyglot, nor, when they discover the truth, that I am a fraud. It was also a sense that something has gone wrong with translation, and poetry itself, if the translator-poet is still following this individualist line of the writer as sole creator. Robert Chandler, in his introduction to the Everyman edition of Apollinaire (2000) notes how this emphasis on the single vision of the translator can lead to extreme practices: “some translators scrupulously avoid the work of their predecessors. I find this surprising: in most fields ignorance of this kind is considered unacceptable” (Chandler then goes on to cite the major translations he has used for his own Apollinaire).

In any case, my qualms were not as extreme a feeling as that I would be “suppressing” other voices, but more that here was a chance to show others at least a glimpse of the richness of the process: a trade, maybe, of Poet as Lone Genius, for Poet as Part of the Complex Miracle! While this was not quite as important to the Portuguese poets, because they could read English perfectly well (though even there, the bridge translation sped things up), it was important to me. I conferred with the others and everyone agreed very quickly that the bridge translators should be credited not only in the introduction and contents pages, but also, in a break with standard practice, poem by poem. Would we say “and” the bridge translator or “with” the bridge translator: the word “with” seemed to get the balance right. That is why, for the selection of hitherto unpublished translations collected here, the names of Carla Davidson and Sophie Paterson, with our gratitude, appear in the way they do.


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