He is also part of the workshop group at the Poetry Translation Centre at SOAS, London, and has been commissioned to translate the Cape Verdean poet Corsino Fortes for the Centre.
Beyond the Pale:
Excluded Tastes in foreign Literatures
Here’s another reason to envy music as an art form: Music is such a powerfully direct art that listeners and dancers, as long as they are open to new influences, can quickly find enjoyment in the Moravian folk elements in Janacek’s music, or in the West African rhythms in samba, without needing to know that the rhythms are Moravian or African. When we read literature, are we as aware and open to foreign tastes? Even if we read foreign literature, do we judge it by parochial British standards?
If we look closely, aren’t the authors who we in Europe hear about from, say, Brazil or the Arab world often the very ones closest to our own urban European culture? A poet from urban Sao Paulo could have more in common with an English poet than either have with a poet from the rural margins. Even authors from different backgrounds may become known as they adapt to our culture.
Taming Authors or Adapting to English?
A leading German translator of Arabic, Stefan Weidner, wrote in the magazine Literaturen (09/04) that Arab authors writing in German and French enrich Arab literature, as "with their help, even someone who finds the Arabs too Arabic can read Arabic literature". This almost sounds as though we want a token Arab presence, rather than a fully Arabic voice? The question is, when we do experience true difference in literature, do we find it unacceptable and dismiss it as bad writing? Do we only want to read Western-educated Arab authors who have a Western-tinged sensibility?
With a group of other writers and translators, I take part in the weekly workshop of the Poetry Translation Centre at SOAS. It aims to create good English translations of poetry from Asia, Africa and Latin America. This can throw up linguistic challenges, especially when translating from less widespread languages such as Somali. The cultural challenges are often even harder nuts to crack.
The writer and poet Choman Hardi had prepared a literal translation of the Kurdish poet Dilawer Qeredaghi’s moving poem ‘An Afternoon at Snowfall’. In the poem someone is searching for the speaker everywhere, who is no longer there. At one point, in the literal version,
[. . .] you walk the city looking for me,
you search for me in the armpit of a wet bat
It was clear that a wet bat’s armpit has quite different connotations in English and Kurdish. Choman Hardi explained that there was nothing queezy about the original, which has the sense of a hidden place. So, for all the originality of the expression, we altered it in the final version to:
[. . .] you walk the city looking for me,
you search for me under the wing of a bat
Change was necessary in order to keep the right tone. Yet it may not only be the form and idioms of the poem that the translator alters for the audience.
Every translator could probably give his or her own examples of accommodating the audience. In a fascinating discussion at the South Bank Centre in September 2004, the polyglot translator Frank Heibert, as well as pointing out linguistic problems in translation, such as Italian’s dialects and English’s wealth of vocabulary, suggested Portuguese humour as a difficulty. As it is very different and slow, he felt he needed to speed or pep it up a little to get his audience to see the humour.
Yet thanks to English TV and film exports, a German audience probably needs less ‘help’ with the well-known ‘Englischer Humor’ than with Portuguese humour. Germans generally ‘get’ this humour now, and if they don’t, at least they realise they are missing something. Not as easy for the translator from less well-known cultures!
Many literatures are not afraid of using grand abstract words. They trust in the poetic punch of these words much more than we would in our more reserved English culture. What we can very easily dismiss as bad, flowery or bombastic language is loved as poetic in Arab cultures. The same could be said for highly emotional language. This means that many Arab writers are impossible to translate into English at present, not because their language can’t be translated, but because we aren’t ready to read them. Perhaps there’s an analogy to food here. Someone’s first curry is unlikely to have been a jalfrezi but having got used milder curries, some people then get a taste for the hotter kinds, some don’t.
In ‘An Afternoon at Snowfall’ the absent speaker imagines that the special ‘someone’ will finds a poem in a library. The poem and this ‘someone’ head for a teahouse, where they laugh and consider many things, including (in the literal version):
a kite which is tied to the string of childhood.
Leaving aside the tea-drinking poem for now, we can see that this line’s use of ‘childhood’ is something an English poet wouldn’t write. Good poetry is concrete and specific, isn’t it? Here we as readers need to accept that some values are prejudices, even if we are committed to them for our own poetry. Shortening this line though, it can work in English, while maintaining its foreignness:
They consider a kite threaded to childhood.
They consider their morning sweet tea.
Last summer another experience brought home to me the danger of imposing one taste on other literatures. Every two years the Dresden Poetry Prize (Dresdner Lyrikpreis) attracts entries from across Germany and the Czech Republic. Two distinguished juries, one German and one Czech, draw up a shortlist of five poets from each country. These ten poets then read their poetry in front of the public and a panel of literati choose the winner.
Although an innovative boundary-crossing event, it was a disaster. To express a very English generalisation, the German and Czech poets were like chalk and cheese – and the public was split just as surely. To their admirers, the chosen Germans, including highly respected younger stars like Jan Wagner and Silke Scheuermann, were formally accomplished, subtle and had deliciously observed images. To their detractors, they were dry, dull and lacking in spirit. Those same people praised the Czechs’ heart-felt, spirited and musical poetry, while others felt embarrassed at what they saw as the Czechs’ showmanship (two accompanied themselves on instruments) and the – in some cases – archaic, rural or fairy-tale influences. It wasn’t long before the lack of mutual appreciation was blamed on the translators, one set of literature’s favourite whipping boys.
So do national boundaries determine how authors write? I don’t think so. I am absolutely certain that the Czech Republic has its fair share of poets who write in a way nearer to Jan Wagner than to the melancholy Radek Maly. Yet they were not chosen by the Czech shortlisting jury, and are perhaps not as acclaimed as they would be if writing in a German-language country. Similarly, several literate Germans in the audience preferred most of the Czech poets unequivocally, which may make them guilty of bad taste in Germany. The young German poet Nora Bossong, in spite of her origins in Bremen, certainly had a quality of emotion that put her nearer to some of the Czech poetry. Let’s hope German critics don’t put obstacles in her path.
To return to the comparison with music: whether or not samba is "our kind of music", we are not likely to begrudge it its existence. We love the abundance of musical styles and tastes.
So with all this regional and national variety in music, is it surprising that as far as literature goes, we are often only vaguely conscious of national or regional preferences? Instead we prefer to think in (valid) global terms which reflect changes in philosophy and the history of ideas, such as naturalism, surrealism or post-modernism. No-one wants to return to nationalistic posturing and all-embracing generalisations, but can we ignore deep-seated cultural differences if we really want to be open to culture from all over the world?
If translation is indeed a literary art, then like all literature it must surely, as the author Andreas Maier said of literature, "begin at the point where the author has thrown overboard everything that he wants and especially his extra-textual predilections for this or that." This kind of translation may not receive immediate recognition, but it could eventually widen people’s taste and prove less flimsy or quickly obsolete than translations that have been smoothed out to appeal to the currently dominant taste of the target audience. Translation needs to be headstrong enough to influence our literature. As readers let’s try out literature as foreign as the music we like and food we eat.