Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ska predecessor, Slim Smith / Influence

from You Tube Slim Smith died aged just 25 years. In his short recording career he made over 150 recordings, either as a solo artist or as a member of The Techniques or The Uniques.

One of the most soulful and accomplished singers of Jamaica's ska, rocksteady, and early reggae eras, Slim Smith found his biggest success from 1965 until his premature death at age 25 in 1973.

Although according to various reports stating he had a troubled and unstable life, Smith will best be remembered for his stunning contributions to reggae's vocal tradition.

Sweet, melancholy, just a touch dangerous with that seductive reggae beat, soon to become so pervasive and, eventually, reconciling.


I am a day late because of late night and exhaustion. Yesterday morning the discussion on influence continued, this time by way of translation.

We are far from firm ground here (we never are quite on firm ground) and this time we drift on currents of binaries: grammatical translation versus Borgesian form and narrative trance; the power-struggle between living author and translator; the notion of an ideal or divine translation versus a faulty human version; the notion of the work and its reworking; the rewards (the international literary prizes) for the work in translation and how far credit is divided between author, without whom no translation, and translator, without whom no prize.

We move on to the idea of influence in retrospect, influence as distilled and assimilated so it no longer smells of influence. Learning here is presented as a long term process of assimilation. But borrowing, particularly of structure is permitted, even helpful. So, for example the structure and premise of Robinson Crusoe can not only buttress but give birth to a new work. So Joyce on Homer, etc. The ghost walk on a set pattern but in a different place. The literary model. Jean Rhys developing Charlotte Brontë. etc.

Translation leads on to the question of World Literature (you can have that with capital W and L or without). After all, if translated works, or even works in other languages that the writer might know, can provide structures, there must be an assumption that certain works travel. Very well - some may travel productively, some may travel unproductively, meaning they produce no borrowings. And are genres international? Are there families of the imagination? Do the terms Gothic or SciFi or Romance or Bildungsroman or Chick Lit mean something across cultures or is that simply a case of globalised culture, or even, perhaps - shudder - colonial culture? (Being a Hungarian by birth I grow slowly immune to talk of colonialism and post-colonialism. I know what these terms mean and understand the issue for countries that were formally and formerly colonies, but I rather long to grasp what lies beneath an experience that isn't identifiably mine and cannot be the only game in town).

Much the most interesting part of the morning is the quandary posed by our Japanese author, who wants to address the meaning of the recent tsunami but finds there are too many facets of the disaster. There are only fragments and missing pieces and people trying to hold life together (the doctor compiling his dialect dictionary). What to make of the old survivor who says many more eminent people than he have been lost, then weeps. And to address his bewilderment our speaker pulls out a Szymborska poem in English translation and reads it, saying how it reminds him of an ancient Japanese poem that he recites. World literature (lower case) in action. He himself had produced a reading list for potential writers collecting writings from many different languages available in Japanese translation. The equivalent of Sir John Lubbock's 100 books. The Big Book of Lists. These we have loved. Read this and learn. And of course we do learn, not just the books but their choosing and their chooser. We are that smart. We are that lost.

And lastly the translator's word on Japanese, on the enormous cultural differences in value and form, differences that seem unbridgeable but that may be bridged, because they clearly are in practice. Occasionally. Not quite as either shore might imagine, but a bridge al the same, something to stand on and even walk across, even if only part of the way, to smell the far shore and see people moving on its banks.

Under it all the question of gender runs. Under it all desire of oblivion runs. But then this is not oblivion but the world of the imagination in writing. Auditory imagination. This is it, nor, as Mephistopheles put it, are we out of it.

The metaphor that is slowly simmering in my mind is something to do with soup. We are in that too.

Sweet, gently rocking Slim Smith could see us out before he sees himself out.

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