Thursday, 8 May 2014

To Boston, USA:
despairs about translation

Tomorrow the long journey to Boston MA. From here to Cambridge to Kings Cross, to Paddington, to Heathrow 5, then seven hours on the plane, arriving at 6:50 local time. It's a lunchtime event on Saturday, with László Krasznahorkai, James Wood and I doing some reading then talking. For once I am not appearing entirely as LK's translator but as myself, to some extent at any rate, which is one of the reasons I agreed to go.

LK's other translator Ottilie Mulzet has just won the same prize as I did last year, with the same author, the Best Translated Book Award, so he is well provided for. I don't think it has happened before that the same author has won it two years running with two different translators. It shows the remarkable - and fully deserved - rise in his reputation. His first books in English were praised by Sontag and Sebald and indeed in reviews generally, but the reviews were small then. Now they are long and rhapsodic.

It's a strange feeling being part of this. I have never really thought of myself as a translator, not quite. I was a writer who did some translation, a little like Tim Parks perhaps, or Jamie McKendrick, or maybe Michael Hofmann. But then Tim gave it up, and Michael was, so it seems at least, overtaken by it, and while Jamie persists and I have so far persisted I still feel it is my left hand translating and my right hand doing the writing. I am after all right handed. It's what feels natural.

And besides I have never felt that I was so overwhelmingly good at it. Not as good as the work could possibly be. I could make some texts sing, others remained oddly inert. I got some things wrong, never the important things, but this or that minor detail, which remains annoying to this day.In any case I seem to have translated at least thirteen works of fiction, a few volumes of individual Hungarian poets, and edited and contributed to a number of anthologies. I have thought about translation, and even written about it. I think I understand it as a psychological process, and maybe now and then had the odd original sounding thought about it. At best, the singing was worth it.

But translation isn't my métier. It is something I have done. All the fiction except one book was commissioned. I just had to say yes and I am better at saying yes than saying no. There have been some tight scrapes on deadlines because I had been prevailed on to translate two books more or less concurrently.

Now here am I at sixty-five thinking about my future. I am committed to one more book of prose to translate, maybe one other. But this creative form of ventriloquism, this being another voice, is a weight on the spirit.

Maybe it is a poet's vanity, a form of egotism. I don't desire to be someone else's instrument. Not for much longer. I am the only instrument I really have and I want to see what it can do. I want to devote myself to it. If it fails, if it is a weaker instrument than I still hope it might be, it is nonetheless mine. It's fully my responsibility. It's not nothing.

So I shall read a few poems in Boston, mostly about Europe and language, and some about translation too, about its enigmas and its stiltstalking servility. No stilts though. Stand on your own feet.

I will, I was glad to discover, stay at The Eliot Hotel. It will mean that weary nod to Rochefoucauld. But let Aunt Harriet fetch her own Boston Evening Transcript.


JRSM said...

All I can do is thank you for the work you do on both sides: I've discovered a number of wonderful books through your translations, and because of this I went on to your poetry, which was another wonderful discovery.

marly youmans said...

Well, my husband will be in the city, but not me! Should have liked to have caught a glimpse... Travel safely.

And yes, take care of your time and the gift you were given.


Strength to both your hands that have given us plenty to be rapturous about.

Gwil W said...

What an exhausting journey. You'll be ready for a nice cup of tea when you get back.

George S said...

Thank you very much indeed. All packed and ready to walk down to the station in about 25 minutes. The blogpost is a bit grumpy perhaps, but I never set out to be a translator. It can feel like a coat you can't take off. Except of course you do.