Achieving anonymity

Alastair Reed: breaking barriers.

Alastair Reed: breaking barriers.  

And it was at that age...poetry arrived

in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where

it came from, from winter or a river.

I don't know how or when,

no, they were not voices, they were not

words, not silence,

but from a street it called me,

from the branches of night,

abruptly from the others, among raging fires

or returning alone,

there it was, without a face,

and it touched me.

YOU have long known these lines by heart, repeated them under your breath in sheer rapture. They called you abruptly, under branch-charmed stars, and touched you. They had led you into writing, which perforates darkness, unfastens the heavens, until your heart breaks loose with the wind. You are in the magical, real universe of Latin American literature.

Lost in the rhythm of the verse, you are hardly conscious that it was first expressed in Spanish. Then one day, you attend a session at the Provocations Bookcase, organised by the British Council, at the once-in-two-years Edinburgh Book Festival in Scotland (August 2002). You come face to face with the man who had Englished the haunting poems of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Borges: Alastair Reid, to whom Neruda had once said, "I don't want you to translate my poems, I want you to improve them."

Maverick Reid has gathered his moss in rolling through many parts of the world, from teeming metros to villages without electricity. A staff writer for The New Yorker, he has authored works of prose and poetry. He may be best remembered for his immaculate translations.

The Bookcase had featured a host of writers, celebrated and upcoming, who talked, debated, exchanged ideas with fellow writers and interviewers, read from works just published or in progress. With some, like Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting, Porno) or Alan Bisset (Boyracers, Damaged Land), you prayed for a miracle to make sense out of the soundtrack of lush accents. Many more read stuff confined to backyards and blind alleys, limited in space and time. Monocultural. A Jim Crace tried to transcend the attrition by making up vast epics out of his own head. Interesting, but sans the plenitude that accrues from centuries of marination in the collective unconscious.

Alastair Reid freed you to breathe in the fresh air again through the alchemy of translations, and his own work influenced by languages, countries and cultures more open and virile.

Growing up in village Scotland, little Alastair had been alarmed by the "black cloud of Calvin" smothering all joy, sunshine, spontaneity. He noted contradictions between the beauty and bounty of the natural world and the obsessive frigidity of the human. A tantalising childhood image was of nomad tinkers who came trailing families and children, and disappeared as suddenly beyond the horizon. An uncle from Australia brought tales and pictures of palm trees, beaches. That was the beginning of the fascination for the unknown which was to lead him into geographic, linguistic and literary explorations. The boy had discovered that he could escape asphyxiation.

After the talk, finding Reid in a quiet corner of the lawn, basking in the Edinburgh sun, you ask, "Do you mind the anonymity of translation, a labour demanding more resources and discipline than creative writing?" At once the post-prandial drowsiness is replaced by energy. "Anonymity is the highest achievement for a translator. His greatest success is in remaining unnoticed," he says. "Why should someone tug at your sleeve and say this wasn't written in this language, it has been forced into it?" The artistry lies in metamorphosing the original into a form and linguistic style that seems natural to it in the new tongue. "Every translation I do depends much more on my command of English than my command of Spanish."

How did a boy belonging to monolingual Britain get interested in a foreign language? "Actually, the Scots are bilingual. As children we spoke our dialect in the playground, but when we crossed the threshold of the classroom we knew we had to speak English, the language of the master race. A Scots word in class brought sniggers. Speaking English was `speaking proper', implying that what we spoke naturally was improper. You have the same situation in India, that is why you are such good writers. The way to success is to learn the language of the master race and speak it better than they do."

We digress here as Reid identifies Vikram Seth and Salman Rushdie as his favourite Indian writers, adding mischievously, "NOT Ved Mehta! I knew Ved only too well, I admire him more than his writing."

A major reason for plunging into Spanish was psychological. Reid discovered that the language of Calvin was only one out of many. Spanish had an emotional abundance, which brought relief and release to the suppressed spirit. "If I get angry in English I get icy, tall and thin. If I get angry in Spanish I spray words around the room with my arms wide open, gesticulating furiously. Liberating!"

I ask, then how do you get all the flailing about into the icy tongue?

"That's the challenge. You have to adapt psychological modes into the language where they don't fit exactly. That's where the ingenuity of translation comes in."

But does English accommodate them?

He flashes back, "Yes of course. It just means that the English don't use their language that way. But translators can!"

I quote Mario Vargas Llosa: "The works of our great writers is a splendid display of fireworks in which every idea marches past, preceded and surrounded by a sumptuous court of servants, suitors and pages, whose function is purely decorative... (where) colour, temperature and music... express a way of being in which the emotional and concrete prevail over the intellectual and the abstract." How can cool, phlegmatic English evoke such flamboyance?

"Mario and I have talked about this many times. I disagree with him. We always speak in Spanish because I went past the point of speaking correctly to speak it humanly and naturally. You have to learn another language by reading the great writers. Mario admired French writers more. His English is too proper and rational."

Reid believes that the more languages you learn, the greater your felicity with your mother tongue. But it is no use to enter another language merely by way of market and kitchen, and be stranded on the plateau of daily needs. "Living in another language means growing another self. The Spanish I was acquiring was as devoid of context as that of a young child, for I had no past in that language." So he immersed himself in Spanish literature. Reid could not have imagined then, that Neruda would hold a birthday party in his houseboat on the Thames, or that Jorge Borges would be his houseguest in Edinburgh.

Soon Reid found that what had begun as a linguistic exercise had become an addiction. At 71 he is as excited about translating a newcomer's work (Ignacio Padilla, Antipodes), as he had been when he made his own debut. (He continues to be wary of Italo Calvino, explaining that they are on different wavelengths, but you suspect that it is the similarity of the Italian master's name to the dreaded Calvin of Reid's childhood!)

Translation taught him the importance of aural dimensions in language. "In poetry you can never reproduce the sound pattern of the original but you can mimic it, create a simulacrum where you retain the sound analogy to the original. In other words, you make the same thing happen which happens when you read the original." He internalised the voices of Borges and Neruda (who taped poetry readings for Reid) as his best guides. "Prose is easier...," he pauses and adds, "No, it is never easy, never perfect, you will never get there, yet you can't stop trying."

Every translator wants to do the definitive translation. But, unlike the original, translation, must be continually updated. Reid agrees but points out that the status of translators is improving the world over. It is no longer a niche but a ubiquitous activity, with better payment and recognition. Quite a change from his memories of old days in a Mexican publishing house which had relays of translators for the same book — one from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., followed by the next man from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.! With the emergence of exciting books in many languages the translator becomes important. Best sellers are translated more quickly. "We are breaking barriers. Isn't that true of India too?"

You agree but add that the quality is variable. "It will get better," says Reid. "You need emotion. I've never read a book with more intensity than the book I translate. You have to know everything, go behind the text and see how it works inside."

There are constant surprises. Once Reid found himself spending an evening talking to the Chinese translator of Neruda "in Spanish, not in our mother tongues. Through Neruda's poetry, we were submerging ourselves in a third language."

Once Reid wrote, "however well a foreigner adapts himself to a place and its inhabitants, there is a line that he can never cross, a line of belonging. He will always lack a past and a childhood, which are really what is meant by roots." Are there moments when he feels lonely because of falling between two languages? Alienated from his own but not quite arrived in the adopted land?

"Limbo!" he laughs. "These are the most exciting moments, as though you have crept to the very edge. There is nothing concrete below, it is all coming up in smoke, you are breathing in that smoke and it has to come out in linguistic form."

Since all writing is translation of primal experience beyond words, both translator and writer are essentially involved in the same business of making sense out of the mystery of language, a process of self-discovery. There is a difference though. You may need the divine spark to be a writer. But, as Alastair Reid sees it, "To be a successful translator you have to be either a saint or a fool, ideally — a saintly fool."

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