Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Schizophrenia of Translation

I've been holed up in my study for the past few days, translating some modern poems written in a Cajun French dialect into English. (260,000 people still speak French in the Cajun regions of Louisiana; the spoken language is quite harshly accented, a cross between the deep southern drawl of New Orleans and the sort of twang you'd hear from a rural French speaker in the hills above Marseille.) I'm just picking at the poems for now, waiting to hear back from the poet himself, but also trying my hand at some Jacques Prevert to get into the swing of translating, a poet whose work I've known for years and who is so frequently translated, it would be hard to find a poem of his which does not have an English version somewhere in the world for help and verification.

It's surprising though how quickly translation works its magic. The poet I'm translating was influenced by Ginsberg and the Beat generation, and I'm already feeling inspired to loosen my rhythms, stride out from the hip more, train myself to think politically. But not all effects are that benign. Translation does odd things to your head; from the very beginning, it forces you to engage with another's mind, with their 'voice'; it makes you critical of their choices where those choices conflict with ones you might have made or will need to make in the act of translating; it becomes a gradually increasing influence over your own work until the moment arrives when, deep in the Other's poem, the boundaries between you begin to shift and blur, and you cease to be sure where their voice ends and yours begins.

Then you have to reject their influence and pull away, recentring yourself as a writer. Who am I? Why do I write? What do I write?

Personal anecdotes, occasionally, on this blog.

I needed my keys this morning and, remembering that I had left them in my coat pocket last night, I went hunting for my coat. One of my three year old twin sons, Dylan, watched me in silence. After twenty minutes of fruitless searching, I shared with him my bitter suspicion that his elder sister had worn my coat to school.

Dylan suggested it might be in the car. I put my boots on and went outside to check. When I came back, still empty-handed, he was smiling. 'What's so funny?' I asked.

He smiled again and his eyes slid sideways to the washing-machine. Inside, I could see my coat and hat, squashed up against the glass door along with the damp washing. The little scamp!

No comments: