Monday, 27 July 2015

BCLT Summer School:
Translating Poetry 1

BCLT is the British Centre of Literary Translation as founded at the University of East Anglia by W G (Max) Sebald in 1989. The Summer School, as the name implies, is an annual event, a week in which writers, translators and those wishing to be translators gather together. Each year particular languages are chosen for particular attention with a writer from each. This year's languages are Dutch, German, Italian, Korean  and Norwegian. The writers bring a recent book or a book in preparation, and an experienced translator (generally the writer's usual translator, if there is a usual translator) then sets to work with the students to examine and translate a few pages of the book.

My own role this year (I used to be on the board of trustees of the BCLT) was not unlike my role on two previous occasions, that being to work with those whose are not part of any of the given language groups and to devise a week's worth of useful and rewarding activity for them. On previous occasions the students were translating poems from English into their own languages, such as Czech, Polish, Hebrew, Russian etc. Now it is reversed. They are - five of them in all - translating from a foreign language into English, those languages being Bengali, Japanese, French, Italian and Spanish. We can't simply do what the set language groups are doing because everyone is from different languages and because I don't really speak any of them (except some French). Nor do they all speak each other's languages. Our procedures must be quite different from the collective efforts of those all working in the same language and concentrating on the same text.

There is a similar multilingual group for prose. I am not sure what they are doing but it would be interesting to find out.


The last time I did this was a few years ago so this year required some rethinking. This turned out to be the rubric that went out to them before they arrived.
Should poetry in translation be rendered as poetry and, if so, what are the essential aspects of the poetry we are trying to translate? Can we  divorce some elements of a poem from others in order to focus on the essential? Is there an essential at all? If poetry is, as Robert Frost claimed, what is lost in the translation, what do we sacrifice - or gain - by attempting it?
Since this group is translating from a variety of languages we will need some common touchstones where we already possess a range of possibilities. For that reason we will look at variant translations from Psalm 23 in the Bible; at Catullus, Carmine 5 (the 5 versions given in The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation), and two version of Paul Celan’s famous ‘Death Fugue’, as translated by Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner.
Students should bring with them a few poems they are looking to translate, a literal version of two of them, complete with their own notes on the nature and difficulties of the texts.

I said "a few poems" there. I suggested five in the end, not because we would succeed in translating all of them but because it is good to have options

The poems mentioned in the rubric formed part 1 of a pack they received on their first meeting this morning, and also included a short poem in Hungarian by Zsuzsa Rakovszky, complete with a basic glossary and some notes on background, style and so forth.

Part 2 comprises my own translation games: 7 versions of Mandelstam's Voronezh, 16 variations on an Akhmatova couplet, an invented short poem by Paul Celan in the form of two imagined translations (one by Hamburger, one by Felstiner) and, at the end, three variations of Apollinaire's Les Fenêtres. Part 2 is for later.


The first two sessions, both today, are given over to exploration of the territory.

So the starting point is poetry is itself. People introduce themselves, talk about their encounters with poetry and with translation, both writing and reading. Why have they chosen poetry? What is it they have chosen? What makes people write it? Is the prompt something simple or is it a complex of prompts acting together? How do they recognise the approach of a potential poem? What kind of feeling is it?

Then on to the essential characteristics of poetry. There is the association with music and dance, the idea of lines and sentences, the sense of economy and compression, the uses of ambiguity, the idea of form as set or invented or discarded, the whole idea of interpretation.

I want to focus on two of those main issues out of which arise many more. The first is the idea of meaning, the second the uses and qualities of formality.

For meaning I offer them William Blake's The Sick Rose and we look for levels of interpretation. Then we examine seven versions of Psalm 23, beginning with the King James bible. We think of still waters, quiet waters, cool waters, peaceful water, of streams, of waters of repose. We think of the valley of the shadow of death and what happens when the valley vanishes, or when death becomes simply a figure, or when the valley is merely gloomy (all these are in the variants). We consider that Bible in English is itself a translation. We think of the idea of sacred text, of text as theology, of text as tradition and so forth.

In the second session we read Catullus Carmine V in Latin then consider the translations, all pretty well contemporaneous: Campion's (1601), Corkine's (1612), Jonson's (1607), Chatwin's (c1685) and Langhorne's (c 1778). All rhyme when Catullus doesn't. All employ standard English iambics, some pentametric, some tetrametric, some in quatrains. Almost all of them edit the Catullus and take considerable liberty with it. Was it because everyone educated was supposed to know the Latin anyway? And if they take all these liberties are they translations at all? What are they? What are some of the other terms we might used to describe the spectrum of activities called, broadly, translation, for example version, imitation, adaptation, interpretation? Are these sufficient? What obligation do we have to various kinds of text? And what does the obligation to fidelity mean?

Big questions leading to ever more questions. We end the day by comparing the two Todesfuge translations. This poem too has an almost sacred status now. What do Hamburger and Felstiner's versions have in common and in what do they differ? Felstiner uses ever more German in his version? Why would one wish to retain some German in a translation into English? Celan's is all in the same language?

Today was dedicated to the questions. The deepest questions are those that ask (a) what is a poem, and (b) what is a translation? The answers I received are themselves interesting and lead to more questions so this brief summing up is something of a crude sketch.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Greece and Europe

In view of a brief exchange about the loss of idealism in Europe, I want to clear my own relatively uninformed and inexpert mind a little.

 As I understand it the EU consists of three ideas in no particular order of importance:

An arrangement that ensures European powers do not go to war with each other which entails agreement over certain core principles and methods involving representation. Core agreements mean little in law unless they are codified. The various countries of Europe are free to apply to be a member of this union. Once in it they are required to comply.

The sense of this in an ever more globalised world is that Europe may act on a more equal footing with the great continental powers of China, Russia, the United States, and, in due course, India, part of South America and the countries of what used to be colonies in Africa and Asia. It also implies a care for the general wealth and well-being of the people of its member states.

The Common Market and all that that involves including lifting of trade barriers, some pooling of resources which includes financial resources in institutions such as banks and funds. The pooling of those financial resources have led to developments in banking (not in Europe alone) and the establishment of a common currency (in parts of Europe).

People talk about idealism and about betrayal. My own idealism, or rather hope, is entirely invested in (1). It assumes a sharing of most political and cultural values as well as a belief in the best Europe has to offer in those fields, meaning government by some form of democratic representative consensus and agreement on certain values combining the best of the Enlightenment, though not The Enlightenment alone, but any major cultural work embodying the range of European streams of thought and feeling including all that have continually entered and refreshed Europe while remaining within the scope of Europe and continue to do so

As to (2) I assume some of it is necessary to achieve (1) not only in constitutional and cultural but also in security terms.

I am in no position to understand (3) except in terms of certain values implicit in (1) and, to a lesser extent in (2). Neither (2) nor (3) is an object of idealism.


As concerns Greece, the causes of the current crisis seem to be to be complex but the effects are simple enough.  Causes, as I read,

On Greece's part: a long history of corruption since the Colonels in 1970; a long history of tax evasion; extremely generous, possibly unrealistic social packages for people in certain important sections of society; deception about Greece's financial situation at the point of joining the Euro (or was it the EU itself?); over-dependence on one or two key industries.

On the EU's financial part: As with all the banks in the western sphere, the encouragement of endless credit, an encouragement based on an economic model that has been shown to be irresponsible and divisive; the encouragement of the same debt to the advantage of some individuals, corporations and possibly states at the expense of others, certainly at the expense of people outside the corridors and levers of power

Effects are simple. Mass unemployment, danger of financial collapse, sense of helplessness and resentment in Greek people whose responsibility for the condition of the Greek economy is pretty minimal. Like many other people in Europe, the US and other places, they did as the bank advised and spent and borrowed. (I lost count of the number of leaflets we received from the banks exhorting us to borrow more.)

The situation is generally presented as Germany versus Greece, but Germany isn't alone in its demands: Finland, Holland and the Baltic states and others are just as pressing. Some have already undergone spells of severe austerity (more severe than in the UK).They have, as cliché has it,  "tightened belts" and don't see why the Greeks should get away with less.

Except Greeks haven't got away with less. They are in a horrible mess with no hope of repaying what is required of them, and the interest mounts.


If we take the most favourable view of the EU, in view of the record so far, it is not surprising that it is reluctant to take the word of Greek governments without some proof. There is also the fear of setting a precedent that could bring the whole house down some time.

I can't take a favourable view of the activities of the banks or the models on which they have operated because I can't see one. The principle of the virtuous circle whereby debt means spending means consumption means production means employment means investment means borrowing means more debt etc. was brought crashing down in 2008. Promises are just promises and money is just money in the end but  the ever more concentrated ownership of real estate, of resources, of means of production, of art objects-as-investment and the creaming off of vast profits at the exchange point are levers of real despotic power, however subtly phrased or sold.

I am very sympathetic to a Marxist reading of history and to its analysis of economic interests at any time but it seems fairly obvious that socialism and its fair-weather-friend, social liberalism, is on the retreat pretty well everywhere and most people, for now, feel they have to live with things as they are. There is no great revolutionary mood, or at least, not a coherent one, nor an ideology with a programme.

It will be interesting to see how Jeremy Corbyn fares in the Labour leadership election. It will be interesting to see how far the SNP represents a left-leaning body of ideas beyond its nationalism.

In the meantime the desperation and hopelessness of Greeks is a terrible lesson in something we are only just learning.

Europe isn't idealism. It is the sum of what we are and have been.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Poetry as Protest
Positive Action and Negative Capability

These are some reflections on the event in which I took part at Ledbury Poetry Festival yesterday. It was the event for which I had originally been booked but owing to various cancellations by other people I found myself in three others: a reading with Chris McCabe and Jo Bell on Friday, a celebration of Maya Angelou on Saturday, and a dialogue with Maddy Paxman about her late husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, on Sunday, right before the protest discussion.

The invitation came about because I had written the introduction to the anthology, Catechism, in support of Pussy Riot (the first link is to this blog where I reprinted it, the second to the English PEN site, the book being downloadable as an e-book here), and a much more recent invitation from PEN to write a short piece about Protest as Dance.

The discussion involved Ursula Owen, Jo Glanville, Josh Ekroy (a late stand in for Sabrina Mahfouz - it was a tough year for late cancellations at Ledbury)

I don't want to rerun the discussion which was very well attended and meticulously prepared by Ursula who asked questions to which Jo, Josh, and myself provided answers as best we could. The central questions were whether there was such a thing as protest poetry (it being mostly assumed there was), whether we as poets felt an obligation to write it, whether poetry was effective as protest, what the subjects of protest poetry might be, what it might mean to write it in a society like ours (in my case in Hungary too) and whether there was solidarity among poets.

My most positive thoughts on the subject are in the Protest as Dance article above which values wit above slogans, grace above rage, and irony over polemic. My doubts, beyond that, are as follows, always accompanied by an on the other hand.

My first doubt concerns the Keatsian imperative about despising poetry that has a palpable design on us. That seems to me less poetry than an advertising of one's views. As I understand poetry it is a series of improvisations that discovers its complex of feelings from a certain instinctively known base. It doesn't exploit language or pretend to know everything: it moves and dances with words in the hope of discovery. On the other hand there is a brilliant history of satirical poems, some delicate, some savage, some both that clearly do have a target. The distinction then is not in the intent to articulate or attack a view but in the extra the verse does: in the nimbleness and surprise of its development. The poem is not a strategy: it is grace and wit in martial action. We have examples of it from Juvenal, through Pope and Swift and Shelley, well into the 20th century and beyond.

My second doubt concerns distance. There seems, occasionally, something almost disrespectful about writing protest poetry about those whose fate we may find difficult genuinely to comprehend, let alone share. We do, of course, have empathy, but apart from actually doing something - one would give water to a thirsty person - how far can we appropriate that person's thirst as an aspect of our imagination. Grub before ethics, as Brecht once said. On the other hand there is no easy answer to this, none at all: one has an imagination, one has feelings of empathy, what to do with them? One is a writer, therefore one writes. Perhaps one just has to be careful, to be a little humble about one's capacities and powers. There is little worse than someone bragging about their great heart. But that may  be my own squeamishness speaking.

My third doubt springs from the second and concerns risk. Few of us in the west risk anything by writing a poem about anything. That can relax us and make us intellectually flabby. We can make grand gestures but the police are not going to take us away. Frankly, we don't matter that much. We present no danger. You can publish the most scabrous cartoons against the government and the ministers will simply collect them as souvenirs. There was in the seventies, eighties and nineties - I have written this before - an almost tangible desire to live under tyranny if only so we might matter, so our poems might develop a moral edge sharp as a razor blade. We could write poems about say, Bosnia, but sending money was more useful. On the other hand we could both send money and write poems and if enough of us wrote poems, enough good poems, we might at least register the fact that some people - some artists - opposed whatever horror happened to be at hand at the time (no shortage of those).

My fourth doubt is about preaching to the converted. There is always a great danger of the good agreeing among themselves that they are in fact the good, and that anyone thinking anything slightly  different must be in league with the devil. (How can you possibly think that!?!) There is a party line in goodness and a poet should be against all party lines, even his or her own. In any case, the trouble is that 'the devil' thinks exactly the same and considers the other party the devil. ISIS has its poetry, as did the Nazis, the Stalins, the Pol Pots, the Francos, and the rest. As does the person who may share some but not all opinions with us. Poetry, like music, like art, does not invariably take the 'good' side.  Metaphor and ambiguity are at the heart of poetry. On the other hand there have been historical moments when a poem could trigger something, or at least encourage. There are the great anthems, the signature songs of movements, the songs sung by demonstrators and battalions (not necessarily our battalions). Poetry, in the sense of 'the poetic' is always needed: it is what makes life worth living, but the acute need can produce the real poem. When you have no shoes you need poems, said the Hungarian poet István Vas. Once you have shoes the poems seem less important.

That is enough doubt for now. I could go on but this much is worth saying. The pure Keatsian is full of negative capability, is always in doubt, but the world is not always Keatsian.

In the course of the discussion Josh and I were asked to read one of our relevant poems. The poems we read are now up on the PEN wall and can be read here. Josh's poem dances and is witty. It doesn't bully its readers nor does it assure them what splendid and heroic fellows they all are. I like it very much as a poem even before I like it as an opinion. My own poem, Cargo, imagines drowning, drowning without trace or significance. I think I can imagine that. Is it a protest poem? I doubt it would be chanted at the head of a procession.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Free gigs, delights, running for trains

Brief reading for the anthology, Happiness: The Delight-Tree, produced the UN and World Heart Beat Music Academy, edited by  Bhikshuini Weisbrot, Darrel Alejandro Holnes and Elizabeth Lara.

Lovely event in the Academy which is situated in an old office building in Wandsworth, I share the readings with Mumamad Tawfiq Ali, Shirin Razavian, Gernot Blume (who plays the harp as well as writes), Shazea Quraishi and Greta Stoddart. There is also a choir of tiny children, all girls, who sing two short songs, one composed by two of them. The tiniest one, eyes shining, enthusiastically claps along with the audience when they end. Unfortunately I can't stay for Shirin, Shazea and Greta, and miss half the programme as I have to catch the last train back from King's Cross at 9:45.

It's delightful and a little mad. I read three of my poems on behalf of Hungary. I hope Hungary is duly grateful (Greta is England). Greta has come in from Devon, Gernot from Bingen in Germany. They are staying overnight in London: I have to return as I am doing a phone interview today, a concert tomorrow and Ledbury the rest of the time till Sunday night. My trip from Norfolk is about three and a half hours each way, so that's seven hours travel in all. Like everyone else I am doing this for free, without even travel expenses. My reading is seven minutes long. It's easily the hottest day of the year,

When I go, Sahana Gero - the artistic director of the academy - kindly drives me to the nearest tube, Southfields, so I should have an hour and twenty to make my train (55 minutes allowed by TFL). Unfortunately there are signal problems and the District Line crawls all the way to Earl's Court. Then the Piccadilly Line has a long delay at one of the stations to 'even out the timetable". At King's Cross the train is boarding on Platform 0. I run like mad to catch it and am relieved to find a seat. My lungs are bursting. I remember I am getting on towards sixty-seven and have diabetes 2. I have to stop a couple of times as I run which adds to the anxiety.

This is all a little crazy. I am more than a little crazy. I am downright stupid. I say to myself: I bet Carol Ann Duffy doesn't do this. I bet Don Paterson doesn't. I am willing to bet Simon Armitage doesn't either. This is not how pensioners behave. I might be wrong: perhaps even now, as I write, CAD is running to do a small spot on a free gig, paying her own fare, on her Laureate circuit. On the other hand Gernot, Greta, and Muhamad have traveled a good distance too - Gernot far further.

Was it worth it? The mindset I was born into is one that is always flattered to be invited anywhere and the idea of helping something good happen, even in the insignificant way of turning up to do a brief reading, is an enticement. Yes, is my middle name. But its hair is thinning and its lungs are not what they were.

Perhaps the gods will take that into account when the lungs, or something else, finally collapses 'No, sod off,' they will say. 'That too is vanity and self-flattery'.

Would the event have missed me anyway? I doubt it. I think I read well and the audience seemed enthusiastic enough. Maybe that's the reward, to think of it as seven hours and seven minutes well spent.

But this is thinking very loud indeed.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Worlds Literature Festival 2015:
5 Putting the octopus back in the suitcase

Travels with my octopus

The last provocations, on Friday were by the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, and the British publisher, David Graham.

Elif Shafak’s provocation followed on from Sigitas’s in that it concerned political responsibility.  Politcs shouts: art whispers, she said, but where words are banned they hang around longer. Everyone was a secret novelist - once they used to be secret poets - but publishing work critical of one’s nation - as Sigitas too had done - particularly publishing in the west, could make one hated. 

The three most dangerous things in Turkey, she argued, were guns, bombs and books. Islam respected the sacred book but did not always read it. Menstruating women were forbidden to touch it.  

According to Muslim belief each person had two angels on their shoulders: in other words each person had two books in them, one good, one bad. The act of writing was angelic but also regarded as an object of fear and suspicion. This amounted to a cognitive gap. Printing came late to the Islamic world, she continued, as late as the eighteenth century, but even then it could be controlled by the religious establishment. Oral literature could prosper but the written word was under controlled. This amounted to another cognitive gap. 

Milan Kundera regarded life under despotism as a tunnel that would somewhere have a light at the end of it, but in a state that was not quite despotic nor quite democratic either, the tunnel could go on for ever. From this point her provocation became a call for writers to become more active. Disengagement was a luxury we cannot afford, she said, oddly mirroring the formulation of the leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew who, some fifty years before, had declared that poetry was a luxury Singapore couldn’t afford. The task of writers was to add complexity to simplistic political narratives. They do this through stories and particularly novels because the novel form is bigger than, say, the poem, and can accommodate more. We don’t want analysis after the event, we want it during the event. This was a matter of urgency.

Anna wondered if having a reputation abroad protected the writer (I suppose she meant Orhan Pamuk, but can’t be sure of that). Elif replied that the Armenian genocide began with the killing of writers and that she herself received far more hate mail for tweeting in English than in Turkish. Kirsty Gunn (who had joined us) wondered whether novels ever did tell simple stories and remarked on the danger of identity politics. Deborah Smith said that in Korea it was the short story that was most popular and questioned the tyranny of the novel. Elif replied that the value of the novel lies in multiplicity, in its ability to voice nuances by deploying various voices. It was well fitted to question tabus. Some 40% of novels in Turkish bookshops, she told us, were western writers in translation. But distinctions between high and low culture were not worth making and, she added, the Turkish language had been purged of its ‘impurities’ a long time ago: nomadic language was perhaps more useful in resisting tabus. 

Susan Barker said it was very hard to tell the truth about politics in China and that international reputation was no protection. Dan wondered whether the tendency of modern communications, such as the tweet was not more effective. He point to Andrei Kurkov’s moves towards reportage and shorter fiction. Didn’t ISIS depend on very brief stories?  (GS: A recent article in the New Yorker on 8 June offered a long in-depth discussion of the uses and power of poetry in ISIS ideology). Kyoko noted certain resemblances between Turkey and Japan and was worried about the erosion of freedom of speech. Lucy emphasised the importance on non-fiction and the importance of history and journlism. Elif concluded by suggesting that we should all read each other’s genres, that we should elgage with politics. We should be world-citizens without being spokespersons.

After the battlecry and exhortation of Eli’s provocation David Graham’s overview of the publishing situation represented a considerable change in mood. Here the troops were generally in retreat and the central part of the battlefield was almost deserted.

The action was at the edges of the field. The big guns were at one end and the small rifles at the other. All the statistics showed a decline in the sales of literary books. The book trade as a whole still had a bigger share of the creative market than music and video games combined but this did not help literature where the mood was gloomy. The attention it got in the press was far greater than its share of the market justified. The bigger conglomerates needed to sell more commercial products so new and more experimental literature was being left on one side. 

This did not mean that the big publishers did not make a contribution it was just that they needed to maintain their balance sheets so an author who had not made a commercial impact after a couple of books would often be dropped from the list. It was the middle-sized publishers that were suffering financially. It was there the battlefield was being deserted. Sometimes they tried to make good by taking on non-literary authors such as Ricky Gervais or Harry Hill but these might not be enough. Author advances were being squeezed at both ends. Supermarkets dictated the terms under which they would stock a successful book and publishers could be sued if they were unprepared to supply extra copies when needed. 

The only growing part of the market was that developed by what David called micropublishers: Pushkin Press, Hesperus, And Other Stories, Salt, Peirene, Galley Beggar and so forth, though they worked on tiny margins and had to be very careful in judging their output, and if they did discover exciting authors those authors would quickly be snapped up by bigger publishers. It was a little like the case of small football clubs who become feeders for the big ones. All the same the small publishers were venturing into middle grouns and micropublishing was the future. Crowd funding or Kickstarting projects and community-building were important factors in success.

The questions were fewer here. Deborah S spoke of non-profit publishing. Lauren asked whether publishers might not shape taste as well as following it, but facts were facts. The micropresses were likely to remain feeders for the big ones so depended on the discovery of potentially major talents. In terms of reputation a micropress could develop its own reputation as well as that of some of its authors.

After my summing up, as in this text (bar the last salon) there were two terrific readings, by Susan Barker and Kirsty Gunn to end the day, then people drifted away to rest or to explore the city before the last meal of the symposium.


So when is a Birmingham Roller a burning umbrella? Was the octopus back in its suitcase? What does the proliferation of synonyms of reputation - fame, respect, recognition, success, prestige, stature, esteem, position, distinction, prominence. celebrity, stardom, importance, influence, brand - tell us

And what of value? What is it? How do we know it? How develop it? Achieve it? How do we arrive at the idea of it? Who are the we who arrive there or assess its possible arrival and achievement?  How far can we be sure of ourselves? On what grounds? How far can we persuade others and on what grounds? Are there common human qualities we can call on in respect of which we may assume common human consent? Does it matter that we should call on them? And what happens when we assume we shouldn’t?

A brief afterthought:


A man was tying his tongue into knots. It's so I don't forget to say the right thing, he said. Or tried to.
A little Cyrano might help us all. Part nose, part poetry, part swordsmanship. OK forget the swordsmanship. Forget the poetry. Keep the nose.
The grand rhetorical sweep. The oracular gesture. The big words putting their shoulders to the door. The bouncers letting them in.
A big hall crowded with people. A word creeps in on all fours and works its way between the feet, stands up, but can't speak.
If I say it, it will appear. If I add a verb, it will do as I say. If I add an adverb it will act in the best possible way. So it goes.
The octopus in the suitcase meets the squirrel in the secret garden. It is a day like any other. Now let's unpack the suitcase.

Here endeth the summing up of Worlds Literature Festival 2015. I have not given an account of the many excellent readings because to account for them all would be impossible and to select favourites invidious.

Worlds Literature Festival 2015:
4. Never never never never / Shame

After the Wednesday salon there was a two hour session on translation in which three authors appeared with their translators. 

The authors read a sentence or two in the original language then the translars read longer passages in translation. Each author was then invited to ask their translator three questions. 

This session was led by Erica Jarnes. The three writers - Geir Gulliksen, Han Kang and Sigitas Parulskis - write in quite different ways about quite different things. The translators were asked the normal but vital translation questions and each answered differently. Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang, argued that the translator should feed the text through her blood stream by accessing the experience described. Deborah Dawkin, who had just one week to translate a longish passage of Geir’s book about gender and sexuality thought it was the original text one should go back to time after time. Translation she said was like acting, a fascinating if unexplored idea. Romas insisted that the translator should know the full cultural and historical context, be utterly at home in both languages, and that translators never never never never improved original texts or, if there were mistakes in the text they should be left to the copy editor. (This concurs with Nabokov’s view of translators as mischievous and incompetent servants who think they know better than the genius writers they serve. Max Sebald too kept his eye closely on what his translators were up to.)

In the Salon on Thursday, Manta Sagar and Sigitas Parulskis gave the provocations.

Manta talked of India with its many languages of which her own, Kannada is one. One may make a name for oneself in one language alone, but that name may be extended by translation into other Indian languages. Being translated into, or writing in English made one available to an international public and offered the chance of international reputation. However, there were many complications such as religion, caste and gender. Reputation, she argued, was rooted in imagined memory, a memory that was exclusive and omitted anything it didn’t want to admit, particularly the writing of women and the Dalit (or Untouchables). Social and gender roles would be defined by ideals derived from sacred or mythological text, the Ramayana. Male roles were defined by Rama: female by Sita. If individuals departed from these models their reputations were ruined. The current government of India led by Modi emphasised the martial aspect of Rama and looked to very conservative interpretations of the Ramayana. The women’s movement had brought progress but the major roles were still all male (Bhavit argued that this was not the case now and that all the major festivals had equal numbers of men and women as well as Dalit writiers.)

Afterwards there were questions about women-only publishers. Manta didn’t like the idea of special spots for ‘women’ poets feeling that this meant they were expected to produce ‘women’s poetry’and be like the flowers at a reception. Indian writing should not be looking to package particular groups in specific ways but focus on diversity. India was after all a secular democratic nation. (Manta’s work is much translated but generally in workshops at festivals or universities.) There was talk of the tension between Hindu and Muslim and Manta mentioned but did not expand on the episode of the  Godhra train blaze. Marion Molteno argued that the increasing popularity of the ghazal verse form in Urdu was evidence of an essential anti-fundamentalism. Jon Morley wondered how far writing was a form of resistance. Someone else asked whether there were examples of writers forging a reputation in one language than forginga different one in another.

Sigitas’s provocation was read by his translator, Romas. It was the story behind his current book which is about the murder of Lithuanian Jews, as much by Lithuanians as by German Nazis. It was in the Imperial War Museum in London that he discovered how, in his own small home community of just over two thousand, over a thousand Jews were executed. No one had ever mentioned this or chose to remember it, partly because years of Soviet occupation had implanted the idea that it was the Germans alone who were the murderers and that the victims were not so much Jews as communists. This became a matter of “shameful knowledge” in Lithuania and for him too personally. Not even his mother - who had lived through it - believed that Lithuanians could do this. Sigitas went on to resist the idea that literature should by ideologically committed which was not surprising in view of years of ideologically committed  or controlled literature. There was no repentance in Lithuanian society, he said, only denial. How much time did it take for a corpse to become a historical corpse, he asked. We are, he said, parasites living on the corpses of the past. Lithuanians, he added, had certainly suffered but suffering can make you more cruel. There was a constant referring back to Christian belief in both Sigitas’s novel and his provocation. Religion was a form of resistance to the Soviets. It is deeply embedded in Lithuanian people. 

James asked whether the book was unusual for Sigitas. It was important to irritate yourself, Sigitas replied. Without irritation no literature. Erica wondered whether it was odd that he should be promoted by the state when he was writing something that questioned the narrative of the Lithuanian nation. The state did not determine culture, argued Rita Valiukonyte, the Cultural Attaché at the Lithuanian Embassy in London. Was the opposite view - a guiltless version - expressed in Lithuanian literature, asked Dan? There is an anti-Semitic spirit in Lithuania, said Sigitas, but it is not overt in literature. Jack Wang said his own book - about Vienna’s Kristallnacht - began at the opposite end, with a pride in saving Jews. What, asked Deborah Dawkin, was the effect, on both nation and writer, of the awareness that once a book like this was translated everyone outside would be invited to view the nation’s dirty washing. (I would have answered that the role of some Lithuanian people in the extermintations has long not been a secret and it was just that Lithuanian authors hadn’t referred to it). Sigitas replied that he gets panned for it and called a lot names. Kyoko made a very interesting remark at the end: We like to take the side of the victim, she said, but that makes it very hard for us to imagine ourselves as perpetrators, and went on to ask whether the obscenity referred to by Sigitas in his provocation consisted of the act itself or of the describing of it. It was the describing, said Sigitas, but it had to be done for didactic reasons.

What is it we indentify with in stories of atrocities elsewhere? In the case of Sigitas and Lithuania we were moved to hear that truth could be spoken in a place where previously there was concealment. But are we glad to hear such things only because they confirm our superiority? Would we have acted better than the Lithuanians? Perhaps the story should inspire us to tell truths about our own circumstances rather than feel too comfortable about our sympathies for distant victims.

Sigitass angle on reputation concerned the reputation of his own society, not so much in the outside world but at home. Reputation could be a lie. In Mamta’s case reputation was a social status you could lose, a repressive force. Was Creative Writing about the power of partially closed societies - such as universities, but also publishers perhaps - to make reputations that that flattered their own preferences and extended their own power?

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Worlds Literature Festival 2015:
3. Solitude and the racket

On Wednesday morning the attention turned, as it often does, to Creative Writing (henceforth CW for short) and its place in university. Did this relate directly to reputation or was it something quite separate, an intruder in our menagerie? Jon Cook quoted Malcolm Bradbury on the unlikelihood of transforming small talent to big talent more of establishing a significant climate within which writing in general might prosper.

D J (David) Taylor led the attack via Cyril Connolly’s 1938 book, Enemies of Promise. What Connolly - a “romantic, classicist, sensualist and anti-academic” in David’s words - offered us in his book was mostly a critical view and a personal memoir, but in the middle section of the same book, he examined factors militating against the production of great literature and the writing life proper: these included hack-work, political committment, escapism, the pressure of ‘promise’, sex, domesticity (the famous pram in the hall) and last, and possibly worst of all, success itself.

David invented a family, the Littlejohns, one member of which in an earlier generation wrote neglected books but survived by hackwork. A later, contemporary figure in the same family proceeded from a CW degree to book publication then returned to university to join what David called a racket wherein academics write for each other and lose contact with the greater public. He preferred the earlier generation if only because they did things in the real world, the academic world not being considered real.

Instead of asking questions at this stage, Jon Morley, in the chair, asked Vesna Goldsworthy to respond with her own provocation. Vesna talked of her early youth of writing poetry and of her parents’ determination that she should be a doctor. She studied Comparative Literature instead, but the study of it led her to write less and less as the course went on. Studying literature as a subject of criticism did not make one a writer, she said: vets don’t make jockeys. She referred to Hanif Kureishi’s contemptuous dismissal of CW while teaching it. There were the natural comparison with other Arts subjects such as music and visual art where no-one thought to question the idea of formal, institutional education. Was CW a vocational course that prepared you for the life of a wage-earning writer. Would it help you to succeed, to gain a reputation?” Or was it something else? Was the respectability of academic opinion actually one of the underwriters of reputation, I wondered. Vesna herself did not make too high a claim for institutions and shared a certain wreiterly wariness of them.

In the discussion afterwards Geir Gulliksen suggested that the best a CW course could do was to create good readers, and added that publishing - the field in which he worked - was also a kind of institution. Jonty Driver said he had heard that the Norwegian state bought a thousand copies of all literary books. True, said Geir, the state does intervene to save the literature that it recognizes as literature. Jack Wang has long experience of teaching CW and referred to an essay by Chad Harbach comparing the MFA culture of universities with the NYC culture of writing in a world of publishers. Neither was free of limiting considerations he said but at least the university allowed for experminet and the avant-garde. Ana Clavel talked of the problem of commercialisation in Mexico, Mamta Sagar of the tension between Comparative Literature and straight Literature Departments. James Shea remarked that CW was hardly new since there were ancient schools of haiku in Japan and China and that CW was currently expanding in China and Singapore. Anna Funder wondered how teaching might affect one’s writing while Erica said publishers (and she had worked in publishing) don’t really like CW.  This may be so, I thought, but if they really didn’t like it they wouldn’t be publishing as many graduates as they do.

Lauren K Alleyne commented that institutions bestowed a kind of respectabilty in the eyes of the outside world (as for example in the eyes of her own parents). Kyoko Yoshida had done an MFA course and returned to Japan to find that people back home no idea what that meant. She did however emphasise that there existed in CW an ethical contract that agreed your writing, and desire to write, were legitimate and guaranteed that it would be taken seriously. I suggested that not only had writers always met, albeit informally and without institutions, but that before CW started it had been a matter of luck if you happened to come across senior writers willing to discuss your work in person, I also suggested that teaching was essentially intelligent conversation. Dan - whom I had in fact taught at one time - agreed but rightly pointed out the increasingly high cost of such courses. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett wondered why CW should not be regarded, almost incidentally,  as a kind of vocational training providing transferable skills just as other hiumanities degrees did. You did not necessarily have to become a writer. Thinking and reading were the important things. Amit pointed out that CW classes were the only ones where no one ever bunked off. Students wanted every minute they could get. He also noted a certain tension between literary theory in reading, and reading for literary style. Deborah Smith agreed with Kyoko and imagined CW must be a great deal better than straight English Literature which was a matter of ploughing through work by a lot of dead white men.

Romas Kinka worried about the lack of support and respect for translators. Jack said it was a matter of earning a living. All writers had to do it one way or the other and modern pedagogic practice was far from the racket DJT had called it: it was a profession with high professional standards. Bhavit Mehta surprised us by arguing that there no shrinking readership, that readership was wider than ever, it was just that readers weren’t all reading in hard-copy book form. DJT ended on a different note: that of a necessary solitude. He lamented its loss in the climate of workshops, social media and public forums. The notion of writers not just writing but developing in solitude was, I thought, worth considering.

Note: any name not linked has been linked above in the same post or in a previous post on the festival.

Next day on reputation in India and Lithuania.