The angels of translation
by Thea Lenarduzzi
In Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta, by the Romanian born author Aglaja Veteranyi, there is a passage in which a child wonders: “Are there angels translating for God? Or can God understand all the foreigners?”.
Vincent Kling's funny and engaging reading from his translation of the novel, delivered to a packed auditorium at King's Place, N1, last night, came as part of this year's Translation Prizes ceremony, at which he took the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for translation from German (for a full round-up of the winners and runners-up, see Adrian Tahourdin's piece). Leaving to one side the question of polyglot angels, it became possible last night to distil from the act of translation a certain angelic quality – whether consciously undertaken as such, or coming as a welcome side-effect.
To attempt to promote dialogue across the gap is no small undertaking, especially when, as Avi Sharon admitted of the Selected Poems of C. P. Cavafy, “it is hard to justify another translation of Cavafy”. And yet, on returning to his seat after reading from that very thing, Sharon was congratulated by Malcolm Imrie, another of this year’s winners, who whispered his appreciation: “that was beautiful”, and it was. An especially pertinent example of Cavafy's gentle, persuasive repetitions were conveyed in “Ithaca”, in which the speaker urges us to undertake a journey “long, / rich in adventure, rich in discovery” to that emblematic Ionian island: “Then sail to Egypt's many towns / to learn and learn from their scholars”.
Malcolm Imrie's own prize-winning translation of La Peur, Gabriel Chevallier's novel about the First World War is a shining example of the role that translation might play in encouraging discussion, understanding and, perhaps, a sense of community. “This”, he explained, “is a good novel for these fearful times ... in Europe, where there's another kind of war going on.”
Following the prize-giving, Boris Akunin took to the stage to deliver the 2012 Sebald Lecture (previous speakers include Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Carlos Fuentes and, last year, Sean O'Brien). Akunin, who translated Japanese literature into Russian before becoming a successful novelist in his own right, enriched our image of a celestial fleet of polyglots, with an amusing, tongue-in-cheek account of his fall from translator to crime-fiction novelist. In his speech, entitled “Paradise Lost: Confessions of an apostate translator”, Akunin described how his mother bid him as a child to choose one of the only two “clean” professions in the USSR – medicine, or literary translation. (His poor scientific aptitude made it less of a choice….) An early indication of his piousness came in his translating of a Rafaele Sabatini novel as a gift to a less linguistically dextrous friend, and brings to mind another bit from Vincent Kling’s reading in which the child protagonist – an illiterate and unschooled “gypsy” – explains how, “in my sea, you don’t have to be able to swim to go swimming”. Translators in the audience could bob their heads knowingly.
When Akunin embarked on his career as a literary translator, he became part of a group of literary elites who could get into the swankiest parties. Translators were revered: the cleanest of the clean, they dealt in the “pure” literature of the Greats and did not dirty their hands with politically engaged – at least not expressly so – literature. (Pasternak earned his bread and butter translating Shakespeare, while writing Doctor Zhivago in secret.) Their role was merely to relay – they were Puskin’s “post-horses of the Enlightenment”. But after translating exclusively scientific articles and technical manuals, Akunin began to sully himself in riskier endeavours. Mishima’s books – “hymns”, to perversion, to destruction, to suicide – were ripe for translation. From him he learnt that nuances were more important than ideas, shade more than light.
And yet Akunin tired of the task. He found himself becoming frustrated with these writers and their long, scene-setting descriptive passages. “It was rainy. The sky was grey” – why not just get to the point, he asked? He didn't have the infinite reserves of patience, he admitted, required to keep his seat alongside the celestial ones. He moved to the dark side and began writing “middle-of-the-road” detective stories which, though not immediately successful, became the favoured reading material of the now burgeoning Russian middle classes. In 2000 he was nominated for the Smirnoff-Booker Prize, and was named Russian Writer of the Year.
In Russia today, he said, “nobody wants to hear about my translations” (which, to return to my point about intercultural understanding, is politically insightful, if nothing else). And yet, Akunin concluded, “my mother never approved of my metamorphosis” . She read his novels with a pencil and questioned his plots – why not do something “serious”, why not "translate something?”, she pleaded. The warm applause that followed Akunin’s lecture suggests that many of us present last night would side with his mother and welcome a defection.