Moya Cannon

Reassembling the Broken Jar – a Statement of Debt to the Translators

From New Hibernia Review Volume 15, Issue 1, 2011

A world where a writer might be confined to the literature of only one language is as impossible to envision as a world without music, is, in fact, a contradiction in terms.  What western literature has not been influenced by Homer or Dante?  And we are, as no previous generation has ever been, heirs to all the treasure which language has ever netted.  It is a truism to say that scholarship and technology have made possible a degree of cultural exchange inconceivable even fifty years ago.  This has not, of course, made the task of the translator any less demanding or less intriguing.  Good translation is still unspeakably difficult.

Like a huge proportion of the world’s children, I spent my childhood between languages.  My first language, my mother tongue, was Gaelic, or Irish as we usually call it.  I lived in a village, Dunfanaghy, which is situated only a few miles outside the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of Co. Donegal.  It had at one stage been a garrison town and Irish had died out in the post-famine period. My parents, who had met at an Irish language college, were enthusiastic that their children should learn Irish so, for the first few years of our lives, they spoke to us almost exclusively in that language, on the understanding that we would pick up English when we reached school-going age or a little before.  When I was three years of age, a carpenter, a genial, humorous Englishman who lived locally, was working in our house, fitting shelves in the cloakroom. I fell quite in love with him. My mother said that I learned English at break-neck speed in order to be able to communicate with him.  She would tell me in Irish to tell Jack that dinner was ready or that she was putting on the kettle for tea.  I would run to where he was shaving curls of wood from a board to deliver the message in my fresh English.

In the peculiar way in which memory, particularly very early memories, operate,  the clean smell of the wood shavings which I was allowed to play with and the  texture of silky, planed wood are  associated not only with the new words, saw-dust, plank, cubby-hole, wood-plane, chisel, brace-barrel, but also with all the energy and excitement of making, the satisfaction of precision and with the middle-aged, squareish figure of Jack Smith, the carpenter, with his check shirt, his horn-rimmed glasses and his Yorkshire accent.  Even the name ‘Jack Smith’, the most ordinary of all English names, was exotic to my ears, surrounded as I was by the Irish and Scottish names common in the area of the north west of Ireland where I was born – Andersons, Alcorns, McGinleys McGarveys, Gallaghers.  

My first conscious memory of translation is therefore associated with pleasure, with encountering the exotic in the person of a Yorkshire carpenter, and of his language, accent and craft.  The latter represented another world of sensation, of concepts, another world of making – added to the worlds of making and growth I already knew – my mother’s baking, sewing and knitting, my father’s gardening – all of this inextricably bound up with the opening up of a world beyond the house in which I had been born.  It was to be the first of many openings, one window after another opening into the sensibilities of other literatures, other languages, other dimensions of feeling, other modes of encountering the world and other ways of making.

Because the cultural, political and economic histories of national linguistic groups differ, the weight of a word in any given language never balances precisely with its apparent equivalent in another language.   ‘milch’, ‘milk’, ‘lait’, ‘leche’, ‘latte’, ‘leite’, ‘bainne’ would appear to mean exactly the same, yet they are distant cousins, who know little enough of each other’s private histories.  How well, for instance, does the French ‘lait’ know Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who was, according to his wife too ‘full of the milk of human kindness’?  The evocative power of any word is a function of the sum of all the uses of that word.    Shakespeare’s play has, of course, been translated into French so the phrase has entered the vocabulary of French metaphor, but with less resonance, less force than in English.  The use of the word ‘milk’ in this context has added a shade of meaning to the English word which is absent in the Irish Gaelic equivalent ‘bainne’– which may indeed have been the language which the fictional Macbeth might have spoken, had he asked for a cup of milk.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Tongues of Translation’, speaks of languages as being like fragments of a broken jar, which have to be put together like the pieces of a jigsaw before we can find a complete language which will properly give expression to our human spirit.  This sort of inversion of an ‘Ur’ language is not, of course, a calling for a lowest common denominator type of language. It is quite the opposite – a yearning for the refined nuances of all languages to be added up in a long sum, a sum so long as to be ultimately impossible. Every culture celebrates some aspects of our conflicted and contradictory human nature at the expense of suppressing other aspects. It describes one corner of our round earth in minute detail and leaves much of the rest of it more or less blurred. Hence the excitement in voyaging out in young adulthood to encounter new cultures, new literatures.  The encounter with a new literature is, in addition to being an encounter with the sensibilities of another culture, an encounter with an alienated aspect of oneself.

As I grew up, although the Irish language remained dear and central to me, English became my first language in terms of usage.   My first real memory of encountering literature in translation and of encountering an equivalent frisson, an opening up of an entire world of experience, was when I first read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot at the age of sixteen.   I had found the book at home a couple of years earlier, a paperback copy, belonging, probably, to one of my older brothers, but I had found it too difficult and had not persevered.   In the meantime I had been studying English and Anglo-Irish literature for my school leaving cert exams at Loreto College, Milford and had enjoyed most of the given texts, as I had much of the body of literature which we had studied in the Irish language and also the smattering of prescribed French literature.  Like most students, I suppose, in the case of all three literatures I had found the analysis of the texts a bit tedious.  I just wanted to keep reading.

None of these texts, however, none of my previous reading, prepared me for the impact of Dostoyevsky and I still cannot quite explain my sense of kinship, coming as I did from the rural north west of Ireland, with the down-at-heel gentry and aristocracy in Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg.  I felt that I had, at last, met people in books whose inner turmoil reflected my own late teenage confusions.  There was nothing here of the mannered restraint of Jane Austen’s society, nothing either of the slightly two-dimensional rendering of characters in J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World.  Dostoevsky’s people were far nearer to me than the Danish aristocrats in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Here were people who, though sociologically a world away, were just a confused as I was, buffeted to and fro by internal emotional storms and conflicted as to what life was meant to be about, as most young adults are, as I certainly was, caught between a traditional and modern sense of the world.   Dostoyevsky’s characters knew that they should take one course of action but ended up going in exactly the opposite direction, which sounded pretty familiar to me. Reading The Idiot allowed me to feel a little more at home in the world.  I went on to read Pasternak, Tolstoy, and Turgenev while I was at college but Dostoyevsky remained the lode-stone.

It was a few years later that I began to encounter translations of Spanish poetry, the poetry of Antonio Machado, of Pablo Neruda.   I was as smitten by them both as I had been by the carpenter when I was three.  Neruda, with his luscious imagery, is, like Dylan Thomas, a poet whom you must read when you are young.  His exuberance, sensuality and joie de vivre represent a large and important piece of the jigsaw.  The first collection of his which I read was  The Captain’s Verses, given to me by a brother as a birthday present when I was about eighteen.  I find its heroics difficult to take now, but eighteen is a heroic age; I was at University College, Dublin, studying history and politics, and we were very conscious of the horrendous political situation in Chile in the mid-seventies.   And then there was Machado, who is still with me, as much as, or even more than Dostoyevsky, with a poetry as restrained as Neruda’s was ebullient – again, a very important piece of the broken jar.

Why did I, why do I, love Machado so much?   If I loved Neruda for his wide embrace of life in all its variety, I loved Machado for his inwardness, his melancholy – which mirrored my own state of being at the time when I encountered him – and for his tenderness.    There is an undeconstructable mystery at the heart of all really good poetry.   Denise Levertov says that all poems should be ‘Direct as what the birds said, hard as a floor, sound as a bench, mysterious as the silence’.  Machado is all of these things.   Who else can write a poem about the boredom of being a child in a classroom in winter in Spain and can bring all his readers right back into the tedium of their particular childhood classrooms in a hundred different countries? What can make us want to go back there except perhaps the sense of kinship which literature confers – the sense that we were not actually alone in our boredom.    Machado’s stock in trade is understatement. When I began to write poetry in my early twenties it was to Machado I turned to try to learn ‘How do you do this thing?’

A friend tells me that he almost believes that books are able to move around on their own – at times they seem hide from us on our own bookshelves.   At other times, I find, they fling themselves across our paths screaming to be read.  This latter always happens when we need them most. 

One of the books which cast itself across my path was a beautifully bound and illustrated collection of translations of Japanese Haiku, called A Net of Fireflies which an Australian friend, passing through Dublin, lent me in the year when I was finishing college.   When I say that she lent it, it would be more accurate to say that she showed it to me – it was holiday reading given to her by a friend before she left Melbourne – and I buried my head so deeply in it that she, most magnanimously, not only left it with me as she headed on her travels around Ireland, but subsequently sent me a companion volume, A Chime of Windbells. Again, as with Machado, the experience was one of utter enchantment.   These collections of Haiku were major motivators and guides as I tried to figure out the basics of writing myself.    Reading Haiku and Machado, I became aware of the phenomenon of emotional resonance, of evocation as exemplified in the Haiku form, of the way in which one clear crisp image, or the layering of two juxtaposed images, could have an effect equivalent to that of a musician’s holding down a string lightly and playing a harmonic.  I learned that what is stated is never what is important, only what is evoked. 

I also learned from Haiku that the most effective way of expressing one’s inner reality is to pay absolute attention to outward reality, Machado’s ‘stitching of inner and the outer world together.’ A further lesson was that in literature, as it life, the soul is most frequently accessed through the senses. In reading Haiku I began to learn that there is another type of detachment besides abstraction, another way of lifting ourselves out of the quotidian. There is also the detachment of imagery, of metaphor, which grants us perspective and a degree of control over our lives. 

Ironically, these beautiful translations of tiny poems from the other side of the world brought me back to translations of early Irish nature poetry, translated from old and middle Irish,   translations which shared many qualities with Haiku – lucidity, a honed, hard-won simplicity, an alertness to, an attentiveness to the natural world, and, frequently, an understated sense of the spiritual dimension of life. 

I had begun to write in my early twenties, influenced greatly by Machado, by Haiku, by Ezra Pound’s translations from the Chinese, and by Pound’s advice to keep reading poetry in translation.   It is excellent advice, not only because of the enormous wealth which is out there, of the expansion of our own spirit which that wealth facilitates, but because we tend to encounter poems in translation in a much less mediated way than that in which we encounter the great poetry of our own language’s tradition.  Nobody tells us what we should or should not like, what we should or should not think in relation to them.   We get the full aesthetic whack straight on.  There is frequently a real sense in which poetry encountered in another language, whether in translation or in the original, is far more ours than poetry in our own language.   We are freer of prescription and of cultural pieties.

Two anthologies of poetry in particular opened very important casements for me. One was News of the Universe by Robert Bly, which was sent to me by a poet friend when I was in my late twenties and which introduced me to so many poets who would become supremely important to me – amongst them Anna Akhmatova,  Thomas Transtromer, Holderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rumi.  Twenty-five years later, its spine cello-taped again and again,  I return to it as to a deep well. 

Another anthology, lent originally by another poet friend, was Adam Czerniawski’s The Burning Forest, an anthology of Polish poetry, which introduced me to the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, of Wislawa Szymborska, of Zbigniew Herbert and of many others.   This again was an immensely important opening of a window into another world, a European culture at the edge of the Latin watershed. 

I feel that I have only begun to look at the pieces which make up my broken jar, have turned over only a few fragments in my hands. I am also aware that there are many rich literatures of which I am shamefully ignorant; I think particularly of African literature.   The gift of translation has operated for me at two levels.  All the books which I mention were given to me as gifts, or lent to me by friends who wished to share their pleasure.

Over the past number of years I have had poems translated into a number of languages and have done a little translation myself.   I was particularly happy and honoured recently to have had poems translated into Japanese – a peculiar kind of coming home, since reading Japanese poetry was one of my motivations for beginning to write.  Another pleasure has been collaborating with  singers Mairéad and Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, and harper Kathleen Loughnane in translating seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish songs into English for album cover notes – an exploration of the emotional history of earlier centuries. 

Our debt to the translators is endless and the accounting is as impossible a task as assembling the fragments of Benjamin’s jar, of putting together all the subtleties and refinements of the thousands of languages of the world to make one completely expressive language, of restoring language to the state it occupied before the first stone of the tower of Babel was laid.   

Fortunately, however, a good story travels and sloughs off linguistic skin after linguistic skin as it makes its journey.   A number of years ago, in Hibernian Nights, a collection of folk-stories gathered by Seamus MacManus in the north west of Ireland in early years of the twentieth century, I came across the motif of the cleaning of the Augean stables.  Heracles would have been very surprised indeed to find himself in Donegal, heavily disguised as Dermod, the King of Ireland’s son.  In collaborating on a translation of a tenth century Irish Lament, a lament for the death of a queen’s son, I was intrigued to find amongst the list of  Irish names, historical and mythological, of mothers who had suffered bereavement, a reference to Hecuba grieving for Hector. Before the end of the first millennium, motifs from Greek mythology had been absorbed, translated, into Irish consciousness.

When I was making my first attempts at writing poetry I wrote a poem called ‘Thalassa’, based on a story from Xenophon’s Anabasis , told to me by my older brother, Seamus, who had learned it in his Greek class in school,  It was the story of the Greek armies arriving home, utterly spent after a long campaign in Persia, fearing that they would never see Greece again, struggling over the crest of the mountain, suddenly seeing the Black Sea below them and running down the mountain crying ‘thalassa, thalassa’,  ‘the sea, the sea.’  The image had lodged sufficiently in my mind, when my brother had told it to me as a child, for me to write about it twenty years later. 

After the poem was published, I discovered that there were hundreds of poems called ‘Thalassa’ – that it was the least original of poem-titles because so many others had been enchanted by precisely the same story.   But it may be that this is what Benjamin is talking about too – that what is translated is not a particular language, but the language of imagery which language carries within it, like a nut in a shell, an inner language accessible to, intelligible to, all cultures. He writes:

For what does a literary work ‘say’?  What does it communicate?  It ‘tells’ very little to those who understand it.  Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information.  Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information – hence, something inessential.   This is the hallmark of bad translations.   But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information – as even a poor translator will admit – the unfathomable, the mysterious, the ‘poetic’ something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?  

Perhaps there is something exhausted in us all which rushes towards the sea, knowing it as home.

(Delivered at Encontro Internacional de Poetas, Coimbra, Portugal, 2010Published in New Hibernia Review, Spring 2011.)