Gowri Ramnarayan met Alastair Reid at the Provocations Bookcase, part of the Edinburgh Festival, this August (2002).
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 ...
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, hardly conscious that they had been written first in Spanish. They inspired you to plunge into Latin American literature; into writing which perforates darkness, unfastens the heavens, breaks loose with the wind.
Decades later, the Provocations Bookcase organised by the British Council at the Edinburgh Book Festival (August 2002), brings you face-to-face with the man who had Englished the haunting poems of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges: Alastair Reid (poet, essayist, staff writer for The New Yorker) to whom Neruda once said: I don't want you to translate my poems, I want you to improve them.
Reid believes anonymity is the greatest success of translation, the artistry lies in metamorphosing the original into a form and linguistic style that seem 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 from a monolingual culture develop interest in a foreign language? But the Scots are bilingual, he explains. 'As children, we spoke our dialect in the playground, but when we entered the classroom we knew we had to speak "proper", English. You have the same situation in India, that is why you are such good writers. The way to success is to speak the language of the master race better than they do!'
'Moreover, Spanish had an emotional abundance which released the spirit smothered through the centuries by the language of Calvin. If I get angry in English I get icy, tall and thin, but in Spanish I spray words around the room, gesticulating furiously. Liberating!'
How do you get all the flailing about into the icy tongue, I ask.
'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. The English don't use their language that way. But translators can!'
Reid believes that the more languages you learn, the greater your facility with your mother tongue. But merely learning another language by way of market and kitchen leaves you stranded on the plateau of daily needs. Living in another language means growing another self. 'The Spanish I was acquiring was devoid of context, for I had no past in that language'. So he immersed himself in Spanish literature.
Soon, what had begun as a linguistic exercise became a lifelong addiction. At age 71, Reid is excited about translating a newcomer's work (Ignacio Padilla, Antipodes).
Translation taught him the importance of the auditory dimensions of language. He internalised the voices of Borges and Neruda. '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. Prose is easier ...', he pauses and adds, 'No. It is never easy. Yet you can't stop trying'.
The status of translators is improving the world over. Quite a change from Reid's recollections of the old days, when a Mexican publishing house had relays of translators for the same book from 10 a.m to 1 p.m, and another from 1 p.m to 5 p.m. The emergence of exciting books in many languages makes the translator more important than ever. Best-sellers are translated more quickly.
Isn't the quality variable? 'It will get better. You need emotion. I never read a book with more intensity than the book I translate. You have to go behind the text and see how it works inside'.
Reid once wrote 'however well a foreigner adapts himself to a place and its inhabitants, he will always lack a past and a childhood'.
Are there moments when he feels lonely, alienated from his own but not quite arrived in the adopted land? 'Limbo!' he laughs. 'The most exciting moments ... you have crept to the very edge ... nothing concrete below, it is all coming up in smoke, you are breathing in that smoke ... It has to come out in linguistic form'.
Since all writing is the 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'.
About the author
Dr Gowri Ramnarayan writes on literature, cinema, theatre and Indian classical music for The Hindu, a national English daily in India. She has written three books, and translated plays and short stories from Hindi and Tamil into English. She has been on the Critics' Jury at international film festivals in London, Venice, Valladolid and Oslo.