Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Richard Rathwell on Translation

Translation or transliteration where another language appears into your own specific kind of English as islands do above a whitening torrent with dropping water levels. When you are on a boat in the dark. On a saint's day. Say the Nile. There's a bird.

There are places where the English spoken or written drops down below the regional or market level, that it drops below the colonial level, then below that of the historic language of those conquerors (a language which is used in the marketplace), below then that language of the traditional rulers.

That in turn can drop below the local language. Finally it may get to language the local group. You can have scrip and phonetically carried standardized languages drop below ideogram and tonal to polytonal and runic. The gestures change and the music of it.

Hear, for example, greetings which go on and on for a time to review a conciousness in which the words and sounds, in which the senses and the mind that deal with placing the other, the individual entity spoken too, only does so in a questioning of a series of family and tribal relationships, an inquiry into the regard to the events of the age grade (say the Leopards of the seventies), the weather.

It is in the form of imbedded parable. Not cliche like ours. It is formal and a story. It is a duet or chorus with answer. It can ask if you have eaten. Have you had water? It is event-centered, like Herodotus; it elicits time and place as parts of a communal narrative, a story of relationships with great dramatic fundamentals of divinity, health and death, marriage; with scandal, perversion and war; about food, geography, weapons, of unusual animals; about people.

It is usually in constructs of narrative energy charged with detail which deviate from a timeless, placeless norm of everyday. In Herodotus (and with some poets like him, some writers of prose like him) this is the thing called romancing or worse, lying. But it is meant to hold the essence of the meaning in the reality of things in the essential way. To project it so it can be received.

I taught poetry in English in places where the local language had no measures, for example, but rather images. A place wasn't miles away, it was an amount of landscape away. The number fifty-three (or so) was a body gesture of hands and legs and the word itself with it was of a grouping of crows with their sound.

Some languages seemed to me, some of the narratives in them seemed to me, remember I never spoke them of course- but I talked with the speakers, sometimes about poetry. Speakers who usually resented English. But not poetry. So I stress here that it seemed so to me (not to them); like the planes and surfaces that fragment and come together in mind and heart, for example, a cubist painting. In the ear in polyphonic music. The way meaning was held seemed like a kind of transferable genre. An objection. I am not the first to think so.

This feature came out in the writing too. Also with dancing and graphics.

The other thing in local languages that I tried to learn was a science of biological detail. Words for different movements of fish in rivers. Words too, on other natural things with gestures as the sound of the insects coming under the cloud from the mountain. Regional languages eliminate or reinforce certain attitudes in massive and complicated structures.

The tones change, the consonants shift. The tones make musical puns. There are twelve or more noun groupings with some known only to women, some to priests. One of the most common was, (if the language is dead or dying, an island in English drowned and only emerging to show the blackened trees covered in weeds), or perhaps still is, is that there were, or are noun groupings and tones for diminution. There was a hierarchy of disrespect and dehumanisation.

Some noun constructions were only for certain classes or the divine. Some for objects that were named in the conquering language that come from the local language, this was often types of birds or stone formations with special significance. The words that came into the regional language from the colonial one were often unaltered by suffix or prefix but sounded as an obscenity. Rocket, Tank.

Now for poetry, which besides being a way in which things can be said that can't be said any other way and so are more true (even if it lies); and is still yet more. The issue is to create the beauty of the true.

The issue is too to mirror content in the aural. Even if that is imagined. That is why there is rhyme, repetition, breathe; or going another way, why syntax. Some of it projects leaping from plane to plane, some sings broken songs on old melodies. The whole thing is a kind of translation from one experience into another.

I got some stick once on using gerunds and weak nouns to reflect things like rivers (but they do, they do, and rivers are a favorite thing) and got stick for an image of birds rising to reflect a dead papyrus, one I actually possess.

I got crap for oblique infinitives in indirect speech. Try rock songs assholes!

Not to mention other translations which were specific event centered, projected in images based on experience, fragmented to hold a feeling which ain't in the conventional.

Let the rivers drop and dry. The birds screeching will still swoop.

Specific examples of the languages I have referred to above (in order) are Jukuns, Hausa, Shona, Albanian, French.

I am thinking of specific poems and songs. Some unsung. Some unwritten. Can English be written like Herodotus did Greek (remember his second language was Illyrian his first was Tosk) ?

You can only try.


  1. "The issue is to create the beauty of the true.The issue is too to mirror content in the aural."

    I thought the issue was to win the Friggin Prize. Or possibly to make cool things out of words.

  2. I believe the issue usually issues from
    the Pig 'n' Fries. Chill, baby.