The title of Eamonn Lynskey’s third collection poetry, “It’s Time,” evokes a sense of meditation – on life, on the urgency of tackling our life’s work, whatever that may be. The reader expecting such reflections will not be disappointed. But from these fifty-two poems, the understated and ambiguous title unravels to reveal a tapestry of interconnected themes that are not only personal, but social and political as well.
The title poem, which opens the collection, conjures a moment of renewal, a spring day in the suburbs when images of dead leaves and a wheelie bin combine to make the familiar strange:
“There’s something sharp
about the sunlight blinds the eye this morning –
stems have straightened up, the wheelie bin
has taken on a strange new lustre.”
The beautiful elegy, “A Connaught Man’s Rambles” distils the harshness of life for Irish emigrant workers in a personal recollection of the poet’s father. A stroll in the country, “Nunhead Cemetery” takes the poet, and us, down memory lane and face-to-face with
“…the narrow span
between the spark and its extinguishing.”
A reprieve from a brush with mortality breathes palpable relief in “That Moment When” and “Home an Hour”. And presiding over all, the shade of that “Thief” who comes in the night and is not just after your money…
“It’s Time” is also a call to action, in the sense that ‘It’s time something was done about’ – what? In “Down to Africa” and “Lament,” the latter an elegy to the lost and disappearing life of the Great Barrier Reef, the poet casts his appalled gaze over the legacy of destruction and environmental degradation our human intervention has wreaked on nature.
He also challenges us to remember the anguish wrought by conflict and wars, past and present. Images here are concrete and often shocking: the voice of a “A Professional in Charge” brings a horrifyingly clinical view of the execution of Anne Bolyen. “Warrior” subjects the skeleton of a slain Neolithic warrior killed in battle to modern forensic analysis. “Civilian Executions, Minsk, 1941” and “Lists” remember the anonymous victims of atrocities and war, bystanders in the drama of history’s disasters. And the great events of history are skilfully intermingled with the minutae of small lives: “ Metzu’s Women” in the past, the poet’s own life laid bare in the clutter of objects being cleared out by unknown successors in “Day of Judgement.”
Much of the power of this vision is conveyed through the evocation of everyday objects: a stone-age knife, random objects displayed in a museum, a photograph. The poet’s scrutiny has an ethnographic quality that imbues simple artefacts of the past, and the present, with the lustre of talismans. Lynskey is at his best when his insights are mined from these vignettes of shared humanity, evoked through the everyday and sometimes sinister uses of daily objects. These images permit readers space and freedom to make connections, draw our own conclusions. Only occasionally does the poet succumb to the temptation to interpret on our behalf, such as “This Photograph” and “My Song is Simple” which tip over into didacticism. But these lapses are few. This is a book that disconcerts, not least in tenderness not only for our neighbour, but for the Other, such as
“two English boys who disembark
To angry streets at Eastertime”
“It’s Time” is engaged poetry, imbued with great passion and compassion that smoulders, slow-burning, in the mind of the reader long after the “Final Notice” has been given.
When Ross asked me to launch his third poetry collection “How To Sleep with Strangers” I was faced with a dilemma. His two earlier self-help books, “The Gentle Art of Rotting” and “Pretending to be Dead” had failed to deliver on their promise to help me rot with dignity, or fake my own death.
I was reminded of that great man for all seasons, Homer Simpson who said: “Books are useless! I only ever read one book, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’ and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin… but what good does that do me?”
So it was with some reluctance I agreed to read “How To Sleep With Strangers” and judge for myself if there was anything worth learning contained within its covers.
Let’s start with the cover. The lettering in bold red, announcing the title to the world. The image, from a painting by Ross’ brother Paul, abstract (or is it a mosquito?) unsettling, hinting at uncomfortable intimacies that refuse to be kept at arm’s length. On the back, further warnings from Iggy McGovern & Elizabeth Knox. “Minefield of human relations…” “…something terribly sad and shocking.” Even before opening it or reading a single poem we know this book may, in the words of Heaney “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
The book is dedicated to Sarah Lundberg. Many here remember Sarah and the tireless work she did within the artistic community. Her presence and absence stay with us. Her company 7Towers published 23 books in eight years, and Ross was one of those privileged to have her creative support and encouragement. She was his mentor and she was his friend. She is everywhere in the collection.
There are 44 poems in here, all very Ross-like. What do I mean by Ross-like? Well, there are puns and word play and tankas galore. Lines are typically very short, and there’s no messing about with superfluous descriptions, though he does like a bit of repetition evey now and then. But it’s always to the point. Ross always keeps to the point.
The poems cover a wide range of subjects, from a compost heap-
(‘..the endless love gifts
of peeled skin:
potato and parsnip,
carrot and banana
and apple and orange.
All the fossils of caring.’)
… to the inside of the poet’s eyes-
(‘..Sometimes I see
behind my eyelids,….
….There are many rooms
in the house of my eyelids.’)
….from an abandoned coalmine at Arigna-
(‘The best time
to go to a coalmine
is in the winter.
Just to see
how it was
to do this job
in the dark
in the cold…’)
…to speculative physics (that one’s five pages of Ross letting a knitting pun lose the run of itself. It’s a ripping yarn.)
…to an amazing cluster or colony of tanka poems that all riff on Paua as power. A paua is a large shellfish that is very popular in NZ, both as food and as decoration. So we have “At the Paua table,” “The Paua of Love” and “The Paua and the Glory”, to name but a few. There are eight in all. Those of you now throwing your eyes up to heaven or panicking at the thought of Ross losing the pun of himself, I feel your pain, but fear not. The sequnce is quite brilliant and can handle the pun.
There are also two poems tucked into the collection that display a disturbing lack of respect for the national treasure that is WB Yeats. Tsk.Tsk.
And then there are the poems about love, life, and loss; those scary, arkward, intimate themes that demand and hold our attention, ultimately giving this collection its beating heart, its unique resonance and timbre.
(‘This is not about
that’s a rational fact,
as well to fear the sky.
This is grief,
pure and clear.
I can’t put it away
and bring it out for Christmas’)
So what would Homer Simpson have made of ‘How To Sleep With Strangers’? What insight would he have learned?
Well, nothing and everything. If he were looking for tips on how to score at Copperface Jacks, he would need to head to another section of the book shop. But if he dared to see the stranger as himself, see that no matter how intimately he thinks he knows himself (“You wake up to realise/ there is someone in the bed/ who you don’t know, /no matter how long they have been there”) this book will shed light on the art of learning how to live with a self that is both familiar and strange, both intimate and distant, both grieving for what is lost, and embracing what has been given.
(‘… But something now
is calling us back,
with no need
to fear need,
no known advantage.
and too hard
This tumbledown communion
calling us home.’)
Thank you Ross for the privilege of launching your wonderful collection, and a huge shout out to Liz McSkeane and Turas Press. It takes courage to write a book, and it takes courage to publish one too.
I’ll leave one of my favourite poems in the collection to have the last word: “All The Things That Stay.”
Fifty years after the first Spanish publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Liz McSkeane reflects on Gabo’s most famous work and the magic of its journey into English.
In these days of software programmes and search engine language applications, it may be tempting to think of translation as a semi-mechanical, quasi-scientific task that can be quite adequately achieved with the help of technology – or at least with a good dictionary, a grammar-book and a lot of patience. But experience in the real world tells us that language does not bend so easily to a straightforward mapping of words and phrases and sentences from one language, onto words and phrases and sentences in another. The great Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, pointed out that, even for a simple greeting such as “buenos días,” this literal approach to translation simply will not work. No English speaker would ever say “good days.” It simply sounds wrong. Worse, to the native English-speaking ear, the meaning is far from clear. To sound right – and to make sense – a transformation is needed, small, but one that makes the difference between sense and nonsense: so – “good day.”
This slight transmutation introduces a few of the ingredients found in the vastly more complex process of recasting an entire work of literature in another language. Literal translation, perhaps supported by technology, might help with this; but it cannot do the job the way it needs to be done. The following reflections on the English translation of the work of Gabriel García Márquez explore the alchemy of translation as a multi-layered process that transforms base metals – the nuts and bolts of words and syntax and punctuation, seasoned with elements of their socio-cultural and historical contexts – into something that transcends words: that is, into meaning. Not science then, but magic.
In the few years since his death in April, 2014 García Márquez has been eulogised and honoured as one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language since Cervantes. For more than three decades, since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982, his contribution to world literature has been undisputed. Likewise, his status as one of the giants of the Latin American literary Boom of the 1970s and 80s, and especially as the inventor of the particular brand of magical realism he launched in 1967 with “Cien años de soledad”. In the thirty seven years since One Hundred Years of Solitude first dazzled the English-speaking world, it seems only fair to give a nod of appreciation to the translators whose endeavours offered us an Open Sesame into his work. More than this, reflecting on the processes by which Gabo’s work is recreated in English can offer a window onto the creative process itself – the translation of reality into art.
English-speaking readers owe their knowledge of the writings of García Márquez to two translators: Gregory Rabassa, who gave us “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1970), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1976) and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” (1982); and Edith Grossman, who translated Gabo from the late 1980s onwards, including “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1988) and “The General in his Labyrinth” (1990). Both Rabassa and Grossman emphasise the complexity and depth of vision they bring to the process. According to Grossman:
“A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.”
The aim of translation, she insists, is “fidelity” to the intention of the author, to the original meaning and in order to penetrate that for the readers of another language the translator often has to abandon the literal meaning or precise structure of the original. It is easier to show how this works than simply to describe it, and so the next few reflections home in on specific examples of key phrases and their translations, as well as some of the suggested alternatives and challenges.
This is very definitely contested ground. Once the translator decides to approach the task as an art rather than a science and choices are open to judgement and interpretation, the field is wide open to challenge. And although Gregory Rabassa’s work on García Márquez has been greatly acclaimed, he has also attracted his fair share of criticism:
“I dread the day when the translation police will haul me out of bed and put me to torture.”
Yet within this contested space, the creative process, both of the translator and the original writer, comes into focus. In fact, the “translation police,” assisted by their informer “Professor Horroroso” – Rabassa’s collective name for his most diligent nit-pickers – have had quite a lot to say about his work.
The title of García Márquez’s most famous novel, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, which tells the epic tale of the rise and fall of the Buendía dynasty and the town they founded, would be a good place to start. Immediately it turns out that finding a way to express the phrase “cien años de soledad” in English is less straightforward than it might seem. This is because “cien,” in Spanish, can mean two different things: “a” hundred, or “one” hundred. Which of the two options best captures the flavour of the original is open to debate. Rabassa justifies his choice of “one hundred” from his reading of the text. The internal dynamic suggests to him not just any hundred years, but a specific period, a particular epoch which encompasses the founding, flourishing and decay of Macondo. This may seem like a small point and indeed, it is not unusual to hear the book referred to as “A Hundred Years of Solitude”. However, these options give one example of how vocabulary and syntax can work in different ways in different languages, and also illustrate some of the ambiguities and uncertainties which the translator must resolve.
A more general criticism which some commentators have made of Rabassa’s work concerns the tone. Sometimes, the register of his English, they say, is much loftier and more elevated than García Márquez’s Spanish, which in fact is quite direct and simple. Spanish is a Latin language so it is not surprising that many ordinary words in common use are Latin in origin. This is not the case in English, though, which is a mainly Germanic language with many Latinate borrowings, of course, and the liberal use of words of Latin origin tends to create a rather elevated, abstract tone. In relation to the title, Rabassa himself explained his choice of “solitude” for “soledad” as being the closest in meaning but English does offer other, non-Latinate possibilities, such as “aloneness,” “loneliness” or “being alone.” His choice for the title probably is the correct one, yet it is still interesting to wonder whether the overall register of the English text could be brought down a notch or two and take on a more down-to-earth gloss closer to the tone of the Spanish original, if some of the Latinate vocabulary were replaced by earthier, more concrete Saxon alternatives. That said, it is worth mentioning that whatever Professor Horroroso had to say on the subject, Gabo himself did not object and even declared that his work did so well in English because the translation was better than the original.
The openings of iconic works always attract a lot of attention and some critics did object to various elements of Rabassa’s translation of the first sentence of “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, which introduces us to the epic rise and fall of Macondo and the Buendía dynasty:
“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.” [my italics]
This rather complex and mysterious introduction immediately seizes the reader’s attention by posing a raft of questions which will be answered only much later in the novel. Many years after what? Where and when is the action located? Who is Aureliano Buendía and why has he been executed? (This last question, something of a trick which Gabo plays on the reader.)
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” [my italics]
Most elements of Rabassa’s translation of this sentence have come under the microscope of the “translation police” and a fair amount of nit-picking has ensued. The particular nit which is of interest here is Rabassa’s choice of the verb “discover” to convey “conocer” in the original. In Spanish, “conocer” means to “know,” in the sense of to be, or become acquainted with someone or something; as opposed to “saber,” which refers to knowledge of a fact, or the ability to do something. Colonel Aureliano Buendía is remembering the very first time he saw ice, how he came to understand its qualities, its essence, to touch it and feel its coldness: therefore, “conocer.” Given that the verb “to know” in English has various synonyms that can convey many shades of meaning, why does Rabassa select a completely different word which has connotations which are significantly wider and deeper than either factual knowledge or acquaintance?
Perhaps it is enough to say that most of the obvious options available – such as “to know ice” or “be introduced to ice” or “meet ice” – although they technically could pass muster as perfectly good equivalents, in this context, simply do not sound right. This is a question of feeling, of how pleasing or jarring the phrase is to the native ear. Perhaps it is enough, then, that “to discover ice” simply feels, and sounds, better.
However, there is another, crucial rationale: fidelity to the society and culture represented, to the world which the novel creates. The memory which Colonel Aureliano Buendía conjures up as he faces the firing squad is just one in a jumble of many, many other days when the travelling gypsies and their leader, and later the ghost, Melquíades, introduced his father and the townspeople of Macondo to the many fabulous inventions they had gathered on their travels: potions for various ailments and diseases, an alchemist’s laboratory, magnets, daguerreotypes, telescopes and flying carpets and yes, ice, with no boundaries drawn between the magical and the mundane. Later generations of Macondians, accustomed to the sight of flying carpets of former times whizzing past their windows, are unimpressed by new-fangled trains and decline to use them.
Thus, it is only in the gradual unfolding of the rise and eventual decay of Macondo, as its characters, their experiences and their lives are variously called into being, then assigned to oblivion, that the core position of discovery in the narrative gradually takes shape. Scientific and technological innovations are recounted in exactly the same dead-pan, objective voice as the most magical and fantastic of phenomena, unquestioned internally by the characters and, therefore, equally accepted by the readers. So when Aureliano Buendía first sees and touches ice as a young boy, this is one more enchantment unfolding, amongst many others. That is why “discover” is an inspired choice: not only because it sounds and feels better, but because it is faithful to the world the novel creates; and it reflects that world more truly than any of the more literal possibilities.
That said, the world of the work of art itself may not be the only space that the translator-magus has to negotiate. At times, the social and cultural situation within which the translated work appears, and its position and status within that context, may encroach on the work. Such demands do not always come into play and it is questionable whether they should influence the shape of the translated artefact, but when they do materialise, they can make interesting waves. Rabassa speaks very amusingly about the editorial panic he observed in The New Yorker when his translation of “The Autumn of the Patriarch”, García Márquez’s 1975 portrait of a dictator and life under his reign, was translated for serialisation at the end of 1976. This most darkly dazzling exploration of the psychopathology of tyranny, an amalgam of the characters and actions of the most unpleasant dictators from a continent which has known too many of them, is liberally seasoned with references to “mierda”- shit. It may be difficult to believe now, but in those days, The New Yorker simply did not use such language and the blatant references to “shit” would normally be considered a grave breach of etiquette. Rabassa, however, insisted that what the text refers to, and says – many, many times – is actual “mierda” and not some more decorous equivalent; and that in English, no other word would do but “shit.” Cue a flurry of high-level editorial meetings to determine how to handle the shit-crisis. Eventually, Rabassa’s view and, no doubt, the literary status which García Márquez already occupied even in the mid-1970s, won the day. “Gabo,” Rabassa twinkles mischievously, “broke the shit-barrier at The New Yorker.”
The paragraph hurdle, however, was another matter. On this, The New Yorker editors stood firm and faithful to their own house style. A glance at the original Spanish edition of “El otoño del patriarca” shows that García Márquez has chosen the rather unusual, and very arresting device of flooding the reader with wave upon wave of unrelenting, continuous prose, uninterrupted by paragraph line breaks, that spew out the life and atrocities of the patriarch and the sufferings of the people who lived under his tyranny. Because it is so beautifully woven together, linguistically it is in fact not so difficult to read, although the reader may be simultaneously overwhelmed and dazzled by the dark sorcery which enabled the tyrant to wield his powers for generations. Clearly, the absence of paragraphs was a deliberate decision of style on the part of the writer to reinforce the trance-like state that such tyranny can induce in its subjects.
For the editors at The New Yorker, however, this was a step too far: “shit” they could live with, just. But no paragraphs? No chance. So the editors, Rabassa says,
“…combed Gabo’s hair and straightened his tie with commas and paragraphs…I drew the line at semi-colons.”
The editorial intervention did not stop there. One of the narrative techniques which García Márquez borrows from his hero, Faulkner, is shape-shifting, sometimes time-travelling, points-of-view that slip from one character to another, or between past and present, or between reality, memory and fantasy, sometimes within the same sentence. This demands attentive reading, to say the least. The editors at The New Yorker helpfully flagged some of these narrative twists and turns with changes in type-face.
Should translators, or people who commission translations, be congratulated, or vilified, for dipping into this box of tricks in ways untapped by the original writer? A purist might consider such intervention an impertinence; an editor might see it as expanding the accessibility of the text using the resources commonly used in the target language. And it is true that different languages have different conventions of paragraphing, layout and also, punctuation, which mean that a translator may need to use devices that differ from the original, in order to create a similar effect for readers in another language. The New Yorker’s response, however, sounds like something different: more like an editorial decision to tweak the text, the better to meet their readers’ expectations – or the idea of those expectations. It smacks suspiciously of the translator/editor sprinkling a little fairy dust on the translated version to make it gleam a bit more brightly than the original.
In spite of García Márquez’s extravagant declaration that his works did so well in English because the translation was better than his Spanish, Rabassa himself is quite emphatic that exercising their art to try to improve on the text is a temptation which translators must resist. Fidelity to the original, warts and all, is the goal, and
“…translators should not be in the silk purse business.”
Of course, most of the time we do not have access to the author’s opinion about the translation of his/her work into other languages, if indeed the writer even knows the target language well enough to be in a position to comment with any authority. That said, the attitude of The New Yorker towards the use of certain words, punctuation and layout is proof, if proof were needed, of the spell which socially-constructed expectations can cast on both the process of translation, and on the final artefact. The alchemy of translation melds not only language and meaning, and the linguistic expectations of potential readers, but their social and cultural expectations, too.
These same ingredients are at the core of the creative process itself, the alchemy which creates a bridge between reality and art. García Márquez was a journalist as well as a novelist and might be expected to have brought a different type of process to those different types of writing. Not so. In fact, he maintained that there is very little difference between writing fiction and writing journalism, one of the few differences being the relative status in the text of facts that are invented, and those that happen in the world:
“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.”
Much of the charm of magical realism in García Márquez’s world is the mundanity of the magical, which often embellishes supernatural happenings with the kind of trivial detail, sometimes physical, that is usually used to describe ordinary, everyday events, thus weaving an illusion of objectivity which persuades the reader to suspend disbelief. Yet for Gabo, the magical, incredible elements of magical realism only seem that way to people who do not know the life of the Caribbean. For those who were born there, the world view of exaggeration and fable does not stand for reality – it is reality. In “The Autumn of the Patriarch”, a dictator sells the sea, the Caribbean, to the US and the nation is for evermore in thrall to the interests of big business, bankrupted by the local vultures picking over its bones. In “One Hundred Years of Solitude” a drop of blood flows purposefully from the body of a man who has just shot himself, coming to rest at the feet of the dead man’s mother. Thus the terrible reality of the death of a son is announced, clothed in the stories of ghosts, omens, portents and supernatural happenings which Gabo heard at his grandmother’s knee: tales that tell a truth which here, is tragedy.
But there is comedy, too. The bodily assumption of Remedios the Beauty into heaven happens one day at four o’clock when she is hanging out the washing. The fantastic extravagance of this and other events in the world of Macondo might appear to locate “Cien años” somewhere in the realm of the fairy story; that is, until we remember that in November 1950, when Gabo was a young man of twenty three, Pope Pius XII declared ex cathedra his infallible judgement of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven. For all Gabo’s poker face, and perhaps because of it, it is tempting to view some of the more outlandish elements of magical realism as a colossal send-up.
García Márquez’s ultimate intention, though, is deadly serious, as the central event at the heart of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” eloquently proclaims. In García Márquez’s evocation of these tragic events, and especially their aftermath, the “magic” side of the magical realism coin is very definitely enlisted in the service of what is real; this is where his main purpose is found. This climactic section of the novel gives an account of “the events that would deal Macondo its fatal blow” and deserves special attention here, partly because a very small part of Rabassa’s translation of that section – just one word, in fact – has been challenged in great detail. In fact, one expert has written a whole article about it. As a process of in-depth analysis, that critique illustrates the potential power of a single word to illuminate or to obscure meaning on many different levels. It also offers a fascinating insight into the various layers of communication that the writer conjures up and to which the reader may respond, consciously or unconsciously, in interpreting the text, certainly in the original and perhaps in the translation as well, provided it succeeds in capturing those nuances.
The witness to the tragic events that mark the beginning of the end of Macondo is José Arcadio Segundo, one of the third generation of Macondo’s founding dynasty, the Buendía family, and a great-nephew of the same Colonel Aureliano Buendía who faced the firing squad many decades before. This “fatal blow” to the town takes place during a strike when the workers of the all-powerful multinational banana company, led by José Arcadio Segundo, are fighting to get humane working conditions, payment in real money instead of credit notes that can only be spent on overpriced goods in company shops and freedom from a feudal relationship with the company that borders on slavery. On this day, the strikers and their families gather in the main town square at the railway station. It is a festive occasion, as the workers and their wives and children have been summoned by the authorities and are expecting to be addressed by their civil and military leaders about their rather modest demands. Instead, they are confronted by machine guns bristling on the roof-tops and a “many-headed dragon” of three regiments of soldiers who, after a brief stand-off, fire into the crowd. Many people die. The injured try to flee but most are trapped and killed by the dragon. José Arcadio Segundo rescues and holds aloft a small boy whose witness statement many years later takes up the narrative thread of the end of that terrible day:
“…the colossal troops wiped out the empty space, the kneeling woman, the light of the high, drought-stricken sky and the whorish world…” [my italics.]
The debate about Rabassa’s translation of this description focuses on one single word: his choice of “whorish” world to convey the “puto mundo” of the original Spanish. This is a crucial moment in the novel when the cool, detached mask of the narrator slips to unleash an anguished cry of despair at the fate of his town and its people. The pivotal significance of this moment in the novel is one reason given to justify taking the scalpel to Rabassa’s choice of this single word – “whorish” for “puto.” Although that may seem like over-zealous attention from “Professor Horroroso,” and something of an exaggeration to place such a burden of meaning and impact on just one word, the critique delves into many of the layers of the alchemy of translation, including its social and cultural dimensions, and provide a fascinating insight into how these diverse elements can interact to produce meaning and impact on the reader – or not.
The gist of the argument is as follows: technically, the choice of “whorish” for “puto” could be quite acceptable. A “puta” is a whore and as “puto” is the adjective made from that noun, “whorish” seems like a reasonable expression of the same idea in English. However, the issue here is not one of linguistic accuracy; it is something far less tangible, and perhaps all the more significant. Through a combination of tone, register and atmosphere, the original Spanish evokes a sudden intrusion of the narrator’s emotional reaction to the events he witnesses. This effect, the critic argues, is absent in the sanitised, somewhat clinical English phrase used to translate “puto mundo”.
It is true that in English, “whorish” has a rather elevated, poetic ring to it, detached and lofty, almost like a line from the King James version of the Bible. The equivalent word used in Spanish, though, is much more colloquial, even vulgar. “Este puto diente me está matando,” might come out in English as, “this damned tooth is killing me,” or this “bloody” tooth, but most probably, this “fucking” tooth. According to the critics, “este puto mundo” – “this fucking world” – signals a complete break from the narrator’s customary cool, dead-pan delivery, revealing his emotional involvement and despair at the events unfolding as he bears witness to them. In Spanish, that single word is a literary slap in the face to the reader, a red flag that proclaims, “look, wake up, this is real.”
Except there is something else that is even more real: the cover-up, the denial that what happened actually happened. In the aftermath of the strike the authorities declare that there weren’t any dead. There weren’t even any workers, because, technically, the company had no actual employees, only casual labour. Nothing happened, nothing ever happens in Macondo, the happy non-workers left the square and returned home in peaceful groups, the truth is magicked out of existence with no talisman other than the power of words. But language is the most powerful talisman of all, and in Macondo it is enlisted in the service of the black arts that distort, transform and deny reality until the truth, like the dead, vanishes in a puff of smoke.
Yet José Arcadio Segundo knows that hundreds, thousands of people were massacred on that day, were transported on a death train that sped towards the sea, where they were dumped, for he woke up on that train himself surrounded by their bodies. But then, the townspeople who are left have their hands full surviving the torrential rains that last four years, eleven months and two days, conjured up by the bosses of the multi-national banana company which, decades earlier, had invaded Macondo, taken over the town, bloated its economy, colonised it with foreign oligarchs and their families, ruined the environment, and enslaved the people. The rains provide cover for the company to abandon the country and they also wipe out any lingering memory of the terrible events, the destruction and the loss of vitality that accelerate Macondo’s decline and final decay. Here, García Márquez’s magical realism peers out on a world in thrall to evil and beguiled by lies, with the collusion, conscious and unconscious, of those who ought to have been its witnesses.
This is not fiction. Or at least, it is not only fiction. On December 6th, 1928, a year after García Márquez’s birth, striking workers employed by the United Fruit Company, a US multi-national, were gunned down in the town square of Ciénaga in the north of Gabo’s home country of Colombia while waiting to be addressed by the governor after Sunday Mass. The general who gave the order claimed to be acting on the instructions of the United Fruit Company itself, to avert an American invasion by US warships waiting in the bay, ready to protect American interests. The number of casualties of the Banana Massacre, as it is called, is not known for certain even today. All that exists are estimates, which range from a total of forty seven fatalities to two thousand, depending on the source .
So, it turns out that novelists are not the only people who can do what they want, as long as they make people believe in it. Politicians, governments, newspapers, are also adepts at the alchemy of translating reality, rewriting it, making the illusory real, and vice versa: what today we might call propaganda. Or spin.
It is ironic that the accounts of real-life events created by these self-proclaimed truth-tellers can so readily be transmuted to a web of lies; and that the tales told by writers, including the fictions and fantasies of magical realism, can illuminate truths. The Peruvian novelist and Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa sums this up in the introduction to his critical analysis of twentieth century fiction, “La verdad de las mentiras” [“The Truth About Lies”]. Writers tell lies – create fiction – in order to expose the truth, and although there is a difference between truth in literature and truth in the real world, in history:
“…even though literature is riddled with lies – or rather, because of it – literature tells the historical truths that historians cannot tell…Because the tricks, the sleights-of-hand, the exaggerations which narrative literature uses, serve to express profound, disturbing truths that only in this oblique way can ever come to light.”
A novel may be an invention, but a good novel translates reality into art in order to tell the truth. The fiction of Gabriel García Márquez shines a light on oppression and bears witness to its consequences, thus revealing reality more truly than the history books or the newspapers. His magic is in the service of reality.
Although many of the reflections made here on the translations of García Márquez’s work have focused on objections and challenges to specific elements of the English texts, it important to emphasise the hugely significant service which the work of Rabassa and Grossman has made to millions of English-speaking readers in giving us access to the greatest writer in Spanish since Cervantes. Some critics would go much further and credit the creation of the Latin American Literary Boom, which includes Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and others, to translation – thus, creation and transformation on a world scale.
So far, at the time of writing, about three and a half years after García Márquez’s death, the work of Rabassa and Gossman are the only authoritative translations of his work into English. This might be a good time to wonder whether these are the definitive translations or if, indeed, such as thing as a definitive translation really exists. Is the creative translation touched by a magic which lasts forever? Or is this an inherently transient art, carrying within it the seeds of its obsolescence, doomed one day to fade and vanish from sight? Language and its uses shift, gather new connotations which distort old meanings. Expressions of register and tone lose, and gain, formality. Even the traditional linear reading of a book from left to right, from beginning to end, has already splintered, offering alternative universes of hypertext, searches and an interactive, co-creating reader – inventions that are already old hat to some writers and readers, and as new and exciting to others as the discovery of ice to Colonel Aureliano Buendía as a young boy. Thus, according to Gregory Rabassa:
“While the original endures and remains eternally young, the translation ages and must be replaced.”
Happily for Gabo’s readers and for his translators of the future, the creative work of translation, though touched by magic, is not carved in stone. Alchemy, yes – but not the elixir of eternal youth.
This article first appeared in Colony in October, 2014.
Bolaños Cuéllar, Sergio (2011) Gregory Rabassa’s Views on Translation. www.scielo.org.co/pdf/fyf/v24n1/v24n1a06.pdf
Grossman, Edith (2003) Speech delivered at the 2003 PEN tribute to Gabriel García Márquez, New York City, November 5th, 2003 : www.themodernword.com/gabo/gabo_PEN_grossman.html
Hoeksema, Thomas (1978) “An interview with Gregory Rabassa”, in Translation Review, Vol 1, 1978. http://translation.utdallas.edu/Interviews/Rabassaby_Hoeksema.html, Accessed October 6th, 2014.
Jasso, Damon (2004) Historical Backgrounds: the United Fruit Massacre and Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude http://www.class.uh.edu/courses/engl3322/djasso/, Accessed October 6th, 2014.
McCutcheon, Dr. James, (2009) “A key word in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude,” in Translation Journal, Vol 13 No 3, July, 2009. http://translationjournal.net/journal//49garciamarquez.htm
Rabassa, Gregory (2005) If this be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents: a Memoir
p 102. Extract accessible at http://books.google.es/books?id=gOrPqFzNN-IC&pg=PA102&lpg=PA102&dq=gabo+shit+barrier&source=bl&ots=R3nmnTARB7&sig=ZRezYIrx7IKjp-GRKnefT2URcbw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=6XcyVLbVKJGM7AaAwICQDg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=gabo%20shit%20barrier&f=false, Accessed October 6th, 2014
Salisbury, Maria Cecila (1993) “The making of a translator: an interview with Edith Grossman,” in Translation Review, Vol 41, 1993. http://translation.utdallas.edu/Interviews/EdithGrossmanTR_41.html, Accessed October 6th, 2014.
Stone, Peter H. (1981) “Interviews: Gabriel García Márquez, The Art of Fiction No 69,” Winter 1981, No 82. http://www.the+paris+review+garcia+marquez&form=PRSAMS&pc=MASMJS&mkt=en-ie&pq=the+paris+review+garcia+marquez&sc=0-17&sp=-1&qs=n&sk
Vargas Llosa, Mario (2002) La Verdad de las Mentiras Madrid: Santillana Ediciones Generales.
Newspaper articles and blogs consulted
Borges, Jorge Luis (1969) “El oficio de traducir IV: del prólogo de su selección de Hojas de hierba, de Walt Whitman,” Buenos Aires: Ed. Lumen, 1969, Consulted on Blog de Club de Traductores Literarios de Buenos Aires: http://clubdetraductoresliterariosdebaires.blogspot.ie/2009/09/el-oficio-de-traducir-iv.html
Kennedy, William (October 31st, 1976) “A Stunning Portrait of a Monstrous Caribbean Tyrant,” The New York Times Books. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/15/reviews/marque-autumn.html Accessed October 9th, 2014.
Parini, Jay (March 8th, 2007) “The greatness of Gabriel García Márquez,” The Guardian Books Blog. http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2007/mar/08/thegreatnessofgabrielgarci. Accessed October 9th, 2014.
The Literary Man (May 2, 2012) “Gabriel García Márquez: a Tale of Two Translators.” http://literaryman.com/2012/05/02/gabriel-garcia-marquez-a-tale-of-two-translators/ Accessed October 9th, 2014.
Vox, Thursday September 4th, 2014, “He’s universal: a eulogy for Gabriel García Márquez, from his translator.” http://www.vox.com/2014/4/20/5628860/hes-universal-a-eulogy-for-gabriel-garcia-marquez-from-his-translator. Accessed October 9th, 2014.
Main works of García Márquez consulted
Gabriel García Márquez (1967) Cien años de soledad, Digital Edition: Random House March 2012.
Gabriel García Márquez (1978) One Hundred Years of Solitude, London: Pan/Picador Books. Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, 1970.
Gabriel García Márquez (1981) Crónica de una muerta anunciada, New York: Vintage Espanol.
Gabriel García Márquez (1983) Chronicle of a Death Foretold, New York: Knopf.
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.
Gabriel García Márquez (1975) El otoño del patriarca, Barcelona: Random House.
Gabriel García Márquez (1976) The Autumn of the Patriarch, Digital Edition: Penguin Books, 2014.
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, 1970.
Bill Manhire, (2017) “Some Things to Place in a Coffin,” by Bill Manhire,
Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017.
ISBN: 978 -1 -776561 -056. NZ $25.00 + $10 P & P from
VUP at http://vup.victoria.ac.nz/some-things-to-place-in-a-coffin/
Seven years after his last collection, Bill Manhire, first poet laureate of New Zealand and father of the creative writing programme at Victoria University, from which he is now retired, has produced this beautiful collection.
The title, from a poem dedicated to his late friend, artist Ralph Hotere (who painted the cover image), alerts us to the theme of many of the poems. But there is little gloom here. In fact, Manhire is refreshingly unsentimental, which gives the poems more impact than if he had resorted to dramatic devices. Committed to a sense of exploration, he approaches the subject of death from oblique angles, working with associations rather than direct references. Take, for example, this poem commissioned for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme (it forms part of the ‘Known unto God’ sequence):
My last letter home
turned out entirely pointless.
I wrote whizz-bang
a dozen times
to try and say the noises.
By focusing on a tangential detail with such distilled language, the larger context of war is intensified. Other poems in this sequence are set further afield – Cairo, Dunedin, Taieri Mouth – making the experience of war universal.
Equally understated is the sequence ‘The Beautiful World’, where beauty is bound to mercurial moments. We are given glimpses, enough to make us think we understand, but then the moment that we thought would define beauty vanishes into the past, into a book, among trees. Sometimes, the moment is threatening; men shout and want to break down doors. But they, too, leave. What remains is an essence of the moment, dreamlike – a memory that is charged with presence.
Memory itself runs through the collection as a kind of leitmotif. We are introduced to the subject with characteristic subtlety in the first poem (How Memory Works):
Come over here
we say to the days that disappear.
No, over here.
There is also wit and humour in the collection, delivered in a jaunty conversational style, as well as autobiographical poems. The myriad moods are complemented by close attention to rhythm and the effect that rhyme and assonance can have on the overall momentum and force of a few lines. They are delivered in a variety of forms: sonnet, prose poems that could also be flash fiction, song, one-liners, a scathing take on the ‘Election Address’ (delivered to the residents of End-of-the-Line). The diversity of form is suggestive of a poet who is not satisfied to sit on his laurels but cares about probing the possibilities of poetry.
Curiously, the most significant poem in the collection, ‘Some Things to Place in a Coffin’, is perhaps the least gratifying in that it is a list of things, some tangible, some not. No doubt the items have personal meaning for the poet and his late friend, but for the reader (this one, at least) they lack the evocative note and delicate treatment that other poems have received.
Nevertheless, the collection has everything that good poetry should have: simplicity coupled with surprise, striking imagery, thought given to space on the page, a lightness of touch that takes us to serious depths, all elegantly crafted and ultimately a delight.
Kate Camp is an award-winning New Zealand poet whose sixth collection, “The Internet of Things,” is an arresting fusion of the everyday and the numinous. The title is mischievous, for the internet we encounter in Camp’s realm is not the world wide web of search engines and social media, but the interconnections of memories, desires and regret, murmured to the reader as though speaking quietly to an intimate friend. And the ‘things’ are not the high-tech appliances that will soon fill our smart homes – robots to clean the windows, fridges to monitor our diet. Rather, they are the artefacts of a simpler time and place, evoked in the cover photograph of John Lennon’s family kitchen, stacked with old oven and enamel pots and pans of a familiar, comforting past.
The title poem sets the scene with its evocation of a beloved time that is gone: “working ports/rust and containers/ the way unwieldy ships move across the water.” This opening sonnet glides effortlessly through a remembered visit to the family home of the Beatles, in particular John Lennon’s aunt Mimi, “that difficult woman/unfolding her camp bed in the dining room.” There are yearnings here and regret at the tendency of humans “always to wish for the wrong thing.” We are stumbling through a fairy tale, not quite blindly but perhaps mesmerised, as in the later poems, resigned to the boredom of bad choices made, when “You fall into disaster with the dull familiarity of the snake.” The collection at the outset creates a sense of predictability, where making “bad choices” is not only inevitable but “exceptionally boring.”
One aspect of Kate Camp’s gift is to make the familiar strange, melding the mundane and the mythic. A gathering of friends, ephemeral yet caught in memory, recalls the trick a friend played at the end of a game of badminton with four shuttlecocks “all at once/they flew from the racquet as magician’s doves/to the net where they hung, white in the dusk;” a poached egg at breakfast “for disappointed hopes and poached eggs/go hand in hand;” and yes, a new-fangled item, an electric car which startles the reader as much as it seems to bemuse the writer, along with the “surprisingly large swans.” And the joy of recognition in a Rembrandt “And there they are!” is not for the sublime alchemy of the master’s “cross-hatched lines /of shade” or the “world of depth/of leaves and branches” that they evoke but for “The slippers of St. Jerome/like those white towelling freebies from a hotel.” In the poet’s idiosyncratic vision, the most eye-catching feature of the saint’s companion lion is his “two or three sweet whiskers.” Though in the next poem, which ventures an interpretation of the same painting, she wonders “what would stop him turning from his post/and taking Jerome in his mouth like a joint of meat…” The everyday, the familiar, may be comfortable and comforting, but it still has the power to devour you.
The sense of resignation that opens the book does not last. Instead, it gives way to wry musings on the uncertainties that lurk under the surface of the web of what-might-have-beens: “This would be cherry blossom time/if there were any cherry trees here/if there were any blossoms.” And the internet we readers know, the one we use to do searches and shopping, is not completely absent. It is “out there somewhere/full of abandoned carts.” A glorious image of forsaken supermarket trolleys, clattering around in cyberspace.
In the final poem, “Antimony,” the predictable and the uncertain are fused: the poet is a woman on the prow of a ship, finally rooted in the “reckoning point” of an eternal present, where she sees “everything in front of me/and everything behind me” . It is a satisfying ending to the ebb and flow of memory and feeling. The tension of this simultaneous backward and forward movement is conveyed in the poet’s subtle craft: lines long and stately, interspersed with staccato phrases and rhythm; assonance, rhyme and half-rhyme an invisible scaffold, holding the spider’s web of this internet of things together in quiet, slow-burning harmony.