Thank you for allowing me to give the W G Sebald Lecture this year – looking back at the roll call of impressive previous speakers I can only feel honoured to be here while also wondering if this is all a mistake. When I considered Sebald I was both worried and reassured. Sebald was a respected man of letters in the European sense – Sebald, the international intellectual. Sebald, the German. Sebald the man who could not forget the Holocaust. Sebald the voluntary exile. Sebald the Notenglish man living in England. Sebald the man I saw once at a conference and found too imposing a figure to even approach. But this was also Sebald the man whose mind I can enter, whose voice I can hear in my head, translated into words and out from words – Sebald whose observations, whose thinking, can please me as beauty does – whose despair can give me company in my own and therefore be, in fact, a kind of hope. His work says – as in a way all authors do – here is my anguish but hear and feel and know how it becomes this music which can enter your thinking, enter your breathing, your lungs rising and falling with the breath of another, with the breath of multiple others: a man walking in Suffolk, a teacher who was once a soldier, a man whose family has been destroyed, the ghosts and fragile, strange decisions of that family. W G Sebald was a writer and therefore my friend, not only because I am a smaller writer, but still a writer, but also because I am a reader and because I am a human being. Sebald, a man acutely aware of how badly wrong cultures can go, was himself part of how right cultures can go, what riches they can contain and what safeguards.
His is a large name for me to live up to. I was relieved to notice one reference to him on the internet – the source of all truth and none at all – the reference was tagged with the three keywords – Depression, Emptiness, German. I can tick two of those boxes. In this lecture, I would like to look a little at the practical reality for an author of having work translated, of the language of one heart passing to another. And although I do believe in the horror of human nature and the terrible capacity of the human imagination to produce destruction, I do believe that our imaginations can also save us, that our emptiness can become positive – a space for light to enter in, for a need that reaches out others in humility, a need to speak, a need to create. I also believe that depression can be a sane response to an insane world, but then also something we move beyond, something we banish with imagination and with multiple acts of translation – small and large. And this won’t be a lecture which needs – I hope – the Keywords: Depression, Emptiness, Scottish – I hope it will be clearly a statement about an activity which has brought me great joy: writing – and which is a part of greater joys – the joy of defending humanity, exploring and preserving what it is to be human – the joy of making something out of nothing and giving it to strangers – the joy of dreaming and making those dreams take a shape comprehensible to others – the joy of being translated – joy at a level of transcendence that St Jerome might have understood. I can’t guarantee that – he seemed to have very fixed ideas about what was and wasn’t proper in women’s behaviour – I probably wouldn’t have been ascetic enough for him – and he loved a good tussle over doctrine, had very firm opinions on what was and wasn’t a sound way to view this world and the world he envisaged beyond it. St Jerome a much-travelled translator, a man who explored extremities, who moved between both luxury and tombs, uncanny darkness and relieving light. I mention him because these lectures used to bear his name – which I find interesting. If you’re a translator, he’s your patron saint. And of librarians and encyclopaedists… If he does take an interest, he would find Britain today a rather disheartening place.
But back to translation – when we work in any art – in my case in writing – this involves a series of translations, some undertaken inadvertantly or instinctively and some undertaken with a sense of purpose. Our aim, I hope, is to move from one heart to another, while retaining as much truth as possible, balancing individuality which is convincing on a number of levels – a sense of personality in characters and in the author’s narrative voice and presence, in settings, in choice of time and place – balancing that specificity with a need for accessibility to other individuals in other times and places – human beings about whom the artist – in this case the author – knows nothing. Rather than allowing this to make us bland, or to compromise, in fact, the need to be translated even if we remain in our own language, drives us into a type of deep simplicity – we push further and further into a more and more fundamental understanding of human nature and press ourselves to make plain what we find – and in this, we find our best hope for universality. And this is something that half-formed art, unfinished art, the shadowy imitations of art, the use of art as propaganda does not understand. This is why, in the long run, that kind of art doesn’t last well. Sadly, it can also encourage the destruction of the art that could – of the art which can lend us, which can lend human beings, an access to the edge of immortality. The acts of Barbarism and Vandalism which lawyer and campaigner Raphael Lemkin identified as precursors of genocide. We first destroy in effigy and then in reality. We first destroy the beauty which others can make – that which makes them seem miraculous, which brings their breathing close. We first destroy those artefacts which give them both specificity and universality. We take away the power that art can wield to celebrate, to please and to defend them. Then we can destroy them – those human beings – when it’s bee made easy and easier to to do that.
The translation of imagination into an artefact is, I feel, often undervalued particularly in the UK at the edge of the 21st Century. The activity of imagination, working as it does to produce alternatives to reality, is of huge importance when we consider our political and moral futures as a group. And when we consider the translation of one mind into the opened representation of another fictional mind, one which does not exist in reality and therefore is free to be inhabited in depth by a reader – which has been built with that intention, to receive – having been inhabited in depth by an author – that has huge implications for our political and moral futures as individuals. The constant action of art as a medium to give us ways of seeing which are not – or not yet – our own – ways of being which are not – or not yet – our own, is hugely important in our relationships with others and our understanding of others. You will be familiar with the saying that if you want to understand a man – a person other than yourself – then you should walk a mile in that individual’s shoes. Writing can give us a very specific and detailed way of putting on those shoes, as can art in general when it is functioning effectively. The obverse would be represented by the almost equally old joke – “If you want to understand a man, walk a mile in his shoes – then you’ll be a mile away from him and you’ll have his shoes.” Poorly made art, unfinished art, slapdash or malign art, dark art – it steals from those it touches and distances us from our humanity – it divides the world into thieves with ill-fitting shoes and barefoot victims and sets an uncrossable distance between them. When any culture is filled with what I would call cheap and nasty replacements for art: reality TV, ghost written misery memoirs, boil-in-the-bag reproductions of previous successes, vehicles for thuggish propaganda, loveless sex, degraded intimacy, celebrity promotions with minimal human content, exploitations with little or no regard for their audience, vehicles for hate – this isn’t simply unpleasant and boring, it’s dangerous. This produces a sick culture – a vessel for the kind of hair trigger anxiety, despair and isolation which makes consumers and voters both destructive and self-destructive and increasingly vulnerable to further manipulation. We may not like to think that we are affected by our environments, but we are every day, almost every moment, translated from one state to another by our surroundings and part of those surroundings are built up from our art, from our words. This places a clear burden upon any writer, any artist, to make prudent use of their influence in a wider cultural setting. If we forget our place in the world, or never seek to define it, our cultures have a tendency to travel along a gradient of lowering effort and lowering cost – when our culture doesn’t remind us of who we are, let us share breaths, bodies, lives – then we’re apart – either predators or victims, with no other options shown to be available – the next steps we take can be fatal. Sebald was aware of how fatal and Germany – rich in contact with other cultures before WWII and then slowly poisoned by Dark Art, its flaws and fears magnified – Germany still fights to retain a powerful sense of how precious culture is and the massively important purpose that it serves. And this is not to say that art must preach, or be bent to the service of parties, or interests, restrained into some kind of dutiful, politically correct mumbling about goodness and comfort. If art is functioning at full tilt, pursuing its nature, opening us to each other, displaying lives with understanding, making other worlds possible, believable, inhabitable – in that case, it is only being itself fully and effectively and simply. But that is enough to save us, in as far as we can be saved – poor, frail, dying creatures that we are. In the light of which – we deserve beauty all the more.
I’d note here, briefly, how much UK publishing in its vigorous heyday owed to immigrants and the children of immigrants: Victor Gollancz, (who published among others -Ford Madox Ford (or Ford Herman Hueffer) George Weidenfeld, (who published, among others, Nabokov) Fredric Warburg, Martin Secker (born Percy Martin Secker Klingenden – who published, among others Gunter Grass and Alberto Moravia) William Heinneman – we’re used to these names, they seem familiar these actually very European names, often German names, but they brought with them a passion for culture – often the culture they saw being evaporated in the 1930’ and 40’s in Europe and beyond. UK publishers once had a commitment to literature, a vivid understanding of disastrous cultural manipulation and destruction, of the dangers inherent in weak literatures, the forgetting of our inheritance of thought. I would argue that this has either faded, or been constrained in this country of multi-media mega-corporations and the bottom line, in this country where 3% of books published annually will be translated from any language, in this country of self-fulfilling prophesies – this inward-looking island that shouts at its neighbours and worries when it hears people speaking foreign languages on trains, this country that does not listen well and does not read widely, that has to fight to even make the attempt.
I’m not a translator, although I know that there are very likely people who translate in the audience, certainly people who know far more about translation than I do, or most likely ever will. I do understand how deeply indebted I am to my own translators for allowing my work to live in countries and languages beyond Britain. I don’t say “countries and languages beyond my own” because clearly I have problems with the UK’s culture – parts of it are in an alarming condition. And, as an author, although I understand the need for specificity and its paradoxical production of universality – I am nervous of being labelled as a British author or a Scottish author, because this so often leads to sterile discussions about national characteristics and cannons. What has always interested me as reader and as an author has been the universal access afforded by literature – to walk down Nevsky Prospekt with Gogol before I walked there myself, to be in despair and London with R.L.Stevenson – I’ve visited both – to long for Moscow with Chekhov and then go there and never quite be allowed to reach 6 Sadovaya – Kudrinskaya Street in Presnensky and see his house, to weep over Jaoa Ubaldo Ribeiro’s terrible terrible sergeant in Sergeant Getulio and over Ribeiro’s wonderful, wonderful Invincible Memory, built of our memories, of our words and dreams, given to me through the medium of Brazil – a country I have never visited.
I’ll begin by addressing my debt to translation and translators – first of all the people who gave me Gogol and Chekhov and Calvino and Ribeiro and Mann and Mann and Grass and Hrabel and Krasnahorkai and Perucho and Alfau and Marques and so many other massive translations in all senses – the ones I became addicted to when I was a student, when there were those white-spine Picador books that would take me anywhere and so many other open doors and possibilities and it could be hoped that we would do better and learn more and remember that translations might sell – even if they didn’t involve murders or TV tie-ins.
My own work has been transferred into a number of other languages: among them, French, German, Estonian, Greek, Armenian, Hungarian – some languages with which I’m passingly familiar, or in which I might just be able to buy a railway ticket – languages which are recorded using alphabets I can manage to decode and those which utilise symbols entirely beyond me. It’s a privilege to have my words go so far and be so changed, while also remaining, in many respects, the same.
And, of course, being translated means that my income can increase without my workload having to increase at all – and such a circumstance would be remarkable and helpful for most people and is particularly remarkable and helpful for a writer. I’m not alone amongst British writers in being increasingly supported by income from sales of German translations, although I’m a writer living in the UK and writing in English. The openness to translated work of Germany in particular stands as a depressing contrast to the UK’s current impermiability. It’s fatal to be a writer locked out of even a good translation of someone as prominent as Geza Csath, to know so little of how the rest of the world is moving, to hear only distant voices from Africa, or the Middle East, ex-patriot voices. To arrive in countries as a visitor and not be able to name one living author you have read from that whole nation. It’s shameful and my loss, my nation’s loss, the thinking portion of my nation’s loss. And it’s embarrassing to be supported so wholeheartedly by countries I know my local literature does not support in return.
It also can seem slightly distasteful to mention income when one talks about something – in this case writing – which is a vocation, which affects the heart, which provides joy and fulfilment, something which is an art. But obviously if an artist cannot support him or herself through the practice of their art and has no other means of support, then they have to make alternative financial arrangements and that means they have less time to practice their vocation, less time to produce artefacts that are hopefully of use to others and a source of satisfaction to themselves, artefacts that enrich their surrounding culture. Time and money are connected and we can’t ignore this. It is probably healthy to agree that money cannot ever genuinely buy art – it’s too important to be bought, But we need to be realistic about money’s role in procuring time to work and expertise to apply within that work. I mention this partly because I’m resident of a country where everything from learning to health to the incarceration of wrongdoers is increasingly evaluated in solely financial terms. This, of course, makes it increasingly hard to justify arts activity in this country – or indeed the provision of opportunities for learning or healthcare or functional and socially sustainable methods of incarceration. And, of course, the arts are part of how we might express dismay at this state of affairs and how we might also express why human beings could, or even should deserve better and generally be defended from harm. And – it has to be said – artists and writers become part of this problem when they have to break off from their work, or compromise because they have to look after their loved ones, pay their bills, ensure their children are educated and healthy and not incarcerated. It’s sometimes hard to remember that writers who live in countries with very little censorship or restraint need to work all the more passionately to preserve our communal well-being and – one would like to hope – in order to push tiny transformations towards those who are less fortunate and less free. Democracy, or an illusion of democracy can make us lazy, financial strain can make us selfish – this can mean we end in silence and bad work just as surely as those who are under threat, or those who are threatened with hardships and pains if they don’t write as they are told to.
Returning specifically to translation – having my work translated means that I will quite often be asked to travel abroad at others’ expense in order to promote that work and, while I do so, I will very often be looked after kindly. My words, in my absence, can make links to readers in cultures with which I am perhaps not at all familiar and those readers’ responses to my work – coming as they do from new and sometimes challenging, or surprising perspectives – can be particularly informative and moving. And all these effects of translation are lovely things: precisely the kind of things I might have imagined for myself if I had ever anticipated being a published author – if my imagination had ever hoped so wildly, so ambitiously, to go so far and to be so changed while remaining, in some respects, the same.
But these lovely things are not the important things about being translated – my being indulged is no more essential to my art than money – and can have just as malign an influence – and I would rather talk here about key moments of translation – firstly moments when the process of having my work translated, has also translated me – when I have been moved to a place of greater understanding and changed in a way that has allowed me to become more fully myself. I do think that one of the effects one might hope for when practicing an art would be that one becomes more fully oneself – not because oneself is especially wonderful, but simply because it is an individual’s only option in the real world and – having only one life one would wish to make the most of it.
The first translator I ever talked to with any seriousness – more than twenty years ago – was Ingo Herzke, at that time one of a group of German students who had arranged a small tour of universities there for me, before I was really known or translated in Germany. Ingo attended my readings then and heard my voice reading my voice, as it were, having read my work in English, and we also had enough time to discuss my aim to keep music, the sense of physical voice and the body that produces it at the heart of my writing. We talked and we shared enthusiasm and we liked each other, we got on. This was a point – early in my career – when I was able to clarify a truth which might have been lost, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore it with someone else. Ingo has a great ear. He’s a highly intelligent reader and he has a sense of the dignity of his profession – he’s very clear that translation isn’t just transcription, that it cannot ever be successful if it involves a loss of beauty. He helped me to realise that a true – if we can use that word – translator is both a writer and a reader. As an idea comes to me to be expressed and I must be the medium for it, so Ingo receives my rendering of that idea which I thought important enough to impose upon others and he expresses it. We both pass on – hopefully – meaning and emotion in the language of our hearts with some kind of commitment from those hearts. And perhaps authors – who can feel themselves the “source” of material can become overly fond of themselves and their importance and perhaps translators – who can feel themselves simply the servants of something pre-existing, or certainly be treated as if they are, perhaps they can dismiss themselves and not overly important. I love that Ingo doesn’t dismiss himself and that we can work together in a way that is very close with regard to text and yet actually very independent when you consider us as people. In comparison to other translators he always gives me the lowest number of queries, because he’s taken the time to understand me, my voice and the specific piece he’s been given to work on. He applies himself practically to make the piece as much of itself as it can be – just as I hope I do, just as I hope any translator, or indeed editor would. We all serve the thing itself, the words, and seek to define the best way to realise the idea and the words that hold it, using the terms the piece provides as it grows and matures and becomes more clearly defined – this is the virtuous cycle towards which we aim – a dynamic and exciting process outside rigid guidelines.
And it’s unsurprising and I think important to note that Ingo can read aloud from any of his authors, can add his voice to theirs, with precisely appropriate levels of clarity and emotion – and here we have to remember that reading aloud is not the same as acting – it’s a more an energetic setting forth of words which are designed to speak for themselves on the page, with only the minimum of added heat from the reader’s attention. It’s been my pleasure to have Ingo as my Deutsche Stimme, my German voice, for prose, drama and journalism – all my German work. But when we met for those initial few days, we only knew that we felt the meaning of language was, naturally, hugely important – but also understood what I would hope any text would acknowledge and exploit – the fact that part of its meaning is carried in melody, rhythm, syncopation, silence. Neurologically speaking, even reading inwardly to ourselves contains much that is concerned with live sound. And sometimes, the musical imperative may mean that my language is pressed into unconventional forms so that the whole can be as it should: hopefully coherent and effective.
My discussions with Ingo clarified this for the first time and it scared me to realise this was true – but here it was – the truth. For a few months thereafter, I felt as if a metallic kind of shadow was hovering over me. I had a perception that I had chosen to take a terrible risk and possibly even to act irrationally as I wrote, when I’m at heart a docile, violently and Calvinistically educated Scot and was always taught that there should be a pattern to follow, one size fits all, for any activity. I was brought up believing that complex rules and theories would keep me safe – if only I could fence myself in with them firmly enough, I’d be able to relax. Naturally, this isn’t a great policy in life and it makes art almost impossible – art can’t be safe. An artist limiting themselves, clinging to theories, not responding dynamically to their own work – that’s an artist fighting their own art. It takes a while to discover that – especially as arts activity is increasingly commodified and – if you’re being sold a training in, say, Creative Writing, then you might feel short changed if you don’t get a whole bucket of regulations and theories that will ensure success. And you may be taught within an academic establishment used to producing research, theories, guidelines – and unable to offer writers what they need which is opportunities to learn from their own experience and that of others, self-knowledge, understanding of voice and the insight that will allow them to tear up whatever pats of the rule book do not apply.
With Ingo I had been one human being talking to another – initially a stranger, who owed me nothing but who chose to listen to me because my work had provided my introduction. And it seemed clear that simple, flexible methodologies and craft skills, organically-developed philosophies, were the key to advancing in my craft and art. Any rules, any imperatives would be built around what seems to be the human necessity to speak, to be compelled by matters of urgent relevance and urgent beauty into expression and the creation of further beauty for strangers. The pressing ideas which introduce themselves to us and which introduce a deep part of who we are and what we care for to the mind of another – to many minds, one at a time – as an intimate gift, an intimate act – these ideas can’t be governed by academic, or literary concerns, by critical theories, or political, or social theories. We can react to them, or be informed by them – but our speech, our right to that speech – that is a free thing and its only obligation is to be comprehensible, beautiful and, according to its own logic and nature, true. This lack of regulation offers us the work of a lifetime, an endless progress and process of realisation. It also perhaps helps to make clear the moral obligations of the artist to their wider context and their individual readers and themselves, because it makes clear the fact that the expression of heartfelt importance can drive our continuing education – it can help us grow as artists as nothing else will. It also prevents us clogging up other human beings’ limited lifespans with substandard work and allows us to contribute to the cultural climate of our own and other countries.
Ingo and I spoke about this and for the first time – really because I am a solitary person and a solitary writer – I found that I was talking in detail about my work and doing so with certainty – my certainty surprised me – and I was speaking with what we might call a dispassionate passion. I was looking at what I had done as if it were not personal to me and that allowed me to see rather more of its nature than I had before and yet I was allowing myself to care about it, to care about advancing it as close to its ideal form as I could. I was finally beginning to operate within one of writing’s other valuable paradoxes – that of the dispassionately passionate writer – the author who is warmly devoted to the possibilities of a piece, but who will work on them without mercy. This allows us to serve whatever has come to us to be expressed. At the time it allowed me to worry about my ability to serve my work adequately and also be excited about where my future might lie. Those worries and that excitement persist and I am glad of both of them.
And Ingo is my translator with a kind of organic success. I will say that if I hear Ingo read me – and I have sat onstage with him dozens of times – or if I hear someone else read Ingo’s translations – I find the music I intended there held intact. He genuinely has produced my German Voice. When my German wasn’t wonderful I could still recognise which passage was being read, by its melody. (And incidentally, hearing your own prose being read over and over in another language, is a very good way to begin learning that language – you are effectively listening to how you will sound when you already can communicate using it. You are hearing your voice preempting your education.)
And I can’t be grateful enough that anyone would be able to make one set of words both sing in very much the same way and say very much the same thing as another completely different set of words – that’s a kind of miracle, in fact. But being around Ingo so near the start of my career, as I say, helped me to look at one of the key parts of my work – this need for a good tune, this balance between sense and presence. Beyond this, he highlighted my horrible love of double meanings. English is full of double meanings and – again, initially without quite intending – I pursue then in my prose with a kind of obsession and while US copy editors and some other translators will pepper me with questions about whether I meant to have such and such an ambiguity when surely I should pick one meaning or another and stick with it… Well, I want both meanings. As long as they don’t render each other nonsensical, as long as they belong together – I’m greedy for multiple meanings – if they’re there, they’re there to be used by writers, surely. And I know that layered meaning will impact, at least subconsciously, with the reader – whether they’re puns or the stacked resonances of words like heat, cold, depth – and that’s what I intend. Ingo knew that and knows it still and reproduces equivalent effects in a language notorious for adding word length, without actually increasing the mass of the books by that much – partly because he doubles meanings, he preserves layers – among other things – and partly because, as I often tell him – he skips the dull bits and makes me look good for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And he bends conventional German in clever and poetic ways and I thank him.
One more moment of translation – this one has been repeated a few times, but the first was the most educational. There is always a day for you as a writer when the queries arrive from your translator. Once upon a time these would be a few sheets of paper holding line and page references, now they’ll most likely be an email attachment, or some kind of sophisticated interactive document with expanding comment boxes and so forth – the kind of thing which would be a good idea if the software ever quite performed as advertised. And sometimes these notes are simply requests for clarification or guidance and one can feel that one is meeting a like mind. There would be a hope that this would happen often because someone chose to translate you because they somehow “got” your work. But obviously translators may be assigned by publishers in a fairly arbitrary way and translators may want to earn a living rather than simply sticking preciously to work they really love and I can’t comment on that kind of decision and how it might affect them and their work. I will say that occasionally the queries I’ve received have made me feel that I haven’t written as I should by being overtly critical, if not actually rude – which I find unhelpful, really. It’s hard to trust someone to render you into another language when they have contempt for what you do. That feeling of having failed as a writer may also come from the content of questions – after all, if this or that phrase or passage could be so completely misunderstood then either I should retire myself as incompetent– or ask if I can have another translator, which always, in my experience, seems to prove impossible. Either I am a moron, or my words are not in safe hands. Perhaps both. The translators who seem to have had the greatest difficulty with both phrases and passages also – this is hardly surprising – have trouble with individual words. For example, they will ask me what I mean by “heat”, or “light”, or “to fly” or “to run”. There are questions about these very basic, simple words – rarely about very polysyllabic, elevated words And here – in an area that can be immensely frustrating – because what I mean by heat is heat – here I have also found immense enlightenment. Because when I use a simple word with wide resonance, I always really do strenuously mean the translator should use that simple word, the most basic word – if I’m being simple, I mean to be simple – I want the word you used when you were a child, the one embedded in your heart, the one you laboriously learned the shape of, the first one you met, the deepest one, the one with the most echoes
So in French we would go to chaleur, because in chaleur we have enough of feu, but we’re bigger than feu – and passion is there, but again we’re bigger than passion, or ardeur – but come back to me for ardeur later, because I might want to put that where you might want the simplicity of feu, but I might want more, because of the surrounding psychology. I want warme – not, for example, heizung. I want harara. Probably not ner. In trying to explain my aim to someone whose language I don’t know well, I had to find the principle on which I was operating – if I’m using the commonplace word, the non-literary word, I’m aiming for depth of impact. I’m aiming – if we think in terms of the eye’s movement when you read – I’m aiming for the word you fix on, not the one your jump over with your saccadic movement – I want the one you look full in the face. And, of course, if I’m dealing with a translator who is also a writer, I probably don’t need to have this conversation. Certainly this conversation is one that I would expect any writer to understand and that I need my translator to understand. And this is the level at which we operate in order to at least attempt to produce art, writing, which is of any quality – which translates us into somewhere and into someone new and which then can translate others.
And naturally, the problem queries stem from working sometimes with translators who are not also writers, who are chosen by publishers and editors who perhaps have financial constraints operating, or an imperfect understanding of translation, or who are in a culture which isn’t geared towards translation and listening to strange voices in as positive a way as that of Germany, or, let’s say, the Scandinavian nations.
Here, again, early in my career, being translated forced me to address my intentions with seriousness at a time when I hadn’t really examined them fully for fear that they would melt away or that I didn’t really have any intentions, or that I would confuse myself. This was one occasion when I found out something of the detail within the decision-making process which takes place as I write and while I am therefore slightly preoccupied. If I say “run”, I want the speed of that and the fluency of that, the liquid associations and the directness of that and also the sense of running away – so that’s what I choose. The more elevated language is great, I use that too – I have characters who use that, but the underpinning of my prose is in the words that I used to think didn’t matter, the little ones, the easy ones. Those give the difference between moving in a touch and moving in a bit and moving in a fraction and moving in by an inch and moving in a little – only one of those will be the best solution to my problem of telling you what I mean. And seeing my work through other’s eyes helped me to find that understanding.
And, as I mentioned, being translated led me to actually being translated into other places – Moscow and Nevsky Prospekt, Peredelkino, Paris, San Francisco, New York, New Delhi, Cairo, Dublin. There were many moments in these travels which were transformative, translating – time and again in the former Eastern Block I met with publishers and writers who had continued to publish and write, even if it meant they might be imprisoned, or killed. The idea that not writing would be dying in a real enough sense to mean an author would risk execution to keep on not dying – that was humbling. (It has continued to be horrfying and humbling to meet still other writers and publishers who have written and produced work in the face of dying, in the face of being tormented by various other regimes.) It was chastening to meet so many hundreds of people who could speak my language, read me in my original version, while I could barely ask them to get me a cup of tea please. I can no longer count the readings I have given in English to large and thoughtful, polyglot audiences in venues sometimes purpose-built for literary events… and when I have thought whether the equivalent buildings were available in the UK and whether the equivalent audiences would be also be there… I have known that we are not only failing ourselves, but that the idea of our country and our language as wise and powerful and well-connected and influential simply isn’t reliable. Brits abroad are often figures of fun, of pity, of contempt, British publishers can likewise be regarded with dismay – the big, ignorant children who guard a vast market, apparently filled with other big, ignorant children – the people who talk about money and sales but don’t actually seem to understand either, the guardians of culture who are afraid to make a wrong move and who have, in many cases simply stopped moving at all as a result. We are better than that, we have an increasingly militant community of readers and thinkers, but we may yet live to regret that we became militant and unashamed of those beauties we love slightly too late to save the libraries, to save the small book shops, to save the publications of new voices, strange voices, the novellas, the poetry collections, the short story collections, the non-mainstream novels, the first novels, the future readers, the future authors.
And I was also able to observe how other cultures operate in a wider sense. In this country, for example, experience has encouraged me to be ashamed to say what I do for a living – in Ireland my admission would be of happy interest to everyone, in Scotland my profession is far les embarrassing than it was twenty years ago – in Germany, France and India, describing myself as an author may well lead almost immediately to discussions beyond my intellectual capacity. In the US, shame will rise again – that, or discussions of income. Or an interest that is sharp, almost besieged, will spring up – a sense of sharing a fine but beleaguered secret. Just as the different worlds I inhabited in my mind’s eye before I travelled prepared me to be different, so being in other real cultures has allowed me to be a little better at observing my own with dispassionate passion. The cliché of the much-travelled author who simply returns with exotic locations to act as backdrop for the same old characters is certainly always something to consider – some of those locations are amazing, are tempting – and sometimes it can be possible to know enough about them, learn enough to make them real, or know enough about how strange they can seem to portray them usefully from outside. I would hope to take the example of Chekhov and Stevenson. Chekhov travelled thoughtfully, provided a library for the incarcerated and wrote the world as he found it – and other variations on that world – with understanding, with a doctor’s observation. Stevenson travelled immersively and “went native” as it might have been put to such an extent that his portrayals of the British Empire’s representatives abroad were censored at home. And in Samoa he did good, he helped his community, he was a human being among human beings and understood himself to be such.
I will mention, in passing, one moment of French translation – perhaps it will be of interest to you professional translators. My second novel involved Cyrano de Bergerac coming back from the dead and having one more year of life. I thought that was fair – he died young – only 36 – and was, it seems, a man passionate in his living – so an extra year in fantasy for the author of fantasy novels – the world’s first two science fiction novels – seemed to be something someone should provide and if it had to be me, then I would do my best. And this was a hard process, I had to go back to my rusty French, I had to go further back to French of the 17th Century and the musical, physical, unconventional French of Hercule-Savinien. Now this seems logical, then it seemed terrifying. I spent many moths reading and studying and worrying and shouting in what was then a small two room flat in Glasgow and wondering how I would afford to go to France and what I would find…
What did I find? Everything. More than I could hold. In the mornings I would read in the old Biblioteque national, in a 17th Century room, having been admitted in 17th Century style with a Lettre de Creance from an ambassador. And I was touching – not even with gloves – touching hand written manuscripts – this is marvellous but criminal – touching paper that he had touched. Looking at the long bold swipes of his pen when he crossed a T, looking at where he broke off and then started again – that man had stamina. And I’m breathing with his breath, I’m exclaiming as he does when he sees – and makes me see – that remarkable luminous, explosive blue of a violet. It’s translation. And in the afternoons I just wander about and am caught fast by consistent, continual coincidences, so that I find more about his life and more addresses he visited and places he would have seen – as if he is holding my hand and walking me along. It’s my second novel I’m writing – I had the idea early enough for it to have been my first, but I left it until I might be able to manage to do the idea justice. And it’s the first time I’ve travelled abroad since I was a child and I feel at home as I don’t always feel in British cities. I love Paris – I love Paris with a double heart – his and mine. And I try to then write about it with the language of my heart. And I sit in another reading room with printed books of Cyrano’s scribbled over in pencil by academics who don’t like his prose style and I am angry on his behalf but I am also so happy for him – he has outlasted all critics, his place at the edge of immortality is secure – there he is, my dear friend whom I never met. Is that what it’s like to translate? I rather hope so.
Or is it perhaps more a matter of the body, even than this ? I am familiar with one more aspect of translation – the translation of my words into the body of another who is certainly a reader, but also an actor. There is something remarkable and educational about being read by an actor. I will say that this means something especially to me because I first fell in love consciously with words – having been a voracious and early reader – because I saw actors making them sing more than I could in my head. I saw actors being, I might say, the reverse of reducing, robbing art – being extraordinary in an accessible way. We watch a good production of Hamlet, we don’t say princes are great, or I am not a prince and therefore I am not great, or I am not Danish, not a man, not a student, not all the things that Hamlet is – we become Hamlet and we remember that we can be great – we see a human being who has learned how to be a human being in a very expressive way and to reveal a great deal about their interior with great beauty and clarity and we realise what a magical creature we might be – what magical creatures we might all be. And I could narrate you through the first time I ever saw real actors walk on a real stage and felt the world kick under me and move just a little to another place. Or I could tell you about the time I sat and talked about a production of King Lear with someone else who had seen it – bot h of us recalling events from 20 years before as an auditorium in Stockholm filled up behind us and we talked and talked and were transported to another auditorium and another joy – and when we turned round an entire audience had appeared to watch something else entirely that involved us and I for one, felt inadequate and yet also delighted to be a small part of the same thing, the parctice of art – the same remarkable, beneficent, merciful, generous cloth that can cover and warm us all.
But I will in fact tell you about the work of another German – Alfred Wolfsohn, a veteran of the First World War. A young man interested in voice and singing, but supposed to be preparing for a career in the law, his studies were interrupted by horror. He fought for Germany and in the midst of slaughter he was both haunted and inspired by the cries of the dying. He noticed that those screaming for their lives produce voices that are fully expressed, complete. Of course. But he was aware that in life very few people fully express themselves in their voices, the fruit of their breath. And so, when he came home, he devoted the rest of his life to helping human beings develop their voices. A Jew, he was forced to flee Germany by the Nazis and came to live in London. He had been revolted not only by the content of Nazi propaganda but by the falsity and ugliness of their voices – and he resisted both that content and those fraudulant forms of address. As part of my work to develop as a writer and as a speaker and as a human being, I have studied Wolfsohn’s methodology and I can recommend it to anyone. A writer who can’t speak fully, can’t breathe fully, can’t read their work out loud in the air with some kind of comfort… that’s perhaps a more limited writer than they need to be. Marks on paper are all well and good, but language is much more than that. Language is in decrees, promise, prayers, declarations of love, of war, hate – in cries for our life, in exclamations at the beauty of violets – from heart to heart they go, healing and harming, harming and healing. The more of their energy we can take to ourselves, the more we have access to healing and access to our possibilities of translation.
And the last moment I will describe – it’s one that is very much to do with voice and the realisation of voice. I have written a number of plays and sometimes they are well directed and produced and sometimes not and sometimes the casts are great and sometimes slightly less happy. I’ve been lucky with casts, but even so the translation I will describe has happened very very rarely.
I am talking about the moment when someone takes my words and, while being themselves, also inhabits those words to such an extent that their nature becomes very clear and this has an effect which is emotionally pleasing and also Intellectually satisfying – but that’s not all. When everything works exactly as it should a kind of resonance is set up so that someone speaking my words, breathing when I breathed, actually does reflect my own breath back to me – they literally catch my breath. It is a strange thing to sit and watch someone doing something you have studied and pored over for hours, something that you know deeply and well – and yet it surprises you, it inhabits you as it only could with the help of someone else – you are echoing each other in a way which evokes a remarkable stillness – the moment when you realise you have gone so far, so much further than you’d thought and been so changed that this person is not wearing your shoes, but wearing your mind, your skin, your intentions = and you join them in theirs – and yet they are the same as they ever were, only more so and you are the same as you ever were, only more so. It’s beautiful.
And this is not an academic moment, a financial moment, and ego-driven moment, a selfish moment – it’s a simple impossibility that has been created – two people are one person for the span of these breaths. An idea has been translated into fact. The world is a little different, perhaps only for this moment, perhaps for ever. To have one moment such as this is almost all I would have asked from my writing. To aim to create similar moments of unity and individuality, of depth and fully realised living – that is not only a joy but a responsibility. Every word we write must add to the consolation and defence of humanity – there really isn’t time for anything else and anything else will not be good enough. If we aspire to this I truly believe we will be translated, in every sense that is true and beneficial, beautiful and joyful.