Crista Ermiya
Epilogue
13-12-2007

Not that I had forgotten, not really, but it was rather shameful to receive an email from Cees politely wondering when he could look forward to receiving my epilogue, otherwise known as ‘A Complete Summary of Crossing Border and Literary Translation’.

1. Forgetting that some of the events will be in Dutch.
As everyone in The Netherlands speaks such good English, it was a surprise when, for some inexplicable reason, many still chose to speak in Dutch.

2. Best performance in a language I couldn’t understand.
Wim de Bie at the teachers’ seminar on how to save Holland from illiteracy. Apparently this man is very famous in The Netherlands, and indeed, he has the hand gestures and furry hat to prove it. I was laughing along with everyone else, even though I had no idea what he was saying. Unfortunately Priya has already used a line about laughter that needs no translation, so I can’t slip that in here.

3. Most embarrassing literary moment
Thinking Sophie Cerutti would be on stage in 10 minutes with her 160-character text message poems, so chatting to her beforehand and saying how interesting the project sounded and how much I was looking forward to her set. But then the time she was due to perform kept slipping (or more likely I had miscalculated) while the stage was set up for the musicians that would follow her, so that in the end I had to get up and apologise, “actually, although I’ve been saying how much I’m looking forward to listening to your work, I’m going to leave now to listen to Niels ‘t Hooft in the other building instead. Bye.”

Later realised her poems would have been in Dutch anyway. As was Niels’ set.

4. Better left unsaid: on two people suddenly finding they have very different outlooks, but both being too polite to mention it.

Rochita, the Filipino-Dutch writer whose memoir piece on allochtonen I had misquoted earlier, came to The Hague from Bodegraven with her 8 month old son to meet me for lunch. We had never met before, only emailed, and sometimes it’s hard to be confronted by the reality of a person. She was so lovely, and came with several presents for me, including a book entitled Philippine Values and Our Christian Beliefs. I looked at it and said thank you. Later we swapped blog addresses so I wrote down mine in her notebook: myspace.com/anticrista. She looked at it and said thank you. I hope she still likes me.

5. Little Epiphanies
a) not only is ‘festival’ the same word in English and Dutch, but so is ‘glamour’, the art of making things appear other (usually lovelier) than they are; surely another aspect of the translator’s art
b) words don’t translate well, only stories and ideas
c) on the beauty of ephemera: it’s difficult to summarise for posterity ‘everything about translation’ in under 500 words.

Alle verhalen van Crista Ermiya
Epilogue
13-12-07

Not that I had forgotten, not really, but it was rather shameful to receive an email from Cees politely wondering when he could look forward to receiving my epilogue, otherwise known as ‘A Complete Summary of Crossing Border and Literary Translation’.

1. Forgetting that some of the events will be in Dutch.
As everyone in The Netherlands speaks such good English, it was a surprise when, for some inexplicable reason, many still chose to speak in Dutch.

2. Best performance in a language I couldn’t understand.
Wim de Bie at the teachers’ seminar on how to save Holland from illiteracy. Apparently this man is very famous in The Netherlands, and indeed, he has the hand gestures and furry hat to prove it. I was laughing along with everyone else, even though I had no idea what he was saying. Unfortunately Priya has already used a line about laughter that needs no translation, so I can’t slip that in here.

3. Most embarrassing literary moment
Thinking Sophie Cerutti would be on stage in 10 minutes with her 160-character text message poems, so chatting to her beforehand and saying how interesting the project sounded and how much I was looking forward to her set. But then the time she was due to perform kept slipping (or more likely I had miscalculated) while the stage was set up for the musicians that would follow her, so that in the end I had to get up and apologise, “actually, although I’ve been saying how much I’m looking forward to listening to your work, I’m going to leave now to listen to Niels ‘t Hooft in the other building instead. Bye.”

Later realised her poems would have been in Dutch anyway. As was Niels’ set.

4. Better left unsaid: on two people suddenly finding they have very different outlooks, but both being too polite to mention it.

Rochita, the Filipino-Dutch writer whose memoir piece on allochtonen I had misquoted earlier, came to The Hague from Bodegraven with her 8 month old son to meet me for lunch. We had never met before, only emailed, and sometimes it’s hard to be confronted by the reality of a person. She was so lovely, and came with several presents for me, including a book entitled Philippine Values and Our Christian Beliefs. I looked at it and said thank you. Later we swapped blog addresses so I wrote down mine in her notebook: myspace.com/anticrista. She looked at it and said thank you. I hope she still likes me.

5. Little Epiphanies
a) not only is ‘festival’ the same word in English and Dutch, but so is ‘glamour’, the art of making things appear other (usually lovelier) than they are; surely another aspect of the translator’s art
b) words don’t translate well, only stories and ideas
c) on the beauty of ephemera: it’s difficult to summarise for posterity ‘everything about translation’ in under 500 words.

One word
24-11-07

Title: On finding the single word that encapsulates both the entire week and this specific Friday evening; warming to Salman Rushdie when he said some people need to CALM THE FUCK DOWN and spotting Patti Smith waiting for the Salman Rushdie interview but being too awestruck to say hello to her but thinking on reflection that she probably wouldn’t have liked that anyway, and trying not to be pissed off that after much soul-searching I had missed (BIG MISTAKE) Jenny Owen Youngs and Junot Diaz so I could go to see Alasdair Gray at Scottish Night, but then he didn’t appear, so instead there was ENDLESS WAITING through a set by Mike Heron & daughter who had obviously been asked to cover the gap and I’d already missed half of John Burnside’s reading because I’d gone into THE WRONG ROOM and spent 20 minutes wondering why the performers at Scottish night had Icelandic accents, and catching the end of Michael Bracewell who almost translated the etymology of GLAMOUR correctly and feeling grateful to Hugh Cornwell who I wasn’t too bothered about seeing but when I did his music cheered me, even the SONG ABOUT NIGHTMARES, although he was better when he didn’t speak; and being mindful that Krijn Peter has to translate two columns AND prepare a performance poetry set and that we did have a playful agreement that the last column would consist of THE ULTIMATE WORD that would convey everything about Crossing Border and that would also be the same word in both ENGLISH and DUTCH and so would need NO TRANSLATION and that if it became necessary to perform the column we could then do so simultaneously in both languages

Festival.

Polaroids
23-11-07

I’ve been in The Hague for more than 36 hours passively following others without any sense of where I am other than the inside of buildings, so on Thursday morning I venture out of the hotel to locate myself in the city. I would do this anyway, but when we first arrived Tieman from Crossing Border encouraged us to engage with the city, so this means I can wander off and still be A Good Girl.

Wagenstraat
Westwards on Wagenstraat an old woman in an oversized lilac coat and saggy black skirt walks up and says something in Dutch. I think she’s asking for directions and shrug helplessly. “I don’t understand,” I say. She asks me in English, “Do you love the Lord Jesus?” Her right hand points upwards, gesturing to heaven and the way she positions her index finger and thumb looks exactly like one of those medieval paintings were you can tell the figure is speaking by the hand gesture. It turns out to be a rhetorical question, though, because she immediately slopes off again before I can reply. Or maybe she’s decided I’m already damned.

Doublestraat
Feeling overly melodramatic I turn to walk in the other direction, and take pictures with my phone of mundane objects – Nee/Ja signs on letterboxes, the window of a department store, a ‘no entry’ sign on a pseudo-gothic door. I am seduced by a sign that says ‘Multikulturel Kunst….’ the last part hidden by a man loitering outside. I cross over to it but feel shy because of the man standing there, so walk down the side street instead. A man walks towards me but then veers off at the last moment looking uncertain. Is he another evangelical who has decided I’m a lost cause? I look in through a window and a woman with long curly hair is in her underwear. My first thought is, it’s a bit cold to be wearing so little and maybe she should get a curtain, but then my brain wakes up and I realise that I am the only woman walking down this street. I’m feeling naïve at being caught out: after all, it’s not even mid-day. However it quickly becomes apparent that the men are far more embarrassed by my presence than anything I can feel, and the most distressing thing for me is when I reach the window at the far corner and a woman is posed inside but her bra and knickers don’t match.

Hotel Bar with sort-of Tartan carpet
There must be the god of literature taking revenge for my defence yesterday of text messaging and computers; it’s Thursday afternoon and I’m locked out of my hotel room in a short-sleeved dress, with nothing but a laptop and a mobile phone. The door is broken and none of the staff know how to get in. This is definitely my vision of hell, to be stuck somewhere without a book. My eyes are itching for Lanark.

Two short pieces
22-11-07

1. The End
There are six of us staring out from The Chronicles publicity postcards, but in practice there is a seventh, Matthijs Sluiter; artist, Hague-resident, Chronicler of the Chronicles, who draws like other people breathe. In London we somehow fell to talking about entry points into art (maybe Niels was sending out brainwaves regarding the notion of the interface and we were caught in the crossfire) and the fact that you can start looking at an image from any point. A narrative in a photograph or picture is necessarily non-linear because the viewer’s eye can fall anywhere. “Not like books,” I say, “where you have to start at the beginning.” “Oh, do you always start at the beginning?” Matthijs asks. “I often read books from the middle.” This brings me up short. I do read comics in an ad-hoc fashion, picking up issues from the middle of a series, and then maybe never getting the last one. Poetry collections too, I often read out of order. But novels are different. Feeling very old-fashioned, I tell Matthijs, “No, I always start at the beginning.” But in one of those segues provided by the universe, when thinking about what book to take to read while I’m in The Hague I remember the pristine copy of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark sitting on my bookshelf. The subtitle is A Life in Four Books, and it starts with Book Three. So I can start both at the beginning and the middle.

2. Apocalypse whenever
Y dnt yung ppl lke bks? Yesterday we met with a large group of teachers in a symposium that addressed the perceived decline of literature in Dutch education. I enjoy predicting apocalypse as much as the next thrill-seeking pessimist but I’m getting very weary of proclamations about the death of the book, the death of literacy, the death of culture. Things change – I’m making no claims for whether it’s for better or worse. Change is how you know you’re not dead, and the same is true of language and how we communicate. Some were arguing that the Dutch language is losing vocabulary, that younger people have limited words to express a wide range of experience. Similar fears are voiced in the UK. “Turn off the tvs and computers,” suggested one teacher, probably as a joke. “They’ll read if they’re bored.” Is literature really so valueless that it can only thrive in a vacuum? I don’t think so. The book is not dead. The world is not going to end because of text messaging and gaming. Where is my evidence? I don’t have any, other than the world didn’t end when people starting writing things down instead of committing to memory; nor did it end when the printing press ran the monastic scriptorium out of business. Memory shrank so I don’t think it’s feasible for me to memorise Beowulf line by line in Old English unless I decide to become Brian Blessed, and we lost the art of marginalia and calligraphy, but how many people care about that now (apart from me)? If there isn’t a global environmental catastrophe or World War Three, I predict that in a thousand years time people will look back and laugh at our fears. While bemoaning the death of culture in their own time, of course.

Words aloud
21-11-07

We’re preparing for our Friday night reading at the Poetry Society in London and Niels asks me how to pronounce various words from the English translation of his first column: ‘parentage’, ‘nuance’, ‘mediatory’. I hesitate over the last one – my vocabulary is wide but page-bound, so that every few months there is always some word to flabbergast my boyfriend when I mispronounce it. “That’s what happens when you prefer reading to socialising,” he smirks. My best guess to Niels is Meedia-Tory, but I suggest he asks Priya, who says it’s medee-A-tory.

It’s not just Received Pronunciation that trips me up. For the past few years I’ve had a problem telling people which city I live in: Newcastle, or as it’s said locally, newCassel. But accent – with its pointers to class, regionalism, ethnicity – is difficult to convey accurately in writing, let alone translation, so that all the complications that accrue each time I open my mouth to speak are, to some extent, erased. Some things are simpler in translation. In London, when asked where I’m from, ‘Hackney’ was never deemed a sufficient response and I’d have to recount my family history. In Newcastle, I can just say I’m from London. And if I get on a northbound train for the 1 hour 30 minutes journey to the next city, Edinburgh, it gets even better because I have crossed the border into Scotland, where I become English.

Translation escalates this simplification. Just as I would never refer to myself as English except in French at school (where everyone was equal in parroting ‘Je suis Anglaise’), at the Poetry Society I hear myself answer a question on cultural diversity by claiming I am never so British as when translated into Dutch.

All this consolidation of identity falls apart when I arrive in The Hague for Crossing Border and check in to the hotel, where it’s back to my usual guise of ‘foreign girl with unpronounceable name.’ The clerk tells me there’s no reservation, even though I’ve spelt my name twice. “I don’t know what other name it would be under,” I tell him, and spell it again. Third time’s the charm and he finds it. “I have a difficult name too,” he sympathises. Later, I have supper in the hotel bar with Priya and violinist Ruth Palmer, who I’d met that afternoon at Amsterdam Schipol airport, while we waited for a smiling clarinettist to complete our minibus ride to the hotel. He tells us his name and he’s lovely and probably hideously famous but all I can hear is ‘Barbarous’ or ‘Barrabas’ and now I’m the one who can’t say names. After supper, Ruth points to my surname as I sign my room receipt. “Why,” she asks, “have you missed out the ‘I’?” I look, but the ‘I’ is there – I haven’t suddenly lost the ability to spell my own name – it’s just a little hard to read. Back in my room, I look up ‘I’ in one of my two new Dutch phrasebooks and practice saying Ik ben.

On being translated
05-11-07

…so of course the first word that comes to mind is ‘lost’; but that implies a correct
direction, a true North of meaning if only I were facing the right way. The next
word is ‘relic’, closely followed by ‘saint’, and this is not what I want at all. Yet
here is the unbidden image, of ancient Cuthbert removed from Lindisfarne to
Durham, possibly via the ASDA supermarket in Chester-le-Street, possibly via a
shopping trolley. Cuthbert’s courier-monks reported that the body, despite its age
and the arduous journey across Northumbria, remained pure and uncorrupted;
translation without loss. An absolute meaning. Oh, the miraculous impossibility
of it!

Recently I watched a film of the late Richard Pryor ‘Live in New Orleans’ on the
telly. He spoke of a visit to Zimbabwe, where he and his friends were asked by
a local, “What language do you speak at home?” “English,” they told him. “Yes,
yes,” said the interlocutor, “everybody speaks English. But what language do you
speak at home?” The Americans were stymied until one of Pryor’s friends replied,
“Well, I guess I speak Jive.” So let me confess that of the six languages of my
parents – Turkish, Greek, Tagalog, Cebuano, Spanish, English – the only one I
can speak is the last. But let me also stake a claim to linguistic diversity, for I am
fluent in English in many forms.

It’s a bit of a conversation-stopper. It goes like this: “Crista.” (Just Crista.
Translation: they can’t pronounce my surname). “That’s an unusual name.
Where’s it from?” (Translation: Ok, no-one these days asks where someone is
from, but you’re not actually English/British are you? Tell me what you really
are). So I tell them the name is Greek, or possibly German. They look confused.
I confess I’m not Greek or German. There will be a pause, until they ask what
manner of creature I am (“What’s your background?” or “Where are your parents
from?”). If they’re looking particularly embarrassed or the pause is very long,
I volunteer the required information. “Filipino! Turkish! (translation: there
is no such thing as a Turkish-Cypriot). How exotic/fascinating/unusual!” Cue
interested look on speaker’s face. “And what language did you speak at home?”
“English.” “Yes, yes. Everybody speaks English. But what language did you
speak at home?” I mumble feebly that it was the only language my parents had
in common. “Oh! Of course,” they say (translation: I must be a moron for not
speaking five other languages.) And it does make me feel, at times, fraudulent:
not only am I an inauthentic Briton, but I’m an inauthentic ethnic too. It’s like
the monks opened up Cuthbert’s casket and admitted that actually, he is starting
to pong a bit.

I do know some words in Tagalog and Turkish but they function as synonyms, a
few extra words in the thesaurus. Beautiful is maganda is guzel. By a very strange
chance, I do know a single word in Dutch: Walloon. However, I don’t quite know
how this translates, if it’s a neutral or derogatory term. Perhaps it’s extremely
offensive and the translator is currently spluttering coffee over the computer
screen. Perhaps it’s completely mundane. But this is how English I am; that all I
can think of is its similarity to Wealhas, the Anglo-Saxon word from which Wales
is derived, and that means, simply, foreigner.

Krijn Peter emails to let me know Walloon isn’t a Dutch word at all. “It is weird,”
he says, “though definitely interesting, for Dutch readers to be confronted with a
word that is Dutch according to the author, but which they do not, or not really,
recognise as such.” But he points out that there is a similar word – Wallonië
– that refers to French-speaking Belgium. And according to his dictionary, an
inhabitant of Wallonië is referred to as ‘Waal’, which derives from Old English
‘wielisc’, meaning strange, foreign… and Welsh.

Feeling rather stupid, I quickly look up the place I came across my one Dutch
word – a memoir in English by a Filipino-Dutch writer – and find the word is
actually ‘allochtoon’. It’s a strange route from that to the Belgians: allochtoon
= foreigner = wealhas/wielisc = Wales + allochtoon = Walloon. I like the
strange symmetry of it, the way the wrong path has still led to a word concerned
with language and identity, where Walloon is somehow a definition of not being
Flemish. I email Krijn Peter with allochtoon; luckily this time it turns out to be
genuinely Dutch.