Priya Basil
Step across this line. And this one. And this. And….
22-11-2007

I have been on a journey where no passport control is necessary and the only
check points encountered are bright surges of pleasure alerting me to the
gorgeous richness of life through which I’m being propelled. I have been around
the world in a few hours and understood the intentions of people who speak in
alien tongues.

I have watched a Dutch actor imitate, in Dutch, the cranky German teacher he
once had. As he stood at the front of the room, spluttering and railing I, with
all the others in the audience, become the oppressed, long-suffering, resentful
student who will never forget having to endure such awfulness.

I have felt the stark, penetrating thrill of violin strings, quivering under the
guidance of a powerful, merciless bow to express Bartok’s composition of old
Hungarian folksongs. At the end of this solo piece, my cheeks are stuck to my
teeth, my mouth is dry – I have temporarily forgotten how to swallow.

I have laughed at cutting ironies about American hegemony told in the verse
of a Libyan poet. I have seen tattoos, poverty and ugliness made achingly
poignant through a beautiful photo-essay. Bang Bang. I have been startled out of
complacent judgements to see things anew.

I have learned the word ‘psittacophile’ and, through a recited short story,
glimpsed the troubled soul of one such lover of parrots. I have felt the Tunisian
sun in the warm, lyrical sound of Anouar Brahem playing the lute accompanied
by a clarinetist and a percussionist. Their melodies caressed the hair on my skin
the way a breeze does the grass on the belly of the earth. Their teasing, touching
tones lapped at my ears as the cool sea does at hot feet: releasing, reviving.

I have been to the streets of Accra and, thanks to some evocative prose, smelled
groundnuts on the breath of policemen who practice a justice as arbitrary as dice
throwing. I have sensed the anguish of Palestinians and heard the urgency of their
case through the glinting, blade-sharp lyrics of rap group Dam. I have yelled for
peace in Palestine, while the thud of a heavy base pounded so loudly in my chest it
almost erased my own heartbeat.

I have spent an evening at the Border Crossing Festival.

During the course of the first night’s programme I moved seamlessly across all
these mediums, subjects and styles – spurred on by what can only be described
as passion. The passion of the artists, expressed through their various prodigious
talents. Such performances make you realize that sometimes no translation is
necessary. It is enough to grasp and enter the spirit of the moment. It is enough
to open your mind and step across that line – of language, belief, unfamiliarity,
whatever. One small step, and the divide is momentarily invisible.

Alle verhalen van Priya Basil
Epilogue
29-11-07

‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world.’ Today, in our increasingly inter-connected, multi-media world it’s harder to believe Wittgenstein’s statement. We have the impression of easy access to other ways of being and seeing. The array of sensory experience available to us seems endless. We can physically travel or have virtual second lives. We regularly taste foreign foods, watch films or news clips and hear music whose content or effect might not be easily expressible in our own idiom. Even if all we feel is a sense of bafflement at some of these things, that too is valid, because everything that we encounter increases our frame of reference, pushes at the boundaries of how we view the world. Though finally, Wittgenstein is right, language remains the most meaningful frame through which we can contextualize that view.

But language itself is far less limited and limiting than we might imagine. It is often described as a living thing, ever growing and evolving, influenced by everything from immigration to popular culture to personal whim. Each generation can see this in the strange cartwheels of words spinning through the chatter of the next. Today in the UK, streetwise urban youth greet each other with a growling ‘wagwan?’ and say ‘choong’ or ‘buttuz’ to indicate how a girl looks. Meanwhile, less people use expressions like ‘okey-dokey’, ‘natter’ or ‘crickey’.

Every industry and profession has its own special jargon. Every couple has their own private lingo. So, even if we only speak one language, we speak different versions of it depending on the circumstances. Good translators, perhaps more than any of us, cross and re-cross the various terrains of language and venture regularly into the liminal space at the edges of vocabulary. They are like explorers charting new territory, who brave the high seas of foreign discourse and navigate islands of meaning, to bring us land-bound natives the riches of other cultures.

Ina Rilke was adamant that ‘everything can be translated’. If this is really so then some tremendous wrestling matches must take place to make a language bend and stretch so that it can convey as much as possible of the original. Imagine translating from or into Chinese, which has no singular or plural and no verb tenses. Or Finnish, which has fifteen cases. And these are just linguistic technicalities – there are still the cultural nuances and sensitivities of the text to be negotiated.

Shelley said that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Over the course of The Chronicles, I’ve come to feel that translators, in a similar way, have an incredibly important but undervalued status. During this project, a bright shaft of light penetrated the polygon of my mind and illuminated a neglected corner. And now, my outlook will never be quite the same again. I believe that to read a translation without a mental nod to the translator is to diminish the act of reading. Literature is primarily experience lived through language, and if you’re wiling to consider, even for a few minutes, how the language might have been altered to produce the version you’re reading, you will enrich your understanding of the text. And if you, like me, conceive of yourself partly as the product of all that you have read, then this small gesture has even more significance.

That’s not what I meant!
24-11-07

We are all familiar with the frustrating feeling of not getting things across in quite the way that we wanted. Whenever this happens to me I remember the rye words of the headmaster at my primary school: ‘You say what you mean – whatever you meant to say.’ The statement suggests, rather discomfittingly, that what is spoken – however it comes out – is the truest expression of our intent. Which leads one to wonder if all that might follow, the qualifications, explanations and apologies, are simply the means by which we try to smooth out and make palatable our essentially awkward and incompetent selves.

So, it was quite a revelation for me to meet Jamilla Lakjan and hear her describe the strictures of her job as a legal translator from Arabic to Dutch. One of the wonderful things about fiction is the leisure the writer has to revise and refine language until it conveys, as far as possible, a particular meaning. In my day to day life, I am constantly wishing I could have the chance to say or do things again, so they’d be better. This tendency has actually got worse since I started writing, perhaps because of the multitudinous rounds of revision to which I subject my work. Sometimes I think I became a writer partly in order to have the satisfaction of putting into the world something that was as right as I could get it at a given point in time.

In this milieu, interpretation, correction or revision are not liberties the translator can take. Perhaps for this reason, Jamilla prefers simultaneous translation to any other type. There’s no time to think about or judge the information she hears as her focus is entirely on being the Dutch mouthpiece of a defendant. The unalterable immediacy of her job is even more astounding when you consider that what she conveys to the judge will decide the fate of an individual. How very different her role is to that of a literary translator. Two people with the same job title must work in entirely different ways because of the context in which they find themselves.

Context can throw up incredible surprises. Last night during a car ride between Crossing Border venues, Patti Smith, in her lovely, gently ironic way, told the story behind Because the Night. It emerged that the hit song was written while waiting for a lover’s phone call. He’d said he’d phone at 7:30pm. As the hours passed, she didn’t hear from him and to distract herself she picked up and played a tape which Bruce Springsteen had sent her. It contained the chorus of Because the Night and, as that night wore on, Patti wrote the rest of the verses – and voila, an ordinary, universal experience was made extraordinary through translation into song. ‘What was his excuse then, when he eventually called?’ Someone wondered. ‘He wasn’t the type you asked,’ Patti said. ‘And if I had, he probably would have said,’ her voice deepened, ‘“That’s not for you to know, white woman.”’ ‘How long were you together?’ I asked. ‘Until he died,’ she said. Then she sang a few lines from the song and, I knew, better than ever before, what the lyrics meant.

To see or not to see.
23-11-07

I see.
This simple and quintessentially British way of indicating understanding
isn’t easily translated – not least because, very often, to see is not necessarily
to comprehend. There’s an old TV ad for the Guardian newspaper which
encapsulates this very well. Three shots: 1) a man in a coat running as if from a
car in pursuit, 2) the same man coming up quickly behind another man as if to
assault him, 3) the coated man pouncing on and pushing the other aside just in
time to save him from being crushed by a huge falling object. The ad’s strapline
exhorts viewers to buy the Guardian in order to get ‘the whole picture’. How often
do we see the whole picture, or anything close to it?
The fact that the British regularly use the expression ‘I see’ doesn’t mean
that they always get the full view or have particularly penetrative powers
of perception. Rather, it’s more suggestive of the endearingly clipped and
understated manner many British people have. Carried literally into other
languages the expression might read: ich sehe, je regarde, meh dekhia, ik zie. All
of these renditions would strike the native reader as odd. In order to convey the
true meaning of the English, a translator needs to use the native equivalent: ich
verstehe, je comprends, meh samaj-gia, ik begrijp het.

I wonder to what extent the language that we inhabit, its quirks and limitations,
affects our ways of thinking and being. Perhaps only those who speak more than
one language are really in a position to know this – and there are quite a few
of them here in The Hague. More than 40% of the population is not of Dutch
origin, and the microcosm of the world represented at the Crossing Border
festival is even more multi-cultural and lingual. Khaled Mattawa, Libyan poet
and translater from Arabic into English, commented that once you’ve translated
something language never feels quite the same again. He said, ‘common things
become fresher’.

Sasa Stanisic, Yugoslavian born and now writing in German, did a reading and
discussion in English. He talked about scenes and characters from his novel,
improvising charmingly and unhesitatingly wherever the exact English word
would not come to him. So, ‘peace pauses’ was the lovely equivalent of ‘ceasefire’
and ‘peoples nationality count’ was enough to suggest ‘census’. And you can see
here, in these creatively extemporized solutions, what Mattawa meant by the
freshness translation bestows on language. Even if it isn’t necessarily ‘perfect’,
it briefly illuminates things in a different hue, giving us another aspect of the
picture – even if it’s an image we think we know.

Maybe there is no such thing as a ‘whole picture’. But what we can certainly aim
for is a fuller one. And you can get close to that at the Crossing Border festival.
Its synaesthetic aspect makes for a richly layered experience. Music, film, art,
the written word – these form the cultural palette from which we can colour our
world. The more we use them, the better we will see.

Step across this line. And this one. And this. And….
22-11-07

I have been on a journey where no passport control is necessary and the only
check points encountered are bright surges of pleasure alerting me to the
gorgeous richness of life through which I’m being propelled. I have been around
the world in a few hours and understood the intentions of people who speak in
alien tongues.

I have watched a Dutch actor imitate, in Dutch, the cranky German teacher he
once had. As he stood at the front of the room, spluttering and railing I, with
all the others in the audience, become the oppressed, long-suffering, resentful
student who will never forget having to endure such awfulness.

I have felt the stark, penetrating thrill of violin strings, quivering under the
guidance of a powerful, merciless bow to express Bartok’s composition of old
Hungarian folksongs. At the end of this solo piece, my cheeks are stuck to my
teeth, my mouth is dry – I have temporarily forgotten how to swallow.

I have laughed at cutting ironies about American hegemony told in the verse
of a Libyan poet. I have seen tattoos, poverty and ugliness made achingly
poignant through a beautiful photo-essay. Bang Bang. I have been startled out of
complacent judgements to see things anew.

I have learned the word ‘psittacophile’ and, through a recited short story,
glimpsed the troubled soul of one such lover of parrots. I have felt the Tunisian
sun in the warm, lyrical sound of Anouar Brahem playing the lute accompanied
by a clarinetist and a percussionist. Their melodies caressed the hair on my skin
the way a breeze does the grass on the belly of the earth. Their teasing, touching
tones lapped at my ears as the cool sea does at hot feet: releasing, reviving.

I have been to the streets of Accra and, thanks to some evocative prose, smelled
groundnuts on the breath of policemen who practice a justice as arbitrary as dice
throwing. I have sensed the anguish of Palestinians and heard the urgency of their
case through the glinting, blade-sharp lyrics of rap group Dam. I have yelled for
peace in Palestine, while the thud of a heavy base pounded so loudly in my chest it
almost erased my own heartbeat.

I have spent an evening at the Border Crossing Festival.

During the course of the first night’s programme I moved seamlessly across all
these mediums, subjects and styles – spurred on by what can only be described
as passion. The passion of the artists, expressed through their various prodigious
talents. Such performances make you realize that sometimes no translation is
necessary. It is enough to grasp and enter the spirit of the moment. It is enough
to open your mind and step across that line – of language, belief, unfamiliarity,
whatever. One small step, and the divide is momentarily invisible.

Life as translation
21-11-07

You are a translator. I am. We are all translators – in a way. Each day we navigate
an ever-changing landscape of words, impressions and experiences. We make
sense of the world by interpreting it. We make sense of ourselves by remembering
these interpretations – and memory, I think, must be the supreme act of
translation. Why else do we all have different versions of the past?

It has been said that if you gave one simple sentence to ten translators, none of
the solutions they’d produce would be identical – even if they were all translating
into the same language. It’s no wonder then that ten people who attend one
party are likely to have conflicting accounts of it. We all, I’m sure, have reluctant
recollections of some occasion when everyone claims we behaved rather
differently to the way we think we did…. Transpose this to the macro level and
you can see how each of us must have our own, highly individual, worldview.

I would venture so far as to say that translation, in the everyday interpretative
sense I’ve outlined, is the funnel through which we distil and form an identity.
Our perception of things defines us. That’s why you have optimists and pessimists,
intellectuals and jokers, fanatics and liberals. Yet, while, on the one hand, we
constantly filter reality, so much of what we receive is already interpreted for
us, pushing us to see things a certain way: the religious beliefs of a parent, film
adaptations of plays, books or short stories, classical music in new versions
influenced by conductors and orchestras, statistics presented in order to support a
political agenda. These are all instances of translation. However, in each of them,
we do not necessarily expect the level of fidelity to the original idea or creation
that we do with literature.

Great literature still has a status that commands a certain reverence.
Most translators are admirably humble about the task of translating fiction.
They refer to themselves as craftsmen – never artists. The artist, they feel, is
the creator of the original. But it takes tremendous artistry to translate well. As
readers we accept the role of the translator in a way that we never would, say,
with a piece of art. A perfect copy of a Picasso or Richter painting wouldn’t satisfy
anyone. In such cases one wants to possess the ‘original’ because the majority of
the value lies in the fact that the work is ‘authentic’ – touched and moulded by
the artist himself.

So what does that say about the power of literature? Often, an author has little
or nothing to do with the translated book. Yet the reader will see the author’s
name on a book cover and accept that it has come directly from that person. If the
translation is good, the reader will feel no sense of disconnection from the text or
disappointment at not being able to read the original. This is the gift of language,
the magic of stories. This is why literature can bridge divides like no other art
form.

On being translated II
13-11-07

Who wants to be invisible? In this era of the individual, where self-declaration is
encouraged, celebrity is envied and people become famous for their mediocrity,
it’s hard to imagine voluntary self-effacement going hand in hand with the
pursuit of excellence.

All of us, I think, want to leave some mark of ourselves on the world. And every
day we do leave traces, though mostly ephemeral ones. Imagine doing something
in which you could not leave any sign of yourself. And I’m not talking about
murder. Rather, a painstaking labour, which requires weeks, months, maybe even
years of your time. You draw from your deepest reserves of language, knowledge
and experience to complete your task – and yet you must remain hidden behind
your creation. This, I started to realize during The Chronicles discussion
yesterday, is the lot of the translator.

Translating can be a type of Stanislavsky-style method acting where the translator
completely submerges himself in the period, style or subject relevant to the
work of the moment. This is the sort of camouflage behind which the translator
operates, like an agent on a sensitive and secretive mission. And then, once the
mission is accomplished, the costume is discarded and the translator is free
to become someone else. Quite unlike writers who must find their very own
unique mode and then develop that, while seeking to convey within it the great
multiplicity of life.

Ina Rilke described herself and fellow translators as ventriloquists. It’s an apt
description: the translator as the frozen-lipped vessel through which the foreign
writing is received and understood. Of course, given the inevitable losses that
occur as meaning moves from one language to another, we have to remember
that often, in J. M. Coetzee words, ‘what comes across in translation is, at best,
overheard rather than heard directly’. But how wonderful that it can be overheard
at all. Having access to other societies and cultures through their literature
enriches our own lives and sensibilities. And, as Peter Bergsma pointed out during
our discussion, translation can enhance the host language by forcing it to absorb
new modes of expression or pushing it to new heights of beauty and lyricism.

Babies have the potential to speak every language – all languages – like a
mother-tongue. This potential is, and of course never can be, fully harnessed.
As we are shaped by our environments, and adhere to one or two languages,
we lose that infinite ability. But what we never lose is the ability to understand
language, and through it ourselves, better. This is what we do when we read good
literature, whether translated or in the original. And this is what our little group
of Chroniclers have had tremendous fun doing over the last couple of days. Over
the bustle of the Strand and the bang of building works outside the Poetry Society
there have been regular bursts of laughter – that deliciously contagious sound
which never needs translation.

On being translated
05-11-07

Translation can be viewed as many things: an art, a bridge between cultures,
a travesty, a necessity in our increasingly global world. For a fiction writer it is
also a compliment. The ultimate compliment in a way, because it indicates that
a narrative is powerful enough to transcend the context in which it was written
and be appreciated in a language or culture completely alien to its author. To
be translated is really to feel that you’ve entered, as Susan Sontag put it, ‘the
circulatory system of the world’s literature’.

Yet, it is strange to see a work that you’ve spent years creating, and know so
intimately, become an impenetrable object. I flick through my Dutch translation
which, though the book and font are roughly the same size, is about fifty pages
longer than the English version. It’s startling that so many extra words are
needed to convey the same information. (Translated into German, I’m told, a
book can become about thirty percent longer). All I can make out in the new text
are the names of my characters and the odd Punjabi expressions that they use.
Otherwise, the writing is a mystery. And yet, my name is on the cover.

But inside, in small letters, there is another person’s name: Jeannet Dekker.
She did not contact me at all while translating the novel. When she had almost
finished, I received a request, through the publisher, for a translation of the
Punjabi words in the book so that a glossary could be included in the back. And so,
for a short while, and in a limited way, I became the translator of my own work. It
was not as easy as I’d imagined. First of all, it came as some surprise to me that
there were so many Indian words in the text at all. I thought there were maybe
twenty or thirty – in fact it was more like one hundred and thirty. I was fortunate
that a glossary works like a dictionary and all I had to do was give the meaning
of the Punjabi words – not try and find their English equivalent. Just this short
exercise left me filled with silent awe and gratitude over what my translator had
accomplished.

Of course, as a reader of world literature, I have inevitably considered with
wonder, and sometimes puzzlement, the act of translation. However, becoming
involved with The Chronicles project has prompted me to reflect further on the
subject. I am intrigued by how similar and simultaneously different the act of
translating fiction is from that of writing fiction. Both processes are a quest for
truth through language – but rather different kinds of truth. The fiction writer
seeks to express the truth of the world as he sees it, while the translator must be
truthful in the way he interprets the original.

At one level, if you go into the linguistic minutiae of it, translation is a kind of
science – which is something, I think, writing fiction can never be. If there is
another fundamental difference between writing and translating, perhaps it has
to do with ego. To write fiction is, in a way, a bold and presumptuous act. It takes
some arrogance to believe that others will be interested in reading about a world
and characters that you have created. This is not to say that, during the actual
process of writing, you are not racked by doubt and the niggling sense that you’re
not quite achieving what you set out to. But the impulse to write at all comes from
a kind of hubris. Sartre said, ‘one cannot write without the intention of succeeding
perfectly’ – which suggests one must believe in the possibility of doing so.

If the writer’s fate involves a gradual move away from the perfection of vision to
the best possible worded approximation of that vision, then, does the translator
journey in the opposite direction? From loose to more and more exact renditions
of sentences into another language. And what of the ego? Does the act of
translation, in fact, require a subordination of ego so that the translator can allow
the original writer’s ‘voice’ to infuse the new text?

I couldn’t resist the impulse to put some of these thoughts to my Dutch translator.
After all, The Chronicles offered me a perfectly legitimate excuse to contact her.
The resulting exchange was very inspiring and raised even more issues about
translation. I look forward to discussing and exploring these further with my
fellow participants in the project.