Universally speaking
13-11-2007

One of my most beloved texts as a teenager was Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, translated by Rosamond Lehmann. Over and over again I would write out Elizabeth’s declaration, “I want to be so vile that life is forced to vomit me out.” I don’t know if that’s what is says in the original French; if not, then this would be a case where the translation is better than the original, because I can’t think of a sentence that so concisely expressed what I felt as an adolescent hormone-bomb. I think of it now because, yes, my mind is bubbling up with translations like a kettle boiling stomach acid, but mostly because twice in the space of 24 hours I have heard myself involuntarily describe – not altogether accurately – the process of writing as ‘spewing out’.

“You were very cruel to the translator,” declared Ina the Venerable yesterday, referring to poor old Cuthbert’s journey in my first column (and eliciting my second confession of spewing words on the page). Unfortunately it turns out that ‘translate’ does not carry that meaning in Dutch. I felt somewhat vindicated when last night, in the Sebald lecture on translation at the South Bank Centre, Marina Warner likewise used the image of the removal of a Saint’s body, but the issue of what can be translated remains. I assured Krijn Peter there would be no more saints in these columns, but I can’t help picking over Cuthbert’s bones just once more: the saintly body can be translated precisely because of the confidence that it cannot be changed. But is an identity in negotiation too nebulous for translation?

Hassan Bahara claims he is uninterested in translation – his first novel was written for a Dutch audience, defined as having a Dutch passport. At the Sebald lecture his tee-shirt blazoned out the words “100% made in Amsterdam”. He can’t understand, or care, why his novel of Moroccans in the Netherlands was translated into German. Reading that, and listening to (sorry, participating in,) the discussions on translation yesterday, has made me grasp more fully something so obvious it’s banal: that my relationship to the English language and my emphasis that it’s my only language, is exactly the same as my insistence that I am British. I may often feel, let me confess this now, profound alienation from the ‘culture’ around me, all the things I am supposed to engage in to prove I am worthy of being a writer – from the Today programme on Radio 4 to ‘culture’ sections in broadsheets to restaurants serving fish and chips at £12.50; but that’s nothing to how I would feel anywhere else. Cuthbert and £1.50 chips wrapped in newspaper are mine.

I’m just living my life, but I suspect that if I had actively planned to marginalize myself I couldn’t have wanted for better results. The fight to be recognised as a legitimate human being in your home country, to have a right to speak in your mother tongue, feels like a constant act of translation, where I have to give myself meaning to some strange idea of the mainstream. Ask me on another day and I will feel different, I’m sure; but today, this minute, the concept of the ‘universal’, the kernel that can be translated, tastes like undigested sweetcorn vomited out with bile: bland, and frighteningly indestructible.

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