Translation, writes one of its outstanding practitioners, “helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight.”
The words are Edith Grossman’s, from her 2010 book Why Translation Matters. Grossman, a much-awarded New Yorker, is the translator of Spanish classics, including an acclaimed 2003 English edition of Don Quixote, and of modern Latin American authors, notably Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.
Grossman declares herself “an indifferent historian and a worse theoretician” but she protests too much. Her book is a thoughtful, scholarly exploration of the place of translation in culture, and is illuminated by her own considerable experience.
Now Australian Linda Jaivin has taken up the theme in the current issue of Quarterly Essay. Entitled “Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World”, her contribution is original and thought-provoking, and broadens the discussion by bringing in an Asian-Pacific perspective.
Jaivin is well known as an author, but many of her readers may be less familiar with her work over three decades as a translator, principally from Mandarin, and as an authority on Chinese culture, classical and popular.
Her wide reading and discursive style make this essay a delight to read. She takes us from the problems of language – or lack of it – in modern politics, citing both George W Bush and Tony Abbott, to an examination of translation from the time of the ancients to the modern day, and eventually to her own work with rock musicians and film-makers in China.
She concludes with a powerful plea for Australia to take advantage of its unique position in the world as an English-speaking nation that doesn’t “carry much imperial baggage”. We need languages in our schools and universities to be in genuine communication with the world; we should have “linguistic fibre to the desktop”.
Jaivin cites numerous poets, writers and intellectuals who have discussed translation, from Ovid to Robert Frost (“poetry is what is lost in translation”), and acknowledges the work of both Grossman and Belgian-Australian academic Pierre Ryckmans. One of her most telling quotations is the one she chooses to end with, from William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Her essay is a clarion call to Australians to break out of the cavern.
It’s unlikely to be answered by education minister Christopher Pyne. It doesn’t really fit with his back-to-the-fifties curriculum. But the rest of us should take note.
Reading a culture
By far the best exhibition I’ve seen so far this summer isn’t in an art gallery at all. It’s at the National Museum in Canberra, and for me it opened up the work of Arnhem Land bark artists as nothing else has.
Old Masters displays bark paintings from 1948 to 1988, selected from the museum’s collection of 2,000 pieces, in such a way as to trace the development of the art and its grounding in ancient myth and to make it accessible to the viewer.
Instigated by former director Andrew Sayers, the exhibition is presented by consultant curator Wally Caruana and his team to demonstrate the “expression of ancestral power that is the basis for Aboriginal aesthetics in art,” as Caruana puts it in his catalogue essay.
Like many non-Aboriginal people, I’ve been drawn to the cross-hatchings and depictions of the natural world that characterise these paintings, without understanding too much about them. The careful selection and excellent explanatory wall panels in Old Masters enable us to read the work – the clan designs, the creation stories, the passage of days and seasons, the move into abstraction – so that we see in them the great cycle of life and death, of discovery and wonder, and those cross-hatched marks begin to shimmer for us as they did for their masterly creators.
It was a revelation – in stark contrast, on the December day we visited, to the museum foyer where multiple screens were running endless looped footage of the English coronation of 1953 and the Queen’s first visit to Australia. Few people were watching the screens.
The bark paintings exhibition, by contrast, was well attended, the visitors hushed and deep in concentration.
Old Masters remains on show until June.
Latin American writing has long fascinated me and I’ve begun revisiting the literature, filling in some of the many gaps in my reading. Best discovery so far is the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s 1949 novel The Kingdom of This World (El Reino de este Mundo), written after a visit to Haiti six years earlier.
Seen through the eyes of a slave character, Ti Noel, it takes as its background the Haitian revolution of 1804. It’s a story of when African warrior traditions and sacred beliefs encountered the influence of the French revolution – symbolised in the oath sworn by the rebel slaves in the forest of Bois Caiman in 1791.
This was the moment characterised by US televangelist and one-time presidential candidate Pat Robertson, in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, as a “pact with the devil” following which, according to him, the Haitian people “have been cursed by one thing after another”.
Robertson’s grossly ignorant remarks were widely condemned at the time, but they’re not so far from a belief common in the English-speaking world that Haitian history is an incomprehensible mix of black magic and dictatorship.
Carpentier gave us the wondrous reality – “lo real maravilloso”, as he termed it – for the world to read.
William Blake would have approved.