We are all translators

(This piece was commissioned by Radio 3 for their Free Thought slot. It was, rather expertly, cut for broadcast, and this is the original version.)

I have a map of Europe, drawn from memory by the artist Emma Kay. Finland appears disproportionately large, and Hull is north of Newcastle. It’s a witty comment on how our inner views of the world do not coincide; how, in order to communicate at all, we must reveal those inner worlds, compare them, and seek translation.

When I went to university, I crossed a border between Scotland and England that has a certain linguistic consequence. I didn’t understand this, until, uttering what to me was normal English, ‘I’m away the messages,’ I encountered blank stares. ‘I am going to buy some shopping’ was, apparently, what I was trying to say, and I then tried so hard that my friends in Dundee were astonished by my new, English, accent.

As a poet, you both travel and translate. You may find yourself in the Uighur-speaking far west of China, trying to say ‘Thank you’ (Rahmat) to an audience; or in a taxi in the Balkans trying to find out how far to your destination (Koliko?). You find yourself trying to translate Chinese with a poet saturated in millennia of cultural references. Or working with an expert on a poem in Somali, the language they say makes Arabic look like Esperanto.

What happens when you try to speak, to understand, to read, to translate a phrase into what you think is English, is the same thing that enables us to talk to anyone. You must engage with the fact that what is exotic to you is utterly familiar to the speaker. You must listen to your own preconceptions, those cultural constructs you weren’t aware of constructing. You must seek the familiar in the other, and the exotic in yourself.

Fundamentally, we are all translators, and the act of translation is a flashpoint of partial understanding, or mutual incomprehension. There is no perfect translation, just as there is no perfect translator – or perfect source. There is, instead, the glorious muddle of being alive to confusion and empathy and contact. To translate, in a world that rages to establish one way of talking, one way of thinking, is to be that most perfectly imperfect thing: human.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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3 Responses to We are all translators

  1. Unknown says:

    What you say about "the glorious muddle of being alive to confusion and empathy and contact" reminds me of a programme I heard on Radio 4 not so long ago about the fact that UK English speakers would find it impossible (or virtually impossible) to understand huge numbers of people (the majority?) around the world who "speak English". The language has evolved gloriously, creating differences which knock those between Scottish and English takes on the language into a cocked hat.http://dominicrivron.blogspot.com

  2. Bill says:

    Hi Dominic,
    I remember when I was in India just tuning in to the fact that there was a whole other set of Englishes I had the barest nodding acquaintance with — but then I used to have the same experience within Scots when I\’d go up to Banffshire and they would speak in broad Doric. Maybe it\’s more tuning up than tuning in, ie more melody than wavelength. But, to shift metaphors, I suppose I\’m bound to see these things through the lens of my experience: for me the gap between southern and northern Englishes is the first indication that there is not nor should there be a \’norm\’.

  3. Sally says:

    Hi Bill, I liked this piece and I dont see how the Beeb or anyone else could have cut this, it is so concise.
    I noticed a lot of differences between English and Scottish English when I first came to Scotland decades ago, (e.g. England tended to say \’the earth\’ and Scotland \’the world \’) but I hardly notice them nowadays. And some of the idioms will have changed with time, time is another cause of the need for translation.
    cheers Sally
    who is now going to see whats happened to the lost notebook blog.

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