Everything is Translation

(Sometime toward the end of last year, I was chatting via email with Fiona Sampson about a translation project when I remarked that I’d been thinking for some time of translation as being at the heart of a broader range of my activities. When she asked me to clarify, I began muddling my way toward the following.

As I did so, I realised that I’d rehearsed a version of this argument ten years ago – cue usual intellectual paralysis. I’ve now finally dug out that old talk, and will post it after this synopsis of a book it’ll probably take me another ten years to write…)

A Quadrilogue between Translation, Poetics, Scottish Poetry, and Creative Writing

In every act of translation, someone has to be the ‘foreigner’, and someone (usually someone else) gets to decide what will function as meaningful in terms of the ‘host’ language. This act is not only fraught with issues of power and authority, but, arguably, has a general social and political, as well as literary, relevance.

So, if we try to think of translation as a metaphor for all such acts of communication, we might imagine it operating, societally, between the sciences and humanities, or between the media and the academy, and, politically, between left and right wing, or between the metropolitan and the ‘regional’.

Everything in this sense can perhaps be thought of as translation, but it therefore behoves us to work out, not what is lost in translation, but what remains unstated about how we translate. The danger is, under the guise of an exchange between equals, that the translator’s decisions are made, consciously or otherwise, not simply to facilitate communication, but also in order to preserve or extend their power.

Consider the opposition between poetry and prose, which assumes prose is ‘normal’, and poetry ‘other’. But what is the relation between prose and speech, or between prose and fiction: are these merely subsets of prose? If so, what is the relation between either of these and poetry?

Such an unexamined opposition is like translation using a dictionary, an act in which ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ words are assumed to have a straightforward, synonymous relationship, unaffected by their different cultural contexts. It either overlooks or ignores in what way the foreign word’s subtext is also ‘foreign’ – and indeed what specifically might already be ‘domestic’ about it.

Similarly, the easy recourse by politicians in times of economic difficulty to the demonisation of other social classes, races, sexualities or nationalities tends to rest on ‘plausible’ but misleading oppositions. Voters are asked to look at a complex social question according to one possible contributing factor, the issue of identity. And, as often in such cases, that complex issue therefore becomes a reassuringly simple binary: it can’t be us, so it must be them.

The decision by the Prime Minister to present the Scottish referendum on independence as a yes/no question reveals the underlying power principle of such divisions. As he knew a majority would vote for Devo Max, he enforced a polarisation which divided Scottish voters into Yes or No camps (and, necessarily, but seemingly without realising, he thereby divided the very union he sought to preserve into ‘everyone’ and ‘the Scots’).

As a short term stratagem, it had the effect of failing to contain the matter within a Scottish context, it also helped to expose a fundamental constitutional flaw in the ‘British’ system: the democratic principle is ill-served when voting is characterised by uneven ‘blocs’ such as nation states, and further undermined by voting practices such as FPTP. The resulting injury to the body politic, as the General Election results demonstrate, will take some time to heal if indeed this is possible or desirable.

To constantly be presented with, effectively, a false choice which denies the actual desires or situation of one group, is to witness or be subjected to a gesture of control by the other under the guise of a democratic decision or pronounced equality.

Each of the four subjects I wish to write about – translation, poetics, Scottish poetry, and Creative Writing – explores the types of choices imposed on us by different types of authority, according to this Procrustean limitation of terms, in which we simply ‘belong’ or are ‘other’. Each contains a number of unresolved or under-considered oppositions; each of these binaries is subject to an implicit power imbalance.

My thesis is, by reconsidering these oppositions along the lines of translation theory (that each opposition expresses either an act of domestication or one of foreignisation by one, another, or both parties), that a dialogue can be opened up between the unreconciled or mistranslating elements. Each opposition, then, is re-examined as an exaggeration or distortion of a more complex interrelation. This involves a shift from mutually mishearing monologues to purposive dialogue.

So in translation the first opposition is, simply, between host and target poet. At a more complex level, however, I want to contrast two methodologies: that of translators with a knowledge of the host language with that of poet/translators who work without such knowledge.

In poetics the contrast is, simply, between mainstream and avant-garde writers – and, more complicatedly, between ‘theoretists’ and practitioners who resist, subvert, or are sceptical about theoretic systems whatever their ideological provenance.

In Scottish poetry it is, simply, between users of Scots or Gaelic, and those who write predominantly in English (and, complexly, between monoglot and polyglot approaches to writing: between poetry in English, and poetries in Englishes).

And in Creative Writing it is, simply, between professional writer and amateur student, but at the more problematic level it is about the academicisation of the profession, and how that emerges in dialogue between the strange new identities of writer-as-practitioner/theorist and academic-as-theorist/practitioner.

In the seminal work in Scots prose, The Complaynt of Scotlande, Dame Scotia addresses the three estates in an effort to rally them against the ‘Rough Wooing’: the military campaign by Henry VIII which was designed to induce a marriage between his heir and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots. In this ‘quadrilogue’, then, the three are subject to the one, or are considered in terms of that unifying concept: nobility, church and peasantry together constitute ‘Scotland’.

Similarly, in this study, the complementary areas of poetics, Scottish poetry in particular, and Creative Writing as an academic discipline, are considered as constituent parts of ‘Translation’ in the extended metaphoric sense alluded to above.

By exploring the relationship between translator and translatee, I hope to gain some perspective on how to present my other areas of concern not as unstated antagonisms, but as dynamic and ongoing acts of dialogue. By presenting all four areas as interrelated, as in quadrilogue with each other, I hope to contextualise what can seem, separately, rather specialist areas of concern in a broader picture of social interaction.


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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