Other Ways to Leave the Room

Michael Wood

  • The Eyes: A Version of Antonio Machado by Don Paterson
    Faber, 60 pp, £7.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 20055 9

Translation is often thought to be impossible, an ideal, hopeless task. What we get in its name is a pale substitute, a distant echo of a lost original. ‘A poem,’ Don Paterson says in his afterword to The Eyes, ‘can no more be translated than a piece of music.’ Poets have only to think of the lines ‘in which they take most pride ... to realise they could not possibly find even their roughest equivalents in another tongue’. There is a loyalty to the density of language in such a sentiment, and it’s certainly a good corrective to the notion, if anyone holds it, that translation is the faultless reproduction of the effects and meanings of one language in another. But of course a poem, like any other arrangement of words, can be translated. Rough equivalents can be found, have to be found, because that’s what translation is. What’s impossible is not translation but the fantasy of perfect duplication, in which languages would miraculously and exactly map onto each other, as if the Tower of Babel had never been built and ruined. Translation can’t aspire to abolish the differences among languages, because it is itself a result of those differences, even, in strong cases, a measure of them.

Any translation has to face questions about gaps between meanings of individual words and about diverging syntactical structures. Is the Spanish dolor ‘pain’ or ‘sorrow’ in English? Well, there is Our Lady of Sorrows, but you would need to speak to the doctor about your pain. How should we render a subjunctive which is not exactly a conditional, as in a phrase like ‘cuando yo me muera’? ‘When I die’ doesn’t catch any of it, but ‘if I should die’ is too tentative, and ‘when I should die’ doesn’t make any sense.

It’s the poverty of the possible in such cases that makes us think the job may be impossible, and of course with poetry the difficulties escalate drastically, since now we have rhythm and tonality and undercurrents and much else to deal with. Paterson says his (excellent) versions of a selection of Antonio Machado’s poems are ‘something like piano transcription of guitar music. The bare octaves and fifths that Machado plays can find no equivalent resonance in the great contraption, no matter how loudly we strike them. The only thing we can do is work in a little more chromatism, a little directed emotional reading.’ I’m not sure English is a greater contraption than Spanish, and ‘no equivalent resonance’ is a long way from no equivalent at all. But the comparison is evocative and helpful, and makes clear what Paterson means by what he describes as ‘a version’, although his fuller account of what he is doing makes you wonder what can be left of Machado. There is ‘mangling, shifts of emphasis, omission, deliberate mistranslation, the conflation of different poems, the insertion of whole lines and on a few occasions the writing of entirely new poems’. I’m happy to take Paterson’s word for this, but the result sounds like a very good translation of Machado to me – unless by ‘translation’ we mean only literal translation, which seems to be Paterson’s leaning. ‘For an accurate translation of Machado’s words’, Paterson refers us to Alan Trueblood’s selection, which gives, he says, ‘a more reliable reflection of the surface life of Machado’s verse’.

I assume Paterson is not asking us not to read Machado, only to refrain from petty comparisons, and to treat his own versions as poems in their own right – that is, in one sense not versions at all. But he does raise, incidentally, another intensely problematic aspect of translation. In any moderately liberated form of this activity, the translated writer can seem a kind of fiction, an invention of the translator, a shadowy ancestor haunting the dream prehistory of the work. The very idea of an ‘original’ text begins to seem ghostly. But do we then abandon comparisons altogether, give up all attempt to say what succeeds as translation and what doesn’t? Assuming that some kind of fidelity is at stake, even in the furthest excursions from the literal, who is to say what’s faithful? And faithful to what? We can’t ask the ordinary readers of a translation, since if they could read the text in its first language they no doubt would. But can those who do know the first language judge a translation? The thing is not intended for them, and their very reading of the new text, along with anything they might think about it, is deeply coloured by everything they already know, and cannot not know.

I don’t have the answer to this riddle. Ideally, I would hope something in the feel of the words and their ordering would allow us to judge translations from languages we don’t know, but I can’t go very far towards specifying that something, and the criterion couldn’t be simple readability. Translations are often all too readable in a slack and easy sense (‘In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful’ are Walter Benjamin’s fighting words at the beginning of his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’), just as translations trying for accuracy above all things are often wooden and pedantic. Conversely, and more cheerfully, you can, it seems, make excellent translations on any principle at all, free or literal or in between. Robert Lowell was cruelly and unjustly pilloried by Nabokov for his wonderful ‘imitations’ of Rimbaud, Rilke and others. But then Nabokov’s literal version of Eugene Onegin has all kinds of virtues, and is itself routinely pilloried by almost everyone who offers an opinion on it.

At first glance, Paterson, a Scottish jazz-folk musician born in Dundee in 1963, doesn’t seem to have too much in common with Machado, a Spanish schoolteacher born in Seville in 1875. Machado died in exile, in Collioure, in 1937. Paterson’s language is edgy, contemporary, slangy, local. His scenery is half-dead Scottish towns and unpeopled football pitches, railway lines, dingy hotels, crumbling bookshops. His poems are threaded with sudden acts of violence, or abrupt fears of sudden violence, dreams and projects keep ending in prickly disarray, as if all journeys were to points of no return. Certain poems recall Larkin’s homely allegory of global inadequacy, the apple-core you can’t manage to throw into the wastepaper basket, your failure stretching all the way back up your arm, like a film of the missed life running in reverse. But Paterson’s failures have extraordinary energy, losing out is a full-time job for him, and he devotes lavish attention to the detail of it. In ‘Nil Nil’, the title poem of Paterson’s first volume (1993), the career of a football team, apart from one ‘setback’ where they almost won something, is all downhill, and the top was only a semi-final:

nothing inhibits the fifty-year slide
into Sunday league, big tartan flasks,
open hatchbacks parked squint behind goal-nets,
the half-time satsuma, the dog on the pitch,
then the Boys’ Club, sponsored by Skelly Assurance,
then Skelly Dry Cleaners, then nobody;
stud-harrowed pitches with one-in-five inclines,
grim fathers and perverts with Old English sheepdogs
lining the touch, moaning softly.

The fate of football in this place finally dwindles to two boys kicking a ball, and then to one boy kicking a stone, and we get the history of the stone itself (it’s the gallstone of a fighter pilot crashing without a parachute). Then the poet says goodbye, but carries on.

In short, this is where you get off, reader;
I’ll continue alone, on foot, in the failing light,
following the trail as it steadily fades
into road-repairs, birdsong, the weather, nirvana,
the plot thinning down to a point so refined
not even angels could dance on it. Goodbye.

And with this tone and image and allusion – the lightly parodied bravery, the lonely walker, the angels on a pin – we suddenly seem quite close to Machado after all. Machado’s scenery is traditional and rural, rivers, olive trees, autumn, sunlight, long melancholy evenings, and his diction is composed and sedate. But there are also roads everywhere in Machado, travels into hesitation and ignorance, and a fabulous intelligence and irony which Paterson is afraid ‘some will call “Post-Modern” ’. Machado is a great lyric poet who is also thinking, even when he seems not to be – he has managed never to hear of T.S. Eliot’s famous dissociation of sensibility (‘A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility’ – after that came the deluge of division, when thought and feeling went their entirely separate ways). Or if Machado has heard of it, he works through it, and denies it.

The traveller is the aggregate of the road.
In a walled garden beside the ocean’s ear
he carries his whole journey on his coat –
the hoarfrost and the coffee smell, the dry heat
of the hay, the dog-rose, the bitter woodsmoke.
The long day’s veteran, he puts a brake
on all sentiment, and waits for the slow word
to surface in his mind, as if for air ...

And at that, I saw the gentle traveller lift
his palm to the low sun, and make a gift
of it: the Name, the Word, the ashless blaze.

Of course this sounds like Paterson because it is Paterson, but the essentials are in Machado: the traveller, the road, the garden, the sea, the brake on feeling, the ashless blaze. Except that Machado writes of a Heraclitean fire, which makes him sound like Hopkins, and the slow word which surfaces is literally an adamantine verse which matures.

Machado, Alan Trueblood says in his preface to the Selected Poems (1982), ‘wrote no non-metrical lines nor indeed any lines without at least vowel rhyme’. He left verse instructions on this score, ironically echoing Verlaine’s ‘Art poétique’ (the versions that follow are Paterson’s):

                Free verse?
   You should flee it, rather,
   if you find it so enslaving.

   Half-rhymes on verbs,
  rhymes on time-words,
   they’re most precious.

Prefer half-rhymes, or assonance:
     ideally, the song says nothing
and would have no rhymes at all.

What Machado literally says in the last case is that we should prefer poor rhymes, and imprecise assonance (‘la rima pobre/la asonancia indefinida’), and that rhyme may perhaps take a break when the song says nothing (‘Cuando nada cuenta el canto/acaso huelga la rima’). Paterson, too, likes metrical lines and rhymes and off-rhymes, often so delicately and fluently used that you have to look back, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, to see whether there is a rhyme scheme at all. As in ‘Bedfellows’, for example, from Nil Nil:

An inch or so above the bed
the yellow blindspot hovers
where the last incumbent’s greasy head
has worn away the flowers.

Every night I have to rest
my head in his dead halo;
I feel his heart tick in my wrist;
then, below the pillow,

his suffocated voice resumes
its dreary innuendo:
there are other ways to leave the room
than the door and the window

I take it the absence of the full stop is deliberate, and not a little slip-up at Faber. I’m not so sure about the spelling of Antonio Machado as Antonio Machodo in The Eyes – unless the difficulties of translation are supposed to be dramatised by the spelling: once you cross from the guitar to the piano, you can’t even get the name right.

But what really links Paterson with Machado, and makes The Eyes such an attractive collaborative work, is something harder to describe or analyse. We see it best in the fact that Paterson’s second volume God’s Gift to Women (1997) ends with a poem ‘after Antonio Machado’, and doesn’t seem to have changed its track or tone. And we see it extensively in Paterson’s most discursive poems in both books, ‘The Alexandrian Library’ and ‘The Alexandrian Library Part II’, where dream journeys end in, respectively, an old bookshop and a prolonged memory (‘There can be no forgetting; even after the fire/the archives are always somewhere intact’), and a scream and a poem within the poem, a shaking hand and a white page. In the second poem Paterson offers a convenient and very funny picture of himself at work:

The new poem is coming along like a dream:
this is the big one, the one that will finally
consolidate everything. It is the usual,
but different: a series of localised, badly-lit
paradigmatic atrocities seen from a train
at the hour between dusk and oblivion,
but – O his audacity! – rendered as pastoral ...

Paterson, with entirely different references and on another instrument, has caught Machado’s peculiar aptitude for reflecting on poems while writing them, and for making the poet not a forlorn artist or a suffering everyman, and not even, essentially, a projection of the historical person of the poet, but the agent of a lyrical intelligence we could all aspire to if we were sad enough and gifted enough:

A winter afternoon. The sun
has gone in, and the class begun.
The students settle. Steady rain
lacerates the windowpane.

Dying bells; overhead
a faded poster showing Cain
fugitive, and Abel dead;
by his side, a crimson stain.

A scarecrow in a tattered cloak,
the ancient master slowly stands,
clears his throat, then starts to croak
from the rule-book in his hand.

The children rise at his command
then intone the dismal lesson:
A hundred hundreds make a thousand.
A thousand thousands make a million.

A winter afternoon. The sun
Has gone out, and the class begun.
The students study. Steady rain
lashes at the windowpane.

The scarecrow and the cloak are Paterson’s contribution, but Cain and Abel come from Machado. Translating the repeated ‘monotonía de la lluvia’ as the repeated ‘steady rain’ strikes me as beautifully judged, the actual weather on one instrument echoing the effect of the weather on another. This poem makes clear, I think, how thoroughly Paterson can make a work of his own out of Machado’s instigation, and the title poem of The Eyes makes this success even clearer:

When his beloved died
he decided to grow old
and shut himself inside
the empty house, alone
with his memories of her
and the big sunny mirror
where she’d fixed her hair.
This great block of gold
he hoarded like a miser,
thinking here, at least,
he’d lock away the past,
keep one thing intact

But around the first anniversary,
he began to wonder, to his horror,
about her eyes: Were they brown or black,
or grey? Green? Christ, I can’t say ...

One spring morning, something gave in him;
shouldering his twin grief like a cross,
he shut the front door, turned into the street
and had walked just ten yards, when, from a dark close,
he caught a flash of eyes. He lowered his hat-brim
and walked on ... Yes, they were like that; like that ...

And once we’ve registered the success of these poems as poems, and diligently refused to peg them to Machado’s texts, to praise or damn them for their fidelity or otherwise, we can, I think, allow the English and Spanish poems to talk to each other a little, since the conversation will say revealing things about the different instruments. Here, for instance, is a single, wonderful poem, first in Spanish, then in Trueblood’s version, then in Paterson’s.

     ¿Y ha de morir contigo el mundo mago
donde guarda el recuerdo
los hálitos más puros de la vida,
la blanca sombra del amor primero,
     la voz que fue a tu corazón, la mano
que tu querías retener en sueños,
y todos los amores
que llegaron al alma, al hondo cielo?
     ¿Y ha de morir contigo el mundo tuyo,
la vieja vida en orden tuyo y nuevo?
Los yunques y crisoles de tu alma
trabajan para el polvo y para el viento?

  And is the magic world to die with you,
the world where memory keeps
life’s purest breaths –
white shadow of first love,
  voice that went to your heart, hand
you wished in dreams to keep in yours
and all loved things
that touched the soul, the deeper sky?
  And is your world to die with you,
the old life you reshaped your way?
Have the crucibles and anvils of your soul
been working for dust and for the wind?

So is this magic place to die with us?
I mean that world where memory still holds
the breath of your early life:
the white shadow of first love,
that voice that rose and fell
with your own heart, the hand
you’d dream of closing in your own ...
all those beloved burning things
that dawned on us,
lit up the inner sky?
Is this whole world to vanish when we die,
this life that we made new in our own fashion?
Have the crucibles and anvils of the soul
been working for the dust and for the wind?

Even the beginning of a commentary on these poems might take for ever, so let me just note that while ‘is to die’ is the literal translation of ‘ha de morir’, the ordinary life of the phrase in English doesn’t include, to my ear, the sense of destiny and disbelief that comes up whenever it is used in Spanish. Something like ‘Can it really be true (as I know it is) that death is going to happen?’ I’d like to note also that, for reasons which escape me entirely, Paterson’s ‘so’ seems a perfect translation of the Spanish ‘and’; that Paterson’s shifting of the question from a second, loved person to a first-person couple makes both for a quite different poem and for a weirdly loyal echo of Machado’s mood; and that the desolate, last rhetorical question works equally well in both languages and all three versions. Haven’t we always known that the smithy of the soul, as Stephen Dedalus called it, has the dust and the wind as its first and last clients?