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Thursday, October 04, 2007

English as a Foreign Language

The one thing that cannot be translated, Benjamin claimed, is a translation. The later stretches of Blatný’s The Drug of Art – I’m thinking of Bixley Remedial School and beyond – offer plenty of resistance to being translated, not just out of intrinsic difficulty, but given how far they go down several roads at once to a state of polyglot betwixt-and-betweenness. Where is the translator to start, never mind end up?

The later poems feature 75% Czech, 20% English and 5% ‘other’ languages (chiefly French and German). Where English features in the original, this is signalled in The Drug of Art's translations by the use of grey. It's as if the very ink in the lines is reluctant to climb the fence from original to 'translation', and in any case aren't the words there on the other side already?

The oddest things turn up in this original English material:

Never light the job
Nottingham is in the North of England
potato blight there killed all the bulbs

{Quotations ends}

Choc-ice is in czech called Eskymo
I used to have three on a bench at Felixtow Road
every Saturday and Sunday.

{Quotation ends}

One solution to this problem, if it is a problem, would be to translate the English text in the 'translation' into Czech. But this would establish a relationship of reciprocity between the two language which I don't think is part of the plan (what to do with the French and German then?).

I'm reminded of, was it Felstiner's translation of Celan's Todesfuge where the English begins to revert to German as the poem progresses. I'm also reminded, since I mention Todesfuge, of Galway Kinnell introducing passages from that poem in German into his 9/11 poem 'When the Towers Fell'. There's certainly no meaningful reciprocity there either, between Kinnell's 'host' poem and its German guest, and this failure of judgement is just one index of that poem's larger failure, I'd say.

But I'm changing the subject. ‘Eskimo’, that now largely discarded word, was once thought to mean ‘eater of raw meat’ (rather than ‘eater of choc-ices’). There’s something self-consciously pidgin-like about Blatný’s English that would not, I think, benefit from leaving its ‘Eskimo’ awkwardness and artificiality behind, and that survives and thrives on the ricochet of misunderstanding and confusion between original and second language, encounter and misencounter, heteroglossia and nonsense. At its most extreme, these poems offer us texts entirely in English, with only the title translated, as in ‘School’ (Czech ‘Škola’):

Fred has arrived
the evening is ending happily
I got a new pen from the stores
a new old pen
it started to write in the twenties
some of the people of the first manifestoes still live

{Quotation ends}

You are reading a foreign language, Blatný reminds us, and that language is English.

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