Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cloak of invisibility

Photo by Alan Cleaver
I guess since this blog is mostly about my true passions, music and poetry, it's normal that I rarely write about my main bread-earning activity: translation. But I'll make an exception today after reading a really excellent article about the invisibility of the translator in the New Statesman by the translator Robert Chandler. 

It's a great read, even for non-translators, and much of it touches on issues that we translators face all the time: the intimate knowledge of the original text a translator must develop, the poor remuneration (for literary translators in particular), and the general lack of recognition of our craft (nay, art!). But one paragraph stood out for me and brought to the forefront an issue that I had only heretofore been subconsciously aware of. It has to do with readers' trust in the translator and the fact that translations are often subject to a degree of criticism that the original text rarely undergoes. 

Chandler cites the example of an Amazon review of his translation in which the reviewer singles out the word "pike-perch" and wonders if this is not a mis-translation of "sturgeon" (when, in fact, it is a distinct species of fish, which the reviewer would have discovered if he'd taken the time to look it up). He goes on to say--and this is what really struck me:
The frequency of such criticisms makes many translators nervous about using language that is in the least out of the ordinary. This too is a loss.
Upon reading this, I realized that I have, in fact, fallen victim to this insidious way of thinking, unconsciously weighing certain translations in terms of whether the reader will pause and wonder if they're mis-translations. Granted, it's not nearly so great an issue in commercial translation, where the goal is usually to make the text read as smoothly as possible. And yet every once in a while, I'll hit upon a solution that though perfectly elegant is perhaps somewhat unorthodox, and I'll hesitate and maybe even change it to something more white-bread, simply to head-off any criticism at the pass.

So today I make a vow. No more. If it's the right translation, I'll stick to my guns, criticism be damned. Maybe if we translators rock the boat a little more, we can shrug off this clinging cloak of invisibility.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Lerma: a musical pilgrimage

I suppose one of the disadvantages of having performed music on some level for over 30 years is that I am very rarely surprised by a concert anymore. Which is not to say that I’m jaded; I can derive great enjoyment from (or be terribly disappointed by) a concert like anyone else. But while it seems as though standing ovations at concerts are almost de rigueur nowadays, I’ve been in enough performance situations over the years to know all too well how rare the truly special ones are. Which makes the concert I heard last week in Spain all the more memorable.

It was also somewhat serendipitous. My wife and I had been planning a vacation to Catalonia in early June for several months when my friend and mentor Douglas Kirk told me he would be playing a concert in the little Castilian town of Lerma during the time we would be in Spain. I wouldn’t normally drive more than half way across a country on my vacation just to hear a concert, but this was no ordinary concert.

Even the vast majority of musicians are unaware of the special place—though admittedly a minor one in the grand scheme of things—Lerma has in the history of music. Under the reign of Philip III of Spain in the early 17th century, the Duke of Lerma was a powerful and influential minister who used his sway to enrich his native town. Among other works, he endowed several convents and caused the beautiful Collegiate church of San Pedro to be built. He also hired musicians, including a wind band, to perform at church services, and this small ensemble had several manuscripts from which they played. One of these was rediscovered only quite recently, and it was the basis of Douglas’ doctoral thesis. As a result, it was also this music that I cut my early music teeth on some 20 years ago while at McGill. So when Douglas told me that the Spain concert was to be a recreation of a Gabrieli Consort recording based on this manuscript—in the very same church in Lerma where this music was originally performed (and where the CD had been recorded ten years ago)—it was virtually impossible for me not to go.

After Venice—where the Gabrielis and Monteverdi (heroes to early brass players the world over) worked at San Marco—Lerma is my most important Mecca. So I suppose it's fitting that Lerma is just a 20-minute drive south of Burgos, one of the main stops on the Camino de Santiago. And though my own pilgrimage here was not the religious sort, just to walk around the town, which has undergone some fairly significant and tasteful restorations in recent years, was a little surreal and mystical. To see the “Lerma manuscript” itself was also a wonderful moment. As Douglas describes, when he first saw it, the manuscript was piled carelessly with some other ancient chant books in a dingy, dusty storeroom. Happily, it is now prominently displayed in a lovely glass case.

The "Lerma Manuscript," opened to the hymn Pange Lingua.
But without a doubt, the highlight of our little 1,100-kilometre side trip was the concert itself. The Gabrieli Consort is one of the best early music ensembles on the planet, so just to hear them live was in itself a treat; but to hear them perform this music in this setting was like a minor miracle. The acoustics in the church of San Pedro are superb: warmer than you’d expect for a stone church, and just enough reverberation to provide a full, rich sound, but not so much that the individual lines of polyphony get lost. The concert was, as expected, simply outstanding from start to finish, but even here, one piece stood out: a setting of the Salve Regina by Tomás Luis de Victoria for eight voices, performed a capella. The piece is 12 minutes long and a tour de force. But this particular performance—these singers in this church, a delicious meal of Spanish lamb and half a bottle of Spanish wine in my belly—was quite literally unbearable in its beauty. By the end, tears were streaming down my face, and I could hardly breathe.

The Collegiate church of San Pedro, in Lerma, Spain.
To be moved by music is to be human, and it is music’s emotional power that drives most musicians to do what they do, but even knowing this, the depth of feeling I experienced while listening to that Salve Regina took me completely by surprise; never in all my years has a piece of music affected me so profoundly. I can only describe it as a life-altering moment. I’m not the same person I was before.

If vacations are like bubbles in time, small capsules of dreaming embedded into the solid reality of our everyday lives, this excursion to Lerma was a bubble within a bubble, having only the most tenuous relation to reality. And yet the memory of those days, of that concert and the breathtaking Salve Regina, far from being dreamlike, is sharp and vivid.

Unwinding with the musicians after the concert on the patio of a bar in Lerma’s lovely main square, opposite the old ducal palace (now a luxury hotel of the Parador chain), the eminently drinkable local wine flowing freely, I felt almost as if I had played the concert myself, rather than being a mere spectator. Certainly I felt the same mixture of elation and emotional exhaustion that comes after playing a good concert. And as the glow of the setting early summer sun reflected off the Duke’s restored palace, I indulged in the fantasy that the Duke himself was standing in one of the upper windows, smiling down in approval at the revelry below.

The ducal palace, now a Parador hotel.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A new sonnet

A few weeks ago I gave a presentation to my literary translation class on the parallels between musical performance and translation (which I hope to write up as a blog post one of these days). I specifically focussed on the translation of poetry because, of all literary genres (other than theatre, I suppose), poetry is distinctive in that it really needs to be spoken aloud; in other words, performed.

I concluded my presentation by mentioning that writing poetry is a great way for translators (all writers, in fact) to hone their craft. The prof, not a poetry buff at all but eager to learn more about it, took up my call to arms (the pen, in this case) and "suggested" to the class that they all write a sonnet. There were many groans, and I think I may have made a few enemies, but I was happy for the excuse to put my poetry hat on again. Here's my effort, a first draft, really. It's a tribute to the wonderful musicians, and good friends, of Apollo's Fire, with whom I had the great pleasure of touring the Monteverdi Vespers last fall.

Evening Prayer on Green Mountain

We scale the green mountain this perfect day,
stand awestruck at its peak in black tailcoats,
long dresses. Like so many golden motes
adrift in the sky-vault, red echoes stray
in a sea of psalms. We sing to Mary, pray
that we can grasp the world—or just one note—
in our hands. To our children we devote
our lives, but they must always sail away.
Amidst all this, one person’s ecstasy:
I catch your eye across the altar—why speak
when words can only mean something when sung?
This is how we fabricate our legacy:
A tear for what we lost, for what we seek;
a smile for sharing music, nature’s tongue.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Elisabeth Bishop

I just realized that the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite poets, Elisabeth Bishop, passed a few days ago, on February 8th, without my realizing it. Her brilliant villanelle One Art is one of my very favourite poems. I never tire of reading it. It also inspired a quasi-villanelle of my own a few years ago, which I post here now, in honour of Elisabeth.

Lost and Found

It’s been a year for losing: fifteen pounds,
each misplaced one by one, though I feel sure
if I look hard enough they’ll all be found.

A dozen pens of meter and rhymes unsound,
whole stanzas gone to Euterpe’s allure.
It’s been a year for losing. I hung around

Rio but couldn’t spot the holy ground
where Liza lived—but oh what horse manure!
If I’d tried harder, it could have been found.

Then youth, who snuck away one night, unbound;
my heart still aches, however more mature
I am: it’s been a year for losing ground.

But one good thing, at least, one placid sound
did not take flight, though how is still obscure.
It’s been a year for losing, stumbling around;
yet somehow, here in the dark, you I found.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The City & the City

It's been a while since I've updated this blog. Now that we have Facebook and Twitter as forums to communicate all the quirky sites we come across and interesting ideas that pop into our heads, it seems it takes something extraordinary before I feel the urge to blog.

Well, that something extraordinary recently occurred in the form of a novel: The City & the City ( link), by China Miéville. Miéville is known primarily as a fantasy writer, and yet if, as was my case, this is the first novel of his you were to read, you'd never know it. Aside from the novel's setting in a completely fictional city (or cities, to be precise), it is wholly grounded in present day reality. In essence, it's a murder mystery, and yet calling it that is like calling Nineteen Eighty-Four a love story. The mystery is there to drive the story along, but so much else is going on that one almost forgets the novel's basic premise at times.

It's the setting of The City & the City—so original and startling—that makes reading it such an extraordinary experience from beginning to end. I hesitate to describe it further; I would hate to deprive you the pleasure of allowing it to unfold in your mind, of discovering and experiencing its weirdness for yourself, and of marvelling at how quickly and easily the human mind adapts to something so strange. I'm torn because I'm eager to talk about the book, to describe my feelings and reactions to it; but on the other hand, I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read it. But if a review you must have, read the one by Michael Moorcock in The Guardian. That said, I for one am glad I read it "cold," so to speak.

I suppose the novel is not for everyone. If you can't suspend your disbelief just a tad, then you probably won't grok this novel. I think most readers of SF and fantasy will enjoy it, but I also think many readers of crime fiction will also appreciate it. The main character, Inspector Tyador Borlú is extremely sympathetic, and Miéville hasn't ruled out writing other stories based on this character, although for reasons that become clear at the end of this novel, they would all have to be prequels. In other words, The City & the City is the last Inspector Borlú mystery. Borlú reminds me a bit of Dona Leon's Commissario Brunetti. He's introspective like Brunetti, and he's not afraid to bend the rules, but he's an honest man who takes his job seriously, aware that he's somewhat of a rare breed.

The City & the City is a statement on the amazing human capacity to adapt. It's one of the most interesting and original novels I've read in a very long time. I can't recommend it highly enough. If you have read it, let me know what you thought about it in the comments.