Two months ago reading one of the most inspiring texts that I have come across for some time – Henri Lefebvre’s Introduction to Modernity – I was, perhaps, most struck by a story of an unknown and forgotten artist who Lefebvre once knew. Unlike, say, Van Gogh or Anatoly Zverev who, although, suffering in their lifetime would gain immortality after their death, Lefebvre’s artist would never be reclaimed. Not only was he a penniless artist in his lifetime but also his art works were destroyed by an indifferent landlord who reclaimed the property where the artist had been living. This led to Lefebvre’s talking about the ‘Unknown Artist’ as a kind of counterpart to the ‘Unknown Soldier’. As one of those hidden victims of the social system, the marginalized whose voice is never recuperated. The abandoned and destroyed art work which is never recuperated neither in this lifetime, nor in the next is perhaps a kind of obsession of mine. Bulgakov’s phrase in the Master and Margherita ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’ is, alas, not always true and a recent item of news about a Naples art gallery forced to destroy works of art because of a lack of government funding was, perhaps, just one more example of how art too has, in one way or another, been lost for ever.
(I suppose I must admit here to my own lost manuscript – a translation but admittedly not a great one – of Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen. I undertook this translation before I knew Spanish well and travelled down to the Rome National Library to find an earlier Italian translation. Well to cut a story short I spent nearly six months on my translation – sent it on to publishers – got it rejected but then found that one publisher soon after rejecting mine had commissioned a translation from an established literary translator and published this book- though it never published the sequel Los lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers). Therefore readers of the Serpents Tail translation of Roberto Arlt’s first volume will never get to know what happened to Erdosian and fellow conspirators in the sequel. My own translation, then, was never returned to me from a computer hard disk taken from me and my six months hard work and labour of love also has seemingly been lost for ever due to the indifference of others. Other lost translations and letters – also destroyed – also plague my good mood from time to time).
Yet, in spite of all this, the translation of that book I desperately wanted to be translated into English (though it had come out in 1984 in the US but, then, soon became out of print) was translated. All the same for years I have been rather obsessed with the subject of missing translations. Maybe it stemmed partly from a conversation with a Croatian poet who was also for a brief period my teacher of translation at the Trieste School of Modern Languages for Translators and Interpreters. Himself a translator from something like seven languages, Tonko Maroevic’, started to talk about the lines from T.S.Eliot where he says “I had not thought death had undone so many”. This, of course, was a reference or even translation from Dante. Yet Maroevic went on to tell me how hermetic English literature was. He talked about the influences that Eliot or Rilke would have on Croatian literature but with English literature one could not really talk about strong outside influences. Maybe poets from centuries earlier – the Dantes, the Goethes, the Villons may be acceptable – but what about contemporary twentieth century influences. Maybe the odd Kafka, Borges, Chekhov in prose but bare little in poetry. Eliot, himself, admitted of only Laforgue. But others? Maybe Vasko Popa had some influence on Ted Hughes. How many polyglots were there in English literature? Barely any. The Irish fare better than the English – Joyce even began to compose letters in triestino and would apparently sing drunk in the gutter in this dialect too. His Finnegans wake was a polyglot’s dream too. Beckett can also be seen as a bi-lingual writer. Well, perhaps, D.H.Lawrence translated the odd novel of Verga’s & there’s the odd Tim Parks who is both writer and translator but that is about it.
In general, the role of the translator-writer or even the polyglot or polycultured literary figure in Anglo-Saxon countries is a much less common one than in other European countries. There may have been the situation of the empire writing back- a kind of return of colonized culture- which could have revolutionized English-speaking cultures recently. Yet it seems to have been limited to figures such as Salman Rushdie and a handful of others and in any case Britain has still remained incredibly isolated from other European trends and influences and hardly shares any common cultural space with the European continent. The established writers like Martin Amis will only limit themselves to enthuse over those like Vladimir Nabokov who heroically changed from another language to English succeeding in that endeavour with extraordinary success. Perhaps even much more generous and open writers like Harold Pinter can’t be said to have strayed too far from home in terms of real literary sources.
On the continent it is a different story. Spain’s closest figure to a modern classic, Javier Marias, has undertaken translations from the English including Lawrence Sterne’s Tristan Shandy and Claudio Magris’s openness to German literature through both translation and scholarship needs no underlining. Sometimes writers will deeply immerse themselves in what have been erroneously seen as minor literatures- Antonio Tabucchi’s absolute devotion to Portuguese literature and Juan Goytisolo’s dedication to Maghrebi culture are cases in point. This daring homage across cultures could be said to be especially strong in Italy’s relationship to Russian culture. Apart from the wonderful mixture of translation and literary scholarship that comprised Angelo Maria Ripellino’s outstanding contribution to an inspirational proselytisation of Russian and Czech literature in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, perhaps, even more significant was the fact that one of the major writers of Italy in the late twentieth century, Tommaso Landolfi, was also the author of major translations of the works of both Pushkin and Lermontov. Italian letters has been one of the most open to miscegenation. The decision by the Einaudi publishing house to publish a whole series of classics translated by established Italian writers some time ago is something that would probably never be replicated in an Anglo-Saxon country.
This heremticism accounts for the genuine lack of translations in English compared to other languages and I’ll be hoping to post some blogs in the future of what writers and books that haven’t gained any recognition in Britain I feel should be more widely known. They may, like Roberto Arlt, be long dead or they may be still with us or they may be long forgotten writers who were once briefly translated. Nonetheless, these blog posts hope to try to add some new and forgotten names that the British reader has for too long been ignorant of.