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García : a Contemporary Asturian poet translated by Jason Preator

by Jason Preater


Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate 

You shut the door tight and barely hear
Much more at your back than the striking
Hard and dry of wood and iron.
You’re not going out, no, but in to the hearth
Where all that awaits you, if you’re lucky,
Is the electric groan of the fridge,
The tired turning of the washing machine,
The warm smell of the butane stove.
You drop some packages on the kitchen table
Hang your coat up neatly in the wardrobe;
You light a pipe, you empty a glass;
You try not to think about the pain you feel.
You lay out, in your room now, pen and paper.
You set yourself to write a new poem
– you start it off with some old verse –
And try to feel the pain you think,
And lie as best you can with the truth in your hands.

 

This is the opening poem of Cuartetu de la Criación (Trabe: Uviéu, 2010) p. 59, by Xosé Antonio García.  It is a short collection, first published in 1989 when the poet was 28 years old.  Starting with the quotation from Dante, threads of literary reference are shot through the fabric of the collection, which mediates on the process of writing through precisely drawn mataphors and symbols taken from the writer’s everyday surroundings.  The poets that García chooses to refer to are big names in “universal” literature: he reduces Eliot to TESRIP, which is cocky and self-assured as only a young poet can be!

The meta-poetical posturing could seem an artificial construct to show off his learning, but García is not a pseudo.  Even though  I tend to veer more towards Hardy and Housman than Pound I find these poems fascinating.  The poet never fails to make his ideas and images fresh and convincing and he is not threatened by the urbane, cosmopolitan weight of the greats he alludes to.

In this sense the Cuartetu is a valuable starting point for contemporary writing in Asturianu.  It shows that international and world culture can enter and invigorate poetry coming from Mieres.  Furthermore, beyond posturing and posing, he shows that for a poet being in Rome (or New York) is not so important.  It seems to me that Xuan Bello might have been thinking of this when he wrote Historia Universal de Paniceiros that curious little masterpiece, which refracts a world of learning through the particular and precise observation of a local environment.

 

Those of you involved in the ‘business’ of translation, whether for gain or pleasure (or a mixture of both) will probably be interested, more likely  alarmed, to hear about “Duolingo”, the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, an American computer scientist. The business strategy behind Duolingo is adroit : Duolingo  offers  free online tutoring but doubles as a non-free translation service. Nothing specially innovative about that, you might think : there exist several good free educational sites on the web (I recommend Khan Academy) while there is a growing need for translators, especially in technical areas, because of globalisation. But Duolingo joins the two strands together to form a closed loop : learners pay for their tuition by translating material which can be sold on, so Duolingo has it both ways !

       So far, where translation is concerned, computers and artificial intelligence have proved to be no match for humans : chess programmes can beat grandmasters but automated translations are usually awful. This is not surprising : you don’t need life experience to solve Sudokus but language, even that used in technical manuals, crucially depends on context — a computer finds it hard to decide whether a ‘plant’ is the vegetable or industrial variety.  But what about learner human translators? Are they going to provide unexpected competition for the professionals? The idea is not so daft as it may sound : there will apparently be a system of cross-checks and revisions before a Duolingo translation is given the OK. It is not inconceivable that a large and varied number of enthusiastic translators, if properly supervised, could come up with something quite interesting.

Von Ahn seems to have his sights more on factual stuff than the sort of material showcased on this website  — one of his aims is to get the whole of Wikipedia translated into Spanish without paying a penny — but learners might well have something to offer even in the field of literature proper. The Elizabethan and Jacobean era was a golden age for fine translations (Chapman’s Homer, Plutarch, The King James Bible, &c.) although, by modern standards, the translators were rank amateurs. Beginners have an enthusiasm for a new language and its poetry that people who translate for a living have, in most cases, long since lost : Ezra Pound, arguably the greatest 20th century English translator of poetry, remained gloriously ignorant of most of the languages (Provencal, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese) he trafficked in.

 Maybe, given the nature of von Ahn’s business formula, one ought to get one of his students to translate into English the French expression, “Aux frais de la princesse” , or, better still  —  but this would be for advanced students only — into Sixties Cockney. We’ll see if any Duolingo student manages to come up with “Down to Larkin” which is what you said to a London publican when he asked you to settle up for your last ten pints.   S.H.  

Note : I heard about Duolingo via the excellent article “Learn a language, translate the web” by Jim Giles (New Scientist, 14 Jan pp. 18-19)

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