On The Foreign Passion - by Catherine Boyle

At our launch of Cristian Aliaga's The Foreign Passion (trans Ben Bollig), Catherine Boyle, Professor of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at King’s College London gave a great talk on the importance of translation and the book. 

Here is a transcript of that talk. 

Translation is about travelling. And in many ways translation is no different now from it was in the middle ages. It passes through the body of the translator, of the traveller. Translators are on the look-out for new stories. Our constant question is: what are the stories that you have that that we could borrow and tell again; tell to ourselves; tell to each other? And as we translate we do not colonise the language – although that has been known – we inhabit it. We travel with it and we make it live again in another place, another time, with new eyes and ears. And we hope that in that new space and time what we have translated can find its voice, can find an audience, new listeners, new interpreters. Maybe, even, that the translation can have an impact on the language and time it has come it inhabit anew. Just as we are worlds of migrants, nomads, incomers, newcomers, intruders, we are worlds of invention and re-invention.

Translators are also advocates. As we travel the world physically and linguistically we are alert to those stories that will travel and when we find some we respond to what Peter Brook calls ‘the formless hunch’, as I have said and written so many times before: the intuition that what we have found needs to be translated, brought to the new place to speak again because it has something urgent to say to us, now, and here.

What Ben Bollig has done here in The Foreign Passion is a form of advocacy. He has found in La pasión extranjera a poetry that speaks to him, and knowing that he can only be of his time, he intuits that it will speak to other people. We are introduced to themes that are crushing in on us, of the political construction of the spaces we inhabit, of global capital and its / our impact on our earth, of migration, immigration movement, of belonging, and of the strangeness of being other, or of moving into spaces in which we are rendered as other. Profound memories are lost and commodified, and are located in museums where people go ‘to beg for a memory’ / ‘para mendigar un recuerdo’ (‘Belleza ajena’), pathetically pleased with, for example, the postcard that is the most abject trace of what we think we want to remember, or own again, or belong to again.

These poems and their translations remind us that all translation is an exploration. There can be no translation without the journeying through words and meaning. The creation of excess – of many drafts, many possibilities, many suggestions – allows to wander through the poetry. We need this space to allow a submersion, from which we will emerge clutching the right word, the word that does the job. For this time, for this moment, for now. It may not be the same next year, but the submersion has allowed the creation of a parallel poetics and by the time the words come to rest on the page – for this particular version printed – there is a sense of coherence, of rhythm, of a new poetics that can deliver meaning in the new space. ‘Come to rest’ suggests an end, a dead place. But I don’t mean that at all, because the page will always provoke the new life of reading and listening.

The M62 [as featured in the poem ‘Natural Life’]. I know it. I know that house. I’ve passed it two or three times a year between London and the west coast of Scotland for about twenty-five years. I know the story of the house. I have another story of this house, different from Aliaga’s. His poem makes me want to tell that story, to respond to his story. My rhythms of telling it would be different and the shade would be inflected by dark winter nights with Chris Rea singing ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ or long summer nights with the promise of even longer nights ahead. And that’s the point of the travelling of poetry: it provokes other stories to be told, maybe borrowing- knowingly or unknowingly-from the new account.

These poems destabilise the centre. That sounds like academic speak. It is, but we academics too want to and can provoke ideas and meaning. Ben talks in his introduction to the book about some of the ways in which Cristian Aliaga brings his own language and the language of others with and through him to write and unwrite history and lived experience. Well, I know the places of The Foreign Passion. Some of my own history is written there, in Scotland, Ireland, England, in reading, in histories, and poetry I’ve read. So when I say that Aliaga destabilises the centre, I mean that he makes me very well aware that I have a ‘centre’, that that centre is European, no matter how much and how openly I have travelled and that the our centre, our home is visible to, analysed by, sought after, loved and hated by others, by those whose centre is somewhere else.   Of Peckham Rye station [in the poem ‘Un-chewed Life’].

So, thank you, Ben for doing the work of the translator: for travelling, seeing, recognising and bringing back ‘home’ these stories. It doesn’t matter that they were written here, because they really weren’t. The beauty of translation is to find the place that the poems were written, and rewrite it so that we can be destabilised and made to look at our world with different eyes. With words we recognise, but in their foreign passion, we have to work that bit harder to find, to harvest and bring to a new home.

Catherine Boyle is Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at King’s College, London. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/splas/people/staff/academic/boyle/index.aspx 

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