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The Making of a Translator: An Interview with Peter Bush

Peter Bush

By Carol Maier

Peter Bush's latest book is The Voice of the Turtle: An Anthology of Cuban Short Stories, which he compiled and edited for Quartet Books, London. He studied Spanish literature at Cambridge and Oxford Universities.Currently, he directs the M.A. program in the Theory and Practice of Translation at Middlesex University.1

Carol Maier: I've been mulling over several conversations you and I have had recently about identity, thinking in particular about a question they raised for me. You seem to be seeking a self or an identity through translation, as though you believed the practice of translation might offer a key to your own identity. You seem to be asking of the text, "Who are you?" and asking of yourself, "Who am I?" What aspect of translation makes you think you might be approaching an identity or a sense of identity? How or when or where do you experience that?

PB: Those are very difficult questions, because I don't tend to think about translation in terms of looking for identity.

CM: But you wrote about translation as a dialogue of dialogues in your essay about translating the work of Juan Goytisolo.

PB: Yes. I suppose my first Goytisolo translations brought something of a decisive change in my life. The translation of his work has been inseparable from the way my life has developed. And whenever I write or think about translation, my development as a translator is always linked in my mind, or my consciousness, with all the stories buzzing around my consciousness, which, presumably, is what makes up my developing identity.

CM: Stories? What do you mean by stories?

PB: Well, what I mean by stories is the way language develops through telling stories. For me as a kid, for instance, my parents' telling me stories about their own lives, and experiences, and what they told me about all of that is very much embedded in my consciousness. It's where earlier stages in my language come from; I think that when I've written about translation and translating Goytisolo I've entered into that discussion--when I talked about the kind of dislocation you have when you enter an institution, like school, and then you discover that your language actually is not seen as language, is not recognized as a "proper" language, and that is quite a shock to the infant mind. These stories, and my parents' lives, really belong to a kind of English culture that's on the whole suppressed, and I've always been awed by them. I'll give you an example. My father was somebody who came from a family with 16 children--in rural Lincolnshire--at the beginning of the century. Lincolnshire was the most educationally backwards area of the UK, or parts of it were, and my grandfather was a shepherd and a stockman. My father was the youngest of the children, and he had this experience when his father fell ill. The family was living in a tied cottage and that belonged to a land owner, and when his father fell ill the family was evicted; and the family was split up and spread around amongst various relatives. My grandfather went to what used to be the workhouse, which was known then as the paupers' hospital, and my father ended up living in a shed with his aunt and mother through a whole winter. And really the way my father developed was to decide not to go on the land but to become a print worker, and then he became a trade unionist. He had a series of stories that he would tell me about his own life, when he was in the Army and things like that.
And my mother--I was very close to my mother--had a different kind of history because she came from a working-class family that was based in the center of Sheffield, a steel-making city with a vigorous working-class culture. She went to the opera, to classical music concerts, and she belonged to the Socialist Clarion cycling club. She loved dancing but hated the fact she'd been put into service. One day she went to the Labor Exchange and signed up to go strawberry picking in Long Sutton. She migrated from the city to the countryside when she met my father and always felt herself a foreigner. When I was growing up my father would not allow her to work. She had to be home to look after me, so that when I came home at lunch time or in the evenings she would always be talkative. She was a very introspective kind of person, and she would always be telling me stories about her childhood, or about Sheffield, or about the various kinds of things that had happened to her in Spalding.
I suppose what I'm saying is that the reason translation became so important to me in terms of identity (when I was being educated in secondary school) was that ever since the age of five I've realized that I had experienced a sense of dislocation--there were various oppositions, there were different Englishes and different pressures. Translation and becoming a translator have helped me to understand that previous experience and the formation of my identity, if you like, in terms of translation within what is usually described as monolingual English culture. And I think that as I developed as a translator and as a writer I tried to open up that experience. And I think what impresses the reader about Goytisolo's work is the way he deliberately writes in order to disrupt the normal patterns of thinking, the normal patterns of reading, in order to contaminate his reader. It's a kind of contagion, an infection, and I think when that infection opens up, it opens up all kinds of sores and also happier things.

CM: Do you think that the fact that you were translating Goytisolo rather than another writer prompted this? For instance, you had translated other writers before and you've translated others since, and I wonder if you think that it was Goytisolo's work, in particular, or if translation prompts this in itself?

PB: I think it's important that I was translating Goytisolo, because he writes in a particular disruptive, subjective way. I think when one is translating someone like Juan Carlos Onetti, things work differently.

CM: It gives rise to a different kind of alienation.

PB: Yes, but reading Onetti doesn't have the same kind of impact.

CM: Maybe that's because his work is less language-based; it's more conceptual? Not that I want to separate language from conceptualization, but the kind of alienation or disruption of the reader's consciousness we were talking about a few minutes ago is more embedded in language in Goytisolo's work, don't you think so?

PB: Well, I think that Onetti, although he's a very disruptive writer, writes in another very original style. There is a narrative through the plot, through the characters, and so there is a different kind of relationship between the reader and the text.

CM: Maybe Onetti supplies you with enough story, enough narrative that it suppresses your own sense of stories. Whereas the fact that Goytisolo makes you focus your attention on language and that aspect of translation frees a different aspect of your consciousness; you begin to think about the stories and memories you were telling me are linked to language alienation, specifically. Do you think that's possible?

PB: No.I mean, I think that with Onetti the link to my own stories, if you like, is the landscape, the society he created in Santa María, which is very unromantic. It's a very hostile environment, and it's a place where relationships are very much taught. People's real feelings and selfishness, and Britishness, and so on come into play, and this is something that's present in all my father's experiences.Lincolnshire is very flat, very bleak, with lots of small communities. It used to have the highest rate of incest in the UK; agricultural laboring work was harsh and landowners illiberal. The kind of vicious meanness you find in Onetti.
I had this unusual experience in Scotland last year. I met the novelist Alan Warner, and he had read everything of Onetti in translation. Onetti struck a chord withhis experiences in the north, on the islands, and life on the railways, and with his stories.

CM: Did stories always arise for you in the same way, in other stories? Did you also have these memories of stories? Do you always have this happen to you when you're translating? Or do you have them more with Goytisolo, with a particular kind of writing?

PB: I can't conceive of a reading that doesn't spark off stories--images or memories or stories, or feelings from the past. I think that whatever you read in a novel, or a poem, it must inevitably trigger a personal reaction and bring out something you'd forgotten about, deep down in your consciousness. And when you're translating, you're always dwelling on those things. You're re-reading, reading, re-reading, and you're writing and then trying to write again. Translation really gets down into the thick of the writing.And I suppose what I'm entering is a discovery of the self, but it's a two-way process, because you're getting deeper and deeper into the text, but as you do, you set off deeper and deeper tremors within yourself. For me, this is what translation has turned out to be.

CM: Tremors within yourself?

PB: (Laughs). No, it's tremors within oneself that come through this touch with someone else, with someone else who's constructing or feeling. So it's a form of communication.

CM: How would you define that someone else? Or how do you experience that someone else?

PB: Well, someone else has had a set of experiences and then constructed a narrative from those experiences, from reading, and from all the things that go together in the writing of a novel.

CM: But this contact, do you think it's constructed too or that it really is "someone" else?

PB: No, I mean, yes.What he created in writing or what Goytisolo or Onetti creates in writing is Goytisolo and it is not Goytisolo.

CM: Exactly.

PB: In the same way the kind of self that's revealed in the process of translation is and isn't me.

CM: Right.

PB: I think it's just as important that it is as that it isn't.

CM: And it isn't.

PB: Because all of these attempts to say that the author is dead, the book exists differently in infinite rereadings...Well, that's also true and untrue. There are a thousand readings, but they're not entirely different. They're determined by words shaped and constructed by someone else and there is a form of communication in reading, a community of readers, and that in a way is what makes translation possible. I mean, a writer's plurality and ambiguity are open-ended, and they play on the subjective consciousness of the readers in an irreducibly different way. Yet there is a possible connection with all the other readers--we are historical, social beings, and not solipsists. The literary translator has to take the communication forward, past the stage of ambiguity, stripping away some of the subjective and the conventions of standard dialect to emerge on the other side with a translation that will become the original translation for its readers. I suppose the other thing I want to say is that I've never translated anybody I didn't want to translate. Onetti's fiction is full of nastiness, but it's shot through with tenderness and irony.

CM: Have you worked much with non-literary texts--either social science texts or technical texts?Do you think this form of communication you've been talking about happens only with literary texts, or would it be conjecture to say that?

PB: The only kinds of non-literary texts that I've translated were between 1967 and '72.I translated a tremendous amount then, and the texts were mainly political texts, economic analyses, which were basically Marxist...and that was quite a long time ago.

CM: And did communication occur then?

PB: I think it occurred but in a much...I'm just trying to remember some of the pieces I translated.I remember translating a whole declaration, a political declaration about the popular assembly in Bolivia, in 1971 or 1972; and I think that translating that kind of statement is much more channeled within a certain kind of Marxist language, or discourse, that I was involved with at the time, and which, by and large, would be very impersonal.But there would be a connection in the sense of "why am I translating this?" And I was doing it because I thought that in some way I was helping to liberate; it was a question of translation to help make possible political liberation and create political dialogue. So there's a personal kind of involvement in the words of the translation, but in those particular Marxist texts there was not much room for the personal involvement we're talking about here, in the teaching of the language.

CM: Or even if there had been, if you'd had a different attitude towards the text there might have been room for that conversation. Maybe it was a question of your attitude and your participation in those ideas that meant there wasn't much abrasion, and you were involved in the language and your attention was focused on something completely different.The translation of those words didn't spark the same kind of attention on your part as the Goytisolo text.

PB: Yes, someone translating a political text, a Marxist text, a Marxist political text, is much more focused on meaning.

CM: Yes.

PB: And there's less ambiguity in a Marxist text, or in that kind of Marxist text, so my translation of it was an attempt to reproduce meaning and a convincing message.

CM: I asked the question about type of text for a particular purpose, because I was trying to make a transition through my question towards our ongoing conversation about pedagogy and the teaching of translation. I was thinking about whether or not the issues you've been addressing with respect to identity would bear on the classroom, or on beginning translators, or on discussions about translation, or on the way translation is taught.

PB: I think that for teaching translation, and training translators, my ideal syllabus would begin with questions of autobiography.I would ask students to read some novels that have been written about a translator protagonist, or to read an account by somebody writing as a translator, and to get students to think, to write about their connections with translation, to write an autobiographical account of their experience with translation, whatever that meant. In other words, to begin a course on translation I would not necessarily start with some kind of theoretical text or with an academic essay but with a piece of autobiographical writing. Then I would try to link that up with questions about their experiences as writers.

CM: Have you done this in class at all?

PB: Well, it's very frustrating because that's how I wanted to start this year, with this new M.A. class that we have, but because the students were recruited so late, there was not really an opportunity to start appropriately with that kind of conversation about writing. So the answer to that is, unfortunately, no.

CM: Did they do any reading that replaced the model you mentioned, for instance?

PB: No. Not until we were half the semester into the course.What we did was have a discussion at the beginning about the experience of translation, so what has developed in the first semester of the program is that now, in November, the students are beginning to open up and talk about their experience with translation. And when you have good students that come from very different backgrounds, different parts of the world, and there are some who have published professionally as translators and others who have done a degree in modern languages a long time ago, then in terms of developing a classroom dialogue, a teaching dynamic, I feel you have to go very slowly, particularly when it's the first year of a full-time program. You have to go gently on these issues because there are some people who come in and are very articulate, and they can frighten other people; so I've tried to let things develop gradually over the course. The last session that we had was the first session when I didn't give the main lead-in. That last session was mainly dominated by the students talking about the relationships to translation and culture, and nearly all of the students contributed, except for one who is still holding back, but I'd actually given them a theoretical text. I'd given them the chapter on translation and the Third World from the manuscript of Larry Venuti's new book.

CM: Oh, yes.

PB: You know that chapter?

CM: Yes, I do.

PB: I had asked one of the students, a lecturer at Beijing University, who has translated Joyce and Yeats into Chinese (as you'll remember, a substantial part of Larry's chapter is about translation in China) to read the chapter and respond to it from her perspective. And I asked another student to think about Larry's discussion with respect to the translation of Latin American literature. The complementary part of this session was to look at a translation of Dante--which is what I proposed to do--but that didn't work out because we spent most of the time talking about the question of translation in the Third World. Really what happened was the Chinese student began to talk about Confucian attitudes toward translation and Taoism, and in this chapter Larry mentions a 19th-century Chinese translator who said that translation was about elegance and readability and fidelity--three things which, in a previous session, this student had identified as "How we regard translation in China."And the way Larry describes this translator is as someone who is translating 19th-century European fiction and giving it a Confucian element, because he was a translator who was working on behalf of or wanted to consolidate the imperial past. So the student talked about that, and then the student from Taiwan began to talk about how in Taiwan she'd been educated with Japanese as her first language, and then Chinese; she was talking about the relationships among Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese cultures.And the student from Kenya began to talk about her relationship with Kikuyu, which is her mother tongue, and she had translated a novel from Kikuyu into English, and in that process of translation and actually become literate in Kikuyu, because she went to a school where English was the language and Kikuyu was banned.So a generation of people was illiterate in their own language. Then there was another student, from an English background, who had read a book by Amos Tutuola, which Larry talks about in his chapter, and that student referred to Tutuola's language and the way that has been exalted for the English publishers and the English readership, although it's been criticized.

CM: By Nigerian intellectuals.

PB: Yes, intellectuals from his culture, who criticized him for being uncultured and illiterate, and for not writing properly, and so on and so forth. This student had read one of his novels and it had made a big impact on her. She had seen it as language that was an authentic, original language, the language of someone trying to write in a different kind of English. Not necessarily as a primitive.

CM: How would you describe what was going on in the class?

PB: What that process is about is trying to create a space in which we can all talk about our experience of translation and reading and culture in a confident way, with other people. That's very difficult, because there the students don't know each other and are only just beginning to have a dialogue about translation. What we're now starting to do is the first longer translation. Students are coming to their first assignment, and they've chosen their first texts. The next stage is when we begin to look at these translations in class and they read each others' translations and begin to do some kind of editing in class. I'm hoping that then the discussion will be on a different level and we'll talk about the different repertoires of language and where they've come from; and then we'll begin to talk about the different traditions of translation and writing in a much different way, because they'll be talking about texts, translating texts, and that will raise all sorts of different questions.

CM: It's too early for you to answer the question that arises for me, but you might have some sense of how it's going to happen. Other than in their discussions, when the students think about translation, what effect or impact might the discussions about language, autobiography and the relation between culture and language have on their work when they're actually translating? Not discussing translations but preparing them.

PB: Hopefully, when they approach the text, when they begin to translate, they won't be afraid of putting themselves into the translation, and ...[Pause]

CM: They'll be freer.

PB: They'll be freer, freer to make a spontaneous response to the text.

CM: Do you think that maybe they'll be more open, too, to find out, to experience what's there, because they're more porous now and they've begun to think about translation and some of the issues that are involved when people work in two languages?

PB: Well, hopefully they'll be thinking about...[Pause]

CM: They'll be more flexible.

PB: Well, what happens in terms of the teaching of writing in schools is that usually--although there are some efforts made to have students write in different registers--in British schools, on the whole, they learn to write in a particular way, which is the way to communicate clearly, though they may do some imaginative writing. If they go on in their education, there is more and more academic writing--learning to write academically, learning to write critical articles, critical essays; this becomes the main form of writing. It seems to me that this form of writing is a long way from the kind of writing you need if you're going to translate; and the problem with universities and academic institutions is they are very set on teaching people how to write academic discourse, a certain kind of theoretical prose. It's a very mandatory kind of normative atmosphere; you have to write in a certain way, whereas if you are going to translate literature you've got to be open to all kinds of writing. For me, one of the difficulties is that students are not used to writing in different ways. It seems to me we write institutionally, because there are certain responses that have almost been beaten into us. To get out of that, truly, is very difficult. Even in terms of punctuation, you know, you're taught that you have to punctuate in a certain way. You can't start sentences with a "but" or something like that. All those things are very deep within us, and with all things that are deep within us there is a question of opening up, opening up to the text, and responding to a text that is there, which is the aim of communication. That's when communication starts to take place, when there is an opening up.

CM: What you've said is very familiar to me as both a translator and a teacher of translation. As a translator, I've had to unlearn, or deconstruct, if you will, much of the writing instruction I was given even as a graduate student. As a teacher, I wonder if you could comment on teaching translation students to "open up to the text" in their actual translation practice as well as in their reading and discussions.

PB: I tend to be preoccupied with what may seem very subjective and very institutionalized in language at certain stages in teaching. It's not an exercise in narcissism coupled with an attack on the use of standard. It's just that we translate into a language that must respond to the literary impulse of the original, and to do that we must not be afraid of our existing repertoire of language and the repressed languages that will come to the surface.
Another exploration for students is the research tasks posed by each translation. This is a key part of any program for training literary translators. A text will have historical and social content.With each draft, new questions will be raised:Did that word perhaps have a special significance at the time, in the writer's work? Is there a pattern of repetition of words noticed at the first reading?Has my writing received an organized jaggedness or does it read too smoothly? What is my writing strategy in the constant interaction between the source and target texts? Most professional literary translators have developed their approaches empirically.I think the profession should welcome the existence of the new M.A.'s in translation and the fact that a new generation of students is enthused by literary translation.And students would participate in these courses, describing how they develop in their writing, how they handle switches from irony to parody to previous stream of consciousness. It doesn't just come naturally.


1. This interview is based on conversations at the University of East Anglia (September 1996), Indiana University (November 1996), and SUNY Binghamton (April 1997). My thanks to Héctor Magaña for transcribing the conversation in Bloomington, Indiana; and to the Institute for Applied Linguistics and the Research Council of Kent State University for helping to make possible my trips to the conferences where the conversations took place. [CM]

Translation Review, Volume 53, 1997.

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