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The blessing of Babel

I am in Palermo, sitting on the floor of the puppet museum with a circle of teenagers. Around us hang gaudy, dormant marionettes of characters from the Orlando Furioso: the valiant Orlando and his horse Brigliadoro, his rival Rinaldo, his beloved the beautiful Angelica. Their stories are amazing, the stuff of epic and romance; but in fact the teenagers around me, all boys, have been through adventures no less extraordinary, though harsh and real. They have travelled to Palermo from many parts of Africa including Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Sudan; they have crossed the Mediterranean via smugglers’ boats, shipwreck and rescue, and it is only a few months since Sicily became their sanctuary.

Together, we are sharing words and clapping rhythms, making poems and stories. There are several different languages in the room: a lot of French; bits of English and Italian; African languages such as Xhosa, Bambara and Malinké which I do not know. So, inspired by the nonsense writing of Carroll and Lear, we put words in different languages in a heap in the middle of the circle. We arrange them into lines that please us – that have attractive sounds or seem to make a kind of sense:

Bonjour madeka grime
La luna vere mischief
L’oiseau cool go pizza
Maria riz la vache

The lines build into a nonsense narrative, a kind of modern ‘Quangle-Wangle.’ Someone chooses words from only French to make a resounding last line: ‘Le ciel va manger le soleil’ (‘the sky is going to eat the sun’).

Our workshop was part of a project, ‘Stories in Transit’ (funded by The Metabolic Studio), led by Marina Warner and hosted by the University of Palermo, which enables refugees and migrants to share stories and join in fiction-making, and thereby challenges the dominant political narratives by which the migration crisis is understood. Migrants are not only the objects of news stories and asylum assessments, but also the bringers of languages and cultures which can enrich the places where they arrive. For, throughout history, moments of cultural encounter, language-mixing, misunderstanding, and translation have generated new cultural energies and forms.

Think of the American immigrant to Europe, Ezra Pound, struggling with partially understood ancient Chinese texts, with Japanese and English annotations, and emerging from the struggle with the haunting translation-poems that make up Cathay. Think of other Modernists whose work is energised by migration and the mixing of languages: Joyce, Stein, T. S. Eliot. Think of Beckett translating himself back and forth between French and English. Think of postcolonial writers such as Sam Selvon with his West Indian London English, or Chinua Achebe whose Nigerian English is layered with Igbo phrasing and terms. Think of Charlotte Brontë whose edge as a writer was honed by intense composition exercises done in French at a school in Brussels, or George Eliot whose stylistic authority was nourished by a long labour of translation from German.

Migrants are not only the objects of news stories and asylum assessments, but also the bringers of languages and cultures which can enrich the places where they arrive.

Think of Pope and Dryden with their images and cadences drawn from Latin and Greek. Think of Shakespeare, who was working in a language that had, over the previous few decades, been massively enriched via translation from the Classics and romance languages. Phrases like ‘to castigate thy pride’ or ‘Jove multipotent’ bear the marks of this translational energy (‘castigate’ and ‘multipotent’ are from the Latin ‘castigare’ and ‘multipotens’). They have something in common with ‘madeka grime’, or ‘l’oiseau cool’: they are like snippets from a chaotic multilingual dictionary.

This continual intermingling of translation and writing presents a challenge to the usual ways in which the relation between translation and literature is understood. ‘Translations are never as good as their originals’, the standard view proclaims; ‘poetry is lost in translation.’ But how can this be so if an original text itself emerges from imaginative processes that include translation, or if a translation can itself become literary classic – for instance the King James Bible?

In recent years, the English reader’s traditional hostility to translation (always, I think, more a myth than a reality) has very obviously been softening. Works by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett, and Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, are massive literary hits. Could it be that translation has added something to these texts, for instance a doubling of perspectives, a layering of linguistic forms? The writing of W. G Sebald is an interesting example. As translated by Michael Hulse and Anthea Bell it takes on an air of precision and reserve: it is in English but perhaps not wholly of it. This slightly distanced tone is different from Sebald’s own German, but arguably more in tune with his narratives of migration and dislocation.

Literature can gain in translation; Babel was a blessing as well as a curse.

Featured image credit: Wood cube by blickpixel. Public domain via Pixabay.

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