Chapter 6

Translation and the Environment

The translator knows this. People think of translation as a straight line from text to translation, author to translator, with something lost along the way, but in fact I think both texts are translations and make reference to a third point, the source, as when we cross a river, we may be aware of the source of the river in the mountains. In effect, everything we do is translation, because we cannot create out of nothing. Breathing is translation as we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide (thank God there are trees and plants that do the opposite). Eating is translation as we consume food, extract what we need (meaning) and dispose of the waste. Cooking is the same. If we didn’t have the basic ingredients, we would be at a loss.

         Life is translation. I didn’t create life, it came to me from my parents and, if I am lucky, I will transfer it to my children. Nothing starts or ends with us. So it is absurd for us to think of translation as somehow inferior or second-rate, since in effect we are thinking of ourselves and everything we do in this way. When we translate, we hear a voice, we are inspired, just as a writer is. It is not that translation is a lower form of writing, but that writing is a form of translation (as the writer recalls experiences, things he has heard; very little if anything of what he writes down could be said to begin with him). And yet translation is considered to be the Cinderella of the writing world (we all know how that story ends).

         Translation is life. And it is here that I would like to draw a comparison between language and the environment. I believe that, after birth, we continue to be spiritually blind. We need spiritual healing so that we can hear. This healing comes from Christ, just as he healed the man born blind in John’s Gospel. He opens our eyes and we begin to see things around us we hadn’t noticed before, another dimension. I have tried to show how this dimension is present in the English language, which is my mother tongue and the language I work with. It is quite possibly present in and between all languages, which may not be as fragmented as they seem. This extra dimension is also present in the environment we claim to want to protect, but do not see. Are we truly aware of what is going on around us? Do we see with our inner eyes the things around us, such as a tree, a plant, a flower, a rock, a river? Do we know what or who they are, or do we simply regard them as resources at our disposal?

         I once translated a poem from Bulgarian called ‘Beetles’ that talked about ladybirds. That afternoon, I went with my wife to Samokov, a town in southern Bulgaria. We stopped outside a monastery and, as I was waiting in the car for my wife to return, with the door open, a ladybird landed on the dashboard. I learned that coincidences happen, they are a form of spiritual language. I also learned that what we do is not unrelated to the environment in which we live.

         Several years later, I translated a poem from Galician called ‘Sleepless nights like damp sheets’. The poet had previously referred to the ‘eternal sleep’, which he followed in English with ‘Big Sleep’. In the last two lines of the poem I was translating, he talked about ‘the sad pulchritude of another dress rehearsal for the eternal sleep’. He was dying. I finished the poem and moved on to another project involving crime novels. I was living in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia at the time and went to the local library to take out a book in English. I came across Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and, without making the connection to the previous poem, took it out to read because it was a crime novel. Only when I got home did I remember that this was the phrase the poet had quoted in English.

         When I asked my wife her favourite poem by this poet (out of 110 that I had translated), she answered ‘Sleepless nights like damp sheets’ and translated the poem into Bulgarian for an event taking place in A Coruña. The next day, we travelled to Madrid and, on our last day there, had lunch in an American restaurant. At one point, I went down to the toilet in the basement. On coming out, I noticed a large poster on the wall, which was advertising the 1946 film of Raymond Chandler’s book The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Spanish translation of the film’s title was The Eternal Sleep. I finally realized that they were one and the same, although there is a big difference when talking about death between the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘eternal’. And yet the book of poems I had translated was already at the printer’s and I didn’t react.

         Two days later, I was travelling by train within Spain (from Vigo to Santiago) and the person in front of me was reading a copy of The Big Sleep in English, probably the same copy I had borrowed from the public library. At this point, I realized I had to change my translation of the end of the poem to ‘the sad pulchritude of another dress rehearsal for the big sleep’, because, while it said ‘eternal sleep’ in Galician, it was clearly a translation of the title of Raymond Chandler’s novel. The book had been at the printer’s, with a deadline, for ten days. I contacted the designer, offering to pay for that page to be printed again, but surprisingly the printer hadn’t started work yet, even though ten days had passed, and I was able to insert the change.

         The world in which we live wishes to participate in our creativity. The language we use, the environment we inhabit, wish to communicate, but we have to learn to speak their language. I have tried in this short book – which is a continuation of a book I published in 2007, The DNA of the English Language – to show what I believe to be the hidden code behind the English language.

         Each word connection I have given in these pages is worthy of pause and reflection (word is worth, d-t, addition of h). Put together, they point to Christ, but why should we be surprised? Christ is the Word of God, the living Word. He is also the Word made flesh. Word and flesh are connected (l-r, w-f, d-t-s, addition of h). We have already seen that word spells love (l-r, v-w, d-e) and love is to be found in the other (l-r, t-v, addition of h), who is theos (r-s).

This excerpt is taken from my book The Life of a Translator, first published in 2013. More information on the publisher’s website: