You were born in London, raised in Singapore and Malaysia and currently live in the States. Do you consider that you have a nationality?
In some way moving to the States, where so many people cherish bits and pieces of their family’s heritage from other parts of the world, finally settled for me the nagging feeling of wishing I had a nationality that suited who I was. I realized finally that it didn’t really matter, that I would be who I was regardless of what my passport said. But when I was younger the nationality issue was huge. As a teenager in Kuala Lumpur, for example, I felt completely identified with my Malaysian neighbors and schoolmates, much more so than with any British youngsters I happened to meet, mainly because they were usually either people who were growing up in UK boarding schools and happened to be visiting their parents for the holidays, or they were the children of the British Armed Forces who had a school of their own and a milieu very much to themselves. So I tagged the Brits as a very practical, down-to-earth people who spoke in a very direct idiom, so unlike the Malay that I was learning at school, a language that seemed so very cool and elegant. And as a teenager at the time I did so want to be cool and elegant!
The same sort of thing happened in Seville, where I first lived as a student in Spain. I was already bowled over by the sounds and flexibility of Spanish at school in Jamaica, and when this combined with the flair and wit of Andalusian Spanish I was totally seduced by it. Later, of course, after I moved to Santiago de Compostela, Galician played various notes in myself that were waiting to develop.
You were in Santiago at the end of Franco’s dictatorship. What do you remember most about those years?
Goodness! I hardly know where to start! People had expected that an explosion of long-repressed freedom in every arena of life (and perhaps a harsh corresponding backlash) would occur immediately after Franco’s death, and this liberation did in fact occur despite the variety, strength and complexity of reactions to the dictator’s demise. But any significant, lasting backlash was averted owing in part to the fact that a few years of rule by Franco’s party continued before democracy could be officially established. Some brave individuals and organizations had for a long time and at great personal risk been working to bring about a political and linguistic rebirth that reflected the wishes of the Galician people more closely, and their plans were therefore already partially established when democracy finally arrived and continued to develop thereafter.
But now that one would not necessarily be seen as a separatist agitator for supporting Galician culture, life in Santiago was like a cross between a kaleidoscope and a jack-in-the box. You never knew which previously reclusive neighbor would announce a run for office under the auspices of a bright, new and outspoken political group, or what previous pillar of society who had never spoken in public in anything but good, conservative Castilian would suddenly surprise the city with political speeches in faultless Galician. Schoolbooks began to be written in the language, with vocabulary that reflected – and gave value to – the world of the children who used them, and there was a blossoming of academic, literary, artistic and musical life at all levels. Above all, people were no longer afraid to implement new ideas, and a certain shame that I had often heard expressed regarding being a nation subjected to a dictatorship seemed to melt away. It was as if people now felt they could truly be considered part of Europe. I remember it all as a time of heady adventure and great hope for the future, and it played a very important part in my personal development.
Which are the Galician poets you have come into contact with? Whose work have you enjoyed most?
The first Galician poet I read was, not surprisingly, Rosalía de Castro, but I was so immediately overwhelmed by the sense of nostalgia and suffering that emanated from her work that I decided to put the poems back on the shelf for another time. Years later, as a graduate student, I began to read them again and have gone back to them at intervals ever since. I also like the work of Miguel-Anxo Murado very much. I found his Bestiario dos descontentos struck a familiar chord – perhaps because it evoked the Welsh hiraeth, a particular sense of loss found in much of traditional Welsh poetry. There have been many Galician poets whose work I am attracted to, but perhaps I should mention above all Pilar Pallarés and Blanca Andreu (for very different reasons), and more recently Álvaro Cunqueiro and Manuel Rivas.
How do you succeed in making an English poem out of a foreign poem? Is it necessary, when translating a poem, to stay close to the poem you are translating from (I avoid the word ‘original’)?
I find I can’t stray very far from my source poem because I am always trying to keep my mind within a funny kind of telepathic communication with it. My first draft is always strictly literal, in order to retain as much of the poem’s thematic and linguistic intent as I possibly can, and after that I work away at key pieces of it until I feel they reflect as much as possible of what the poet is saying. Then I work on the whole translation as a poem within a style that corresponds as much as possible to the poet’s. This part calls for the most drafts, which I reread constantly until I am satisfied that the translation does as much justice to the poet as I am personally capable of. Although I understand that a good translated poem is in itself an original work of art produced by another poet, I feel that a translated poem ‘inspired’ by a work by a foreign author does not help the reader in the second language all that much. If someone acquires a translation of a foreign poet, it is because he or she wants to discover in some way the impact of the work on its first readers – to capture at second hand, if you like, the intent of the first author, to whatever degree may be possible. A version even further removed than that interposes another wall – no matter how well wrought – between the reader and the first poet’s work.
Thank you for talking to us!
It was a pleasure, Jonathan!