‘When I look back on the whole business of translating, now that I have left it behind…I realise that it has much in common with solitary confinement, the translator shuttered up with a text, dictionaries and blank paper, sentenced to producing an acceptable version that will free him.’

In the latest feature in our Translation as Conversation strand, in association with A Year of Conversation, we asked Tom Pow to write about a Scottish poetry legend, and one at the vanguard of translation in the 20th century, Alastair Reid.


From What Gets Lost/ Lo Que Se Pierde by Alastair Reid

I keep translating traduzco continuamente
entre palabras words que no son las mias
into other words which are mine de palabras a mis palabras.

Y finalmente de quien es el texto?
Who do words belong to?

Del escritor o del traductor writer, translator
o de los idiomas or to language itself?


When I was editing Barefoot – The Collected Poems of Alastair Reid, I spent much time in the National Library of Scotland, mainly focused on his own poetry. Subsequently, when StAnza asked me to talk about Alastair as a translator, I returned to the NLS papers to draw most of my observations. The story of his translation ‘apprenticeship’ to Robert Graves is well-known, as is his subsequent friendships with Borges and Neruda. (‘Don’t just translate my poems, Aleester, I want you to improve them’.)

One reviewer of Barefoot lamented the fact that ‘equal measure was not given to Reid’s significant translations.’ So, perhaps the first thing to say here is that Alastair himself did not give them equal weight. In all his publications they were kept apart from his own compositions. Nor were they ever ushered into his own style and claimed as being ‘after’ or being ‘imitations’. He shared an attitude with Borges, outlined in the introduction to one of his works that Alastair translated in 1972:


‘As for influences which show up in this volume…First the writers I prefer – I have already mentioned Robert Browning; next those I have read and whom I echo; then those I have never read but who are in me. A language is a tradition, a way of grasping reality, not an arbitrary assemblage of symbols.’


In his short essay, ‘La Mutualidad: Translation as a Pleasure’, Alastair writes,


‘When I look back on the whole business of translating, now that I have left it behind…I realise that it has much in common with solitary confinement, the translator shuttered up with a text, dictionaries and blank paper, sentenced to producing an acceptable version that will free him. Nor do translations yield up anything like the satisfaction of writing: I have found it to be dangerous to pick them up, once published, for they are never perfect, and inevitably I begin to tinker with them all over again, for translating is something of an addiction. I think I have kicked the habit, but, as with cigarettes, one can never be sure.’


Allying translation with smoking ties in with comments made by another prominent translator, Michael Hoffman, who in his essay on translation, ‘Sharp Biscuit’, describes it as ‘a secret business, a guilty business’; while, in an essay on Latin American writers, ‘Basilisks’ Eggs’, Alastair quotes Nabokov’s assertion that, ‘while a badly written book is a blunder, a bad translation is a crime.’

Perhaps this is why translators, lacking the primary authority of writers, search so carefully for the proper description, the apt metaphor, for what they do. Here is Alastair, from papers in the NLS, having multiple goes at describing his work translating Estravagario by Pablo Neruda:


  • The title is untranslatable, but the English equivalence may demonstrate in miniature how close translation can come but how far away it must stay.
  • Translation is a mysterious alchemy – some poems survive it to become poems in another language, but some refuse to live in any but their own, in which case all that the translator can manage is a reproduction, a map of the original.
  • The proper wish of the translator is that he has somehow extended and multiplied the existence of the originals. From them the life comes. [Scribbled over.] 


The finished version:


  • Some of these translations have appeared previously in clumsier versions, translation being a process of getting closer and closer to the aura of the original, but never arriving. It is for the reader to cross the page.


But this constant unsatisfactory, shifting attempt at definition reminds us of the movement of one of the poems Alastair felt closest to, as he felt closest to its author’s idea of Ficciones. Here is where all language becomes translation. This is the ending of Borges’ ‘The Other Tiger’. Attempts to describe the first two tigers have failed, so –


Let us look for a third tiger. This one
will be a form in my dreams like all the others,
a system, an arrangement of human language,
and not the flesh and bone tiger
that, out of reach of all mythologies,
paces the earth. I know all this; yet something
drives me to this ancient, perverse adventure,
foolish and vague, yet still I keep on looking
throughout the evening for the other tiger,
the other tiger, not the one in this poem.


I’ve written in the introduction to Barefoot about Alastair’s seguing from his own poems towards translation, but Alastair was someone who followed his own interests and was clear what these were. To illustrate, here is a brief exchange I found between Marion Wood, Sr Editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, who had admired Alastair’s periodic essays in The New Yorker, ‘Letters from a Spanish Village’, and had written to ask him about the possibility of him extending them into a book. But something went seriously awry. Set out in the short lines Alastair often favoured, I like to think of this as a poem.


August 5, 1977, The New Yorker

Dear Marian
I think it must be as clear to you
as it is to me, that you and I will
never do a book together. The
wavelength is dramatically wrong.

Dear Alastair
Never having had much interest in stating
the obvious, I’m delighted you did.


Nevertheless, Michael Hoffman, a fine poet who admits to feeling most comfortable within the confines of a single page, describes in his essay, ‘Sharp Biscuit’, how his translations of The Radetzsky March and two long Hans Fallada novels affected his own writing. He saw them ‘as distraction on an industrial scale’ in which ‘the still small voice of poetry’ was ‘decibeled over’.

Yet the excitement for Hoffman of making key works of European literature available to readers of English must bring huge satisfaction and the same was true of Alastair’s role as translator, interpreter and ambassador of Latin American writing. He would hate that triumvirate, but here is Roger Angell, The New Yorker’s chief fiction editor, writing to him in November 1975. The letter begins by berating the ‘current uncertain or unhappy state of fiction in this country and in England’, then continues:


‘It is plain, of course, that just the opposite thing is happening in Latin America and Shawn [editor] believes – and so do all of us in the fiction department – that the sensible and exciting plan for us is to tap this immense and important source of new fiction. You can help us more than anyone else, and I hope you will want to give us the benefit of your advice and guidance…For my money this is like starting a publishing house or a magazine and being able to say, ‘Well, we’re just starting up and we only have these two names on our list so far, so there’s no telling how we will fare. All we have is Dickens and Dostoevsky.’


There was, as regards the poetry, also the collaborative pleasure of working with writers that he knew personally – something that is shared by Richard Gwyn in his recent anthology of contemporary Latin American poetry, The Other Tiger. One of those whom he enjoyed working with most was Jose Emilio Pacheco. The NLS has evidence of the process involved in Alastair’s translation of No me preguntes como pasa el tiempo (Don’t ask me how the time goes past). Alastair first made jottings in the book itself, then wrote longhand translations, each poem the first hypothesis, which he then corrected and re-corrected. A typed up version of these was sent to Pacheco and came back heavily annotated. One of Pacheco’s notes reads:


La traduccion esta muy bien. El problema es que se trata de un texto ilegible sin el contexto hispanico.


When I included Pacheco’s poem, ‘High Treason’, in Barefoot, it was to serve as the sole, but necessary, representative of the permeability of sensibility to which translation can lead. In introducing the poem in his essay, ‘Digging Up Scotland’, Alastair writes that he came across the poem in a book of Pacheco’s he was translating and that it ‘so coincided with a poem I myself might have written that while I was translating it I felt I was writing the original.’

Only of course he wasn’t, as Pacheco points out, when Alastair translates ‘fortalezas’ as ‘castles’.


‘No hay en Mexico castles en el sentido Europeo, como bien sabes.’


There is a slight finger wagging in that last phrase – ‘as you well know’?

But such interchanges were the pleasure of translating for Alastair – the closer to the author he could get, the more Alastair enjoyed the process. However, he described such occasions as ones of ‘luxurious exception’. He writes that ‘Pablo Neruda did not bother much about the versions translators made of his poems, for it would have claimed too much of his time…Borges, on the other hand, always so polite and impenetrably modest, professed to like any translated version better than his original.’ Even more irritating than indifference, the shadow world of translation is stalked by what Alastair called the ‘translation police’ or what we might term the ‘translation betters’. Here, Alastair’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Michael di Capua, writes to him, in March 1977, about a letter from Donald D. Walsh, who has castigated his translation of Extravagaria, claiming that it demonstrates that he himself is the best living translator of Neruda. Here are the guts of the letter.


Dear Alastair

I thought twice and three times about bothering you with this and finally decided that I should. Have you come across the work  – if that’s the word for it – of Donald D. Walsh? If so, I need say nothing more. I enclose a copy of his February 24 letter to Roger Strauss, along with his ten-page list of ‘major errors’ in your translation of Extravagaria. Please don’t attempt to defend yourself.

To give Walsh the benefit of my considerable doubt, I asked Carmen Gomezplata, our bi-lingual copy editor, to review his list of errors. She got through the first six pages before giving up…
If you can bear to study this stuff, I’d be glad to have your reactions, specific and/or general. If nothing else, I can wrap my name around them and hurl them back at Walsh. He is a menace.
Also enclosed is the copy of Walsh’s ‘Poets Betrayed By Poets’ that he sent to Roger Strauss. You are one of the eleven betrayers.

All best


William Gass writes, of his experience of translating Rilke, that what is produced when the translator has finished his work is ‘a reading enriched by the process of arriving at it, and therefore, really, only the farewells to a long conversation.’

And it’s with the idea of conversation that I wish to end. In the two thousands, Alastair worked with the Mexican poet, Pura Lopez Colomé, on a series of CDs. They were good friends, Pura later published Antologiá Resonante, a collection of Alastair’s poems and essays. For the recording, each brought a sheaf of favourite poems and translations and sat opposite each other, talking, translating and recording. Resonancia – Poesia en dos lenguas. The regard in which Pura held Alastair is eloquently expressed in an email she sent to me, part of which appears on the back cover of Barefoot:


‘Alastair Reid was a live chain connecting the very best writers in Latin America, championed by Borges and Neruda.  Alastair was too modest to boast about his own work.  When my generation learned, thanks to him, that you could own a style, a personal craft, be truthful without having to spread the Mexican tragedy on top of works of imagination, we actually started to write differently.’


Of course, legend preceded him.  Neruda’s opinion concerning his work was in everyone’s mind.  Knowing Alastair´s depth and superior level of craftsmanship in both poetry and prose, Neruda asked him to do with Estravagario what he did when writing original poems.  In other words, he actually learned from Alastair to control whatever excesses he naturally moved towards, without losing style.


‘Through key notes in Alastair’s verse, such as the dry human truths expressed with care, devoid of sentimentality and full of real emotion, humour and childlike playfulness, I felt I actually belonged to the same kingdom of language.’


As I listen to Pura’s reading of ‘High Treason’, I bear in mind the deep affection and admiration she feels for Alastair. I also bear in mind the conversations that have fed into it – the conversations with himself that the poem stirred up, his conversations with Pacheco in the translating of it, and his conversations with Pura as they faced and read to each other the poems they loved:


by José Emilio Pacheco

I do not love my country. Its abstract splendour
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, castles,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history,
(and three or four rivers).


This is an edited version of a talk delivered at StAnza Poetry Festival in 2019 as one of a series of Year of Conversation events concerned with the theme of Translation as Conversation.

Barefoot: the Collected Poems of Alastair Reid, edited by Tom Pow is published by Galileo Publishers, priced £16.99

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