What Do You Do?
“I have sleep to do. / I have work to dream.”
(Bill Knott, “(End of Summer (1966)”; Naomi Poems)
'Today, the question “What do you do?” means “How do you earn your living?” On My passport I am described as a “Writer”; this is not embarrassing for me in dealing with the authorities, because immigration and customs officials know that some kinds of writers make lots of money. But if a stranger in the train asks me my occupation, I never answer writer for fear that he may go on to ask me what I write, and to answer “poetry” would embarrass us both, for we both know that nobody can earn a living simply by writing poetry.'
(W.H. Auden, The Poet & The City)
Although I like to call myself a writer, there is little truth in that. In fact I make my living as a translator. Translation is, of course, a form of writing, the incarcerated cousin of authentic composition. The craft of writing, without the soul. Indeed, my days are spent in the patient transposition of other people’s prose into ebullient, rectilinear, adolescently plump, feathered, mitered, tortured or suave syntactic wrappings, sentences – whatever the situation calls for – whose beauty belies the mercenary spirit that lingers like body odor behind their inception. For no one (save perhaps Constance Garnett) ever translated for the pleasure.
Though there is a certain pleasure involved. It derives from the brute accumulation of words. These, seen through the gauzy end-of-the-working-day light (that metaphysical moment which is largely induced by eye-strain, when one tots up the day’s take like a grocer) give one a simulacrum of writerly accomplishment, a kind of vicarious participation in the purely mechanistic aspects of greatness.
Of course one’s imagination is engaged and carefully monitoring every clause, every encroachment of the colonizing “second language”. (Behind every translator there is, after all, a native tongue which needs to be protected from invasive syntax.) But this engagement (no, let’s not call it that; it’s more of a brow-wrinkling, synapse-crunching form of concentration, as though you were trying to bite something with your forehead)…whatever it is, it’s brutalizing, especially for poets. Of course we are not talking about translating poetry here, which makes one about as much money as writing it. Indeed, the gratification of translating poetry increases in proportion with decreasing remuneration. No, we are talking about translating 19th century Portuguese legal discourses, or the crippled outmoded rhetoric of Galician ethnographers, the heavily soaring prose of academics of all inclinations, the pablum of ceremony, the third and forth rate fiction of government subsidized novelists. Fortunately, I have steered clear of the commercial, the technical and the medical, but I did, for four years, translate the in-flight magazine for SATA, the Azorian airline. This produced a knowledge base which is the equivalent of cranial kidney-stones – they refuse to pass; stuck there in my subconscious are the images of pigs, sausages and cabbage boiled in lava heated sumps.
Likewise, I have gone through several species of chair-wear: wheeled, fixed, kneeling, soft, hard, armed and armless, hydraulic, tilting, swiveling, all of which led to chronic lumbarsis horribilus. Now I stand while I work. Indeed, just like Hemingway.
“In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy and, of these, all but the first can be directly detrimental to his poetry, and even translation does not free him from leading a too exclusively literary life.” (Auden, ibid) This still reads beautifully, but what it has to say seems somewhat dated. The last poet to work in advertising was Hart Crane. I only know one other full time poet who is a translator and most newspapers and magazines have all but stopped publishing literary journalism. That, of course, leaves teaching, and teaching can be “detrimental” to the poet, according to Auden.
What would Auden say about today’s state of affairs, about the MFA? How does it match up to the “daydream College for Bards” he describes in this wonderful essay I have been quoting from, published in The Dyer’s Hand in 1962?
From my desk, perched on the Western-most coast of Europe, with two major projects long overdue, and thousands of Euros owed me by barnacle-clad bureaucracies and wicked individuals, it doesn’t look all that bad.
And when, in the middle of all this, do I write my poetry? Every night, from 11pm to 2am, after I’ve taken out my glass eyes and put the real ones back in.
Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...