The Book, the Poet, the Translator, the Reader, and Maybe The Cook: Thoughts on Translation, Reading, Exile

review by Barry Westburg



The Book
Thomas Shapcott, Cities in Exile/Orase in Exil
Trans. into Romanian and Introduction by Irina Grigorescu Pana.
Bucharest, 1998: Editura Integral. 228pp.
Publication assisted by the Literature Board of the Australia Council.
ISBN 973-98139-3-3.


Plain (understated, "serious") cover in only three colours, with small and very faint inset illustration from DeChirico. English and Romanian on facing pages. The bulk of this dual-language book is a selection of Shapcott's life-work, poetry division, from Selected Poems 1956-1988 (1989) and The City of Home (1995). This volume apparently means to introduce the Australian poet to the Romanian-speaking audience spread throughout the world. Having no access to the original English texts, I have no idea how many of the "selected" poems were selected for inclusion here, nor how few of the "City of Home" poems might have been left out. However, I don't intend to discuss the poetry as such (much as I admire the poems), nor is this meant to be a "review" or evaluation. My Daco-Romanian has grown pretty rusty lately.

I rarely encounter a dual-language text that is not meant to open up a foreign text to an Anglophone reader/consumer. There is usually (understandably) a pro-English bias immediately visible in dual-language texts, especially where the publisher is located in a predominantly English-speaking country. As one might expect, matters like format, cover design, and so on are mediated by tried and true assumptions about local Anglophone consumer taste. Such a book (I remember my first copy of Goethe's Faust in its handsome Anchor paperback edition) invariably faces in our direction, as if it has turned its back on the culture of origin.

Well, through some accident of transmission, Cities in Exile arrived on the desk of the Text editors and via an equally obscure process has come to me. It strikes me as a curious object, out of context. Unlike most translations, this supposedly two-way, doubled object, Cities in Exile has its back to me. It faces the other way, and I am peering over the shoulder of the Translator, trying to see good old Tom Shapcott, as well as what she sees in him, and what she will help other Romanians to see in him.

What do I see when a book is looking the other way? What I see is the process of translation qua process, and thus in a new light. And as for the underlying theme of these poems, which the Translator tells us/them is (broadly speaking) Exile - that is demonstrated to me in a quite graphic way. Further consideration of this process of seeing might - if we had time and space to explore it in depth - prove useful to writers who rely on or intend to embark on translations. Furthermore, the theme of Exile, whether you think it is meant for you or not, will appear in a new and fascinating garb. You might discover you are really a poet of exile without having explicitly addressed the theme, given that the world is becoming a place where exile is common experience. This Romanian book and others like it, so rarely encountered out of their own national sphere, could even be said to produce an exile-effect in the reader. (Comparable to the dislocation I felt in Japan, where I could neither read, nor speak the language, not to mention the street signs, and found few locals who knew mine in turn). And an ironic supplement is that Cities in Exile also explains to me, better than my own past reading has done, the work of one of our "own" poets, a contemporary Australian.


The Poet
Tom Shapcott is presented here as a "New Australian Poet" of the post '60s generation. Like so many of his kind, an inveterate traveller - through many lands, through languages, through "literature." The cumulative image of the persona is not that of the familiar "cultural" tourist, out trawling for new images and allusions. No, his is the "gaze" of the wanderer, seeker, eternal exile, boundary-crosser - serious, perhaps a little sad as he measures personal loss and gain in time and space. As Professor Thomas Shapcott, he heads the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Adelaide. Born Ipswich, Queensland, 1935. Founding member of Literature Board, Australia Council. "He has travelled extensively and lived in Europe and the United States." Has also published "extensively" in a wide variety of literary genres: short stories, novels, children's books, essays, anthologies. As some of his novel titles suggest (The White Stag of Exile, The Search for Galina), the theme of Exile runs through Shapcott's work and perhaps (as Pana's selection and deep-digging discussion attest) this is the main "figure in the carpet."


The Translator
While I know Tom Shapcott personally and through his other works, I know nothing at all about Irina G. Pana. (My apologies, by the way, for the absence of accurate Romanian typography: another instance of word processor imperialism-effects.) And while wondering if this mattered, I found myself bumping up against other questions and soon was immersed in the curious virtual geometry (one thinks of a verbal Mobius Strip, or a linguistic Kline Bottle) that a hybrid imaginary construction - perhaps a dual-language book is an extreme case - calls into being. The apparently two-dimensional line connecting Author and Reader has here become a plane: the triangle of Author-Translator-Reader. But it takes only a moment's further reflection to realise that a 2-D figure is itself a far too simplistic construct. Clearly there can be no purity of the text in this environment. To relay the text is to alter ("contaminate") it at each node of reception. Even the "original" poem on the left-hand page is altered by the translation on the right. But I also discovered that the process worked in reverse. Sometimes I could not quite understand a Shapcott line of verse and, turning to the Romanian (even though I must here confess my innocence regarding the Romanian language) I could, with a little sleuthing, correct my misreading of the English. Somebody who knew Romanian better than I do and English better than I know Romanian would find that, criss-crossing from one language to the other, they would construct a better reading of Shapcott than would any reader confined to English alone. A language "barrier" would therefore be an aid to understanding. If this insight, if that's not too big a word for this effect, were applied to the whole question of Exile and its effects, then we as readers might understand at a deeper level why, among other things, Shapcott himself might have authorised this translation project.

Evidence of authorisation or even collaboration bears on what has always been an obvious question - possibly vexatious when considered closely - about "spiritual" ownership of the text (authority). Is there a hierarchy here, with the author placed above the translator, with the Translator to be effaced, to assume the cloak of invisibility? Or does the translator, with her role as disseminator, take a kind of precedence? Or none of the above? And if we cared about this aspect of the politics of texts (I'm not sure we do very much) we might go on to ask about collaboration. These details are not provided with this text - can we assume there was no collaboration (which would be a rare case) between Australian author and the presumably Romanian translator. Would it make a difference if we discovered that there was close collaboration but that it was felt by both parties as not worth mentioning? Did Shapcott translate himself, write the introductory analysis himself and invent his own Translator? (I've not had a chance to ask Tom if he is fluent in Romanian). On the other hand, has Tom repudiated this translation and its introductory reading? Is there an angry page in, say, a Bucharest literary journal expressing dismay, outrage at the mistranslation, at the terrorism against his oeuvre, at the reductive "reading" in the introduction?


The Reader
If Irina G. Pana does make a claim for visibility, it is in her introduction. But there she appears as another self: the Critic, the Reader. But what about us, the other Readers, the Outsiders? Neither do we translate nor do we introduce. Or, noting my experience already mentioned in cross-reading this dual language text, do we not also produce a reading ourselves? The Shapcott poems, and the translation becoming tools rather than objects of contemplation. Tools perhaps for exploiting the differentials between cultures and thus tools for managing, mediating the effects of Exile. If that were the case, then we might suppose that it would be nice to have all poems (especially the many about exile) appear in dual-language editions.

Sometimes, usually in the mornings, rarely at night, I forget that I too am an exile. Maybe it was something that could be called part of a post-Vietnam diaspora from the USA. Whatever, I moved from New York to Adelaide. (Shapcott has New York poems for me, and even an "Adelaide".) I began writing poetry, stories, novels, about how I missed Iowa, where I was born, California where I first got laid… I had initially grossly underestimated the force of what I had at the outset airily thought to be a mere spatial relocation. "You are just moving a little farther from home. There is the telephone, the post office…." Now, after years of unresolved exilic tremors, I think I know why those many dispersed Romanians might want to read Shapcott via Pana. Even though I had to acquire a whole new map (even of the overhead stars) and a new vocabulary when I arrived in Australia, I did not have to learn a new language. In Cities in Exile, as I read left to right across the page from Shapcott verse to parallel Pana verse I seem to penetrate deeper into the effects of exile and deeper into a kind of compensation for differences. Compensation even at the higher levels of sensation-music. Such poems as "The City of Home" seem to roll on and resound better in a Romance-language like Romanian than in Shapcott's less inflected English. Perhaps habit has dulled my ear for English. Perhaps, too, I am inventing my own system of Romanian accents.


The Cook
"Miss Norah Kerrin Writes to her Betrothed" is an epistolary monologue in which Shapcott traces over many years the effects of exile in the life of a woman who has journeyed from "the Crystal Palace" (would the Romanian need a footnote here?) to end up in Australia. Reading this poem with the Romanian reader in mind, it struck me anew just how important this genre of narrative is on Australian literature. I got worried in behalf of the Romanian reader when I got to these lines:

The familiar is wrong in this continent.
We should be garbed in strangeness; ashes and clay.
I burned your embroidered bodice, sending Cook out
On some pretext.

The cook?
Mr (or Miss, or Mrs) Cook?
Captain Cook?

Scanning across the page I see that Pana, given several choices, has evidently opted for the latter, just the household cook. Not the historical figure. Not the body-servant named Cook. I deduce this because there are no capital letters there, in the Romanian lines, thus no proper names.

Bucharest proofreaders have also added new words to Shapcott's English lexicon: "crumling reliefs" (p.126) "hatbad" (p. 214). I won't go into some of the syntactical effects created by the inability of Romanians to reproduce exactly a foreign text. But in some cases the errors make for possibly more interesting readings than the correct version. Creativity is everywhere, even in the form of happenstance. Happenstance, in Pana's introduction, has even supplied Australia with a new Tasmanian poet, "Andrew Slant." All of this suggests that the Romanian readers need the English as much as we need the Romanian.

Let us continue to support funding for translations.

  Barry Westburg's most recent volume of short fiction is Rage of Angels (Wakefield Press). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 3 No 2 October 1999
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady