Thursday 28 February 2013

Reflected light

This is the pub where Clarence the Weimeraner hangs out. Nice dog, nice mirrors.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Sunday 24 February 2013


I am a small, hard, naked thing, cold inside and out. Gazing up at this denuded, unattractive, but not uninspiring tree stirs affinities as powerful as they are cliched.

So I’m trying to squeeze out some words, to just turn up and write, as taught by friends and mentors Lorianne and Satya and Kaspa. And it feels like trying to draw sap from this harsh, dry thing that pokes from an urban pavement. What trickles painfully out is rusty, greasy.

This is hard. I’m cold. I’m blowing on my hands. Trying to breathe life back into something, my breath floats whitely on the air and quickly disappears.

Friday 22 February 2013

Pale intimations

The chill has returned, but we had a couple of days of almost springlike warmth. The pale sunshine landed on a few pale flowers - all very tentative, but really there! It's hard to say if winter has been especially grey and bleak or if that's been mostly in my head.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Mother tongue

There in my local public library, where I've been hanging out a lot in a determined attempt to stop buying so many books, was a book that I think I’ll now have to buy my own copy of, so I can double-underline whole paragraphs and scrawl copiously in the margins: Is That A Fish In Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure ofTranslation by David Bellos. It's not at all the one of many gimmicky, over-praised non-fiction books - there are so many! - that I'd half-presumed it might be, but a fine work whose comprehensive survey of translation in history, in practice, in literature is almost overwhelming. My main criticism, perhaps, is that this takes on too much for one book, leaving insufficient space around so many stimulating facts and ideas.

The chapter entitled Native Command: Is Your Language Really Yours? seized my heart and suddenly got me feeling as well as thinking:
We all start with a mother and it seems obvious that we first learn language in her arms. The language that your mother speaks to you is therefore what you are 'born into', which is all that can be meant when instead of 'mother tongue' we call it a 'native language'.  
It is an axiom of language study that to be a native speaker is to have complete possession of a language; reciprocally, complete possession of a language is usually glossed as precisely that knowledge of a language that a native speaker has. In spite of the obvious fact that speakers of the same language use it in infinitely varied ways and have often quite different vocabularies and language habits at the levels of register, style, diction and so forth, we proceed on the assumption that only native speakers of (let us say) English know English completely and that only native speakers of English are in a position to judge whether any other speaker is using the language 'natively'.
This was a polite kick in the stomach. I have many questions about the purpose and status of the work I'm doing, both translating into English and copy-editing the English of writers not defined, or not self-defined, as native speakers. It's axiomatic in the community within which I trained that only translation into the translator's mother tongue is satisfactory, that only language written by a native speaker is good enough for publication, for decision-making, that anything else will undermine standards and foster the growth of a nasty, lowest-common-denominator, global sub-language understood in more and more places, but communicating less and less. And I do passionately believe this, but not without a number of caveats. With more and more blended, multi-national, emigrant, immigrant and diasporic families, what is a mother tongue? More and more individuals, surely, have more than one? At what point does the whole concept become meaningless? But what better standard is there? And who is to judge?

These are uncomfortable questions, but the deeper and more shocking pang hit me with the very words 'mother tongue'. Coming upon a commonplace term in a context that's making you think particularly hard can bring its full meaning into sudden relief, and that's what happened here. The most uncomfortable question of all: what does 'mother tongue' mean to a translator long estranged, like me, from her mother and her family of birth? The concept that I take every working day as a given is almost unbearably loaded with pain and ambivalence. How on earth have I managed to ignore this? 

Sunday 17 February 2013

Portrait photos

Not too sure why I turn up every year to see the National Portrait Gallery's annual photographic portrait exhibition. It happens in the middle of winter, when something colourful and engaging is welcome. Entry is very cheap, whereas the cost of seeing most exhibitions - and a lot of other things - in central London is ever-more alarming. As a whole, the exhibition always disappoints me, but there's generally something in there that doesn't. All of that was true this year. Seeing on the same day the NPG exhibition of portraits by Man Ray (worth the shocking expense in this case) only underlined the disappointment: portrait photography in our super-sophisticated, technologically overachieving, endlessly referential and self-referential times ain't what it was and can't seem - for good or ill - to settle on what it might become instead. But it has its moments and its stars.

As ever, viewed en masse, the photos selected from the thousands submitted left me kind of choked and repelled - it's the massive display of specialness, paradoxically, that always disappoints me; the chosen ones are somehow always too emphatic, too perfect, somehow very static. But amidst it all there were some gorgeous and memorable photos. I'm an unashamed fan of those that draw on the heights both of technology and of an artistry beyond the technical to create portaits that appear truly 'painterly'. The best of these, have, along with silk and velvet textures, deep colours and a lovingly crafted aura of timelessness, a resonance that makes them much more than derivative. One of these was the portrait by Georges Pacheco of 'Amelie nursing her children' - it's the second one in the series featured here on his website, but I like them all. Another was Michael Birt's portrait of writer Hilary Mantel on the beach. (These images are so prominently copyrighted that I don't dare to post them here - it's ten or eleven along in his 'writers and directors' series here, so a bit of an effort to find, but worth the effort). In a life-size print, this one is really powerful, with its still but dynamic pose and dark, masculine, old-masterly colours. Of course, it finally strikes me, it evokes Holbein's famous portrait, above, of the man Mantel is most famous for writing about, Thomas Cromwell.

This year's surprises were a polaroid photo by Alice Pavesi Fiori and one taken with an i-Phone by Nathan Roberts. They both stood out for me as movingly immediate and subtly beautiful. Here is a different kind of sharpness that is also soft and a happy contrast to all the overdefined technical perfection on show.

These four photos, at least, have stayed with me powerfully since the exhibition - nothing like the substance and significance of Man Ray's work, but a more perturbing pleasure in a very different context.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Thursday 14 February 2013

The words of others

In these upside-down days, when words continue mostly to escape me, the words of others:

Litlove (Victoria Best): 'anxiety is a hostage situation'
...I’ll tell you what it’s like. Imagine that you are waking up one morning in your own bed. In the first dawning of consciousness, all is well, but then some almost imperceptible doubt creeps in; something feels different, unaccountable. The hair on the back of your neck rises, a shiver runs down your spine. You turn over and there, beside you, is an intruder, masked in black, pointing a gun against your head...
Roselle Angwin: Climbing Down
So, by and by, in the heart of this dark forest, you see – miles away and close at hand – The Tree. Call it the Tree of Life...
...first you need to climb down its ganglia of roots, into the Underworld heart of the dark earth with its dreams and memories, ancestors and becomings.
Every threshold is guarded. Here, on the descent, you do battle with your fears, your regrets, your unmet hopes and dreams, your past, your future, the ways in which you've messed up, been unkind, acted out of ignorance and thoughtlessness.
There will be a question for you.
You have to loosen your pride.
You have to let go of all you know.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Dissolve, resolve

Every time I go to the National Portrait Gallery I become fascinated by the approaching, dissolving, resolving, re-emerging figures of people entering through the revolving plate-glass doors. None of my attempts yesterday to capture a conventionally satisfying silhouette against the bright, white light through the doors was successful. But, through the shifting panes, these wavering little figures out in the street. Dissolving or resolving? I'm not sure. Lost words, lost compass; fleeting images a way, still, to demonstrate persisting form and movement and potential for refocusing. And I love the Giacometti legs.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Sunday 3 February 2013

Friday 1 February 2013