BOOKS / Bless thee Burgess, thou art translated: Anthony Burgess died this week. In a recent lecture he reflected on the uneasy world of the translator

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This is an abridged version of the inaugural 'European Lecture', delivered by Anthony Burgess at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The term 'translation' has taken on a new connotation for me since I have recently been undergoing clinical tests which point to a very dark end, so please forgive me if by 'translation' I am beginning to think of a possible transmigration or elevation, or certainly the beginning of a new life - a meaning not normally there in the word. In fact there is no spiritual dimension for the word 'translation' except when we talk about bishops being translated from one diocese to another.

Shakespeare, as usual, got the meaning right when he has Snug say to Bottom, who has just emerged from a brake with an ass's head, 'Bless thee Bottom, thou art translated', because there is something essentially asinine about translation. I prefer in some ways the German word ubersetzung, which implies 'setting a thing over there' crossing a kind of Red Sea, moving from one world into another.

Let me first say something about translation from a superficial angle. When I see on the cover of a book by Agatha Christie, Jack Higgins or Freddie Forsyth, 'translated into 76 languages, including Upper Stobovian and Middle Ruritanian' and so forth, I am expected to feel immense envy, because though I am translated I am not quite so multitudinously translated. In fact to be translated is horrific, and the more ignorant the author is of foreign languages the better off he is. If an author can be translated into innumerable languages he is not strictly speaking a practitioner of literature at all, because literature cannot be translated, only the appearance of literature, the arrangement on a page of words which do a minimal job, that of describing action, feelings, and dialogue of a fairly easily translatable kind.

Indeed, if a book is translatable one may say it is yearning for the ultimate translation, which is to be turned into a film, and when this happens a book is no longer a verbal construct. It becomes a play of characters. The cinema is the final goal of all popular fiction, and sometimes one feels that when people praise a translatable book they are discounting the literary angle altogether. Lord Archer was recently said by one of his colleagues to be a good writer in that he forgets about words and gets on with the job, and the job is a cinematic one.

Of course you could say: 'Look, the great writers have produced great characters, great figures, easily separable from the words in which they were first presented - Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, for instance'. People used to believe that they knew Dickens because they had the complete collection of cigarette cards, showing the various characters portrayed by Cruikshank, and even with Shakespeare people think that because they have drunk in a pub called the Falstaff they know something of the character. Or people listen to, say, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and think they have read the Arabian Nights.

The point is that we do tend to feel we know foreign literature, because much of it has been translated. It is assumed that it is enough with a novel to know the work in translation. Poetry, of course, is different, because poetry is nothing unless made out of words. But here is a curious - personal - example of the manner in which our conception of what we think we know about world literature can go wrong.

Some years ago I lived in a part of Rome called Trastevere, and at the opening to this district, just by the Ponte Garibaldi, there is a statue of a man wearing 19th-century dress and a top hat. He is a poet named Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, widely known to the denizens of Trastevere and to other Romans. Even taxi drivers will recite you his poems. But nobody else knows him. Why? Belli has never been translated into English, for the simple reason that he wrote not in Italian but in a dialect that nobody not Roman can possibly know, namely the Roman dialect, Romanesco. This is the dialect of the streets, the gutters; it is foul, obscene, blasphemous, but it's what the Romans speak, and Belli took it upon himself to produce three volumes of sonnets, written in an aggressive classical Petrarchan form, but loaded with these Roman qualities of blasphemy and obscenity.

For example: this is very near the ultimate in the scurrilous, yet I am translating a great poet:

When Christ rose up, those somewhat timid gentry, / his friends, kicked up a noise, but one apostle, / St Thomas, sang as loud as any throstle. / It's an imposture, obvious, elementary, / anyway how could he pass the fucking sentry, / Jesus meanwhile unseen in the Easter jostle / was making for their place at a colossal / speed and he used the keyhole for his entry. / He cried, poke in your finger near this rib / and you will soon see whether I still exist / or the whole tale is just a fucking fib. / St Thomas came and shoved his great ham fist / into the hole, he then became as glib / a Christian as he'd been a rationalist.

Do these lines help convince anyone that Belli was a great poet? Perhaps not. We have to take him in bulk, but I think that, confronted with 3000 sonnets of this kind, you might become convinced that Belli wrote a kind of proto-Ulysses, for if James Joyce's Ulysses records for all time the spirit of a particular city, so did Belli record for all time the spirit of Rome.

There are some rare occasions when a translation becomes greater than the original - this has happened with Sir Thomas Urquhart's Rabelais. It is as though the French language in Rabelais' time was not capable of carrying the huge burden of obscenity and scatology that a drunken Scotsman was able to give it. There are originals, too, which quail before the advent of the translation. This has happened, as far as the Germans are concerned, with their own translation of Shakespeare. They consider that Schlegel's version of Shakespeare is better than the original, and in some ways it is. It was written in a kind of 19th-century romantic German, rendering it far more intelligible to the Germans than the original Elizabethan is to us.

Well, translation can revivify a language, and revivify a culture, and there is no doubt that Schlegel's Shakespeare revivified not only German literature but also German music. The songs in his translation were identical metrically with Shakespeare's originals, so it was possible for Schubert to set them to music and inaugurate new rhythms, just as it was possible for Mendelssohn to take Midsummer Night's Dream and make that the occasion of some of the most remarkable fairy music ever heard.

What happened in England? In Queen Elizabeth I's time, there was an attempt on the part of the Earl of Surrey to translate Virgil into English. In the old days it was customary to translate into rhyme, but the Romans knew nothing of rhyme. Surrey dared to translate Virgil's hexameters without rhyme, and produced blank verse; without this new metrical form the Elizabethan stage would not have existed. Again, if Seneca had not been translated into English in Shakespeare's time there would have been no tragic content in the Elizabethan drama, no ghosts, no revenge, none of the verbal devices which Shakespeare cunningly copied from Seneca.

So it is possible to regard translation as a means of inaugurating a new era in a native literature. The best example of this can be found in our own age, or very nearly. T S Eliot made his own contribution to the feeling and the thought of our time through studying Elizabethan verse, and then French verse. When he began to write his first poems he was following poets like Gerard de Nerval and others, but in 1922 he showed a way in which our poetry could neglect translation altogether, by assuming that the literature of Europe in the original was already our property. Thus the Waste Land, produced in 1922, is full of foreign languages, and these cannot be translated because the associations are with the original sound.

The poem even includes the famous Sanskrit - Datta Dayadhvam, Damyata / Shantih, Shantih, Shantih. Of course, when we get to Sanskrit we're in the East, and the biggest problem any translator may face is when he confronts a language of the East. German, English, French, Italian and Spanish are fundamentally one language, Indo-European. But looking East we face a very different phenomenon.

We British have probably done more than any other nation to familiarise ourselves with great oriental masterpieces. Richard Burton translated the Arabian Nights, while Edward Fitzgerald took a series of quatrains called Rubai written by the poet Omar Khayyam and created the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It was much condemned by Robert Graves, who attempted a translation of his own, but most of us feel that we have been brought close to an oriental habit of thought through this incredible Victorian translation. Remember how the Rubaiyat begins: 'Awake] for morning in the bowl of night / has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight / and lo] the hunter of the East has caught / the Sultan's turret in a noose of light.' The rhymes in Fitzgerald are important because they are the rhymes of the Persian.

The opening stanza in Persian has three key rhymes, bam, jam and ayam. Bam means the dome of a mosque, jam means a cup, ayam a cockerel or rooster. The image in this is of the God of the day who is identified with Cyrus, the ancient King of Persia, who becomes a host holding a morning party. He takes the dome of the mosque and reverently turns it upside down into a cup. He fills the cup with the cold, clear white wine of the morning and leaves it to the Cock, the ayam, to shout 'Ishrabu, Ishrabu'. The Cock is crowing on top of the minarets, on top of the mosque, he's not saying come and worship God - there is no God but Allah.

He is saying drink, drink, get drunk, Ishrabu, Ishrabu, Ishrabu. This is Sufi philosophy, condemned by orthodox Muslims, who feel that even to mention drink is blasphemous, but to Fitzgerald wine was a symbol of faith. So the whole poem can seem suddenly orthodox.

This is an example of the manner in which Oriental poetry dares things that we in the West dare not do. Our poetry, like our prose, tends to be a bit John Majorish, grey, literal, scared of extravagance. The more we move East, the more we find that language goes mad. Take again the Rubaiyat: the great hunter Bahram is always hunting the gur - the wild ass. But the gur is also the grave - so Bahram is hunting the grave as well.

That kind of pun, which we regard as childish, is endemic - as it is in the Bible. The Bible may be a holy book, but it is also a work of literature by many hands, which does the most devilish things with language. When we are translating the Bible we make it reasonable, western. But look even at the opening words of the first book of Genesis in Hebrew: Bereshith bara elohim - in the beginning God made. Bara means hack out, not to make but hack, hack, hack: elohim is a plural - there doesn't seem to be one God around at all, there seems to be more than one God, and this frightens us.

When we move deeper into the Old Testament we can get more frightened. In the Book of Amos 8, 2, you find that a basket of summer fruit is always being mentioned. This is because the word for the basket in Hebrew is qais and the appointed end of Israel is qes; there is a perpetual punning on these two words. In the Book of Jeremiah 1, 11, there is lots of almond trees. Why? What has this got to do with God's love? The almond tree is shaqed, and this is very close to the word shoqed, which means 'watch': God is keeping watch over his people.

Even when you get into the New Testament you find that the Greek writers, remembering their Hebrew and also their Aramaic, are ready to play jokes which can only be appreciated if we get back to those original Semitic tongues. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew 3, 9, John the Baptist tells the mockers around him that God could make children for Abraham out of the stones lying around. What does this mean? It means that the Hebrew word ebnayya is being punned on to become benayya: the two words are so close that stones and children become almost the same thing. Or, again, in the book of Isaiah the word 'justice' is mishpat; mishpat is wanted, mishpat is sought but not found. What is found is oppression: mishpah. This kind of word-play is endemic in the Bible, but we can't convey it in our own language, and sometimes the very narrative of the Bible is suffused with word-play which gives a whole new tone to a meaning which again cannot be conveyed.

What has been happening to the Bible recently? There is a conviction on the part of the translators that it must be intelligible, yet some of the strength and magic of the bible as it was translated in the 1611 version precisely lies in its strangeness.

So many of its phrases have stuck themselves into our language they can't be unrooted. They are part of us. T S Eliot protested at the rendering of a line in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, where 'neither cast ye your pearls before swine' is turned into 'do not feed your pearls to pigs'. Well, no fool would ever feed pearls to pigs, but they might throw them and the pigs might sniff at them. The word 'swine' still exists, so why not use it? The weakness is part of our scared timorous age, and even when we come to the marriage ceremony we no longer have, 'thereto I plight thee my troth', and 'with all my worldly goods I thee endow'. We have, 'this is my solemn vow' and 'all that I have I share with you'. These sound as though they're not going to last, but when you say 'I plight thee my troth' it sounds like the stamping of a seal.

I want to deal finally with an aspect of translation which is not literary at all: dubbing. The commonest way of hearing a foreign film, at least on the continent of Europe, is to suffer the illusion that the actors on screen are actually speaking the language of the audience. The other way, still the better of the two, is to hear the original dialogue, with a translation on the screen in sub-titles. In multi-lingual communities, such as Malaysia, the second method is the only practical one. Half the screen fills up with Bahasa (or Malay), Chinese, Tamil and Hindi, which leaves little room for the image.

But in Scandinavia sub-titling is the rule, and is adduced as one explanation for the admirable English spoken by young Scandinavians. From an aesthetic angle it is hard to defend dubbing, since the way an actor uses his voice is an important part of his artistic equipment. Humphrey Bogart not only had a distinctive vocal style, he also had slight labial paralysis - 'Tweet Heart' instead of 'Sweet Heart' - which gave a lisping quality. Sometimes actors have foreign voices imposed upon them, which results in a mythic image quite at variance with the original. In Italy Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are called 'Stanlio' and 'Olio', and speak the kind of anglicised Italian that a tin-eared British schoolboy might use.

Strangely enough, these problems of dubbing - giving words to lips that have recorded quite different words - are not reserved just to the translation of a foreign language. Excruciating gaffes are perpetrated by actors. Some years ago, Italy, Israel - and Sir Lew Grade - made an epic series for television based on the life of the prophet Moses. The part of Aaron, the brother of Moses, was played by the late Sir Anthony Quayle, then Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who should have had an impeccable knowledge of English grammar. The line I gave him was this: 'God has chosen people like you and me'. In close up, what he said was: 'God has chosen people like you and I'.

The director of the RSC should have known better; the Italian film director did not know at all. What do you do? There you have this huge face on the screen making a huge grammatical error. He is away somewhere, you cannot bring him back. What you do, of course, is search desperately through the reels of film which you have packed up there in the studio and find some scene which shows the back view of Anthony Quayle in the part of Aaron; you interpose this shot of his back saying, 'me', and you have plucked out the offending 'I'. Actors have a lot of elocutionary skill, but their ignorance is sometimes amazing, and the ignorance is what frequently makes them actors.

One more example: in the same series we have the great Burt Lancaster playing the part of Moses and I gave him these lines, 'You will not hear from me again, Pharaoh'. 'Why not, Cousin Moses?, 'I am slow of speech.' That is what it says in the Bible, but Lancaster decided to say not, 'I am slow of speech,' but, 'Because I am uncircumcised of lips', making a kind of rotary movement round the lips to illustrate this. God knows what he thought it meant. The Italian director obviously did not notice. What could one do? There was no cover in the form of back views or reversed shots, so it had to be left. It is on such occasions that critics condemn the writer of the script for inaptitude.

I saw a Hindi version of Hamlet some years ago, where there were 10 songs for Ophelia and a dance of grave diggers. They did it pretty badly - 'Shall I live, or do myself in? I don't know'. And only the other day I saw a televised American war film in which the question 'tanks, tanks, tanks,' was answered in the subtitle as 'merci'. The confusion of tongues means the confusion of all civilised endeavour. This confusion is genuine, and it lies wholly in the slippery, devilish, disobedient organ known as the tongue. I don't think that Babel will ever be unbuilt, and so people like me will continue to give the most confused dissertations on this whole problem of translation. And no bishop, however often translated, can do anything to exorcise the curse. Thank you very much.

(Photograph omitted)