The International Literary Quarterly

May 2009

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. Losing My Voice by Andrew Cowan  

Like someone’s presence, a writer's voice is a tricky thing to pin down. If James Wood characterises Saul Bellow's prose as 'jivey and broken and rapid', or speaks of Dickens's 'bounciness', he isn't describing the sound they make so much as the rhythms they move to, conceiving of voice as something more kinetic than aural, which relates to their way of being in the world, their attitude towards it, which will imply a particular perspective on things and so determine the themes the writer is drawn to, and the ways in which those themes are treated.

Many of the epithets we use of voice are suggestive of personality, and so incline us to apply them to the person of the writer. In the particularity of his noticing and the scrupulousness of his describing - his resistance to familiar formulations, the already seen, already said - the writer expresses a point of view, a singularity of seeing, and this has a moral dimension. The integrity of the writer's engagement with language - and so, by ready implication, with life - will either ring true or ring false to us.

We may have to listen very hard, though: almost as hard as the writer. My own, somewhat unbouncy way of being in the world draws to me certain themes - principally 'loss' and what Richard Ford calls the 'normal applauseless life of us all' - but while my engagement with these themes influences the things I notice, and the ways in which I describe them, I can never be quite sure I'm noticing accurately enough, or describing clearly enough, that I'm tackling loss without becoming mawkish, or describing the quotidian without becoming boring. However hard I listen, I can never quite know whether or not I'm ringing true.

And faced with the anxiety of not knowing, with the inherent unreliability of words, my habitual defence is to reach after the consolations of formal patterning - assonance, alliteration, half-rhyme, metrical and rhythmical riffs - and to place these in the service of a particular cadence that plays in my mind whenever I attempt to fix any words on the page.

It's an insistent cadence, always there, and much of the effort of writing for me is dedicated to an obsessive, compulsive pestering of the page to find the exact combination of words that will allow me to express a particular thought or image or feeling in tune with this tune in my head. And if I can't find the exact cadence then that thought or image or feeling must remain unexpressed.

Which can be frustrating, since it seems I can no more rid myself of this rhythm than I can rid myself of myself. My identity is in some way bound up with the aural aspect of voice, which makes the experience of being translated oddly perplexing: how can these foreign words in this foreign grammar possibly sound at all like me? How can this first sentence, which I laboured over for days, continue to carry anything like the same cadence? And - most odd and perplexing of all - in the case of the Japanese, Korean or Hebrew books that bear my name, how can this baffling script carry even the slightest remnant of the sound of me? For all I know, in Hebrew I sound just like Saul Bellow. 

Recently, as a writer-in-residence at the Summer School of the British Centre for Literary Translation, I was able to watch the efforts of an Italian workshop group to achieve not just a translation of part of my novel What I Know, but a translation of what they called the 'melody' of those pages, my role being to adjudicate between the students' competing 'equivalences' to the rhythms of my sentences.

I listened, and what I heard each time was a version of Italian whose metre and patterns of repetition, whose phrase-lengths and punctuation pauses, sounded uncannily familiar, but which - I was told - fell on their Italian ears as ever-so-slightly accented, as foreign. This, paradoxically, lent the translation more authenticity - it sounded somehow 'English' - whereas any hint of foreignness in the original would have been a measure of its inauthenticity, and so of its failure.

What I Know is the first person narration of a humdrum private detective who discovers, aged forty, that he 'knows' a great deal about the personal lives of strangers, but is a stranger to himself. He has amassed any number of facts about other people, but has achieved very little self-knowledge. And so he turns the technology of his trade upon those closest to him: he begins to investigate his family and friends, hoping to discover what constitutes a 'life', to understand what makes his own life tick.

Self-revelation is key, and his narrative of self-scrutiny and self-discovery centres on issues of authenticity - which in part finds its expression in my authorial attempt to achieve a trueness of tone in the telling. And as I listened to the passionately argued alternatives for the sound of his narration, I wondered if a translation workshop was an ‘equivalence’ of sorts for the process of writing, the endlessly tiring tussle with language that Don DeLillo calls 'the old, slow water-torture business of invention and doubt and self-correction'.

Clearly translation was as effortful and conflicted a process as writing, but clearly, in one respect, a translation into Italian is relatively unproblematic, given that so much of the cultural and conceptual luggage will carry over. My collaboration with a Japanese translator at the University of East Anglia, however, has brought home the difficulty of rendering almost any English into Japanese without the need for potentially cluttering contextualisations, irrespective of the problem of capturing the author's 'melody'.

Yoko Shimada is an experienced translator of contemporary English writing who wanted to test the notion of a 'simpatico' translation founded on congeniality and proximity by attempting a translation of my novel Crustaceans while based for a year at UEA, where I teach. Her progress was premised on frequent meetings during which she interrogated me about my intentions, and though at first I floundered, I did eventually arrive at an understanding of what I'd been up to, and was able to share this with her. But the cultural gap was there from the outset; it was there on the spine of the book.

Crustaceans is called Crustaceans partly because I liked the seaside sound of the word, this being a novel set by the seaside. The word also has iconic significance for the narrator in that it's the first word he imagines teaching his new-born son to pronounce: they will go beachcombing, he anticipates, 'gathering shells... raiding rockpools for crabs'. And it has thematic significance because the narrator, struggling with his son's subsequent death, retreats into himself, into his shell.

But it seems there’s no comparable word in Japanese for 'crustaceans', nothing that sounds like waves breaking on shingle and carries the same colloquial connotations of emotional reserve and can be found in most people's standard vocabulary: the nearest equivalent is a specialist, zoological term that might - at its most economical and musical (it does at least alliterate) - translate back into English as 'aquatic arthropods'. And what applies here - before the book is even opened - applies equally elsewhere in the novel, the problems posed for Yoko being typified by this simple sentence: 

'My kitchen - a sink, drainer and Baby Belling cooker - was built into a recess to the left of the chimney-breast, a slatted partition to hide it.'

Possibly in Italian 'Baby Belling' would similarly fail to signify, though the context might guide the reader towards a good-enough understanding; saving which, a native brand of appliance might be substituted. But in Japanese there is no concept of the contextualising 'chimney-breast', and what I realised when asked to account for this sentence was just how far my choices had been governed by sound, far more than I'd been fully conscious of when writing. Yoko’s task then was many-sided, for whatever solutions she might arrive at for the sense of this sentence, there would remain the problem of achieving an equivalence for the alliteration of 'Baby', 'Belling', 'built' and 'breast', and the near-rhymes of 'recess' and 'breast', 'partition' and 'kitchen', 'drainer and 'cooker'.

This semi-conscious attachment to musical patterning is everywhere in my work, I've come to realise, another example being these two sentences from What I Know:

'I am a private investigator, and business of late has been slack. My wife is a teacher of maths.'

Conversationally, the Italians suggested, a more natural way for my detective to express himself would be: 'My wife is a maths teacher.’  But this alternative never occurred to me and the reason, I'm sure, is because it wouldn't have allowed me to arrive at those two tidy phrases of eight beats and the end-line assonance of 'slack' and 'maths'.

Such habitual tidiness is one reason I will never, regrettably, sound like Saul Bellow - in any language - though the experience of engaging with translators has brought me closer to an understanding, I think, of what my 'cadence' consists of, and confirmed me in the belief that my real challenge as a writer is not to achieve on the page the cadence that plays in my mind, but to arrive at some other rhythms, some less familiar patterns - and indeed this was the intention behind my latest, as yet untitled novel, which is set in 1916 and derives from dozens of transcripts of tape recordings I made while working as an oral historian some twenty years ago.

If I wrote What I Know partly because I thought I knew how to do it (which lends the title an ironic inflection, an acknowledgement of my failure to free myself from the security, or shackles, of my usual method and style) this novel-in-progress was conceived partly out of frustration with the limitations of what had become the overly familiar sound of me. Derived from dozens of individual, characterful voices - each of them distinct, all literally spoken - the effort to achieve the singular, literary voice that might accommodate or alchemise them has forced me to stretch to some significantly longer sentences and a far greater complexity and flexibility of cadence. And possibly, as one of the Italians suggested, the real effort is not so much to translate into words the rhythms I move to, but to resist those rhythms and reach after some different tunes, to rid myself of a few of my habitual riffs and invent some new ones. Possibly the real challenge faced by any writer in fact is not so much to find a voice, but once having found one, to lose it.