BRIAN HOLTON is something of a one-man Tower of Babel. Among the languages he grew up with or learned are English, Scots, French, Greek, Latin, Swahili, Hausa, Yoruba, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, and Chinese.
But where the many languages of Babel resulted in confusion and discord Holton, in his work as a translator, enables connection and discovery. He is particularly known for his translations of Chinese poetry into English and Scots and his long association with the eminent Chinese poet Yang Lian.
Both Holton and Yang Lian are coming to Galway next month to take part in the Cúirt International Festival of Literature and ahead of their visit Holton took time to chat about his polyglot upbringing and modern Chinese poetry.
Out of Africa
Holton’s love affair with languages began in his early childhood in Nigeria.
“My father, who was from Waterford, after being wounded in the western desert, was sent to Tanganyika to recover and when he came out of the army he’d fallen in love with Africa,” Holton tells me. “He learned Swahili, Hausa, West African Pidgin English, and Yoruba.
“We lived in Nigeria ‘til I was five surrounded by this. I remember dad would play games over meals – he’d ask you to say ‘pass the sugar’ in Swahili or whatever. I grew up with a strong African influence. When I hear highlife music – that fusion of New Orleans jazz and African rhythms – it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was a nightclub across the road from our house and I would drift off to sleep under the mosquito net to the sound of trumpets.”
Holton’s first introduction to China also dates from his childhood but it was in his teens his interest in the language deepened.
“Dad’s father and two of my mother’s uncles all worked for the Ben shipping line which sailed from Liverpool to Hong Kong, Canton, and Shanghai so both grandparents’ houses were full of stuff from the Far East,” he recalls.
“Later, at school I had this mad headmaster who was some kind of religious zealot and although at my father’s request we were exempt from religious observance – he thought religion was not a matter for children - nevertheless this headmaster decided I was going to be a minister in the kirk!
“One way of getting back at him was applying for a place in Edinburgh University’s newly opened Chinese Department. In Steppenwolf Hesse talks about how you walk down an ordinary street every day of your life and pass this unremarkable door then one day you open it and behind it you find a completely unexpected landscape. As a teenager I was crazy about poetry, and when I saw they were opening the Chinese Department I took a book from the school library called 170 Chinese Poems edited by Arthur Waley; it had never occurred to me that Chinese people even wrote poetry!”
Holton reveals that Chinese poetry exerted a key influence on 20th century English verse; “In 1915 Ezra Pound produced his volume of Chinese poems Cathay and then Arthur Waley did his book as an answer to that,” he says. “Between them they completely transformed our understanding of poetry. Before that poetry was essentially Victorian or Georgian, and after the First World War you’ve got Eliot and modern poetry and where did that come from? The answer is through translation, through Pound and his discovery of Chinese poetry. People don’t realise that 20th century English language poetry was profoundly transformed by contact with versions of classical Chinese poetry.”
Holton is associate editor of Jade Ladder, a new anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry published by Bloodaxe which reflects and responds to the momentous changes China has experienced in recent decades.
“You had this dialectic between the old system ossifying and young people trying something new,” Holton observes. “For many years the Party tried to stifle new voices and many poets were jailed or exiled. Modern Chinese poets have brought this new voice but at the cost of struggle. China today is experiencing a dramatic transformation.
“When I was studying I couldn’t even go to China as part of my degree; it was in the throes of revolution, everyone wore the same colours it was all shades of blue and olive drabs. A friend of mine who went there at the time said it was amazing there were no flowers on the streets, no colour, people were afraid to look different from their neighbour whereas now all that is turned inside out.”
Holton outlines some of the challenges entailed in translating Chinese poetry into English.
“The various Chinese dialects are connected but the Cantonese of Hong Kong is as far away from the language of Shanghai as is Portuguese from French, so there is an enormous range of sonorities and sounds,” he says.
“Interestingly, one of the reasons China remained as one country rather than fragmenting into different language groups like Europe is that the writing system is like a telephone number. You can read a telephone number in French or Irish or whatever language and you don’t get the sound you get the idea. Chinese characters do that, you can read the same word in Shanghai dialect or Cantonese or Mandarin. So within the diversity you have a unity and there is that tension always in China.
“The technical issues of dealing not just with the non-Chinese languages but with the variations within the Chinese tongues are quite difficult. Ezra Pound tried it by using black English or the language of the Appalachians to represent the speech of farmers and there is a lot to be said for that but with this anthology we’re aiming at a more international audience so the translations are more ‘flattened down’.”
For the past 10 years Holton has been the regular translator of the work of Yang Lian, widely revered as one of China’s greatest living poets.
“I was a young translator, I’d published a lot of translations into Scots but nothing really into English,” he says. “I was asked to contribute to this anthology and I knew about Yang Lian because he and several of his peers were almost like rock stars, they could have filled stadia had they been allowed to give readings.
“About a year after doing those pieces for the anthology I was teaching in Durham and the secretary came in to interrupt a class. In uni you don’t interrupt a teacher unless it’s really urgent. I was wondering had somebody died as I followed her out of class and downstairs to find out what it was and there was this Beijing voice, in this rich resonant wonderful accent, on the phone saying he had seen some of my translations and would I like to translate his collected shorter poems. Now what would you say?
“Since then we are like Morecambe and Wise, like an old married couple! I don’t know of any other paired translator poet in our languages who have stayed together so long – of course he doesn’t quite grasp who Morecambe and Wise were!”
Brian Holton and Yang Lian, along with Bill Herbert, will take part in The Jade Ladder Trio plus Panel Discussion event as part of Cúirt at the Town Hall on Saturday April 28 at 3pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie