10 July 2012

Who cannot tell a thistle from a rose

      Orthodoxy will tell you that bloggists should stick to their declared subject, that someone who purports to blogging about translation should not diverge onto republican polemics, or onto the architechture of their home city. For – so runs the argument – so to do could mean losing any readers one might have for not obeying the commandment of Relevance & Utility. If the implicit reason for your blog existing is to get you lit. translation contracts, then Thou shallt not talk about Edinburgh fashions, nor shallt thou report on why Scottish museums are far superior to German ones. As the orthodox are holier than thou, thou shallt definitely keep your dirty hands off the Order of the Thistle.

      The counter-orthodoxy will tell you another story. Translators are actually a sub-species of the genus author, & which author have you enjoyed reading who hasn't a touch of something universal to them? Even if blogs are partly written for the publishers you don't yet know and probably never will, which publisher – however beguiled they are by contemporary German literature – is only beguiled by that? (If there are such, would we want to have anything to do with them?) And who's blogging about the psychological discomfort of their job as a literary translator – why won't your prize-winning colleague post online about her latest commission, her first translation where she truly ''loathes'' the book?

       Which brings us back, degree by slow degree, to the Order of the Thistle. The most honourable, ancient, prickly, shagacious and thistle-ly Order of the Thistle induces knights into its blooming lower drawers in a ceremony at St. Giles Kirk, Edinburgh, every July, a ceremony we happened to chance upon during our annual state holiday to Auld Reekie last week. After strolling up from our summer residence in Ramsay Garden's charming vernacular, we sight-see-ed in thick har around the castle esplanade, observing rituals of pomp & wooly-tassles that sent our four-year old boy into shrills of excitement. (''Bravo!'' he cries as the soldiers, poker-faced defying the ridiculous, change the guard & shout something ''un – in -TELLLLigbLe!!! '') Then a tour bus drew-up & out tottered a crew in green uniform with three arrows & bow hanging down each of their backs, the Queen's Very Own Home Fire Guard we find out later. They're faces show all the tell-tale signs of lives of aesthetic comfort in the Home Counties: minor aristos, they look distinguished in the way you & I would also do, if we could only lay our hands on those quantities of regular money & property over five centuries. Aware that merely to fart at the plebs in 2012 will no longer do, one of the bufties engages me in banter, at which all my most firey leftist-republican principles seep like pee through my shoe soles, and I supply deferential questions regarding the queen and which thistle-cock she'll be laying regally on whose shoulder-blades today. The average age of these chaps is over seventy. When Scotland & England become republics, I do hope this lot will continue to make themselves available for hire. Which kill-joy republican wouldn't pay to see them in close medieval combat with the remanants of Al-Quaida, they're bow strings trembling against a sky raining down with stones, fired from giant catapults?

      After obtaining details of Our Majesty's movements from this gentleman, our family scurried down, caps in hands, to the Deacon Brodie corner of George IV bridge–Mound crossroads, where amid a crescendo of groans, grunts & murmers from gathering crowds, we wait for H.R.H to come at last. As we wait tourists identify natives & demand to know of them: ''but what is zis auda of ze zistle? What is happ-e-ning ?'' Natives explain that William is to be knighted by The Queen today into the O.O.T.T., declaring with heart-felt bunk that this is ''a real honour!'' (Gasp, gosh, gosh!) For whom – for us? For William? We shiver, kids are lifted up, kids stumble onto the still busy road & are scooped up again, the Queen's Very Own Fire Guard march past, behind them the Royal House Band playing something jolly & triumphant though not obviously Scottish. And queenie finally comes, who we don't at first recognise, she's one of 13 entering the kirk in deep green robes; we see Kate's back in mauve–camel from 200 M distance & immediately my wife declares: ''she looks beautiful!'' My son has mostly seen the top of other people's legs in the crowd but is dead-set afterwards that he, too, has seen the queen.

      And who'll guess the punch-line, what do these Thistle-Members have to do with literary translation? Economically they're all somewhere else than 95% of paid translators: they feel under no pressure to sell their labour as a commodity. She'll come back to her compact & pleasing Hamburg flat after six hours a day doing her head in translating a Lithuanian novel set among Russian speaking immigrants in Denmark, a book she defends as ''worthwhile'', a book she dislikes. We haste to pack ourselves in like sardines to the overbooked Birkbeck lit. translation summer school, to get that quality tuition as one of just 84 students in the German group, to put hours into translating a tale of an emotionally needy dog. We may not value this text, but our heart's set on the good paid work & we won't let a bit of thorny tedium prevent us gaining entry to this particular Rightful Order of Honourable Underpaid Freelancers. While through all these times, their minds unbothered by earning incomes, the O.O.T.T. may devote themselves to the thrilling art of inserting Caledonia's bonniest floo'ers into each others most ancient, and honourable, orifices. The kicks only really start however, when, leather gloved, you slowly start to pull the plants back out again.