For years, I worked as a technical translator from Norwegian into English. One day my employer gave me a poem to translate. It was written in tercets. A welcome change, I thought, and got up to go to the coffee machine to celebrate. ‘This is only the first page,’ he said, bringing out a fat sheaf of papers from his briefcase, ‘of an epic poem written by Knut Hamsun, Norway’s answer to Dante.’
That evening I went to an authors’ party. They were discussing whether or not it was possible to still make a living from writing. Not if you write the kind of poetry I was translating, I thought.
Returning home down an alleyway, I saw a man coming towards me. He seemed somehow familiar and when he passed me, I recognised him as a former colleague. He was wearing a cheap, crumpled suit, and stank of whiskey. I was going to say hello, but he was staring at the ground, and I didn’t wish to startle him.
When I told my wife about my day, she grew impatient. ‘That’s hardly a story worth
the telling,’ she said.
A stranger told me there was another city on the other side of the one I knew, where
there were giant statues of gold on the shoreline. But what route could I find to take
me there? The stranger directed me to a bus-stop by a park where some youths
were playing football. While I was waiting, one of them asked if I would play with
them, just for a few minutes to make up a side until their pal got back. I didn’t know
how to say no, though I was afraid of missing the bus. Perhaps because of my age
they seemed reluctant to tackle me the one time I had the ball, and I almost scored,
but just as I was about to take a shot, I slipped and fell. When I got back to the stop,
my backside covered in mud, a blind woman asked for my help in crossing the road.
I couldn’t say no. It was only afterwards as I was watching her walk away that I
thought about inviting her to come with me and explore the city on the other side,
even though the statues would be invisible to her.
When I awoke, I looked out of the window and saw vineyards and hills stretching into the distance. I was on the wrong train. It was moving at the pace of someone walking.
I went to find the train conductor. He was sitting on the floor, reading a book of poetry, his conductor’s jacket unbuttoned at the front. Standing over him, I asked how I could get to Turin. He replied in a local dialect I found hard to follow that people took this train to commute to their job picking grapes.
‘But does the train go to Turin eventually?’ I asked.
He closed his book and stood up, brushing down his jacket. For the first time, his dreamy eyes met mine, but instead of answering he launched into a history of trains in the region, of how, in contrast to countries like England, they remained an integral part of the landscape as well as the lives of those who belonged here.
While I had some sympathy with his otherworldliness, the fact remained that I was going to be late to an important interview.
I turned to a peasant woman sitting nearby, and as I did so an old Italian song came onto the speaker. She got up on her seat and invited me to jump up and dance with her. How could I refuse?
Ian Seed’s recent collections include New York Hotel (Shearsman, 2018) and Distances (Red Ceilings, 2018). Forthcoming is Bitter Grass (Shearsman 2020), a translation from the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari. Seed’s translation of Pierre Reverdy’s Le voleur de Talan (the first into English) is available from Wakefield Press.