One of the projects that 26 has organised as part of Free The Word this year is 26 Exchanges. A number of writers from 26 have been paired up with writers from PEN centres around the world, to correspond, communicate and generally see what happens.
The exchanges start with the PEN writer sending a piece of text to the 26 writer. The slight catch? The piece is in the PEN writer's native langauge. What the 26 writers do after that is up to them.
12.3.09 – I receive an email from John Simmons with contact details for my paired PEN writer, Gaby Vall, and a page of text. As I don’t speak any Spanish I started trying to translate individual words with the Encarta dictionary. The title literally translates as ‘The Pleasure and the Death’, immediately arousing curiosity, but many of the following words could not be translated, or had multiple meanings, so I quickly gave up on that approach.
I then googled a key
phrase, la danza del fuego, and after sifting through ads for Dell computers,
and a brief diversion watching a short incomprehensible animation on YouTube,
found that this means ‘the dance of fire’. Amazing how obvious it is once you
know the answer. It is also the title of an Argentinian film (1949, comedy) and
a piece of music by the Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla (1876 - 1946 ), which
is incidentally available to download as a ring tone.
But the word fuego appears at least 18 times in the text, suggesting this is the central theme. Now we’re getting somewhere…
Took a brief break to google the writer – impressive biography and long list of publications, ‘a proper writer’, try to ignore my own inner critic…
Right back to the task.
Scanned through the text and picked out the words I could immediately decipher; death, music, the cremation of the Jews in the concentration camps, Joan of Arc, orchestra, profound sentiment.
So we’re obviously not dealing with comedy here and the writing clearly relates to ‘la musica de Falla’ and not the film, but is there a connection? More googling throws up a video excerpt of this piece of music in concert, recorded in 2007. It sounds very familiar (has it been used as a film soundtrack?) but I can’t identify where. De Falla’s biography reveals he moved to Argentina in 1939, where he remained until his death. Cross check with the 1949 Argentinian film on IMDB, but there is no reference to the composer on the soundtrack.
Reaching a dead end I consider desperate measures…
Try to persuade teenage son, who is studying Spanish GCSE, to help me translate the page, but he informs he has too much ‘homework’ (translation = would rather play Xbox, check face book, watch Champions league on TV, arrange social events for weekend etc.)
Meanwhile email the writer to establish contact and anxiously await her reply…
16.3.09 - No reply from writer but son finally makes valiant attempt to help with translation, which proves to be beyond his level of comprehension. He does however tell me about the google language facility for translating text. What a great tool…
Most of the words now make sense, so that the overall gist of the text is clear, but the odd grammatical re-arrangement of sentences adds a new layer of obscurity… I try to penetrate the smoke screen and sort through the charred remains…
The text appears to discuss a ballet dancer’s acclaimed performance of de Falla’s ‘Dance of Fire’.
17.3.09 – email the writer with a question:
‘…I was particularly interested in the last line which explained that the dancer had burnt her hand the night before the opening performance in order to remember and recreate the sensation of fire. This example of an artist's willingness to suffer for their art, raises a familiar debate. It is also often said that the best writing comes from a 'wound'. Is it necessary to suffer to create great art?’
20.3.09 - no reply from writer.
Have my messages been ‘lost in translation’? Was my question impertinent?
Check contact details for the writer with John, who confirms this is correct and advises me to regard the lack of response as ‘part of the mysterious journey of 26 exchanges’…
30.3.09 – still no reply from writer and feeling somewhat adrift on the ether having a one-sided conversation with myself…but here’s a useful tip picked up along the way. Fire dancing is an art that is performed worldwide but ‘best learnt using non-fire objects’…