Tag Archives: Jonathan Dunne

The Life of a Translator


The Life of a Translator
By Jonathan Dunne
Smalll Stations Press – £4.95

I have to say, I struggled with this book, primarily for two reasons.

On the one hand, I particularly enjoyed The Life of a Translator where it shared the science of the English language and generally investigated the trajectory of its grass roots and all round word play: ”The tranlsator, in his work, criss-crosses the line. He is forced to inhabit the line, the existence of which he denies. We are all to some extent tranlsators, forced on to the margins. We find this in startling circumstances in no man’s land, which forms a muddy scar between two opposing forces. But anyone who has visited the site of a previous battle will attest to the fact that, years later, grass has sprung up where the scar was.”

What I didn’t enjoy, and to be honest, found got in the way of thoroughly understanding, if not accepting what I was reading; was the partial persistence of religiosity scattered amid these 101 pages: ”Lamb gives blame. Christ took the blame for our sins on the Cross. In essence, we translators needed a translator to understand God, and Christ came down to be this, to provide a way (a parable is Braillea-i, b-p – a form of writing for the blind) […]. I believe that, after birth, we continue to be spiritually blind. We need spiritual healing so that we can hear. This healing comes from Christ, just as he healed the man born blind in John’s Gospel. He opens our eyes and we begin to see things around us we hadn’t noticed before, another dimension.”

Another dimension indeed; but not one I found essentially pertinent with regards the life of a translator.

David Marx

From Unknown To Unknown


From Unknown To Unknown

By Manuel Rivas

Small Stations Press – £10.95

I’ve read three books by the Galician author Manuel Rivas (The Carpenter’s Pencil, Books Burn Badly and All Is Silence), all of which have been exceedingly imaginative and astonishingly well written. So it was perhaps inevitable, and only a matter of time, before I would endeavour to investigate his poetry.

From Unknown To Unknown is Rivas’ first collection of poetry I have fully embraced, and just like his novels, threre’s a certain literary depth of suave sparkle and consistency amid the writing, that never fails to shine through. So much so, that his jingle-jangle, yet overtly anchored word-play – of the most brazen persuasion might I add – bequeaths the world of cyclical cynicism with oodles to think about.

It’s as John Burnside writes in the book’s Introduction: ”[…] discovery is central to Manuel Rivas’ poems. Again and again, as we listen to the account he gives of the world, we come across the beautiful surprise, the breathtaking renewal of some process or way of seeing we normally take for granted […].”

This is very much in evidence throughout these 121 pages, even with an invariable flipside to ”the beautiful surprise.”

Admittedly just as vibrant, colourful and invigorating; some of these poems reflect an everyday take on life, that transmit the sort of recognition we are quite often in denial of. This is very much in evidence throughout the following:


He hated waking up.
It sometimes took him hours to come to terms with the world.
So he preferred having breakfast in that roadside café
where nobody was helpful.
The customers were cornered creatures
with hangovers in their eyes
and the proprietor poured coffee over the cup without apologising.
But then he weighed more than eighteen stone.
The premises were sold.
The new owner asked questions with a smile.
And he decided to stop going.

The poem in it’s entirety, could just as easily have crept straight out of an early Tom Waits song of the mid seventies – which might partially explain why it jumped out at me. It’s a glorious depiction of life, that is not only true (”with hangovers in their eyes”) but deeply entrenched in fraught experience (”the proprietor poured coffee over the cup without apologising”). That the proprietor ”weighed more than eighteen stone” almost made me smile; although the all confessional line(s) that invarialby knocks the reader for six has to be the final two:

The new owner asked questions with a smile.
And he decided to stop going.

I’d very much hasten to add that the full-stop between them, accentuates the punch line with all the philosophical finesse of a comedian who knows he has the audience in the grip of his every nuance.

Likewise, many of these highly erudite, although on occasion, esoteric poems.

For instance, there are one liners that simply speak volumes: ”I burnt my lips on your skin of ice” (‘Mother Earth’), ”slipping on porcelain with veins wide open” (‘The Lonely Seafarer’s

Song’), ”The stage was set for the arrival of a mistaken man” (Unforseen Destiny’) and perhaps my favourite: ”the embrace of a grandfather who became a poet of silence” (‘Radiophony’).

The list could be considered endless.

Which it is.

Which it will no doubt continue to be.

As Burnside has written towards the end of his Forward: ”Here is a poet who never exercises control for its own sake, but does so in order to accomodate and sustain his passion. His formal concerns arise from a need to make something that is both crafted and spontaneous, artful and immediate; Here, in short, is an essential poet whose work illuminates the world and the condition of those who live in it.”

From Unknown to Unknown simply cries out to be altogether known in every possible meaning of the word. The translation is clearly exemplary, while the poems themselves are politically thought provoking as well as socially eloquent in equal measure.

David Marx

All Is Silence


All Is Silence
By Manuel Rivas
Harvill Secker – £16.99

Just like contagious comedy, fantastic fiction fundamentally depends on timing and the way it’s delivered. Some might consider the former as not being quite so crucial within the world of fiction, but to my mind, it certainly helps. For as we all (ought to) know, what’s left out of writing is as equally important, if perhaps not more so, as what’s left in. And I believe all great writers wholeheartedly subscribe to this literary approach. They allow the silence to prevail.

How could they not?
They bow down to it at nigh every twist and turn of their tangential thought process.

The astonishingly gifted Galician author, Manuel Rivas, embraces this process as if by second nature. As if there is no other way, which may partially explain why I have already reviewed two of his previous books on this site: the most widely translated work in the history of Galician literature, The Carpenter’s Pencil (1998) and the simply brilliant, Books Burn Badly (2010).

All Is Silence, his most recent work, never strays too far from the pronouncement that ‘’the mouth is for keeping quiet,’’ which clearly lends itself to the circularity of the book’s title. I use the word circularity, because having reached the conclusion, I was reminded of how the more things supposedly change in society, the more they essentially stay the same. This is particularly true within the (under)world of crime and corruption – on which these 249 pages are quintessentially based – regardless of how well contained, petty or powerful.

In other words, the only certainty we are oft guaranteed in life is that which I touched upon at the outset. The unspoken.

Hence, the book’s title and the underlying theme of silence; the trajectory of which is jostled throughout the book, betwixt the two protagonists, Fins and Brinco. One good, one band, both of whom fully comprehend the perplexing polarity of such an anagram as ‘listen’ and ‘silent.’

Moreover, what’s equally important in great story telling, is obviously the actual telling itself. The language and choice of words used, is at the end of the day, paramount. Paramount, in initially cajoling the imagination, and then of course, sustaining it.

A ‘telling’ example of this can be found towards the end of chapter fifteen, where we follow Fins on a simple bus journey: ‘’Dawn cannot lift its feet due to the weight of the storm clouds. But the sea is almost calm, its blue so cold it gives the slow curls of foam the texture of ice. Fins walks along the coastal road, following the shoreline. He crosses the bridge at Lavandeira de Noite and sits down to wait at Chafariz Cross, where the bus stops. As he was walking, he watched the women gathering shellfish on the sandbank. The more distant ones looked like amphibian creatures with water around their thighs. From the window of the bus, before leaving, Fins Malpica glances at the beach for the last time, through the filter of condensation. Now rosy-fingered dawn clears a way with daggers of light. All barefoot women are Nine Moons. And he opens the book at the page about Argonauts with empty eyes.’’

One has to undeniably read the above within a certain amount of contextual relationship, but even when taken out of the situation, the writing stands up on its own. As despite what preceded it, the above passage remains colourfully compelling, not to mention idiosyncratically independent within that of its own right.

Originally written in Galician, it surely has to be said that Jonathan Dunne’s translation is truly exceptional.

Not that I’d know the difference between Galician and Spanish, or Galician and English mind. But to capture all the (silent) subtlety of musical nuance, as well dexterity and definition, really is quite something. In fact, were it not for Dunne’s translation, the English speaking literary establishment would be none the wiser as to who Manuel Rivas even was.

Were this to be the case (and thankfully it’s not), it really would be a crying shame. If not a towering loss, as The Scotsman’s Tom Adair makes clear: It’s time for reviewers and sundry pundits to quit the flattering comparisons with Lorca, Joyce and Garcia Marquez. Manuel Rivas reads like no-one else on the planet.’’

David Marx