The art of translation

The art of translation

In 1936 Samuel Beckett was a contributing translator to Thorns of Thunder, a brief selection of the poems of Paul Eluard. 

Later that year Beckett wrote to his friend and fellow translator, Tom McGreevy:

“My copy of Eluard came, duly signed by author & all available translators. He does come through after a fashion, the frailty & nervousness. But no attempt seems to have been made to translate the pauses. Like Beethoven played strictly to time.”


Fire and brimstone

small world_2
Small World, John Lyons (oil on canvas)

Fire and brimstone

A text in every texture
           but texts for nothing
the sinews of my soul
           laid boldly here in the lattice
formed by my many deeds
           and misdeeds
strokes that have
           gone astray
paths that led
           into dark ground
where bearings
           were soon lost

I see too the flickering flames
           of reds and yellows and orange
with streaks of black
           that burn in self-recrimination
a mind charred
           in the failing honesty
of its art and upon it all
           the criss-cross
of patterned purity
           with which I still hope
to redeem myself
           in my time
in my place
           in my life

John Lyons


Like my poetry, I am a work in progress, as I believe we all are. We all hanker after times and places of innocence and yet we would never exchange the present for the past, go back to our childhoods. Whether or not we make resolutions at the start of a new year is immaterial: we are all constantly evolving and adapting to change. In our hearts we long for growth, for improvement, for greater understanding of ourselves, of our relationships, and of the world around us. Each day is a draft, an attempt, and maturity teaches us at least to accept that among the successes, the minor gains, there will be failures, perhaps even dead-ends that force us to rethink everything, to begin again. Setbacks. The occasional achievement. So it is with writing. There are good days, and days where the writing simply does not flow, or if it does, it flows too easily and in hindsight amounts to nothing.

Reading the letters of Samuel Beckett has been salutary and illuminating. So much of Beckett’s writing is soliloquy. In the novel, The Unnamable, in his theatre Krapp’s Last Tape, the sole soul on the stage or on the page, life’s essential drama, to be or not to be, and Beckett’s Hamlet finally responds in the novel: “. . . where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Resolution.



To avoid further calamity
         to recapture the innocence
of time and place
         that I knew as a child
there on the heath
         amid the sand dunes
and the gorse
         the sun scorching my face
breath fast and furious
         up hill and down dale on a bicycle
the yellow-brick road of youth
         innocence of the earth
of the seasons
         of the rise and fall of nature
to be finally in tune with myself
         in control of my idiom
and with some understanding
         of the enigma of my being
among all other beings
         Yes I am guilty of days
months and years
         but the rain
the fierce morning rain
         that shattered my sleep
has absolved me
         I mourn nothing
not even the passage of time
         nor the process of aging
I am the only secret
         I will take to the grave
but I am content
         and I live in hope

John Lyons


Home life

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

Some poems are little more than an aperçu, an observation picked up as the writer goes about his or her business. Gazing out of the train window, for example, looking for foxes in the undergrowth, or counting the foxholes in the embankment in the approaches to Lewisham station from Blackheath: there are so many! To be alive and to be aware, inwardly and outwardly. It doesn’t take that many words to hit a small nail on the head, not in poetry at least. The devil is in the detail, be it ever so small. How we construct a picture of our external world, growing it and growing into it, piece by piece, and simultaneously building up our mind, the synapses, the memories and above all, the feelings, one thing related to another, one emotion connected to another, the instinct we all have to make maps, physical and emotional. And the maps had better be true or we are lost!

And so to the lines I wrote one afternoon, interrupting my reading of the third volume of Samuel Beckett’s Letters. Writing to Mary Hutchinson on 9 April 1958 from his country retreat in Ussy, Lower Normandy, Beckett included the following observation: “The lady birds have flown. It is so cold the sparrows have interrupted their nesting. There’s hardly a leaf in the trees.” His letters are full of tender observations of the natural world around him. Quite different from the bleak prose of Imagination Dead Imagine.

These words reminded me of my own observation as I travelled by train to Victoria earlier in the week, hence the words below.

Home life
Foul day 

incessant rain –
thought of

those tall leafless
trees alongside

the railway line
the abandoned nests

the shadowy clumps
in the highest branches

– no new build 
until the spring

Where are they
living now –

holidaying in
the warm south

or do they all have
second homes ?

John Lyons




Is a mind a prison?

Is a mind a prison, by Bob Law (1970)

Is a Mind a Prison 1970 Bob Law 1934-2004 Purchased 2006
Is a Mind a Prison, Bob Law (1970)

One of the most curious artworks on display at Tate Britain, is a two-dimensional sculpture by Bob Law (1934–2004) entitled “Is a mind a prison”. This piece is an obelisk-shaped tablet of lead, upon which some seemingly incoherent lines of poetry have been etched. The title of the work is a question, which in itself is unusual in the world of art: despite the fact that one of the fundamental aspects of art is the asking of questions, most paintings and sculptures have simple affirmative titles. Bob Law’s obelisk is also simple in form: it could represent a chapel, or perhaps even a spaceship, one of the notions clearly indicated in the poetic text. If we examine the geometrical shape of the lead tablet it is basically a rectangle topped by two equilateral triangles which suggest a roof structure. The words on the tablet are imprisoned within the space, just as the words in our minds are locked in. Cell within cell.

We are all on a journey, all travelling through space aboard planet earth, and in the course of our journey we will all be confronted with a series of adventures, highs and lows, as though the gods have taken offence and set out to make our homecoming as difficult as possible, just as they did for Odysseus in Homer’s poem.

Bob Law’s reference to redshift is to the cosmological effect caused by the expansion of the universe whereby light sources moving away from the observer are red in contrast to light sources that approach the observer which are blue. Expansion is process. Expansion within the space of our minds within cosmic space. Would you like to be the daddy longlegs, the kingpin, the big daddy on this trip at the end of which we will all be judged for our actions? And so on. . . .

Bob Law was known as one of the founding fathers of minimalism. However, this piece demonstrates that a minimalist technique can be highly expressive. Minimum of resources for maximum effect, Samuel Beckett might have written. Here the combination of sculpture and poetry challenges the observer to stop and to think about structures, about cells contained within cells and questions contained within questions, one art form contained within another.

On the afternoon that this piece caught my eye as I strolled through the beautiful, spacious, well-lit galleries of Tate Britain, and perhaps because of its location by a doorway, it reminded me very much of one of the Stations of the Cross that can be seen in so many churches. This in turn made me think that art galleries do, in fact, have a strong spiritual dimension, not so much because their spaces can replicate churches, but rather that underpinning the work of all the artists on display is the common link of spirituality, albeit manifest in disparate forms. Their work makes contemplatives of us, urging us to meditate on the nature of the human condition. What is it to be human, what is beauty, what in the world around us is worthy of note, what values best define the essence of human goodness, what content and what colours and shapes should be used to celebrate life even as we question its purpose?

All of which explains why the appreciation of art is so liberating and uplifting and why it is so important to incorporate it in the educational process for our young children. But it also has to be appreciated, where possible, in situ. So get down to Tate Britain in Pimlico as soon as you can and when you’re there, take your time, it’s all you have.

The Good Times

montana forestHere is another of the short stories I wrote in 1992. Reading it recently for the first time in over twenty years, it seemed to me that this story, along with many of the others in the collection Bleeding Hearts, had been written by someone else. I remembered nothing about the characters and could not recall the circumstances in which I was writing at the time, nor even where I was living. I have a vague recollection that my life was going through a period of turmoil, or that it was about to go through such a period. It is also clear to me that through these short pieces of fiction, I was trying to undestand something about my life, and trying to muster a little worldly wisdom to pass on to the reader through my narrator. Trying and failing. That is what writing is about for much of the time, doing one’s best, knowing that often it is not good enough and that maybe it will never be good enough but that it is the best you can do at the time. There is the famous quotation from Samuel Beckett: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I’m not so sure that in subsequent years I succeeded in failing better. For the most part I abandoned writing fiction and concentrated on what I believe to be my only hope to progress as a writer, which is to write poetry. There too, I have had my failures, but failure is something that goes with the territory. Writing is, after all, a pursuit, in the sense of a chasing after something elusive: the truth, the philosopher’s stone, whatever. The truth about who we are and what we feel and what we know as conscious, sensitive human beings. It all sounds so easy and yet it is the greatest challenge any of us faces in our lives: to find the truth and to be faithful to it, to live it and to feel it and to express it, and to make it the cornerstone of our relationships. To be true to ourselves and to those we love, and to be true and honest in the wider world. Again, it sounds so easy when put into a simple sentence, but in practice it’s another matter.

Since 1992 I have been through other periods of turmoil: that too is part of the nature of life, the sine curve of our existence, the good times and the bad. Occasionally I think I have come to greater understanding, only to discover that past mistakes have been repeated, past failings have re-emerged, and on the surface I would appear to have learnt nothing from my experiences. So now I take it a day at the time, aware that at any moment life might release another curve ball and I need to do my best in meeting the challenge, and to accept, in all humility, that my best might not be enough.

The Good Times

The things I’ve heard tonight have shocked me. Not that they are shocking in themselves. What’s shocking is that all this should be happening in my house, between my parents. Sure I have plenty of friends who tell me worse stories, about their parents, about the goings-on, the fights, the separations, the divorces. But somehow, I always thought my parents were above that. They always seemed to me to be a perfectly matched couple. Sure they’ve had their differences over the years, but nothing they couldn’t handle. They’ve always kissed and made up. But now this, this has changed everything and I know my life will never be the same again. I will never be able to talk to them with the same trust, I just know that. They haven’t mentioned me yet, but sooner or later they’ll get around to me. I’m not top of their agenda tonight. Kids rarely are. I’ll be fifteen in three months time. In three years I’ll be able to leave home, if I still have a home to leave.

        “How did it happen,” my father is asking her. “How did you meet him?”
       The question irritates my mother, I can tell from her voice.
        “Does that really matter, Ray. Haven’t we been through all this?”
        “I’d like to know,” he says. “I’d just like to know.”
        “You think you’ll feel better if you know,” she asks.
        “No,” he says. “No, I don’t think that. I’d just like to know how it all happened, how it started. Is that too much to ask?”
       It goes quiet for a while. She wants to put a gloss on it, make it sound not as bad as it is. Perhaps she wants to minimise the hurt. These are delicate things to relate.
        “Well,” she begins, “first of all he was just a customer. A regular. In there two, maybe three evenings a week.”
        “Married,” my father asks, “Does he have a wife and family, kids? Is he leaving them for you?”
       My mother is angry.
        “Are you going to let me tell this or are you going to interrupt all the time because if you are….”
       My father says nothing.
        “Anyway,” my mother says, “we just got talking, the way you do. I must have spoken with hundreds of men since I’ve been working there. You know the way it is, men come in after a hard day’s work and they want to talk. If they’re alone they’ll talk to anyone. Especially they talk to the waitresses. It’s all part of the service.”
       I hear my father laugh. It’s a sad, hollow laugh.
        “It’s expected,” my mother says. “Conversation. We have to talk to the customers. You know that. You must have spoken to waitresses in your time.”
        “Spoken yes,” my father says, “but I never took any of them to bed. Never. It was just talk, just normal talk, passing the time.”
       My mother coughs to clear her throat:
        “Well, that’s the way it was with me,” she says. “Normal, everyday talk, passing the time: How you doing? What’s new? How’s your week been? That sort of thing. To begin with. I never dreamt it would…that things might…but that’s the way it happened. Just talk. And then one thing led to another. He asked me out and I said no. And he asked again and again I turned him down, until in the end he asked me so often I just thought what the hell and I went. I never intended to go any further. Just a meal, just an evening. But then it happened. You can’t fight it. It happens. It drags you along. You lose your senses, whatever. The more you get to know someone. I never planned it.”
        “What does he do?” my father asks.
        “Engineering,” she says, “He’s in construction, roads, bridges, civic buildings, that line of work.”
        “In Montana?”
        “Mostly in Montana; a little out-of-state but mostly here.”
        “And he’s doing all right?”
        “He’s working,” my mother says.
       She sounds tired and deflated. This is the downside that she has to negotiate in order to free herself. She’s tired of the conversation and tired of this part of her life. It’s just something she has to go through, she knows that, but she wants it to be over. Like in the films when the police drag someone in off the streets and throw a bunch of questions at them and the suspect answers slowly and in a bored voice. She’s acting like that. Just like in the movies when they’re accounting for their movements, whatever, talking about their life, about so and so, but it all sounds so passionless because they’re saying these things in order to avoid saying other things and they make it sound as though their life is grey and uneventful. There’s no detail. That’s how my mother comes across now. Acting. Going through the motions as politely as possible. But you can hear it in her voice. She’ll be glad when this is all over and she can get on with the rest of her life. My father, on the other hand, is trawling for evidence. He thinks that the more information he has on this guy, the greater chance he has of nailing him. This talk is his last hope. If this fails, he’s lost her. For good.

Honestly, you think you know someone and you know nothing. Nothing at all. I’ve always trusted my mother, told her things, been open and felt that that was a useful thing in life, to have a mother who could listen, give some advice, open my eyes a little to the world. To me she was always a known quantity, inside out. But after tonight, I know nothing, and it hurts. It hurts and it makes me angry to be deceived like this. By her. Unfaithful. My father uses the word as though it only affected him, as though the only one let down in all this is him. What about me? Don’t I have feelings? Haven’t I got a right to bawl her out. I trusted her and she’s such a hypocrite. You see, I’ve been going with Jed now for nearly six months, and one evening, after he’d dropped me off homewe’d been to a movie or something, I had this big long talk with my mother about school and the future and my life and so on, and eventually we got around to Jed and I told her that Jed was fine, that I was very happy with him, that he treated me properly and that I was just prepared to see how things worked out and wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. That’s good she said, smiling at me. I remember her smiling. I can see her face now. That smile, that false, deceitful smile, Jesus. She was fixing me something as we talked, a hot drink and a sandwich. And that smile of hers, a real mother’s smile. A tell-me-more smile. I wasn’t embarrassed. Why should I be, with my own mother? Yes, I said, he is affectionate, we hold hands and he kisses me. And you kiss him back, she said. Yes, I do, I told her, of course I do. But that’s it. Just kissing. That’s good, she said, placing the supper in front of me, that’s how it should be at your age. There’s plenty of time for other things when you’re older. I knew what other things she meant. Half the girls my age in Montana were up to other things.

        “Do you want anything?” I hear my mother ask him.
       My father doesn’t answer. Perhaps he’s shaking his head. Perhaps he’s thinking he wants her and nothing else, he doesn’t want her to go. I don’t know what he’s thinking. But with a question like that I can imagine. He also wants this night to be over, to be forgotten. He wants everything to slip back into place the way it has always been, but deep down he knows that’s not going to happen. He must know that if I know it. And I do. The tone of voice, the confidence, the sheer energy, the calm in my mother’s voice. The detachment. It all says one thing: I’m heading for better times, I can afford a little generosity.
        “Well I do,” she says. “I’m going to fix myself something. You’re sure? “

I hear her stand and so I hurry back to my bed and get in under the covers. The living room door opens. She walks out into the kitchen. I hear the clatter. And I wait. I wait. Wait until she’s finished and all the time I’m thinking how I trusted her, put my life in her hands and now she’s doing this and it’s as though I don’t exist. I’m not in there at all. And it makes me sick. And my father. The way she’s treating him. The way she’s behaved. She doesn’t deserve to be a part of this family. Let her go. But I know that I love her, and have always loved her and cannot picture a life without her. And I want to cry. I want to get up out of bed and shout at her, shake her, pull at her hair, slap her, tell her she has to love us, that she can’t just walk out on us. We need her. Both of us. But I cannot cry. I feel like crying but the tears just won’t come. As though what’s happening is so important there’s no time for tears. I listen and wait and think of the years we’ve had, the years I was growing up, the good times. The times I would say to her: When I’m older I want to be just like you. Lay my head on her lap and look up at her and say: Just like you, and marry a man just like daddy. And see her smile light up, a smile spreading slowly across her face. Just like you, I’d say. Baby talk. But then times change, people change and she has a right to a life of her own, a right to her own happiness. She must be free to do what she feels she must. Because otherwise she cannot be happy. Yet she always used to be happy. She always was happy. I always thought so. She never let on about any misery in her life. I never want you to die, I’d say, never. You understand? Or I want to die before you because I don’t think I could live without you, either of you. And she would smile at me then and think: What a sweet, loving thing to say.

When she’s finished in the kitchen, I creep back out of my bedroom and I can hear them talking again. My father is laughing. I cannot believe it but he is laughing, and she is laughing too. He’s talking now:
        “And the time we were driving down to Reno for Bud’s wedding, when Julie was still a baby, and we got a flat tyre in the middle of the night and when I went to fit the spare that was flat too and we had no pump and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours until a car pulled in and we could get a lift to the nearest town? Do you remember that?”
        And my mother laughs too and I wonder Jesus Christ, what is going on? Next they’ll be taking out the photos and he’ll be saying: Who’s this, Patty, tell me, where was this taken? And she’ll say, as she always says to him: Ray, you have no memory for faces or places and he’ll smile at her and say: Honey, you’re right, goddam it, you’re always right, and laugh as they always laughed in the past. The past. She’s leaving and yet there they are, locked in the past. You can’t go back because there is no back to go to, because the past is always with us. Love, past loves, always with us. And now they are chatting like two old friends about shared days, shared hopes. Shared dreams. The time she burned the turkey on Thanksgiving. The time he went fishing when we were vacationing up by Fort Peck and caught so many fish he couldn’t give them away. Like something miraculous. And I think how happy I would be if Jed could come along with us one vacation and we could all go walking through the forest and have barbecues and lie out in the sun and talk and be with one another and just live, the way we have always lived, as a family. How can he laugh when he knows it’s all over, her mind is made up?
        “Yes,” I hear my mother say, “they were good times. We did have good times. Nothing can take away the good times.”
       And now there is a hint of sadness in her voice.
        “You see,” he says. “You see what we have done we can do again. What we had we can have again.”
        And when he says those words I know just how desperate he is to hold onto her, and I know too that she does not believe him. Her heart is elsewhere. Not denying the past but not tied down by it either. And they are silent. For a long while they are silent and I can picture it from where I stand. That silence. Two worlds. Silence tells you there are two worlds. Silence is separation and the longer it lasts the greater the possibility that the silence will never again be breached. Separate lives. A fork in the road. And I begin to shiver. I want them to speak, to go on speaking, to fill the silence with their memories if nothing else, to fuel the present with words, to keep it alive, the flame glowing. But there is only silence, like the silence of hospitals, just a flicker and then silence. Total silence.

        “Do you love him?” my father asks her.
       I want her to say no, to hesitate and then say: No, no I don’t.
       ”Yes,” she says, “I love him.”
        “Would you stay if you didn’t love him?” my father asks.
       And I think how much I love my father for having the courage to ask such a question.
        “No,” she says, “I wouldn’t stay.”
        “Because you’re not happy,” my father says. “You’re not happy, here, with us.”
       And now my mother is crying. Faintly, barely audible, but there are tears. She, the strong one, the one with all the decisions behind her, is buckling under the strain. He is holding her. If I know anything he is holding her and stroking her hair, running fingers through her hair, brushing away her tears, holding her and loving her and waiting for some sort of an answer, for some sort of explanation as to why, suddenly after seventeen years, his life is in crisis. She’s looking up at him, her face stained with mascara, looking up at him I imagine pleading for understanding, not for forgiveness, just understanding. Nothing that is obvious requires understanding, I think. Not at all. Understanding is like faith, a leap in the dark. To see what another person sees without really seeing it: that is understanding. To know how they feel without feeling it or really knowing how they feel at all. He hasn’t asked her why she no longer loves him. He never will ask that question, I know him. You cannot ask that question and hope for an honest answer, because there is no honest answer. Love is not about honesty. It is about love only. Even an impossible love is love and it may be the most important love in your life, the love of your life, and totally impossible and totally obsessive and enthralling, and totally you, and everything else second best, make-do. An impossible love. My father’s love for this woman who now rests in his arms, in tears, for another man. The silence in tears, in sadness. Unreachable love. Reaching out. Stroking her hair, wiping the tears from her face and she’s not even there. All these things I’m learning in the darkness. And she’s still there, in his arms and perhaps even she is surprised that she found the courage to say no, I wouldn’t stay.

John Lyons, 1992

Language in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bram Stoker

In the story of Jonah and Anna-Belle, I introduced someone called Dr Van Helsing. As I explained at the time, this character was based on the Dr Abraham Van Helsing, who is a major protagonist in the novel, Dracula, written by the Irish writer, Bram Stoker, and originally published in 1897. One should not underestimate the influence of this inspired and seminal work of Gothic fiction. An important element of Stoker’s story is psychiatry, and the lunatic asylum in Whitby where Dr John Seward, one of Dr Van Helsing’s former pupils, treats a patient called Renfield, a mad man under the control of Count Dracula. Renfield’s consumption of flies and spiders is itself a parody of vampirism.

In Samuel Beckett’s first novel Murphy, published in 1938, the eponymous hero is employed for a brief period in the Bedlam asylum where he strikes up a friendship with one of the maddest residents. Beckett’s novel also parodies horoscopes, and in my story of Jonah and Anna-Belle I sought to bring the two elements together in a similar manner. I was further inspired by a real daily horoscope I read for my own birth sign which alluded to vampirism, and advised me to be on my guard. This explains the insanity. Not my own, as one reader cheekily suggested, but fictional.

However, the point of this post is really to give an example of the defective grasp of the English language that Stoker bestows on the Dutch Dr Van Helsing, all part of the fun: after all, Stoker gives the doctor his own name, Abraham. Those who have not read the original text of this classic are really missing out on a comic masterpiece.

In the extract below, Dr Van Helsing is describing, in a memorandum to John Seward, the trip he made in the company of Mina Murray, Jonathan Harker’s fiancée, to Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. I attempted to capture something of the flavour of this language in the diction of my own Dr Van Helsing.

So we came down this road; when we meet other ways—not always were we sure that they were roads at all, for they be neglect and light snow have fallen—the horses know and they only. I give rein to them, and they go on so patient. By-and-by we find all the things which Jonathan have note in that wonderful diary of him. Then we go on for long, long hours and hours. At the first, I tell Madam Mina to sleep; she try, and she succeed. She sleep all the time; till at the last, I feel myself to suspicious grow, and attempt to wake her. But she sleep on, and I may not wake her though I try. I do not wish to try too hard lest I harm her; for I know that she have suffer much, and sleep at times be all-in-all to her. I think I drowse myself, for all of sudden I feel guilt, as though I have done something; I find myself bolt up, with the reins in my hand, and the good horses go along jog, jog, just as ever. I look down and find Madam Mina still sleep. It is now not far off sunset time, and over the snow the light of the sun flow in big yellow flood, so that we throw great long shadow on where the mountain rise so steep. For we are going up, and up; and all is oh! so wild and rocky, as though it were the end of the world.

Then I arouse Madam Mina. This time she wake with not much trouble, and then I try to put her to hypnotic sleep. But she sleep not, being as though I were not. Still I try and try, till all at once I find her and myself in dark; so I look round, and find that the sun have gone down. Madam Mina laugh, and I turn and look at her. She is now quite awake, and look so well as I never saw her since that night at Carfax when we first enter the Count’s house. I am amaze, and not at ease then; but she is so bright and tender and thoughtful for me that I forget all fear. I light a fire, for we have brought supply of wood with us, and she prepare food while I undo the horses and set them, tethered in shelter, to feed. Then when I return to the fire she have my supper ready. I go to help her; but she smile, and tell me that she have eat already—that she was so hungry that she would not wait. I like it not, and I have grave doubts; but I fear to affright her, and so I am silent of it. She help me and I eat alone; and then we wrap in fur and lie beside the fire, and I tell her to sleep while I watch. But presently I forget all of watching; and when I sudden remember that I watch, I find her lying quiet, but awake, and looking at me with so bright eyes. Once, twice more the same occur, and I get much sleep till before morning. When I wake I try to hypnotise her; but alas! though she shut her eyes obedient, she may not sleep. The sun rise up, and up, and up; and then sleep come to her too late, but so heavy that she will not wake. I have to lift her up, and place her sleeping in the carriage when I have harnessed the horses and made all ready. Madam still sleep, and she look in her sleep more healthy and more redder than before. And I like it not. And I am afraid, afraid, afraid!—I am afraid of all things—even to think but I must go on my way. The stake we play for is life and death, or more than these, and we must not flinch.