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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Translation - and migration - is the lifeblood of a culture

Even the literature that seems most rooted in one place is animated by writing from elsewhere – and trying to keep that influence out is profoundly dangerous

George Szirtes is a poet and translator. The fee for this article will be donated to Hope not Hate.
Culture is not a purely national business. I work as a poet and translator and would find it inconceivable to read Chaucer without being aware of the figures of Dante and Boccaccio in the background, or Shakespeare without Plutarch. Or indeed TS Eliot (himself an immigrant to the UK) without referring to 100 texts from other states in other languages. This form of internationalism is the lifeblood of art. It is rootless, it is cosmopolitan, and it is free thinking.
I began writing at 17 in what was chronologically my second language, having arrived in England at the age of eight as a Hungarian refugee with no English. I cannot tell precisely what inner resources I brought with me at that age, but I was not a clean slate. That slate had already been written on by my family history, my parents, my city, my street and the events of my then short life. I was, like everyone else, a palimpsest.
The literatures of our particular island are many, all constantly being annotated and rewritten by those who arrive and leave to travel elsewhere. We all move, even within the island, if only from town to town. Each move amplifies and modifies our sense of place. The annotation does not erase the local: the palimpsest extends it. Indeed, the assumed stability of the local is created by extensions beyond itself. The village knows itself as village through the knowledge of other villages, as well as of towns and cities. The nation knows itself as nation through the encounter, not just with other nations, but the world. Each extension is a modification, each another layer of the palimpsest.
The government of Hungary has sought for six years to narrow the vista of imagination for its citizens by creating “patriotic” national libraries, “patriotic” art, to increase cohesion on its own terms and exclude those it considers outsiders. That policy locks down, excludes and redefines even its own citizens as loyal patriots or potentially hostile elements. Their patriotism proceeds not through love of country, but the exclusion of others from it. It seeks to define some pure cultural core that is Hungary and Hungary alone. 
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