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Montevideo, URUGUAY. 2008

miércoles, 2 de mayo de 2012

Walter Owen

mayo 2012 - volumen LV - number 1    
The Bulletin Argentine Britih Community Council

Poet, anonymity to acclaim and back
by Andrew Graham-Yooll

            Argentina’s gaucho epic, the Martín Fierro, was published in China in 1984. It was translated into Mandarin by Zhao Zhenjiang, of the University of Beijing, and presented to then president Raúl Alfonsín when he visited China.  Zhao Zhenjiang visited Buenos Aires on November 6, 2011, and Clarín (15 November 2011, pag. 31.) made quite a fuss of him.  That’s justified, of course, but it felt just a little irksome that Walter Owen (1884-1953), poet, mystic and merchant, a Scot, may not be forgotten, but almost. He deserves more. He was, after all, the first translator of the Martín Fierro into English, published in London and New York in 1935, though he should also be remembered for his own classical poetry and novels. We all have something worth remembering.
You can Google Owen and reach A Guide to Supernatural Fiction. But there’s not much more. The best and relatively recent writing to be found on Owen is an article by the Scottish academic, John Walker, in the Buenos Aires Herald (6 August 1977) and, more extensive, there is an essay also by Walker, in one of those learned journals that nobody reads, the Latin American Literary Review (Vol. III Nº 5, 1974). It is about Owen and the art of translation of poetry, an excellent portrait of the man, his work and his literary theories. The biography written by the late Baroness Charlotte de Hartingh, Servitor on an Outer Plane, published by the Instituto Cultural Walter Owen in Buenos Aires in 1966, is hard to find.
            Walter Hubbard Owen was born July 14, 1884, in Glasgow, of a Scottish mother and a father of Welsh ancestry. Owen as a teenager trained in shipping in Glasgow, and in Buenos Aires business circles would be best known as a customs clearance expert.  Owen lived in Buenos Aires and latterly Martínez for most of his life, his most distant forays, apart from three visits to England and France, were to Tigre, where he rowed in the company of a faithful band of friends. His published literary works include four volumes of poetry (under the nom de plume of Gauthier de St Ouen, a “Frenchification” of Owen):  Amor Viri (1912), 50 sonnets; Aurora (1913), which included The Cosmic Song (1910), one poem dedicated to ill-fated air pioneer, Jorge Newbery, who was one of his good friends; Sonnets to Soldiers and Other Verses (1918); The Sonnets of G.S.O., published in the thirties.  But his greatest work, for which he is remembered, if at all, were the eight book-length translations of epic poems and history from Spanish classics. These he called his “transvernacularisations” (he refused to call them translations), published in a limited edition by Blackwell’s in Britain in 1935, and immediately after, in a full-commercial printing in the US: the Martín Fierro by José Hernández (1834-1886), is his best known and celebrated publication. This he followed with El Fausto (1886) by Estanislao del Campo (1834-1880) in 1943, which is described as weak by comparison with Fierro. Then came Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by Spaniard José Zorrilla y Moral (1817-1893); the Chilean epic La Araucana by Spaniard Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533-1594) and the Uruguayan national poem  Tabaré, also in 1934,  by Juan Zorrilla de San Martín (1855-1931), published by Unesco, in 1956; the historical poem by Martín del Barco Centenera (1535-1602), La Argentina” and the Conquest of the River Plate (1602), published post mortem in 1965 by the Instituto Cultural Walter Owen, edited by Patrick Dudgeon;  next came the Chilean classic Arauco Domado  by Pedro de Oña (1570-1643), which he completed in his hospital bed five weeks before his death; and Narrative of the Expedition of Sir Francis Drake by Juan de Castellanos (1522-1607), published for the first time in Spanish in 1921. (Apologies for the accumulation of dates but they do give an idea of the remarkable volume of the man’s work.)
            The last three “transvernacularisations” were produced from his bed at the British Hospital, which he entered on 13 December 1949, never to leave until his death. The last two books were not published.  But all his work referred back to his first, Martín Fierro.  Of this work, he wrote, “A translation, especially of verse, in order to have any value as literature, should read like an original work. Clarity and ease are essential and they are worth purchasing at the price of a certain degree of verbal accuracy... A false note, a too unfamiliar image, a forced simile, the translation of a dead metaphor into a live one... a reference that is plain and immediately comprehensible in the original (but) is too obscure in the translation for the reader to grasp, any or all of these may be the result of a too faithful adherence to the text”. (John Walker, Latin American Literary Review)
For his “transvernacularisation” of the Martín Fierro, Owen developed a certain ceremony.  For a time he took rooms in the hotel off Plaza de Mayo where José Hernández was said to have written part of his epic (and he also took rooms at Bolivar 609, where the author of Tabaré had resided for a time).  The Martín Fierro required a degree of ceremony which would remain with Owen for years.  He built a rustic wooden desk and chair at which to work, he put aside his daytime office garb and donned a monk’s robe, and wrote by candle light with a quill pen, watched over by his cat, Dusky, who was ever-present on the work table and  in the writing, with shopping reminders in the margins such as, “liver for Dusky, Players 2pkts (cigarettes), Pinot white”, etc. There are quite a few references to the Players and the Pinot. Dusky died on May 20, 1933, the day after the translation was completed, an incident which had Owen searching for its mystical meaning. The poet’s hard slog is recorded in a “laborómetro” that details the daily progress of translation.  His notes describe his style in translation, some of his lines should be guidelines for present-day translators.  “…I have tried to present to English readers a version of (en epic) that reads like an original English poem, flavoured with the idiom and diction of the times, and free from the stilted style and un-English air that often makes translations of foreign poems irksome to minds appreciative of the beauties of our mother tongue.  It is obvious that if this object is to be attained, textual fidelity must be subordinated to ease, clarity, rhythm, harmony, tone, and the other elements of style.  We are interposing our own consciousness between the conceptual and the linguistic centres (…) and rewriting his poem as he would have written it if he had spoken English…” (Servitor…, page 186)
For weeks after publication of Martín Fierro in English, Owen was a kind of folk hero in Buenos Aires.  People would track him down at lunch in his regular restaurants and ask him for autographs in their copies of the book. Failing that, he had sign scraps of paper and even napkins.
All of Owen’s original writings and translations were aimed at helping to build “a bridge to better understanding between the peoples” of the world, an objective which he repeatedly used in descriptions given to one of his principal mentors, the former British ambassador, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake (1889-1972, well known in Buenos Aires for his lectures on the Battle of the River Plate in 1939 and in Montevideo for helping to fund out of pocket the start of the Pluna airline), and friends, including Courtenay Luck, one of the best known mystics in the British community in Buenos Aires, and brothers Luis and Juan Alejandro de Marval, among others.  Millington-Drake described the Martín Fierro translation as having “the raciness of an old Border ballad.”
Owen wrote one philosophical/historical treatise, The Ordeal of Christendom (Grant Richards, 1938), wherein he argues that “Christ is the only evolutionary factor in consciousness”, and two novels. His reputation as an author of supernatural fiction rests with these two novels.
Of these his most important fiction was, again, his first book The Cross of Carl, (published by Grant Richards, London, in 1931), written at one sitting in an evening in 1917 – this after his first extended hospitalization for a painful abdominal complaint.  It was accepted for publication in Britain the following year, but was stopped by the censor. It was seen as brutal, surrealistic and bleakly anti-war, too harsh for the immediate period following the Great War. It was finally published in London in 1931, and in the US by Little, Brown, and Company (Boston), also in 1931. It was described as a rhythmic fantasy in prose.
The “Carl” of the title is a foot soldier in the trenches of World War I. Mistaken for dead he is bundled off to a rendering plant for what we might now term recycling. The Cross of Carl was originally inspired by an element of anti-German newspaper propaganda and an alleged bi-location of personality brought upon the author through dosages of opium, though also influenced by his strong mystic beliefs. Owen’s biographer, Charlotte de Hartingh, says he, “took an intense interest in the stimulative effect that drugs effected over the creative faculties.” Rather cautiously, she says that, “He was by no means the first man of letters, nor the last, to be fascinated by those results… (he) has left a detailed description of his impressions while under the sway of opium…” Carl's nationality is never made wholly clear (though German is usually inferred, based upon source materials and several late-chapter hints). Thus the Cross of the title can be alternately read to mean the Iron Cross, the Victoria Cross, or both.  The Times Literary Supplement review, on 16 July 1931, called the book “A war allegory” that, “brings back the ugly side of war psychology; it is a description of one of the ‘corpse factories’ of legend – an unbearably ghastly description. ‘Sepulture’ is a description of how the dying Carl digs his own grave. ‘Resurrection’ ends the allegory on a note of mystical triumph. This record of what the author himself describes as “an abnormal pathological process” induced by the psychic perturbations of the War, is put forward in the belief that the experience may foreshadow some sort of development in the collective consciousness of mankind.” It was foresight, in a way, but of something more horrible, which would be the Nazi holocaust of World War II.
His other fiction, More Things in Heaven, published by Andrew Dakers (London, 1947), has a narrator (Owen) and a mystic adept named Merlin Alaska investigate a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion. The trail of clues, found in ancient documents, manuscripts and travelogues, leads to the discovery of a two-thousand year old Zoroastrian curse upon the descendants of Alexander the Great.  Really very modern stuff, if you pick up Umberto Eco’s, In the Name of the Rose.
Many of his poems, articles, and stories remain uncollected, having been published mainly in The Standard newspaper and some rare magazines and self-printed pamphlets. These were always signed G.S.O, or the full pen name, “lest he fall into disgrace in Buenos Aires business circles through writing poetry!” (Servitor…, p. 95) In blunt terms, the business community saw poetry as something for “pansies” in the jargon of that time. Owen was known publicly as a scrupulous, punctilious, member of the staff of Messrs. Bessler, Waechter  & Co. Ltd., import agents, and after fifteen years, as manager and model businessman at Juan McCall & Co., customs clearing agents, where he moved in 1928.  In his carefully managed spare time Owen was also a bibliophile, his biographer describes him as a mystic, and others see him as a Baconian (follower of Sir Francis Bacon – proponent of the methodical observation of facts, also said by some to have been the real author of Shakespeare’s writings), a Grand Master in the small Beacon Lodge Theosophist and Philosophical Society, and Duke of the Island of Redonda in the Caribbean Sea, a fictitious court created by a novelist of his acquaintance with a base on a remote rock.  He also enjoyed sports, rowing for the Tigre Boat Club and was the founder of a boxing club.
Though a pacifist of sorts he attempted to enlist for service on the British side during both World Wars. But he was blind in one eye lost in a childhood accident in 1895, aged 11, while playing with a home chemical set with his brother Tom.  In spite of this severe disability, he would later volunteer repeatedly for the two European wars, and was obviously rejected each time. His next blow was the death of his mother, Ellen, a teacher, who had nursed him through the recovery of sight in the remaining eye, died suddenly.  His father, a shipping agent, who in 1889  had brought the family to Montevideo, first, thence Buenos Aires, decided to send his youngest son to live with two aunts in Glasgow, there for his secondary studies at Hillhead High School. On leaving school he worked for a chemical company and later a shipping agent, which paved the way to stowing on a ship that took him back to Buenos Aires.  He was eighteen when he began life in earnest in Argentina in June 1902.  He seems to have returned to the United Kingdom, and once to France, on three quite secret visits, in 1920, 1924 and 1928, on one occasion to meet his girlfriend Beryl and her daughter, at school in southern France. One of those visits was in pursuit of the leading mystic of the time in Europe, Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1877-1949).
His love life was not what you might call a success.  After early failure of an intense love with a woman only named as “Sylvia”,  apparently due to parental disapproval (she visited him briefly on his deathbed at the British Hospital), Owen was married on the rebound to Lily Edith Turner, daughter of a Central Argentine Railway officer.  The marriage on June 6, 1914, two months before the outbreak of war, was doomed from the start: they were totally different characters. She was a lively person intent on a busy social life. He a subdued, reclusive and solitary individual.  They were together for only a few weeks. Separation was followed by attempted reconciliations and failed reunions amid regular arguments. Owen provided for Edith financially all his life, but in 1917, aged 33, he met a woman named Beryl who became the partner he sought.  He said he had found happiness with her. They would be together up to her death in 1947. He became severely depressed.
His final years, ill and unable to work, seemed to have been filled with projects.  Sometimes he lay in bed on his side, dictating translations and correspondence to a secretary, Diana de Marval, the daughter of his friend. He lived on his savings and the help of friends, and of his brother Tom, whom he would ask to sell off his valuable first editions, kept at his last home in Martínez, to pay for expenses.
He died on September 24, 1953, in hospital, his ashes buried at the British cemetery in Chacarita, where a commemorative plaque was placed.  A bust by the Uruguayan sculptor José Luis Zorrilla de San Martín (1891-1975), son of the author of Tabaré, is in the Hillhead High School library, and in Buenos Aires there is one by José Fioravanti (1896-1977).
* Special thanks to Doreen Dalrymple, manager at Hillhead High School, Glasgow, for finding many documents relative to the life of Walter Owen.  With thanks to the director of the Güiraldes Museum, at San Antonio de Areco, Mrs Cynthia Smyth, and to her staff, Mariana Rios, Bibiana Bovetti, Patricia Lucero, Valeria Urruchúa, y Marcela Cigarelli. The originals of Owen’s Martín Fierro in English are held at the Museum.

** www.abcc.org.ar