Books discussed in this essay:
• it. Inger Christensen. (Trans. Susanna Nied. New Directions. $17.95. 304 pp.
• Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice. Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, editors. Routledge. $47.95. 224 pp.
• The Poethical Wager. Joan Retallack. University of California Press. $24.95. 291 pp.
• Night is a Sharkskin Drum. Haunani-Kay Trask. University of Hawai’i Press. $27.00. 96 pp.
• Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre. Lois-Ann Yamanaka. Bamboo Ridge Press. $16.00. 148 pp.
How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of neat little phrases that come down so beautifully with all their feet on the ground! . . . I begin to long for some little language such as lovers use, broken words, inarticulate words, such as the shuffling of feet on the pavement.
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Indeed, translation has traditionally been married to the notion of what is lost, and this makes sense, if one looks at a poem like a Renaissance painting: the original being of highest quality and any replica a necessarily poor copy. But what if, like everything else in the world, it’s not so black and white? Poet and translator Sawako Nakayasu’s poem “English-Japanese Conversations” acutely addresses the subtle difficulties of translation in this excerpt:
oya! (hint of discovery)
ma! (said by female. hint of surprise, scorn, oh dear!)
ara! (said by female. hint of being contradicted.)
kora! (said by someone of a higher rank, older age, or more
status. hint of interrupting kids about to cause
mischief, stopping cheapskates from sneaking into
ya! (said by male. hello.)
oi! (said by male. hint of gruff masculinity. must be said
in a deep voice. hint of “hey now…”)
hei! (said by imitators of the cool American language.
often used in pop songs)
This examination is an interrogation of myself and my poetics, my propensity of late to write using translation dictionaries, to write poems full of words of which I don’t know how to make meaning, to experiment with re-creating the poems of writers whose language I can’t understand, but whose poems nonetheless (or maybe all the more) mean something. The questions I am able to ask are less about semantics and more along the lines of what is present, what is absent, and what are the ways I can interpret a poem whose language is anathema to me? Can I still glean something from form or tone, or as I fear, will my interpretation be just a commentary on miscommunication?
In acknowledgment of our increasingly multilingual and border-shifting world, translation scholarship in recent years has catapulted beyond the science of converting one language into another and beyond conventional theories of translation. Innovative and experimental poetries, postcolonial literary theorization, and the internationalization of literature and communication are all blurring the definitions between “originals” (the concept of originality itself being highly debatable, but more on that later) and their offspring. As globalization rewrites national and cultural identities, so does it refine and define anew the previously cut-and-dry notion of translation. How exciting for the formerly stodgy and aristocratic “translation”: in the postcolonial era, it is revamped—wearing fascinating glasses, new clothes, and engaging in a lively game of interdisciplinary Twister.
Why is it important to continue exploring and discussing postcolonial translation and trans-creation theories? Allow me to plumb a few of the various subcategories of this ever expanding forum, in order to exemplify a few of the reasons why it matters, and highlight some of the ways in which these theories are put to practice in contemporary English-language poetry.
“How do I say it?” Joy Harjo asks in her poem “Deer Dancer.” She continues:
In this language there are no words for how the real world
collapses. I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into
focus, but I couldn’t take it in this dingy envelope. So I look at the stars in
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever
For Harjo, an American poet of Muskogee heritage, the language of her people’s colonizers can never express the full range of what is communicable. To be clear, Harjo does not speak nor write in her native language, a fact that can probably be directly traced to the effects of colonialism on Native Americans: she can understand some Native American tongues, but the exact translation of, say, Muskogee to English, matters little to her because certain concepts of American Indian life and lore are untranslatable. They simply do not have equivalents in English. Harjo expounds:
I have learned to love the language, or rather, what the language can express. But I have felt bound by the strictness imposed by its male-centeredness, its emphasis on nouns. So it’s also challenging, as a poet, to use it to express tribal, spiritual language, being.
Still, she claims that writing in English has its benefits. A jazz saxophonist and a painter as well as a poet, Harjo singles out writing as the only art form that can “[s]peak directly in a language that was meant to destroy us.”
Indeed, language is inextricably tied to culture. At its best, a vibrant, thriving language is full of complexities. Harjo’s poetry is technically English, yet the “sphere of language” in her poems is magnified by the way she utilizes memory, ceremony, and spirituality. In a sense, Harjo is writing through English—using the language of colonization to write of, about, and for First Nations people. The first lines of “Equinox” provide illustration:
I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
and the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
your nation dead beside you.iii
These lines are arguably more powerful in English than they would be in Muskogee because of the role that systematic destruction of Native languages played in the brutal history of American Indian colonization. Harjo’s intended audience is plain: she is speaking to the colonizers, in the language of colonization. It is not lost on the reader that Harjo uses English instead of her native language; English, in this case, can also be a reminder of colonial plundering. Still, this is poetry, and there is beauty in Harjo’s reclamation of a language whose people were bent on her culture’s annihilation. Her poetry exemplifies the notion that when people create in a language, it helps that language become vital, potent, and beautiful. For the purposes of this examination, therefore, I will assume something that is by no means unanimously agreed upon: that it is a benefit for texts to be translated, and that translation and trans-creation into English can prove positive both culturally and linguistically.
First, however, we must look at translation through the lens of colonialism. Colonial translation is a one-way exchange, a tool of the dominant culture to assimilate myths and histories of the colonized culture and altering customs, phrases and intent so that these stories fit within the recognized confines of the “new” culture. An assimilative approach has historically meant that anything deemed too culturally oblique or foreign in the poem to be translated was replaced with a concept the dominant culture could relate to. It is for this reason that translation has traditionally been paired with the notion of what is lost. Translation, like so many other aspects of imperial rule, suited the purposes of the dominant culture and was typically intended for an audience of the dominant culture.
Given all this, it is no wonder that those who question the benefits of translation into dominant languages have more than a few reservations. Still, some translation theorists wonder, is it possible for English to redeem itself in some way? Can colonial languages be used to keep dying languages or dying cultures alive, instead of aiding in their extinction? Can poets of diverse linguistic and cultural histories use English to communicate the untranslatable—the way a medium communicates with the spirit world? Do Harjo’s poems, for example, in dictating the American Indian experience through the agency of English, actually help to make English more Muskogee, and in turn more encompassing of the full range of its cultural history?
In important ways, using English can mean acknowledging the history of colonization, rather than rejecting it. Forcing the language to accommodate, to bend. Language has a long memory, and it is the job of the postcolonial poet, the writer, and even the citizen not only to choose their words wisely, but also to remember how easily words can lie, and to consider it our duty as writers to strive for a language that is as full and complicated and messy and culturally loaded as it is to be human.
We are a memory, some say, of a narrative we tell ourselves. Words are our tools to this end. Words gain meaning by existing in relation to other words just as we gain meaning by the ways that we exist in relation to other living beings on our planet. When English recognizes its dark past, it says something positive about the resiliency and adaptability of language, the acknowledgment of our interconnectedness. If one believes in a common consciousness, or even the idea of human contact being intrinsic in the exchange of ideas and language, we are all talking to each other, all of the time. Language belongs to all of us, and what we mean to say with our words is contextual, shifting.
Back to the notion of the original: it is commonly acknowledged that everything said has been said before. Just as we cannot find our way back to an ur-tongue, we cannot find our way forward to a final translation. Hence, there is also no master text, to which all translations are inferior. In poetry, as well as in translation, there is no ultimate meaning. Indeed, the “trans” in translation and trans-creation indicates that we are always moving across languages, across cultures.
With this in mind, translation and trans-creation have the power to do much more than present a poor copy of an original or consume a dominated culture’s literature. With these tools, we can shake up the concept of literary property. We can create alt-languages, and a space for them to exist. We can expand the parameters of the accepted language of poetics. As to the exploration of this new literary territory, Quebecan poet Jacques Brault says:
Since I have been navigating in all sorts of foreign waters, which sweep along all sorts of historical, cultural, social and symbolic deposits, I feel more profoundly at home and I am cured of my land sickness…. I resolved to traverse this language until I came to my own (yet unknown) tongue, and that during this difficult and salutatory passage I would lose myself in the other, and the other would find itself in me.
One of the most pivotal issues concerning translation has always been the question of faithfulness to the text. Historically, a good translation was seen as something that tried to stay as close to the original text as possible in language, meter, rhyme, and content. While that literal approach still exists today, postcolonial translators are also concerned with the cultural implications of the text. We understand poetry in layers, and the layers of culturally specific information that inform our understanding of the text are negotiable. Translators must consider the information load and the limits to which a poetic translation may be able to convey this load. The experience of the foreign is often just that–an experience, difficult to convey without prose narrative.
We speak metaphorically about post-colonial poetry because its translation happens in these layers of coded information. For this reason, analogy is undoubtedly our greatest cultural translation tool. But translation scholar André Lefevere suggests that we will only begin to understand cultures on their own terms when get rid of the idea of analogy. Analogy is necessary, he says, as a starting point to understanding something foreign, but ultimately, we must translate on the conceptual and textual level. Lefevere explains:
When we no longer translate Chinese T’ang poetry “as if” it were Imagist blank verse, which it manifestly is not, we shall be able to understand T’ang poetry on its own terms. This means, however, that we shall have to tell the readers of our translations what T’ang poetry is really like, by means of introductions, the detailed analysis of selected texts, and such. We shall, therefore, have to skip the leap we often call “of the imagination” but which could be much more aptly called “of imperialism.”
Poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop says, somewhat more poetically:
The relations between the terms keep shifting…In the end, we are left with gestures: the gesture of analogy rather than any particular analogy, the gesture of signification rather than any particular meaning, the gestures of endless commentary and interpretation. A wild whirl to cover the abyss. Vertigo.iv
Doing away with the concept of analogy is an ideal, yet to be deemed possible. In the same way that tolerance is no substitute for acceptance, analogy is necessary in part because we don’t live in a peaceful world filled with mutual respect and a desire to understand one another. Changing a concept like analogy, so integral to our current ways of thinking and writing, can’t happen in a bubble. It must be aligned with massive re-education and re-socialization.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t consider the possibility. What could such a literature look like? Poet and essayist Joan Retallack expounds, “[o]ne that does not deny the chaos, the inarticulate, the confusing, the fragmented, the lost, the loss, but instead brings it into form?”
The specifics of translation often have to do with the intended audience for a text. If a minority-language text is translated with the dominant culture as its intended audience, as has historically been the case, linguistic and cultural explanations will be prevalent. At the same time, most translations assume the minority culture knows the dominant culture’s subtext, and this assumption is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it continues to promote an acceptance of cultural dominance, and on the other, it raises the bar for what is possible for our poetry to address. As long as the translation is happening in the direction of minority language to dominant language, explains Maria Tymoczko, a translation expert and professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the prevailing standards of Western literature exclude the “instructional” or “didactic.” But what if the same translation is geared toward the minority culture or an international audience? It is a matter of “bringing the text to the audience” or “bringing the audience to the text.” Which brings us back to a fundamental question: how do we treat cultures equally and remain readable, interesting?
Fortunately, new and exciting forays into multilingual, translational, and trans-creational poetries are continually emerging. The most obvious approach to postcolonial translation is of course, using established English equivalents, à la It, by Inger Christensen. Susanna Nied’s award-winning 1988 translation is relevant to this discussion in part because she allows the mystery of language in general to come through, and in part because “it” itself is about language’s power and powerlessness and the poet’s function in creating a world with words. (Christensen’s translation advice to Nied reportedly was, “[i]f my music comes across naturally, well, let it. If it doesn’t, that’s OK”).v
Christensen seems to be asking the very question, what is language capable of? Can it do anything and is it ever enough? On the one hand, she says,
I’ve tried to tell about a world that doesn’t exist
in order to make it exist….
This is a criticism of the power human beings have over language
because it’s a criticism of the power language has over human beings.
Then she says it another way:
Anyone could have written this
So it surprises me that others
experience something similar
that meanings I assign to the world here
are assigned by others to the world here and there
in a similar way
that from the manifold meanings
such a uniform ambiguity arises . . .
Nied translates that the world (and therefore the word) is “something else and more than it is / like a meaningful disagreement between us.” This seems such an honest and apt description of the difficulty of translation in a postcolonial international setting. Nied’s approach to translation is stylistically traditional, but exceptional in the way that she captures the kaleidoscopic possibilities of interpretation.
Another method for postcolonial translation is that of importing words without explanation, while writing in (or translating into) into the dominant language. The audience in this case is both colonizer and colonized. The message is clear because of the context, regardless of a lack of definition inside the confines of the poem, as seen in “The Broken Gourd,” by Haunani-Kay Trask:
A common horizon:
under spidery moons,
pockmarked maile vines,
rotting ‘ulu groves,
the brittle clack
of broken lava stones.
Trask’s Hawai’i is not the airbrushed tropical wonderland we continentals picture in our fantasies. This poem’s chosen audience is the haoles who have devastated her native land’s ecology, so why didn’t Trask translate the Hawai’ian into English for better comprehension? When Trask renders words in Hawaiian, she does so because it places the poem firmly on her turf (though she does include a glossary at the back of the book). Like Harjo, she writes in the language of her people’s colonizers, and words endemic to Hawai’i, in Trask’s opinion, have no translation. They are what they are. To say “plant” instead of ‘ulu would dilute the poem. Furthermore, by offering Hawai’ian words without explanation, Trask is underlining the indigenous component of her poetry. Trask wants Hawai’i's colonizers to understand and undertake this linguistic journey with her. In this way, her use of English is a hand extended. But she is also drawing a line that says to her audience, “meet me here.” Trask’s strategy is considered “resistant” because she embeds words without explanation; it’s a shift to the terms of the writer’s own culture.
To be clear, Trask’s hand extended is by no means indicative of an egalitarian relationship between the two cultures or languages. It does however, spur us to ask the question: is it even possible for languages to meet as equals in poetry?
This is where the idea of trans-creation comes into play, and where things get really interesting. Writings of this sort are typically conceived in response to situations of unequal cultural exchange, and can take many forms. For example, poetry in Hawai’i Creole English, or Pidgin, as it is commonly called, carries a heavy contextual and cultural weight. The Hawai’ian-born Japanese American poet Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s poetry utilizes Pidgin to convey the voices of immigrants to the island in her collection, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre. In doing so, she also conveys issues of class, race, and gender, and brings dialogue to life. From the title poem:
Had one, her was call to the office
cause she was one bad girl smoking cigrettes
in the bathroom. The fat, bolohead principal,
he make her all scared. He say he going tell her fadda.
… Don’t cry, he say or we’re going to have to tell
your father what you did, the principal say.
Yamanaka conveys so much about culture through language choices. They serve a particular purpose and give social clues to the reader, without taking the reader out of the text, as a typical scene-setting passage might. The principal, who holds all the power, speaks standard English. The student, as the exploited and powerless persona, speaks Pidgin.
Yamanaka takes care not to portray Pidgin as inferior, however. In “Name Me Is,” Pidgin conveys a strong sense of cultural identity and personal pride:
with my own fingers, feel
my name on my back
all the way inside.
Yamanaka’s Pidgin both conceals and reveals the complicated relationships dictated by language. Her poetry signals “otherness” artfully and authentically, without being explanatory. Yamanaka is not translating as much as articulating a distinct and valid alt-language. She is writing in “the contact zone” where previously separated cultures come together and establish ongoing relations.
This contact zone is where some of the most interesting and innovative poetics are occurring today. Divided narrative voices representing two worlds bring bilingual and multilingual poetry to the page in all its contradictions, collaborations, and cohabitations. To this end, Quebecan poet Nicole Brossard writes of her poem, “Time Out”:
I wrote this text knowing it was for an english publication. For a while I did not know if I would write it in french or in english. I finally chose french but soon words were coming to my mind in english. Then I decided to translate each paragraph. But gradually I kept moving from one language to the other. Translating, rewriting, writing, translating, writing, rewriting, etc. . . .
“Time Out” cavorts between stanzas in French and stanzas in English. It is a poem that refuses to belong to one prime language, but is written through, with, and of both languages, as can be seen in this section:
or ici la mort n’est pas une image
mais un pont
entre la theorie
du chaos et la realite virtuelle dreaming the faraway of humanity
you thumble on sparkling eyes
nevertheless you summarize
about skin and soft arguments.
This sort of work celebrates a quality that has often been rejected in traditional translation, aspiring not to be either here or there, but instead pressing out to create a space between two worlds, an opening up. Indeed, “here,” has become a “permanently uncertain place,” and language used in poetry in the contact zone exemplifies this.
In a similar vein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ poem, “Draft 36: Cento” employs such a collective voice:
1/33 Translation says the unsayable twice, once in another language.
2 Take colloquial hypercorrection (“went with she and I”)—
3 Min tedas liaj longaj rakontoj.
4/32 It didn’t work out now, did it?
5 Not the right language; it was flat, unplanhed
6had too many j’s, pronounced “oy,”
7/31 adding another edge to the page.
DuPlessis has created a “patchwork” in which every line is cited, often from epics. Each line has lived a previous life in another work. Every third line (in italics) is borrowed from DuPlessis’s own work. Thus, a theme of dialogue emerges, the repackaging and folding in of languages and poetries combining to create a new and wholly original work in conversation with those that came before it.
A final example of this blending and shifting of the vast terms of trans-creational poetries is the following section from Jen Hofer’s “Vehicular Profile · Perfil Vehicular.” Hofer makes no separation between Spanish and English, weaving them so that they are inextricably and unapologetically one language, one poetry, one voice:
the city a square portrait of its former
self, wings clipped and modernized, windows
anteojos shaken ante todo and bright
enough to deafen. under pressure, water
is the most rigid flower, ante lo anterior
the most sold daisy, no hay un después
the most ravenous feast. the city ricochets:
devour, después de, savor, nada, salivate, drought.
In 1928 Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade published the Manifesto Antropófago, a highly metaphorical text that helped spur a movement to rethink Brazil’s cultural dependency. The book examined the violent clashing of Brazil’s two primary cultures, the aboriginal Indian and those of African descent, and those of European origin. Rather than placing them on opposite sides of the spectrum, however, de Andrade proposed a unique method of framing the foreign element in relation to the indigenous: the metaphor of cannibalism. Rooted in the indigenous traditions of Brazil, the metaphor was revolutionary because the analogy’s primary audience was the colonized, not the colonizers, reversing the usual assimilative strategies of the time. In fact, this metaphor would have been considered highly taboo to European cultures. For native Brazilians, it was empowering, brilliant: by ingesting that which is foreign, you neutralize its power over you. As it becomes a part of you, it ceases to be external. With digestion comes absorption, affirming what is nutritious or beneficial, and excreting toxins and those aspects of colonialism that poison indigenous society.
De Campos’s poetics of trans-creation is, in effect, re-creation: by ingesting a poetics or a poem and creating it again in another language, we arguably create an original work, one no longer beholden to the source in the same way that a translation is beholden. The renowned Language poet Charles Bernstein says:
For Brazil, trancreation/re-creation becomes a metaphor for refusing dependency. The poet resists exporting; resists, that is, becoming dependent on what’s exportable. At the same time, the poet resists importing; resists, that is, developing a subsidiary relation to the powerful literatures beyond. Trancreation is a means of appropriating and remaking in one’s own right. In the process, the work made becomes refractory, opaque. It must itself be translated and yet it can’t be translated.”vi
As immigration continues to explode into the West (a direct result of colonialism), the entire West becomes a contact zone. Intercultural relations are increasingly a part of day-to-day life. Because we are no longer isolated, translation can no longer happen in isolation. The role of the translator must become one in which communication plays an ever-larger role, one that overlaps with that of the writer and the citizen. It must be contextual.
Translation and trans-creation today confirm that we live in a shrinking world, but a growing community. They confirm that cultures and languages are not autonomous, but plural. Multilingual and dialectical poetry are changing the translation scene, reminding us that language is alive and intertwined with culture. Recognizing the reasons why we make choices to include or exclude language and its histories is only a part of this dynamic field. In fact, what used to be considered a “poor” translation may deserve a second look. It is possible that the translation simply didn’t conform to theoretical norms of its time. Perhaps the translation expressed some discomfort with language, idiomatic or dialectic, or a gap in cultural understanding. Perhaps rather than ignore a cultural concept, replacing it with one more familiar to the translator, those translations were simply some of the first to step out into the often bewildering contact zone.
Joan Retallack, in defining her term “poethical wager” argues that the concept includes
identifying a certain poetics of responsibility with the courage of the swerve. . . . Swerves (like antiromantic modernisms, the civil rights movement, feminism, post-colonialist critiques) are necessary to dislodge us from reactionary allegiances and nostalgias.
One could say that this growing body of polylingual and radical translation work is also a “swerve,” a poethical wager that bears its responsibility to history, language, and culture.
Central to this examination’s concern is another Retallack notion, the idea of culture as a kinetic, labyrinthine “coastline.” In her words, the “‘horizon of time’ is an example of a class of heavily freighted metaphors . . . whose incompletely examined historical implications exert a gravitational force that warps the edge of the contemporary as it emerges into critical view.” Translation is this shifting, myriad coastline between cultures, and trans-creation is the contact zone: vaguely definable, ever changing, and charismatic. This sentiment echoes a previously stated concept that bears repeating: that there is no one meaning to be found in translation, just as there is no one truth to be found in text. This in turn confirms that the evolution of language and poetics is also a process that has no beginning. “Everything said has been said before,” seems more hopeful and reassuring than it once did to me. Perhaps, indeed, translation and trans-creation are not only about what is lost, but also about new solidarities, built by a fusion of language.
As post-colonial translation and trans-creation become bolder and more experimental, the idea of ownership of language falls away. Each newly created text becomes the author’s, and simultaneously becomes the world’s. These poetries are dialogues, conversations. Language becomes three-dimensional as it encompasses more of its history and culture. Poems to be translated are no longer mathematical equations filled with estimations and “equals” signs. As new poetries assert that there can be both “homage and reappropriation,” new methods of translation arise and language is stretched, tested, discovered, and discovered anew.
Joan Retallack, quoting the esteemed, innovative, bilingual writer Samuel Beckett, sums up this bewildering and beautiful poetic adventure. Collectively, she says, what we are searching for is a poetics that can admit what Beckett calls “the mess,” “the chaos.” As Beckett explains, “What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be new form and that this form will be of such a type that it admit the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. . . . [T]o find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.”
Ellen Welcker is a poet living in Seattle, Washington.
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