27 February, 2017Issue 3333.6LiteraturePoetryTranslation

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Poet and pig

Hugh Foley

Sophie Collins, ed.
Currently and Emotion
Test Centre
352 pp.
ISBN 9780993569319





What are the limits of translation? Or, more specifically, what kind of objects or activity does the word translation apply to? Sophie Collins, the editor of Currently and Emotion, a new anthology of poetic ‘translations’, chooses to illustrate the problem of definition with a wry parable. Collins quotes the Vietnamese-American poet and translator Linh Dinh, who narrates the potential endlessness of translation:

This morning, I translated a croissant and a cup of watery, overly-sweet coffee. Suddenly translated from my job, my wife and I will have to translate ourselves to another exburb.
Most translations are sad, mechanical and soporific, but not the three times I did it with you.

It’s not too difficult to see how each of these actions is, to follow the etymology of the word, a carrying something over into something else. But when we use ‘translate’ this way, we may find it of limited usefulness: we can derive amusement from the failure of these activities to be commensurable, but that seems to be it. ‘Translating’ a coffee and being ‘translated’ from one’s job are pretty different, really.

This limitation, though, is what Dinh hopes make use of, and is what Collins’s anthology puts to work. By their drawing attention to the shortcomings of ‘translate’ as a singular activity, their hope is that we might be encouraged to think more about the different ways in which our actions are mediated. By bringing different things within the sphere of ‘translation’, the differences, and the meaning of these differences can be rethought; if we want to, we can pay attention to the social forces that constitute these differences. We may even begin to talk about the difference Collins is particularly interested in, the imbalance of power.

For Collins, translation is not a limited activity, but is instead the limiting case of mediation; taken to its logical endpoint, almost any act of mediation is a form of translation, as in Dinh’s jeu d’espirit. To demonstrate this claim, her anthology refuses to confine translation to its normal definition: the rewriting of a text in a different language. Instead, it contains three kinds of translation (though she stresses that one text can be several kinds simultaneously). Borrowing terminology from Roman Jakobson, Collins provides the reader with ‘translations’ which are interlingual (between languages), intralingual (within one language) and intersemiotic (i.e. between two systems of meaning: poems about paintings, say).

Currently and Emotion aims to be not a conventional gathering of flowers from different cultures, but rather a polemical re-examination of contemporary literature and its politics through the lens of this one word. Collins wants us to look at mediation, and to think about the various ways in which mediation can represent the unequal relations between people and peoples. The translation of a text between two languages, for Collins, embodies this mediation—the ideology of the target culture distorts the ‘original’ text, as does the relation between these cultures. There is never exactly an original; we might think of it as a constellation of cultural effects that operate within one culture, which must then be altered so as to be visible in a second culture. At the same time, it is in the moment of translation that this distortion becomes visible—it is here that we see the join.

Collins argues that, through rethinking translation, we can arrive at ‘an outward-facing and innovative poetics that reflects current drives within literature while also recognizing the political/personal/creative importance of subjectivity’. Following a significant line of translation theory (concisely elucidated in her introduction), she suggests that translation gives us access to the question of mediation in a way that promotes agency. It may create a space for an awareness of injustice and the building of a community seeking redress for that injustice. ‘Her wounds came from the same source as her power’, concludes Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Power’, and it is such a feminist sense of the awareness of oppressive, manipulative forces (and the pathos of this awareness), that many of the various texts Collins has chosen attempt to translate into poetic power.

We might see how Collins understands such an awareness if we look at one of the poems she includes by Don Mee Choi. A reworking of sorts of a Korean (or pan-Asian) folk tale, Choi’s poem ‘The Weaver’s Exile’ (thus both an inter and intralingual translation in Collins’s schema, a translation of a translation). Collins sees this as a poem about taking ‘existing forms and/or narratives and writing through these in such a way that they end up operating in defiance of their origins’. The original tale, according to Collins, according to Wikipedia (this kind of foregrounding of mediation is an inescapable part of the book’s apparatus) is a tale of two star-crossed lovers, the weaver and the cowherd, banished to opposite sides of the galaxy. They can see each other only once a year, when a bridge of magpies allows them to cross the great divide and be together again. Choi’s poem upends the story, having her weaver leave the cowherd and write to her father defiantly:

You ignore black holes that crush turtle shells into fine sand. You ignore my loom
twisted like wisteria trunks from my copious tears. Stars are separate.
I want to be a dead star.

Herder easily forgets me. He’s an addict. He writes love songs about how there
must be parting. His ox stinks. I left him for a comet.

On July 7th, I’ll tie prayers to crows and magpies’ feet and pee. Father, expect
rain. I’ll pose briefly by the bridge. Come ready with your camera.

That blithe dismissal of the original story, and of Herder (‘he writes love songs about how there must be parting’), flips the original/reworking distinction on its head. The original is now the limited perspective of Herder, whose dismissal of Weaver’s point of view forms part of the social background, which the poem brings forward. If we want to call part of this background patriarchy, something often invisible by dint of structuring our environment, we might see Choi making this visible when she begins to speak of the crushing black holes that weaver’s ‘father’ ‘ignores’, along with the loom, which seems to stand for a personal, gendered experience that the father devalues, even as the weaver’s pain is obvious in its distortion. The father, and possibly we the audience, ignore others, going so far as to ignore even our own ignorance.

The poem rejects certain kinds of exposure, it poses ironically for the camera—and does not allow cultures to meet without awkwardness. Choi rejects the mythical bridge; her weaver literally pisses on the magpies that comprise it. In doing this, again, she foregrounds the bridge. The abject matter of the body is now polluting what should otherwise be a pure bridge for the lovers to meet on. It is not about simply pointing to the translator themselves, then, but the power dynamics of gender, and the cultural expectation we bring to any text. Choi, and by extension Collins, draw to our attention the way things fail to fit neatly into one another.

The space of ‘translation’ is the space where the messiness of our lives and the messiness we often ignore within our own expectations can be considered more fully. Choi’s position as a translator of Korean poetry, as a Korean in ‘exile’ of a sort in the United States—as belonging to a country that was she sees as having been colonised by the United States in the 1950s, and which remains to some extent under the sway of U.S. power, is also part of this background that the poem brings forward. Choi’s actual translations of I’m OK I’m Pig, by Kim Hyesoon are prefaced with a note:

My translation intent has nothing to do with personal growth, intellectual exercise, or cultural exchange, which implies an equal standing of some sort. South Korea and the US are not equal. I am not transnationally equal. My intent is to expose what a neocolony is, what it does to its own, what it eats and shits. Kim Hyesoon’s poetry reveals all this, and this is why I translate her work.

The conclusions to one of Hyesoon’s ‘Pig’ poems captures some of the same resistance, the temperamental affinity between translator and poet, poet and pig, and the way all of these reflect some larger understanding of how oppression arises through interpretation:

qqqq the sound of Pig crying along with a crow perched on its head
qqqq naturally it’s Pig screaming when its owner goes to jail and piss and shit
rises up to Pig’s knees
qqqq the words that Pig yells inside when it denies being Pig
qqqq the words that Pig utters You’re Pig when you turn around to look at your
mummy being taken away

qqqq most of all, the squeals of our nation’s pigs that don’t know that I’m Pig

The anthology contains many intriguing, moving poems. I am grateful for being introduced to so many writers I had never encountered before: the Japanese Modernist poet Sagawa Chika in the ‘translations, anti-translations and originals’ by Sawako Nakayasu, for example. The poems of Gus Pato, as translated by Erin Mouré were likewise exciting discoveries. Chantal Wright’s experimental translation of ‘Portrait of a Tongue’, a short story by Yoko Tawada (currently writer in residence at St Edmund Hall, Oxford), is a particular highlight, an annotated translation creating a kind of giddiness, as if the translation were being done in real time. As Wright writes about her reflections on the right word to use when translating the narrator’s own search for the right word, the reader (or at least this reader) feels more bound than ever to the limits of language, and yet also freed by this awareness; something important lives within the inescapability of our circumstances.

The styles are varied, but Collins is obviously interested in those works that foreground process, and particularly something of the messiness of process. For her, translation is emblematic of a process which contains a person, and Collins makes clear her sympathy with the ideas of Lawrence Venuti, whose Invisibility of the Translator is cited, while his own translations of the Catalan poet J.V Foix are included in the anthology. As a consequence of making the translator visible, which often means making the process of transferring the text between languages (or semiotic systems or what-have-you) visible, one sees an image of the personal, and of how it manifests itself within a whole range of cultural and political concerns simultaneously. Collins wants poets to show the way personal experience is determined or manipulated without simply dismissing it.

The idea that we can do two things at once, acknowledge the mediation of our experience by patriarchy, or imperialism, or capitalism, without abandoning the actual importance of experience itself seems to be the possibility that translation opens up for Collins. Versions of this argument have been central to many recent debates in contemporary American poetry. A defence of the personal experience of marginalized people has played the main role in the (not yet complete) downfall of conceptual poetry, and has also been a driving force behind a movement away from the relative abstraction of post-Language ‘hybrid’ poetry. How some of these dynamics might play out in the U.K. can be seen in recent essays such as Sandeep Parmar’s ‘Not a British Subject’, on race and British poetry, where Parmar argues that a recognition of the political contours that are already visible in personal experience challenges the received depiction of British poetry as straightforwardly split along a mainstream/avant-garde divide.

The preservation of the rebarbatively subjective, and the critical presentation of the frames within which it becomes visible can be seen being deftly handled in one of Collins’s choices, Vahni Capildeo’s poem ‘Snake in the Grass’, from her brilliant Measures of Expatriation. This appears to be why Collins aligns this original poem with translation. Capildeo’s lyric acts as a resistant anti-ekphrasis, or rather a seductive call to ekphrasis, which in its potential endlessness voids whatever interpretation anyone offers—holding out that the uncontainable experience of the object is itself the most valid. Listen to the voice of the ‘translated object’, interpreting the gaze of visitors to the Ashmolean museum:

Do not shun me. I am not sleeping.
Glass is the least security. My kind’s for re-use,
willing to coil cold in the earth
till each deadly resurrection through your changes of nation,
till your kind hand comes and the smith repairs us.
Slide your eye into the wave and wind of me.
Forget your wife, if you still have one.
The two of us decide who’s for the taking.
Bring me to your son, blossoming in his cradle.
Introduce us. I have a name.
Man, join us together. There’s wisdom in my core.

One way of reading the anthology, I hope I have made clear, is as among the first long statements of a poetics by a British (British/Dutch) poet of Collins’s generation (excluding what must by now be a decent number of unpublished creative writing PhD theses), and it is a thoughtful response to the current situation of poetry. How to maintain a space for the subjective, and therefore, as Collins says, ‘agency’, while acknowledging the mediation of this agency through oppressive structures? Collins’s anthology struck me as a vivid series of potential answers to this question. A poetry invested in the recently emboldened feminist, anti-racist and queer liberation struggles reconciles its deeply felt imperative to respect the experience of the marginalised with its deeply cogitated opposition to the traditional discourse of subjectivity embodied in lyric, and this finds a neat metaphor in translation.

If there are occasional moments when Collins’s introductions and notes approach the vagueness of art-gallery style descriptors (‘Tara Bergin is an Irish poet whose work develops ideas around language and history while maintaining an often discomposing ambivalence’) she is nevertheless carefully crafting an argument through her selection of voices overwriting voices. As she puts it in her introduction ‘the turbulence that pervades translation[…] may make it the very thing that is able to fulfil many of the needs and desires—political/aesthetic—of our current moment’. Collins’s anthology is partly an attempt to build an argument for the possibility of literary resistance, anti-imperialist, feminist, anti-capitalist and so on, and an attempt to locate comrades in this struggle. It is a struggle which occupies her own poetry, and also her role as co-editor of the excellent journal Tender.

The ending of her own excellent poem, ‘Healers’, reveals a similar resistance to both lyric practice and to the anti-subjectivism of various contemporary avant-gardes. The poem’s speaker enters into a dialogue with a scaffold adjoined to a church:

We are rarely independent structures she said
before she dropped a bolt pin
which released a long section of tube
which released another bolt pin
which released several wooden boards
that scraped another tube
and made an unbearable sound.

Order and mess coincide in the collapse of the structure. That ‘unbearable sound’, the cacophonous falling apart of structure seems to be a location for what Collins calls subjective agency. The poem avoids becoming only the kind of allegory that I’m paraphrasing it as, but it could almost be said to position the poem as an act of ‘translation’, as an after the fact recreation of the ‘unbearable sound’ of personal experience, particularly the marginalised (it is essential that the scaffold is gendered as ‘she’).

An acknowledgment of the inevitability of projection and its attendant imbalance of power that also serves as an identification with the object because of this fact, Collins’s poem, and her anthology too, are invigorating challenges to British poetry’s insularity. For Gayatri Spivak, ‘one of the seductions of translating’ is ‘a simple miming of the responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.’ Likewise, what appeals in Currently and Emotion, is this sense that the often selfish act of poetry, when it approaches the state of translation ceases to be so, and becomes responsible. Whether poetry must be responsible, or how much this miming of responsibility means in a particularly reactionary time, are questions that still trouble me but which I was willing to defer while reading this fascinating book. We live on an island that is closing itself off to a world which it once tyrannised. If translation limits our selfishness, it may answer a call from outside ourselves which, whether or not we understand, or perhaps because we cannot, we would do well to attend to.


Hugh Foley is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford.


This piece was edited on 27th March to correct two misspelt names, those of Sagawa Chika and Sawako Nakayasu.