Lately I have been thinking about translation and how it exists under everything. Everything we write, everything we speak is a kind of translation--an attempt to bring forth into words what we think and see and feel; to accurately transcribe our ideas and emotions. This, of course, is impossible: there are no perfect transcriptions--we cannot render the ineffable into, well, the effable without picking up a few flaws along the way.
This is also not a new thought. Gustave Flaubert famously called language “a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity” and J. Alfred Prufrock’s frustrated cry of “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” echoes on and on into the dark. The language poets took this idea and expanded it by having language, the mode of expression, determine meaning rather than the other way around. So, if everything is a translation already (from the interior to the exterior; the thought to the expression), how can we even begin to approach attempting a further translation, the traditional kind where we shift a poem from one language to another? If there isn’t a word which is the exact equivalent of the blue edge of morning or that conveys the pleasure of lying awake and breathing in the warm scent of your lover’s sleeping skin, how can we find a word in English that matches--in sound, meaning, appearance and connotation--a word in Russian or French? It seems daunting.
But perhaps rather than daunting, this is exhilarating. If we open up the idea of translation to include “interpretation” and not only allow for, but embrace the multiplicity of possible metamorphoses the original work can undergo as the mode of expression changes, the impossible becomes a dazzling game. The field of experimental translation is vibrant and diverse and I’m not nearly well-versed enough in it to present a catalog of all the concepts it contains or the people doing interesting original work there; instead, I want to mention a few of my favorites.
Telephone, founded by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault in 2010, was originally created as a literary journal, but has expanded to also publish books as an imprint of Nightboat Books (a translation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an upcoming reprint and translation/expansion of B.P. Nichols’ Translating Apollinaire tentatively entitled Translating Translating Apollinaire). For each issue of the journal, the editors choose 5-6 poems from a poet writing in another language and solicit roughly 10-12 translators from a range of experience (professional translators of that language, writers with no previous translation experience at all, and others who fall somewhere in between), telling them they are free to do absolutely anything they want in their translation--that there are no rules; the resulting translations are presented side by side as comparative texts, allowing the reader to see multiple versions of the same poem. Past issues of Telephone have focused on the German poet Uljana Wolf and Quebecois poets Renee Gagnon and Steve Savage, and the next issue features the work of the Russian poet Sveta Litvak; participating poet-translators have included Rae Armantrout, Mary Jo Bang, Jen Bervin, Harryette Mullen, Ron Padgett, Juliana Spahr and Timothy Donnelly. The press’s operating principle, according to Cohen, has always been “to make the umbrella of what is called translation as broad as it can be.” Cohen adds that Telephone includes “interpretation” in its usage of the word “translation” because “to translate poetry you need all those elements of interpretation such as homophonic sound-based translation, meaning-based (whether it be literal or intuitive). To us, changing
media is like changing language (English to French, a poem to a film or a sculpture)--these are also, in essence, translations in so far as the new format is a new language.” Telephone’s third issue, featuring the Brazilian poet Augusto de Campos, was a collaborative effort with New York’s EFA Gallery and included translations of his work into multiple forms of media--sound, film, photographs and paintings, as well as textual translations.
Another project I love that shifts media and conflates interpretation with translation is, like Cohen and Legault’s press, also inspired by and named after the children’s game where a phrase is whispered from person to person, changing along the way as people interpret what they hear. This is Satellite Collective’s Telephone project. About a year ago, Satellite put out a call, asking for poets, visual artists, composers, filmmakers and choreographers to apply to participate. Those who were selected joined an international (artists from 140 countries are involved) multi-genre game of telephone where every artist in the chain is given only the one translation of the original message that directly precedes their own and asked to transcribe it as faithfully as possible as it moves between genres. Here, the idea is to see how the original message naturally evolves as it is passed along, sliding through genres from painting to poem to film or composition or dance or poem again. The end result of this project will be an online exhibition tracing the message and its various translations, as well as several physical gallery shows in the United States and Europe.
What I think I love most about translation is that it’s a conversation--with the dead or with others separated from us by distance or time. What could seem like a barrier--another language, another art form even--instead becomes a bridge. Instead of the poem existing isolated and immutable, chiseled into stone, it enters into communion with an endlessly unfolding fellowship of others; people who carefully actively listen, and then reflect and reinterpret it so that the original is both reaffirmed and transformed. By moving the work beyond the static, we are allowed to see multiple possibilities of what the poem can be.