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Translation, Conceptualism, Exoticism, Imperialism, & Why Kenneth Goldsmith isn’t as Charming as David Larsen
so after all the discussions about translation, i ordered david larsen’s names of the lion from atticus finch. i heart atticus finch–the most beautiful chapbooks ever.
i also read larsen’s talk “translation as conceptual writing practice,” presented at small press traffic in sept 2009. in this talk, larsen discusses names of the lion and various ideas he has about translation & conceptualism. even though much blood has been spilled discussing translation here at harriet, i think larsen’s talk brings up some interesting points that we havent yet discussed. i would love to hear your thoughts on larsen’s ideas, and i will of course share my own in the comments.
[on translation & exoticism][nb: these categories are my own and do not appear in larsen’s talk]:
Again, I could wax poetic & really give you a speech about the beauty of [Arabic lexicographic texts], the rare gems of exotic knowledge they contain and so on. Which is part of the problem – exoticism, I mean, because in case you hadn’t noticed that kind of thing has been done before. I should define what I mean by exoticization: fetishization of otherness, where the appetite that’s being provoked and satisfied is a desire for novelty. It’s possible to put a positive value on exoticization; Gary Sullivan and Nada Gordon did that in a talk they gave here 4 years ago, what was its title. To me, that avenue is closed off, in part because of the academic environment I’m trying to work in. The effect of the exotic depends on lack of knowledge, which is what academic discourse is designed to overcome. […] Of course I feel [the pull of the exotic] – it’s what got me into Arabic in the first place, if you remember. But it’s not good for scholarship, and scholarship is what I want to continue doing. So as a poet, the question naturally comes up for me: what artistic uses can I put my academic work to?
[on the role of conceptualism in translation]:
The answer for me is in translation. I am planning a series of translations along the lines of Names of the Lion, where the translation of the medieval scholarly text is meant to circulate and be enjoyed as a contemporary poetic text, even though its author had no conception of it as such. In a sense this means changing its genre, from didactic prose to prose poetry. What makes that change possible is the promise of 21st-c. conceptual writing, which specializes in poetic conversions of non-poetic material, in a way I think everyone here understands.
[on translation and imperialism]:
And at this point I have to set myself opposite what I know to be the good side of translation, which is that it fosters communication btw/ the nations, makes individuals less provincial & so on. How often do we hear that Americans are stupid because they don’t read enough translations.
There’s another side to translation though – a bad conscience you might say. Because translation is a major part of the apparatus that keeps subaltern peoples subaltern. This may be counterintuitive: You might think that translation would typically go from the colonizer’s language into the language of the colonized, along the lines of “Voice of America.” And yes a lot of that goes on. It’s one reason the Bible is translated into so many languages. But translation from the language of the colonized to the lang. of the colonizer’s is the more characteristic direction of empire, because it’s empire that has the resources and the need to know about its subject populations. I take this for a universal feature of all literate empires. […] And the history of translation of Arabic into European languages parallels exactly the European colonial practice in whose service it was carried out. I trust this isn’t an unfamiliar thesis to you – Edward Said’s Orientalism is still the standard text on it. It shows how academic knowledge about the Middle East has always gone hand in hand with imperial power, and that there is no Western approach to Arabo-Islamic culture that’s not engaged in it in some way. Certainly not my own! I’m under no illusions that my work is uncompromised or somehow neutral, because nothing in Middle Eastern scholarship is neutral.
[translation and the colonial enterprise]:
But my translation work is incorrigible, which is to say it’s totally outdated. There’s nothing I’m doing that wasn’t being done in the 19th c. And in that sense it’s a politically compromised way of going about my work.
I used to worry about this to the pt. of paralysis, in the 90’s. What kind of work could I do on Arabic texts that’s not complicit in a colonial enterprise? Then, 9/11 happened, and I hope it’s not too distasteful if I speak of that as my saving moment. Because with the wars that followed, and all the Arabic speakers rushing to work for the state dept. (including people I was in classes with), all of a sudden it seemed that as long as I wasn’t aiding the war effort in any way, I was OK. And so I hit on this paradoxical goal of inapplicability. As long as my work could never be made to assist in any practical way in the dispossession and marginalization of the Arab people, I would be in the clear. And that’s still more or less my stance, and it’s what makes these lexical texts so attractive to me. Their charm lies precisely because they answer no practical need. Who needs to know all the names for the lion? or the sword, or the camel saddle, or the cultivation of the palm tree?
[conceptualism & ‘colonial residue’]:
My hope is that the reframing work of conceptual writing will remove the colonial residue of the literary model, and cancel out its untimeliness. The translations I am doing are supposed to be outdated, that’s the point. Not only outdated, but inapplicable, i.e. useless – the way an old issue of the NYT might be, or old weather forecasts or sports broadcasts, and I think you see where I’m going with this idea.
The reframed text might still be useful for cultural anthropology – “oh, look what was in the paper that day” – but the point is the concept, which is its gestural force. As for a comparison of my work with Kenny Goldsmith’s, I’ll say there’s no mistaking the gesturality of what he does: it’s right out front, and he keeps it there with his principle of selection. He picks boring stuff that’s not likely to resist reframing. By contrast, in my efforts at translation and reframing the texts in question have enough intrinsic interest that they can be enjoyed on something like their own merits. Is that a conceptual liability? maybe. But I take it for granted that if KG had my training, my research skills, my attn. span and my wit and charm he’d be doing work that’s more like Names of the Lion than like his own.
does anyone know if this essay is online for those who might want to read it in its entirety?