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Tranvestisizing, Post-Total Translation, & a Parable
johannes goransson, in a recent blogpost, wrote: “Translation transvestisizes the “original.””
have you ever heard the parable “The Translating Twins”? twin sisters separated at birth, adopted, major in literature & italian (let’s say) at dif universities. they both translate the same italian poet–who had not yet been translated into english but had published two books of poems. the sisters travel to italy to meet the author and secure permission to publish their translations. they show up at the author’s house (who lives right on the Arno) at the same time! so what do they do?
no, they don’t agree that one sister publish her translation of the first book and the other sister the second book. instead the older sister pushes her long lost twin into the Arno and secures the rights to both books!
the lesson: DON’T TRUST TRANSLATORS! they’re ruthless. and if you think poets are good at talking sh!t about other poets and poems…omg you should hear translators talk sh!t about other translators & translations. brutal. it’s even worse if a particular translator has the market cornered on a specific poet or language. we all know it’s tru: translators are territorial. once they piss on a certain ‘foreign language’ poet, that poet belongs to them. and if they piss on a whole language or country, beware of their multilingual bark!
Qs: do you have Terrifying Translator Tales to share? You don’t have to use names, I just love hearing about all the vicious things translators do.
i confess: i’ve also written & published experimental translations. here’s the intro i wrote for the ‘translations,’ and here’s a sample ‘translation’. when submitting these poems, i was up front about the fact that these were ‘experimental translations’–part of the reason was because i know many translators and respect the work they do and i don’t want anyone to think that what i’m doing is in any way ‘equivalent’ to what they’re doing. after submitting my experiments to various translation journals, some were accepted and some were rejected. but what really pissed me off was that one editor from a journal that shall remain unnamed sent me a nasty email about how i can’t even call these ‘experimental translations’ cuz there’s no such thing; that i should look up what translation means in the english dictionary; that i should stop wasting his and my time! wtf!
Q: i’m sure there’s a lesson here, but i’m not sure what it is?
this reminds of the debate in native american literary criticism about translation. the formation of ‘native american literature’ began with 19th century ehnologists translating and transcribing oral stories, chants, and songs—of course to present the art of a dying culture and to preserve this art for native children that would be reared in english. these translations were published and archived thru the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE).
around the beginning of the 20th cent, the literati (with a hunger for all things Other) began to mine the BAE archives, translating the translations into what they called ‘literary translations’ (as opposed to the ethnologists’ ‘literal translations’). by 1917, the fervor around native lit compelled a special “Aboriginal Issue” of….Poetry Magazine. in an editorial note, Harriet Monroe thanks ethnologists who have “done something to preserve the fast disappearing folk-lore of the tribes.” interestingly, Monroe describes the work as “interpretations”. Monroe suggest that these interpretations created a freer translation practice because they weren’t tied to the ‘merely’ literal, but also because they were written in vers libre. in another editorial note, Alice Henderson Corbin critiques previous translators who “Europeanized” aboriginal songs by translating them into a European style of diction, syntax, form, and rhythm. By using free verse forms, Corbin “tried to keep strictly within the spirit of [aboriginal songs]”. that’s right, free verse forms were being racialized as aboriginal!
this trend continued. Mary Austin–in her 1923 text THE AMERICAN RHYTHM–described her translation practice as “re-expressions.” she would saturate herself “in the poem, in the life that produced it and the environment that cradled that life, so that when the point of crystallization is reached, [she herself] give[s] forth a poem which bears […] a genetic resemblance to the Amerind song.” She also highlighted the importance of translating and transcribing melody: “melody had to do all the work for the primitive that is done now with print, with punctuation and capitals and italics, with visual arrangement of line and stanza.” she was pretty influential in what some call ‘modernist ethnopoetics.’
fast forward to the post-modern: enter jerome rothemberg and his idea of ‘total translation’. in his essay “Total Translation: An Experiment in the Presentation of American Indian Poetry” (1969), he writes: “I don’t want to set English words to Indian music, but to respond poem-for-poem in the attempt to work out a ‘total’ translation—not only of the words but of all sounds connected with the poem, including finally the music itself.”
A total translation includes the translation of the aural and performative aspects of the original song: “[e]verything in those song-poems is finally translatable: words, sounds, voice, melody, gesture, event, etc., in the reconstitution of a unity that would be shattered by approaching each element in isolation.” Rothenberg “present[s] analogues to the full range of vocal sound” through adding translated elements and typographical innovations. His translations create a “highly individualized singing” and “leads to an actual indeterminacy of performance.” He claims that those “who can’t follow the words at all may make up their own vocal sounds—anything, in effect, for the sake of participation.”
Q: interesting, huh? i’m not sure if this relates in any way to the previous discussion on translation? post-total translation? …anything, in effect, for the sake of participating in the practice, joy, frustrations, and capital of ‘translation’? i havent even mentioned homophonic translations…what do folks think of that translation practice?