Follow Harriet on Twitter
Translation and Revolt
Since these are posts that are supposed to concern the craft of poetry, I suppose it’s okay to commence with a very practical remark about how I typically start a piece of writing. Essentially, in that very moment of total oceanic openness, the moment all poets know as the maximally porous time of Aeolian Harpitude, Spicerian Martians knocking and howling, etc.—at this critical moment of inspiration I take a quick stroll on the Internet. A tour of the private and less private social networking platforms that bind me to my sisters and fellows. If you wanted to be Modernist about it, you could imagine this practice as a sort of Cagean I-Ching thing, formally hearkening to the transcendent encounter with the random. Or whatever. It almost always works, by which I mean that something clings to the clothes departing that spectacular labyrinth, a little residual mark on the text.
Anyway, I just watched this viral video that a couple of people posted on Facebook called “Darth Vader vs. Hitler: Epic Rap Battles of History 2.” It’s a mediocre piece even inside the genre, a Wikipedia entry for the two antagonists formulated in the most banal and whitewashed reiteration of the dozens imaginable, each claiming to represent radical evil to a greater extent. One might go as far as to suggest a historical irresponsibility on the artist’s part, in the suggestion that the 20th century’s paradigmatic catastrophe could be comprehended via the 20th century’s most iconic villain. And what to make of the fact that this message is delivered via rap, the 20th century’s concluding artistic masterpiece. Who cares, many of you might be thinking. And perhaps rightly.
The scene of translation also consistently attracts rhetoric that one might suppose exaggerates its importance in cultural production. Ironically, this exaggeration is manifest whether by virtue of the extreme disappearance of the translator or the translator’s extreme interference. Two widely accepted tropes pertaining to the translator are paradoxically that 1) the translator is invisible; that the best translations are the ones that obscure the translator most and 2) that the translator is the carrier of dangerous information, a rogue who wields tremendously harmful power. The first notion was analyzed by Lawrence Venuti in The Translator’s Invisibility. The second refers to a proverb centuries old: traddutore, traditore (“translator, traitor”), that continues to govern the activity of translation.
But above and beyond the potentially disastrous work of betrayal undertaken by the wretched translator, even in its positive formulations translation is characterized by gravitas: is seems to involve duties, debts, fidelity, treason. If you’re interested in how this might sound in daily life, consider the archives of the Harriet blog itself. In the course of a long comment stream bewailing my at-the-time unpublished and unread translation of Catullus, Henry Gould writes, “These hi-jinks strike me as effete, decadent. They exhibit bad faith toward the primary & rather humble duty of the translator : to the accuracy of the carry-over.” Now, look. I’m not trying to get into some pathetically watered down reiteration of “Darth Vader vs. Hitler: Epic Rap Battles of History 2,” and finally I more or less agree. I’d just like to observe that Gould’s writing, which is nothing if not restrained and sensible, still uses powerful nouns like “faith” and “duty” to characterize the ideal of literary translation as well as rather strong language to describe the person (in this case, me) who’s trampling that duty: “effete, decadent.”
I don’t take “effete” and “decadent” as insults—far from it! If in any moment I appear effete or decadent it’s likely that I’m not at my day job—always a plus. If anything, I take this as sheer testimony to an anxiety about contemporaneity that the conservative tendency of translation criticism can’t absorb. A world in which I can see “Darth Vader vs. Hitler: Epic Rap Battles of History 2” at the mere stroke of my withering pinky. Still, no matter how attracted I am in general to the most rococo and debauched Satanic reiterations of feeling, garbage saccharine sparkling pop distributed in the space of appearance via magic silicon, I’m not satisfied with this sentence on translation. I’m still suspect of “treason” as an effective mode for art. Every act of treason recognizes sovereignty. Typically treason benefits an alternative sovereignty at war with one’s current sovereignty. And fuck that—what I want is revolt. Don’t you? Franz Rosenzweig said famously, “in translation, we serve two masters.” Whatever. Fuck the master. Fuck Darth Vader and Hitler, you know?
The scene of translation sometimes felt like the moment you’ve shoplifted something in a store whose surveillance systems are unknown to you. Will you make it out? The “accuracy of the carry-over” that most commentators on the practice of translation espouse seems more and more like the ideological rules that dictate a “logical market” or a “civilized society.” But again, “mis-translation” doesn’t seem to suffice, if by “mistranslation” we mean predictable derivations from the idealized replication of sense in a target language by a source language.
When I translated The Persians by Aeschylus, reasonable fidelity and reasonable treason both seemed inadequate, based on the fact that either might result in a common product: a finely-made translation of Aeschylus. And that was quite simply unacceptable.
I envy translators who like the texts they translate—it’s super smart to choose such texts and kudos. I’ve worked with texts that, for the most part, I passionately dislike or about which I feel passionate ambivalence. Masochism? Perhaps. My tactics against Aeschylus in my book The Persians By Aeschylus include finger-pointing, crude mockery, and the search for any opportunity to discredit Aeschylus and his poetry. It was not altogether successful. I was in love, and eating tons of meat after eleven years of vegetarianism. And although Aeschylus referred to luxurious interiors and comestibles as a way to mock the vanquished Persians (that fucking prick), I couldn’t help but relish what was lavish in my own life.
Which leads me to a last caveat. Which is that I don’t want this to be understood as suggestion that a revolt inside the discourse around the aesthetic production known as translation is equivalent to revolt in other parts of our sensible lives. That would be like saying that “Darth Vader vs. Hitler: Epic Rap Battles of History 2” could represent even parodically actual struggles against actual evil. But it does refuse a certain kind of sentence of history—a sentence on translation that reduces its activity to two operations, both of which reaffirm the logic of sovereignty. Translation can challenge this logic. It can, in a minor and yet powerful way, call for the end of masters.