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Deterritorializations: Nominal Problems

By Jen Hofer
Ungraffiti closeup

Ungraffiti in the Los Angeles River channel from the Broadway Street Bridge

Sometimes I think of everything animate (and, frankly, most things inanimate) as systems of motion. If we are healthy, there are close to a thousand species of bacteria and fungi on our skin, going about their bacterial and fungal business; approximately one hundred trillion microorganisms jostle around in our intestinal systems; molecules themselves are in constant motion, and hence we are too, even at our moments of greatest suspension, pause, or paralysis. We are host to much more matter, and more mobility, than meets the eye.

Brandon Brown: You know how those weird whales double as floating homes for parasites? That’s like translation, a killer magnet for contaminants.

Contaminants, dirt, noise, failures, errors, slippages. These necessary snags to spark thought. The destabilizations dominant-culture deployments of language dearly need in order to become undone, reworked with new and more porous potential. What is susceptible to the contamination of translation? Everything, and then some, since translation is a kind of excess, spilling over from the original (or from the translator’s idea of the original) and fastening itself to the language being translated into like an alien fungus or slippery algae, making it difficult to maintain a solid footing. The original is corrupted, corroded into a new form by the inevitably transformative process of selection, election and sculpting that the contaminations of translation entail. The language into which we are translating is inflected and infected by unfamiliar forms, concepts, images, and turns of phrase. And the translator themself—any possibility of a coherent, singular subjectivity—is entirely contaminated. Who am I when I am writing your words, thinking your thoughts, forming my hands and mouth into your syntax, or into a version of your syntax, shifted to fit into my syntax, which shifts to make space for your syntax?

LA River Ungraffiti (northeast view)

Naming is pain.

Micah Ballard: We all try to cover our tracks and for those who don’t, these are good reminders that trace elements of others invariably find their way through.

The question I often contend with is how to remain primary, or how to be oneself while under the spell of something else.

Translators—ever under the spell of something else—can’t cover our tracks in terms of origins and sources: we are nothing without our source (though perhaps being nothing is the perfect place to begin doing something). In writing, the contours or flecks of what came before are often subterranean or harmonic, not negated but not fully present. In translation, it is not only impossible but undesirable to lose the traces of what came before—translation is those traces, precisely, effortfully, purposefully. I have no interest in being primary, and I often wonder how to be myself—whether under the spell of something or someone else, or in any context. Susan Landers: “I knew then it was possible to be lost and present at the same time.” Translation (and interpreting—more on this later, or elsewhere) are the most complicated and most humbling and most gratitude-inducing forms of subjectivity I have experienced: I am not myself, yet I am always (and often more so) myself. I am listening.

DOLOR —es el nombre

ellos
en estrelladas sombras
crecen

Imantados desde ahí
desde el dolor
desde el nombre

En juego

la carne y corazón de almaepidermis

—Dolores Dorantes, from Poemas para niños (Poems for Kids)

Here is a rough trot of this poem—a sketch of the denotative fields and spaces between fields the poem inhabits, in hopes of illustrating some of the challenges Dolores’s use of language presents:

DOLOR —es el nombre

++dolor: pain
++Dolores: reference to Dolores’s name
++es: is
++el nombre: the name

Dolor —es el nombre could mean “Pain is the name” or “Naming is pain” or “Dolores is the/my name.”

ellos

++ellos: they
++en estrelladas sombras en: in
++estrelladas, from estrellar, to explode
++also contains resonance of estrella, star
++sombras: shadows, shades
++crecen crecer: to grow

Imantados desde ahí

++imantar: to magnetize (imán: magnet)
++desde: from
++ahí: there, over there

desde el dolor
desde el nombre

En juego

++juego: game, play

la carne y corazón de almaepidermis

++la carne: meat, flesh
++y: and
++corazón: heart
++de: of
++alma: soul
++epidermis: epidermis

When I first began translating this poem (an absurd number of years ago), I struggled with the first line over many months and many emails with Dolores. I settled on an expanded version of the line that would express some combination of its various meanings, and would also point toward the depth of multiplicity Dolores achieves. I also wanted to get as close as I could to the name “Dolores,” and could only imagine reproducing her name sonically in the line via a use of the Spanish word for pain, “dolor.”

PAIN , DOLOR —is this name is pain

they
in star-smashed shadows
grow

Magnetized from there
from the pain, dolor
from the name

In play

the flesh and heart of the epidermisoul

That’s how the poem lived for many years. We’re revisiting this book (excerpts of which appeared in my anthology of contemporary poetry by Mexican women) because Kenning Editions is publishing books one through four of the Dolores Dorantes series; Poemas para niños is book one. As we re-read, new questions arise, particularly in relation to the line “Dolor —es el nombre.” Here is a translation of a bit of our recent email correspondence:

dd: Everything is complicated in this line. I know we’ve talked about this before, but honestly I think this solution is totally disconnected from the original… It doesn’t matter to me if the aspect of word play with my name doesn’t exist in the line… only the meaning of “dolor de nombrar” (the pain of naming) “dolor es el nombre” (pain is the name).

jh: I don’t know… I don’t agree that it’s totally disconnected from the original. I can’t avoid being conscious of the fact that you include your name in the poem: dolor—es. And that’s one reason for the use of Spanish in the English version, to form “dolor—is” (obviously that’s not your name, but it’s similar to the word play you’re able to create in Spanish). Without using the word in Spanish, that word play is entirely lost—in English there is simply no way to express it. Also, I love that some Spanish words appear in the translation, so the English has to incorporate something “foreign.” As I see it, translation (especially of poetry) isn’t a literal conversion from one language to another, but rather a re-reading of the text in another language. That is, part of what I’m reading here in your text is word play with your name and it seems more important to me to represent that play in some way than to follow the original with absolute literal faithfulness. At the same time, the most literal meaning of the phrase in English does say “dolor es el nombre” (“pain is this name”)—that is, I am in fact reflecting your meaning. Also, even leaving aside the word play with your name, “dolor es el nombre” has two meanings I want to represent: that naming is painful and that the name (yours or anyone’s) is pain. That’s why I created the play with “pain is this name is pain” (that is, the repetition of “pain”)—to reflect the various meanings of your supposedly simple phrase which is in reality extremely complex. So what do we do?

dd: What I don’t like about this line is the repetition of the word “pain.” I’d prefer to let go of the word play with my own name, which is already inherently present in the book as a whole. I’m particularly interested in reflecting the meaning, the pain of naming, much more than in the personal drama of having this name “pain is the name.”

jh: The thing is that the play on words with your name won’t exist in the book (not in this fragment and not anywhere) unless we do something to underline it. I can assure you that in English, there is no word play with your name in this book other than in this line. I understand that it exists in the Spanish version but it doesn’t work that way in English. And also, as I mentioned before, your phrase—even if we forget about the word play with your name—has two meanings: that naming is painful and that a name (yours or anyone’s) is pain. I don’t see many options that could reflect both meanings, other than some kind of word play. Let’s see… options…

naming is—pain

to name is—pain

pain—is the name

pain—is to name

I have to say that I don’t like any of these options. I can’t find anything that reflects the two meanings we want to express (not to mention the word play you achieve).

So I don’t know what to do. What do you think?

dd: “Dolor es el nombre” has just one single meaning: that the name is pain, whether it’s used to name things or it’s used to name a person. I think the best option is “pain is the name.” The play on words with my name exists in the book as a whole, because the title of the book is my own name.

LA River Ungraffiti

Unnaming is pain.

PAIN —is the name

they
in star-smashed shadows
grow

Magnetized from there
from the pain
from the name

In play

the flesh and heart of the epidermisoul

David Meltzer: The ineffable is beyond words; music is beyond words.//The impossibility of music.

Words too are ineffable and beyond words and impossible. And so I am beginning to think there is no translation other than untranslation. If naming is pain, translation (renaming) is pain all over again, doubled or perhaps fractaled, become something else, itself and not-itself. Eliot Weinberger: “Translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem.” I am in complete agreement: the translation is an utterly (yet not entirely) different poem from the original—linked to it, but not bound irrevocably. But in this instance, I let go of my own perspective, my own reading. I defer to someone else’s reading of the line. Thinking politically—as an unwilling unproud and unpatriotic citizen of the most imperialist empire on the planet—I believe it is a good thing to practice deferring to the perspectives of people whose perspectives differ from our own. As a poet, I am interested less in my own voice and more in where I might go and what I might learn when I speak and write as not-me, which is also me. I am lost. And I am present.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Friday, April 12th, 2013 by Jen Hofer.