I apologize to my fellow bloggers for being a bit scarce. I've been travelling, and jet-lagged, and was just at the ALSC conference where I got to meet Harrieteers Emily Warn and Steve Burt. I've been thinking a lot about translation, not just because I was on a panel about poetry, philosophy, and translation, but because I have been in the act of translation... that is "carrying across" boundaries--myself, my luggage, my family. Because of a paperwork glitch in a visa in 1997, which means he must check the "yes" box on the green form coming into the country which asks if you have ever had problems with the INS, my Greek husband still encounters difficulties when we go through passport control. We inevitably get sent to the Orange Room (or whatever it is called in the particular airport we are in), along with various resident aliens and visitors whose paperwork or appearance or demeanor has somehow sent up flags with the immigration officer.

So there we are, with a 3 year old who has been 10 hours cooped up on a plane, now running wildly around, getting shouted at whenever he crosses an ominous red line in the carpet, as we wait to find out if they will let my husband into the country, or, for some arbitrary reason or other, send him back on the next plane out. There are no rights here--no rights to an attorney, no rights just because you are married to a citizen. Everyone in the room is exhausted and tense. Some have the stoical resignation of those used to being under the arbitrary sway of civil servants. I wonder how many US citizens even know of the existence of such rooms and corridors, conviently out of sight, in the airport, behind which are interview rooms and restraining cells, limbos of all kinds, and some circles of hell.
We are trying to translate ourselves from one country to another. In doing so, in the tense moments before the officer decides on our case (though my husband has brought a whole file of papers explaining the initial misunderstanding and the subsequent reversal of the initial "expeditious removal", a whole file of papers from the embassy in Athens and articles from the AJC and New York Times), we ourselves switch to a private language, or a private language here, Greek. Our son finds a playmate, a Chinese boy who shares his frustration with sitting still, and they are briefly delighted to roll around on the carpet together, sharing a common language of laughter and gestures. When the Chinese boy and his family go off--perhaps free to travel, perhaps back on a plane, or worse--our son asks where he has gone. I can't give him an answer.
Every step of the way--security, baggage, there are questions and rules about what we can take with us, what we must leave behind. People are busy discarding liquids in bottles that are too large, or getting rid of excess weight. It isn't unlike what the translator does. He wants to get as much of his precious and fragile cargo across as possible, he hopes unbroken. But hard decisions will have to be made. You are only allowed fifty pounds. You cannot bring sharp objects. You must discard anything suspicious. You must report anything suspcious. The bag may need to get unpacked and repacked several times to get everything in. Everything may not get in. The bag may get damaged, it may go missing.
But for all this, we never consider giving up travelling. For as there is much to be lost, there is much to be gained. The INS officer has conferred with his superior, and we are allowed to pass. Suddenly friendly, with a wink, they suggest that maybe next time my husband should just check "no" in the trouble box. I am almost ready to weep with relief.
We get out to the baggage carousel. Our bags are not there. They have gone to Boston.

Originally Published: October 15th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 15, 2007

    Yep, the rules or non-rules this country uses to handle immigration are appalling...
    (Are your bags still in Boston? I could have picked them up from Logan!)
    There are poems based on government forms and public-safety signs, and even a British scandal from a few years ago around such poems, but have there been any good poems based on government forms and public safety? Poems you like? (This is a question for the audience.)

  2. October 15, 2007

    The Unknown Citizen by Auden, kinda.
    That sounds like a hellish experience -- sorry.

  3. October 16, 2007
     Site Translations

    I recommend you watch the movie The Terminal. After your recent experience at the airport, I think you'll like it:
    Shot almost entirely on a two-and-a-half-story recreation of a full-size operating airport terminal, this romantic comedy from director Steven Spielberg revolves around an Eastern European man by the name of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), whose plans of immigrating to New York were hastened by a violent coup in his home country. Unfortunately, Viktor finds himself on the wrong end of a nasty technicality while en route to America: His passport was issued from a country, which, during its upheaval, ceased to exist in an official capacity. Unauthorized to leave Kennedy Airport upon his arrival and unable to return home, Viktor finds himself exiled inside the terminal's international transit lounge.

  4. October 17, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    We did get our luggage in the end...
    I don't think I could bear to watch the Terminal.

  5. October 17, 2007
     Matt Cozart

    I'm pretty sure that Terminal thing is spam. It sounds like it could be a product description from Amazon or something. Phrasing like "this romantic comedy from director Steven Spielberg" kind of gives it away.