Proceeding Translation: Brandon Brown & David Larsen
UPDATE: Given the high volume of comments below, I thought it would be a good idea to post responses by David Larsen and Brandon Brown in the body of the post. Below this stands my original post (for first time readers of this post), and below that the comments to which Larsen and Brown are partially responding to.
2 things: First, thanks to Thom for everything w/ a slight correction. I did not read from Ibn Khalawayh’s Names of the Lion last Saturday but from his Names of the Wind, along with Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ziyad ibn al-A’rabi’s Book of the Well and In Praise of the Rooster by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti. If you want to hear Names of the Lion, be at Johns Hopkins University’s Arellano Theater on April 15.
The second is to make an observation about conceptual translation as practiced by Brandon and me, which takes very different forms but is motivated by similar discontents. Brandon’s project as I understand it is in open defiance of the positivist fiction of accuracy, i.e. the fantasy of a unified standard. Good translators know there is no single accuracy but a multitude of accuracies, none of which is achieved without cost to others. Or have you not considered how many aspects of expressive behavior the translator has to confront? And what decisions go into privileging one over another? Brandon has. His work dramatizes them explicitly, and if it’s not your cup of tea then fine but that’s not because he’s a fraudulent or uninformed translator.
If you’ve seen my translation work, you know how different it is from Brandon’s. My method is to dramatize the fiction of accuracy by performing it according to the most rigorously positivist standards imaginable — precisely because they’re outmoded standards — and branding the results as “experimental poetry.” In my case the procedural spirit may be harder to recognize, because the product winds up looking like a polished sheet of Orientalist scholarship in the vein of D. S. Margoliouth. In spirit, however, I flatter myself to think it’s closer to what Brandon’s doing — staging translation in all its positivist delusion and imperialist complicity. Contrary to the proverb, the emperor wears a lot of clothes, and we think you ought to see them.
I too want to thank Thom for his original considerations, and I take no issue at all with any of the readings made by Thom and David--in fact I am grateful for them. And I am also very grateful for David's description of his own project, a work which I love and think constitutes an innovative and important text for contemporary assumptions about what "experimental poetry" looks like.
As one point of clarification, Latin is a language I read, having studied it for 12 years. For me, learning and studying other languages is integral to poetic practice--I think it can effect, like artworks, exciting aporias in the body's experience of the empirical world. While I personally don't buy notions of a "sacred" or "crystalline" text which calls out to be translated "faithfully" in its "afterlife," I do acknowledge that there are all kinds of translation, all made of different intentions and uses. In fact, in my translation of Catullus #31, there's the sentence: "It’s not like you can’t go read the corpus of Catullus in translations by Peter Whigham or Ryan Gallagher. Or Bernadette Mayer or Louis Zukofsky. And those translations are terrific."
My project, and David's work with ibn Khalawayh, have different approaches. You know how some poets hear poetry in the air? Well, I do too sometimes. But for the Catullus book, I want to try to present the totality of my encounter with the text as a reader, including the unpredictable movements of my body, including the political and somatic joys and horrors, while translating the text. I fail to see how translation can exclude reading from its action, and I fail to see how a hermeneutic gesture can be excluded from any act of reading. I just want to describe different regions of the action. And I'll say it with Larsen: if it's not your cup of tea, cool! It is interesting to note, however, and I do it with dismay as well as affirmation, that there seems to be a "threat" inherent to discussions of translation, and its questions tend to upset the hegemonic guardians of pure language. The (mostly male) aggression I witness in these comment boxes reveals this precisely, and it is a sparkling provocation to hope that poetics has the potential to effect other possible kinds of cognition and response.
Sadly, Sara Wintz and I hosted our last SEGUE event of the season this past Saturday. David Larsen and Samantha Giles (of Small Press Traffic in San Francisco) were the readers, and I thought an excellent complement to one another, Larsen reading from his translation of Ibn Khalawayh’s 9th century lexicographic text Names of the Lion, and Giles from a harrowing long poem regarding the torture and abuse of prisoners by the United States.
David Larsen has been doing some excellent translation work in relation to conceptual practices (and I address this below in my intro for Larsen’s reading last weekend). I want here to put his work in conversation with the Bay Area based poet-translator Brandon Brown, who, like Larsen (as you’ll see below), has also been drawing generously upon proceduralism (constraint-based composition methods) to produce translations. In Brown’s translations of Catullus, for instance, the poet-translator provides his would be collaborators with instructions about how they may go about translating Catallus from Latin to English. To give you a taste of this, here are the instructions Brown gave to me last summer when he invited me to collaborate with him on his translation project:
“I thought we could collaborate on poem 87 in the corpus of Catullus. This is the Latin text:
Nulla potest mulier tantum se dicere amatam
vere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea est.
Nulla fides ullo fuit umquam foedere tanta,
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.
My instructions for your translation are to, while translating the poem, do a Google search on ‘fedora’ and to consult p. 160 of Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin. Translate the poem into a prose paragraph.
(As I mentioned, please disregard these instructions in any way. Translate however you please. I will not alter the text you send me.)”
Brown’s translation practice falls in a tradition after Jack Spicer, Louis Zukofsky, and others in the New American Poetry who liberally abandoned (a la Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator”) the reproduction of meanings for a more literal or affective translation work. A translation practice, to use a trope from Benjamin’s essay, that wishes for unique languages to leave a mark upon one another, thus altering the destiny of both languages through their contact in a literary work.
Yet, Brown is doing more than just leaving a mark of one language upon the other though his translation work. His focus is on the translator herself—the body of the translator, the cultural prerogatives of the translator, the way that translation is to a high degree a personal and embodied practice. David Brazil, in the recent issue of ON Contemporary Practice, speaks to this idea where he quotes Brown:
“There’s The Persians by Aeschylus, a translation of The Persians, by Aeschylus, about which the writer has written that he ‘tried to include many collaborators to intervene in the translation, especially including Edward Said, Jane Austen, Walter Benjamin, my Arabic class, the Clash, e-mail correspondence with a translator recruiter from the U.S. Army, and Rumi; also all the things I ate and drank and wore and said and did are in the translation; and most especially I tried to pay attention to the terrific war and the terrific language that the war made that completely infiltrated all of my food and beverages and clothes and words and actions, and I let that get in the way of the translation too.’” (ON Contemporary Practice 2, p. 22)
“Translation as I understand it involves a preceding writing, a proceeding writing -- in between is the body that translates. The preceding writing is absorbed by the body of the translator in the act of reading. And when the translator writes something down which proceeds from the act of reading and the preceding writing, that is called ‘translation.’ However, far from idealizing a notion of repetition, this translation model wishes to privilege the delay between preceding and proceeding marks. To acknowledge the fact of detour. To suggest that things can go haywire.” (ibid, p. 22)
By bringing the body/person of the translator into play—the ad hominem translator if you will—Brown cites the translator as a vital relay in the process of bearing a literary work across into language’s many afterlives (to use another curious term from the Benjamin). What’s more, translation becomes an act of second reflection (Adorno); the translator attends to translation as a conceptual act both reflecting and permuting the original object/idea of the translated work. The translation does not describe the original work, so much as it reconceives it, injecting it with new ideas and values. I like the way Brown gets at this problem through his terms “proceed” and “precede”—as though his translation were always marking the fact that it is constituted by delay, and/or a sense of uncanniness that the translated object cannot be frozen because the translator’s life is involved with it, in fact may even depend on it.
Brown is part of a continuum of translation practices situated within an avant garde tradition. Yet, more importantly, his translation work partakes of a recent trend of poets and translators wanting to bring their embodiments to the foreground, and to mediate the process of translation/writing through socio-political responsibilities and inflections of community. As though, a la Fluxus or a live art tradition, to admit art’s embroilments in a life being lived in relation to others. Brown’s work moves at the pace of life, and among a community and nexus of friendship that he addresses partially by involving them collaboratively in the process of translation, but as much so by making them part of the content of the work.
Introduction for David Larsen
It is interesting to me when a poet does something other than poetry, and publishes and disseminates whatever this is within the context of poets. David Larsen first came to my attention as a poet who wrote scrappy, post-punk comic books, reapproriating text and images, and adding his own words via thought balloon (comic books’ quotation marks). Both The Thorn and Syrup Hits by Larsen feature these comic book elements—comic book writing as a practice of poetic detournment. In the past few years, Larsen has been better known for his translation work, and specifically his translation of the 9th century Persian lexicographer and grammarian, Ibn Khalawayh’s text, Names of the Lion.
It is always curious to read a poet translating another’s work. The translation is typically salted with the poet’s own problems and habits. I sense this reading Names of the Lion, published last year in a small edition by Michael Cross’s Atticus/Finch press, where one may read every line of it as prose poetry, but even more so the approach Larsen takes to the translation as illustrative of contemporary poetic problems and methods of composition.
“But how an Arabic dictionary might ideally be arranged, and to what degree grammar should or should not intrude on lexicography are questions I feel no responsibility for answering. My task here was carried out in the procedural spirit of recent avant garde tradition, not linguistic scholarship.” (Names of the Lion, p. 6)
Names of the Lion is a procedural translation work, in the spirit of Surrealist exquisite corpse, Oulipian formulas, and Jackson Mac Low’s rigorous grammatical procedures. Bringing with it a force of erudition and attention, it proceeds through a rigorous lexical logic, but also a logic of association. As one soon finds, reading the names of the lion along with its many footnotes (the footnotes take up more than half of each page generally) to arrive at the names of the lion, Larsen makes many leaps of graphological association—“lightning flashes” according to Walter Benjamin. The footnotes document this associative-scholarly process, and as such do not merely form a kind of secondary text, but more so an interlocution of translator, text, reader, and resulting poem.
And yet, if we read Names of the Lion as a brilliantly associative work of scholarship, this still would not put a finger on what Larsen is doing—the boundary he’s pushing both in translation and contemporary poetics. A sense unfolds, reading The Names of the Lion, that language—a language’s syntax, and the muthological resonances of words (Robert Duncan)—is telling a story. Of what are words telling us a story? They are telling us a story—for one—of history; which is to say, of how languages come into contact historically with one another—of their morphologies, their phylogenies, and thus of the people who are their creative, mutative vessel.
Likewise, through Names of the Lion, we begin to see a picture of the imagination, the imagination given shape and visibility through the power of naming. In each name is a unique story: a story of cultural meaning, of values, of emotional projections. The lion is not just a name, as Larsen tells us, but that which preoccupied the lives of a people for very practical reasons—because it was a danger; a threat to their livelihoods and their lives.
With a poet’s elegance, Larsen is able to show the complexity of the stories language tells via its structure and form (grammar, lexicography). The result is not just a translation, but an artifact of Larsen’s going down into his own processes of understanding an other. History as an other; language as the other; translation as an encounter with language as a force at the limits of our knowing.
- Segue reading series
- On Contemporary Practice
- Michael Cross
- Sara Wintz
- David Larsen
- Samantha Giles
- Small Press Traffic
- Ibn Khalawayh
- Brandon Brown
- Walter Benjamin
- The Task of the Translator
- David Brazil
- The Persians
- Second Reflection
- The Thorn
- Syrup Hits
- The Names of the Lion
- Atticus/Finch Press
- Theodor Adorno
Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...