Gastrointestinal Effluvia and Translation
Translating this book made me sick. I mean it gave me migraines, made me puke; I couldn’t sleep at night, regressed into totally out-of-character sexual behavior. The way I’ve put it to my friends is that working on it was like being made to vomit up my first two books, eat the vomit, vomit again, etc., then pour the mess into ice trays and freeze it, and then pour liquor over the cubes … I don’t know why I’ve been hesitant to say this publicly.
—Ariana Reines, from the introduction to her translation of Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl, by Tiqqun
This is not appropriation but incorporation, the bloody struggle. Not avoidance. Entrapment, perjury. Ultimately cannibalism.
—Norma Cole, Nines and Tens: A Talk on Translation
Last week, I wrote about some of the metaphors that translation lives by—metaphors that bifurcate radical conformism and betrayal as the two choices for translation in the political context of linguistic and cultural identifications. Fidelity, treason, duty, and debt reduce the translator’s activity to a repetition of sovereign powers competing for a stake in the production of the texts. And yet a more contemporary and, to my mind, more productive tendency, is to think about translation as a somatic, sometimes violent, experience of the abject.
Julia Kristeva gives us an ample vocabulary for abjection in Powers of Horror. In a passage about food loathing, subjectivization, and death—the evident aroma of a parable for translation. Kristeva writes, “'I’ do not want to listen, ‘I do not assimilate it,’ ‘I’ expel it. But since the food is not an ‘other’ for me…I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.” In other words, with the vomit and the shit and the excrescence of what we’ve brought into the body, we also discharge our selves, as fragments of the intestines, but also the material of feeling.
Recently I was reading something online about shit. I was trying to find out if it was true what Maurice had posted on facebook many months ago, that at any time the human body potentially carried around some number of pounds of shit. So I think I searched for something like “how much does shit weigh.” It turns out to maybe be just a couple of pounds, although some of the lively commentators on the stream proposed losing as much as eight pounds in a weekend after several rounds of colonics. One of the comments that freaked me out the most was a suggestion that a constipated person was a container of rotting food. That is, not having been able to shit, the food the person ate remains in their stomach and decomposes there. I know this is obvious, but I had never thought so particularly about our bodies as mobile containers for rotting food and liquid.
What comes in is supposed to come out. If it does not, if the intestinal circuitry malfunctions, the body finds other means of expelling what rots inside it. Vomit for instance. But this begs the question: if indigestion is the failure of adequate translation by the organs, what is the ideal of shit? Shit is the translation of food into waste. What we’re left with is supposed to be the processed unburdening of everything useless about nourishment. And I suppose that’s true for the hegemonic logic of translation, too. To follow our metaphor, imagine a turd that looks exactly like what you ate. Gross, right? And yet this is supposed to be the ideal of translating!
Like digestion, which involves the intake of food through the alimentary openings of the body, and the expulsion of waste through the asshole, translation also involves two body parts—the eyes, for reading; and then, whichever expressive organ drives the translation into appearance, usually the mouth or the hand. Like digestion, the translation takes place between two moments, one of ingestion and one of excretion. And, like digestion, its name is the delay between the two.
Translation like every other process of consumption involves a risk, the risk that the process culminates in horror. Like eating a raw oyster—the best thing there is—there’s a risk that the host rejects the graft, or that the graft rejects the host. Like food, liquid, anything we nourish ourselves with, reading alters the invisible interiors of our bodies as they undergo molecular change.
Translation theory thus far has been predominantly concerned to question its own premises and dismiss its own activity. As a prospect ever and always doomed to fail. To be, in other words, shit as we know it. The foul, misshapen mess we consider in the toilet, or grass, or wherever we lay it. Translators are bound by the detail of their own otherness to make a mess of something delicious. Until recently, there has not been a full consideration of the harm done to the translator’s body. To the power of ingesting viral prosodies and rejecting them if they make us sick. In closely attending to what comes up or sprays out. To see if we’re okay. To usually confirm that we are not quite.
Brandon Brown is the author of The Persians By Aeschylus, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, and Flowering Mall. In 2012, his debut play Charles Baudelaire the Vampire Slayer was staged at Small Press Traffic’s Poet’s Theater. He publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG! and lives in Oakland. In...