Blurring Boundaries: A Conversation on the Art of Translation with Rosa Alcalá, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and Cole Swensen (Poets House, 11/17/06)
Last night, I attended the closing event of the Festival of Contemporary Japanese Women Poets, which was organized by belladonna*, Poets House and the Bowery Poetry Club. The conversation began between Alcalá, Sekiguchi and Swensen and continued with a Q&A. I was introduced to Sekiguchi's work on Wednesday but last night she elaborated further on her experiences in and thoughts on self-translation. Swensen, also a well-regarded poet, translated into English Sekiguchi's Japanese to English self-translations and has translated a number of French works, focusing in particular on cross-genres. She currently teaches at the University of Iowa. Her comments addressed the role and influence of translation on a poet's "original writing." Rosa Alcalá is a poet and translator who teaches in a bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas, El Paso. She opened the conversation with an observation on borders:
RA: While some boundaries are an invention, others are real. Placing ourselves on those boundaries can be productive--some of her early work involved transcribing the lyrics of flamenco songs--these transcriptions were failures, she decided, because the meaning of the songs was in the scratches, the wobbly voices--the grooves--"how do we translation what Roland Barthes has called 'the grain of the voice'"--so instead of transcribing, she wrote poems--a second boundary emerged, one between languages, interlingualism--in translating Cecilia Vicuña she encountered the boundary around the poem--Vicuña performs the same poem in different ways--so we were back to the problem of translating the flamenco songs--so "I am not her translator but her transcriber"--How do you translate the body fo the text? Lourdes Vázquez, another poet whose work she has transalted, retains the gestures, the body of her poems, strokes reaching into the ocean--without this reaching, the line would drown. Was brought up bilingual. There is a certain distance she experiences between English and Spanish but its a different distance with each language, not the same.
RS (speaking in French): With poets there is a relationship to language that is more pronounced that that of novelists. Currently she is involved in a writing project that involves writing simultaneously in French and Japanese. Regarding the decision to self-translate: The question of the necessity of communication was not necessarily the heart of the matter, but rather translation is necessary in order to continue writing poetry.Reminded of what Beckett said about writing in English and French: "If one does not have two feet one cannot walk." Self-translating and writing in French made her more aware of writers who write in one language in order to escape from another. Also discussed her experience translating a Japanese poet (the name escaped me) who used many foreign words (Korean) and also the island languages of Japan (Okinawa).
CS: Introduces the term "translingual writing," writing that incorporates other languages. Self-translation compromises the integrity of your own original, which is a good thing. Doing so, self-translating that is, undercuts complacency in language. You become aware of your incapacity in the second langauge but also makes clearer the impasses and limitations you experience in your own native language. Awkwardness works two ways--your breaking the rules of language but your also paying greater attention to the needs (?) of poetic language (ed: you are attending to poetic language when you embrace awkwardness). The problem is that too many translators place so much emphasis on meaning but disregard other elements that are crucial, like sound sense. In self-translatioin you are free from the impossibility of translation and you are essentially rewriting, creating an original. Translingual writing--when you bring in all kinds of languages translation/rewriting is impossible (?).
CS->RA: In academia there's a compartmentalizing of language that takes place, you have the German department, the Spanish, the French. In this context, the bilingual creative writing program in which Alcalá teaches in very intriguing. Could she say more about this?
RA: El Paso's border is porous, movement between languages is fluid. I write in English but Spanish is there. Its absence is present in my work. Each class, each semester is different--organic--can't develop a system for this kind of situation.
CS->RS: How does your work change between languages?
[at this point, there is a change in translators and RS begins to speak in Japanese.]
RS: This is a question that I am asked frequently but it is very difficult to answer because it is a question that has no body. Those who read my French poems are convinced that "there must be something Japanese in them, I'm positive." There are cases in which there are traces of Japanese--syntactic, grammatical--which can be seen. But what I wonder is how is it that someone who does not know the other language "see" it? Japanese readers say to me: "Now that you live in France your writing has become French" even when they don't know French.
My (poetic) language changes for specific purposes. The only thing that has changed is my position in relation to language--so one shouldn't think that there is only one language in which one writes--there are multiple languages just as there is no one original.
CS: Sees the issue as being more complicated. "The spirit of multiplicity is in a text." (ed: and how do you translate this multiplicity of the original into another text? Is this multiplicity unique or specifically characterized?)
Q&A: CS rephrases a question from the audience: Are poets more inherently at home in their native language?
RA: "I often feel at home but I don't own the house. I pay rent!" Wanted to master both languages, Spanish and English, but ending up "unmastering" both in poetry. Quotes Charles Bernstein on "the unmastery of poetry."
RS: When language becomes a tool...it's as if language is the other, separate from you. When you are translating and writing--multiple, simultaneous activities--you are crowding the room with more others and for awhile you forget the other that is language.
RA: (The question is) Are you translating a certain instance of language? (or a place? a text?)
CS->RA: Why don't you self-translate?
RA: The only poem I've written in Spanish was the first poem of mine that was published (Kenyon Review).--When she writes in English she is already overwhelmed with questions of language, of what she is doing in English, finds it "too overwhelming" to do this in Spanish as well.
RS: When she started reading French contemporary writing her reaction was "I want to participate in the making of literature in this language." (Cole Swensen asks her if she has someone check her work in French. She replied that she does but only if they don't know Japanese.) Usually writes in Japanese and then translates this into French, but did compose once, in French, a "pastiche" of Diderot's Encyclopédie. The decision to write in French or Japanese depends on the "nature de texte" and is usually predicated on the kind of audience she wishes to address.
RA: Quotes someone (?): "We all live within our own hearing."
Yuko Otomo observes that while the "idea of the second original" is interesting, great, a translator still has the "task" and "responsibility" to make a work accessible to those who do not have the resources to know the original. "How much liberty do you have?"
CS: As a translator you are not serving the reader, you are serving language. Your obligation is to make a poem as good in translation as it is in the original. (ed: So "improving on" an original would also be an act of infidelity. This isn't discussed enough.)
RS: Sometimes you may recognize someone in a room by their footsteps. So placing form over meaning, in translation, would create this kind of situation.
At this point, a child ran across the back the room. Few of us could see her but we all heard her footsteps!