Suspension of Belief:Some Thoughts
on Translation as Subversive Speech
by Jen Hofer
The clock, the gesture, the map, the meal, the notation, the love letter, the gravestone. Translation is present in every aspect of our lives: it is a daily activity. Touch, speech, writing, image-making, intimacy. All writing is translation: from perception and experience into language. The report or signal of the object is not the object. The word “tree” is not a tree, and likewise the “tree” is not an “arbol” (or vice versa), but is an agreement we make so as to be able to — at least attempt to — communicate. Relating involves constant translation.
The relations between the terms keep shifting...In the end, we are left with gestures: the gesture of analogy rather than any particular analogy, the gesture of signification rather than any particular meaning, the gestures of endless commentary and interpretation. A wild whirl to cover the abyss. Vertigo.
*Rosmarie Waldrop, “Split Infinite,” Dissonance (if you are interested) (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2005)
Translation is sunspots: what we are seeing (or hearing or reading) is the obstruction and the thing (the word and the idea of words) itself as set off — contoured — illuminated — by the obstruction. The obstruction is the snag in language that foreign syntax or vocabulary or construction creates — a little sunspot in an otherwise smooth field of light — the outlines of which heighten our awareness of the spot, our awareness of the sun. That small strangeness that throws both the foreign and the familiar into relief so we see the thing seen, and also see our sight, our process of apprehension and assimilation.
The person...is a mobile (and mobilized) reference point, or, to put it another way, subjectivity is not an entity but a dynamic.
There is no self undefiled by experience, no self unmediated in the perceptual situation; instead there is a world and the person is in it.
* Lyn Hejinian, “The Person and Description,” The Language of Inquiry (UC Press, 2000)
Translation is to be not hyphenated but collided. A welcome perversion of any essentialist, nationalistic, cohesive vision of what it is to be a person in the world. People are versions: contextual, interrupted, mutable, articulated, different in different moments and spaces. Translation (its processes — translating — and the moments those processes create — translations, texts) is a perversion especially welcome when the language in question is English (as it is in my case: English is my mother tongue and Spanish is my step-mother tongue). The two languages sing together, not quite in harmony, not quite dissonant.
Most of the time (in singing together)...we’re a near miss. And this almost-blend calls a particular attention to our doubleness through the ear-boxing failure of our almost-union.* Juliana Snapper, Encyclopedia Volume 1, A-E (Encyclomedia, 2006).
Contemporary American English is too often polluted by a monological megalomaniacal English-only xenophobic imperialism that seeks to impose — via “shock and awe” or “enduring freedom” or “extreme rendition” — a language of hegemonically-defined totality on the rest of the world. This English needs to have its ears boxed. Literally, English needs to learn to hear differently. And thus to speak differently, to think differently, to act differently. English as it functions in the normative political and social spheres is a language out of which we must translate all the time, refusing vigilantly, energetically, to be seduced or coddled or dulled or defeated by the willfully deceptive misnomers of an Orwellian system that frames not just our actions but our frames (language, thought, relation) themselves.
I work as a poet, literary translator and member of an urban puppet theater collective called the Little Fakers (we believe a little fakery is the sincerest form of sincerity); I pay my bills teaching, translating and interpreting for museums and non-profits, and as a certified interpreter in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system. I work in children’s court, juvenile court, civil court, family court, traffic court, arraignment court and criminal courts of all types. The act of rewriting a poem or paragraph from one language to another is known as translation; the act of saying aloud in one language what someone is saying in another is known as interpretation: the terms, it seems to me, are exactly backwards. There is usually only one way to say “manslaughter,” “plea bargain,” or “not guilty” in Spanish — homicidio culposo, convenio declaratorio, no culpable — and there is little “interpretation” involved in locating these words: the field of expression is tiny, and exists within tight confines, made tighter by a so-called justice system that valorizes incarceration as a first (and all too frequently only) response to the rampant and often violent lack of humane housing, mental and physical health care, education and employment opportunities in so many communities.
On the other hand, and in total and myriad contrast to the “just funnel ’em through the system as fast as you can so we can go to lunch” ethic in the county courts, there are usually dozens of ways to express a particular phrase or combination of phrases in poetry — in fact, the process of translating poetry is almost entirely a process of interpretation; as Gregory Rabassa famously said, translation is the most intimate form of reading. How, I ask myself constantly, do I understand this word, phrase, line, stanza, poem in Spanish, and how can I most congruently express that understanding in English? And “most congruently” is a vast terrain, encompassing denotative meaning, connotation and resonance of words and phrases, the musicality and rhythm of a text, syntax, diction and the relationship of the writer’s use of language to normative language use in whatever language is being translated.
Language transfer in a court setting is strangely essentializing (or perhaps given the politics of the context that’s not strange at all?). There is little place for connotation or multiplicity of meaning in a courtroom, where anything you say can and will be held against you. Even the most passionately-held belief in the indeterminacy and radical potentiality of language can in this context begin to erode, and perhaps for good reason. For instance: I am leaning on the side of the witness stand, interpreting for the defendant in a murder trial. The question is not whether he committed the murder, but what his state of mind was at the time: was it manslaughter or homicide. He is being questioned in detail about the events leading up to the moment of the murder, and the murder itself. The prosecutor asks a question; I repeat it quietly in Spanish. I am standing four inches from this man. I can see the individual hairs on his jaw. I contemplate his cuticles. He answers the questions clearly, without hesitation, and I repeat his answers in English, for the record and for the entire court to hear. “We were in the cab of my truck. We were arguing. There was a rope behind the seat. I put the rope around her neck with one end in each hand. I pulled until she stopped moving.” “So you murdered your wife?” “I murdered my wife.” I do not have a wife, nor am I the murdering type, but oddly in the moment of speaking the sentence it is I who murdered my wife. Language is a physical force, a bodily function. I speak both sides of the conversation: the entire conversation exists in me, floats somewhere in front of my spine or below my scalp, in that place where the glorified typewriter of my mind flips phrases from one scale to another, keeping the tone, keeping the tune, but singing in a different register, and the part of me that wants to react or take in this information is held at bay, buttoned down, sewn up.
The way language functions in the context of court interpreting suggests a one-to-one correlation between terms, that what is spoken is reality, and has consequences as such. Perhaps this is how power operates across cultures, allowing only direct and singular correlations between different worlds, a top-down fantasy of transparency in which nuance is subsumed by the very action of subsuming.Multiple, liminal and interstitial meanings have little purchase in the windowless space of the courtroom, where interpreting functions as if it were the magnetic opposite pole pushing out from translating. At its most radically politicized, translation can function to interrogate and destabilize our ideas about how language functions to make meaning, and can therefore invite us into an awareness of how our own modes of perception are configured, encouraging us to use the tools language offers — as the daily currency of thought, experience and communication — to reconstruct the very foundations on which our currently distressing world rests.
At a fundamental — and fundamentally important — level, translation acts directly against cultural myopia. Texts in translation reflect, at least to some extent, what someone else elsewhere has to say and how they choose to say it. The act of translation suggests that there is something out there other than what we already know. It invites us to listen, to listen differently than we might otherwise. There is more to hear than what those proximately around us are saying. Translation reminds us — physically, like a slap or an obstacle in the road or a snag in something otherwise (deceptively) smooth — of all that we do not, perhaps cannot, know, and at the same time is one path (of many, thankfully) toward mutual understanding across difference. Cultural myopia is racism, plain and simple. Though it may be utterly incongruous — or perhaps because it is utterly incongruous — I honestly believe in compassion and human understanding, that it is more difficult to kill people if we know and can to some extent experience aspects of the context in which they live. Translation makes the space for us to listen to something we cannot otherwise hear here, to participate in a conversation that is expanded, expanding, far beyond what we already know (or think we know).
Dear Tony, I think there is no light in the world but the world. And I think there is light. My happiness is the knowledge of all we do not know. George Oppen.
*George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (ed. Rachel Blau duPlessis, Duke Univ. Press, 1990)
How can we become aware of what there is to see in what we do not see? We become entrenched; we need instigations, provocations, to be pried out of wherever it is we land most comfortably. Translation functions to change the pitch or tone at which we live: the white noise of “the normal” becomes audible in the new scale a foreign body traces. Translation reminds us that context is everything — as is content, as is form. For instance: I am at a juice stand upstairs in the Mercado Cuauhtémoc in Ciudad Juárez with the Mexican poet Dolores Dorantes, who through translation has become one of my most beloved friends. We are being served fresh-squeezed orange juice by a server in a black Harley t-shirt (USAmerican cast-offs abound in border cities) who is clearly a tranny and reads as neither male nor female, but somewhere overtly in-between. As she turns to walk back to the kitchen, we see that the back of her shirt proclaims: If you can read this, the bitch fell off. My knee-jerk outraged reaction is utterly stymied: it’s not that the phrase is no longer problematic, but in this context it is immensely more complicated, immensely more interesting, and totally hilarious. The shift in context and form makes me think quite differently about the content — or simply put, it makes me think.
We are changed by what we experience. Reading poetry and prose in translation can allow us to inhabit, if only in the space of the page and the imagination, the thought processes and perspectives of people very far from us geographically and experientially. I would not call this process transformative, I would call it interruptive: our habitual modes of thinking are interrupted, our automatic manners of expression are disrupted. We do not become new selves, we are reminded that to be a self is to be traces of various selves in varied places, to be is to be being — a rolling present tense.
What we encounter in the space of imagination can be materialized in the world, though not necessarily as a one-to-one correlation. What we are capable of imagining we are capable of beginning to love. As much as language is a tool for the deployment of murderously hegemonic systems (the opposite of empathy, curiosity and understanding, to be sure), it is also the tool for unraveling those systems. Via what we say and how we say it, we make the world other than what it was, other than what it is.
In July 2006 I gave a talk at the cultural center in Tijuana as part of the Laboratorio Fronterizo de Escritores (Border Lab for Writers), titled “Writing When Writing Is Impossible.” The talk was about torture and the gift economy, and ended with my giving out a gift I’d made for the audience: small hand-sewn books with windowed envelopes for covers, containing 5 “transportations” — versions, not translations — of a short poem by the Mexican poet Myriam Moscona. The poem, as I attempt to illustrate below, is patently impossible to translate — how in English can “to see the green” and “green veil” possibly ever be contained as double meanings in a single phrase? — as perhaps at heart all true or complete expression of what we perceive or experience is impossible to communicate to others (or even fully to ourselves?).What is available to us is ongoing attempt, the half-life of approximation: the attempt itself is what there is to achieve: a desire to understand and be understood made manifest, a willingness to listen and a willingness to speak repeatedly enacted.
The tightly-woven interrelated multiple meanings of the words in Myriam’s poem make it literally impossible to translate, at least in any correlated way. Rather, the only way to understand this work in another language is to think about how the words function — for example, how the Spanish word “velo” makes both a “veil” and a way of “seeing it.” This is, I believe, the only way to consider translation of any sort, and even the translation which is communication: the same phrases spoken in exactly the same words do not mean the same things in different contexts, sounded through different bodies, at different moments.Communication can only exist in the space between two bodies or fields, between two intentions: the intention to be understood, the intention to understand. It is an act of trust, and any kind of singularly top-down or one-way utterance cannot be communication, but is instead imposition: leaflets dropped from fighter jets to bombard the populace with “information,” no chance of response, no chance of conversation.
The small book I constructed for my talk was called “trans portaciones”: aportación means contribution, transportación means transportation or transport, which implies tránsito, movement. I was thinking of transubstantiation, the moving of substances, shifting of matter (as language is matter), and I was also thinking of the “port” in “portaciones” as a port, a puerto, or a puerta, a door.
ver de verlo
velar al verde
ve lo verde
ver to see
(and also sonically contains “ver,” “to see”)
ver de verlo to see from seeing it or to see as in seeing it
(and also “ver” and “de” make “verde,” so we hear “to see it green” )
velo verdegreen veil
(and also, sonically, to see the green, to see what is green)
velar al verde to veil the green
ve lo verdeto see the green, to see what is green
(and also, sonically, green veil)
de verdadreally, truly
(and also sonically contains most of “ de verde”)
vélo see it
(and also sonically veil)
to see she green
to shear the green
see sheer green
read it red
i tread red
to tread to read
it read red
to light a light
alight a light
lighting the light
a light alighted
to light is light
a slight light
to slight the light
is light a light
see the seeing
seethe the sea
see the sea