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On Translations

On Translations

by Nick Admussen


You can read a lot about what translations are or are supposed to be: different from the original text, a version of the original text, unrelated to the original text, work of cultural interaction, work of cultural invention, work that hustles along the search for global language. Guest editing the poetry in this issue, and selecting a lot of translation for it, hasn't really given me any insight into which of those theories are right and which are wrong — each seems like it has its own appropriate place and time, with none deserving endless primacy. What I realized instead was about the feeling, the sensation of translating contemporary literature — something that’s related to the sensation of conversation.

I'll put it this way: as I write this, Scott Myers is hanging out with Mu Cao at a queer film festival in Beijing. Nicky Harman has translated three book-length works by the poet and novelist Han Dong; they get along quite well, from all indications. If you asked each of the translators in this issue if they know the poet or fiction writer that they translated, many would say yes; if you asked them whether they like the poet or fiction writer that they translated, even more would say yes. Either during the translation or as a result of the translation, something happens between the artist and their translator, and for a moment there seems to be a very simple, bilateral relationship, one that feels far distant from the shared stage of the final piece of art. The translator is trying to understand the poet, and also to please them; to learn something from them, and then to make something out of what they've learned. The poet is trying to provoke feelings and ideas in the translator (and in all readers), and is checking their poem's effect against their intent. This is a relationship; it's a conversation. It is hidden from the final English text, but it's necessary for it. 

You may point out that this is a strange kind of conversation, in that many of the artists don't speak English, and can't in fact hear what the translator has to say. This is true and it's not — first, for many writers there's no resisting the urge to look up an old friend who speaks English or Italian or German, and ask them what they think about a translation. (This leads to a sort of uneasy wait for the first-time translator, who scours emails from the artist for insinuations of satisfaction or worry: what did you hear about me?). Second, though, this kind of one-way conversation is not terribly rare. We often speak to a person who cannot speak back to us, or speak to a person whose response is mysterious, surprising, or uninterpretable. We talk to pets, to God, to the dead. They don't answer back, or if they do, it's not in a language we've learned, yet.

So it's not strange that translators and artists feel as if they are in conversation, and we can see some particular relationship — chaste, but not necessarily less intimate for it — between translators and artists who have never met, who can never meet. We can compare the sense of presence that happens when we’re reading, as if other people have entered the room where we sit. At the very least, there is some fellowship that happens between poet and translator over the shared work of reading and writing. But the relationship is stronger, and more important, for translators of contemporary literature, like the ones in this issue. Contemporary translators share time and space with their authors, they share any number of struggles: because they live in the same greater context, they share not just worldviews, but the experience of the interaction between their worldview and their world. I have heard tell of artists who became angry at translators whose translated versions never caught on; translators trying to hide the fact that they've begun translating new artists, in order to avoid upsetting artists they've already translated; I've seen translators who publicize and advocate for artists in ways that clearly indicate that they don't see a distinction between the fame of the artist and the translator's own fame. These intensities are out of all proportion with the concrete rewards of literary translation, which are few.

What does this mean to the reader? It means that when you read these translations you take a perverse position in a relationship between two other people. You peep in on the message of the translator to the artist; because the artist never fully receives the message (being unable to read the translation's language well enough, or unable to forget their own version of the text), you stand in for them. Everything the translator is trying to say to the artist — this is brilliantI get thisthis changes the way I think, or even I am confusedI give up — is heard by you instead, a proxy, a stand-in. You are walking by a conversation on a busy street: someone is telling someone else I think what you say is brutal and beautiful but the recipient has their earphones in, and doesn't hear. The message ends up as yours: who else's could it be?

When I feel this conversation and its misdirection — I’ll admit that part of the feeling must come from working as an editor, and seeing the traffic of these translations back and forth across my desktop — I recognize it from feelings I have when I make and read art. Literature’s loneliness is also its yoursness: if the poem is a lost and undeliverable letter, then you are welcome to it. It gives itself to you. I think of Lynn Melnick’s "Landscape with Written Statement," a message to a bureaucracy and a patriarchy that is very intentionally not listening: although it’s addressed to them, it belongs to you, and it only really becomes itself when you read it. Lacan claims that language is like a misdirected, purloined letter that never finds its true addressee and is never opened: that last bit sounds inhuman to me. People I know, hopefully including anyone who reads this, can’t resist the promise of an envelope, stolen or not. We tear into them like they’re gifts.

Nick Admussen

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