Erasing the signs of labour under the signs of happiness: ‘joy’ and ‘fidelity’ as bromides in literary translation

By Sophie Collins

A couple of years ago I attended an inaugural address by a professor of translation who had been newly appointed to a university near where I live. I wasn’t a member of the university community, in any sense (neither a student nor a member of staff there), but had long been an admirer of the professor and, having read that the address would pertain specifically to the translation of poetry, decided to go along. On the day of the lecture I boarded a train and made my way to the university from the station at the other end. Once on campus, I navigated my way through various grey corridors and laminated stairwells until I reached the small lecture room. I sat down and took out my notebook, placing it on the narrow desk in front of me.

I wrote down very little in the following forty-five minutes; I was grossly disappointed by the lecture. The professor’s opening gambit was this: having worked in translation for decades, and written many a critical text (in both senses of the phrase), they had become exhausted by discussions of literary translation that centred on its “negative” aspects, whatever these may be (there was no distinction made here between different types of negativity – a compelling term which itself remained undefined – and no attention to questions of intent). From now on, the professor had said, they would be focusing uniquely on the joy of translation, a mission statement that was duly accompanied by a number of other platitudes…

My own experience of literary translation throughout the past five years (my experience with translation in a broader sense goes back to childhood) has so far generated an appetite for the precise opposite. This disparity of feeling – of desire – derives in part, I think, from the distinct nature of academic discussions of literary translation and those put forward by poets and literary critics. An articulation of the differences between these two would warrant its own essay (or at least more words than I have to spend on contrasting them here), but, based on my perspective – as someone who has worked primarily as a poet – and that of the above professor, it suffices to say that where academic discussions of literary translation were significantly influenced by the proliferation of postcolonial and feminist texts in the late twentieth century,1 poets and literary critics often appear to never have heard of the arguments put forward by Gayatri Spivak, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Tejaswini Niranjana, Homi K. Bhabha, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, etc., etc. – or, if indeed they have, are evidently unable to figure these in terms of translation, which is connected to its continuing perception as a neutral, transparent process (poets’ versions, which are often based on a so-called ‘literal’ or ‘bridge’ translation, are thought to be something quite different).

For me, with my involvement in poetry outdating that of my engagement with literary translation, the emphasis that is consistently placed, in the latter context, on the so-called joy of translation (italicised here to labour my view of the phrase as a misnomer) is what is dispiriting. My translating literature – poetry and prose – from the Dutch evokes feelings of uncertainty and self-consciousness, and – perhaps more frequently than might be imagined – breakdown and frustration. Sometimes I feel fulfilled and excited by the interaction; sometimes it exacerbates my persisting imposter syndrome: the uneasy sense that, having now lived in the UK continuously for a decade, I no longer have a stake or claim in the language and culture that fostered me for fourteen years during the most influential stage of life, from childhood into young adulthood. At other moments, there can of course be an enjoyable sense of gratification when my capabilities of expression in the English and comprehension of the Dutch source text allow me to connect with, and to further the scope of, the poem or novel and its author. Affect proliferates in the translation process, and enjoyment or pleasure might manifest at some point during, or on either side of, it, but the phrase the joy of translation shares a certain vapidity with the language of advertising that is, I believe, symptomatic of its actual and insidious function.

In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed writes of the “critique of happiness as an affirmative gesture”, a statement which might, on first reading, appear somewhat paradoxical. But what Ahmed is in fact proposing is that such a critique represents possibility because that which we have come to accept or recognise as ‘happiness’ is merely a kind of cultural ‘promise’ tendered “for having the right associations”. “In wishing for happiness,” writes Ahmed, “we wish to be associated with happiness, which means to be associated with its associations.” Such associations, suggests Ahmed, are represented by the dominant values of a given society, and so the individual’s search for happiness is often simply the gradual acquiescence to dominant mores. A critique of ‘happiness’ is thus a critique of happiness as a social construct, one that frequently acts to preclude statements that are perceived as negative, despite the fact that such statements can represent vital and potentially ground-breaking critique. “Revolutionary forms of political consciousness,” states Ahmed, “involve heightening our awareness of just how much there is to be unhappy about. Given that the desire for happiness can cover signs of its negation, a revolutionary politics has to work hard to stay proximate to unhappiness.”

I see ‘joy’ in much the same way, as a word that no longer describes an internal, affective experience, but that has come to signify something more like obedience to a collective cause. In a recent interview published on the Asian American Writers Workshop website, poet and translator Don Mee Choi was asked what “the greatest joy” of translating Korean to English is. From her response

I am terrified of English. And because I have lived outside of South Korea for a long time, I’ve become a foreigner to Korean as well. In other words, I am a failure of language in general. So joy does not come to mind easily when I think about translating from Korean to English. I also associate joy with ‘Joy of this and that’ I saw and heard everywhere when I first came to this country [the US], including green-coloured JOY detergent. It was the first dish soap I used after my arrival. I wondered, even in my state of devastation having just separated from my family, why this nation was so obsessed with joy when it causes so much misery all over the world.

Here Choi consolidates an understanding of ‘joy’ as a conformist trope – in this instance, a verbal deposit of the imperial mindset, so ubiquitous in Anglophone countries as to be used to sell washing-up liquid. Ahmed also links her formulation of ‘happiness’ to the domestic realm, referencing Betty Friedan’s debunking of the myth of “the happy American housewife” in The Feminine Mystique (1963):

What lies behind this image bursts through, like a boil, exposing an infection underneath her beaming smile. Friedan proceeds by exposing the limits of this public fantasy of happiness. The happy housewife is a fantasy figure that erases the signs of labor under the sign of happiness. The claim that women are happy and that this happiness is behind the work they do functions to justify gendered forms of labor, not as a product of nature, law or duty, but as an expression of a collective wish and desire. How better to justify an unequal distribution of labor than to say that such labor makes people happy? How better to secure consent to unpaid or poorly paid labor than to describe such consent as the origin of good feeling.

Erasing the signs of labour under the sign of happiness: this perfect phrase of Ahmed’s encapsulates what I’m trying to express here, that the joy of translation is troubling not because I have an issue with its fundamental proposition, i.e., that translation is enjoyable, but that the application of the phrase reduces its affect to a sign, one that is in some way intended to justify the lack of professional and artistic recognition, and the inequitable pay that translators still receive.

The gendered language of translation and its effects on perceptions of the translation practice have been documented and analysed. In her brilliant Gender in Translation: Culture, Identity and the Politics of Transmission (1996), Sherry Simon draws lines between women and translators as having historically represented “the weaker figures in their respective hierarchies”, linking such perceptions to power dynamics and biological reproduction:

translators are handmaidens to authors, women inferior to men. […] Whether affirmed or denounced, the femininity of translation is a persistent historical trope. ‘Woman’ and ‘translator’ have been relegated to the same position of discursive inferiority. The hierarchical authority of the original over the reproduction is linked with imagery of masculine and feminine; the original is considered the strong generative male, the translation the weaker and derivative female. We are not surprised to learn that the language used to describe translating dips liberally into the vocabulary of sexism, drawing on images of dominance and inferiority, fidelity and libertinage.

In ‘Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation’ (1988), Lori Chamberlain adds that such metaphors (which include the notorious adage “Les belles infidèles”) are consolidated by the dominance of capitalist beliefs, given that translations have, like “conventional representations of women”, been determined by “a cultural ambivalence about the possibility of a woman artist and about the status of a woman’s ‘work’”. Referencing the work of feminist art critics, including Linda Nochlin, Chamberlain writes that gendered cultural models that enable claims such as the infamous “there are no great women artists” differentiate between “productive” and “reproductive” work, presenting “originality or creativity in terms of paternity and authority” and “relegating the figure of the female to a variety of secondary roles”. The act of translating, she continues, is frequently discussed in the “secondary terms” attributed women’s creative acts, and is thus clearly “seen as qualitatively different from the original act of composing […] from the original act of writing”.

It’s clear, then, that in order to challenge a deeply entrenched perception of translators and translations as culturally inferior, we must alter the language and metaphors used to articulate and envision the translation process. ‘Joy’ is not only a means through which to keep translation at the bottom of the creative hierarchy identified by Simon and Chamberlain, but one that mystifies the translation process by insisting on its positive aspects and limiting discussion of its complex or ‘negative’ ones.

‘Fidelity’ is another such mystifying term. As Chamberlain suggests, ‘fidelity’, which recalls marriage, implies the presence of a (masculine-coded) primary power whose laws the translation, and so too the translator, must recognise and adhere to. The source of legislation, however, is in fact rarely specified in literary contexts, or, I believe, conceived of at all. Looked at closely, reviews or critiques of translations that apply the terms ‘fidelity’ or ‘faithfulness’ do not tend to compare the translation directly to the source text (the poem being translated), but rather to a particular reading or understanding of that source text. This means that a translation can be judged ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’ by a critic or reviewer when it doesn’t match their own linguistic or thematic interpretation of the source poem, which is often presented as, and very much thought by the critic or reviewer to be, universal or definitive.

Maintaining the analogy of interlingual translation as a relationship between source text author and translator, I tentatively offer ‘intimacy’ – which I use in the Platonic sense of ‘close familiarity or friendship’, rather than euphemistically – as a term that can establish the basis for an alternative conceptualisation of translations and the translation process. This coinage began with the observation that, while ‘fidelity’ implies the presence of a primary source of power, ‘intimacy’ indicates a mutual, consensual and willing exchange between two or more subjects, without referencing (an) authority at all.

Intimacy is a notoriously nebulous concept. What we can say, however, with some degree of confidence, is that to build intimacy with another person is to become ‘close’ to them. In human relationships, this becoming ‘close’ involves a physical and intellectual proximity – or perhaps, in the digital age, a purely cerebral closeness that is the product of frequent exchanges, by email, text and/or social media messaging. This exchange of thoughts and information establishes the conditions for what we implicitly understand as the root of intimacy, i.e., an understanding of the other’s background and history, and so too of their personal motivations and desires.

In terms of approaches to translation, then, ‘intimacy’ surely describes work that exhibits such closeness, meaning that an ‘intimate translation’ might be one that exhibits a heightened contextualisation of its source text for the reader. Choi, as a translator with (to put it lightly) a stated distaste for conventional models within poetry translation and who has declared, frequently and directly, a particular closeness to one of her source text authors, Kim Hyesoon, might already be enacting the idea of ‘intimacy’ in translation. In fact, given my deep admiration for her approach, I think it’s quite possible that I’ve unconsciously tailored my notion of ‘intimacy’ to her innovative and necessarily political translations.

Choi’s work with Kim Hyesoon’s poetry has been made available to readers not only through the volumes of translations published in the US and UK, but in the many texts written by Choi about her translation process. Through such texts, Choi has established what we might term a ‘radical commentary’, a continuous dialogue on her work with Kim that transcends the conventional boundaries of the translator’s preface or afterword, both physically and in terms of its content. The most concentrated example of Choi’s radical commentary can be found in Freely Frayed,ᄏ=q, & Race=Nation (2014), a limited edition pamphlet published by Wave Books, which brings together the texts of three talks given by Choi at various writing and translation conferences. In one of the texts, Choi writes that “contextualising the work may be the most important part of [her] translation process”, whereas discussion of “why this word and not that word” is something she experiences as “suffocating”. Taking up, with theatrical realism, the position of the “lowly” translator, she indicates that the perception of translators as ‘faithful’ intermediaries is insufficient when it comes to describing the creative and emotional labour of her process:

See You Later Translator. No, I’m not an agitator. It turns out that I’m a mere imitator, the lowly kind, which is none other than a translator a mimicker of mimetic words in particular. Doubled consonants or certain parts of speech that are repeated on certain occasions, which can be said to be nobody’s business, but they are since everything in English is everybody’s business. Farfar swiftswift zealzeal stuffstuff waddlewaddling stickysticky cacklecackled draindrained flowflow yellyell swishswish. I’ve just been instructed to get rid of them by an evaluator: Why double up? No, I’m not a collaborator. I’m actually very frail, frailer than a Thumbelina in the world of everybody’s business. In my world of nobody’s business I twirl about frantically frequently farfar to the point of failure feigning englishenglish.

In another contextualising text, ‘Translation–Darkness–Migration’, published on the Poetry Foundation website, Choi writes directly of the sense of dislocation experienced as a result of her family’s leaving South Korea for Hong Kong during the former’s military dictatorship following the May 16 coup, in which Park Chung Hee and the Military Revolutionary Committee (as backed by US military forces) regained control of the state from North Korea. Utilising the commentary space to prioritise the political interpretation of her source text and translation process is thus an approach that is both truer to Choi’s experience of engagement with the source text and the way in which she translates.

A second key quality that I believe to be a feature of ‘intimate translations’ relates to the translator’s exhibited interlingual play. Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has written in the introduction to her edited volume Intimacy (2000) that “[to] intimate is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures, and [that] at its root intimacy has the quality of eloquence and brevity”. In the same anthology, poet Maureen McLane claims that, conversely, “one of the most remarkable and telling features of [intimacy as an affective state] is its profoundly romantic interest in linguistic profusion and the disjunctions between and within bodies and languages”. For me, both statements contain elements of emotional truth, and I think it might rather be the case that the fluctuations in tone represented by the ability of individuals to comfortably inhabit both states around one another is what best characterises the condition of intimacy.

When I first encountered Choi’s translations of Kim in the Bloodaxe book I’m OK, I’m Pig! (2014), which brings together the work of three distinct US publications, it seemed to me that there was a very particular sound to Choi’s translations of Kim, one that was both present in the first translated poem in the collection (first published by Action Books, in the US, in 2008), and that also appeared to have escalated over time, its hallmarks more overt in the book’s final texts (from 2011). The most immediate idiosyncratic sonic feature is the anaphora and other forms of repetition that pervade the book. The insistent and effusive tone this establishes in the mind and mouth of the reader is what caused me to first link Choi’s translations to concepts of intimacy and friendship.

My emails to my best friend are filled with in-jokes, capitalised and repeated words (for effect or emphasis), neologisms and an approximation – often via added vowels – of the kind of croaky ‘vocal fry’ and twangy ‘high rising terminal’ that is negatively associated with young women’s speech. In I’m OK, I’m Pig! these quirks are similarly borne out in the anaphora, exclamation marks, onomatopoeic laughter and Choi’s neologistic repetitions: “kisskiss”, “coldcold”, “plopplop”, “gulpgulp”. As above, such idiosyncrasies have frequently been subject to scrutiny by editors and proofreaders who understand them as errors on Choi’s part. Even if we don’t view them in this way, however, it would be easy to attribute the characteristics of Choi’s translations entirely to Kim’s source texts – most reviewers do, given Kim’s distinct poetics. In her preface to I’m OK, I’m Pig!, Kim talks (in a translation also rendered by Choi) about her desire to develop a voice in Korean that explores “the possibilities of the sensory”, that believes in its “own feminine individuation, its secrets”, its own capacity to be “combative, visceral, subversive, inventive and ontologically feminine”. Choi has also discussed her translation process in terms of the disparity between Korean and English – a political-linguistic gap that means that any translation from the Korean must necessarily be one of a more “intralingual” paraphrasing or “rewording”, in Roman Jakobson’s terms. But Choi’s translations are not merely the result of the coalescence of these factors, something that can be easily recognised by reading her texts against those of Kim’s other English-language translators (see, for example, Vanessa Falco and Kim Sunghyun’s collaborative translations on the World Literature Today website).

As a proposed ideal for translations, ‘intimacy’ brings with it its own questions, problematics and risks. Ultimately, however, my application of the term is intended to shift the translation relationship from a place of universality, heteronormacy, authority and centralised power, towards a particularised space whose aesthetics are determined by the two or more people involved, in this way amplifying and promoting creativity and deviant aesthetics in translations between national languages.

During the writing of this text, having restated the links between the identity of ‘translator’ and that of ‘woman’ or ‘female’, what has struck me is the way in which the feelings of alienation, shame and irritation I experience in the face of the joy of translation have become perhaps less puzzling as I liken them to those that rise up in me when a man on the other side of the street commands me to “Cheer up!” or “Smile!”

In consistently arguing for the political interpretation of translations and of the process of translating, I know I will be conceived by many in terms of Ahmed’s “killjoy figure”. An increasingly popular line of discourse asserts that expressing ‘negative’ opinions doesn’t solve or add anything, whereas love (which is equated with ‘understanding’ or ‘empathy’) can. To reject what is perceived as ‘hate’ or critique (the two are increasingly conflated) and express only so-called positive views is presented as the authentically revolutionary approach. This is something with which I passionately disagree. The critique of translation culture is, to my mind, a powerful expression of hope because it affirms the possibility of change. Without such hope many of the texts I have cited throughout this short essay would have ceded to despondency or apathy long before completion.

In the abovementioned interview, Choi says that her politically charged translation work is what gives her “much joy” – that’s the affective state, and not the oppressive, mystifying, placating sign.

1 This is arguable: in his preface to the new edition of The Translator’s Invisibility (2008), Lawrence Venuti relates how many university translation departments and programmes continue to treat translation as a linguistics, rather than a humanities discipline.

The Poetry Review 1082Sophie Collins, author of Who Is Mary Sue? (Faber, 2018), is an Assistant Professor at Durham University. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:2, Summer 2018, alongside other essays on translation by Khairani Barokka and Carole Satyamurti. © The Poetry Review and the author.