Book review: At the borderlands

Currently & Emotion: Translations, ed. Sophie Collins, Test Centre, £20, ISBN 9780993569319
Reviewed by Sandeep Parmar

Currently & EmotionThe title Currently & Emotion feels necessarily personal and contingent. The anthology consists of twenty-nine excerpts from pamphlet- or book-length works of poetry made in the past five years, and expressly those that foreground the translation process within that time period. According to the book’s editor Sophie Collins, currently indicates the “current cultural and political moment” and emotion “its attendant concerns of subjectivity and identity”, relational terms that exist in a fluxive relationship to the already fluid metier of language. A pervasive immediacy of the now frames these translations in their revolutionary moment of “awakening consciousness”, a phrase the book’s introduction borrows from the American second-wave feminist poet Adrienne Rich. Just as the 1970s gave rise to a new ‘psychic geography’ for women writers, 2016 gave way to “measurable changes in attitudes towards race, gender and modes of representation”. As Collins’s introduction details, not only translation theory but recent critical challenges to the whiteness of British poetry, and more historical claims made by women poets against a dominant male subjectivity, inform the shape and ethos of the anthology.

At the nexus of the revisionary epistemologies on which the book relies – from feminism to postcolonialism – is a radical dismantling of literary translation as “the ultimate humanist gesture”. Critiques of humanism and the humanities point out that celebrations of a universal idea of ‘Man’ have historically excluded women and racialised ‘others’ from this supposedly shared human experience. Currently & Emotion’s substantial favouring of women and ethnic poets and translators (as well as an attention to non-European languages) serves as a clear rejoinder to a Eurocentric male canon of literary translation. Beyond this is a sensitivity towards the power dynamics of language – English in the context of the British empire but also as prop to neocolonial perceptions of Western cultural dominance. Translation, as Vietnamese-American writer Linh Dinh contends, “shapes, and takes shape within, the asymmetrical relations of power that operate under colonialism”. And yet Collins is careful always to point beyond the concerns of language (for both the translator and lay reader) to the issues that underpin her critical interrogation of translation itself. She quotes theorists Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere, who argue that “the study of the manipulation processes of literature as exemplified by translation can help us towards a greater awareness of the world in which we live”. In other words, literary translation cannot be neutral in its ideology, power or privilege. It remains a political gesture, unconsciously or willingly expressed by the translator’s selection of texts, working languages, literary forms, style or intended audience. And in the context of US and UK literary markets, where translation makes up just three per cent of all books published, these gestures become even more meaningful.

Given the book’s focus on the visibility of translation, translators who are also poets and writers make up a substantial portion of the twenty-nine, including Anne Carson, Holly Pester, Vahni Capildeo, Tara Bergin, Rosmarie Waldrop, Lisa Robertson and Erín Moure. Varying by approach, the selections in Currently & Emotion can be divided into at least one or two of three types of translation, defined by the linguist Roman Jakobson as interlingual (between different languages), intralingual (English to English, or a ‘rewording’), and intersemiotic (translations between media such as the visual, aural and textual). Some source texts are provided at the book’s centre rather than as parallel texts, thereby avoiding any privileging of the ‘original’ text and its author. Collins briefly prefaces each contribution with a note on process: in the case of Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl we are told that the translation engages not just with the Austrian Expressionist Georg Trakl’s poetry, but points biographically to the poet’s tragic life, even his family photos. Additionally, Hawkey makes use of homophonic translation (an intentional mishearing that transliterates sound, not sense) and the physical object of an open Trakl book, which Hawkey perforates and then reforms with the help of a 12-gauge shotgun. Included here are composite poems made from colours in Trakl’s oeuvre that generate surreal visual and sonic collisions.

Red laughter in the dark shade of chestnuts.
Snow gently drifts from a red cloud.

Crossing in red storms at evening
The mysterious red stillness of your mouth.

Red wolf, strangled by an angel.  (‘Redtrakl’)

Translator and poet Brian Henry has described Hawkey’s process as “transwriting”, not translation, but the clear positioning of the poet Trakl amid his ventriloquism makes for a readerly analysis of authorship. Henry’s own translations of the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun are excerpted from here alongside other, different Šalamun poems translated by Sonja Kravanja. Although both translators are differently fluent in the linguistic and cultural contexts shaping Šalamun’s writing, across the translated work a similar poetic voice prevails. It is tempting, but possibly misleading, to draw conclusions about the singularity of authorial voice. After all, Šalamun collaborated actively and enthusiastically with his translators – indelibly shaping the final product. Still, an old – perhaps untranslatable – Punjabi saying comes to mind: the burnt rope doesn’t lose its twist.

Much of the collaborative or intersemiotic work in Currently & Emotion is supported by a feminist epistemology of ‘emotion’, which advocates “sharing, trust, responsibility, bodies, process and the absence of hierarchy over dominant, culturally masculine traits that include products, rules, universality and impartiality”. For example, Khairani Barokka’s ‘12 Acres’ project interprets songs by rural Indian women in a Rajasthani village into images – what she calls a “lateral” translation. At first one might bristle at an outsider’s intervention in oral traditions, or question the translator’s ethics of trust, responsibility and sharing at stake in the privacy of these female environments. But Khairani’s project emerged not from a wish to transmit these songs externally, but to provide access to a hearing- and speech-impaired member of the village, Santia Patidar, who was previously unable to partake in this “distinctively female practice”. Khairani’s images are dream-like, visceral, architectural. They form visual poetic collages that are as enigmatic and communal as the songs themselves, for which we are given the source texts. What I find striking about these texts, as a female Indian reader with rural ancestry, is how untranslatable they seem, with their culturally specific critique of male–female relations, marriage, foods like bitter gourd, farming measures, and the (perhaps universally feared) symbol of the mother-in-law. Yet it may also be that knowledge of a source culture or text prevents, as much as it sometimes facilitates, an appreciation of a translation. A similar act of feminist translation is exemplified by Eliza Griswold’s versions of Pashto landays. Also shared privately between Afghani women, these poems in couplets hinge “on sophisticated double entendres and allusions” composed “in response to restrictive social conditions”.

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.
To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.
Because my love’s American,
Blisters blossom on my heart.

“American” replaces the words “British” and “liar” in previous versions of these landays, demonstrating a grim but canny adaptation to changing national identities of white invading soldiers. In spite of her reservations about the ethical issues at stake, Collins boldly includes these pieces here but, rightly, raises a red flag in her introduction. It is true that Griswold is not only a ‘white woman’ presenting these poems to an Anglophone audience. She is, of course, also culturally linked and privileged by (even if not personally involved in) the systematic subjugation of Afghani culture and society through military occupation and war.

Chantal Wright’s translations of the Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada conceptually and textually make the translator hypervisible while also highlighting the strangeness of Tawada’s originals. In two columns Wright comments on her process as she translates Tawada’s work. This innovative method of response gives the illusion of a dialogue with a developing text and eschews the seamlessly constructed reality of traditional translational modes.

P hakte sich bei mir ein, it was     [P put her arm through mine]
raining, and we had only one
umbrella. In America one rarely
touches the bodies of people of the
same sex. I missed the touching, I
missed Berlin.

                                                        In North America people excuse
                                                        themselves in supermarkets if they
                                                        get too close to you as they walk
                                                        down an aisle. I realised after
                                                        several months that impatiently
                                                        reaching past somebody to get
                                                        something off the shelf could be
                                                        construed as rude. […]

In laying bare the power dynamics of translation, Currently & Emotion generously and rigorously opens a space for discourse. It begins a crucial, revolutionary conversation – especially now, in our political present moment – about language’s contested spaces where ethical, political and readerly responses, among others, appear like unforeseen artistic crossroads across increasingly narrowing geographical borderlands.

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Sandeep Parmar is Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool. Her latest collection, Eidolon, is published by Shearsman. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 107:1, Spring 2017 © The Poetry Review and the author.