Translation of/as Absence, Sanctuary, Weapon

By Khairani Barokka

Translations are as complex as the concept of literatures at large – multiple, layered, shaped regionally and transnationally, never neutral, always deeply nuanced, inflected with cultural biases and the baggage of cultural workers. Ever employed, in this year as always, to advance political mindsets, to continue or disrupt regimes of language. The blanket application of false binaries to encompass one work, such as ‘transparency’ versus ‘opacity’, or ‘accessible’ language versus ‘inaccessible’ language, is shown to be reductive and broken open in two examples here that demonstrate translation as always bodily. In both Cok Sawitri’s performance of bravado and deliberate withholding of translation, as well as in the conceptual framework for my book Indigenous Species, creative choices reveal what assumptions of translation we can work to dismantle: how the notions of absence, sanctuary, and weapon are employed. In particular, these frameworks reveal how deeply, indelibly translations are tied to perpetuating or unpacking ableist, colonialist notions of the ‘good’ bodymind.

I. Cok and the Night Ambush

Several years ago, at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival opening ceremony, Balinese poet, theatre artist, and activist Cok Sawitri gave a bravura performance – open-air, under the stars, surrounded by traditional local architecture and a plenitude of foreign tourists and writers. Senior performer Cok did not circle that space as much as prowl it, hilariously monologuing in Indonesian and Balinese on tourism’s impacts on her home province, local homestay owners putting their bodily detritus in banana pancakes, the ‘paradise island’ myth beaming in tourists’ imaginations. She was ferociously shattering myths of locals as ready to appease, to heal, and to cater to foreigners’ whims, of the island, struggling under the weight of overdevelopment and environmental destruction, as existing purely for incomers. Pulsing throughout her piece was the blatant discrepancy between what outsiders expect of Bali, and the performative acts of compliance, as well as acts of resistance, that Balinese people enact in the face of them.

‘The Night Ambush’ is not the title of the piece, but my own personal naming of this performance, how I remember it. The genius guile here: Cok performed the piece in two local languages, in front of swathes of foreigners who understood neither. She was teasing them at a high-profile literary event in Southeast Asia, without them being the wiser – to them, she was a woman attired in elaborate Balinese clothing, running around vocalising what was probably a sacred traditional welcome. When all of us, non-Balinese and Balinese Indonesians, as well as foreigners, clapped loudly for her together, we were clapping for entirely different reasons. Those of us who understood Cok’s monologue, untranslated that night, were complicit in her conceit, and it made us proud. Those who did not understand her words and clapped were, with their applause, extending the piece’s affect, confirming how successful it was, a double-edged sword.

This remains one of my dearest memories of performance of any kind. It was one I will always feel privileged to have been privy to, particularly for being one of those in attendance who was Indonesian-fluent but not Balinese-fluent, both outsider and insider. I am Indonesian but not Balinese, though I have Balinese cousins and friends who live on the island, and have often visited. By virtue of Indonesian-fluency, I understood the code-switching and richly layered sociopolitical critique at play, and the stratification of Cok’s intended audience. Yes, it was for Indonesians and Indonesian-speakers, but only to a certain extent. Most of all, it was for Balinese people, those local to Ubud in particular. What could easily have been yet another act of cultural production primarily for outsider consumption became one of generative and covert, yet wildly open, refusal. To my knowledge, the script has never been published nor translated into English, lending further power to Cok’s cunning move through her work’s ephemerality.

Years later, reminiscing, the question arises: what if there had been sign-language interpreters at Cok Sawitri’s aforementioned performance? The notion of inclusivity here becomes inclusivity for whom, and to what ends? Which sign languages would have been used – or would there only have been one? If so, which one: Australian Sign Language (Auslan), reflecting the origins of most festival attendants, thereby including only D/deaf Australians in on the grand scheme? BISINDO, the term for Indonesian Sign Language? It might seem most implausible that there would be any interpretation in Kata Kolok, a sign language indigenous to only one village in Bali, which has a disproportionate number of D/deaf residents and has proudly developed a language of its own. Choices of sign languages, as for any other languages, are political.

What if there had been audio description at the performance? Audio description too is never ‘objective’; the description itself is a scripted performance, and when conceptualised as its own artwork has ignited exciting possibilities. Would there have been a split between an audio description of it in English, in Balinese, and in Indonesian?

The absence of translation in Cok’s performance was a beautiful sanctuary for her defiance and our basking in it, yet as every single artwork is, it is partial sanctuary. The absence of translation for D/deaf Indonesians made it partial sanctuary of a very different kind than the absence of translation in Auslan, and if the latter had been chosen over the former (if there could only be one choice of sign language), I believe this decision would have gone against Cok’s principles.

A disability justice framework for translation requires an understanding of nuance, a comprehension that there are gradations of absence, of sanctuary, and of translation as weapon. Having sign language translation in BISINDO and Kata Kolok, but not in Auslan, for instance, would have been weaponry in keeping with Cok’s creation of sanctuary, for respite from having to exist in one’s own land as fodder for others’ fantasies. Yet would the very announcement of these translations have been a ‘tell’ that gave away the artist’s plan?

Translation that may be a shared sanctuary, a bridging to some, is an absence of this connectivity for others, and not always in ways we’ve internalised as intuitive. There is nothing that has been translated into every language ever known and used, especially as more and more languages face extinction at an alarming rate. The subject of which languages and poetries are chosen for translation, and how they are translated, is always infused with biases.

Understanding gradations of absence, of sanctuary, and of translation as weapon also requires an innate humility of all that we as individuals do not know, and have yet to learn, in order to translate with requisite awareness: that feminisms are as plural as literatures, and that western or white feminisms are not the same as Indonesian feminisms, with different regional histories and emphases – this matters for an analysis of Cok’s performance. For instance, I come from a matrilineal culture, Minangkabau, that predates use of the word “feminism” by centuries, yet I now proudly call these West Sumatran roots feminist.

Further, ‘’65–’66’ does not mean the same thing to Indonesian feminists as it does to those from elsewhere – these are the years of state-sanctioned mass murder, with victims possibly in the millions, targeting minorities and those accused of being leftists, including many feminist organisers, and was at heart a legacy of the Cold War. Yet I have read text after text after text that presumes to subsume all of the world’s women into a version of ‘the sixties’ that is Eurocentric or US-centric, even as the politics of those retellings are indelibly tied to what Indonesian feminists endured. I’m not sure Cok would entrust a translation of her poetic ambush that night in Bali years ago to someone who did not know these histories, to someone unaware that Bali contains mass graves as much as it does tourist resorts.

By the same token – just as a word such as “feminism” is loaded with knowings and unknowings and the deliberate ways politics and economics shape what we know and are not meant to know – there is an innumerable variety of kinds of bodyminds on the planet, contributing to linguistic diversity that remains unacknowledged. Even those of us who identify as disabled (with many, but not all, taking the social model approach whereby the term implies the opposite of ‘enabled’, not ‘unable’), who’ve worked in disability studies and research, are liable to be completely unaware of various kinds of languages used, whether sign languages, Brailles, the languages of autistic people and communities, and on and on. These languages are also regionally and historically shaped. These languages are also less likely to be treated as languages worthy of being translated into and from, as literatures and poetries to be archived, disseminated, studied in schools and universities, celebrated in all the ways some languages belonging to more normative bodies are.

The offshoot of these inequities is that bodies to whom those languages belong continue to be disenfranchised, excluded, and endangered. I am thinking here particularly of artist Amanda Baggs’s video ‘In My Language’ (available on YouTube), which uses the word ‘translation’ quite prominently to convey the discrepancy between how people perceive her communication as an autistic person, and what she is actually conveying:

We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don’t speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe they don’t exist. […] And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all.

Biases regarding the ‘good’ bodymind shape language, and language – as we know – shapes the felt world, and moulds what universe our selves as bodyminds live through. These biases have historically been shaped, in Indonesia, by colonial regimes for hundreds of years, including Dutch and English. In his book Disability in Java: Contesting Conceptions of Disability in Javanese Society after the Suharto Regime (2013), Slamet Thohari explains how colonial and missionary medicine created a preponderance of the medical model of disability on Indonesia’s most populous island, in which all non-normative bodies are seen as impaired and in need of cure, regardless of whether or not the people involved perceive themselves as such.

In other words, the likelihood that any poetic performance in Indonesia will be translated into BISINDO or another sign language, be audio-described, or be a ‘relaxed’ performance inclusive of disabled bodyminds, for instance, has been decimated by deliberate choices to regard certain bodies as less-than- or non-human. Thus we lose chances to disseminate poetry. Thus we lose chances to honour poets in non-abled languages, and to create more poets in those languages. Thus we lose chances for people to learn about their poetic heritages of languages outside those perceived as normative.

II. Indigenous Species

Thinking of translation as a cleaving, a refracting, I think of how the word ‘refracting’ calls to mind for me (coded as a seeing person despite severe short-sightedness, only because glasses and contacts are not as stigmatised as other assistive devices) a ray of light’s direction being manipulated, and how this word, as a visual image, is tied to its ocularcentricity. When I first began to delve into the world of arts research from disability justice frameworks, in 2011, I became aware of how cultural consumption is skewed towards those of us both hearing and seeing. As though blind and sight-impaired artists don’t also create and come from cultures of their own, as though D/deaf cultures aren’t linguistically rich.

Sharing screenshots of poems on social media without captioning them – either in the body of the text or through the new option to caption images on Twitter, for instance – is an act of exclusion from poetry for blind and sight-impaired readers, as much as an act of inclusion into poetry for seeing people. Ocularcentricity is societally shaped, as is audiocentricity, and verticalcentricity (I say as I currently write these words in a horizontal position, assumed most hours of most days so I will be able to be vertical for more often when I choose to be; full disclosure).

Part of my project with my book Indigenous Species, informed by the work blind and sight-impaired artist-activists have long been doing, is a translation of absence: the word Braille in ‘flat Braille’ is on every left-hand page, to emphasise to sighted readers that we are, in fact, sighted readers. Originally conceived as a sight-impaired accessible art book, which grew out of a poem first written and performed for the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne, Australia in 2013, I stipulated to the publisher that there would be a “sighted version” that proclaimed itself as such. I tried to create enough contrast on the illustrated pages, so that as many colour-blind readers as possible would be able to see the artwork. In addition, two kinds of accessible e-books were created of the book for purchase.

The hope is that in addition to ensuring more accessibility for non-seeing demographics, an awareness is created in multiple ways for sighted readers: of the absence of access in publishing, made more prominent when one understands a book as object, but also the absence of access to blind and sight-impaired cultures for us sighted people. “Plain sight” is never just that. Sightedness and gearing arts resources towards sightedness – and hearingness, neurotypicalness, etc. – is political, as being a cis-gender woman is political, as living and breathing in the United Kingdom is political, as visa statuses are political, as the sources of our breakfasts are political, as our choice of poetry consumption and production and engagement beyond and within capitalist models is political.

It is difficult to categorise such translation of absence as “opaque” or “transparent”, considering both terms are so clearly only of seeing cultures and thus limited, but also because one could ask what is being made transparent, and how. If I say I am making absence of language to blind readers on a flat page “transparent” for sighted readers, was it not the case that those of us who are sighted readers already knew that flat pages of a paperback book – without audiobooks, accessible e-book versions and Braille – are inaccessible to blind and sight-impaired readers? What socialisation has made this exclusion seem natural?

As with every translation or artistic project, Indigenous Species as intended weapon, absence, and sanctuary has limits. Not all blind and sight-impaired people use or read Braille, for one, so there is that generalisation. However, it feels like a small gesture in response to sighted privilege, as a sighted creator who has learned from the work of many blind and sight-impaired creators, apart from the story itself as gesture, that of an abducted girl in a river boat trying to escape, conveying her thought process with power, fiercely aware of the environmental destruction around her, and its social consequences. It feels like only one of many, many possibilities to respond to the limiting of respect and care for bodyminds deemed to be aberrant, unimportant, used as imagery in abled writers’ poetry yet still excluded as poets and poetry lovers.

I think of Cok’s calling out of the forces pushing us to perform for a western gaze, of all the ways culture pushes us to perform for an abled gaze, how these norms of bodily functioning have contributed to current policies in Indonesia, in the UK, and elsewhere, elevation of certain bodies and desires and ways of connecting with literature over others. I think of how translation in poetry can always be, in myriad ways, absence, sanctuary, and weapon.

Khairani Barokka, Indigenous Species, Tilted Axis, £15/£7.99, ISBN 9781911284048 (print) / 9781911284055 (Braille)

The Poetry Review 1082Khairani Barokka is the author of Rope (Nine Arches, 2017) and Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis, 2016). This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 108:2, Summer 2018, alongside other essays on translation by Sophie Collins and Carole Satyamurti. © The Poetry Review and the author.