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Translations

These heavy sands are language tide and wind have silted here.

–James Joyce, Ulysses [2176]

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, a translator and poetry scholar, has a beautiful essay accompanied by a selection of translations of the Belgian poet Jean Daive in issue 2.2 of continent. The sampling of work that Oei addresses all derive from his translation of Daive’s Narration d’équilibre: Antériorité du scandale, ‘Sllt’, Vingt-quatre images seconde (Paris: Hachette/P.O.L, 1982) and Oei is quick to mention that his annotations are not intended to present a “…meticulous overview of the different themes, lines, and figures traversing such a voluminous oeuvre. Rather, they form a set of comments that found their way to the margins of the word processing document while translating the work.”

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Similarly, this note is being written to track a number of comments — ad-ornaments — lining the margins of the print-out of Oei’s essay that I have been reading for the past few weeks while in Berlin working on the preparation of a new issue of continent. This note is written as a divergent hearkening — a kind of hypertranscription of Oei’s essay — though, one that remains entirely convergent with the aims of Oei’s essay. Broadly, my interest in mapping differing readings of poetic texts in relation to earlier readings in the genealogical wake generated by those texts is meant to aim at a concept of divergence itself; certainly one of the notions at stake in the careful unraveling of the Sausserean sign Oei undertakes through readings of Lacan and Derrida, up to Daive’s subsequent work at the level of polysemy and meaning-making in his poetics. The moment we’ve decided that poetic language is one of the questions at play in our analyses, we’ve already ventured into the thickets: the divergent, unofficial matrices of semblance and association that we, in our listening, rely upon as orienting devices. The language of the unofficial is here meant to recall the orienting premise that Oei invokes to structure his investigations. Following in the footsteps of poetry scholar Judith Balso, Oei remarks his investigations as “depart[ing] from Wallace Stevens’ idea that if it is the case that philosophy represents the ‘official view of being,’ poetry can be defined as its ‘unofficial view.’” Just further on, and now approaching Daive, Oei begins his work by asking us to listen to three particular resonances of an odd term in Daive’s title, stating that, “[t]his unofficial being of poetry finds its materialization in “Sllt” (listen to slat, the suppressed ssst of the nocturnal visitor, but also the salut of poetry itself).”

In a sense my reflections will have not moved beyond these three resonances, however over-coded they become, as I aspire to listen to Daive by redoubling them, attempting to think the slat in the middle of translation, and trace three more associations out of profligate possibilities (listen to the curt sult, the double dashes // dividing and intertwining another couple, slit and silt).

1.) Sult (Norwegian hunger, as in Knut Hamsun), itself perhaps a starved and strained attempt to utter salt (with its etymological twin wit as evidenced in the Latin sal). Recall when Daive tells us that “eating is the phrase of here or speaking.” As interpretive maxims go, to keep your wits about you and take it with a grain of salt are both welcome, if not synonymous, reminders.

Already, keen readers may pause to wonder at a kind of metacommentary on a methodology that takes so many witty turns-of-phrase and novel fluctuations in meaning so seriously. Can a method of approaching texts that relies so lasciviously (a sultry, if not slutty way of cruising texts) upon their sonic textures be worth its salt? To what extent? Curious moments like Daive’s phoneme sllt, that we readers want to treat as a word, are, it’s possible, grains of salt in the cryptographer’s sense of the word– randomly chosen bytes inserted into messages prior to decoding to render certain forms of decryption much more difficult. Hard, indigestible bits meaninglessly resisting meaning and, just as obstinately, refusing to be brushed off so easily. To the notions of grains, specks, and motes, to which I am deeply attracted, I return at the end of this note.

2.) Now, with a non-verbal resonance, look at the Roman two-count graphic “II”, that slat that Oei comments upon and implicitly draws into its visual rhyme with the forward slash used to indicate a line break in poetry that has been transcribed without breaks / as well as the cut inaugurated by the image that the poetic text creates. If we follow Stevens’ designation of the unofficial view, it isn’t so hard to translate the language into Dickinsonian, as when she famously implores her readers to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. An analogy: Stevens’ unofficial view is to being as Dickinson’s slant telling is to truth. (And what of these italics, then? Perhaps a deeper, Dickensonian return to Derrida’s Faith and Knowledge is in order…).

Slant (divergence): We can also stay with the graphic slats and, recalling how Dickinson’s poem continues that “Success in circuit lies”, observe how easily they could be circuited into conversation with that most elementary grapheme of online societies and hypertext protocol: “://”, about which theoreticians of technology and poetics much more capable than I would doubtless have much to say.

3.) Lastly, the slit-silt couple that mirrors plays on the signe-singe couple that forms one of the strong bases of Oei’s text and out of which it’s analyses develop. For Oei’s reading of Daive, the simian (singe) that appears in the course of Daive’s poetry “dwells in the spot previously occupied by the Aristotelian sign (signe)”. Throughout history, sign-making has seemed to signify a certain distinction between humanness and animality, even while definitions of the former have retained an insoluble closeness to the latter (as we hear from old etymological stories about the letter A and Phoenician pictograms for oxen). Indeed, the notion persists into modernity. Says Oei again, “[w]hereas Stéphane Mallarmé imagined the sign as swan (cygne), caught on the white page, Daive focuses on the ‘unofficial,’ mischievous character of the sign, its nearly being human.” As Oei moves from the casting of the ape and the swan, through his cataloging of Daive’s signs – signs that are always “overloaded”, “ambiguous”, “polyvalent”, and “excessive” – it becomes abundantly clear the extent to which every term abounds in it’s resonances and in its role within poetry’s (pa)role to “say everything”. Indeed, every sign is an alloy — a mixture of others (allos-) — and this is perhaps an alternate answer to Daive’s question, “Why this transversal of the others like—”. With an understanding of language itself as alloy (or creole) and the utterance of the similitic like, the dam bursts loosing unfettered slippages; the metamorphoses that so easily displace the solidity of a Sausserean distinction between signifier and signified become dizzying.

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Indeed, each irruption or fibrilation of the foil of poetic texts is a potential lime-twig (one of the myriad branches of Saussere’s tree, under which we find Mallarme’s swan and Daive’s ape) upon which otherwise unseen readings catch. A sensual assault (asllt?) or, if that term seems to hyperbolic, at least a snare, or a little spur (eperon), as in Derrida’s analysis of Nietzsche’s Styles (Eperons).

Shifting the metaphor slightly, we can easily imagine every sign as a slit in a garment that proposes to seduce us, marks a slit in desire, calls us to respond, and in doing so changes the course of our becoming. Daive notes the imperative nature of response itself when he writes that, “[…] we need to respond now. Responding, that is / continuing / and waiting, that is the return of the event. / In fact, it is like a lady, but it is different”. In terms that will be familiar to readers of Badiou, the seduction of encounters opens a path towards fidelity, through which the original encounter can be understood as a true event and the subject of the encounter can become constituted as a subject. Fidelity itself can be comported towards individuals, styles (or dispositions) of things as much as toward texts, ideas, or interpretations thereof.

But, I am taking this path to get caught on another spur, to hesitate not at the signe or singe, but at the tree that stands between them and which plays a central role in Oei’s excursus. It’s the tree, which I will remark here not only to cast again in its role as a genealogical symbol (“We will have children, trees. We will grow up / we will climb.”, writes Daives) and thus remember the genealogical readings that Foucault and Nietzsche insisted upon, but to cast a divergent ending in my reading of Oei’s reading. Through its nuanced and astute annotations, Oei’s text culminates in a meditation on the materials he has inventoried in Daive’s work and a reference to a sculpture by the German artist Joseph Beuys (FOND VII/2 [1967/84]). In the interest of repeating this movement anew and with a focus on the centrality of the, now thoroughly over-determined, figure of the tree I would like to recall another work by Beuys, 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) – a work consisting of the planting of 7’000 trees, each paired with a basalt column.

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Quoting Beuys,

“My point with these seven thousand trees was that each would be a monument, consisting of a living part, the live tree, changing all the time, and a crystalline mass, maintaining its shape, size, and weight. This stone can be transformed only by taking from it, when a piece splinters off, say, never by growing. By placing these two objects side by side, the proportionality of the monument’s two parts will never be the same.”

Now, in the interest of closing and moving hopefully not too far from Daive and his poems, I would like to suggest that this work by Beuys forms a compelling allegory for the kind of plasticity remarked upon by the philosopher Catherine Malabou as essential not only to the form of the subject in Hegel (where Malabou originally draws her analysis) or neurobiology (where Malabou’s work leads her), but to language itself (poetic language standing not for an instance of language but as a thoroughly recursive denomination for language and the plastic element within language itself, without which it could not be).

For Malabou the concept of plasticity designates a two-fold capacity; in the first instance it stands for the capacity of a material to change and explosively generate new form (as the discipline repeatedly remarked by Daive and Oei, neurology, believes neural pathways to be plastic). Deleuzian reading might think find themselves inclined to conjure the rhizomatic aspen as being a somewhat better suited oak for visualizing this kind of plasticity. In the second instance plasticity designates, in an affinity with the concept as it appears in the plastic arts, the vulnerability of a material to yield to irreversible forming (as Beuys’ stones can be changed solely through the subtractive forces of weather and carving). The simians are not only swinging from branch-to-branch generating new connections and arbitrary combinations in language, as Oei suggests. For Daive, and the materiality of my illustration, “The simians are sitting on stones / at the level of terrestrial / existence.” There is a degree of fundament, subject to being irremediably affected by sudden traumatic injury, degenerative disorders, aphasia.

Amidst so much talk about the plastic arts, plastic wrap, and plastic explosives we can, at the level of our texts also hear the philosopher Avital Ronell reminding us of something akin to destructive plasticity when she notes the confraternity between missives and missiles and remarks upon the small ideas that are planted in texts and go unnoticed for centuries before revealing themselves to be timebombs, detonating registers of meaning, relevance, and decisions once considered as infrangible (Meillassoux). Positions and perceptions are revised if not reversed and, in the interest of closing, I will turn once more to the image of the tree, now as an aid in visualizing what is at stake in these reversals, disruptions, and shifts of focus between myriad signs and significations. Overarching and attendant upon these concerns is the interplay between philosophy’s authorial edifices and what Oei, again quoting the poetry scholar Judith Balso names the “cracks and fissures of the metaphysical framework”, towards which poetic invention must be trained if it is to have political valence. Here, and in the interest of wrapping up, I listen to the Tibetan poet Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche when he writes, commenting on a photograph of a tree:

“Branches. We could view the trees as cracks in the sky, like cracks in glasses. We could adopt that change in perspective. The space that exists around you could be solid—and you could be only a hollow in the middle of that solid space.”

I find it hard to imagine a better description of the kind of perspectival shifts with regard to being that poetry seems so well-suited at facilitating.

But what has any of this to do with silt that last resonance of my original list? Silt- the material below the grain, where speaking of grains or kernels begins to lack any scalar sense (there is always a smaller element to prioritize), that forms the riverbeds for the rivers from which our simians, swans, and philosophers alike undoubtedly drink, will deserve to have much more said about it than I am able to say in this little postscript. As Oei remarks via Lacan and Freud on anagrams, there are unconscious repercussions for our couples such as signe-singe, slit-silt, or Lacan’s originary and slightly more complex arbre-barre. We choose our terms and they are thus consequent. If the Sausserean sign is always split by a (permeable) bar, then any procession of signs or slats is likewise riven by bars and slits. What I call silt is perhaps cognate with Oei’s slat, though in a direction distinctly it’s own. Whereas Daive’s slat (sommier) “contributes to the summation (sommer) of the phrases, series, and seconds—secundus— sequences and persecutions, marching and marking are separated and thus form names, words, albeit in a disowned way: aping”, silt would seem to point to what is visible between (and beneath) the slats; not a plank (like the one that we are perhaps walking) or that Tibetan sutras are traditionally inscribed upon, but still a support (as in a riverbed). Instead of contributing additively to summation, silt would seem to signify the end of a process of wearing down of phrases, series, seconds, and sequences into finer and less distinguishable grit – what is perhaps glimpsed when one’s perception of a tree is hollowed out through the kind of procedure that Trungpa Rinpoche seeks to effect.

In essence, and with continued attention paid to Malabou’s notion of destructive plasticity, silt names that composition of little elements, little dangers, at the level of marks “below” that of the letter, which persist within the sanctioned space of the poem and threaten always to overturn the meaning of that sanctioned space. Take, in closing, the example of the single, unremarked upon, apostrophe before the word ‘Cause in the first line that Oei takes as a starting point for his note keeping. What being does this initial apostrophe abbreviate? What word does it rend itself from? The obvious answer is that Daive’s text actually takes its first step with the slang version of “because”. “Be-”, of course, an abbreviation and hiatus of being in the apostrophe. While the philosophical freight of such a suggestion may not turn out to be extraordinary, to risk such a revision– to cast Daive’s text in the league of those that begin, „Because…“, that is, in the register of those that commence as responses to another– is to wonder whether there was actually a cause — a causa or Aristotelian aition — in the first instance, as Oei has assumed, or always just a partially effaced glyph (rendered indecipherable and disproportionate by the destructive plasticity of time itself) which we struggle, in our diligence and our care, to preserve?

from Diary of Return

August 8, 2002

I arrived below the 38th parallel.  Everyone and every place I know are below the waist

of a nation.  Before I arrived, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great.  I follow its geography.  From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains.  It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.

Close up: clubs, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stores with signs in English, that is

to say English has arrived before me and was here even before I had left.  PAPA SAN, LOVE SHOP, POP’S, GOLDEN TAILOR, PAWN.  I followed the signs and they led to one of the gates to Camp Stanley, a heliport, that is to say language is not be to believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.  A woman in her seventies lived next to LOVE SHOP. She was taking an afternoon nap.  She has never left below the waist and eventually came to be regarded as a great patriot by her government, that is to say she followed the signs and suffered from lice infestation during the war and passed the lice on to the GIs.  I followed the houses that reminded me of home.  They led me to another metal gate and barbed wire.  Another woman was having lunch at My Sister’s Place.

She did not remember which year she had returned except that she remembered hearing about the assassination of our Father, that is to say she was here and I was still elsewhere and the unity of language is fundamentally political.  She told me a story with her right index finger.  Her finger fiercely pointed to her mouth, then between her spread legs, and then her behind.  She had no choice under the GI’s gun, that is to say she had no choice about absolute choice, that is to say her poverty was without choice and when absolute choice was forced upon her she chose a GI, that is to say she chose empire because empire is greater than our Father, that is to say she followed and left her daughter to its geography and her index finger had no choice but be fierce under absolute choice, that is to say she had arrived home.

 

Italics: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

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Don Mee Choi is the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and the recipient of a 2011 Whiting Writers’ Award. She has received the 2012 Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for All the Garbage of the World, Unite! by Kim Hyesoon. Her translations also include Anxiety of Words published by Zephyr, When the Plug Gets Unplugged & Princess Abandoned by Tinfish, and Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers by Action Books.

An Invitation (Horace’s Ode i.20)

Cheap wine, Maecenas! You’ll drink cheap wine from cheap cups,
our local Sabine swill. I pitched the Grecian jar myself, and filled it with wine

I made. I laid it in my cellar that day when you entered your theater
after a long sickness. Yes, Maecenas, the people saw you and cheered

and the echoes filled Rome, your Tiber trembled and the Vatican hills shook. Yes,
Maecenas, it’s true–you’ve drank the crushed grapes of Calenia and Caecuba.

You’ve had Falernia and Formia–better wine than my cups should ever dirty.


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Micah Towery‘s poetry and translations appear in magazines like Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine.cc, and Loaded Bicycle, and an interview with Tom Sleigh will be appearing in an issue of The Writer’s Chronicle soon. He teaches at Trinity Western University and tweets @micahtowery. In past lives he was a baker, church organist, and Coca-Cola delivery driver.

There’s been a bit of back and forth about questions of translatability (here and here), and I thought it was worth some observations.

I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?

Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.

Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:

The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.

Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.

McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:

“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”

Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:

“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”

The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.

I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.

These are my loose translations of a form in Ireland known as “three things there be.” Long before Saint Patrick came, the Irish thought in threes. They were a triune people, with a Celtic triune God, and they, like most Celts, cast spells, and framed their tales by the magic of threes. I have translated some Triads previously translated by the wonderful Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella. I am arrogant after all. *wink*

1.
Three smiles that are worse than griefs:
the smile of snow melting on the heaths,
the smile of wives who to rogues their pleasures bring,
the smile of a mastiff, teeth bared, about to spring.
2.
Three qualities of a fair tale:
good flow like rivers made from ale,
full depth of thought just like the sea,
and as with youth– sweet brevity.
3.
Three qualities of a tale told ill:
Much stiffness, like the hairs of boars,
Obscurity, like fog laced shores,
delivery– a hag’s voice singing shrill.
4.
Three ways to fame in Erin:
great wit, as with the fox,
sweet music, as with the voice of angels,
a sharp blade, and the art of shaving faces.
5.
Three times when speech silence exceeds:
when urging kings toward valorous deeds,
when poetry thy own voice humbly serves,
when praising him whom praise richly deserves.
6.
Three doors through which all falsehood goes:
hot anger which beyond all reason flows,
cold information warmed by calumny,
lame recollection propped on certainty.
7.
Three scarcities exceed abundance then:,
a scarcity of speeches by dull men,
a scarcity of light when sleep draws near,
a scarcity of friends around the beer.
8.
Three loves that are more dangerous than hate:
love for a son who is a reprobate,
love for a wife who turns from thee in bed,
love for a friend who lies with her instead.
9.
Three kinds of trouble fall upon the soul,
the trouble in the want of self control,
the heart gone wanting with no hope of get,
the want no sooner gotten then–regret.