Saturday, June 14, 2008

Manifesto of the Disabled Text

[This is an article Joyelle and I co-wrote for New Ohio Review, while it was still under Catherine Taylor's excellent editorship.]

Manifesto of the Disabled Text
by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson, Action Books

1. Discomfort with a translated text is discomfort with a disabled text. (“But the text can’t stand on its own!” “But something is lost, ruined, missing!”, etc.)

2. As do disabled bodies, disabled texts create a nervousness with reference to able, or enabled, texts and bodies. They give the lie to the supposed centeredness, completeness, originariness of able, enabled, or ‘original’ bodies and texts. Such nervousness is already an admission that all is not as stable—with our bodies, selves, and texts-- as we are led to believe we should believe.

3. Disabled texts need no longer comply with compulsory ablebodiedness.

4. This manifesto is a call for readers, teachers, publishers, editors, and translators to examine and overcome their discomfort with disabled texts and to resist compulsory ablebodiedness in their translation, publishing, teaching and reading practices.

5. But what is compulsory ablebodiedness? The phrase comes from disabilities studies, and was adapted by the theorist Robert McRuer from Adrienne Rich’s paradigm of ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ ‘Compulsory ablebodiedness’ refers to the destructive, normalizing requirement placed on disabled bodies by society. In Kim Q. Hall’s, figuration, below, ‘compulsory ablebodiedness’ is contiguous with other destructive and difference-erasing paradigms:

Informed by Michel Foucault's concept of "disciplinary normalization" (1979), feminist disability studies interrogates the complex web of institutionalized techniques of normalization that sustain patriarchy, white supremacy, class power, "compulsory ablebodiedness," and compulsory heterosexuality (McRuer 2002). These myriad, mutually reinforcing techniques of normalization subject bodies that deviate from a white, male, class privileged, ablebodied, and heterosexual norm. Seemingly unrelated technologies such as orthopedic shoes, cosmetic surgery, hearing aids, diet and exercise regimes, prosthetic limbs, anti-depressants, Viagra, and genital surgeries designed to correct intersexed bodies all seek to transform deviant bodies, bodies that threaten to blur and, thus, undermine organizing binaries of social life (such as those defining dominant conceptions of gender and racial identity) into docile bodies that reinforce dominant cultural norms of gendered, raced, and classed bodily function and appearance.

6. Translations, as disabled texts, pose the same challenges to the conventional norm as disabled bodies do. They deviate from monolingual textual expectations, and are thus deviant. They threaten to blur, and thus undermine, organizing binaries of social/textual/literary life (such as those defining dominant conceptions of gender/genre and racial/national/linguistic identity). ‘Compulsory ablebodiedness’ requires that translated texts function as docile bodies that reinforce dominant cultural norms of genred, raced, and classed bodily/textual function and appearance.

7. When publishers, teachers, readers, or translators themselves require the translated text read ‘as if it were written in English’, as an ‘elegant’, ‘fluent’ ‘good’ poem ‘in English,’ they collude with and enforce such ‘compulsory ablebodiedness.’ And this is a best-case scenario, for too often publishers’, teachers’, and readers’ anxiety over translation as an incomplete, diminished, impaired version of an original results in translation not being published, taught, or read at all.

8. The effects of compulsory ablebodiedness on translation are intense and repressive. Translations are excluded from most publications, from most prizes, from most workshops, from most ‘English’ literature classrooms, and from most performances.

9. But while affirming McRuer’s diagnosis of ‘compulsory ablebodiedness’ and applying the phrase to the status of translation viz. text culture, we depart from Hall’s formulation, quoted above, in that we do not see the prosthesis as symptom of ‘compulsory ablebodiedness,’ that is, as a function of the requirement that disabled bodies or texts ‘pass’ as original, intact or able.

10. Instead, translation is the prosthetic that calls attention to its own un-naturalness; it is the peg-leg that deterritorializes the body. Then again, it is the peg-legged lady who refuses to wall-flower, who takes the stage, who is tantamount to the barn, who invites us to a barn-dance within her own leg wherein we wave our termitic jaws.

11.Translation is not only the text rendered into a new language; it is the entire operation. We don’t speak of the original and the translation, that is, the original and the plagiarized copy. When we say “translation” we mean the entire on-going process. And this process in all its ongoingness is the prosthetic.

12. We find synchronicity between our model of the prosthetic and that developed by David Wills in his work of criticism, Prosthesis. Among many wonderful new paradigms and disruptive subparadigms worked into this prose, Wills suggests “Prosthesis occurs on the border between the living and the lifeless. It represents the monstrosity of interfering with the integrity of the human body, the act of unveiling the unnatural within the natural.” Translation provides Wills with an instance of prosthesis which soon swells to include all acts of writing and reading: “Prosthesis treats of whatever arises out of that relation, and of the relation itself, of the sense and functioning of articulations between matters of two putatively distinct orders: father/son, flesh/steel, theory/fiction, translation/quotation, literal/figurative, familiar/academic[…] French/English, nature/artifice […]”

13. Like Wills, we wear prosthetic goggles, they’re the same as our eyes, we see the translation prosthetics in every text. In Aase Berg’s 2001 book Forsla fett (Transfer Fat), pregnancy – that capacious metaphor for the natural, and for the ‘natural,’ ‘spontaneous’ act of poetry writing – becomes all prosthesis. Translation (English tracts of string theory, zombie flicks and D-list movies, science fiction novels) is the constitutive action of the book. This un-natural prosthetic, this peg-legged text induces the reader to break down the Swedish language, to see its compounds as “un-natural.” In Berg’s monstrous figuration, the scientific becomes corporeal and the corporeal becomes scientific. Spackhuggaren (killer whale) becomes a spack huggare (blubber biter). The strings of science become umbilical strings. Text and body become a transfer of monstrous fat.

14. In his 1963 sound experiment “Birds of Sweden,” concretist poet and artist Öyvind Fahlström translates Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” into “whammo” a language based on exclamations from comic books, permutating the poem into an sonic assemblage of shouts and moans. The prosthetics of the tape-player, of the translation. At the same time Fahlström creates “games,” in which the human body enters a room of moveable imagery; he also dreams of a mass-produced, mass-distributed project, a game called “Babies for Burroughs.” It took a strange marriage with the corporate body of General Electric to birth Fahlström’s omnivorously omnimedia “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” with a montaged cast of cyborgs, geniuses and ecstaticians.

15. Berg and Fahlstrom provide pragmatic models for how publishers and translators can channel their discomfort with the disabled text of translation into pieces that are multiple and already their own variants—visible, dynamic, threatening, prosthetic texts. This may be done by acknowledging and undermining ‘compulsory ablebodiedness,’ by dropping the requirement that texts be capable of ‘standing alone’ as ‘good’ or ‘fluent poems’, by instead inviting translation-the-process into and onto page/stage of the publication, revealing itself to be prosthetic, a mass of umbilical understrings. Practically speaking, this may involve visual appendages such as notes and hypertext, sonic prosthetics like recordings and phonetics, and especially the use of hybrid, invented, proximate, one-off pidgin languages, even the dreaded and verboten translatese. With electronic and web media, the possiblities can only metastasize.

16. We want to insist: All these suggestions are designed to admit the prosthetic status of the text. The text is always already prosthetic. In the case of translation and related practices, prosthetics does not mean to cover up the disabledness of the text, nor to compensate for it; instead it makes the disabledness visible and takes it as a catalyst for irrepressible transformations. Translators and publishers will have to collaborate to bring off this rejection of compulsory publishing conventions.

17. Meanwhile, English and writing teachers must get translation into the classroom by any means necessary. This may be threatening because it may mean presenting works over which the teacher herself does not have mastery. Thus the practical magic by which mastery over the text means mastery over the students will breakdown. Students and teachers will just have to invent an adventurous classroom ethos from there.

18. This is our deal now.

See McRuer, Robert. “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer-Disabled Existence.” In Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Bruggeman and Rosmarie Garland-Thomson, eds., Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. New York; Modern Language Association of America, 2002.
Hall, Kim Q. “Feminism, Disability, and Embodiment.” NWSA Journal, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2003. p. 132. Accessed on Project Muse,, 12/07/2007.
Wills, David. Prosthesis. Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Wills, 247
Wills, 10


Blogger Verse said...

This is great. When translating Salamun, I worked really hard not to normalize what wasn't even normalized in the original. Unfortunately, most people (poets, translators, editors, readers) think translations should read as if they were written in English, which has never made much sense to me (and now that I've translated a couple of books, it makes even less sense). I hope this piece gets wide distribution, as it's a strong counterpoint to the conventional wisdom about translation.


6:40 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Thanks, yes please spread the word.

Joyelle and I have been writing a few of these manifesto/essays. I think the best one we wrote was a manifesto for "Soft Surrealism," turning Ron Silliman's notion around to argue in favor of an un-macho, obese body that is crisscrossed by a multitude of languages. But I don't want to post that one yet because it's going to be in Mark Novak's Cross-Cultural Poetics and that isn't out yet.

10:13 AM  

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