Monday, May 31, 2010

Exotic Consultant

[I haven't had many blog ideas recently. But I'm part of a discussion about race and ethnicity and such for HTML Giant and today I was responding to a question about the danger of "exoticism" in translation. I kind of went on so I thought I'd post it here as a blog entry:]

A lot of people are worried about exoticizing, or incorrectly representing the foreign. They want their translations to be "faithful" to the original, or perhaps - in some more recent experimental translation practices - more than faithful (full of definitions and historical background)… I have a number of issues with this approach. The ultimate result is that fewer translations are published. Translation is simply too “problematic” to engage in it. Is it correct? Is it the right text to translate? Is it good in the original? Is it the best poem from this other language? How can I read it? People are scared because they don’t feel they’ve mastered the foreign language or literature. It’s secretive, elusive. Everybody feels too bad about it all in a lot of different ways. Easier to do without it… Well people have to be a little more daring. Nobody is the master of any literature! Nobody is ever faithful when they translate; translations are simply not faithful. The idea of translation as faithful is based on shall we say a monogamous concept of the artistic experience; a model that is very constrained, narrow. Nobody faithfully gets an artistic message anywhere, even if the poem is not in translation. Art is much more dispersed than that. Art is not monogamous. It’s very unfaithful. It is a slut. (Or, to quote an anthem played at the supermarket here in Mishawaka, Indiana, “You’re under the gun/So you get it on the run.”) It moves across language barriers, across economic borders, across ethnic groupings etc. Reading a poem is to be unfaithful to “the original.” There is no “original” in the sense that there is no true, one and only experience of the poem. Reading is a whorish activity… (“Heard it from a friend, who/heard it from a friend who/heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around.)But there is always this attempt to keep the lineages clean and direct, to keep art as this narrow cause-and-effect experience that we can get if we are properly trained. I’m not properly trained... I think all writing is about sex!... A foreigner is a counterfeit; I can’t give a faithful reading, even if I tried, even of Swedish poetry... Actually the Swedish “tradition” as a marginal literature is actually highly translation-informed. My favorite books when I first started reading include “Pa drift” av Jack Kerouac and “Acklet” av Jean Paul Sartre. I consider that a very Swedish start… I was a whore from the very beginning… To bring this back around to “exotics” – people who “exoticize my otherness” tend to be people who are interested in what I’m writing; people who conversely try to deny my otherness tend to be people who are opposed to what I’m doing, who fear that I’m taking secret privileges, that I’m cheating, that I’m using my immigrant status to access some secret jouissance... I think exotification is part of appreciating art. I don’t like mundane things, I like exotic things. I love hip hop because the puns etc are exotic to me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with white boys in the suburbs wearing hip hop influenced clothing etc. The ridiculing of such figures always betrays a conservative, sometimes even racist strain in the ridiculer… But also: I love Aase Berg’s poetry and translate if from Swedish because she exoticizes the Swedish language and makes it both seem super-Swedish and foreign; and, in translation, forces me, the translator, to exoticize the English language. It reminds me of when I first came to the US – the language was so strange and riddle-like… People like Ron Silliman call themselves "realists" and proclaim that they are interested in “rigor” and “precise” and “hard-chiseled” poetry. They believe in mastering traditions, creating lineages. Translation messes up their “New American” lineages… I’m an immigrant and an iconophile. I have no lineage and my traditions are terrifyingly unclean. I love the wax museum (even the ones in which real people have been covered with wax, or maybe especially those ones). I love secrets (and characters/texts that are “full” of them). I even love metaphors and similes. I love Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. I love exotic costumes. Especially when those costumes are found in language. That’s my motto and that’s the sun’s.


Blogger François Luong said...

This reminds me of the conversations I had in Montréal with Chantal N., François T. and Daniel C.:
-Translation is a documentation, not a reproduction (with CN)
-Rigor holds the "matraque de la vérité" ("the truncheon of truth") (Daniel C.)

9:40 AM  
Blogger Josef Horáček said...

"Translation is simply too 'problematic' to engage in it." No kidding. Translations make readers anxious. And this includes even the most competent readers, such as those of us who teach literature (actually, even more so). When we think that what we are reading is a palimpsest, a stand-in that's at once deficient and excessive, and always only tentative and provisional, then we're in trouble. Let's try to flip the coin: why not read translations as texts in their own right, without second-guessing their "fidelity" or "correctness" but rather looking for how they engage with the rest our own literature? And all this while keeping in mind that while they do refer to a "source," they also profoundly alter that source, and for good reasons.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, I think the key is that we can be fascinated by a poem even if we know it's connected to another text ("the original"), which we may or may not be able to read.


9:03 AM  

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