Is translation a mere figure? – A type of metaphor where new sets of words or phrases are applied to an object or an action? Is it indeed a ritualistic figure in its transporting of meaning to another shore? Sara O’Brien explores translation as the hosting of the other, and the arrival of the guest from beyond to the new shore.
A table draped in white cloth. A bowl filled with ice cubes that have been stained red. A poet speaks. The poet pours hot liquid and watches with her words as the ice becomes water and melts. The result surprised her, she said afterwards,
“With its strong emotion
And plumes of steam.”[i]
The poet is Bhanu Kapil and she refers, in these last lines, to a performance she gave, as part of a collaborative work with the artist, her sister, Rohini Kapil, as part of the exhibition I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker at the in June 2019. As the steam rose, the ice melted and the liquid suffused with red, Kapil read from her 2011 poetic work Schizophrene. This performance, which was intended equally as a ritual, was both concerned with and comprised of the movements and languages of the body, especially the experience of the migrant body, the non-white body, the foreign body in spaces that mark them out as such. Kapil said at the time, “I want to wash a heart. I want to make visible what is never visible: the insides of the body without end.”[ii] And so she made her own body, its movements, gestures and its touch, the site for this ritualistic enactment of the washing of what could be a heart.
Kapil also said, “I want to write a sentence that shakes. I want there to be blood in the line, and on the floor beneath it.”[iii] A sentence that shakes like a body in duress, like a heart that aches and pumps faster under pressure. After the performance, Kapil went to the side door and poured the red-stained water down the street. The remnants of the ritual flowed away, where they would have made unforeseen tracks in the crevices of the concrete pavement on which other feet would later tread, their soles perhaps tinged briefly by the trace of a once-held almost heart. How to account for this (blood) loss? How to release the accompanying pressures? How to hold on to, make space for, and attend to the pathways that follow from pain? How to acknowledge the bodies from which such residues seep? How to account for these movements?
How to Wash a Heart has since become the title of Kapil’s most recent poetry collection in which, over the course of eight poems, the complexity of the relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host are explored. A sense of ritual remains through the incantatory qualities of the poem and the themes of the performance percolate. But this is a work made up of language alone and much of that which took place at the site of the poet’s body is translated to the textures and contours of the textual body on the (white) page. It is with these ideas of language and translation that I wish to stay, as ways to think through the aforementioned questions. For language itself is always tinged by such traces, such pathways, such flows. Language is comprised of, and moves to fill, crevices of its own. Language is moving in the bodies that move through space and language is part of the body that moves. Language is moving and movement finds shape in language.
When we think of the movement of languages we often think of this in terms of translation. I want to think about translation not as an end or a product but in terms of the process and practice of translating, as something that takes place not so much in between languages but across, within and with them. I want to think about translation as a way to approach thinking about language and the bodies this brings. Figuratively, a connection can be made between the verb ‘to translate’ (which, in the sense of a transfer from one language to another, evokes its root in the Latin transferre, ‘to carry over’) and ‘ferry’ (a vessel that carries goods and people from one place to another), in light of which the writer and photographer Teju Cole has said, “The translator then is the ferry operator, carrying meaning from words on that shore to words on this shore.”[iv] To think of the translator as the ferry operator is to then think translation as the ferry, charting passages through oceans of language, full of currents, undulations, depth and drift, with many layers unseen and a surface that is constantly changing shape.
I am reminded of Adrienne Rich’s words that form part of the epigraph for a 2016 poetry anthology, Currently & Emotion: Translations, which says, “Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves.”[v] So, a question becomes, if we are, at heart, like the heart, drenched, soaked, suffused, how can we first identify these assumptions, so that we can then begin to understand them? How do we begin to filter them out? Translation is one way to draw attention to the porosity of language, to the ways in which it keeps things in and lets things through, with the meshes of translation letting one language run through the other like one runs a substance through a sieve. Translation can bring languages together in order to understand how the gaps, the holes, the openings are as important as the concrete matter of the fine webbed structure that we hold in our hands and shake.
There are many ways that the spaces of language might open up. The feminist postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak describes how, in translation, “meaning hops into the spacy emptiness between two named historical languages.” Here, she says, “By juggling the disruptive rhetoricity that breaks the surface in not necessarily connected ways, we feel the selvedges of the language-textile give way, fray into frayages or facilitations.”[vi] Translation is “this risky fraying,”[vii] it disrupts and can create cracks in the seemingly smooth surface of things, disturbing hegemonic ideas of origin and ownership, of propriety and property, of the pure and impure. And, just as the word translation itself can mean more than one thing, it is the capacity of translation to act as both the rupture and a means of remedy that I want to put forth here. These are ways to think about loss not in terms of what gets lost in translation but what gets lost without thinking about all the translations that are always already taking place.
In a workshop entitled Multilingual Resistance in December 2020, the poet, performer and sound artist Caroline Bergvall made the connection between the perils posed by the growing loss of biodiversity across the planet and the concomitant loss of languages amidst the ideological pressures of monolingualism. In light of this, and as a means to push against these pressures, Bergvall proposed different modalities of work. As ways to think about where languages intersect, where the horizontal range of languages on the ground meets the vertical hierarchies that result when some languages dominate others, Bergvall proposed the ideas of ‘depth’ and the ‘join.’
Think the ‘join’ and make connections, (super)impositions, overlaps, fusions, and fissures at the meeting points of languages. Penetrate one language with another, cut into and cut across, foster the frictions of disjointedness. Think ‘depth’ and think the mud, the midden, the soil. Delve into the depths of language, find the remnants, the ruins and the ghosts of those other languages, cultures and histories that may lay buried within, for these hidden zones are also the “place where things grow back from.”[viii]
Perhaps we must soil and embrace the soils of languages as they meet each other in translations that refuse to conform to the demands of ease and accessibility, those that wear the marks of their translation on their skin as ways to think with the bodies upon which marks are so readily and regularly imposed. What if we demand from language not fluency but fecundity? What if we work with the stains, the spills, the dirt? For cleanliness, after all, is an ideological position and dirt is “simply matter out of place.”[ix]
As the writer and translator Ghazal Mosadeq said at a recent event around multilingual criticism, there is “only one foreign language [and it is] the language of power and exploitation. All other languages belong to us.”[x] Translation can be a means to recuperate, replenish, rejuvenate these other languages. Translation can be a way to work with these others and ourselves towards the possibilities of otherwise. Translation can be a mode of resistance.
In thinking about translation as such a mode, one can look to the poet and translator Don Mee Choi’s assertion of the importance of her “retranslation, a radical hybrid” of a phrase taken from Harry Zohn’s translation of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator.’[xi] Choi posits “Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode” and describes how she wants to “make impossible connections between the Korean and the English, for they are misaligned by neocolonial war, militarism, and neoliberal economy.”[xii] She uses the example of the Korean word for cornbread, oksusuppang, a word that only exists in Korean because the foodstuff was provided as aid by the United States after the Korean War, drawing attention to the histories, relationships, traumas and politics that take place – and can be exposed – at the level of language. For language is indeed one of the many sites of trauma. It begins on the tongue and can find its way to the heart.
And so I find myself thinking again with the immigrant guest and the citizen host and the image of the heart repeating. I find myself back at the poems, those particular and potent treatments of language, and think now not about how to wash a heart but why? It is not, I think, in order to sanitise, disinfect or purify it. You wash a heart not to clean it but to cleanse it, to mind it, to mend, to begin the necessary means of repair. You wash a heart as a way to wash away the pain. So much of this is a matter of love but how to exercise this tenderness? How to hold these hearts in our hands when we ourselves are drenched?
Spivak suggests, “We have to turn the other into something like the self in order to be ethical. To surrender in translation is more erotic than ethical,”[xiii] she says. But how to surrender ourselves like this? How to turn the other into something like the self? How to approach the question
“Does the host envelop
The guest or does the guest
Attract diminished forms
One answer lies in the words themselves. It is there in the language if we dig down and trace it back. ‘Guest’ and ‘host’ share the same Proto-Indo European root ghos-ti meaning ‘stranger, guest, host,’ which stems from the importance of the reciprocal nature of hospitality in these ancient cultures. Today, the guest-host relationship is often less reciprocal than it is hierarchical, complicated and strained, as it is in Kapil’s book, by the power imbalance at work in the privilege necessarily possessed by the host who grants entry to the guest. These performances of conditional belonging, with all their feigned benevolence and “ornate way[s] of describing the hospitality [they are] offering” may only serve to inculcate in those who meet them a greater sense of longing.[xv]
Choi describes such a longing and says, “I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity.” But she says too, “my tongue deforms, it disobeys.”[xvi] She repeats, “I speak as a twin,” and with this sentiment I like to think she has made herself both guest and host, that she has captured in her language the echoes of a link that has otherwise been severed.
Her language carries these echoes just as translations carry and channel meaning. For in translation, languages reverberate. They throb, like a wound. Wound, a word that connotes trauma, which itself is the Greek word for ‘wound.’ The words fold into each other and across languages such that the idea of a site of injury as well as a broader process of experiencing shock, distress, or disturbance is evoked. Perhaps it is this processual quality, this disturbance that can be harnessed when thinking about translation and the traumas it may help to redress, the selves it may begin to salve. Perhaps, as poets and translators Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney suggest, translation itself can be thought of like a wound, as “a site of mediumistic transformation…transform[ing] the body into a body possessed by media, a body with holes through which the media come in and out,” where one can “make impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature.”[xvii]
If, through translation, one language can make a wound in another in this way, then it could be seen to shock it, shake it, make it shudder, cause it to seep and swell in different ways. Translation, as wound, as rupture, could be the means, the mode, that pierces holes in the assumptions in which we are drenched so that we can better understand each other and ourselves. A wound is not some static site where an injury has occurred. Yes, it is residue, remainder and reminder, but it is also where healing begins to take place. It too can be a site where things grow back. Neither fixed nor to simply be fixed, thinking about the wounding of translation and language may offer ways to conceptualise and enact necessary modes for remedy, care and repair.
Göransson and McSweeney suggest that “The wound of language, created by the act of translation, results in a poem.”[xviii] It is thus, perhaps, unsurprising that it is with a poem this began. And it is to the words of another poem that this has come, one that resonates, that says something to, for, and of the heart, a poem that says
“One way to open a body to the stars, with a knife.
One way to love a sister, help her bleed light.”[xix]
[i] Kapil, Bhanu, How to Wash a Heart, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020, p. 49
[ii] Kapil, Bhanu, statement accompanying the performance How to Wash a Heart, May 2019 (online: https://www.ica.art/live/how-to-wash-a-heart)
[iv] Cole, Teju, “Carrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation,” New York Review of Books, 5 July 2019 (online: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2019/07/05/carrying-a-single-life-on-literature-translation/)
[v] Rich, Adrienne, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978, quoted in Collins, Sophie (ed.), Currently & Emotion: Translations, London: Test Centre Publications, 2016, p. 11
[vi] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ‘The Politics of Translation’ in Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 202
[vii] Ibid., p. 202
[viii] Bergvall, Caroline, Multilingual Resistance workshop, 13 December, 2020.
[ix] Frichot, Helene, Dirty Theory: Troubling Architecture, Baunach: AADR, 2019, p.9
[x] Mosadeq, Ghazal speaking at ‘Multilingual Criticism,’ co-hosted by Manifold Criticism and Pamenar Press as part of Manifold Criticism’s Experimental Criticism Symposium, 11 February 2021 (available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKAHUZcDvdM)
[xi] Choi, Don Mee, Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-Neocolonial Mode, New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020, p. 1
[xii] Ibid., p. 4
[xiii] Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, ibid., p. 205
[xiv] Kapil, Bhanu, ibid., p. 40
[xv] Kapil, Bhanu, ibid., p. 50
[xvi] Choi, Don Mee, ibid., p. 8
[xvii] Göransson, Johannes and McSweeney, Joyelle, Deformation Zone, New York: Ungly Duckling Presse, 2012, p. 8
[xviii] Ibid., p. 13
[xix] Diaz, Natalie, ‘Blood-Light’ in Postcolonial Love Poem, London: Faber & Faber, 2020, p. 6