Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 22 September 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
On the Elusive Art of Translation
A conversation with Kate Briggs and Tracy K. Smith, moderated by Magdalena Edwards
PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at CUNY Graduate Center, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library presented On the Elusive Art of Translation livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 22 September 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
Join us for the finale of Translating the Future, a 20-week series of conversations between translators, with “On the Elusive Art of Translation,” featuring Kate Briggs and Tracy K. Smith, and moderated by Magdalena Edwards.
For the final event in our Tuesday conversation series, and the first event of Translating the Future’s culminating week, we’ll hear from luminaries Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art, and Tracy K. Smith, former U.S. poet laureate, whose forthcoming book, co-translated with Changtai Bi, is Yi Lei's My Name Will Grow Wide LIke a Tree. Their conversation will be moderated by Magdalena Edwards, translator of Clarice Lispector. Sponsored by the Princeton University Program in Translation & Intercultural Communication
Tracy K. Smith is the author of four collections of poetry, among them Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, and Wade in the Water, winner of the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. While serving as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, Smith edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. With her original libretto for the opera "Castor and Patience," a collaboration with composer Gregory Spears, Smith takes up a portion of what has been described as the unfinished work of Reconstruction. Probing historical and ongoing obstacles to Black land ownership in the United States, "Castor and Patience" will premiere in Cincinnati in 2021. Smith began translating the poems of contemporary Chinese poet Yi Lei (1951-2018) in early 2014, with collaborator Changtai Bi. That work, which transpired in the US and China over the last years of Yi Lei's life, brought Smith into robust dialogue with one of China's most original and independent voices. My Name Will Grow Wide like a Tree: Selected Poems of Yi Lei, will be published by Graywolf Press in November 2020.
Magdalena Edwards is a writer, actor, and translator from Spanish and Portuguese based in Los Angeles, California. She has translated Clarice Lispector, Márcia Tiburi, Silviano Santiago, Nicanor Parra, Raúl Zurita, and Oscar Contardo, among others. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, the Boston Review, the Millions, El Mercurio, Rattle, the Critical Flame, Full Stop, The Point, Words Without Borders, London Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, Jornal Rascunho, Virada and Revista Transas. Currently a Visiting Scholar at UCLA’s Latin American Institute, Magdalena holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA and a BA in Social Studies from Harvard. Twitter: @magda8lena - Instagram: @msmagda8lena.
Kate Briggs is a writer and translator based in Rotterdam, NL, where she teaches on the Masters in Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute. She is the author, most recently, of This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017) and Entertaining Ideas (Ma Bibliothèque, 2019). This Little Art is now being translated into five languages; A Table Made Again For the First Time, a collection of artists', writers' and translators' responses to the book, edited by Paul Becker and Francesco Pedraglio, will be published by Juan de la Cosa / John of the Thing in 2021. She is currently working on a book titled The Long Form which finds a philosophy of the novel in the daily lives of a new mother and her baby.
Esther Allen: Welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a professor at City University of New York and here with me is Alison Markin Powell who translates Japanese literature and works with the PEN Translation Committee. She and I are co-organizers of "Translating the Future", the conference you are now attending.
Allison Markin Powell: Thank you, Esther, and thank you all for joining us for the final event in our Tuesday Conversation series, week 20. Today we'll be hearing from two luminary writers and translators about their works in progress and how they make progress in our uncertain present guided in a discussion about the elusive art of translation by a brilliant moderator. Kate Briggs is the author of "This Little Art" and is currently working on a book titled "The Long Form", which finds the philosophy of the novel in the daily lives of a new mother and her baby. Tracy K. Smith is the author of four collections of poetry and a memoir and her collaboration with Changtai Bi on the translation of the poems of Yi Lei, "My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree" will be published in November. Magdalena Edwards is a writer, actor, and translator from Spanish and Portuguese. She has translated a long list of authors and her own work has appeared in an even longer list of publications. You can read their full and fascinating bios on the Center for the Humanities site. We'd like to express our gratitude to the sponsor of today's event, the Princeton University Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication.
Esther: Before we start talking about the art of translation we'd like to take one more moment to remember the dangers of translation and to salute the work of Red T, the first and only nonprofit that exclusively advocates for translators and interpreters in high risk settings worldwide including war zones, detention centers, and sites of political unrest where translators and interpreters are persecuted, imprisoned, abducted, and assassinated with impunity. Founded by Maya Hess, who I'm proud to say received her PhD from City University of New York, Red T has spearheaded the Open Letter project which, alongside partners such as PEN International, advocates for better asylum policies for combat linguists. Red T has also issued the first guide for translators and interpreters in conflict zones. It drafts expert opinions for court cases involving translators and interpreters and it connects individual translators and interpreters with resources to get them out of harm's way. To learn more about Red T's work and to support it, you can visit red-t.org.
Allison: ”Translating the Future" will culminate this week with several marquee events on our original conference dates beginning tomorrow, Wednesday, with a double billing of "Postmonolingual New York" exploring how the city's immigrant communities have always enriched its linguistic texture. and "Translating for a World on Fire", featuring Maria Dahvana Headley and Emily Wilson, authors of new translations available in the Odyssey respectively.
Esther: That will be followed Thursday by an exploration of "Democracy and Translation" with Natalie Diaz, Ken Liu, and Marilyn Nelson. And our final finale event on Friday: "A Flight of Tokarczuk Translators" will feature 12 of Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk's translators from around the world, moderated by Susan Harris of "Words Without Borders." You can register now for all of those events on the Center for the Humanities website.
Allison: ”Translating the Future" is convened by PEN America's Translation Committee which advocates on behalf of literary translators working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Larissa Kyzer. For more information, look for translation resources at penn.org. Please keep in mind, as usual, that you can email your questions for today's speakers Tracy, Kate, and Magdalena, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep questions anonymous unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name.
Esther: If you know anyone who is unable to join us for today's live stream or any of those we've done for the last 19 weeks, recordings are available on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites, as well as in the PEN archive. Before we turn it over to Tracy Kate, and Magdalena, we'd like to offer our utmost and eternal gratitude to our partners at the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, PEN America, and the masters of dark Zoom magic at HowlRound who make this live stream possible. And now, over to you three.
Magdalena Edwards: Hello, Tracy and Kate. And thank you also to Alison and to Esther and to all of the partners and supporters of this incredible series. I wanna jump right in to our conversation beginning with a question about the title of today's event. And Tracy, I'd like to begin with you and I'd like to know what do you find most elusive about translation as a practice and what for you is most concrete?
Tracy K. Smith: I love the question, which is in some ways itself, elusive to me. I feel like every, every poem that I've set out to translate has been a new initiation into this art form for me. Yi Lei's work is the first work that I really dedicated myself to bringing into English and it's from a language that I don't myself speak. So the many different modes of listening and collaborating have changed this from what I might've imagined it otherwise could've been. I think that finding the road into a text is the elusive thing. Sometimes I feel that it's a visceral connection. Sometimes for me with these poems that I first encountered in a very rudimentary English form, it was trying to get past the language to a sense of the images or the impulses that set them into motion. And that always felt to me like a kind of dance and kind of like a prayer almost to be a receptive medium for another person's voice and thoughts. And those are the things that have also been so exhilarating to me. I find that the poems that were hardest for me to find my way into often were the ones that taught me the most about what I was seeking to do 'cause I had to play these different kinds of very concrete games. Like, okay, I'm having a difficult time stepping into the thought process of this poem, so I'm going to translate it backwards and see if the images can guide me until I forget that I'm attempting to do something and then I'm just in conversation with this. And I love the fact that every time I opened up this document with Yi Lei's poems I had no idea what the approach or the dance would be like. Yeah.
Magdalena: Kate, what would you say for you is elusive and what's concrete?
Kate Briggs: Yeah, thank you for this. It's beautiful to hear Tracy talk about that process. I think for me, if I'm honest, when I first saw the title, actually, "The Elusive Art of Translation", I think part of me was kind of resistant to thinking not elusive. At least not in the sense of something that's hard to reach or hard to get at, or that requires some special process of initiation in order to begin. I was thinking something more like the concrete, Tracy spoke of concrete games, the concrete art of translational, the embodied art of translational, laborious art of translation. I think in the book "This Little Art", one of the ambitions was really to try and bring the practice into relation with ordinary, everyday experiences of life and try to show how translation happens in such kind of settings; embodied, kind of pressured settings. So, with that kind of ambition in mind, I would say no to elusive and then I was thinking about this and then thinking about what it feels like at my desk recently trying to translate a sentence, a three-word sentence from French to English. And understanding it, feeling fairly confident that I've understood it and feeling like it's making me feel something; feeling it, having a sense of its charge or its energy. And feeling, sensing that there are probably maybe two or three possible solutions available to me. And I set them down. I set one down, I delete it; I put another down, I delete it; I set another one down and trying there to try to catch at something. And there it feels like elusive would be exactly the right term; this idea of you know that you can hear something or that you can feel something or there's a charge of something, but how... What kind of net can you make, can you construct that can actually hold that? And I think for me that often I realize that it can't happen at the level of the sentence actually. It's always about then how that sentence is acting in relation to another sentence somewhere else, or another word choice somewhere else. It's about sort of slowly weaving this much bigger net that might catch something of that; of what I think I hear. So I would say no to elusive and then a yes. A kind of emphatic yes to elusive.
Magdalena: It sounds like in an interesting way, what each of you is getting at is there's no one path each time that's the same. Or even for one text, if it's, say it's a novel or a series of chapters or lectures or poems. Each one is gonna demand different things. And I love this idea of starting backwards and also this, Tracy you were talking about this kind of wanting it to feel not like you're trying very hard to make it work, but rather to have the feeling of this piece of art or language that is meant to have the reader have an experience. And I like the resistance to the word elusive as well.
Tracy: Yeah, I feel like it's also in some way, at least for me, a dance around my relationship to authority. Okay, I don't have authorial authority. I don't have a command of the language and when do I allow myself to trust that what I'm receiving from this poem in the form that I'm getting it is something I should be authorized to act upon and to offer as one of the central concerns or one of the central offerings of the experience of the poem? And that's an interesting set of questions and inhibitions that I think ideally you work through and they become less and less of a constraint the further into a poem that you get. But I often found myself saying okay, this is what these poems are saying to me and I feel so compelled by these facets and these powers that the poem seems to embody. But I really hope that somebody else will hear something else and act upon that and do the work of translating this in a different way. And somehow that was very freeing for me to think I wasn't going to be, I wasn't gonna be the last person, I'm not the first person; and what I can offer is a version of my own conversation with this poet.
Magdalena: Yes. So I've really enjoyed reading each of your works in preparation for this, and sort of thinking about poems, Tracy, that you've written, and also Kate, from "This Little Art", reading your meditations on translation and on language and on various things. And so I wanted to read a little snippet from each of you and sort of throw that into this conversation, see where that might take us. And so the first one and I think these connect also with these questions of body and dance and a kind of giving and taking. The first one is from Kate's book, "This Little Art", and I just love this moment where you say, "I read with my body. I read and move to translate with my body and my body is not the same as yours." And Tracy, the section I chose is to read of your work comes from the poem, "Self Portrait as the Letter Y", which is such an interesting title, so evocative for me. "Self Portrait" is something that's different perhaps than the speaker herself. And it comes from the book, "The Body's Question", and the section is this: "I am invisible here like I like it. The language you taught me rolls from your mouth into mine the way kids will pass smoke between them. You feed it to me until my heart grows fat. I feed you tiny black eggs. I feed you my very own soft truth." And this scene and this image and this exchange makes me think in a lot of ways about translation, perhaps as something that is not only exchanged but also perhaps even can be erotic. And this then brings me, Tracy, to this translation project that you've been working on that comes out in November. So I just wanna throw that all in and see where that will take us.
Kate: I guess to begin with, the sentences that you read, Magdalena, what I had in mind there is what I have in mind or who the work I have in mind ongoingly throughout "This Little Art" or the lecture courses, lecture courses. And there kind of distantly I think, or maybe not so distantly is moving a few pages away from those lines. I've written about a list that made in his autobiography of sorts translated by Richard Howard, which is just a simple list apparently simple list, of likes and dislikes. He says, "I like cinnamon. I like slow walks. I like a very cold beer. I dislike women in trousers, harpsichords, the afternoon." So he has this list, quite well-known list of preferences, of tastes, I guess. And those two paragraphs end with him writing, what does this mean? What does that want to say? Actually, it means nothing or it has no significance apart from to say my body is different from yours. My body is not the same as yours. So I was just very caught by this expression of preference, which might seem like the smallest things. The smallest, like cold beer rather than whatever, cold cider or something. It's the smallest preferences but to think about making a kind of space for translation or an account of translation where those sorts of preferences are possible to affirm and to hold to. And perhaps even Tracy was talking about authority to ground authority. But at the same time, thinking about one's preferences for blue jumpers or whatever it might be, or lipstick, or, I think thinking that one doesn't stop. I don't think it's possible, or one should stop there with an affirmation of preference. It seems to me that it also opens up a space of inquiry where we might start thinking, certainly when you're translating, to think about why do I prefer it this way rather than that way? Why do I like it like this? Why, especially when it comes to language and the use of language, why does this sound right and good to me? And how far can I affirm that that is a kind of individuated preference and how far am I reproducing some kind of norm that I might have inherited or received. So I think translation does bring you up against your preferences, like not harpsichords. Or your received aesthetic of a sentence, of a line in really interesting and challenging ways. And that's one of the reasons why it's so I think valuable to do it. So again, it's wanting to say both to affirm the bodily and the fact that bodies are different and we do translate from our bodies and we are under different pressures and oriented in a different ways. But at the same time, think out why and how that might be and how they might change, possibly, through the processes of doing it.
You can't just sit right down and then get insight. Sometimes you have to fight against yourself in order to wait for it and to parse it.
Tracy: I love that. I love that sense that we can begin with what we're drawn to, what speaks to us in the language, be it made up of any essence that is home for us, but then that other thing that you're talking about which is okay, now I need to also acknowledge what I'm drawn to and think about what the other facets of this work are calling me to submit to, to learn, to seek to, to love or question in different ways. I felt that a lot. There are aspects of Yi Lei's work that speak to me so emphatically and they have to do with theme and they have to do with a beautiful sense of image and the features that I had to submit to were the ones that had to do with what sometimes feels oracular or what sometimes feels like it's built of an emphatic, repetitive insistence. And I think it was a really beautiful revelation to say I need to take myself out of this work more. I need to recognize, okay, this is what the me that loves certain things can do within this space, but then I also have to remember to take some of that out and honor these other facets of the work, which is beautiful. I think it speaks to the sense that I hear in the lines that you quote from my poem, which is this is an act of love in a way. This is an act of finding a shared language for really heightening proximity or porousness between two people. And that's really an exciting thing to do as a writer, because most of what I find myself doing is about going into myself, is about thinking in very solitary terms, hoping that psychically, I can make a connection to something better or bigger than me or buried deep within me, but it's a very different thing to say no, I wanna be a conduit for someone else. And that's what love invites us to do in different ways. I certainly felt myself actually literally falling in love with the person whose work I was translating and having the good fortune of being able to talk with her, albeit in this triangulated way. And to, I hope, take something from her that lives in my poetry now.
Magdalena: Yes, yes. And everything that you say also really resonates for me with what you brought up before about pushing against authority and maybe not having this authorial or authority kind of position. At the same time what Kate was also speaking about is choice and choosing to prefer it this way, feel through it that way and to have that generosity also, as you were describing, to take yourself out of it more. I'm in it too much myself and I wonder if Yi Lei herself, if you feel that in her poems that speaker is also doing that kind of gesture of taking herself out in certain moments. And the other question I wanted to ask you about your experience of translating her work is what was it like to work with the co-translator and also, how did you feel? 'Cause I was reading a little bit about your meeting her for the first time in New York City and then having this opportunity to go visit her on her turf. And how was that comparative experience or duet, even, of interlocution?
Tracy: Oh yeah, I mean so many different, the geometry of the relationship is really interesting. The way that we worked together, because Yi Lei had hardly any English and I don't speak Chinese at all, was through you know, Changtai Bi who goes by David. And so I found myself working from this kind of bare bones literal translation and the barer the better, because there were moments when he brought in a kind of lilt or something that he thought was beautiful and so it occluded something that I needed to be able to hear. So that negotiation was interesting. But then to see him take my poem and back-translate it for her so she could witness the changes that I had made, some of them had to do with image systems that I thought could better carry a sense in English. And so it truly did feel like a collaboration. There were things that she liked about the changes and there were moments when she said "You've pulled this. You're only listening to this layer of my poem. You're only listening to the layer of this poem that has to do with desire or with female sexual power. But this is a poem that's also about government or this is a poem that's also about authoritarian law. I need you to hear both of these things." And so to be guided to think about the distribution of my awareness within a poem was really exciting. And to know that it wasn't threatening to her to see what I chose and what I didn't necessarily recognize, but rather an invitation to educate me about these poems. That was really delightful as it was delightful seeing her grow into her fuller self when we were in Beijing and she was leading me around and introducing me to the people that were her peers and proteges and eating together; all of the things that we build, talking about the things we like and how they are so emblematic of what we have to say and how being able to share in that together was really wonderful.
Magdalena: It would be fascinating also to see those various drafts and that exchange and that dance. I mean, that's where I wish I spoke more languages because of course I could never appreciate the Chinese original or the translation back from yours, but if one could get a sense of all of that. And then of course it's all layered in the final translation. Kate, I wanted to ask you about your new project, which I've been thinking a little bit about as a duet of sorts between a new kind of translation work you were describing from the French, right? And then working on a novel of your own, and so can you tell us a little bit about these two, these two things that you're working on?
Kate: Absolutely. Yeah, I'm thinking also of everything that was just said. Maybe it does connect, I think it does connect. A sense that I didn't, my most formative translation experience so far has been with an author with whom I had a very strong sense of working with and writing with, especially at the level of the translation, but also at the level of writing "This Little Art" making a kind space of writing and thinking with in that book. But where the dynamic or the reciprocity was not, was not as Tracy describes in her situation for many reasons to do with being alive or dead, one thing. But also to do with a kind of canonical established philosopher writer figure and being a kind of, very enthused, willing student of that work. But with a very uncertain sense of her own identity. We're talking about myself as a writer, as a thinker. So where it felt like the distribution... The distribution I guess of power or agency... Was just different; different to what I think Tracy is describing as having experienced. And in a way that connects, I think in "This Little Art" there's one point towards the end of the book where I talk about, I tried to make an analogy again, bringing translation in relation to the ordinary, everyday, very common experiences between translation and childcare. And the hinge of that analogy is the reality, what for me felt like the reality of taking responsibility for something that I couldn't expect to be responsible for me. So a kind of asymmetrical, one-directional responsibility that you might have with a baby. I'm responsible for you, you're not responsible for me. I know that sounds slightly unlikely to put Roland Barthes's late work in the position of the baby in that scenario, but it felt like it made sense. And I really don't know... Yeah, anyway, we could talk about whether or not he would be in any way interested in that, but for me, that sense of like I'm speaking for you, I'm not expecting you to speak for me. That's kind of not possible, it's not reversible in that way. And that connects, I guess, to this, well, very much for me to this project, which is I keep calling it new but it's been three years or so now; which is an effort to try and think through fiction, the fictional days of living out. Living out and living with this, the unpredictable needy open form of a baby with that long form of discontinuous continuity and demand and response that that produces and the level or the sort of texture of the days. And to try and think that together with the capacious, oddly interrupted long form of the novel. Which I know when I say it like that, it sounds completely opaque even to me, right? What that actually might look like, but the effort is to try and hold this novelistic storytelling element together or hold it in relation to a more essayistic kind of philosophical element of thinking out what kind of thing a novel is. And in relation to that, I have been translating and I've been working just in a very... Uncontracted kind of personal way through preference, actually, and through learning which is the term that Tracy used. A novel by Helene Besette which was written in 1954 called "Materna" which is set in a maternelle and it's an experimental novel of early years childcare in a way. And it's extraordinary, I find it extraordinary. It's very strange, but very exciting at the level of the page and spacing and line breaking and capitalization and things that I'm trying to do in my own book. And then found this... What is she? A kind of instructor in a way. So I've been working on translating that alongside, or quite recently alongside my own projects as a kind of learning experience.
Magdalena: I think this idea that the translation is something that we are responsible for, but it's not responsible for us is so very interesting. And also, I really appreciate how you get into questions of childcare and caretaking in "This Little Art" in a very real way. And that brings me to a question, I think, for so many people right now during this pandemic, during this time of all kinds of upheaval and the three of us have young children who are home all the time, they never leave! How are the two of you possibly keeping going with your work? And I mean the most specific kind of concrete, techniques or hacks and even if there's spiritual mantras or something that was working for you, and I'm asking not for a friend, I'm asking for me!
Tracy: Yeah, it's been such an interesting, it's like more than a season now, this year, really. And I've gone, like everybody I think, through many stages of feeling overwhelmed, feeling angry, feeling just dominated by reality. To feeling okay, actually the chaos of family 24/7, everything in one space, maybe I can try and enjoy this. And one of the things that has been helpful for my work which I didn't have any impression that I would be able to attend to was, I guess, really just creating a practice of meditation. The world, questions of public health, questions of justice, anxiety of leadership, all of this stuff is truly maddening. It changes the way that we relate to people that we know, that we've known for a long time which is also a form of just burden. And so the meditation for me has been really useful just to turn the volume down, but it's also guided me to start thinking about where my own work might seek to come from in a different way. And in some ways maybe it's similar to what happens when you're listening to another writer's voice and trying to draw what is true from it in service of that voice. This feels like I'm trying to listen to the deep me or whatever I believe that I'm attuned to, and to draw something that can feel useful or even necessary to this moment. And that's felt really like such a gift to have to find poems out of this time, to find that my obsession with the news, which many of us have, can actually yield a body of poetry that is speaking back to or seeking to speak through some of this found language. And I feel like there's a big lesson in all of this, which is... Mothers are really good at making space but actually we humans can be even better at doing that than we already have learned to be. And I think it's about finding, for me, opportunity for silence and patience, because you can't just sit right down and then get insight. Sometimes you have to fight against yourself in order to wait for it and to parse it. And that happened sometimes when I'm sitting and writing, but to imagine that that can precede the act of writing, that's very different for me. And then I can go back to picking up Legos and trying to get my kids back on the Zoom classroom and doing all the things that family life allows us to do.
Kate: Yeah, I mean... Yeah, I mean, it's a very big question of how, I think I feel surprised in a way. I've been wondering that why it is I have felt it possible to work ongoingly or sort of keep a sort of sense of belief in a project or investment in a project through this time. And I don't think it's any sort of particular special quality in me, 'cause I know many friends found that really difficult to just find the kind of relevance in relation to all of these things that we're experiencing. In terms of the kind of practical sort of organization of my day, one thing I did do when my children were, lockdown began was just started to just claim two hours in the morning. I get up earlier, earlier than anyone else, and it was also spring and the light was changing and I'd just come up to the space I work in and have two hours before going back into the tangle-y, Lego-y sort of day. And doing that felt just really important for my own wellbeing and just doing a small push at work which often, then just reading and just being with, with the kind of books that I've set around this project and that I'm thinking with. And I guess, I think maybe that what hasn't happened yet, and I think if it did happen, I would think I would be in serious existential crisis, but I mean serious in the sense that it's something that has helped me as a kind of... One thing I'm trying to think about in this book, "The Long Form", is of the book as a kind of holding device. And that's also a way of connecting it to holding in a kind of Wincottian sense of what holding a child or kind of responsive holding. And books do, they have always for whatever reason to do with preference or luck or education or privilege, held me and I do believe I haven't lost faith in the technology of the book as offering a space that I can enter and just live in common with someone else's energy and time and imagination for a while. And not that that takes me out entirely from my own life or my own reality, 'cause I'm always being pulled back into it. But I believe in their capacity to do that. So writing books, even though it seems to take me quite a while, it does feel like an ongoingly meaningful thing to do. And I measure that against how much they mean to me at times, like this, of uncertainty.
Magdalena: Yeah. I think that idea of the book or the poem as a space you can enter into, which of course suggests you're gonna leave where you are and the freeingness of that and becoming reacquainted with the power, really. I've been reading a lot. I've been writing a little bit less lately but I've been reading a lot and it's been so satisfying to read in a way that I recall from when I was a kid, right? Like the summer, there's nothing happening, you're kinda bored, your parents won't take you anywhere, you're just in the back of the house or the garage or whatever, just reading, reading, reading. And I was hoping that perhaps each of you might wanna read something for us today before we take questions from listeners.
Tracy: Sure. I'll share, I'd love to share a poem of Yi Lei. Hearing you talk, Kate, it also reminds me of something. None of us said guilt and the context of that, which is sometimes what the motherhood/being the selfish writer makes me feel. And I think there's something about this time that has absolved us of a lot of the unnecessary guilt that we felt; maybe because things have collapsed and we've been able to just dwell in what is beautiful about going to this place, thinking about books, thinking about voices, listening. Maybe I'll read a poem that is, well, I'm gonna read this poem, which is a little bit, it feels a little bit unusual for Yi Lei. It's called "Black hair" and I'm reading it because it's one of many examples of how something that arises out of her life or her vocabulary of experience or awareness intersected with mine coming from a very different direction. When I saw a poem called "Black Hair", as a Black woman, that meant so many things to me that I knew it did not mean to Yi Lei. And yet, the act of translating the poem allowed those different sets of concerns to play together which I really loved. "Black Hair. Black hair like youth runs wild in March. Dark papery leaves fly, teeming, swarming, bum-rushing March. Black hair in March is gentle. Strangers' eyes softer. Memory, a feast on offer. Youth born of the primordial sea embrace me. Drape my skin old as clouds in something suppler. Black hair blown free, rootless, wanders the deserts, countless tombs, sways across a vacant sky, whips at fresh mud in rain. Days blaze past. I have lost sight of my own black hair in the mirror. Let me watch it now for the next thousand years. Black hair, weedy in dirt-poor soil. Thirsty, deluded, squandering its spoils. Black hair has no idea. The story of black hair is my story. When I die, let me drift like a dandelion of black hair. Black hair, like holy water. No way. There is no way to be saved except to die. When black hair cries its tears snuff themselves out like candles. So will my life cease to flicker. Black hair, exhausted brush fire fanned by misery, whistling through the last century. Black hair, shredded black flag of a woman's glory, ragged and battered in March wind. Forsaking dignity, absolved of chastity with its pride in knots, black hair smiles easily in March. If waterfall, it will plummet, if cloud, it will scatter. Eyes plaintive, wide. Black hair waits to be spun by hardened hands into rock."
Kate: Thank you, Tracy, that was extraordinary. I think for me that, there's so many things to think about and to say in relation to that. But I was listening to you pronounce those words with your body and occupy the eye of the poem, at least in the moment of that reading. It just really makes me think of the way that translation, in the best case scenario, is not a layering. It's a setting alongside. It's something that exists and still permanently exists and here is something new that exists that lives in direct conversational, effective relation to what caused it, what prompted it and what it couldn't exist without. But they are now two things and they're conversing. And what you said about the resonance of hair, black hair just came across really powerfully. And also, they're conversing but they're also creating a kind of space in between them, a kind of charge in between them.
Tracy: Yeah, thanks for that. It's exciting to me, and I also feel like, oh, I've understood so many ways that translation is, it's a creative act, it's an act of excavation, it's an act of honoring and archiving, and it's a political act in many ways. But this felt like at this time, creating a space for communion, love that exists between unlikely pairs seems so important. That made me feel very excited to think, oh, we can see one another in ways that we may never have thought were possible. And that's another really good reason to cross these lines and to undertake this kind of conversation in a way.
Kate: No, I really like that unlikely pairing. Yeah, likely and unlikely pairings. And also, I think maybe in this time coming back to, and I'm saying this because I haven't prepared anything to read. So I'm not just getting airtime, but also because... Well, because this, everything just feels very fragile. And I sort of not quite in this format. But just going back to what Magdalena picked up on about that question of preferences or my body's not the same as yours. I think there's also an, I do believe that it's important to think through why we might turn our attention to this rather than that. What is it that makes us lean towards this rather than that ? I do think that's vital the work and that's part of what I think translation asks of us. But I also think it's so important maybe right now as well, to be able to affirm your right to your own preferences as well. To say, “no, this is how this is what I like to do. This is how I like to organize my day in these open days of non time and to say this small thing, I like this, I hold to it.” So the right to one's own preferences feels really important.
Magdalena: And Kate, you had mentioned that, well, now you said the word fragility which I think is so important; to not be ready to share, but to also enjoy for yourself that fragility. And you had mentioned that this new project of translation is a kind of improvised translation. So I wanted to ask you to say just a little bit about that. What do you mean by improvised and what is the preference or the pleasure, the joy, that might come from that?
Kate: Thank you, yeah, I said that in an email exchange with you as part of your own practice and I think your own interests and investments, you kind of zoomed in on that. And I think I was thinking what did I mean? I guess I mean improvisation in the sense of without preparation, which feels in many ways, like the wrong way to start a translation, that one ought to be prepared and one ought to be qualified and one ought to be learned enough to undertake this. But I guess, and that's part of the invitation I was hoping to make with "This Little Art" is to say within the sphere of, at the moment, my own interests, of course, when it becomes a question of publishing and making public, there are many other factors to consider. But at the moment I'm just going to begin. I see this page and I see this weird typography and this spacing and this "Materna"... This early years scenes that have been created for me on the page, and I'm just gonna start and see what that does and trust also in the way the process of translation will lead me towards what I then need to learn and be responsible for. It doesn't absolve me, starting doesn't absolve me of responsibility. It just leads me towards what I then need to think about, about reading more of her work, reading her biography, thinking about her manifesto, and so on and so forth. So that's, I guess what I mean is just, again, like affirming a right, maybe, to begin. Yeah. For me, but also for everyone and for others, you know?
If I'm watching someone dance, I want to dance too, and there's something about that, I think for me, that is the energy source of my writing and my translation, is reading and feeling a sort of agitation.
Allison: Yeah. Oh, amazing. This is so wonderful to hear the three of you in conversation and as always, I would love to just let this continue but we do have several questions from viewers that we've brought to you. And if there's time, I have a question of my own that I might like to ask. So one of the questions that came in is for both of you. They say, "I love the metaphor of translation as dance." And then there was a follow up. The same person wrote back and said that something that Tracy said reminded her of, reminded the writer of a speech that Toni Morrison gave called "The Dancing Mind." So the question is can you talk about the listening that you find yourself engaged in as you translate? What are the modes of listening you are aware of engaging as a translator?
Tracy: I often feel that listening is the mode that drives my work as a writer. At least that's what I tell myself. I am listening to and through and trying to find what I otherwise am not equipped to notice or to... Kind of own up to. And I think that there's a different kind of listening that's at stake here, which is what is this poem that's bearing its soul? What is it offering and what does it want? What does it want me to lean toward? You feel that when you're reading a poem and those are the features that you notice and that you respond to and that you question and dwell upon. When you're reading a kind of a literal translation, you notice those things and you also notice areas where you know something more is there than what you're getting. And that was the kind of listening that I found myself daunted by, and then really loving to think okay, I can recognize these images. I can recognize there's a logical clause here but what is the poet really, what is she confounded by and what is she conjuring by bringing these things together and can I leap into that space? Sometimes it meant, I'm gonna think about the hotspots in this poem and allow them to activate something for me. And sometimes it was allowing my own mind to associate a little bit, but those were the forms of listening that I was conscious of. And then of course, there's a mode of listening that's like, I'm stuck. This is what I hear, but I can't. What do I do with this? And that's where I had recourse to Yi Lei for years of this process and that was great. And then, she's passed on now. And so thinking what drives her? What are these other poems obsessed with that had spoken to me, and how can I trust that this poem that I'm struggling with is in conversation with those in some way? So some of it is a kind of inventive or wilful form of listening that also ideally gets you to the next thing that's concrete that you can really, really trust.
Kate: I think for me in bringing listening towards dance, I think, I love dance. I love dancing and I love watching dance but I'm a very amateur dancer, but it's something about, rhythm I think is really important to me as a writer. And in terms of preference of what one might be drawn to, I think with this writer, Helene Bessette, I think what I find in her is this kind of strange kind of untimely off kind of rhythm, which, you know like when you, if this happens to you, if you like dancing or when someone is dancing in front of you or dancing well or not well, but with joy or abandon and just catching the energy and wanting to dance. I've talked about if I'm watching someone dance, I want to dance too, and there's something about that, I think for me, that powers or is the energy source of my writing and my translation is reading and feeling a sort of agitation. It's often a rhythmic agitation which has as much to do with, as rhythm is to do with delay and spacing as it is with anything else, the kind of gaps between things. It kind of agitates me into wanting to dance too, or write too. So it is about that, a kind of responding, responding with my own energy to the energy that I can hear. And yeah, rhythm is is a crucial part of that to the point where it's part of life hacks of that Magdalena was asking about. If I'm working and I've been sitting down for a long time and I'm alone, which is not that often nowadays, but I will just put really loud music on, dance about for a while. And then go back to what I was working on, yeah.
Esther: So a question has come in that's for you, Kate, that's the perfect followup to that one. The person says that they especially like the form of "This Little Art." How did you decide to arrange the book and what do you think its organization can tell us about how we speak about, read about, think about, write and understand translation and literature?
Kate: Wow, thank you. I think just the answer, I could talk for a long, long time if we were together in a different setting to the questioner. I think for me, the key thing was, and it has to do with, I guess, the question of authority that Tracy mentioned earlier of how, which was troubling to me through my translation process and through the writing process. Who am I? Who am I to? Who am I to? was a big issue for me. Who am I to translate this work and then who am I to pronounce on translation for others? And how to do that in a way that precisely isn't for others but trying to kind of affirm what was particular to me and try to find ways to open that up in such a way that others might join me or find common ground with me. So the form was very much related to that. I wanted to make an open kind of book where you might, and that's why there is this address between you and we, or me and you, throughout a kind of informality to the book which was trying to make it capacious enough that a dissenting thinker, a dissenting translator could also come in and just occupy that space with me for a while. So the organization did very much have to do with rhythm and pacing and trying to arrive at a mode of doing argument, of doing argumentation, but that felt narrativized and dramatized to the point where when I arrive at a question or a proposition, it lands and I think that it has very much to do with pacing and rhythm. But it also had to do with trying to make space for others to join me in the common thing, which is the book which isn't me, but the thing that's external to me.
Allison: We have another question, this one is for Tracy. Did the experience of working with Yi Lei change how you interact with the translators of your own poems? How does being translated feel to you?
Tracy: I like that. As this project was culminating, a Spanish translation of "Wade in the Water" was beginning and I speak Spanish and I felt that unlike previous translations, I wasn't afraid. I just wanted to, I didn't wanna say okay, I'll let them do this, I'll answer their questions, but I want it to be their act. The translator, Andrea Cote Botero, is really wonderful at just wanting to have the relationship with me that I had with Yi Lei in terms of let's talk. What are you thinking about? What do you care about? How do you read your poems out loud? And she's closed the distance between me and her version of my poems in a way that's felt really beautiful. I think I was probably afraid before. The first translations of my work I think were in languages that I don't speak, and so I just had to trust. And this brought me into an awareness that, oh, no, this can be a really kind of a shared endeavor. And that's how I've received the gift of Andrea's work on my work. I don't know what future translations will be like. I met Yi Lei through my Chinese translator, whom I've never met, but he said, you guys, I know your work and I know her work and you need to know one another. And that was a really beautiful gift. So I hope I'll have other relationships like that.
Allison: And that's an amazing story to think about how what brought you as a poet and a writer to translation, and if I may take the last few minutes that my question I think is mostly directed to Tracy, but anyone's welcome to answer it. But I think in this whole "Translating the Future" and thinking about it, it seems like right now there isn't, there aren't as many writers and poets who are finding translation in a way like the way that you have. And I'm just, I think often about how to bring more writers into this world that we're in, of translation. And I wonder if you have any thoughts on your experience?
Tracy: I love the way that this happened. It was kind of like a setup in a way. After Yi Lei and I had already begun our relationship on her poems, I was invited to a translation workshop that Ming Di conducts in China every fall, usually, and Yi Lei came to that. But what usually happens there is writers in one language sit across from writers in another language and work on a single poem together or two or three poems over the course of a day with help from bilingual people. And so it allows those of us who see ourselves as unlikely translators 'cause we don't have a strong sense of authority within a single language to say oh, but I can cross the stream. I can do this thing of listening and interpreting and conversing. And I feel like there should just be more opportunities for such exchange. I love that the people who know that this is something they can do, but I love to think that the poets I love in their own language could also become guides for me to poetry from other places.
Esther: I think that’s all the time we have. Or do we have another minute?
Allison: I have 2:29 on my clock.
Esther: Oh, okay. Kate?
Kate: I would just say in an extension of what was just said that I think translation is the most extraordinary education of many kinds of, into many kinds of things, many kinds of questions, but one of them is writing. And is kind of making a space, a kind of forum for thinking about how writing happens, what it does, how it behaves. And also a way of affirming. Where I teach, I teach and work with artists and they're almost always speaking English as a second or third language. And trying to use translation as a way of also affirming the knowledge in the room, the resources in the room, given that the language of instruction is English. So to think of translation as something that's brought in to writing pedagogy, not just a question of linguistic competence. But I think it could be born into so many different fields and also thinking of younger children so much earlier as a way of affirming and exploring competence and feel bodies of knowledge and so on. So I am very, yeah, I'm very pro-translation, that opening up translation as a practice, [inaudible 1:00:50].
Esther: Thank you all so much. This has been unforgettable. Perfect, wonderful. Thank you Magdalena for that great framing and those questions. And Allison has some final thank yous.
Allison: That was a beautiful moderation, Magdalena, thank you so much. And once again, we'd like to thank our partners, HowlRound, PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center. And to the Princeton University Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication for their support of today's event. And thank you all for watching "Translating the Future."
Allison: Thank you.
Magdalena: Thank you.
Tracy: Thank you.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
The conversations are hosted by Esther Allen and Allison Markin Powell.
About HowlRound TV
HowlRound TV is a global, commons-based peer produced, open access livestreaming and video archive project stewarded by the nonprofit HowlRound. HowlRound TV is a free and shared resource for live conversations and performances relevant to the world's performing arts and cultural fields. Its mission is to break geographic isolation, promote resource sharing, and to develop our knowledge commons collectively. Participate in a community of peer organizations revolutionizing the flow of information, knowledge, and access in our field by becoming a producer and co-producing with us. Learn more by going to our participate page. For any other queries, email email@example.com, or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.