Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 25 August 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).
Language as Polis
with Madeleine Cohen, LaTasha Diggs & Mary Ann Newman
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 Language as Polis livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 25 August 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).
Languages are often identified with the countries where they are spoken, but for many languages there is no one-to-one correspondence with any nation or state; the borders are unclear, contested, or unrecognized. How do speakers and students of such languages define themselves, engage with history, and examine the linguistic and cultural continuity embedded in them? What is the place and role of non-native speakers in these language communities? What does translation mean for them? How do these languages alter or enrich the languages and literatures that absorb or surround them? Join us for a conversation that explores Yiddish, Frisian, Catalan and beyond. Sponsored by the Yiddish Book Center.
Guest co-host, Tess Lewis.
Madeleine (Mindl) Cohen is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center (Amherst, MA). Her work includes directing a fellowship program for emerging Yiddish literary translators as well as publishing and promoting Yiddish literature in translation. She is the translation editor of the annual Pakn Treger Digital Translation Issue and former chief editor and current president of the board of directors of In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies. She received her PhD in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley.
Mary Ann Newman translates from Catalan and Spanish. She has published fiction by Quim Monzó, non-fiction by Xavier Rubert de Ventós, and poetry by Josep Carner. Her most recent translation is Private Life, a 1932 Catalan classic by Josep Maria de Sagarra (Archipelago Books), for which she won the Premi J. B. Cendrós 2017 from Òmnium Cultural and the 2017 North American Catalan Society Prize. She is currently translating another book of poetry by Josep Carner. She was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi in 1998. She is the founding Director of the Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the U.S., the President-Delegate of the Premi Internacional Catalunya, a member of the board of the Catalan Institute of America. She recently organized the first online Sant Jordi NYC Festival of Literature in Translation.
A writer, vocalist, and sound artist, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), a collection of poems, songs, and myths, and the cofounder and coeditor of Coon Bidness and SO4. Her work has appeared in many publications, including Rattapallax, Nocturnes, Spoken Word Revolution Redux, Ploughshares, Mandorla, P.M.S., jubilat, Everything But the Burden, ART21 Magazine, Palabra, and Fence. Her interdisciplinary work has been featured at MoMA, the Walker Art Center, Modern Museum of Fort Worth Texas, and the 2015 Venice Biennale. As an independent curator, artistic director, and producer, LaTasha has produced literary/musical events for Lincoln Center Out of Doors, BAMCafé, Black Rock Coalition, David Rubenstein Atrium, and El Museo del Barrio. A native of Harlem, Diggs is the recipient of numerous awards, including the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Laundromat Project, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Japan–United States Friendship Commission, and Creative Capital.
Tess Lewis is a writer and translator from French and German. Her translations of Walter Benjamin, Maja Haderlap, Philippe Jaccottet, Christine Angot and others have received several awards including the 2016 ACFNY Translation Prize, the 2017 PEN Translation Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has written on European literature for World Literature Today, Partisan Review, The American Scholar, Bookforum, among other journals. She is an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and a curator of Festival Neue Literature, New York City’s annual festival of German language literature in English.
Allison Markin Powell: Hello, and welcome, I'm Allison Markin Powell, Japanese literary translator, and former co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee. My co-host today is Tess Lewis, who many of you will recognize from our week 12 program on Ghost Languages of Europe. Tess is an award-winning translator from French and German, also a former co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee, as well as a co-organizer of "Translating the Future," the conference you are now attending.
Tess Lewis: Thank you, Allison, and thanks to all of you for joining us for the 16th installment of our weekly program, "Language as Polis." Language, as all of you know in your bones, is at the core of our identities, personal as well as political. One symptom of the recent fraying of the American polis is the increasing hostility directed at people speaking languages other than English in public, and in the sustained resistance to bilingual education. Today's panelists will discuss three languages that have been threatened by this urge to containment and simplification, but have also developed strength and resilience in countering this threat. Yiddish, Catalan, and Frisian are languages without passports. Each one has a complex history of accommodating, absorbing, and influencing the dominant official languages of their particular regions, and all three are object lessons in the richness and value of linguistic inclusiveness and diversity. Today's conversation will feature Madeleine Cohen, also known as Mindl, who is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is sponsoring today's program. LaTasha Diggs, a writer, vocalist, and sound artist is based in Harlem, and Mary Ann Newman, translator from Catalan and Spanish, and the force behind the Sant Jordi New York Festival. You can find out more about these three wonderful people and their illustrious achievements on the Center for Humanities website.
Allison: Today’s conversation is also sponsored by the Institut Ramon Llull. A Q and A session will follow today's talk as usual. Please email your questions for Mindl, LaTasha, and Mary Ann 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. "Translating the Future" will continue in its current form through September. During the conference's originally planned dates in late September, several marvelous larger-scale events will happen. Until then, we'll be here every Tuesday with the week's hour-long conversation. Please join us next Tuesday, September 1st, for "So-Called Classics" with Laurie Patton, Gopal Sukhu, and Vivek Narayanan, and keep checking the Center for the Humanities site for future events.
Tess: ”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 pen.org.
Allison: And if you know anyone who was unable to join us for the livestream today, a recording will be available afterward on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites. Before we turn it over to Mindl, LaTasha, and Mary Ann, we'd like to offer our utmost gratitude to today's sponsor's, the Institut Ramon Llull and Yiddish Book Center, and 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 to the masters of dark Zoom magic at HowlRound, who make this livestream possible. And now to our speakers.
Mary Ann Newman: Hello.
Mindl Cohen: Hi. Hi, Mary Ann, Hi, LaTasha.
Mary Ann: Hi, Mindl, Hi, LaTasha.
LaTasha Diggs: Hello.
Mindl: So we have the idea to start by, you know, each of us introducing ourselves and saying a bit about our relationship to these language, and I think some first thoughts kind of in response to the theme. I'm willing to be the guinea pig and go first, if that sounds good to folks.
Mary Ann: That sounds great Mindl, thanks.
Mindl: Okay, I'm really excited to get to be here and have a conversation with both of you, and grateful to the organizers as well for putting together this amazing session that's brought, you know, a lot of enrichment to my summer, certainly. So it's exciting, you know, not just for us to get to talk, I think, but to be part of the conversation that's been evolving over the weeks. So a word about me, I'm the academic director at the Yiddish Book Center, which is a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts. We're celebrating our 40th anniversary this year, and the mission of the organization has been originally to physically save Yiddish books. And then in the decade since, you know, to interpret that mission in a lot of different ways of what does it mean to help make Yiddish accessible to different people, so first by making the books accessible, but then through different educational work to make Yiddish culture and Yiddish literature accessible. And I'll say a bit more about that probably later. We talk about some of the practical work that is happening to support Yiddish in translation. I didn't grow up speaking Yiddish, I learned it as an adult. I had one grandparent with whom I was very close who was a Yiddish speaker. But I started studying it in college after learning German, and getting really interested just in the Jewish experience, and the Jewish role in modern European and modern world history, and trying to understand, you know, how this diasporic and stateless people continued to play such an influential role in world events, especially European and Western history. And my experience once I started learning Yiddish I think, is the same for many people who learn it. It's like opening a door into a secret room of treasure that one didn't even know that the room existed, and suddenly one discovers these great riches that speak to so many aspects of modern historical experience and to being in the world today in a lot of different ways. So I went to graduate school studying Yiddish literature and I've taught Yiddish language, especially to beginners. And I would say I have done just a lot of teaching that's about trying to introduce Yiddish to people. It's a language that has a lot of symbolic weight. It means a lot of things to different people, and people have strong ideas about Yiddish. And I find it really rewarding to open up the different complexities of language for people who have never encountered it before, or have strong associations with it. But there is so much more to learn about any culture, and this culture for sure. And the last thing I'll say is a lot of my work recently has been in support of Yiddish in translation, and more than even my own translation, I've done a lot of work as a translation editor, which I really love. I was the translation editor for an online journal called "In geveb," and at the Yiddish Book Center I get to do a lot of editing of Yiddish translations as well. So I'll make my pitch for why translation is so important to languages like Yiddish, languages without state support, languages that are kind of, that are threatened in different ways, or just depend, I guess, on communities of individuals to maintain them. So I'll say a few things about Yiddish in response to the theme of language as polis, or the idea of language as polis. We had started talking about stateless languages when we started speaking about this session, and I'm really interested that we shifted to this idea of thinking about, you know, how languages organize community, how languages give shape to community, especially outside of the structures of nation or state, because I think probably that actually does describe the condition for many more languages and speakers than does the state of speaking a national language, right. The fact that I grew up speaking English in the United States is really probably an exception for most human experience rather than the norm, though it's presented that way, right. To be a monolingual speaker of a national language is thought of as some kind of normal condition. And it's probably not. Whereas, you know, Yiddish speakers who were, by definition, multilingual and interacting using different languages for different parts of their lives, without any kind of representation by their government, is true for a lot of people in the world today and throughout history. So I like that if we take that framework, you know, how do we understand a relationship between language and communal identity differently than the idea of, you know, English in England, and French in France, and German in Germany. There is a centuries-long history of Jews turning to Yiddish to help organize their sense of community. So, probably we would say, you know, in the 19th century in response to, or in communication with the rise of Romantic nationalism in Europe, which meant for many different peoples and languages, you know, turning to their vernacular language to build up a national culture, that happened for Jews in that time period as well. Some people turned to Hebrew, and that's very much how we get the revival of the modern Hebrew language and Zionism. And at the same time, different people were turning to Yiddish to redefine a sense of what it meant to be Jewish people, or the Jewish nation. And in many ways this kind of movement to build a Yiddish national culture was really very successful. There are tens of thousands of volumes of Yiddish literature in the Yiddish Book Center at Amherst, and they are largely a product of this conscious ideological movement to build a Yiddish national culture, to create everything in Yiddish that Jews saw as defining national culture around literature, and poetry, and theatre, and scholarship, and educational systems. Probably the biggest difference for this Yiddish national movement, compared to the other movements in Europe at the time, maybe two differences, right, was the kind of persistent otherness of Jews as non-Christians in Europe, and their lack of a territory, their lack of a national territory in Europe. So, while there is a lot in common, say, between how, what Polish literature was doing in the 19th century as part of the movement to put Poland back on the map, to reestablish a Polish nation and a Polish culture, Yiddish hadn't been on the map before in the way that Poland had. So the idea of creating a Yiddish state was something that some people were interested in, but I think a much more widespread was just a desire for national cultural recognition, national cultural autonomy, and that there be some recognition by the states where Jews lived, in their collective identity and their collective rights beyond just their individual rights to exist in those states. Obviously, all of that changes for Yiddish in the second half of the 20th century, that all of these efforts to kind of build Yiddish national culture are really dramatically interrupted by the Holocaust and the death of so many of its speakers. And then the failure to reestablish centers of Yiddish in Europe, and then different forms of suppression, both by Yiddish speakers out of fear of continued anti-Semitism, by suppression in the Soviet Union, which earlier had supported Yiddish as a minor national language and later did not. In Israel, Yiddish really didn't receive support because the project was to build Hebrew as the national language. And in places like the United States, the pressure to assimilate or Americanize disrupted Yiddish's continuity. Which is not to say that it hasn't continued, it does survive. It's very much a living language, especially in Hasidic communities around the world today. But the question of how to, how a community can support its language has continued for Yiddish, and has become more challenging, whereas there are new challenges, right, given that it's no longer the majority daily spoken language of Ashkenazi Jews as it was in the first half of the 20th century. And yet nevertheless, I'm part of this community of people that continues to turn to Yiddish, and continues to think it's important in our lives today and has things to say to us today. And I certainly think that translating Yiddish literature from that period is one important way to kind of maintain this community and maintain continuity. But I'll say more about that later, and let LaTasha and Mary Ann introduce themselves.
Mary Ann: I think we were going in alphabetical order. LaTasha, would you like to continue?
LaTasha: Oh okay. Well, first I would like to thank the organizers for inviting me to this conversation regarding statements, languages, and language as polis. I'll first say that I am a poet and a performer who plays with language. I have fun with language. I get frustrated with language, multiple languages. And for anyone who is familiar with my work, I work with several different languages, often all at the same time, kind of making a bit of a collage with them, based on sound and meaning. And as part of this conversation, it arises at a curious invitation in 2018. The organization, The Flemish House deBuren, invited me to come to Leeuwarden, Leeuwarden is in the north of Netherlands, also considered the capital of Friesland, for two weeks just to write about Leeuwarden. I had no idea how these folks knew of me, and why they wanted me to come and visit Leeuwarden. And I just said "Yeah, okay, sure." And so for two weeks I was in Leeuwarden, and wandering about, wondering "What am I supposed to write about?" And this also came at the time that Leeuwarden, as well as Valletta, which is a city in Malta, were deemed, given the title the "European Capital of Culture" for the year 2018, which is something that all of the European countries participate in, something that was established back in 1985. And so, Leeuwarden, being the cultural capital of Europe, was a big deal, so there were all of these activities. One had to do with creating this "Hall of Languages," where they created an installation with some 6000 plus languages that are still spoken throughout the world. There were a couple of languages that I was looking for that were not in that Hall, that I do know are spoken, but that's a conversation for later, as to whether or not they are languages versus pidgins versus dialects. But that's for something else. And as I am wandering about, I come to this center called Affolk, and Affolk is the official center for the Frisian language, and I'm going, "What's Frisian?" And so I learned, rather in pieces, that Frisian is the language that was spoken by the Frisians in Friesland, which was once its own kingdom, before it became part of the Netherlands. And that it has a mythical root to India, but that's not so much the case. It has a Germanic root, it has a Latin root. It's related to English. But that, for one moment, it was a language, it is a language that is considered a minority language as well as Indigenous language, aside from it being the second official language spoken in the Netherlands. So I went on a walkabout attempting to learn the language, which presented challenges, because in Leeuwarden I came across very few people that spoke Frisian, despite the fact that there is a center dedicated to the preservation of the language, that the language is supported by the government, yet at the same time it appeared to me, in my observations, not so much of a widespread interest in learning the language, aside from maybe another minority language in another remote town somewhere in the world with linguists there, interested in doing some type of collaboration. But again, these were very, very remote places. And so I decided to write about my attempts to learn Frisian, and my attempts to learn what Frisian identity is, in a place where you weren't, you were not hearing Frisian, but you were seeing it, either displayed on the streets, the literal streets, displayed as window displays, displayed on top of buildings, and yet nothing was audible. You couldn't hear it. And for me, as someone who works with sound, and this is how I play with language, it became a task of trying to find someone who spoke it and would take me seriously enough as a foreigner, as a brown foreigner, who was curious about the language. And I'll wait to read some of the work a little bit later, but how it relates to, kind of connects to this question of translation, I myself am not a translator. But the task of then translating my work to Frisian exposed to me just how much, or how little, there are those of a younger generation, and I may be completely wrong right now, because that was two years ago. So maybe there is someone who has picked up the mantle of serving as a translator of a English-based work to Frisian. And I say English-based, despite the fact that within the text that I wrote, Frisian does emerge, Dutch does emerge. Suriname Tongo, which is a language that is more based in Suriname, but it has its, it has a connection to the Dutch, because Suriname was once a colony of the Netherlands. To critique, and rather, to critique this notion of Friesland being a multilingual location. That within the landscape that I was navigating, coming across brown bodies, whether they be Egyptian, whether they be from another country in Africa, whether they be from some area in Asia, the inability to hear their language, in a place that doesn't appear to encourage languages from other places outside of Europe to be heard, and that multilingual for them, which was surprising to me, because when I think of multilingual, I think of brown. I think of a variations of brown. I think of variations of Black. I think of a variations of beige. I don't think particularly as someone visiting a place with my body, multilingual being just Frisian and Dutch.
Mary Ann: Mm-hmm.
LaTasha: You know, especially when I am encountering a Somalian body who wants to engage me in Dutch.
Mary Ann: Mm-hmm.
LaTasha: I don't know Dutch. You know, and yet it doesn't appear that, it doesn't appear that that body wants to then switch to maybe the language of their origin, right? That they are going to continue to try to speak in a European language until I can understand them. And it was like, hmm, this is very interesting. And then to encounter Dutch people, and to encounter folks whose origins are based in the North, in areas where they are Frisian, not interested in Frisian, as a language, and going, "So what is that about?" So, yeah, and I'll stop there, because I think, I think I can serve the conversation a little bit more later as we kinda flesh this out.
Mary Ann: That’s really interesting, the thing about a kind of erasure, though. For me, language is both emotional and political. It's both of those things from the start. And my introduction to Spanish, the first time I ever got on a plane at four years old was to go to Cuba with my parents, 'cause my aunt was working there, with the CIA. And so my introduction to Spanish was, they taught me 25 words, probably things to eat, leche con chocolate, and arroz con pollo, and the address my aunt lived at, I suppose in case I got lost, which was phonetically So, that was my start in Spanish. And then I grew up in Chelsea, I grew up in this house. And Chelsea was a very Hispanic-inflected neighborhood. 14th Street was called Little Spain, and it was where all of the emigres and immigrants and migrants came, well, from the 19th century on, from Spain. And then they, after the Civil War, the Republicans came, and then in the 1950's there was more of an economic exile and a lot of people who were not leftist but more right wing came. In any case, I was going to a Catholic school on 17th Street, St. Francis Xavier, and that was a mixture of the children of these immigrants and the children of Puerto Rican natives. It was probably, my class was a least a third Hispanic, or Spanish, as we said in those days. But there was a certain, it was my first introduction to diglossia. So my introduction to Spanish is in this incredibly vibrant culture, very exciting, all of these new experiences. And then I come back home, and there is a whole Hispanic pool, but where people are, where the Spanish language is not as strong as the English language. So there's an inequality between the two of them, which is the diglossia that I'm gonna refer to. Which is the presence of two languages in an unequal situation. You know, as I grew, Spanish became an observatory from which I could look at English. When I went to college and started studying Spanish, and I studied it in high school, but when I get serious about it, it was in the 1970's, and I was very anti-anti-anti-American and Spanish was the place from which I could look at the United States. And then I went to Spain on my junior year abroad, junior semester. And of course Spain, it was 1972, Franco hadn't died, Franco was still alive. And Spanish was in the position of power. And in fact in the position of erasure, of trying to erase the Catalan language. So in Spain, the natural place for me to migrate to was to Catalan, aside from the fact that the first time I landed in Barcelona on the train, it was not landing, the first time I slid to Barcelona, I just fell in love with it immediately. I mean, the architecture, the landscape. Madrid was a very, the presence of the government of Franco was very overwhelming. And even though he was no less present in Catalonia and in Barcelona, or even more present in other ways, there was more pushback. There was much more resistance. And that was the place I felt comfortable. So, I began to informally to study Catalan, and in fact I've always studied it informally. All my Catalan is street Catalan, with a whole lot of reading behind it. I've never actually took a class. I took two classes at the Catalan Circle in Madrid, and they were so terrible that I didn't continue. So I have this emotional relationship to the language that is also political. The whole question of language as polis I think is really interesting. The first full-length book I translated into Catalan, into English rather, was by Xavier Rubert de Ventos, who was one of the great Catalan philosophers of the 20th century, and he wrote this book as well, I hope you can see it, which is a study of nationalisms from a philosophical perspective. And he is responding to a kind of cosmopolitan dislike of people who are vindicating their cultures. Why are you so, why is this so important to you? You know what... And there's a rejection on the part of the language of power, of the less powerful language. And in understanding that things would just be so much easier if you would stop doing that, you know. But one of the things that Xavier says in this book is the polis, in fact, which is the city, comes to substitute, comes to replace the clan, and it replaces the old customs, and the practices of vengeance, and you know, having to kill the people who have offended your family, et cetera, and you have this more civilized relationship to one another. But this requires a certain kind of forgetting. It requires you to forget the old rules, and in some cases it would require you to forget the language. So, I think the question of polis is, it has a positive and a negative aspect. And I actually, I like the notion of stateless as well, because Catalonia has everything to be a state except the state. It has the language, it has an economy, it has institutions, it has a constitution of its own from many centuries ago, from before the Magna Carta. It's a country. And with many, with a lot of... It's very interesting, because Catalan, of course, is not spoken only in Catalonia, it's spoken in the south of France, it's spoken in Valencia, in the Balearic Islands, even a little bit of Italy. It's a stateless language in that sense, because it has feet in many different places. I'm interested in the emergence of Yiddish, or the reemergence of Yiddish, because it follows a similar, Catalan follows a similar path in the 19th century, there's a reemergence of Catalan culture, after having been, after the War of Succession in 1714, Catalonia is absorbed into the Spanish state by Philip V of Bourbon. And the Catalan universities are closed. They establish a Spanish language university in Seville, a Jesuit institution. And it takes a century for the Catalans to kind of regroup and begin again, to... One of the interesting things I read in another book by Enrico Mas, called "Cara Castilian: The Language Next Door," and he was talking about the fact that Catalonia was mostly monolingual for much of its history. I know there are other linguists who say differently, but it is a very convincing thesis. And in fact, you know, what happens then is that the diglossia becomes class-based, whereas all Catalans speak Catalan, but the Catalans who want to become noble adopt Spanish, and Spanish institutions are established the Spanish language is imposed, in fact, by Philip V and his successors. But they are not very successful, because one of the things that saves Catalan, in fact, is the fact that so many people were illiterate. So they weren't reading, they weren't going to school, and they were continuing to speak Catalan. And in fact, when bishops, and generals, and people would come to Catalonia, they would have to speak Catalan in order to be understood. So preachers would have to learn to preach in Catalan, because otherwise they wouldn't be able to spread the Word, spread the Gospel.
Mindl: A way of asserting power from a position of what would be seen as powerlessness, right? That the language being spoken and illiterate forces these people in positions of power to use it.
Mary Ann: Right, that's right, and it's the power of the people in that case, it's more the the demos, right? the people who haven't forgotten their culture and their language, who haven't chosen to enter the polis, or haven't chosen or don't have the opportunity, but in any case, they maintain that historic memory. Anyway, I think, yeah, I think I could stop there, and we can speak to each other.
Mindl: Well and I'm thinking, just thinking about the time, I know we each brought some poetry to read. I wonder if we should do that now to make sure that they all get heard, and then…
Mary Ann: Sure.
Mindl: …more time to discuss, does that make sense?
Mary Ann: Sure.
Mindl: LaTasha, I would love to hear, because I think you have some of your own work that you'll share with us.
LaTasha: Yeah, and before I do that, I need to find the link again. It's funny, because I wanted to bring up the fact that, shortly after I left, Leeuwarden wanted to prevent the arrival of more Antilleans, which is an interesting conversation later on. I'm trying to find, okay... Will I be able to share this?
Mindl: I think so.
Mary Ann: Share screen?
LaTasha: Mm-hmm, so let me do this very quickly. I just want to make sure that, okay... [Pause as LaTasha shares the screen. A poem entitled “Oompa Loompa” appears on the screen.] So can you see the poem?
LaTasha: Okay, so...
Mary Ann: ”Oompa Loompa"?
LaTasha: ”Oompa Loompa.” [LaTasha reads the poem.]
“soy aqui new tongue, can you welcome this gaze towards words unspoken by a cynical generation? dump some luster of rulers, your labor deserves plaudits, of poempebled never explained. just expected. yours a root I may retain just the slurs. general blah blah is null, so simply: we are bipedal but we be natural idiots. plainly, full of ourselves. driven to control the oceans, the winds, adjectives. your cheese is mean, friend. like pungent crunch. but we knew this. skin fished & fry up. I thought it was the French to blame on mayo. a deaf waitress serves/teaches me 'espresso.' a cashier denies me stamps. coat the roofs w/ hert e ja e taal e mem. no volume raised though. so who hears if unable to read? does this hand need be this heavy? elaborate for me this thing about Frisian women. evidence of heavy unfettered traits all leading to Famke Janssen. bad example? so... ferhoslen ferhalen. The Dutch 'g' estou nao meu compadre, relatives not. coat of honey on Spain or Arawak or well, then we duet, a transfer of particles across ponds where escaped, we collage. my skin code switch; longing tropics, it pales beside Waddenzee. your oak thrives in sand as I digress to YouTube tutorials to catch di riddim. full of joy. alas the shop for Clumpys is open from 12-5. the tallest in Europe eh? so what about the Danes? hung like Grutte Pier? get yours vertical accents, damn your staircases, scalene, obtuse triangles of hell, misdirected retribution for fiending Vlisco, dump more tea inna dey cup please, ate mais moanna, my lessons are this." [LaTasha finishes reading.] And I'll read just read this one. “Agehya-Zumbi," after Stanley Brouwn.
“o numero total de minhas passos em The Bronx.
watashi no suteppu no sosu Harlem
el numero total de mis passos en Helmond
watashi no suteppu no sosus Nishi Ogikubo
o numero total de minhas passos em North Carolina
watashi no suttepu no sosu Okinawa
el numero total de mis passos en Sao Salvador
de Bahia watashi no suttepu no sosu Taxco
o numero total de minhas passos em Tsalagi
watashi suttepu no sosu Waddenzee
el numero total de mis trapus en Ile Yoniba”
[LaTasha finishes reading.]
And I'll stop there.
Mary Ann: Beautiful.
Mindl: Thank you, LaTasha, that was lovely. Can I ask a question about the second poem that you read?
Mindl: The kind of smaller English text, how does that relate to the rest of the text that you real aloud? 'Cause there are some changes right, but not the same changes as in...
LaTasha: Not the same changes. It's the total number of my steps in, is actually a straight reference from Stanley Brouwn. Stanley Brouwn was a Dutch conceptual artist. The funny thing about his work, he dealt with measurements, and counting how many steps he would take from A to B, or asking strangers to make maps, like "How do you get to this store?" You know, and then ask them to draw a map. Sometimes they wouldn't know anything, and then he would stamp it "Stanley Brouwn was here." What interested me about Stanley's work was that for most of his career no one knew his identity, because he refused to take photographs of himself. There would be gallery exhibitions of his work and he wouldn't attend. So really, nobody knew his identity. His identity was merely these measurements. And then it was much later when he passed away, his wife wanted to make sure that everybody knew that he was Black, and that he was originally from Suriname, when Suriname was a colony of the Netherlands, and that he went to the Netherlands later in his life to study art. So it's really interesting how then, in this one conceptual piece that he created, which was about the number of his steps, you get clues as to what, as to who he may be, and who he's identifying as, but you're never quite sure. So I wanted it to be a mistranslation of sorts, 'cause, I don't think they're 100% correct at all. Right? But it's me playing with the language, me trying to play with the Dutch, and the Spanish, and the Japanese, to kind of record my identity in this very northern, low-country space.
Mindl: Thank you.
Mary Ann: Beautiful.
Mindl: Mary Ann, do you want to read something?
Mary Ann: Okay, I think I have... Where is it? You know, I don't have the, I don't have the text I want, I don't have access to the text I want to share so, I'm going to have to stop that. But I will read it, I have access to it myself. This is a poem by Joseph Cudle, I am currently working on a, a book by Cudle called "Trees," and it is indeed that, it is just a book about, every poem is about trees. And it is rhymed. And in general I don't rhyme. But in this particular case... I don't know why I can't bring up... Don't tell me. Come on. Oh. All right. All right. I'm going to read a little bit in Catalan, just so that you feel it. Oh I can't, okay I'm sorry, I don't know why I can't get that. But anyway, it is called "The Donkey and the Olive Tree." This is a poem about trees, as I said, and the ones where you get the real Mediterranean feeling are when he writes about olive trees and fig trees. And there's always this tremendous kind of Old Testament feeling to it, and also very Christian, but it is an interesting example of how all of these religious images are actually part of Catalan culture. People celebrate holidays even if they are atheists. People celebrate the landscape, and they have, it's part of the language, in other words, it's part of the memory. So here, "The Donkey and the Olive Tree.”
[Mary Ann beings reading.]
"Donkey fixed to the pious olive tree, Lenient tree, sentient being. The great tree and it's dotage of glee Laughs at the house and the darkening stream. The tired donkey neither yearns nor awaits The ancient God crowned in thorns. His brays ring out on the crooked trail Like the scraps of Orient mourned. You are the two gifts of the sacred land where the aurora appears in rosy span. Old testaments to that lovely bluff. Prophetic beast whom a fool would query. How soon to read, ready to parley. Your silver is the dust of immortal stuff."
[Mary Ann finishes reading.]
And I'm sorry you cannot see the original. I can read a tiny bit of the original. Okay.
LaTasha: That’s beautiful.
Mary Ann: I’m glad you like it. It's the first time I've read it out loud, so... It's in progress, any comments will be welcome. We'd love to hear something of yours, Mindl.
Mindl: So, We can see now, I'm sharing the English translation of a poem by Avrom Sutzkever one of the most famous Yiddish poets of the second half of the 20th century. And I think what I'll do, I'll read the English and then I'm gonna read the end in Yiddish after, so that we can end with the addition, you'll see the themes of translation and why this is a hard poem to read in translation. "Yiddish," and it's translated by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav.
[Mindl begins reading.]
“Yiddish” "Shall I start from the beginning? Shall I, a brother, Like Abraham Smash all the idols? Shall I let myself be translated alive? Shall I plant my tongue And wait Till it transforms into our forefathers' Raisins and almonds? What kind of joke Preaches my poetry brother with whiskers, That soon, my mother tongue will set forever? A hundred years from now, we may still sit here On the Jordan, and carry on this argument. For a question Gnaws and paws at me: If he knows exactly in what regions Levi Yitzhok's prayer, Yehoash's poem, Kulbak's song, Are straying to their sunset, Could he please show me Where the language will go down? May be at the Wailing Wall? If so, I shall come there, come, Open my mouth, And like a lion Garbled in fiery scarlet, I shall swallow the language as it sets, And wake all the generations with my roar!”
[Mindl finishes reading.]
Mary Ann: That's fantastic.
[Mindl continues reading in Yiddish.]
Mary Ann: Beautiful.
LaTasha: Love it.
Mary Ann: Roar.
Mary Ann: Yeah.
LaTasha: Love the sounds of the Yiddish. It's so much a piece of fabric of New York, you know, you hear it, I mean, I hear New York.
Mary Ann: Yeah.
Mindl: I love that, and I love that it's a part of different territories in as much as it is a stateless language or a language of exile, that it is still, it's so strongly tied to different locations.
Mary Ann: Yeah.
[Allison and Tess reenter the chat room.]
Tess: I have a question for you about that, Mindl, and it's a perfect segue from the poem who talks about, the poet talks about, he'll speak his language as its setting, and in combination with your comments earlier about the importance of translating the works, important works into Yiddish to create the Yiddish culture by the Jews in the diaspora in the 18 and early 1900s. How much today is being translated into Yiddish, and does the Yiddish Book Center have a focus on that at all?
Mindl: That’s really interesting, yeah. The Center's focus is certainly translating from Yiddish into English. There is some translation happening into Yiddish. One of the interesting things that happens is, we get contacted by various state boards in New York, that need to translate official documents into Yiddish for the Hasidic communities. There's a very important state function, interestingly, of translating into Yiddish still for communities. And there are some projects, a colleague of mine translated Dr. Seuss into Yiddish, and "The Cat in the Hat" in Yiddish is available, and quite popular. And there continue to be projects like that for children's literature, probably as a way to bring Yiddish into people's homes, and otherwise, I'm sure it exists not quite in the same way right, 'cause it did, translating into Yiddish was a really important part of building Yiddish as a cultural language, right, and that's true for many languages. If you can translate Shakespeare into Yiddish it means that Yiddish is as eloquent a language as English. And I think that drive probably remains, though I don't know of any very recent... Actually, I know somebody who just translated Shakespeare into Yiddish this summer, so I think that drive continues. Yeah.
Allison: There’s your answer. We had one question that came in from a viewer. It has a rather long preamble. Which because we're short on time, I'm going to abbreviate. This person teaches both English and French in Louisiana, and they're describing the sort of, French speakers of the state trying to reclaim the territory politically. So, sort of on our own turf here. The question is, "I'm wondering how" and this is really to any of you, "I'm wondering how you might consider whether we will ever be able to convince America, particularly in this xenophobic era in the larger American society, to engage in the learning of languages other than English, stateless languages or not, by expressing the pleasure and delight of learning languages that open other parts of the world to them. If so, how best do we engage this American culture to show them the delights in tearing down walls, not building them at borders?" I mean I think you've all sort of spoken to this in terms of your own engagement with these languages, but I just wonder if you have any, if you have a response to this viewer.
Mary Ann: Well translation is one of the ways. I began to study Spanish language and literature because I found "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in a bookstore. And you know, I think that's one of the things that translation does. If the Catalan texts, and Yiddish texts aren't in English, and God knows, if the Frisian texts were in English, at least people could conceivably take an interest in it. But I think in the U.S., The U.S. has a problem just learning Spanish. The lesser-known languages are a next step for sure. But the interesting thing about Catalan is that it's relationship to Spanish in the United States is very close, and most people, I would say 95% of people who begin to study Catalan come to it through a Spanish department, through having studied Spanish. So there's an interesting relationship there.
Allison: I wonder, LaTasha, the way that Frisian came to you actually, so I mean I just wonder, since you already had so many, your work was already multilingual, is there, I don't know...
LaTasha: Well, you know, the one thing, I'm thinking about the two weeks that I was there. Once I learned that there was this language and wanted to hear it, the question of who would speak it to me, right? And one thing to make sure that it's understood, that there was a Frisian movement in the 1950's, which allowed the Frisian language to be government-funded, to be officially recognized as the second language, to be taught in primary schools, and certain courses in secondary education. And then beyond that, I think there are those who are invested in preserving the language, but then, how they're preserving the language, and how they're furthering the interest and curiosity is what I felt that I was hit with a wall. And the reason why I say that, and I guess I'm going to try to connect it to this how do we make Americans multilingual, or to be just as giddy about different languages as we are, very simply, there needs to be some fun. There needs to be some fun. To encounter folks and understand that Frisian is, though it's not necessarily spoken in Leeuwarden, but it's spoken in the towns outside of Leeuwarden, which were part of Friesland, and that it's now, while it is spoken in the courts and while you can have someone, and you have a Bible that's been translated into Frisian, how do we make, how do we invite the younger generation to be engaged with it, to have an interest in it?
Mary Ann: Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss is it.
LaTasha: I mean yeah, I totally agree, Dr. Seuss is the one. But then after Dr. Seuss, you know, we could continue to read Dr. Seuss because we like Dr. Seuss, but most folks will grow out of Dr. Seuss. So that are there graphic novels written in other languages? Are there augmented reality projects that involve other languages that will spark a curiosity? I know we had an earlier conversation about how few people are interested in learning a language and are only interested in learning the swear words. And I said I'm probably one of those people who love learning the swear words. Because they become a secret language, right?
Mary Ann: When I taught, when I was teaching language, I always taught the swear words.
LaTasha: They become a secret language.
Mindl: They drive me crazy, I'm the curmudgeon.
LaTasha: Growing up in New York, growing up with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans as my classmates, it was wonderful to learn the word "puta." You know, and "pendejo." And you can say it, but then it became universally known in New York, 'cause New York is unique in that, where you did know, you didn't have to know Spanish to know what "pendejo" meant, right? You knew it was something bad.
Mary Ann: Yiddish, too.
LaTasha: I think Yiddish, too. Yeah you know.
Mary Ann: We have to introduce those Catalan words.
LaTasha: We have to introduce them, we have to introduce them.
Allison: I’m sorry we're out of time, because we're getting the conversation, as we start talking about swearwords, it's getting more and more scary. But thank you all, Mindl, LaTasha, and Mary Ann, for contributing to the conversation today, and once again, we would 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, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, and deep gratitude to the Yiddish Book Center and the Institut Ramon Llull for their support of today's event. Thank you again, and we hope to see you next week.
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 & 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.