Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 23 June 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).
Motherless Tongues, Multiple Belongings I
Moderated by Bruna Dantas Lobata, with Mónica de la Torre and Jeffrey Angles
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 Motherless Tongues, Multiple Belongings I livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 23 June 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).
Central to the monolingual paradigm is the cherished notion of the "mother tongue": the single, home language instilled from birth. "This particular vision does not want to admit.. the ability to live multiple belongings," writes Yasemin Yildiz in her landmark 2012 Beyond the Mother Tongue. Jeffrey Angles, who translates from Japanese and has also won high honors in Japan for his poetry written in Japanese, and Mónica de la Torre, a poet who has written in and translated from both Spanish and English, discuss the joys and perils of their personal linguistic multiplicity. Moderated and inspired by Brazilian writer and translator Bruna Dantas Lobata.
Esther Allen: Hello and welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a professor at The City University of New York, and I'm here with Allison Markin Powell who translates Japanese literature, works with the PEN Translation Committee, and has been a driving force organizing "Translating the Future"; the conference that you are now attending.
Allison Markin-Powell: This year's celebration of Juneteenth seemed to resonate further and wider than ever before. Black Artists for Freedom, a collective of Black workers in the culture industries, published a statement in which they call on cultural institutions to break ties with the police, put their money where their mouths are, advocate for Black people, get educated, and to imagine Black freedom. On their website, some of the signatories also proclaim what form these imaginings will take. Mitchell S. Jackson, recent Cullman Center Fellow and author of "Survival Math" writes: "Black freedom is the space to imagine. It's a space to make mistakes and not have them define the rest of you. It's the sense of solidarity with the diaspora. It's a sense of belonging. It's a place of empowerment. Freedom is rarely given; it must be seized."
Esther: Thank you, Allison, and thank all of you for joining us for the seventh installment of our weekly program: "Motherless Tongues, Multiple Belongings." In this first conversation, part of a mini-series that will explore and explode the notion of the mother tongue, we'll hear from Mónica de la Torre, Jeffrey Angles and Bruna Dantas Lobato. Mónica works with and between languages; Jeffrey is a poet, translator and professor whose poetry written in Japanese won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in Japan; and Bruna is a Brazilian writer and translator whose panel, we're very grateful to her for this, at the 2019 ALTA Conference served as inspiration for this mini-series.
Allison: This series of weekly one-hour conversations is the form that "Translating the Future" will continue to take throughout the summer and into the fall. During the conference's originally planned dates in late September, several larger-scale events will happen, and we'll be here every Tuesday until then with conversations about the past, present and future of literary translation and its place in the world where we find ourselves.
Esther: Please join us next Tuesday at one-thirty for "Queer Literature, Queer Legacies: Looking Forward toward the Future of LGBTQ Translation", A conversation between Achy Obejas and Sean Bye, moderated by Elizabeth Rose. And check the Center for the Humanities site for future events.
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 pen.org.
Esther: Today’s conversation will be followed by a Q and A. Please email your questions for Mónica de la Torre, Jeffrey Angles and Bruna Dantas Lobato to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep your questions anonymous, unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name, and if you know anyone who is unable to join us for the livestream, a recording will be available afterward on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites. Before we turn it over to Mónica, Jeffrey, and Bruna, we'd like to offer our sincere gratitude to our partners at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and PEN America, and also to the masters of dark Zoom magic and HowlRound who are making this livestream possible. And now, over to you guys.
Bruna Lobato: Thank you, Esther and Allison for that introduction and thanks for everyone for tuning in today. This topic is very dear to my heart, especially as someone who's come to English and eventually to translation as an immigrant, and there's often this assumption that one can only have one true language which is the mother tongue and it's tied to a nation state. And it's where your citizenship might come from, but of course, that's often not true, especially with global forces, colonialism, there's so much at play. Our bodies, they're constantly in movement and our relationships are ever-changing, so I would love to being by hearing a little bit about your relationships to your languages and how you've arrived at the languages you have in that translation. So, Mónica, if you could please begin?
Mónica de la Torre: Thank you for your question, Bruna, and thank you Allison, Esther, and everyone for being here. Well, it's interesting because I didn't tell my mother this was happening today because if I did, she'd be like, "What do you mean, motherless tongue?!" Because my mother, actually, is from whom I learned English. So, my mother tongue is officially English, although I did not grow up using my mother tongue because my mother emigrated to Mexico to study Spanish, actually; fell in love with my father, had me and my family, and got progressively more comfortable with Spanish as we were growing up. So even though maybe when I was born she did speak English with me because she had just been there for a few years and wasn't that comfortable with it, we gradually boycotted English at home in Mexico City because we really did not like being seen in public speaking English with my mom and just spoke back in Spanish to her. So, technically, that is my mother tongue. I was schooled in a bilingual school in Mexico City where a lot of literature classes happened in English. It was a very good school in terms of its bilinguality and I would visit my mother's family often and had a uncomfortable relationship with English, but if I stayed here long enough, I would progressively feel a little more comfortable with it, but I never imagined I'd be writing in English. It only happened, it was an accident of life that I ended up coming to get an MFA, not knowing it wasn't my plan, I was gonna do something else, but the opportunity arose and I came here and I thought, "Well, what do I do? Do I transit myself every week for workshop? Or do I just give it a try and see what happens?" And I started working in English and hence, reclaiming my mother tongue.
Jeffrey Angles: Well, that's fascinating to hear. But first of all, before I answer the question I wanna echo Mónica's thanks to everybody here, to Esther, to Allison, to PEN, to CUNY, to the New York Public Library, HowlRound, and everybody else. It's a real honor to be included in this series. So yeah, my interaction with Japanese started when I was 15 years old. I went to Japan as a high school exchange student. I was a boy that had really never been outside of the American Midwest. I think I had seen the ocean twice , I had only seen mountains once or twice in my life, and then suddenly I went to southern Japan in a town that was at the very, very, very end of the big island of Honshu. So it was surrounded on three sides by water, mountains rising right out of the sea in these wonderful, dramatic fashions. And so, I felt like I was really seeing the world for the fist time. It was this huge jolt outside of my ordinary mode of existence that made me determined; "Okay, I'm gonna learn this language, and this is going to be my second language of expression." For a long time, I was one of these nerdy, quiet kids that liked to sit alone and read poetry and that sort of thing. As I began to work on Japanese and eventually went to graduate school in Japanese, I had been writing poetry of my own up until that point in English, but once I encountered graduate school, I stopped because I had naively assumed that many of the great works and many of the great writers were being translated into English. However, as soon as I began to really dive deeply into Japanese literature, I realized that if this is the field of Japanese literature, this tiny corner is how much we have in translation. Just the overwhelming majority of the writing that's happening is not being translated. In fact, recently for an article that I was writing, I did a look through Three Percent's database to see how many things were being translated and I found out that there were five books of translation of poetry from Japanese translated in the best year that they have on record. So, five books in a year; that's hardly anything when you consider that there are 14,000 books being published every month in Japan; 14,000! I was so overwhelmed by how much literature there was that I began to turn to translation to pour all of my love for writing, all of my desire for that into translation. I did that for a number of years, and it was really in 2009 to 2011 when I was living and working in Japan full-time that, really, I felt that, and I was thinking in Japanese all the time, everything was in Japanese, that it really made sense to sit down and start writing in Japanese again; or start writing in Japanese for the first time. I'd done academic articles and so on in Japanese all along the way, but I hadn't actually done that kind of creative writing. But one of the wonderful things about doing translation is that it's a really intense form of reading. It's about the closest form of reading that you can possibly have and so, it was in the course of reading Japanese poets over the course of years that I really felt like I was studying very intensely what people were doing with language; the silences that were in the language, the particular modes of expression, the choices of language and so on. And so, that very special form of reading I think naturally lends itself to writing if you're kind of a writerly personality. I pulled something off my wall that I wanted to show you. Maybe you can see in the back there there's a bunch of things hanging on the wall. There's a little space up there that's now blank and I pulled this off. This is something that the writer, Takahashi Mutsuo, had written some years ago when he was giving a lecture at the Kennedy Center and I was translating for him. He just wrote this as a little diagram, but he wrote the word yomu, which in Japanese means to read, and then he also wrote the classical Japanese word for to compose poetry which is also yomu. And his point was that these two words, even though they're different words, they share an etymology in the classical Japanese language. Reading is a form of composition within our minds, within our own experiences and translation is like one of the most beautiful places where we can see that. But it was really from that equation of reading and composing that led me one step further to actually writing in Japanese.
Bruna: Wow, I love that you call Japanese your second language of expression. I think I might adopt that. I definitely think about my languages that way too, especially as it's blurry which one is my dominant language at this point; they're both pretty close. But do you think that your relationship to these languages, maybe the proximity you have to them at this point and the sincere loyalty affects how you select the texts you translate or what kinds of decisions you make on the page?
Mónica: I really like the fact that you use the word loyalty. It's something that we could spend a lot of time talking about; one's loyalty to a language. I will answer your question but before I answer it I just wanna say that what it makes me think about is this sense of a possible betrayal when you choose not to write in the language you are expected to write in. So, in my case, I would've been expected to write in Spanish, and I did and I still do, but not the degree of commitment that I bring to English. And so I think that kind of tension is really productive and it can't be easily forgotten. Yeah, what choices are we making, say, when we choose to adopt the conventions like Jeffrey was talking about, academic writing in Japanese. That is producing a body of knowledge that will be available to a readership and not to another readership. So what kinds of imbalances might that produce, or what are the questions that accessibility and the lack of accessibility bring up are really interesting to me and it's something that I wrestle with. Now, your question about what to translate; I think in terms of loyalties, I think is really pertinent as well because what it conjures for me is the opportunity that translation gives one to establish a lineage between one's creative practice and the body of work that you choose to read so closely and be so intimate with when we translate. So one of the things that I was trying to do when I began translating a very long time ago, also out of the sense of like what? How can it be that American poets that I'm encountering in my MFA program and everything have basically three frames of reference for poetry written in Spanish: it's either Octavio Paz, Federico Garcia Lorca, Neruda, and some, like the really sophisticated people who read outside of that had also read Vallejo. And that was it! And so it was like I need to do something about it, so perhaps it was a bit hubristic to try to go "I'm going to rectify this and I'm gonna translate all these women poets", contemporary women poets who were not being translated; and then I undertook another project that was actually really hubristic and it was this neo-baroque Mexican-Spanish refugee poet, Gerardo Deniz, who at the time was incredibly difficult to translate because all the work is super, hyper-referential. One poem might have 55 allusions that back in the pre-internet days would take you a really long time to figure out in order to translate. But that's what I did and I wanted to bring some of the richness of other forms of expression that were resistant to translation precisely because of their complexity. It was that particular type of neo-baroque poetry that I thought needed to be brought into English because precisely the fact that it was so complex was the thing that was making it not appealing to translators. It doesn't translate well and that was the issue for me.
Bruna: Wow, that's great. Yeah, I think about loyalty a ton because, one, I'm a complete traitor in more than one direction; another one is because my relationship to the Portuguese language in my case is never gonna be national. I'm not tied to the entirety of the country, especially when the country's so large and there are so many forms of existence that have nothing to do with me. So in many ways, my ties to Portuguese are pretty regional, so I have a little corner of the country that I'm interested in and I don't know what kind of translator I would be if I had a completely different path. I think my curation process is now completely personal; for some people maybe even contaminated, which I love. I love a good unsanitized approach to this because it's personal, it's full of biases and interests and agendas. Jeffrey, I'm sure you have a lot to say about this.
Jeffrey: I love the fact that almost as soon as we begin to talk about loyalty, we begin to talk about betrayal. That's something that's really lovely. I think we spend so much time when we're in translation mode thinking about fidelity, thinking about this kind of old, tired notions that we've thought through a million times backward and forward in a lot of different ways. And of course the desire to betray becomes stronger and stronger. I think that there is something to Mónica's statement; that by going out there and choosing particular text, we are betraying expectations. I think one of the reasons that I'm interested in writing in Japanese, and it's been so much fun, is that it has betrayed expectations. When I was sitting down to write this book, the one that was mentioned in the introduction, "Watashi no hizukehenkosen", I specifically tried to think about what Japanese poets were doing and tried to figure out a kind of twist on that, to try to figure out some sort of way to do what was happening differently. So in a way, I'm betraying expectations that I would write in English, but I'm also trying to betray some of the expectations that exist in the Japanese language in order to open up a new space. When I sat down, I'm fascinated with people that betray their own language and the wonderful things that happen. If we look back over English literary history, we see all kinds of people; great, great, great writers for whom English wasn't their first language. Joseph Conrad, what an interesting, quirky stylist he is. There's all sorts of people like writers from India who have two, three, four languages under their belt and they bring those things into their writing, like Anita Desai or Salam Rushdie; all bilingual writers. Nowadays we've got Ilya Kaminsky, Don Mee Choi, who are working in English and bringing in some of the resonances and sounds of their particular language. Yoko Tawada who writes both in Japanese and German is my hero , and I love that fact that she's able to do such quirky things in both of the languages in which she's working. So betrayal is actually... Is the point of departure for creativity. But there's also at the same time that we're constantly betraying things, I think there's also certain kinds of loyalties that are formed in translation. I totally agree with you, Bruna; I don't feel connected to every writer in Japan by any means. There are certain writers that I love, certain writers with whom I feel connected and I want to bring those into English. But I like the fact that there is in translation certain kinds of loyalties that exist across space, across time. We can fall in love with writers that are dead, we can live in their skin, we can adopt their voice, we can be shamans that transfer their voices into a new world, into a new form. So I love this kind of dual and often conflicting betrayals and loyalties that are constantly at play.
Bruna: Yeah, most households in the world are multilingual and it is interesting to think about that there aren't enough people from multilingual households coming to translation. There is still, I think, a lot of pressure, one, to have a relationship with language that's one-directional. You have one language and then you learn another versus I didn't choose to betray my mother tongue, for example, it was a global landscape that pushed me in a certain direction, and I think that's fairly common. So I don't quite know if it is, there's all this phenomena of people writing in second languages versus it is the natural state for people to write in second languages and this idea that you only work with one language is actually artificial. I could be lecture-y for a bit.
Jeffrey: No, but very well put, thank you.
English-speaking monolinguals are a tiny minority compared to people who speak English globally. So amongst all of us who speak English, yes, the majority of us are bilingual, if not more. And the tiny bit of monolinguals, they are the ones resisting our use of English as a language for art and expression, et cetera.
Bruna: Yeah, because I'm thinking about how monocultural populations and monolingual populations were engineered, right. They don't naturally exist. So they're socially engineered, for example, in post-Holocaust Germany or 18th century France. This desire to have a population be homogenous is just bogus and I come from a multilingual family, though I don't speak their languages, so there is that pressure too. There's a constant loss, so, yeah, I don't know, maybe the natural status, already this cross-pollination, this constant, I like the word contamination because I guess it goes against the purism that sometimes I find in academia for translation being this pristine thing. Yeah, and also I think a lot about how it is so common too for people's language of instruction not to be the same as the language they speak at home, either because of colonialism or because Latin or France, say, a French in Russia or something. Those things are fairly common and yet, I find that in the United States at least where I live people are kinda shocked that I work with a second language as if they've never heard of this entire past. How has it been like for you as you're navigating these many currents? How has it been to make the choices you make both on the page but also about the text you select and then fight for what you're doing? Do you feel that you have to defend your allegiances or that it's natural? Do people accept it fully or not? Is this some kind of push and pull that you have to engage in? I'm just curious about... Yeah, I guess how well received it is.
Mónica: Okay, we'll follow the order we've established. I was just thinking, one of the things that you said before you posed the question which is this notion of imperialism, colonialism. Doesn't it seems disingenuous that, especially in terms of American imperialism, pushing English everywhere, consume pop music, consume films, consume media, but don't speak our language, don't speak it too well 'cause if you do, it's like, "Oh, you know English so well! How did you manage to?" Well, I so happened to have grown up in Mexico where it is impossible not to hear English on a daily basis everywhere. It's on cable TV, it's on the radio, everywhere. So that just seems a bit disingenuous and I also think of something that David Bellos writes about in "Is that a Fish in Your Ear?" and this notion that English-speaking, not necessarily American, English-speaking monolinguals are a tiny minority compared to people who speak English globally. So amongst all of us who speak English, yes, the majority of us are bilingual, if not more. And the tiny bit of monolinguals, they are the ones resisting our use of English as a language for art and expression, et cetera. So that's particularly interesting. One thing that informed the book that I used a lot of translation and self translation on "Repetition Nineteen", one of the things that informed it is varying approaches to translation. When I started off, it was in the '90s and people would really frown upon my translating into English. It was like, "No, no, no; you can't translate into English. You could translate into Spanish, you can't, what?" Regardless of the mother tongue complication, the assumption was that it wasn't my mother tongue and even if it was, I grew up in Mexico, I was schooled in Spanish, and therefore, I should not translate it into English. So that I feel is changing dramatically, but another thing that I heard and I would be very curious to hear if you've ever had any pushback in this regard was that when I showed my translations to some people early on, they would say, "Well, there's too many Latinates in this." You really wanna produce a translation that should try to pass as the original. So whenever there's something that indicates to the reader that this might be a translation, get rid of it, avoid it. Use Germanic words, use Anglo-Saxon words, avoid Latinates. And it was like, okay, I sort of believed it at the time because I was just learning. I was learning translation, I was learning to write, I was learning so many things. And that turns out to be completely ideological. Where did that come from? There was a time in which Anglo-Saxon translations of the Bible were seen as vulgar and Latinates were considered much more elegant and sophisticated. So, yeah, that's my take on your question.
Bruna: Wow, I love that. Would you read a few poems for us? It's relevant to the whole conversation.
Mónica: Okay, so actually, yeah, so, one of the sections of the book has 25 different translations of the same poem that I wrote in Spanish when I had just moved to the US. And the poem is called "Equivalencias." So maybe I'll read the Spanish and then I'll read you one translation and then we'll go to Jeffrey and maybe we can circle with that. So, "Equivalencias": So for one of the translations, this was my political translation, a lot of them are political but this one was in response to what was going on the summer I was embarking on this project. It was 2018 and that was when Trump implemented his zero tolerance policy that ended up producing children in cages. That's when it all began, because of the status of the minors who ended up being separated from their families and I was in Montalvo at a residency that, as it turns out, it had been the estate of a man whose senatorial re-election campaign in San Francisco, the motto for it was "Keep California White", so that says everything. He was involved with the Chinese exclusion act, and the Japanese, et cetera. So I felt very compelled to respond and my response to that was to frame a translation as one that would be obedient and only include words with Anglo-Saxon roots. So all the Latinates in this translation are eliminated. "A Big Beautiful Wall" is the name of the translation. "One: no din of flesh. A sip of a hot drink made from roasted and ground seeds found bitter after swallowing. A bottomless pit. Two-fold roads, one path, and shut eyes unawake. Two looking glasses are how many. With dusk come lights. Two children, now three. Three is oath, is stillness, a chum, a foe. Three truths, three lives. Four times the speaker said nothing. Four and two are the same. Having asked five times why she'd stayed there she set the bed on fire and left letting it burn." So the words that are eliminated all right coffee, silence, peace, fire, yeah.
Bruna: That was very telling, I love that. Jeffrey?
Jeffrey: Great, well, thank you, it's lovely to hear that. I've been reading your book, Mónica, on the page. It's really nice to have a voice associated with it. Why don't I read a poem that's called "Hon'yaku ni tsuite", "On Translation", since it's so obviously about these kind of gaps between languages. I wrote it in Japanese but then later on I did an English translation because so many people asked me what was in this book. So I'll combine the two for reasons I hope are obvious. "Going into the bedroom, I find another me already there. That me is not blond, that me has black hair. He asked my why I'm here. He simply tells me to get in, that's he has been waiting for me since the moment we were born. We use different languages, but somehow we communicate. I take off my clothes, lie down, tell him about my childhood. About dropping the ice-cream and crying, about being scolded after losing my shoes in the snow, about the pillow fights with father. I remember, says that other me. But when he speaks of his memories they sound like the memories of someone else. The bed I remember becomes a futon. The lakes I remember become seas. Sandals become Zori. Lunchboxes become bento. Our conversations slip by one another, never quite meeting in between. The two of me let out a silence and the room returns to silence. Fidgeting beneath the sheets I take the hand of that other me and stare at the ceiling for some time. Eventually we embrace. Eventually we embrace, caressing like two strangers in the hopes of turning into one person complete."
Bruna: Wow, Jeffrey, have you experienced any pushback in your many experiences everywhere?
Jeffrey: That’s an interesting question. First of all, I should say that when I was writing the poems that went into this book, I was serializing them in a small Japanese journal. I had very nice responses from people who were reading the journal, sometimes people would contact me on Twitter or whatever. But I didn't really think much about the political ramifications. The ramifications of me coming in from English, a sort of imperial language and making a choice to write into Japanese. However, when this book was published and much to my surprise, it won a huge literary prize in Japan, I couldn't believe it. Suddenly then it did seem like the tenure of the conversation changed . There were quite a number of people that wrote "This award is going to Jeffrey because he's a foreigner writing in Japanese and that has some kind of political significance. Political significance regarding the importance of our language and so on. And so, perhaps the judges wanted to give it to him for that reason." So there was some resistance. I'll never forget one person who wrote on Twitter, the kind of quirky of this language I find completely And after that it made me feel so accomplished. I wanted to try to figure out a way to my own twist on Japanese. But I think, overall, I should say that this response has been overwhelmingly positive so far.
Bruna: Good. Yeah, this idea that a text in translation shouldn't remind the reader of its foreignness is always bugging me, but I think it's pretty common and some countries have more tolerance towards foreigners than others. So, both of you have written about this multiplicity, the experience of being in between. Tell me a little bit about the process of thinking through all of that and maybe some things you've discovered through the writing?
Mónica: Maybe Jeffrey can start now. Jeffrey, in an email you've said that one of the things you were trying to do in Japanese is really explore the possibilities of Japanese and do things that you couldn't do in English. I'm super interested in that.
Jeffrey: Yeah, definitely.
Mónica: So what are those things?
Jeffrey: Sorry, a little unstable. So my apologies if I seem to be stuttering here. There are a number of things that you can do. Because Japanese has three scripts, it has characters that are borrowed from China, kanji, it has hiragana which is kind of like a cursive script for writing Japanese words, katakana, a script for writing foreign words. There's all sorts of possibility of bringing these three different types of scripts the same thing but you can say it in different ways. Also too, there's a great richness in the history of the Japanese language. There's classical Japanese, Japanese of a 100 years ago, there's Japanese of 1,000 years ago. And so there's all sorts of Japaneses that can be brought into play with one another; something that I think probably not domestic readers wouldn't expect a foreigner§ to be doing. And so it was interesting to play with those things. Oh, one more thing that's very interesting: in Japanese it's possible to write a word using characters and then to put the reading beside it. In other words, you can give the meaning and you can give the pronunciation of the word separately but simultaneously and I really enjoy that fact. That's something we can't do in English, at least I can't think of a clever way to do it. And I like the , the mismatch sometimes, when you would put a pronunciation on a word that you typically wouldn't see. I wrote a poem about the rivers in Ohio where I grew up and about how I lived in a place that was ostensibly monolingual. However, I was surrounded by place names in languages that had existed there far longer before the white people ever showed up. And so in the poem I wrote the meanings of those place names and then the pronunciation of the place names right beside each other, so when you see the word to refer to the river that runs through in central Ohio, you could understand what that meant in the original language. So there are fun things that were possible in Japanese that I couldn't really think about how to do in English. And so that was one of the things that I really enjoyed exploring. What about you, Mónica? Your experimentations in this book with a multiple translations of this particular poem were incredibly fascinating to me. I just happened to read "The New York Times" review that talked about your book, I think yesterday.
Mónica: Oh, oh, well it's just mentioned but doesn't really go into it.
Jeffrey: It doesn't go into it, but I love the fact that it turned kind of multiplicity and the spilling over of languages, one of the characteristics of the book.
Mónica: Yeah, actually, really interesting. Okay, we won't go into that but—
Mónica: No, no, no, because it relates to something that Bruna was saying. I think in that review, it reviews three books, Don Mee Choi, Joyelle McSweeney and Jenny Zhang and it was really interesting because the writer, the critic is trying to reclaim messiness as something a bit cool. But I think when you're writing about people who are so expressly dealing with colonialism and, I mean, to use those metaphors, I think they were used in a way that was kinda problematic, but I did appreciate the shout out. What can I say? Well, one of the things I love about English that Spanish doesn't really offer is prepositional phrases. They blow my mind. What you can do, you can completely transform a verb with the preposition that comes next to it. There's just endless ways in which you can resignify that verb with the prepositions. That's impossible in Spanish. I also love concision. I like how technical it can be and what happens when you bring in languages from all these different fields of knowledge, exclusive practices and collage them all together in English. Something happens that I feel is a little harder to replicate in Spanish because Spanish already is... Spanish, even though most people think it's a very emotional language, I also find it kinda of bureaucratic. It's a very bureaucratic language, very official. So when you bring things that are official-sounding into literary discourse, they don't contrast as much, I think. But maybe if I can swerve the question a little bit, I love your poem, "On Translation", because it's really open-ended and it addresses both self-translation and translation. And if we focus on self-translation only, this idea that you might develop another persona in the other language is really beautiful and I would love to hear a little bit more about that. And also Bruna, it's kinda like a cliche; people talk about it, as the first, "Oh, do you feel like a different person when you speak another language?" But something does transform us. I remember the experience of listening to my mother speak in English with her sisters when I was growing up and I'd be like, I felt like my mother was possessed, like she wasn't my mother anymore. A ghost had taken over her and she became unrecognizable to me because this history that I didn't share with her was being spoken through the language. And so I just wonder what both of you think about this topic?
Bruna: Jeffrey, you can go first.
It is just a matter of being code switching all the time. When you switch audiences, you have to switch the speech, whether you like it or not.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I specifically left that poem open-ended. The idea of the two selves embracing one another, holding one another, being physically in proximity to one another without that contradiction ever being resolved, so thank you for picking up on that. You're my ideal reader, Mónica ! I agree with you 100%. It does seem like there is some way in which we are transformed by a second language, even if we don't necessarily feel it from day to day. I don't feel like a different person when I'm speaking Japanese; I still feel like the same Jeffrey that's here, speaking English with you right now. However, I realize that to the rest of the world outside it doesn't necessarily look the same. I had a psychologist friend of mine come and visit me when I was in Japan one time and I think she was, it was the second day I was there, I got a telephone call or something and I picked up the telephone and I started speaking in Japanese. And she pulled back physically like, and she said afterward I'm like, "What was the reaction about?" And she said, "You look like a different person. Your body language changes, you're bowing into the telephone and you're doing things that are Japanese. You don't look like the same person." I'm like, "I don't?" That was such a shock to me and it made me think a lot that was in my mind when I wrote this; that there's this kind of apparent slippage. Whether or not the person themselves feels it is a different question, I think, and certainly that's something relevant to translation as well. People are obsessed with the question of fidelity and even though the places where we're not being faithful to a text are sometimes the most interesting, sometimes the most productive, sometimes the most creative, sometimes the most strikingly original. Yeah, I wanted to problematize the idea of fidelity and realize that the translation, potentially the other voice does sometimes have its own semi, quasi-independence in a life outside of the original and that's what's really fascinating to me. I love the writer Yoko Tawada because she's written about that a lot, a lot. She has a German book called "Akzentfrei", accent-free, which talks about how terrible it would be if nobody spoke languages without accents. How accents, how the inflections of other languages into a second language enrich massively the language. It's a wonderful essay. I think Susan Bernofsky might've translated it, so. But yeah, it's wonderful. Bruna, Mónica?
Bruna: Yeah, that's such a tough question. Of course I am the same person, but I do feel different. I think because the language of my instruction was English, all my higher education was in English, I feel smarter in English, I feel like I can speak more eloquently about stuff I care about. And then when I'm talking to my mom about feminism or something, I'm constantly grasping for language. I've never had this conversation in this context. But there is also, I think, I guess I take different risks in different languages for this reason. In English I can take syntactical risks, risks with my diction. I can be the kind of person who is spewing out academicisms, and in Portuguese I take risks with my sense of humor, my sense of intimacy with people. I test boundaries maybe a little more, I can be a little bit more inappropriate more freely. But yeah, I also write about this idea that people perceive me differently in either language and I think the fact that people perceive me differently, that changes me. In English, people see me as a foreigner and that's always gonna make me wanna prove myself in a certain way that's always gonna want me to be, to present myself in a certain light. And in Brazil, I am just a kid, I'm just me walking around. So it's a different kind of need that comes out of the language, and then I also write about some of the things that you've mentioned, Jeffrey, like my mother doesn't recognize me in English and that's a particular kind of pain, a particular kind of situation. I write about it all the time, that she's like, "This is not the daughter I birthed", and "Who is this, what are these clothes?" It is just a matter of being code switching all the time. When you switch audiences, you have to switch the speech, whether you like it or not. Well, maybe now it's actually a good time to take some questions.
Allison: Such a skillful moderator you are, Bruna, thank you. Just such a wonderful conversation. And we do have some questions, but since you've been talking about her, Jeffrey, this is as good a time as any to mention that we have arranged for later in this conference, we will be speaking with Yoko Tawada and both of her translators, Margaret Mitsutani and Susan Bernofsky as well as her editors and others who have helped bring her to English-reading audiences. So we're very excited about that. Stay tuned, that will be posted on the Center for the Humanities site, but, just a little teaser first. So, one of the first questions that came in is you've all spoken about betraying languages, canons, expectations. Have you ever felt that your language has betrayed you?
Bruna: Curious to hear from you. Mónica, you wanna go first?
Mónica: Well, I don't think this question is going that, yeah, I don't think it's about this in particular. I think language betrays one sometimes when there's a lack of awareness of the history of certain terms. So as playful as we wanna be and as experimental as we wanna be, sometimes we also need to know what certain terms bring up in other people's minds. What histories, what they might be saying about certain privileges, what they might be saying about status, about class, et cetera, that it's not the language betrayed you; it's that you weren't aware of what you were actually saying. In other words, I do firmly believe that it is highly possible that what you think you're doing is not what the language is doing, which is exactly what happened in the review in "The New York Times" that Jeffrey was talking about. I think the author is saying one thing but the language is saying something completely different. Even the illustration for that review was highly problematic because it's... China with tigers and stuff and then very abrasive language that have a history and unfortunately, language is not just yours, or fortunately actually. It's fortunate that we can all actually use this tool to communicate with each other and supplement all these gaps in our knowledge and experience. So yeah, not sure that's where the question wanted me to go, but that's what came to mind.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I... That's a really complicated question to answer and a good one. I often feel like when I'm working in translation, some sense of betrayal, like that I'm disappointed that things don't work in English as well as I can possibly, as they work in the original in Japanese. I do feel like sometimes my own language here that I'm using, English, lets me down often. And also part of that actually is not actually the language letting me down. Part of it is sometimes reader expectations or editors' expectations about how experimental I can be, how much Japanese words I can throw in. To give one example, and I don't shamelessly self-plug; I translated a book called "A Book of the Dead" which is a novel written by a poet and it's set in the late 700s in old Japan and it's written in a combination of this very experimental, modernist Japanese but with tons of classical Japanese vocabulary from a 1,200 years ago thrown in. That kind of multi-layering of language within the original text was really difficult to figure out how to reproduce in English. Obviously the English language has a long history as well, but if were to go back and try to find the earliest Old English equivalents of words and throw then in where the text was where it was in the original, it would be completely unreadable text. So the things that I felt like I could do with English were so different than I was seeing happening in the text that I didn't know what to do with it and I struggle. This is actually the hardest thing that I've ever done; this particular translation, so. Yeah, so part of that has to do with the contours and also too, how far I can push readers.
Bruna: Yeah, I've definitely experienced both of these. I do have another instance of struggling with my language, I've even felt angry at my language, Portuguese, which is that I'm from a part of Brazil, the northeast, which is the poorest part of the country for colonialism reasons. I love being a little preachy, I'm sorry, but this is my chance to push my agenda. If you read "Open Veins of Latin America", you will see how sugarcane plantations devastated that part of the country and so now it's very poor, so the population is more uneducated, et cetera, because of circumstances. It is known in Brazil as very low-class, there's a lot of prejudice against it, a lot of xenophobia. If you go the metropolis like Sao Paolo and Rio, if you sound like you're from the northeast, there are a series of dialects that people from those places can have. I speak like that, I don't know any other Portuguese, I've studied other Portugueses, but that's the way I speak. So whenever I meet Brazilians in the US or abroad in general, they're like, "What, you talk like that?! That's so funny, I've never heard anyone speak Portuguese that way! Whoa, it's real!" So even with Brazilians, I suppose my compatriots, that kinship that I could have with language is lost. I sound like I have a thick accent which I do and I also have an accent in English, so all my languages are a little compromised and because it is also a colonial language, when, say, I am Portugal, I meet people who speak Portuguese also and they're like, "Whoa, your Portuguese is so good! How did you learn it?" You taught me, I didn't really have much of say. So like, that ship has sailed, literally. Yeah, so it doesn't feel like I own any of my languages. None of us own any of our languages but I do think some people get to feel like they do. And I don't; I'm a little jealous, so.
Mónica: Can I ask you something real quick? May I? Clarice Lispector's "Hour of the Star", right? So, Macabea is also from the northeast, right? Do you recognize, is Clarice Lispector writing her Portuguese in a way that you understand as your own?
Bruna: Oh yeah, totally. She really does and I feel for Macabea so much. There's a line in that book I love which is like, oh, you know, the dreams she has. Only a poor girl from the northeast think she could get these things; she really can't. And I'm like, yes, I know Macabea, Macabea's my soul.
Mónica: Right. I am Macabea, yeah.
Esther: We have one more question from the audience. This one comes in from Germany and I'll ask three of you. It's about your experiences with self-translation and the question is could self-translation be a solution to the problem of accessibility which was discussed earlier?
Jeffrey: Self-translation, yeah. First of all, the fact that you've mentioned self-translation. I just have to say that I've translated a lot of people along the way and when I sat down to actually translate myself for the first time, it was the most disorienting, kind of upsetting experience that I've ever experienced in translation. I wasn't expecting that because, after all, I sort of know what the author was thinking when he wrote it, right? I thought it should be super easy. However... I was confronted by the fact that when the English came out, I didn't like it, and I'm like, "Well, hold on a second, I think I know the author. Maybe I can ask him to change it." The slippage between what is the original and the translation is so great that I didn't know when to stop editing. And that's never happened before. With the translation, I kind of reach a certain point where I feel like I've refined it as well as I can do and within certain boundaries. But it was having the guard rail taken off of a really dangerous winding road. Do you know what I mean? I could drive right off the road if I wanted to and that was something that was very strange for me. Yeah. Certainly, one thing about self-translation, it does make the text available in another language in a kind of way that seems authoritative, I guess, so since the same person did it. Whether or not that's a good thing or not, I don't know. I have to say, though, that some other people when they've translated my work into English, I love seeing it, it's fascinating to me. I love having the mirror held up to me to show me what other people see in it, so.
Mónica: Absolutely, I completely agree with you. That is the most beautiful thing, when you go, "Oh wow, it could be read this way." That's what I try to do with myself, have this poem and reflect it through all these different mirrors and see what I could learn about this poem that I thought I knew everything about because it's not a difficult poem. I chose deliberately a very simple poem that still remains kinda mysterious to me as to how it came about or where it was going. But those 25 different translations say something totally different about it. I have never translated myself into Spanish, or maybe I did once, one tiny little text. I'd never had done it; maybe one day I will do it, but it feels like I already exhausted the impetus to circle around something that I did, so it just feels a little too solipsistic and one of the things I love about translation is getting into the mind of someone else and there's just so much to learn when doing that. So I don't think I will self-translate myself into Spanish. I do regret that I do not have a body of work in Spanish. That choice I made had repercussions, and so now I feel like I'm not really considered a Mexican poet, even though I am, because my body of work is primarily in English. But yeah, just the other things that always plays out here is that once you begin, once you say, "Okay, maybe I'm gonna try this", and then you try it and then you realize, "Oh, I don't need to follow the choices I made two years ago or 10 years ago when I wrote this thing. What if I take it in a different direction?" And then that, for me, always prevails and then that thing that began as a self-translation experiment then becomes a new work. And that's the energy that I prefer tapping into from now on, kind of, yeah.
Jeffrey: Just as one very quick follow-up; I love the fact that the dualism of original and copy gets completely distorted in the act of self-translation. I think that, actually, self-translation teaches us a lot about the artificiality of those power relations that exist within the act of translation. Or I should say the power relations that we constantly assume exist within the act of translation.
Allison: Well, unfortunately, we are out of time, but this has been such a wonderful conversation and we are going to continue a form of this conversation in the coming months. So please come back and thank you all for your participation today. 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 Theater Center. Thank you, 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.