Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 21 July 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 II
with Boris Dralyuk, Eric Tsimi, and Rajiv Mohabir
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 II livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 21 July 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).
Translating the Future continues its dismantling of the monolingual paradigm, inspired by Yasemin Yildiz’s landmark 2012 Beyond the Mother Tongue and the work of Bruna Dantas Lobato, this time with Cameroonian novelist Eric Tsimi, who writes in French and English and speaks a host of other languages, Boris Dralyuk, translator from the Russian and executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and poet, translator and memoirist Rajiv Mohabir.
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors.
Eric Tsimi is a Cameroonian novelist, playwright, and journalist and an assistant professor at Baruch College, City University of New York. His creative works include Migrant Diaries (2014), A Brief Eruption of Madness (2017) and El Africano (currently on the longlist of finalists for the Prix Hemingway 2020).
Rajiv Mohabir is the author of The Cowherd’s Son (Tupelo Press 2017, winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize; Eric Hoffer Honorable Mention 2018) and The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books 2016, winner of the Four Way Books Intro to Poetry Prize, Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry in 2017), and translator of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (1916) (Kaya Press 2019) which received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant Award. His memoir won the 2019 Reckless Books’ New Immigrant Writing Prize and is forthcoming 2021. Currently he is an Assistant Professor of poetry in the MFA program at Emerson College, translations editor at Waxwing Journal
Esther Allen: Hello and welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a professor at City University of New York, and I'm here with Alison Markin Powell who translates Japanese literature and works with the PEN Translation Committee. She and I are co-organizers of Translating the Future, the conference you're now attending. Many of us have spent the past several months in social distance quarantine, even so many places faced surging numbers of COVID-19 cases. It may seem as if only healthcare professionals are equipped to deal with this crisis, but those of us who work with languages may also be in a unique position to help. In a recent article in "WIRED Magazine" Gretchen McCullough called COVID-19 history's biggest translation challenge. Calling attention to the lack of language support around the world and online for health resources. McCullough notes, that many COVID translation projects are springing up all over the world. Adivasi Lives Matter has been making info sheets in languages of India, including Kodava, Marathi, and Oriya. Seattle's King County has been producing fact sheets in languages spoken by local immigrant, and refugee communities such as Amharic, Khmer and Marshallese. Virallanguages has been producing videos in languages of Cameroon, including Oshi, Aghem, and Bafut starring well-known community members as local influencers.
Allison Markin Powell: Translators without Borders and the Endangered Language Project are two additional groups that are providing these much needed resources to the public. Because our program has been reaching such a wide audience in so many countries and speak so many languages perhaps there are those among us who might be interested in working with one of these organizations.
Esther: Translating the Future will continue in its current form throughout the summer and into the fall. During the conference's originally planned dates in late September several larger scale events will happen. We'll be here every Tuesday until then with the week's hour-long conversation. Please join us next Tuesday at 1:30 for Channeling Ghost Languages of Europe, featuring Martin Puchner and Peter Constantine, and moderated by Tess Lewis. And remember to 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-Lachman and Larissa Keiser. For more information look for firstname.lastname@example.org. Today's conversation will be followed by a Q and A. Please email your questions for Boris Dralyuk, Eric Tsimi and Rajiv Mohabir to email@example.com. We'll keep questions anonymous unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name. And if you know anyone who was unable to join us for the live stream a recording will be available afterward on the HowelRound and the Center for the Humanities sites.
Esther: Before we turn it over to Boris, Eric And Rajiv we'd like to thank Bruna Dantas Lobato, whose panel at the 2019 American Literary Translators Association Conference served as inspiration for this miniseries. We'd also like to offer our sincere gratitude to our partners at the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, the Coleman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and PEN America. And also especially to the masters of Dark Zoom Magic at HowelRound who make this live stream possible. And now over to you, Boris, Eric And Rajiv.
Boris Dralyuk: Thank you for that lovely introduction Esther and Alison, and thank you for that very important announcement. I very much hope that people take it up. It's really a great pleasure to be here with two authors whose work I've have become familiar with over the past month or so, and have really kind of plunged into. And I think what we should do is begin with a little profile of each of us so we can offer our own linguistic background as the springboard for our conversation because I can only think in cliches and Proverbs. It occurred to me that the premise of this panel is motherless tongues, but it does take someone to raise a tongue and probably takes a village. So maybe we can start by talking about our entire linguistic villages, what makes up our individual tongues. And maybe we'll start with, with Rajiv.
Rajiv Mohabir: Yeah, thank you. This is a such a privilege and honor to be here, and I'm so grateful to be in conversation with you two, and to be asked to contribute to our conversation. And I liked the way that you phrase that. What are our linguistic villages? Where have these languages come from? I think that for me, like my migration history, my linguistic story is a little circuitous as well. My home language was, or is English and Guyanese Creole, and Guyanese Creole is the word that academics use to say what the language is, but the way we say it as Creolese. So my languages are English, Creolese, and a language called Hindustani. And Hindustani is a language that we call it from the inside. Outside people would say Caribbean Hindustani, Caribbean Hindi, Overseas Hindi, Guyanese Bhojpuri. And so these are the languages that I kind of come from. My grandparents on both my mother and father's side were last generation L1 speakers of Caribbean Hindustani. And they were also bilingual in Guyanese Creole, or Creolese, As well as my mom's dad also capable in the English language. And so my parents did not grow up speaking Hindustani or Hindi or anything like this, but we were so close to the cultural productions of the East Indian community in the Caribbean that the Sonic hauntings and quality of these languages very much filled our bodies.
Boris: Thank you for that beautiful response. And I love this topic that you've raised. The inside outside. What you yourselves call the language that you speak and what scholars have labeled it. I think that's a very crucial distinction, very interesting distinction. And we'll get back to that. And maybe that's where Eric can begin. What language do you speak? How would you describe your languages?
Eric Tsimi: First thank you for having me, I'm glad to add my 2 cents about the ongoing discussion. I specifically voice my experience as a writer and as a traveler, because it is a search as I first experienced my language, or my language identity, or who I am linguistically. When I traveled to Canada in Quebec more than 10 years ago as a student while writing my resume, I was asked by a classmate why I didn't mention any African language. She asked me, “do you speak African?” It was the first time I answer such a question with joy, but while growing up in Africa it was not common to mention my origin, or my mother tongue or native tongue, or as we put it, national tongue, because it is always intertwine. It's always related to identity and ethnicity. And to over that, we just talk about official language. French and English. I've always talk about myself as a French native speaker, which I'm not because my native tongues are Cameroonian, and in addition to French and these languages, I have a degree in classical languages, Latin. I studied Latin for seven years, but it's also something I cannot mention because it's like a scholar language, a dead language. It's not of daily use in my life. So, but this background, multicultural backgrounds help me today define, and finally choose to talk about, Camfranglais This is a pigeon, a French pigeon in Cameroonian. And because it is the identity linguistic, that defines me the best. So I'll talk about Camfranglais today.
Boris: Well, that's really fascinating. One thing that both of you, I think raised as the encounter with another speaker, another metricle that makes you reflect on what it is that you actually speak, what it is that makes up your own linguistic profile. I think that the same goes for me to a lesser degree. My linguistic background is not as complicated. I was born in a city in what is now Ukraine that at one point belonged to the Soviet Union—
Boris: No, close. Very close, Odessa, but very close. So I was born in Odessa, which was for a long time predominantly, or at least in large part, a Jewish city, but in a city in Ukraine, the primary language of which was Russian and that created a stew of interpolations. So, there was a lot of Yiddish inflection in the Russian spoken in Odessa, quite a bit of Ukrainian in terms of lexical items. Grammatically it was still more or less Russian, but Russian with a lot of peculiarities. But of course, I didn't realize that I was speaking a peculiar Russian as a child until I immigrated to the United States when I was eight years old. The pressure then was to learn English, but I was also part of a wave of Russian speaking emigres and the people around me, these Russian speaking children, pointed to the fact that I have an accent, that I misspoke, that I use the wrong words for basic items like a bag at a supermarket. And it was only then that I came to realize that even my Russian is peculiar. Not only am I peculiar as an immigrant to the United States, but also my Russian isn't really fully Russian and searching for a way to communicate the peculiarity of that, of that language, which has its own literary tradition, has its own spoken tradition to communicate that peculiarity in a recognizable way in English is one of the great pleasures of my life. And, Rajiv how about you? How do you communicate this mix of influences in poetry that is ostensibly English?
Rajiv: Very, very clumsily. I do a lot of surgery with blunt instruments. And so I think the way that I do it is I imagine my speaker, in whatever poem it is, actually stands at the crossroads of these kind of historic traditions and is constantly on the change, or riding the wave of evolution linguistically. When it comes to identity as well, because like Eric has said, so much of our identities in the Caribbean or in the world are defined by the languages that we speak and that we know, and the languages that we come from. Whether they're heritage languages that we no longer speak as second, third, fourth, fifth generation Indians, let's say in the Caribbean. And so for me, it's just a matter of where I see my speaker. I mean, I don't think my speakers are ever not Brown, if that makes sense. Like, they're never unmarked. And, and I think that the act of whether or not I intentionally mark them, this is more a subconscious or connection with my subconscious way of thinking through language or whatever problematic it is that I'm trying to like diffuse or loosen through a poem. Poems, have that elasticity.
I was asked by a classmate why I didn't mention any African language. She asked me, “do you speak African?” It was the first time I answer such a question with joy, but while growing up in Africa it was not common to mention my origin, or my mother tongue or native tongue.
Boris: Oh, yes.
Rajiv: I’m thankful for that.
Boris: And maybe this would be a good time to perhaps offer a bit of your poetry just so that we have a concrete example of what you're communicating.
Rajiv: Yeah, sure. So, I know that Esther wanted me to read from the translations that I did, "I Even Regret Night". So maybe I'll do that in just a bit, because like more pertinent to our conversation is this. So, C.D Wright in "An American Cooling Time, an American Poetry Vigil" talks about the work that a form can do for invigorating the history of a poem. And so I was thinking about this book specifically when I gave myself this kind of parameters for writing these poems that I'm about to read here, or a poem that I'm gonna read to you. And through it I was thinking, what is the language, or what is the poetic form that is native to my community? And yes, there's the English language poetry that is from... It was the 1930s that people in my community started to write in English and to publish under the umbrella of the colonial hegemonic powers at play. And these were the British folks who had sugarcane colonies all over the world. And from that a very syncretic kind of musical tradition was born that mixed beats that were descended of Africa, as well as Hindustani, or Indian lyrics and thinking. And so this kind of music in the '60s was burgeoning at the time of the decolonization movements that were happening in the Caribbean. And so for me, this type of song, and they're called chutney songs represent this kind of both the nexus, as well as the kind of like free liberation. And so since these traditions are mostly oral, I was like, okay, I'm gonna be doing a violence by putting them down onto paper. So this is a violence attempt, but I think that I want to kind of shake up that idea of stasis and to think continually about what it means to be in movement. The first poem that I'll read for you is called, "The Po-Co Kid" as in the post-colonial kid. And so the thing about the chutney poem is that it starts with a chorus that's in Hindustani, in the Hindustani that my grandmother spoke, and then at the very end I translate it for you. It's written in 14 lines to mimic the structure of that colonial education that we came through of the sonnet, as well as including words and phrases in English, as well as Creolese. So this is kind what the creation is speaking from. "The Po-Co Kid."
[Rajiv begins reading the poem, which begins with a sentence in Hindustani.]
Let's get one thing queer. I'm no Sabu-like sidekick. I'm the main drag. Ram ram in a sari, Salaam on the street. I don't speak Hindu, Paki or Indian. Can't control minds. Have no psychic powers. I clip my yellow nails at dusk. On Saturday nights I shave my head. Forgive me, Shivah. Forgive me, Saturn. I'm Coolie on Liberty Ave, Desi in Jackson Heights, where lights spell “Season's Greetings” to cover Christmas, Diwali, and Eid. Where white folks in ethnic aisles ask, "Will your parents arrange your bride?" While ma and I scope out fags, yaf and laugh while aunties thread our eyebrows. The subaltern cannot speak. Representation has not withered away.
[The poem ends.]
So, that last couplet is the translation, like I said, of the original verse and that I've taken from Gayatri Spivak's essay and translated it into this Hindustani language that is not even written down sensibly. And so I'm gonna read another one, just so there's more of a of crossroads of language and sound, if that's okay. If you both will humor me?
Boris: Absolutely, absolutely. I already have several questions, but yes, please.
Rajiv: This poem is called "Coolie". And so coolie, you know, is, well, maybe you don't know is a derogatory name that's been ethnicized in the Caribbean to represent people of South Asian descent. It also describes a kind of labor that replaced slavery after the transatlantic slavery slave trade was abolished by the British in 1934. The crown turned it's greedy eye to the jewel of its crown, which was India, so to speak. Look, quite literally the jewels of the British crown came from India. So, this talks a little bit about that. Things you need to know. Aja means my dad's dad.
[Rajiv begins reading the poem, which begins with a sentence in Hindustani.]
With this whip-scar iron shackle name Aja contract-bound, whole day cut cane, come night he drink up rum for so until he wine-up and pitch in the trench's black water and cry Oh Manager! Until sugar and pressure claim his two eye. The backra manager laugh we. So come so done. I was born a crab-dog devotee of the silent God, the jungle God, the crosser-of-seas. White tongues licked the sweet Demerara of my sores. Now stateside Americans erase my indenture story. Call me Indian. Can't they hear kalapani in my voice? My breath's marine layer when I say? They made us hold the name coolie. Like a cutlass, it bit us coming to Guyana.
Boris: Yes, powerful.
Eric: It reminds me of a French poet from French overseas, from Guadeloupe whose name is Guy Tirolien. Because of the tone it sounds like a prayer, and it deals with a lot of concepts we are interested in when we talk about language. I mean, metropolis, and I don't know if Boris used this word purposefully when he says pressure because when you use the word pressure I was thinking of a political discussion about betrayal and I would add from my own experience, the feeling of guilt sometimes. It change over the times a few years ago, a few decade ago. This guilt was because of, it was like a shame of speaking our own language, but at some point it change. It has become a desire of assume how multilingual background, both French, but I'm also Camfranglais. And that's why what I want to share with you today is a song, because Camfranglais doesn't... It exists, it is widely used in our literature, but as a way of decorating, of improving, of making the French literature more exotic, more vigorous. But from my standpoint it's not Camfranglais just dialect. It's used in the advertisement, in the media, and more and more in social medias where we have people who are followed by thousands of people by whitings series and short stories. So why we did think that it's in Cameroon, in some countries in Africa, people were not very into reading? I have come to think that it really depends on what you give to people. If you succeed in touching, in addressing the issues, if there can identify to our discourse, they will love your heart. So, this song, in just the last 20 minutes, it's written in Camfranglais, but I will share the caption in Camfranglais. We recognize English word, as will the French native speaker French word, but it won't make sense neither for you, nor for the French speaker. Is why I think that is not French slang. Is a language, a full-blown language. I will share my screen in just a minute.
Technical. Okay. Oh, it was disabled. It works, it works, okay.
[Eric shows a video of a woman performing a song in Camfranglais. The song is “Le Ndem” by Lydol.]
Eric: Well, I've stopped sharing because the most important parts was actually the lyrics. I want us to read together these lyrics. It's the rough equivalent of flash fiction and spoken word. Not spoken word poetry, because it can be poetry, but also short stories. And in this case it is short stories, and she called it slam because it can be a synonym of spoken word. But if you have the opportunity to listen, to read the lyrics, you'll see that this whole text can be translated into French and into English without having to just borrow as we do when we write. For example, when we write novels, because we are aiming, our how goal is to reach a specific audience readership. We have to change a lot of things, we have to make our writing more polished, more acceptable, which is not the case when we listen to the music, because it's a sight of empowerment. When we sing in Africa, we don't try to mimic what American or French do. When we write, when we do translate we want to speak, to write as French people do. It's why, for a linguistic approach of the cultural fact in Cameroon, you have to adopt kind of interpretable awareness, which consists of immersed into her music, and this is precisely what I am doing in my teachings, and also in my consolation. I don't try when translating to put a glossary at the end, or to use, or just to borrow the words that I did not. That don't exist in the target language, but I tried to find words because I think that is the different language. And by trying to just pickiness of words, we don't enrich the Camfranglais. We just serve the French, the English, and the main languages.
Boris: So yeah, I would love to take a look at the lyrics.
Eric: Yes. Yeah. I can share the lyrics right now. Okay, that's it. Can you read it?
[The lyrics appear on the screen. They read as follows.]
Je ne know pas si c'est seulement chez moi hein
Mais, Gars il y a les days où tu te lèves le Chap tu begin à wanda que rien dans ta life ne waka
Que Oooh même les peyi frères qui au Kwatt te Kotè le café begin à te call waka
Tu begin à sciencer sur all les faux ways que tu as pu do
Tu wanda que tu veux do un mbindi way mais gars il y a pas les dos
I sayy heinn c'est encore quel way qu'on te brass pour n'importe quoi ?
Mbindi way on te bloque
Pourquoi les gars ya mo le bahat comme ça ?
I say heinn la vie ci c'est même quoi noor ?
Moi je wanda mon frère ça c'est même quoi ?
Les gars ont le sang à l'oeil
Tu t'amuses on te blesse
Tout est une histoire de Lass
Tu ne veux pas tu laisses
Eeeh i say heinn donc la vie cii c'est ça ?
Aaaah je n'étais pas prête mon frère ça c'est même quoi ?
C'est le ndem x3
C'est le ndem perika c'est le ndem eeeeh c'est le ndem
C'est le ndem x2 eeeeh
C'est le ndem peyi sœur c'est le ndem eeeh c'est le ndem
Eric: Mince, okay. Mince is a French word is an injection, but in this case, it is not. It's like it has a phatic function. Like for example, when you tell a fairy tale, there is like a formula beginning, once upon a time. So mince, am I drawing the attention of the listener? If you try, just to consider it as a borrowing of the French, you won't understand the whole thing. So for example, you can't recognize English word in every, in the lyrics in any lines in the verse, but it's not just about the vocabulary. For example, when we see life, there is a compound word. These the come from two words. Water, work, functions, and also wonder, but it has a different meaning and a different value. And this word tell different stories from what you have been used to talk about them. It's beautiful wording but I what such a story, and it will be considered as to be rotten or broken French, as we say, rotten or broken English, but it is not. Once again, it's beautiful wording. It is the tone, the rhythm, is just about... Once you know, you understand this language, it sounds much more beautiful and when you consider it to be just dialect, the French dialect or anything. So this is the lyrics. For example, when she says “Les gars ont le sang à l'oeil.” In French it doesn't make sense. And also, I want to just show you, we don't have a lot of time, but it's not just spoken used by a Cameroonian. There's a great writer whose name is Nicolas Fargues. Four years ago he wrote "Attache le coeur,” the title of his novel "Attache le coeur.” When I first read the titles, it reminds me of Salinger, "The Catcher in the Rye.” The French translation is “L'attrape-coeurs." But, I knew that it was a Camfranglais phrase, and at some point I read a review of the novel, and by a French scholar. You can find it on by Google, just Apela, Daniel and the title of the novel. He found the novel to be great. He had a lot of superlatives, but at the end, he once had that the title doesn't serve the, because it was enigmatic, it was his world, but it was not for someone who knew how, because "Attache le coeur" is just way of saying that be prepared to what I will be telling to you. It's the performative way in the same way as in the beginning of this song, the opening line is mince. Be prepared. I'm about to talk about something. So, the thing is French has to be, the French language, more inclusive of all these varieties of French. When you open the Word document for example, you have Français de France, Français de Belgique (Belgium), Français de Québec, but you all don't have anything about Français de Afrique. And in Africa you have not only Creole, but also for example, in Ivory Coast, Nushi it is also like Camfranglais. Nusi is a different language and by including more French word in the dictionary they would make easier for the people, for the readers, for the audience to understand the way people practice French in Africa, for example.
Rajiv: No, I really like what you're saying about these languages that exist having their own kind of full blown-ness or their own kind of a semantic integrities that are different from French. You know, in the Caribbean, there's like a deep and long intellectual tradition of thinking about nation languages as these Englishes that are spoken that are non-normative to the empire, let's say. And I think that what you're articulating is really interesting too, because what I see is like a through line, is a state of internists, or a blending kind of space, or like an eco tone or a contact zone. And I really appreciate you sharing that song as well. And continuing this thought of internists, I know that you, Boris, I know that you write in nonfiction mode as well as poetry and translation. And I'm just wondering how in your experience does that come together for you?
Boris: I really appreciate that question. And I think it actually gets back to a question of mine that I've been waiting to ask from the beginning that has just kind of snowballed in my mind, which is, and something that Eric brought up, and that you too hinted at, the role of poetry and translation in creating a recognition for languages that are dismissed as dialects or corruptions or idiolects. And basically training the audience to appreciate, through pleasure often, through great emotional rewards, a certain language for which they simply didn't have the appreciation before. I do write nonfiction. I feel nonfiction is a tool of in the same toolkit. What it does is it creates a kind of entry point for people into a tradition that they may at first shrink from, because it seems too unfamiliar. But if you do it right, if you set something up correctly, either through, as you do by using a 14 line form that is immediately recognizable to the eye and kind of welcomes the reader to the page, or through a nonfiction introduction, or through a pop song in a classroom, you're welcoming people into a tradition that they can then breathe freely in. So, all of these things in my mind are intertwined. All of the very minor roles I play both as a reviewer and as a blogger, which is the most motherless form of writing. And as a poet of and as a translator, all of these things blend together there, I think are meant to welcome people to a small peculiar world that is actually much bigger than they think. I don't know if that answers your question.
Rajiv: Yeah, I do. It does because the way I think about this is like, well, when I sit around and tell stories with my family, it's not just in one genre.
Boris: Yes, yes, yes.
But if you do it right, if you set something up correctly, either through ... a nonfiction introduction, or through a pop song in a classroom, you're welcoming people into a tradition that they can then breathe freely in... What it does is it creates a kind of entry point for people into a tradition that they may at first shrink from, because it seems too unfamiliar.
Rajiv: A lot of it is fiction, let me tell you. And then song and poems, like it all exists in that same kind of space. And I wonder if that's what it means to kind of like stand at the nexus of all of these different kinds of linguistic traditions and heritages, and et cetera.
Boris: In my case, again, it's slightly different. The primary contribution I could make as a translator is creating a flexible and welcoming English form for a literature that I value, but that even in the original metropolitan system is kind of secondary or tertiary. This kind of Odessan criminal ballads, let's say. In translating these into English I do mostly post them through my blog because what journal would ever accept such a thing? But what I do is I create a narrative around them that's as warm and as welcoming, and as informative as I could make it, but without introducing too much context, just enough, and then I find an English that already exists that has its own tradition and try to meld these two traditions of partly through linguistic links and partly through genetic links. A lot of these songs that were composed, kind of folk compositions, or authored compositions, in Odessa in the 1920s about the underworld there. Well, you know, similar songs and similar stories were being composed in the Lower East side of New York in the 1920s around the same time, by largely the same population who had just immigrated to a different country. And so, because there is already a tradition of that in English, I have a nice cozy mattress on which to plop, and a nice pool of resources from which to draw in order to give these things life in English. But you're absolutely right. This mix of genres, this half lie, half truth. These are the compromises that we make when we speak, much less when we sit down to translate.
Rajiv: That sounds beautiful. Can you give us an example from your own, writing?
Eric: There’s the mix of languages also because I have noticed that you use French, at least as a graphic in a lot of your work. You are a Francophile, I don't like this word because it's like fetishes. I was wondering-
Boris: I’m a franco-fake.
Eric: Yes, franco-fake. It has a particular function or it just comes, like is it your background and when you write you do what is just comes more easy possibly, or it's just something that you cannot prevent or train yourself to do when you write poem, for example, I think of mince [audio unclear 41:30] we just read.
Boris: I really appreciate that question, too. I think that in the case of poetry, I don't write very much of it, but when I do write it, it is… Like Rajiv, I try to communicate through form of you quoted Wright so effectively, I try to communicate through form a different background, even when the form seems completely identical to a form that already exists in English. So, in my case, I'm really drawn to what is called Onegin stanza which is a 14 line form. It looks like a sonnet when you first glance at it, but it's rooted in the Russian tradition, in the Russian literary tradition, and it's unmistakable when you take a closer look. You know exactly where it comes from. And so the challenge of creating something that from far away looks like a sonnet, but from closeup is unmistakably Russian is something I really appreciate, and really thrive in that structure. I'll share a kind of a typical silly blog post and show you what I do. So, let's share this one. Actually, let me, yeah, this is a good one. No, let's go all out. I'm gonna issue a trigger warning, okay? There's literally a gun in here and all kinds of other bad things, but it's a song that, first let's hear the Russian with a little nice clip performed by one of the Soviet Union's brightest stars, Vladimir Vysotsky and also darkest stars. It's quick.
[Boris plays the clip. It is called “Высоцкий - Раз пошли на дело я и Рабинович…” The English translation of the lyrics is as follows.]
We went to pull a job, me and Rabinovich,
but Rabinovich had to knock one back —
after all, why shouldn’t a poor Jew wet his whistle,
if he ain’t as busy as all that?
Boris: Okay. So that's enough, just a little taste. I can play the whole thing for you, and I would gladly do that, but we're running out of time. So, the first thing that any Russian speaker notices about this performance is first of all, it's acoustic and it's intimate, and it's kind of conspiratorial in its tone, but it's also full of Yiddish-isms, for instance, uses the word gelt instead of money. So, automatically at the performer is larding the text with indications that it comes from a different tradition or that it's a mix of traditions. It's not your pure standard Russian romance. It has a Jewish element. It's an underworld song. And the, the Yiddish-ness of it, as well as the pronunciation where certain vowels are made softer or a little less pointy also indicates that it's from Odessa because Odessa has this mix of Ukrainian and Yiddish sounds to its vowels that no other Russian-speaking place has. So what I try to do is, because I'm an inveterate reader of hard-boiled detective novels and all of this stuff, I recognize the tradition in the Russian, and I find a tradition, analogous tradition in the English. So, the way I translated it is, “we went to pull a job me and Robinovich, but Rabinovich had to knock one back. After all why shouldn't a poor Jew wet his whistle if he ain't as busy as all that? So's to get a stiff one, and a bit of tzimmes we ducked into a rundown little joint. There we saw her, Surka, and she had a pistol underneath her skirt loaded with shot.” Now, that immediately is I think, for anyone who reads hard-boiled detective novels brings all of that to the fore. All of that language, all of that intonation, those grammatical quirks, but it also throws in the Jewish elements. So, I couldn't get “gelt” to work in the context, but I have “tzimmes" here. So, those are the compromises that thrill me. So, I'll stop sharing now because well, I'm embarrassed to, to issue yet more trigger warnings.
Eric: When I was reading this piece I think of Vidofsky because I've never heard of Vysotsky and I was wondering if you are familiar with Vidofsky too, because really when you come to linguistic and someone, especially dialogical theory, I've worked a lot with Vidofsky. It has nothing to do for sure, but I just wanted to notice that.
Boris: The underworld knows no barriers and boundaries. That kind of language knows no barriers and boundaries, and travels very freely just as the people who perpetrate crimes travel very freely. You have the same tradition in of course, the United States, but then it made its way very easily through into France, and from there spread around the Francophone world. Okay, we're getting very criminal. And I know it's time to stop.
Esther: Listening to all three of you I keep thinking about this idea of a linguistic elsewhere, that you're all haunted by and in all these different ways. For Boris it's the linguistic elsewhere of Odessa, which probably no longer exists even linguistically in the way that you're describing it. Oh, it still does, okay.
Boris: As of last year, there were still echoes of it.
Esther: Oh, okay. But echoes of it, right? So, it too is being linguistically transformed. And for you, there's this sequence, Rajiv, of linguistic elsewheres that go all the way back to the Indian subcontinent, but then come via the Caribbean. Whereas with your work, Eric it's like you're inhabited by these Francophone and Anglophone elsewheres that have colonized you as opposed to... It's like the immigrant experience versus the colonial experience, right? There are different layers there. So, all of that is leading to a question, which I think is for Eric which is about the impact. You've chosen a pop culture example. To what degree is this pop culture that this Camfranglais pop culture influenced by say the pop culture of the United States? Is the pop culture of the United States present there? Is it impactful? Is there a strong connection there?
Eric: Yes, there is. Obviously it is. Whenever we talked about hiphop have a lot of American references, but I do refer to the Africans in France, in this music, because it is quite obvious that when, for example, what I talk, what I call the spoken word, short stories, the spoken word poetry is she tries to mimics what happened in the Western world. But, she goes beyond that. Beyond the colonial because in the lyrics which you will notice a lot of poetic phrase drawn from our linguistic backgrounds. For example right now there is a crisis in Cameroon between Anglophone and Francophone speaker, because the use of these languages are so... These languages are become national languages. They are no longer just administrative official is the reason why the French speaking Cameroonian, the English speaker feels dominated by the French speaking part of Cameroon. And we have this sense that how country forced into tribe, why they don't value, how our own linguistic background? So this is contracted story is paradoxical, but that's the way it is actually in this moment.
Allison: I have a question. I'm gonna see if I can articulate it myself. I think it's sort of for Boris and Rajiv, I know that you work more actively as translators, but since you're talking about the way that you're working in, you're utilizing all of these other languages, that you have access to in your original work, but then when you're working on translations, when you're working as a translator, do you feel the need to sort of choose one, or it sort of narrows your? Does that happen or are you able, still able to sort of pull from these other threads?
Boris: A brilliant question, so I'll let Rajiv answer.
Rajiv: When it came to translating, "I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara" which was a text written in 1916, the only firsthand account of indentured labor in the Anglophone Caribbean, as I was thinking through this, I had come up with this problematic that actually when these songs are translated in the community they're not translated into just a safe, sanitized English. Rather they are translated into Creolese first, and then the migration to English may happen, or it may not. The idea then is like what is the gist? And so for me as like a translator, I confronted this kind of story or the truth as I was giving a reading of my translations and people were like, well, could you translate it into Creolese? And so onstage, I'm there with the book in my hand, and I just, okay, yeah, let me try it. And then I did, and then it just, it opened up a whole new world of understanding this. And so the press was really taken by this as well. And they were like, have a section of the book where you've also translated it into Creolese. And so, thinking about translation as just a migration from one place to another, I think is no longer a reality. And so I want so much for this text to also be kind of instructive for the next generation of people who want to speak this language. And so part of the charge of it all is it's a bilingual, trilingual thing. I can't wait for the next generation of Caribbean poets to translate this book in their own idiom. I don't think I really answered your question, but it was a funny situation.
Esther: And now your, Boris. Your turn to answer the question.
Boris: I think that, Rajiv, you get at something that also affects me or a consideration that I always also make is what is the intent of the original? If the original was written in a type of Russian that wasn't meant to conform to the standard rules. In fact, was meant to be a breath of fresh air. It was meant to expose people to something new. Why would I translate it into an English that is meant to fit a very easy paradigm? I mean, that just doesn't make any sense to me. And especially when it comes to the work of someone like Isaac Babel who's a hometown hero of mine from Odessa. When, when he appeared on the scene in the 19 teens and '20s the striking thing about him was precisely his mastery, both of standard Russian, that was clear, that was beyond doubt, but his incredibly fine ear for a different kind of storytelling and a different kind of language. The language of Odessa's streets. And so when translating something like that into English to make it sound like any old translation of Chekhov, or Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky just doesn't do the trick. So, it's important to find a language that is bracing and I hope to have found it. Although, of course, I am picking from the tradition, but so it was Babel, he was also picking from the tradition, just recombining it in new and interesting ways.
Esther: Follow up question for all three of you, which is that you're all three describing this beautiful multilingual utopia where everyone accepts infinite forms, and varieties, and combinations, and multiplicities. And yet something tells me that that might not exactly be the world that we are living in. And I'm just wondering if you'd like to comment on any kinds of pushback that you've gotten. Oh, no, that's not right. Oh, no Camfranglais is not a language. Oh, no, you can't have all these combinations. The language police, encounters with language police.
Boris: I think Eric would probably have.
Eric: Yes. I started by saying that now Camfranglais the start of this aggression of the French, of the colonial languages. We do use this language is spoken in rebuttal, to make French an obituary, is another obituary of French as we knew it. And so we kind of claim how our own use, our distortion of the language and how reinvention of a different, a new language. So it is just, as you say, there are many trends, many identities, and they are the establishment, the major press in France keep very conservative about the use of French. Unlike, for example, with like the Portuguese, for example. The French, there is a geographical notion standard. When you think of French you think of Paris. Sure there is Quebec or Switzerland but the metropolis remains Paris. And I think that my generation, we are trying to explode this conception of a language of French as a colonial legacy. But we have appropriate, we consider it to be our own language now, as of now.
Rajiv: Yeah, so even the thinking of these languages like Creolese and Hindustani in my family, we really have like taken deep the kind of monikers that were bestowed upon us as these are broken languages. We speak broken Hindi, we speak broken English. We are essentially broken from the fracture of colonization. But, you know, it's true. Like people will read something in Creolese, and be like, ugh, why is this being published? But it's such an act of resistance, I think. And I've been lucky in kind of like my publishing history to kind of find a place and have folks who believe in this kind of work, but it's a very rare time that I am performing or reading in a place where people can latch on to everything. And I think that's beautiful because I think that opening up the world in this way is one way of dreaming this utopia to be, you know? I kind of think about that and what it means to have a platform in the United States. What it means for my community specifically.
Boris: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly. My situation is not nearly as perilous or as fraught when translating into, into English, but I do run across the language police would tell me that something is either too American, or too Yiddish, or too this, or too that. Publishers generally, but publishers are very, very ineffective policemen and very weak batons that just kind of droop comically.
Esther: It depends.
Boris: It depends, but in my experience, I've been able to withstand their pressure. My goal is always to plant the flag way beyond what they see as the boundary. Lead people all the way out there, past this magic circle that doesn't actually exist of the standard English, or the standard French, or the standard any other language. Just demonstrate that that is an illusion. It's a helpful one. It helps us communicate in everyday life, but when we sit down with a piece of writing, or sit down to listen to a song that changes our entire world, we're not thinking about the standard. We're thinking about where it's taking us, the destination.
Esther: Right. Thank you so much for what has been a thrilling, and boundary-transcending conversation. Taking us to unexpected destinations. We're at the end of our hour so we have to say goodbye, but this has been absolutely fantastic. So, thank you so much to all three of you.
Allison: Yes. Thank you all so much. And once again, we'd like to thank our partners. HowelRound, PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Coleman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the Martin E Segal Theatre Center. I hope to see you next week.
Boris: Thank you.
About this Conference and Conversation Series
Translating the Future launched with weekly hour-long online conversations with renowned translators throughout the late spring and summer and will culminate in late September with several large-scale programs, including a symposium among Olga Tokarczuk's translators into languages including English, Japanese, Hindi, and more.
The conference, co-sponsored by PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center CUNY, and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, with additional support from the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, commemorates and carries forward PEN's 1970 World of Translation conference, convened by Gregory Rabassa and Robert Payne, and featuring Muriel Rukeyser, Irving Howe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many others. It billed itself as "the first international literary translation conference in the United States" and had a major impact on US literary culture.
The conversations are hosted by Esther Allen & 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Vijay Mathew at +1 917.686.3185 Signal/WhatsApp. View the video archive of past events.