Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 18 August 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
Motherless Tongues, Multiple Belongings III
with Janet Hong, Pierre Joris & María José Giménez
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 III livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 18 August 2020 at 10:30 a.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7) / 12:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 1:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 18:30 BST (London, UTC +1) / 19:30 CEST (Berlin, UTC +2).
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 writer and translator from the Korean, Janet Hong; poet, essayist, editor, and translator from various languages, Pierre Joris; and poet, translator and editor from Spanish and French María José Giménez.
Guest co-host, Samantha Schnee.
Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. She received the 2018 TA First Translation Prize for her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale, which was also a finalist for both the 2018 PEN Translation Prize and the 2018 National Translation Award. Her recent translations include Ha Seong-nan’s Bluebeard's First Wife, Yeon-Sik Hong’s Umma’s Table, and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass.
Pierre Joris has moved between Europe, the US & North Africa for some 55 years now, publishing as many books of poetry, essays, translations and anthologies — most recently A City Full of Voices: Essays on the Work of Robert Kelly (co-edited with Peter Cockelbergh & Joel Newberger, CMP), Arabia (not so) Deserta (Essays, Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2019); Conversations in the Pyrenees with Adonis (CMP 2018), and The Book of U (poems, with Nicole Peyrafitte, Editions Simoncini 2017). Forthcoming in 2020 : Fox-trails, -tales & -trots: Poems & Proses (Black Fountain Press); Microliths: Posthumous Prose of Paul Celan, from CMP & The Collected Earlier Poetry of Paul Celan from Farrar Straus Giroux. When not on the road, he lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia praticienne Nicole Peyrafitte.
María José Giménez is a poet, translator, and editor whose work has received support from the NEA, the Studios at MASS MoCA, the Breadloaf Translators’ Conference, Canada Council for the Arts, and Banff International Literary Translators’ Centre. Among other awards, María José has been named 2019–2021 Poet Laureate of Easthampton, Massachusetts. Learn more.
Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders. From 2014-2017 she was a trustee of English PEN, where she chaired the Writers in Translation Committee, tasked with disbursing the PEN Translates and PEN Promotes grants. Her translation of Carmen Boullosa's Texas: The Great Theft (Deep Vellum, 2014) was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and shortlisted for the PEN America Translation Prize. She won the 2015 Gulf Coast Prize in Translation for her excerpt of Carmen Boullosa’s The Conspiracy of the Romantics and recently completed a translation of Boullosa’s latest novel, The Book of Anna.
Esther Allen: Hello, and welcome. I'm Esther Allen, a professor at City University of New York. And my co-host today is Samantha Schnee, who many of you will recognize from our Week 9 program on what the future has brought to 21st century translation. Samantha is a prize winning translator from The Spanish, and founding editor of the indispensable web magazine, Words Without Borders. She's also a co-organizer of Translating the Future, the conference you are now attending. The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is one of the worst on Earth, made even more dire by the global pandemic. But it's been going on for so long, it barely makes the news. Venezuelans are slowly starving to death, with 90% of the country living below the poverty line, perilously short of food and losing weight. About 4.5 million Venezuelans out of a population of 32 million have fled, leading to a massive refugee crisis in neighboring countries. A situation as dire and prolonged as this one can lead to a phenomenon known as compassion exhaustion, in which the crisis itself is gradually accepted as a kind of norm.
Samantha Schnee: Doctors Without Borders has long done valuable work both inside Venezuela, where they have recently established a COVID-19 Clinic in Caracas, and among Venezuelan refugees outside the country. One effective way to take action on behalf of Venezuela's desperate and beleaguered people is to support the work Doctors Without Borders is doing there. Words Without Borders, the website I helped to found published a special issue on Venezuela in 2014, when the situation there was already catastrophic. In that issue, you'll find Standings Stones, a haunting poem by Maria Auxiliadora Alvarez, translated by Catherine Hammond. It begins, “Everything I want to tell you, son, is that you should go through suffering. If you come to its shore, if it's shore comes to you, enter it's night and let yourself sink. It's gulp may drink you down, it's foam overwhelm you, let go, let yourself go. Everything I want to tell you, son, on the other side of suffering, another shore lies.” You can read the rest of the poem and more wonderful work from Venezuela, including an interview with today's guest, María José Jimenez, on wordswithoutborders.org.
Esther: Today’s conversation, in the 15th week of Translating the Future, is the third and final installment in our mini series, Motherless Tongues, Multiple Belongings. We welcome writer and translator Janet Hong, who's joining us from Vancouver, Canada, poet and translator Pierre Joris, whose collection of the earlier poetry of Paul Celan will be published next month by Farrar, Straus Giroux, and María José Jimenez, a writer and translator who is the current poet laureate of East Hampton, Massachusetts. You can find out more about these three wonderful people and their illustrious achievements on the Center for the Humanities website.
Samanatha: As usual, a Q&A session will follow today's conversation. Please email your questions for Janet, Pierre and María José, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep questions anonymous unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name. Translating the Future will continue in its current form through September. During the conference's originally planned dates in late September, several 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, August 25th, for Language is Polis with Vatasha Diggs, Marianne Newman and Madeline Cohen, and keep checking the Center for the Humanities site for future events. 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 Lynn Miller-Lachmann, and Larissa Kyzer. For more information, look for translation resources at pen.org.
Esther: If you know anyone who was unable to join us for the live stream today, a recording will be available afterward on the HowlRound and Center for the Humanities sites. Before we turn it over to Janet, Pierre and María José, we'd like to offer our utmost 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 especially to the masters of dark Zoom magic at HowlRound, who make this livestream possible. And now, Pierre, Janet, and María José, over to you.
Janet Hong: Thank you, Esther, Samantha, for that introduction. Thank you to everyone who's here today and thank you especially to Pierre and María José. Really, I'm so honored to be in conversation with you. Since our topic is Motherless Tongues, I thought it'd be good to start by discussing how we've arrived at the languages that we live and work in, or as I like to say, how we've come into our linguistic baggage. In the spirit of transparency, when Alison Martin Powell first invited me to be part of this Roundtable, I was torn. Though I was super grateful for the invitation, I also felt incredibly uncomfortable talking about this topic, because it surfaced so many anxieties for me around translation as an immigrant, a heritage translator and a person of color. All this to say, I'm actually very thankful for this opportunity because it forced me to do a lot of digging and inner work that I've been putting off for a long time. But before getting into the discomfort that I had to work through, that I'm currently working through, I'll begin by talking about my own linguistic baggage. I was born in Incheon, Korea, which is a city that borders Seoul, which makes Korean my mother tongue. When I was four, our family moved to Seattle, and then to Vancouver, Canada, where I attended kindergarten. We moved back to Korea and I finished up kindergarten, I started attending elementary school there, and at the age of seven, we immigrated to Canada for good. At the time of immigration, Korean was still my dominant language. I had not yet acquired English, which meant that I had to go through ESL and all that. But I very quickly assimilated. I lost my accent, became a Canadian citizen, and English became my dominant language. I continued to speak Korean at home, but I had stopped working at it by that point, I had stopped reading Korean books. So, Korean basically stayed at a 2nd grade level for me, and it was sort of relegated to the language of childhood. In English though, it was my language of instruction. I could articulate more complicated thoughts in English, and though I always liked reading, and I was always around books, it was actually in English that I fell in love with the act of reading. I think the world of books became a haven for me, and it was also in English that I dreamed of becoming a writer one day. So, I studied English Lit in college, I started taking some creative writing courses, and I think it was maybe in my third year of college, that I had this major realization that I didn't know anything about Korean literature, or Korea's literary history, and that being part of my heritage, I felt like I needed to find out. So I took an elective, a Korean language course, and it was this course that actually changed the trajectory of my life. For the end-of-term project, we had to pick a Korean short story and translate it into English. This was my project. My mom at the time, she was reading a collection of short stories, newly published from Korea, and she loved it, and she recommended that I translate, I try translating the title story of that collection. And it was through working on that story, translating that first story, that I realized I could combine two deeply personal things about my identity, the fact that I wanted to pursue creative writing, and the fact that I was from elsewhere, from Korea. So I finished that project, I submitted it, and my professor actually encouraged me to submit it to the Korea Times Modern Korean Literature Transition Contest. That's a mouthful, but I did, and to our utter shock, I ended up receiving the grand prize for that translation. And I have sort of been in transition ever since. So, that's my journey in a nutshell, and just from our email exchanges alone, it seems our stories and experiences of our mother tongue and our step-mother tongues are quite different. So, Pierre, would you like to go next?
Pierre Jorris: Sure. I am born by mistake in France, but 10 days later I wound up in Luxembourg, the country I was raised in, and where my parents are from, which means that my Mamm Latäin, my mother tongue is luxembourgish, which is a spoken language given as a dialect by most people. Education in Luxembourg is in French and in German. You learn German, your alphabet in German, your ABCs come in German, and then French comes in in the second school year as a foreign language. By the time 6th grade, things switch around. Everything has been in German content wise up till then, and just switches now, and everything turns into French, except at high school graduation you write one essay on German literature in German. Meanwhile, I picked up Latin of course. I had tried to learn Latin by learning the mass by heart at seven when I didn't understand a word of it to be a mass boy, you know, to do that. An uncle brought me to Spain during the holidays always, so I began learning Spanish and took Spanish lessons also in high school. So I was really very confused in that sense of the multitude of languages. When I thought I wanted to become a poet, a writer, this becomes a very complex story for a Luxembourger, and you have to choose either German or French. Now the cultural history there is interesting and important in that depending on who were the last invaders, we tend to go with the other language. So the 19th century was mainly French invaders, so German was the favorite language. First world war and second world war, we were invaded by the Germans, so French was more liked language. At the same time, there is a class thing going on. People who went just to primary school and dropped out in high school, so if you want the working class are much more familiar and easy with German, because Luxembourgish as a language is a low German descendant. The bourgeoisie, the more literary, the upper classes is much more Francophile. Goes to their holidays in France, they also go to Germany. We would go to you universities to different places of that order too. So there is really a complex language structure. When I thought of wanting to write, it became very complex, because the first language I wrote in were actually little when I was a kid, I copied foreign language bits out of Karl May, the German 19th century story writer, and they were in Mescalero Apache, in Comanche, in Persian, everything, I made a secret language with this. What happens then, and I've written a fair amount of essays on this, is that the mother tongue was unwritable. I never learned to write in Luxembourgish, you know? it's only after World War II that we begin to standardize the quote, dialect, made a dictionary, now I get emails from friends in Luxembourgish, which I can't answer because I can't spell the language. I can read them, `but I can't answer them. I haven't learned the spelling. So, mother tongue, a problem immediately. And I written about this later on and said, well, why do we have, what is that mother tongue and father land? Do we have to be in that Freudian mummy-daddy triangle, right? Isn't there a way out of that? Well, when I was 15, I went to England for the first time and fell in love with an English girl. So the M of mother tongue dropped off, it became a other tongue, and then it became lover's tongue. And I said, why can't I write in the language to which I address myself, the person that, you know, and so on? So to me, mother tongue became the lovers tongue rather, and I went to Paris to study, bourgeois upbringing, French school, right? To do medicine, but I dropped out to become a poet, because I had discovered American literature. American culture, my grandmother had a moviehouse, and we saw all the movies in English, because they were Belgian distributors and Belgium has two languages. They have Flemish and French. They couldn't dub two sets of films, so what they did was they left it in the original language, but put two subtitles on in those two languages. But so I learned my American from John Wayne, which is very easy because he doesn't use many words. And high school, my town is also called Patton Town, because General Patton was the one who liberated it during the Rundstedt offensive in a 2nd World War. At the same time, he burned down my grandparents house, so all the papers and books and my grandfather burned, so I learned some odd little thing, but we are very close friends to the American soldiers. My first trade in high school was buying used Playboy copies from the soldiers and reselling them in high school, right? So, we were continuously in this cultural march, listening to the radio, listen to the AFN American Field Net radio station, which gave American rock and jazz. So there was a very complex cultural situation. In Paris, I finally decided that yes, I did not want to write in French or German, I didn't think the writing that I was reading at that time was that interesting. But what really had interested me, because I'd found Ginsberg and Kerouac and The Beat, was American literature. And then I found Ezra Pound. When I opened The Cantos it said, oh, wow, if I wanna be a poet, then I really have, I can't do that on weekends as my father suggested, be a doctor and do this, you know, and said, so I dropped out, decided to write in English, came to America to go to college. The translating thing happens at the same time. The person who brought me to poetry in high school was Paul Celan, somebody who read the famous Todesfuge. When I moved to New York, I thought, maybe I'll drop out, so I brought, I had three books, De la Grammatologie by Derrida that had come out that year, Focus lemuie l'issues and the latest Celan volume. In New York I sent 10 pages of translation of the Foucu and the Derrida to New York publishers. I'm still waiting to hear. But the next year when I had to do a dissertation at Bard College, I translated the Celan, and that got me going, so that Celan's word for translator is, ferry work, to ferry it over and I felt that I brought Celan over, and as Esther was saying earlier, the last book is coming out next month, so, it's 55 years that I have been translating them. While of course, writing, and we can talk later, I think it was Janet we talked that the question of poetry being a poet and a translator, and how those interact, how those work. But let me hand it over now to María José.
María José: Thank you, Pierre and thank you, Janet. I think our journeys are very different, but I see some parallels, that I'm finding out as you're describing your linguistic baggage, I like that way of describing it, because it really feels like something I carry. And yeah, so my story, so I was born and raised in Venezuela, and left at 16 to study in the United States. And so, English became this place that I was basically plunged into. I grew up very much in a monolingual culture. Not for the most part, but where I grew up, it was monolingual Spanish, but I always had an interest in languages so I was always doing courses like self taught courses in German and English and a little bit of French, and so I just had a natural interest and was also really good at it. But when I moved to the United States, I you know, I learned really quickly that I didn't speak English. I had the grammar base but no ability to understand what people were saying in different accents, and even less to speak it and feel comfortable in it. So went through the whole ESL sequence of courses and then went to college, and went into modern languages. So I studied French formally, French literature and Francophone literature and cultures, and then ended up immigrating to Canada and I landed on the on the west coast in Vancouver and Victoria and I began working as a translator, helping someone who was a translator and needed help, and all of a sudden I am helping to edit other people's translations. And very quickly, I realized that my Spanish had stayed behind. My language being my language, I mean, English being my language of instruction, I, you know, had, my Spanish had stayed, you know, it was very solid, but it was it had stayed at, you know, high school level. And so I decided to go back to school and just take some courses in Spanish. By then I decided to move to Montreal, and all of a sudden began living in French for the first time as well, and also get to speak Spanish quite a bit, not just in class, but Montreal is very much a trilingual City, where people speak English, French and something else. So Arabic and Spanish are the most common ones, and so I all of a sudden was functioning, living and functioning in all three languages and very much plunged into literary translation very quickly, because I met Hugh Hazelton, who became my mentor, and he's a poet and translator. And, you know, here I was just thinking, oh, I just wanna brush up on my Spanish and some academic writing, and all of a sudden, this entire world opened up. To get to know the community of Latino Canadian writers, who I then, you know, became part of, 'cause I started actually sharing my work thanks to one of the authors I met through one of my classes, and that completely changed everything. Just living in a trilingual place. First of all, for the first time, I hadn't even lived in a bilingual place because Western Canada's mainly English, and here I was exploring all three languages, and they all sort of evened out. You know, Janet, you mentioned how English was your dominant language, and I've felt very much that way throughout my entire adulthood until recently, because I've been spending a lot of time in the Canaries, where the variety of Spanish that's spoken there is very similar, or a lot closer to Venezuelan Spanish than Peninsular Spanish might be. And so I've felt very much at home in the last couple of years just being immersed in the language that I grew up with with a very familiar feeling. And I also began writing a lot more in Spanish. I've been writing in English and Spanish, and a little bit in French for many years but especially since I've been spending time in the Canaries. I've, it just continues to open up and it's been very enjoyable. And in terms of translation, I translate between English and Spanish, and from the French into the other two. And let's see, what have I missed? I feel like language and writing and therefore translation have become, as an immigrant or as a migrant, 'cause I feel like I continue to go to new places and make myself at home, or they make me feel at home, I feel like migration doesn't ever end when once you've left your motherland or your homeland, and so I feel like, at least for me, I carry a deep sense of loss, but at the same time, incredible opportunity to gain from interacting with texts by other authors who, you know, I gravitate towards because they explore themes that are, themes that also come up in my writing or, you know, things that I like to read about. So...
Janet: María José, thank you for sharing your story. You know, what you just said about that sense of otherness that you carry, I think that's something that deeply resonates with me. And I've kind of been thinking about being a heritage translator, a person of color, being an immigrant, what kind of concerns of my experience am I bringing into translation, and I just, maybe it's kinda related to the anxieties that surface for me when this subject first came to me, and I just wanna actually read a quote that I've been sort of meditating on, and it's by Madhu Kaza, from Kitchen Table Transition, which is really become my Bible. But she talks about the anxieties that surface for her, how the discomfort with, her discomfort with translation was connected to the trauma of immigration. And I'll just read it here, "Something went quiet in me "when I was brought to the US from India as a child. "Although I assimilated and lost my accent, "a vital part of me got stopped at the border. "My inner life remained untranslated. "As an immigrant child, I felt an aura of illegitimacy "about my claim to be an American. "At times, I lived with radical insecurity. "As an adult, when I translated from Telugu, "my first language which I'd learned to read in college, "I experienced a repetition "of the loss I'd felt as a child." And you kinda touched upon that, María José, and this is something I think about a lot. And I think, Jhumpa Lahiri in a New Yorker essay that she wrote about learning Italian, she wrote how her mother tongue is Bengali and living in a country where her language is considered foreign, she felt a continuous sense of estrangement her whole life. And in another essay she refers to, she uses the word 'trespass', that she had this feeling of trespassing whenever she would read English books as a child. So, I've been sort of thinking about, you know, what makes me unique as a translator of color, and I think it's kind of, it's like what you said, it's a strength and also a weakness, my sense, my abiding sense of otherness, which I haven't really been able to shake off. Like even my initial move to the US and Canada, obviously, because I couldn't speak English at the time, but even when I was so young, my earliest memories actually reinforced this sense of otherness that I felt. And even when I moved back to Korea, even though there was no language barrier, I lived with the sense of otherness, of being different, being exposed to maybe a different culture, a different country at a young age, and then obviously, the immigration back to Canada, going to ESL, even though I worked very hard at assimilation, it's that sense of otherness I haven't been able to shake throughout the years. And like I said, it's both bad and good, bad because it makes me sometimes super-insecure about English, and it makes me second guess myself all the time. I doubt myself, it kinda feed into my almost obsessive perfectionist tendencies. I have to check everything to make sure I have this mastery over the language, but the good thing is that it gives me sort of a unique perspective that wouldn't have been available to me had I been an insider who just kinda takes the world as it is, but I feel like my position as, like an outsider, it enables me to see certain things that I wouldn't have seen. And it also informs my selection of things to translate as well, because of this abiding sense of otherness, I gravitate towards narratives that feature marginalized, you know, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, broken, imperfect people, the unremarkable, the odd even. This short story that I translated that always sticks with me, there's this, it features this female gymnast who can't perform her sport anymore because she goes through this major growth spurt, you know? These odd, odd characters, and I love stories like that where, and I love authors who write about these kind of characters rather than characters who are accustomed to privilege and power. So yeah, even Pierre, you were talking about how you, when you first moved to England, you dropped the M, from your mother tongue and it became the other. So I see that even in your story, there's this preoccupation with otherness. Do you wanna kinda talk about how that has informed your writing or your practice?
Pierre: Sure, I think, for a long time, I have been completely involved, early on, probably with some anxieties and I'll read you a short poem about language anxieties, because those anxieties enter the writing as much as anything else. But then I have a book of essays, called the Nomad Poetics. And the Nomadicity is not just traveling as we all have done and as we can do, but it's also that Nomadicity of languages. And I have theorized the notion of betweenness, that we are always between. One of my books is called Poasis, which is the Arabic term for the afterlife, for the betweenness as we travel through. And I think when we look closely at any given language, there is no such thing as a language that is, I know your anxiety Janet, to purity, you wanna learn that language perfectly. In fact, all languages are impure, and the greatness of language is that it is alive as long as it can be enriched, and is continuously being enriched by what writers do, what translators do, what the people, the kids on the block do, inventing the new languages. My Arabic translator sent me an email an hour ago saying, I absolutely have no idea what you're talking about in that expression that I'm using. And it was actually a street word I brought in, and I'm gonna have to write her a long explication of what that term then means. And it is of course untranslatable into Arabic, because it is a kind of in New York abbreviation of something that's, you know, that's not there. So, to me the multitude of languages and the traveling is a great delight. Now, I may also say probably that as a white male, I have a certain prerogative in terms of the way I've been able to move around the world, you know, relatively easily, but there are wonderful situations. I went up, one of my first gigs was in England, I was teaching English as a second language to American Latino officers at the Air Force Base at the American Air Force Base, hired by the University of Maryland to do that, who as I as a Luxembourger, was to witness to wind up teaching, you know the thing. So, but I've always loved those, the craziness of those situations. All languages are also colonized. There is no pure language. Over the years one has learned that there is no such a thing as a pure clean Language. Languages are all mixtures, are all mestizoed in a profound way, and that is what gives their richness. You know, American language is any number of languages spoken differently, used differently, and that is the pleasure of it. One would not want to hear some kind of standardized pasteurized language, though as people who came into a foreign language, as you said, Janet, we are, our tendency would be to be careful, we don't wanna be caught saying something wrongly in that given language. Let me read you that short little poem, called Anguish, A Riddle. That all the languages are borrowed, but how then do I count them that do not belong to me? In the first one, I think, in the second one, I sink. The third is my rhetoric and the fourth my West and wagon its wheel at least traces these steps in harmonies of tetradic modalities before and after I sink. So, the thing and the sink is that old thing that you can still hear in my speech, T-H's in English after more than 50 years, I still mess up some times. So that problem is about the T-H's.
María José: I'm so fascinated noticing just hearing you both speak of, in a way we come up with strategies, right? To exist in this in-betweenness that is speaking in other tongue, and I relate to both of your strategies, or where you've come to. I was really, when you said Janet, about the the characters that you're drawn to, in the work that you choose to translate, I actually, I share that but I think I tend to gravitate towards work that is very rooted and embodied, and uses language to explore this in-betweenness, but in a sense looking at people and places deeply and creating a sense of intimacy with the world and with the body that is sort of inescapable. And that's been a bit my strategy as a writer and as a translator, and just basically inhabiting this world where I'm always moving around and moving between language, different linguistic spaces and different combinations of languages. And in a way, I have created, or I have chosen to see language and writing, since I was little, as a place of escape and as a place of where I could retreat to, as a refuge, and I was always an avid reader and I've noticed that even in my own writing, it's sort of this place that I can carry with me. It's a place that I can enter whenever and wherever I am. And the authors that I feel drawn to, especially the authors that I feel like, that I feel compelled to translate, often address the problem of displacement, the problem of being marginalized or being left out, and one of the ways that at least I sense them or I receive them, exploring these issues, is through actually creating more connections with specific things, like the body or the land or plants or animals and going into these worlds and recreating something. And in a way for me, my writing, as part of my translation practice, because now they're really inseparable, has become a place of reconnection, where for a long time, I was translating other people's work as a way to avoid writing my own work, because it felt like this impulse that once I started, I wasn't going able to, I wasn't going to be able to stop, and that's actually what's happened. That I'm basically spending all my time either writing or translating, and I really can't stop, and it's a problem. But one of the beautiful things that's happened is that now I'm translating my own work, and not only translating my own work, which I wasn't able to do for a long time, is that now, a lot of the poems come out in both languages at the same time. And I'm like trying to catch up and, you know, writing as quickly as I can, because I feel the other language, whether it's Spanish or English, I feel it, like, as I'm writing, like coming out at the same time, and it's really frustrating sometimes, but,
Janet: Do you have to make it two poems? Can't you put both into one poem and make both languages mix up and...
María José: I do that, I do that a little bit, yeah. Sometimes a line will only want to be in one language or the other, but you know, I can read you an example, a recent example of a poem that came out in Spanish. This is maybe from a couple of months ago, where I was in Gran Canaria, and again, very rooted in the land and in the, where is it? Yes, very rooted in the land and in what was in front of me, the plants that I was touching, the dirt. And I'll read a little bit of the poem in Spanish, and then I'll read the whole poem in English. Oh, and this is part of a series that has become, like all of my poems fall into this Translation or Prayer series now, and they always have a subtitle. This one is Traducción u Oracion Para la Memoria. Let me read the English. I wrote this poem soon after George Floyd was killed, and this was a way that I found to root my anger and rage and sadness, being so far away from what was happening here. It's a Translation of a Prayer for Remembrance. Today reminiscing about a new friend whose branches perfumed my afternoon, my hands, my hair. I launched into a new search. I asked my mother for the best way to root cuttings from a Rosemary bush I wanted to propagate, to forget, to make up for my unknowing, all my failings. For example, attempting to root a tip from a fig tree I cut on them morning walk. I didn't know it's best to take a cane ripe with tender buds in another season on another moon. I don't think this cutting will survive. I don't think this cutting will survive the present crisis of fires, tremors and death. But knowing that in my absence, its hundred-year old mother will still guard the gulch, that young and old shrubs will watch over the sleeping grape vines, almond trees and tunos, will no doubt lengthen my years. I will wax gracefully, my memory swollen with new tongues sweet with drupelets, science and roots, with the fresh air we breathed without a knee to the neck.”
Pierre: Mm hmm, thank you.
María José: Thank you.
María José: Yeah, so that's just one example of a poem that felt really urgent and just came out in both languages and I do think my, the authors I translate for inspire me and encouraging me to inhabit this in-betweenness, and I wonder if especially you, Janet, but both of you if you've, whoever wants to go there, where you're writing and translation meet, how you see that. And I know we could be here all day, but…
Janet: For sure. Well, I, something that you said, María José, about how even when you're writing now, or the translation, your transition practice and your writing practice, they're both sort of wanting your attention, they're both kind of you see the, you feel their pressure, like, how did you get to that point where they're both there, 'cause I feel like I need some of that to like summon my writing. 'Cause I feel like for me, when I'm working on or doing a lot of translation, my writing is sort of, it's hindered, or there, it's almost damaging. It almost harms my writing, if I'm doing a lot of translation, and I haven't been able to find that balance. So, if you guys could speak to that, that would be amazing.
Pierre: I don't know, I was thinking in terms of what María José said, the relation between translation and writing and how we go about it, I think what I have done or tried to do over the years is to annul the difference. And one way that, I could think, I could come through with in a thinking way, is to realize that all language is translation. That is there is something before language, you know, and whatever comes into language is translated from somewhere so that all language is translation. Which means that all writing is translation. And that means that the kind of literary translation we're doing, is only a sort of special unique case that you can also treat that way, then for example, if you go into translation studies, and you look say at how Ulrich Pohl translates, or an example of something I did, I translated when you Eunicad Zoem's poems, which are based, she takes a line by Holly Michelle, takes all the letters in the French line, and writes a German line out of those letters, right? So that that's a poem. How do you translate that? I can doubly, I translate her line, and then I go and I take Michelle's line and use her method, you know, using all the French letters in, and make an English poem out of it. So then you will have to, now there are 100 ways that Ulrich Pohl invented such matters, you know, an old friend passed by now, but that Canadian, you may know, BP Nichol. BP wrote a lot around translation, did a lot of work in those areas. So I think an ongoing practice of transformative writing is always translation and always, you know, comes in that way. And that's what kind of permitted me to some extent to, if not come to peace with the question of poet translator, you know, what Comes first or so, no, they're both there continuously, and they feed each other. The one good thing about translation is that if you don't have anything to write, or the poem doesn't come, you can always translate.
María José: And I'll answer very quickly. For me, I remember a sort of before and after. I was translating some work by a Montreal author, whose name is Alejandro Sarabia. I was translating his novel, and it was really painful. There was very heavy content, political violence, and I found it excruciating. And it was also very challenging, it's a multilingual novel. And I remember before that time, I had tried to translate my own poems, and I, it literally made me nauseous. And so, I wrote and just put my stuff away and then while I was translating this work, I felt like I really had an impulse to pay attention to what was coming out that was my own, like my own thoughts, my own ideas that were not necessarily related to what I was translating, but something was calling for my attention, and I gave it space. So I always had a notebook next to me, and I would just jot down notes. And I also felt compelled to write to the characters in the novel. And then I started doing this thing, where I would either write a poem or write a short prose piece addressing the characters in the pieces that I was translating, and that has been going on for a while. And a lot of new work has come out that way, and it felt like at the beginning, it felt more like a cleanse, like a space that I was creating to calm my nervous system down from, you know, both the intensity of the deadlines and of the content that I was treating, and then it just sort of became a, you know, second nature that I'm always giving my writing space. And now it's sort of unavoidable, I can't look away. So maybe that might work, just opening a little bit of space, and then just seeing what happens.
Esther: Thank you, that, this has been an incredible conversation, and I'm sorry that we're interrupting now, this extremely beautiful exchange between the three of you, but we do have some questions, and the first one is from Samantha herself.
Samantha: I wanted to ask each of you, if you think you have different personalities, or perhaps identities in different languages, either as a writer or in your daily lives, and if so, do those differences reflect the personalities of the languages that you're living and working in?
María José: Do we have another hour?
Janet: That’s a great question.
Pierre: I feel that that's a question for novelists. As a poet that sense is relatively strange to me, or I don't have it, or I'm in the language in such a way where I don't think of a personality of my personality, where I'm more looking at the language. Does that make sense to you, Samantha? You know, I, that's all I can say. Ladies, pick it up.
María José: For me, I would say it's not so much an issue of identity or personality. I feel like I, in Spanish, I write in a more like bodily way, like I'm just more in, like it is, you know, my mother tongue, the language of my heart. I am more directly in touch with my emotions, and I think not always better able to express, but better able to access the impressions that something left, that I, that are calling me to write. And in English, I get carried away playing with sound and rhythm and playing with the language itself, whereas in Spanish I might be more driven to pay attention to images and impressions and feeling, and how the language, not so much how it feels in my mouth, but more the effect of it's going to have, or that I think I want it to have even if I fail at it.
Esther: And Janet?
Janet: For me, I think because, as I mentioned before, my Korean stayed at a 2nd grade level, and I never actually studied Korean after that, so when I speak Korean, when I'm working with Korean, in some ways, I still feel like a child. And I take in the words and the sounds of the words almost like a child, it's kind of, it feels different, whereas English is my language of education, of instruction, so I feel like I could articulate, you know, I could talk about literature, whereas in in Korean, this is so funny as a translator that I can't talk about literature in Korean, but I think it sort of plays into even my translation and writing practice as well, when I translate, I am in awe of the author's skills, and I get so absorbed and sort of pulled into that language and there's a part of me that feels like I can never live up to what they're doing. So there is that tension that is always at play. Maybe I will take María José's advice and go study some Korean, finally, so that they can sort of, the two languages kind of be dominant or to match, but yeah.
Esther: We have another question that came in via Gmail. It's sort of a double-barreled question. The first part is just for Janet, but I think it would be interesting to ask it of all three of you. The question is, after winning the translation contest, Janet, how did you go about improving your translation skills? Did you take any classes or were you're more self taught? And then the second part of the question is for all three of you, and that is how do you keep your finger on the pulse of the literary scene in all of your languages?
Janet: So after I won that contest, I was sort of, my professor was shocked. We were both in shock, and I was sort of thrown into transition. I took some graduate seminars, but they were workshops in translation. So I didn't really formally study literary translation or translation studies. So I was in a few workshops, but I have to say it's sort of been my approach to translation has been kind of homespun. If I have questions about the text, I often go to my mother and I ask her, you know, what does this mean, and I ask a lot of my Korean friends. So yeah, and I didn't mention this in my brief introduction, but I did do an MFA in creative writing. So I feel like as I worked and studied other people's writing, other writers that I admire, I think it sort of informs also my translation practice and kind of lets me see the possibilities of language.
Esther: And what about the other two of you, did you study translation formally?
Pierre: I did study it later on. After graduating from Bard, I got jobs translating into French, Kerouac and others, but that was to make a living. Then when I was set up in London, in order to get some money from my father, I went back to university and I did an MA in translation studies, but on work that I had already translated. And 15, 20 years later, I did a Doctorate at SUNY Binghamton, on my Celan translations. I had already done the translation, I just added them. So it's always a mixture. Early on, it was like trying to make a living, that was my early crazy idea that you could make a living as a literary translator, but only wanted translate poetry I liked. No way paying the rent that way, so, you know, so it came in that way. And I learned about it, I learned the theory a bit when I started teaching at University, at UAlbany, and I offered a graduate course in translation, that's when I began looking more seriously at what had been written about it. But I had already worked with Jerry Rothenberg, we did those anthologies, the Poems for the Millennium anthologies, where we were doing those at the same time. So, the complexity of thinking about, learning about, and teaching it, and doing it, all were there simultaneously, really.
Esther: And you, María Jo?
María José: Yeah, for me, so I when I went back to school, I went to Concordia University in Montreal. I took a couple of workshops. Well, one was more of introductory class, Introduction to Translation with Hugh Hazleton. That's where I met Hugh. And then there were, I think there were maybe a couple of other workshops, and I just like, went right into it. I started doing like independent studies, and then my projects for the classes would be translating short stories or poetry. And you know, it was very natural for me and, you know, Hugh said that I was very good at it, and so I just kept doing it. And then I did some formal studies in more professional translation at McGill, but that included some stylistic, a couple of classes that had style, that looked at style and stylistic differences between the languages, that also helped me in my literary translation. And then I started an MA in translation studies at UMass Amherst when I moved here to Massachusetts, but it was more focused on theory, where I, you know, I dropped out. I'm a proud grad school dropout. But this the first courses, the first core courses that I took were more in theory, and I just wanted to translate. So I dropped out and just kept translating. So it's definitely like a lot more self taught, but I've had plenty of opportunity to confirm my, you know, where I'm going, either by people that I that I work with, and definitely more recently, the last few years, I've been co-translating with a colleague and friend, Anna Rosenwong. And I feel like I'm becoming a worse translator now, because she's so good. You know, we are a really good team, but because we have each other, like I'm not completing my work. but I'm learning a lot there too, working with a co-translator.
Esther: And how about the other part of the question, about keeping your finger on the pulse of all of these various different literary cultures that you're all inhabiting?
María José: My answer is very short, I don't.
Esther: Anybody else?
Pierre: I try to stay in touch with some of the people. I did a lot of work from North African literature, because I've gone there, I lived in Nigeria for a number of years, translated, this to me was also a wonderful discovery, because the French that I was translating from was a multi-language thing, you know, that had Arabic and Kabyle going through it, and I keep in touch with the friends there and so on, and try to stay there. To add something, there's a problem, not so much for the translator, but for the people who read the translation. When we drop a beautiful poem or novel from a culture that nobody knows anything about, it falls into a strange place, because we can't bring along all the necessary information to make it readable inside of a wider culture. That's a very frustrating thing. One keeps reading, one keeps, I try to keep connected with the culture I'm translating from, but that is very difficult to carry over beyond very limited specific texts that I'm translating. Does that make sense?
Janet: Mm hmm.
Pierre: Do you have experiences of that order? I wanna bring Korean knowledge about these matters over. Gossip and, you know, film, you know...
Janet: As for me, I actually try to foster really good relationships with Korean publishers, and also my Korean, the writers that I translate. And they sometimes tell me about a new book that's come out, and then they'll, I'll be the first one to know before anybody because they're in that scene, and sometimes publishers will also, I will just kind of follow their Instagram or their Twitter feed and see what new books are coming out. And that's how I sort of stay connected.
Samantha: Okay, do we have time for one more question? Last one. And this is also from Gmail. I wonder whether there isn't a new canon emerging of works based on the in-between languages principles you three have been discussing. I know Janet mentioned Madhu Kaza's anthology, Kitchen Table Translation. Are there other works you think of as key texts and inspirations that you would recommend?
Pierre: Read my Nomad Poetics, and there are a couple, my three volumes of essays on translation I have, but...
Janet: Yeah, all my unpublished poetry.
Esther: And I guess you also mentioned Jhumpa Lahiri.
Janet: Oh, yes.
María José: Yes.
Esther: And there was another writer that you brought up in our earlier conversations, in addition to Jhumpa.
Janet: I think it was from an anthology. It was the bilingual, I forget the title. It's about creativity, but I mean, there are so many writers who kind of work with different languages. Jhumpa Lahiri, whom I love, but there's also Yien Li, she says wonderful things about translation and working, and writing in her second language. You can find a lot of her essays online and in the New Yorker, but you just have to do a search and there are so many, so many texts.
Pierre: I would also add Jerome Rothenberg's Notion of Total Translation and his anthologies from Native American materials and so on. Still to me, very, very interesting. His translation Navajo songs, all that material, all that thinking through the richness of cultural traditions is very useful still today to me.
Esther: And that gives us a chance to close out this whole sort of mini series of Beyond the Mother Tongue, with a mention of the UCLA Professor Yasemin Yildiz, whose book, A Literally Call Beyond the Mother Tongue, it was the inspiration for Bruna Dantez Lovato's panel, which has then in turn inspired our three talks, of which, alas, this is the last, because there is so much more to say on this tough subject. And you've been an absolutely gripping conversation between the three of you. But alas, we've run out of time, so we have to say goodbye. Before we do, I'd like to thank our partners. Again HowlRound, PEN America, The Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY, the Coleman center for Scholars and Writers in the New York Public Library, the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, and today especially, we have to thank LTI Korea, which has provided some special support for today's program. And most of all, many thanks to Maria Jo, Pierre and Janet, for sharing this wonderful, wonderful moment with us. Thanks very much.
Pierre: Thank you.
María José: Thank you, thank you for having me.
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.