Livestreamed on this page on Tuesday 19 May 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 Uncertain Present
Madhu Kaza in conversation with Lina Mounzer.
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 Translating the Uncertain Present livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer-produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Tuesday 19 May 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 Uncertain Present
Madhu Kaza in conversation with Lina Mounzer.
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, works with the PEN translation committee, and has been a driving force co-organizing the conference you're now attending, translating the future, which commemorates the world of translation. The first international conference on literary translation held in the United States, which was convened by the PEN American center and its translation committee in New York City, 50 years ago last week.
Allison Markin-Powell: Thank you Esther, and thank you all for joining us for the second installment of our weekly series. Today's program is translating the uncertain present, a conversation between two people I deeply admire, Madhu Kaza and Lina Mounzer. Madhu is a writer, translator, artist and educator based in Brooklyn, and Lina is a writer and translator living in Beirut. You can read their full bios, on the Center for the Humanities website. Madhu and Lina will be talking about translation as a key part of everyday life and how in a time of pandemic or crisis, it becomes more crucial than ever. Both for the information it can convey, and for the comfort it can provide.
Esther: This series of weekly one hour conversations will be the forum that translating the future takes throughout the summer and into the fall. During the conferences originally planned dates in late September, several marquee events will take place. Including the symposium, a flight of Tokarczuk translators featuring several of Nobel Laureate, Olga Tokarczuk translators from the Polish into various languages. English, Japanese, Hindi and others. We'll be here every Tuesday at 1:30 until then, having compelling conversations about the past present and future of literary translation and its place in the world where we now find ourselves. Please join us next Tuesday at 1:30 for global eco-poetics, poetry, translation, climate change, and public health. A conversation between the poets Forrest Gander and Raquel Salas Rivera. And do check the Center for Humanities website for future events in the series.
Allison: Translating the future is convened by PEN America's translation committee. Which advocates on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers, and others with an interest in international literature. The committee is currently co-chaired by Lyn Miller-Lachmann and Larissa Keiser. For more information, look for email@example.com. Today's conversation will be followed by a Q&A. Please email your questions for Madhu Kaza and Lina Mounzer, to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll keep questions anonymously, unless you note in your email that you would like us to read your name. And if you know anyone who is unable to join us for the live stream, a recording will be available afterward on the how round and Center for the Humanities sites.
Esther: Before we turn it over to Madu and Lina, we'd like to offer once again, our sincere gratitude to our partners at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, the Martin E. Segal Theater Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and PEN America, and now Madhu and Lina.
Madhu Kaza: Hi Lina.
Lina Mounzer: Hi Madhu it's nice to see you.
Madhu: It’s so great to see you. So I'm really excited to be in conversation with you today. So this event today, the title is translating the uncertain present, and of course the question comes up, what do we mean by the uncertain present? The immediate thing that comes to mind of course is that we're in the middle of this global pandemic. But I think that I have a sense that, you know, for both of us the uncertain present is a, maybe an ongoing condition that maybe that the present is always uncertain in some ways. And I think I would love to get to that, but maybe starting with the immediate. The fact that we are in this worldwide earth event of the pandemic. I just wanted to get a sense from you, just how you are in Beirut in this moment and how you're thinking about your own writing and translation in this moment.
Lina: Well I think that the mark of the uncertain present is when you ask that question, how are you getting on in the moment. The answer is going to change day to day because the present is so uncertain. And this has definitely been the reality that we've been living here in Lebanon. In Beirut's where I live since October 17, when we had protest like an uprising breakout, anti-government protests that have been fairly ongoing with different phases for the first month and a half, let's say they were really, everybody was out in the streets. All of life was upended. So essentially the workings of the day to day have been suspended since October 17th by various different things. So we went from the protests into economic crisis and then into pandemic. And what happened actually when the pandemic first broke out. 'Cause it was like it happened in waves across the globe and you could sort of see it moving across the world, which was a very kind of strange and disconcerting thing. But, so as soon as it started, and then it became clear that, at least we were going into lockdown and other countries were discussing, going into lockdown. I felt this, I mean, there were so many different feelings, but I felt this great sense of relief. And I felt this sense of connectedness that, you know. I read the notebook that you had been keeping during the time of the pandemic. And one of the things that really resonated with me was you talked about that same sense of connectedness because you felt connected, even though you were isolated, you felt connected to everybody else who was going through this. I felt that definitely, but for me there also this sense that in a way we had become in the last months before we went into lockdown in mid-March. I felt so isolated in crisis living here, you know, like at first we had the protests, which were just, you felt united with everybody, you felt, you know, part of this grand network that was just like electrifying in its power across the entire country. And then little by little, as things started to deteriorate, we started to feel like really, or at least I started to feel like we were very isolated in crisis. And it became hard to speak to people who were like outside of that bubble because you don't know how to communicate with them anymore, you're just sort of. You know it's like somebody who's just living this immense grief and it's very present in your life and all you're gonna be able to talk about is that grief. Or if you're not talking about it, then it's essentially the elephant in the room, you know. You sort of have to actually like you have to tailor your conversations so that they fit around that huge thing that is between you and the other person. And so when the pandemic spread and then everybody sort of was in this together. I remember on my first Zoom chat with friends who live all over the world. It was the first time, like all of our, we were just completely aligned in our conversation, in our worries. Obviously each country had sort of its different worries and different ways that the government was dealing with the pandemic. But there really was the sense of sort of coming out of isolation. Which was interesting because everybody was talking about being in isolation and being, you know, locked into, you know, the interior spaces. But for me it really felt like it felt like a kind of relief that we weren't just completely alone in this, you know in the sense of crisis anymore so.
Madhu: Yeah, I connect to what you're saying on the level of just the ways in which this moment, as unique as it is and as distinct as it is, cannot be disconnected to other moments for us. And actually when you're talking about the protests and the revolution in Lebanon. I'm thinking about the fact that in the fall in October, November, there were protests in Iraq, in Bolivia, in Lebanon, right?
Lina: In Chile and Hong Kong.
Madhu: Hong Kong, yeah. And so that this moment, like, so when we're talking about public health crisis. I was really struck by what you said about there was an economic crisis and then was like public health crisis. And that, you know, I think there's a framing here sometimes of like oh there's a public health crisis that's gonna lead to an economic crisis in the U.S. But I think depending on who you are and how you're situated, the moment feels continuous or discontinuous in different ways. And one of the things that I'm thinking about right now. This semester, I'm just at the end of the semester, where I was teaching two different classes. One was translation-focus and one was writing-focus and they kind of merged in a way in my mind at least. And one of the things that came up in my, the course I was teaching that was about translation and migration really was to think about this moment in terms of really an earth event, to think about the connection to ecology. The fact that we're talking about contagion and all sorts of interesting questions that come up around borders and the way that information travels language, you know being a vehicle for that. And I'm interested in on the one hand of thinking more ecologically about this moment. And at the same time, part of thinking ecologically is also recognizing really distinctions like local distinctions and not have, you know, both politically, economically and otherwise. And so in this moment I also, when we were talking about translation you know the, that you know we both do literary translation. But I think that translation also functions in many other ways in our lives. I know that you do other forms of professional translation. But I'm also in this moment thinking about the fact that there, I just wanna give a shout out I guess, to the people who do interpretation work and language justice people, who are working with immigrants who are being detained. We just heard, I just heard about more deportations of people who had been in custody, detained immigrants in custody to Central America you know, yesterday, today, and thinking about the way that we're also. People who have tested positive for the virus, you know, being sent to you know, Guatemala. And there's a way in which I just wanna kind of also acknowledge that translation work you know, is both for us I think both literary translation work. And then, you know, we think about the ways in which translation functions all around us in these like, you know, really many many different ways. And, you know, I'm curious as you are thinking about this connection between what was happening in Lebanon, you know for the past several months since last fall and now, and I think there's so much that has changed right. And I think that, you know one of the questions that was in the original description for this event today was you know, can translation be colonial or is it decolonizing? Is it a vehicle for human rights or you know, against human rights? And I think of course the answer to that is yes all of it, right. And I'm wondering for you in terms of thinking about language and writing. How does this moment, how does this moment kind of whatever this moment means to you, the kind of ongoing uncertain present. How has that affected the way that you're thinking about translation specifically or not thinking about it? Maybe there isn't space, maybe you are in a different space.
Lina: I mean I think that I'm always thinking about translation to a certain extent because my writing itself, I've always thought of as an act of translation. 'Cause you know I live in one language or I experience things in one language. And not to say that I don't use English in my day to day life. But like you know the, just the fabric of the interactions of the city, like everything that surrounds me or even you know, the language in which the politics unfold. Which are the things that like affect my everyday life and stuff, these all unfold in Arabic. So whenever I wanna write about what I'm living, the language in which it is felt, let's say, and then the language in which I processed it, which is English. And I think that in moments of crisis, this question is always heightened for me. Because I'm always aware when I'm speaking in English that I'm speaking to somehow like a foreign audience. And it was interesting 'cause I was having a conversation with my friend the other day and she said. And she said I'm sure you've thought about this, but you know there's all of the other people who speak English, who speak let's say the broken English, or for whom English is a second language, or a third language or a fourth language, you know. And these are also English speakers. And it's funny, like I hadn't thought about that. It's not that I didn't think about it that way. But I don't think of, this is not my primary imaginary audience if you will, when I'm writing in English. I'm always aware that I'm somehow communicating. Trying to balance out like whatever is foreign inside myself. And I think that maybe this comes from the experience of immigration and the discomfort of that, and the feeling just completely dislocated and out of place. And you're trying to translate yourself essentially into this new environment right. And so I always have this sense of as if like that there's this distance between what I'm feeling and what I'm writing. Which is always, you know, the case I think for any writer, because, you know, to. For me it's always like, you take things from this like very sensual context in which they are felt, you know. Things that happen in and through the body, et cetera, and then you're suddenly like bridling them in language. It's like you're taking these wild feelings and you're hobbling them. And you're like stuffing them into these words that you know remain the same. When really what you're trying to capture is like a sense of movement and you know. And you're essentially putting them in spaces so that you can communicate what you're feeling to somebody else. But just to sort of come back for me in moments of crisis, this is very much heightened because there's always that tension and that question of how are you going to communicate crisis or being in crisis, and I don't mean just global crisis. I mean, like also when you're feeling, when you yourself are in crisis or your country is in crisis or you know. Like what I had mentioned earlier is this huge grief that is there. Like you either talk around it or you talk through it or. And that sort of thing itself, whether it's, you wanna call it crisis or you wanna call it grief, or you wanna call it difficulty. It's the thing that you want to communicate, and yet for me it's always the thing that also feels somehow most foreign, right. Because as soon as you start to talk about it, it sort of others you, it places you on the side. And so how do you do justice to it? How do you communicate it to somebody else and not make it sound foreign, right? Like, but at the same time, allow all of its strangeness and whatever uncomfortable feelings that produces to remain intact. I'll give you like, maybe I'm speaking very much in the abstract. But like, for example, you know, when I want to talk about the economic crisis to my friends who live abroad and who haven't, you know. I want to communicate the urgency of that, and I wanna talk about what it feels like that, you know, that when the currency is crumbling, that there's no more ground left to stand on because things are changing value every day. And this, you know, this doesn't just apply to, I wanna buy this thing and I don't know what it costs anymore. It's like, you really feel like whatever solid foundation that like currency and capital builds is like, you know, falling apart. And, but at the same time, I don't wanna talk about it or describe it in such a way that creates this kind of, the sense of exceptionalism in suffering or in grief that sort of places you on almost like a pedestal where you have this kind of, you borrow a kind of moral authority from suffering. And then it makes it also impossible to communicate with other people as well, right. So for me it's always like, how do you maintain that tension between driving home, the urgency of a thing, and yet also making it accessible to somebody who may not have the background who may not, you know, necessarily have the same reference points to know where you're coming from. And that for me is really like, if you wanna talk about how writing and translation are the same, that's really sort of what it fundamentally, always boils down to for me.
Madhu: Yeah, I think as you were talking, I was thinking about the ways in which being from south Asia, being from India in particular. That question of the multiple Englishes is always present for me. And there was this wonderful conversation last fall with the thumbnail writer Amby and she was here because there was a new book of her work out. And what I really appreciated about this writer is her interest and willingness to talk about translation, not only as this wonderful thing, but actually as a conflict. So it's thinking about translation not only as encounter, but confrontation. And we know one of the things she talked about is that it's a constant struggle to deal with translation into English, because there are remarks around like, well, the English speaking reader won't understand this. And you know, she has to remind her translators that there are many English speaking people in India, for instance and all across the world. And so to be thinking about, you know, what do we mean when we, who are we addressing? You know, even within our language, you know there are many languages. And I think for me even that sense of what you described as that question of how do you. I think that's a challenge in writing as well as translation. Like, how do you get something across so that it will be received and heard when you are in a context that is not readily received on the terms that you want to be listened to and received? So, you know, I had an experience. I've had many experiences in my own writing, even though I'd write in English where I'm really navigating something. Where a translation I think it comes in really, as a really useful framework me. And I'm thinking for instance, about something I wrote about. I had spent a couple of years in Myanmar between 2014 and 2017. And there was something I was trying to articulate about my experience there. I was there with American colleagues, white American colleagues on a education project. And being in Myanmar, It was a place that was not foreign to me in the way that it was to my American colleagues, my white American colleagues. Because there's this immense history, Burma was part of British India, and there are many lineages of Indian. I have family members who have spent time in what was Burma. And at the same time, it was not familiar to me, it was not my own space, it not my own country. And I was trying to write about it. There was a way in which I had to think about, how do I translate this experience, which is a very in between experience. Do I explain it, you know to let's say a white American audience and there's always this kind of resistance to doing that, you know. But how do you get across the specificity of an experience? And I think, there's that question always that comes up in translation. How much do you explain? What requires explanation? What do you resist explanation? But I think a question that comes up for me is really like how. Like increasingly I think about translation in terms of listening and really like what can be heard. Like not everything can be heard in the receiving culture received. And so when you're talking about the economic crisis, you know, I think about, let me put it this way. I think if you said, like if you just think about language in and of itself, and you said 350 Iraqis died today, you know, in Baghdad for whatever reason, and then replace that with 350 New Yorkers or Texans or whatever died today. I mean, the language is almost like the language is the same like you know. But the listening for it here is different. It's almost like here in the U.S. you expect that, it's like you can't even hear that language when it has to do Iraqis or people from other parts of the world. And, you know so to me, there's this question of in translation. What is the work underneath? How do you bring some, like, take whatever's, whether it's your own experience and you're writing, or if you're translating, how do you carry across? How do you, make space for something to be heard or to be read or to be received, that is beyond just the literal language? And I know, I mean, I'm saying something also abstract and tricky. But to me part of it is like, how do we increasingly I'm thinking in translation, you know, this kind of idea of not thinking, like we can't think of the aesthetics of translation without thinking about context and what politics and, you know the kind of common way of talking about it, and ecological thinking is like the figure in ground or texting context. And to say that when we translate or when we write, how do we not bring across a singular thing, respecting its distinction, like a singular text, a singular author, and a voice. But kind of also recognize the way in which that voice is embedded in a language in a culture in a context. And I feel like there's something about that, that in some ways is a challenge to kind of an American system that just wants its isolated individuals, it's star writers, or star translators. And so I think, you know, thinking about, you know, these other questions like about, you know, what is the ground from which you're writing. I think it feels to me as important as a consideration, as like what is the sentence that you've written?
Lina: Well, I was gonna say the nice thing about living here. We don't have to think of America that much, or you know I mean it's not. Even though I was saying earlier that my, you know, the audience that I think of is like sort of primarily an English speaking audience that doesn't have the context here. It's sort of, it's also not necessarily like a very America centric you know. And I feel like that's what happens is like the whole world gets filtered through the U.S. you know and like you, even if you're living out way outside of it and you know, it's like the understanding like of Americans have. Like the understanding, the self understanding that Americans have, somehow you have to accommodate that and filter yourself through that and you know. So I try not to think about, I mean, obviously I can't not think about who was receiving it and you can't just the same way, like you can't not think about America. But at the same time, I try not to, like, it's also, the onus is on the reader to figure out the things that they need to figure out and you know, I can't spoonfeed it. And especially like, if you think about translation as well, 'cause like you can't invent things that are not on the page right. So if you are translating for somebody who's writing in their, you know, their mother tongue or whatever in the, you know in this language. You also have to like, it's an act of respect to conveying what they have said, and what they have chosen to say about themselves without sort of falling all over yourself. Like you are doing, you know, you are doing them a favor, you are working for them you know. Even though I don't like to use that kind of language, but you're doing them. Your primary responsibility is to their text, and of course that also encompasses having it come across to the reader. But if you fall too much, like you tip yourself too much in the other direction, and you're only thinking about the reader and how they're going to perceive it. And furthermore, thinking of the reader as like a very specific like American person who is, you know, doesn't care about the rest of the world, et cetera. You know, like set aside that that already includes like a set of assumptions that isn't necessarily true, right. Like when we talk about like the average American, that also is like a huge stereotype that doesn't necessarily conform to so many people that I know and love. Like if we just set that aside you know, it's also the, you know, you have to. You have to trust the text and your responsibility is towards the text and you have to trust the reader as well, to look up the things that they need to look up, to engage with the text the way it needs to engage. And your job in a way is to make that transition kind of as smooth as possible and to facilitate that if you will. And that's why I also think that like, translation is such a useful metaphor and, you know, to think about the way that at least for me, like the way that I wanna move through the world, or the way that, you know. The way to conduct your actions somehow, which is that, you know, like translation first, like you said, it requires listening carefully. So you kind of have to just be quiet and really listen to what the other person is saying first. And you listen to not just what they're saying, but how they're saying it. You know what language they're using, and by that I mean like, you know the diction. the way as you said, the way it's situated in culture. All of these things like the music of the language behind just, you know, behind just the phrasing and the sentences and stuff. So the first thing that you have to do is you have to listen very very carefully. And then what you're doing is you're lending your own voice and your own knowledge to bolster the knowledge and the voices of other people, and you know that you are. In doing that you're bringing your own experiences to bear on their words. So you always have to be aware of how much you are allowing your own self to intrude on, you know, what they are trying to convey. And yet at the same time, that intrusion is what makes communication possible, right. So it's a very messy act, and that's what I find really beautiful about it is that there's no one way to do it. Different translators given the same texts are going to produce different translations. So the translated text is a place where like, you have all of these intersections that are taking place that, you know, between the author and the translator, but then also between the author and the reader and the translator. You have intersections of time, you know, then that the writer wrote the text then now in which you are translating it, the future in which the reader is going to read it. You know all of these things kind of intersect together and it creates kind of this very messy hybrid thing. And you know from the beginning that you are not gonna be able to create a perfect translation, that is not going to happen, but you try to aim for a beautiful one, you know. And if I think about it that way, it just feels like such a kind of fitting metaphor of how one should sort of like how you interact with other people. Like you were constantly implicated, right. You're not, and that's the kind of writer I wanna be also. Just always acknowledging how I am implicated, like I don't wanna write to exonerate myself to sort of step aside and like, you know, judge things from afar. It's like, no but how am I implicated? Even when I'm talking about things that might be ugly or unpleasant or whatever. And I think that, you know, translation like that is inherent in the act itself, that you are implicated in what you doing and that, you know, you're gonna leave some of yourself behind, and that's how it's supposed to be, you know, like that's how it's supposed to be.
Madhu: Yeah I couldn't agree with you more on that in the sense that the messiness is actually also so much of the beauty of it. It's like once you get into translation, you can no longer, you know. I mean, first of all, there is no longer one right. There's always multiple versions. And to me, I think of that translation process as like never ending. It's not even like, oh I've made a translation of this work and it's done and now it's fixed in two places. To me, translation is this process that's like never ending of renegotiation and really messy as you say. And I feel like, you know, the thing for me is I think of, for me I think of translation as a, I think of it as kind of paradise. And, which will give you an idea of, you know, my vision of paradise which is like messy and, you know, falling in—
Madhu: Yeah. Fallen, and it's like the babble, you know. But it really is, because even this idea of confrontation that I mentioned earlier, like I actually think. Like when we talk about translation, often we talk about the impossibility of translation of like, you know. You just can't carry that expression across into this other language. Or we talk about loss, which is, to me is very real about you know feelings of loss in translation. Or we talk about, you know distance and we talk about. There's so many like messiness, failure, right. And I feel all of those things are true and that's what makes translation great and necessary and important as opposed to okay and then when you stop, you know, or the idea that there's a perfect version. And I think that's where I also think of a translation to me it's like translation informs like really a sense of like, how I think about living my life, my own original writing in English. In the sense of like never quite being able to reach the thing that I wanted to be reaching and yet kind of continuously trying to rework, rethink and re-work and renegotiate. And to me what's really beautiful about translation is it's always, always with others, you know, and there is no way around that and the difficulty of that as well as the beauty of that. And so, you know, the fact that translation is relational, and I think writing is that too, but we don't always acknowledge it, you know. And I think that for me, I think this notion of... I also think of translation as like a cohabitation. So on the one hand you mentioned the responsibility towards the writer, the original writer in the text. I think I feel a little differently and I know I'm, in a very particular place on the spectrum of translation, where I feel my responsibility spread. And this is not to, I know you weren't saying something reductive, so it's not a contradiction of what you were saying. But I feel myself to be dwelling with another writer when I'm translating. But also with a reader you know, and so that constant negotiation is feels like, the responsibility feels spread in many different directions. And then in terms of thinking about what you said earlier about trusting the reader. I think it's absolutely true that when you think about readers I mean, you know, I hear from so many different writers in India about how well we learn, we read Proust and we didn't know what the Madeleine was and no one explained it to us, and you know, all of these kinds of things. Readers have been reading, you know, about very distant things for very long periods of time. But also I'm interested in the question of difficulty in translation and how translation can also be a form resistance in certain ways to those kind of very easily digestible immediate. I'm just like everyone else and everyone else is just like me. So you know earlier when I said, you had mentioned that I had originally thought kind of this connection in this moment, a pandemic. That connection I wanted to hear is also, it's always mixed in with like, okay, we're all, there's a common ground at this moment of talking about the pandemic down or what's happening, and yet there are real distinct differences. You know everything in this world is distributed unequally and we wanna acknowledge the ways in which, you know, people live differently and are experiencing this moment differently. And I think diff, like the actual promise of difficulty here you know is that it can make you slow down and say, well, everyone isn't just going through the same thing I'm going through here in this moment. You know, this writer who's living in Saudi Arabia, writing about whatever she's writing about, or this writer in Croatia. They are, yes there is a commonality and there is difference. And one of the things that interests me about this in the U.S. you know is that. So not thinking about like working across foreign let's say languages, is actually even in the work of other for instance people of color in the U.S. There's often, I think a demand for the explanation or transparent writing or easily digestible kind of writing. And just two quick examples. On the last day of my class at Columbia, we looked at a poem by Dennis Smith, who has a new book out called Homie. And it's a really interesting book to be thinking about in terms of translation. Because there's a way, that book is written in English, in various Englishes, but there's a way in which that book is peppered with the N-word. And the question about, for whom does what language, who is addressed in different poems? It's a book with two titles, one that most of us can't, many of us can't pronounce. And there's this thinking about that. It's a book that's very welcoming. It's a book that loves its reader. But it's also a book that differentiates between different readers and different audiences. And there's something really beautiful in that in terms of thinking about how translation might also do that. Both welcome everyone, and also retain a sense of distinct language expression, and distinct audiences. And the other example I wanted to just give is another poet who I taught Aja Couchois Duncan, who is an Ojibwe poet. And I was teaching a text of hers from a piece called Nomenclature Miigaadiwin, A Forked Tongue. And it's a poem that has a number, a lot of Ojibwe words in it. And it's a kind of, it's difficult. She is an experimental writer in many ways. And it's the kind of poem that when students read, many students will just kind of gloss over it and kind of ignore it because they don't, it's not something it's not a narrative that they've expected. It's not something that they know what to do with. And then some readers, what they'll do is they'll look up the words that are in Ojibwe. And once you start looking at the words, something starts to kind of cohere in a different way. I mean, it's a beautiful text even if you don't look up the words, because it's just really a beautiful lyrical expression. But once you start looking up the words, something else kind of comes into view. But what was interesting is, you know, one of my students said, you know, even after you look up the words, I still find this text difficult, I don't understand it. And you know, my thought on that is well what do you expect a work of literature to do for you? And it's connected to translation, because what do you expect a work in translation to do for you? And I think specifically in this context, when we're talking about an indigenous writer. There's a way in which I almost think it's better to kind of ignore the text and kind of move on and say okay. I don't know what this text is doing. There's some words I don't get, I'm gonna move on. Versus the person who says, I'm gonna look up all these words, and then I'm gonna completely understand this thing. Then I'm gonna be able to master it, right. 'Cause that's a very colonial way of approaching things right. If I could only figure out all these words, then I can somehow overcome that difficulty. And to me, the question is like what's interesting is how, like, if you can't understand it, the text in a kind of very conventional kind of grasping way, how can you still meet the text? What is the relation then for you and this text? I mean, I'm not suggesting that you don't, you know something that's incomprehensible to you. But, you know I think that that line of being able to kind of be in some kind of conversation with the text that is both evocative and rich and speaking to you, but they'll also resist you in some ways. It's a really interesting one and I think that it's something that probably is more familiar to readers outside of the U.S. you know, who read, you know, is also yeah. Or who read in languages outside of English. And I'm wondering, as I'm saying all of this. I feel like there's also an interest in your own work, an interest in refusal at moments, in refusal to translate or refusal to explain. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
Lina: I don't know if that exists in my work necessarily. Because the question of refusal isn't necessarily one that I think about when I'm working, unless it's within always trying to kind of balance out how much information I'm going to give, just so I don't. So that, as I was telling you before that the pandering is not happening toward the reader, and it's not just partly like not wanting to insult the reader's intelligence. It's also that if I'm going to pander again to this like imaginary foreign reader. Then I'm going to be like in-authentically alienating myself from myself, if that makes any sense. like I'm creating this distance between myself and my own experience, 'cause I'm already placing myself in this position of the foreigner, looking back onto myself, if that makes any sense. So, but you know this question about like when do you refuse to translate and when do you not translate it's was something that I became conscious of during like the first phase of the protests when they were happening here. And I noticed like, all of the other people also, like this happened with me and all of the people that I following on Twitter also, who were like participating in the protest and, you know, whose opinions and ideas and anecdotes. And, you know, I was like following very closely, you know, how you become this like kind of online community. And there's certain people that you're always checking in with and, you know, seeing what they're doing. And almost all of us were tweeting exclusively in Arabic for like a good couple of months, you know. I mean, I'd have the occasional tweet here and there in English, it's not that. But I was very conscious of wanting so much more to tweet in Arabic. And I think that that for me that was very the case because it suddenly felt like, I wasn't interested in communicating with anybody outside this experience. I wanted to speak to everybody who is living it with me, and I wanted to speak to the experience in the language that I was having it. And it felt like this kind of secret language that we all had together. I mean, not secret 'cause calling it secret also again places like, you know, immediately creates this outside viewer that I'm sort of prioritizing in a way. But it felt, yeah, I'm not prioritizing them. But I'm aware of like who it kept out and who it allowed in. Like who was allowed to sort of eavesdrop on these conversations and be part of them and respond to them and who was sort of side, you know, sidelined by these conversations and wasn't allowed to see what was happening, you know. Just because it felt like such an intense private experience. And so it wasn't so much actually about being exclusionary. Sorry, 'cause I'm like thinking out loud now about, I just knew that this was happening, but I hadn't necessarily thought of the reason. It wasn't so much about being exclusionary as much as it was about kind of keeping things within the family, as in who I wanted to talk to and who I wanted to hear from. And, also really like a lot of that excitement and that joy was, and you know that chance, the protest chance and the this, that was all in Arabic. Like when you translate it, you sort of remove, you leach this power from it. And those early weeks were really all about like this like incredible electrifying power and energy. And like, it was very much contained within the language. You know, like even now it's like when, you know, the rallying cry of the Arab protests. Which is Ash-sha'b yurid isqat an-nizam and is always translated in English you know, the people demand the fall of the regime. And it's like, yes, it is what the people demand. But when you say it in Arabic it's so I don't know. It's like, it like it, I feel it in my gut in a way that I don't feel it in English. It has a rhythm to it when you chant it in Arabic, you know Ash-sha'b yurid isqat an-nizam and you don't, in English when you say that it just doesn't. It doesn't carry the same weight, it doesn't carry the same power and it doesn't, it doesn't mean the same thing, you know, when I'm, it means something completely different when people rise up together and say that together in Arabic, you know, to the powers that be, that have been stepping on your neck. I'm now translating also from Arabic in Arabic. You know what I mean, it's like anyways so. So during those moments I was very aware of wanting to only speak in this particular language, as opposed to like, I'm like trying to tell people outside what is happening. And so I'm translating my tweets and I'm writing them in English so that everybody can sort of know what's happening. I didn't really care about conveying news. I just wanted to live the moment, you know, anyway. I see that we are out of time. We're into the Q&A now, okay.
Madhu: Maybe it’s time for some questions?
Esther: We have a lot of questions. This has been a phenomenal conversation and a whole bunch of people wanna join in. And so I'm just gonna start with a comment from Amial Alkali, who I think probably both of you know he's a professor at Queens College and a very noted translator in his own right, and theorist of translation. And he says, it is an enormous relief to hear the terms you use when talking about translation, because I see so much mystification and so much discourse about translation. And I feel that we translators have an invaluable political contribution to make once we declare it is so. And he says, what advice would you give or what questions would you ask to guide translators who are just beginning this kind of work, keeping in mind your own experiences and approaches?
Lina: Madhu do you wanna or?
Madhu: Sure, I can jump in because I work with a lot of emerging young translators. And what I would suggest, especially to people who are not trained in translation studies, because I was not trained, is to just go for it and to seek conversation in translation. I think there's a lot of ways in which entering into translation can be really intimidating, that you have to have fully mastered a language, you would have studied for like 20 years, including graduate school, a language. And I think that start where you are, keep asking questions and also, you know, thinking about the work as collaborative, always, no matter what. And so not being afraid of asking questions of other people and seeking feedback and advice. I think that's the place where I think translation has made, we've made a lot of progress in the world of literary translation, in terms of recognizing the translator, like the visibility of the translator. But one of the questions I have for the moment is how do we think beyond just the individual? Like, of course there's a person who's done an enormous amount of labor when a book is published and that person should get credit. But how do we think of this translation work in terms of larger like ecosystems? So in terms of young people or emerging translators who are not young. I think, I'm a firm believer in everyone should try it.
Esther: Alison, do you wanna?
Allison: Yes, I have another question that has come in. This person says I translate legal documents and they're supportive materials for asylum seekers. While I think colloquial and contextual meaning is critical. Being very close to literal translation is important in legal work. Can you talk about how we humanize those we are translating for in this context?
Lina: I’ve done some translation like that. Not necessarily illegal, 'cause I think legal you're also like you're dealing with very technical terms. And I think that kind of what I said before about your loyalty being to the writer and you know, that you must. I think in this case is like really you need to hue as closely as possible to, you know, to whatever the, you know, the speaker is saying. I'm gonna call them the writer, but it could be in any context that this is happening. Somebody is telling you their story and then you're writing it down and you're putting it within, you know, certain legal parameters to present a case. I know a friend here who had been working on, something like that. Sort of taking down the stories of people, but then having to prepare them in reports. And I think this is also the place where you can bring your own feeling to bear in this case you know like your own. I think I would argue against any kind of objectivity, always when you're translating, but especially in cases like this, where you have to be very objective with the language and you have to be very objective also with your, with the task at hand and you know that. But if you bring your own feelings or your own humanity to bear on what you're translating, and you're very aware as you're doing this, that this is, you know, somebody's life hangs in the balance. Then I think that that urgency is communicated somehow. I mean, it's very difficult to answer how these things happen, but it's like when you're doing the work, I think with a sense of responsibility toward who you are doing it for, then you are invariably conveying some of that sense of responsibility with you into the translation. At least that's my feeling.
Esther: I have a question, actually that's my question for both of you. Listening to you talk I felt like a lot of what you were doing was interrogating the idea of the foreign, right. Interrogating the idea that there's this single reader for whom all of this is terribly unfamiliar and who occupies this known space of familiarity, right. So much of translation gets talked about in terms of these two poles. And I started wondering, should we discard this idea of the foreign, is it something that is not serving us? What is that idea, the foreign? What does that do for us?
Madhu: I think the way that I would think about it, that's a really interesting question. I think I wouldn't discard it. I think it's maybe about a way of like a trans-valuation of that term, right. So, because I think different, because you know, if the foreign is the thing that you can't know or approach or that's wrong, often the foreign is the thing that's wrong, then of course we wanna discard that. But I think what's interesting is like, to me the more interesting thing that I'm trying to think about is what is the local, you know, and how do we think about many localities? Not all of like we, many of, you know, there are many things that are very distant from our experiences and from distant from our language. But I think, I think you're absolutely right. 'Cause if you think about the fact that even in the U.S. you know, when you think about often we talk about the U.S. as this like, you know monolingualism in the U.S. But the United States was never a monolingual you know and it is not now. I mean also if you think about the United States, including its territories, they're not only within the United States popper but Puerto Rico, Guam. I mean, the United States was never monolingual, but there's this fantasy of monolingualism. And I mean, there's a discourse in reality of monolingualism right in terms of politics, in the same way that there's this discourse of monoculture right. And I think if we can think about the fact that the foreign is here. You know whatever we think of this foreign is already here.
Esther: And then there's another question that came in, that's sort of related to that. If the reader who doesn't have access to parts of a text in translation fills in the gaps with projection, is that okay, and if not, what are ways to avoid this? Is it the translator's job to think about this?
Lina: I don't know. I feel like it's okay to do anything when you're reading. It's, you know, it's kinda hard to answer that question. It's like, you know, it's. I think that, you know, the translator's job is to convey the text in such a way that the reader can enter into the text with abandoned, you know, whatever, whatever it is. Like, especially when you're talking about literary translation. That they can enter into and enjoy the text with abandon, and you know, whether that is by, and this is really up to the individual translator. Whether there are certain elements that you want to make sound foreign. And it's interesting Esther with your question, I feel like it's a really interesting question, but it also, in some ways presupposes that the use of the word foreign is like foreign is bad or like foreign is odd or foreign is, you know, is like different in a way that is like, you know, an outsider versus an insider or you know. I don't know for me foreign is an interesting concept because we're foreign to so many things, and so many experiences constantly. Like what Madhu was saying about like, what is local. It's like if you even wanna think about locality, locality is also like situated in class, for example. So you can be, you know, in the same country speaking the same language, whatever, blah, blah, blah. But like, you know, you will use the word, we let's say to refer to everybody who is living in this country. But like, if you interrogate that even that there is like elements of foreignness, 'cause like how do you, you know. You are foreign to the experience of somebody who is living in a different class or who has like a different socioeconomic status, et cetera, et cetera. So I don't think that that's a bad thing. I think acknowledging foreignness, you know, if we can sort of in a way, find a way to like divest it of it's sort of bad associations or like it's negative associations. Then I think acknowledging foreignness is actually really important and it's, it can like bring a lot of richness to the experience. But to sort of go back to the texts, you know, there's some translators that sort of want to celebrate the kind of foreignness. Like you know, make you want to know that like, consistently conscious that you're reading something that comes from, let's say another culture, another locality or another, you know. So that you remember that there are some translators that, you know, place fluency above all. But I think that fluency as like the highest priority, the highest order of priority. But I think ultimately really your job is to sort of create an experience of a text that somebody can enjoy, And then, you know, the reader's job is to, is to enjoy it. And by enjoy it is like take pleasure in it, in all of the complex myriad ways that you take pleasure from a text, including being challenged by it being stumped by it, not knowing what to make of it, et cetera, et cetera. You know like, that sort of full complex range of pleasure that you have when you encounter the written word.
Madhu: I also just wanna jump in briefly because I just got a text from my friend, Gabrielle Seville reminding me, reminding us that we are also foreign to ourselves. And that is a part of translating, 'cause that's a part of writing, right. Like this idea that you completely know what you did when you've written something, you know. Or that the original writer in the original language completely knew what they did, and it's just all the rest of us that are mistaken. I think it's also, you know, not exactly true.
Esther: Definitely a very helpful comment. I think we might not have time for another question.
Allison: We have a couple of minutes left and I mean, I might just make one comment myself too in terms of like what we're all talking about, and I think what Madhu and Lina have been talking about as well. In terms of like the, the reader, you know, the way we imagine the reader and where our allegiances are as translators. And I think that often we get, we have this idea of when someone is reading something that hasn't been translated, they're reading it in the language, it was written in. That we understand everything in it, and we hold up a translation, it has such a higher standard that everything has to be glossed, it has to be smooth, there are no snags. But when I think about the way that I, I mean, especially when I was younger and starting to read things that I was choosing myself. Like you read things and you have no idea what they are, and your eye just kind of glides over it. It's part of the reading experience and it's, you know, like Madhu you were saying about the Madeline's in India, you know. I think you just absorb that and I think that that's all part of like the richness and I think. I just feel like very often translations are held to a different standard. I don't know if you would agree with that.
Lina: I mean, language is music as well right?
Allison: And we're all I feel I'm hearing all of these echoes of Gregory Rabassa from last week. I don't know if you've heard the, we had an audio recording from the archive of the ear and translation. So I like the resonance there, but now we are out of time so.
Esther: Thank you both so much, this has been so exhilarating, such a wonderful conversation.
Lina: Thank you, Esther. Thank you, Allison for making it possible, and thank you, Madhu.
Madhu: Thank you all and I'm so glad to have been in conversation with you, Lina.
Lina: Me too, me too.
Allison: Once again, we'd just like to thank our partners, PEN America, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center CUNY, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and the Martin E. Segal Theater Center. And if you are a translator who has been financially impacted by this crisis, consider applying to PENs writer's emergency fund. Information can be found at pen.org. Thank you.
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