Emily Dickinson’s poetry is perhaps the closest thing canonical American literature has to a “sacred language.” In Robert Duncan’s lectures on Dickinson, we could say that he posits her as the ultimate untranslatable poet, even within her own language. In her poems she “bring[s] us to the line where everything is so fraught with meaning that we can’t find the meaning.”
Like many traditional translators, Benjamin describes a bad translation as the “inaccurate transmission of inessential content,” an inaccuracy that experimenters may revel in, as they amp up the noise between versions . . . We could say in a Lacanian moment that these new translators make a pere-version of the original, seemingly derailing the paternal metaphors and prohibitions implicit in God-as-namer and the translator as the guarantor of the name. But what would it mean to take Benjamin seriously (and, with Lacan, to avow the unavoidability of the paternal imago), to search for the Adamic patois, divine remnants of the sacred language in the infomatic jumble of disaggregated signs in our literary arcades?
It is a common misconception that Walter Benjamin’s writings on translation, specifically “The Task of the Translator,” support and even found a translation practice that calls itself “experimental.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Traduttore, traditore”: a cliché perhaps not worth repeating (like most bon-mots about translation, including that singularly awful quote from Yevtushenko). Except that, pari passu and funiculi, funicula, it doesn’t get repeated enough. That is, in its original it’s a near sonic repetition, with only one changed vowel—it is a repetition, then, that is subject to disavowal when you say “translator, traitor” in English.
“Please forgive me.” These words appear in the beginning of Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī—an experimental “transgraphic” work written in what he calls “Sinophonic English,” which strains the parameters of what we call “translation.” Stalling’s work evinces a deep knowledge of and sensitivity towards Chinese language, philosophy, and culture; yet, he plays with misrecognitions and mishearings that emerge in the heterocultural space of mistranslation.