Commentaries - November 2012

leaving Pierre Dorion...
leaving Pierre Dorion...

There is a sense in which every reading of a text by an individual is a translation, because ink and paper, or pixellated light and darkness, are “read” through a body, an individual apparatus impossible to replicate in terms of its cells and experiences and the ways that experience has affected its neural maps and capacities. This body may not even know its own filters and how they act when it “reads”. Because of this, we can study literature, which is the act of sharing readings and benefitting from other filters: in reading groups, in university classrooms and cafeterias and libraries, and on-line with brilliant teachers, in cafés, in living rooms, on ferries, at bus stops.

One question I am sometimes asked is: given this, is it possible to translate without having a second language? It’s a sly question, for people know very well that Elisa Sampedrín, my nemesis-polynym who has no interior, has done this.

Elisa is a reader so avid she does not shy from what she does not know and cannot read but tries mightily to pass it through her body and end up in words she can share with those around her. She already has at least two languages, Galician and English. She has a biography, thanks to Chus Pato, so she has an exterior. But the rest of us? If we do not speak a second language, is what we do when we look at the non-English language poetry of another always appropriation, or is it reading?

Much of this is undecidable; cases differ. We must respect the work of the other. We must give our own linguistic borders a porosity that lets the works of others in other cultures into our own. Beyond these insistences, decisions must be made. By human bodies struggling with their filters.

I will say this. We always already speak a second language: we call it our mother tongue. Our first language is silence, the silence before speaking (Agamben, Kristeva), and some of us can remember that language. All of us, however, retain this language in our body, in our ability to feel fear, uncertainty, passion, or any kind of sensory arousal upon presentation of something or someone in our visual or tactile field. All those things that are displayed in Sampedrín’s Galician in the subjunctive tense, a tense that has almost drained out of English, leaving us to express doubt as certainty in our shared idiom.

And we retain it in our ability to engage with flowers and trees and smells and the taste of coffee on the tongue, or papaya when we wake up in Rio de Janeiro, or our lover’s shoulder. Delight is perhaps the name of this silent idiom.

It is impossible to be a translator without a second language, but we all already have at least two languages. We need to learn to access our language of birth all over, for our mother tongue can shut it down. That silence that operates as listening. Knowing a third and fourth language helps us know how to access the first one. Which is, in another sense, never a first one. There is always language that precedes us.

A roundtable with Charles Bernstein & Leevi Lehto with Frederik Hertzberg, Teemu Ikonen, Karri Kokko, Hasso Krull, Leevi Lehto, Olli Sinivaara, and Miia Toivio at the Kiasma Art Museum, Helsinki, August 24, 2004

Charles Bernstein and Leevi Lehto. Photo courtesy of Kirsi Poikolainen, Manhattan, New York 1994.

"But the basic conception that we realized last night was that there’s too much proliferation of the many languages in the world, and we need to understand what the root or the ur-language is that is behind all languages, the pre-Babelian state, and we are proposing that Finno-Saxon really is the mother of all languages, the deep language that underwrites all other human languages … because if we can establish that, we really could create much more stability in international semiotic exchange."

read the full transcript at The Conversant.

A film by Alfred Leslie and Frank O'Hara, 1964

Still from the film 'The Last Clean Shirt', 1964
Still from the film 'The Last Clean Shirt', 1964

Where they’ve come from. We’re not even up to 23rd Street yet. Sings a little song in middle. ‘I hate driving.’ — Frank O’Hara, ‘The Sentimental Units,’ Collected Poems, 467.

In 1964, American painter and film maker Alfred Leslie and poet Frank O’Hara completed the movie The Last Clean Shirt. It was first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1964 and later that year at Lincoln Center in New York, causing an uproar among the audience. The movie shows two characters, a black man and a white woman, driving around Manhattan in a convertible car. The Last Clean Shirt is a true collaboration between a film maker and a poet since Frank O’Hara wrote the subtitles to the dialogue or rather the monologue: the woman is indeed the only character who speaks and she furthermore expresses herself in Finnish gibberish, which demanded that subtitles be added.

Olivier Brossard’s article (with stills from the movie) is 9,000 words or about twenty printed pages long. You can read it all here, in Jacket 23.

new poetry contest

photo © Charles Bernstein

Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) is proud to announce the first annual Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Prize for Innovative Poetry

Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (1946-2012) was a remarkable, groundbreaking Russian poet and prose writer, whose lifelong literary project sought to accelerate the movement of thought and deepen the philosophical cognition of reality by means of expanding and transcending the boundaries of language and its rhythmical arrangements. Wholly and selflessly dedicated to the noble literary endeavor, he was a resolute risk-taker in every aspect of it, be it writing against the grain of the mainstream, canonical Russian poetry or working tirelessly to bring closer together the new, forward-bound strains of Russian and international (in particular, North American) poetry. Having come to Leningrad from his native Ukraine as a young man, he quickly became the center of the city's burgeoning underground/"samizdat" literary scene. Virtually every single interesting project in second-culture's underground in Leningrad could count him as one of its primary originators. A close friend of several decades’ standing to some of us at SLS, he was an ardent and early proponent of the SLS-St. Petersburg program; and he subsequently, as program's poet-in-residence, took part in every one of its ten ('98--'08) sessions.

Above and beyond everything else, he was, simply, a very good man, an individual of great decency and integrity; a rare, light-filled man.

 SLS would like to commemorate his life, if only in a small way, by establishing a literary prize in his honor. Participation is open to everyone, regardless of  previous level of accomplishment or native language. All entries must be in English. We will look for poetry that Arkadii himself would have liked: interesting, thoughtful, inventive, unafraid to be bold, driven by strong inner rhythm, breaking the linguistic barriers -- in a word, innovative, where innovation is not just a concept but a necessity

Charles Bernstein, the esteemed American poet and long-time friend of Arkadii's, has agreed to be the final judge for the Prize. The winning entry will be published on Bernstein’s commentary page at Jacket2, a widely read site for new poetics. In addition,  winner will receive free tuition and $1000 in travel funds to attend the 2013 SLS-Lithuania/East-Central Europe program.

 For full contest guidelines, please follow the link:

––Mikhail Iossel