Saying inequality in another language

Translation and multilingualism

Daniel Borzutzky
Daniel Borzutzky

After taking a bit of a hiatus from this column over the holidays, my encounter with this essay by Daniel Borzutsky, a Chicago-based poet and translator, has coaxed me back to work. Before reading the essay (I’m embarrassed to admit), I didn’t know Borzutsky’s work well, although I had read some excerpts and his statement of poetics in the wonderful new Counterpath anthology Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing.

I was first attracted to Borzutzky’s essay because it opens with an incredible quote by Don Mee Choi, a friend of mine who is herself a poet and translator. Here’s the quote that Borzutsky includes: 

“My translational intent has nothing to do with personal growth, intellectual exercise, or cultural exchange, which implies an equal standing of some sort. South Korea and the U.S. are not equal. I am not transnationally equal. My intent is to expose what a neocolony is, what it does to its own, what it eats and shits. Kim Hyesoon’s poetry reveals all this, and this is why I translate her work.”

As this quote suggests, Choi and Borzutzky emphasize the lack of parity between languages, and between the cultures that languages represent. Both expose the fallacy of being "transnationally equal," and they do so through a translational practice that foregrounds the disparities among and within languages. I’ve found that their work resonates with some thinking I have been doing lately about multilingualism in our moment of diversity. While multilingualism seems to represent diversity as the sonic equivalent of multiculturalism, it also represents the purported pitfalls of diversity politics: as the all-too-familiar whine has it, how will we ever get along if we can’t understand each other?! 

The problem, though, is much bigger than just getting along and understanding each other. Multiculturalism is not enough. As we know, our moment of diversity is characterized by extreme inequality. As Borzutzky points out: “‘privileged bodies ... ask us to accept that it is reasonable that Black bodies be slaughtered on the streets, ... depend on us to be silent as Black bodies are slaughtered on the streets, ... call for reasonable responses to the most unreasonable of actions,” he writes. What would it mean to translate in a correspondingly unreasonable way? 

What I would add to Borzutzky's analysis is that it is rhetorics such as diversity that naturalize these inequalities, that make the unreasonable seem reasonable. The idea of translational equivalence begins to hint at how this works: as Choi explains, the dominant notion that everyone is equal conceals the fact that we are deeply unequal, or worse, suggests that those who have been dispossessed, disciplined, or somehow left out are responsible for their unfortunate fates. We can see this notion at work in the complaint that frequently greets new immigrants: if my grandparents learned English, then why can’t they? (Never mind that extensive studies have now shown that nineteenth-century German immigrants to the U.S. often took more than three generations to learn English …)

I think multilingual writing and translation are especially important in a time like this. It’s not because they give us good opportunities to be exposed to difference and to learn that everyone is equal. Actually, I think that translation and multilingual writing are important because they reveal the ways in which we are not. The confrontations and contortions enacted in and required by multilingual texts trace lines between knowledge that is celebrated as “universal” and knowledge that is relegated to the realm of the “particular,” between what counts as a life and a story and what doesn’t. Whether a text's multilingualism is an effect of its translational practice, its mixture of different types of a "single" language, or a combination of different languages, multilingualism is a powerful strategy for calling out the inequalities we are asked to accept in language-as-usual.