Translation without limits & the limits of translation, part two: 'The Joys of Influence'

Keynote speech, American Literary Translators Association annual meeting, October 30, 2015, continued from posting on November 16 here & here. 

I realize that where I am at this point is already at a considerable distance from what my more literally directed side (and yours) would recognize as translation, that it begins to touch on what I have elsewhere and persistently spoken of as “othering” (a word my spell-check refuses to recognize as legitimate).  Still I would like to digress for a few minutes to speak of collaboration as it touches on translation and as a foundational part of my poetics and an antidote perhaps to those anxieties of influence that were injected into literary discourse some forty and more years ago.  Translation of course is, at its best, the joyful acceptance of influence and of shared voices in the process of creation and transcreation.  In that sense too it opens to an acceptance of collaboration and community (however problematic they may sometimes be) as foundations for the work at hand.  And I would take translation as a metaphor for the entire poetic process.

            My over-all experience of collaboration goes well beyond translation — work with artists & musicians. with editors and book designers, with performance troupes like The Living Theater, with poetry readings and publications shared or organized in common — all of which I came to see (rightly or wrongly) as a principal mark of the avant-garde in poetry & art.  This idea of an avant-garde, at least as I conceived it, is — or was — the work of individuals acting together — an effort somehow in common, even if performed one by one.  There are times of course when an individual proclaims himself to be an avant-garde, but I don't believe that there are, strictly speaking, avant-gardes of one.  (There are great & unique experimentalists who operate in isolation, but that I think is something different — referential sometimes to an avant-garde but different.)  And there are individuals also — Bretons or Marinettis — who dominate their avant-gardes, probably to nobody’s advantage. Strong individuals like that, I now believe, were not only influential in forging their avant-gardes but were responsible as well for the ephemeral nature of what they had created.   In that sense it’s also possible that avant-gardes are destined for short lives, hellbound for self-destruction — or an aspect, maybe, of what Tristan Tzara might have had in mind when he told us that “the true Dadas are against Dada.”  (Cooptation by the art market — or the literary market or the academic market — is of course another factor to consider.)

            In addition I thought of the big books, which were as often as not co-authored with one or two other poets or editors, not so much as anthologies but as assemblages or collages that fulfilled for me the primary function of collage — to bring the words of others into the work at hand.  It was the recognition of something like that, I think, that freed my own poetry to be more than it had been to start with.  It also energized me in the direction of translation — an activity that I’ve pursued into the present.  Even working as a solitary translator I felt myself in an interaction with whoever I was then translating, and I came to believe that all translation — of poetry at least — was inherently a matter of collaboration.  (I’ve called such processes — both of translation and collage — “othering” and have spoken about them elsewhere.)  But to carry on the translation work in particular, I often had to call on the help of others — either because the task at hand was too big or too foreign or needed more than my own voice to make it stick.  

With the ethnopoetic books I thought that all of this was obvious.  Technicians and Shaking the Pumpkin were assemblages of (mostly) translations, generally as I found them but sometimes with interventions of my own.  The range of languages was vast, & my own competence outside of the European sphere was non-existent.  On two principal occasions I came more properly into the translator’s role — both times with a collaborator.  In the one instance (Seneca Indian) my coworker was a native speaker & songmaker, Richard Johnny John, and in the other (Navajo) the work was made possible by the great American ethnomusicologist David McAllester.  Aside from that — and apart from the ethnopoetic experiments — there were Hebrew translations with Harris Lenowitz for A Big Jewish Book and a more recent book of poems from the Czech modernist poet Vitezslav Nezval (Milos Sovak my cotranslator there), in addition to which the ample books of poetry from Schwitters and Picasso were assembled alongside Pierre Joris (and in the case of Picasso a number of other poet- translators whom we brought together for the project).

It is in this context, then, that I would speak of translation with a recognition that my own work, as well as that of others, is not only experimental or avant-garde but practices all those forms of translation that John Dryden spelled out centuries ago: metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation, three procedures with varying degrees of departure from the original.  Or put another way, I’m mindful of the observation somewhere attributed to Wallace Stevens that “all translation is experimental translation.”  To which I would add that all translation [at least of poetry] is collaborative translation ... from the perspective at least of the poet translator.  As such my own experience has been that when I’m most intensely into the act of translating, setting another before me — “the most sublime act” as Blake would have had it — I am or I feel like an actor immersed in a role, becoming that role or character,  or like a dancer, say, responding to the movements of a partner, then thrown forward to do the dancing on my own.  The Lorca Variations, from which I read earlier, are the clearest example I have of this — from translations in immediate response to Lorca (developing my own rhythms as I go, but always with Lorca to guide me) to poems of “my own” which retain words from my translation but leave me free to compose anew.

With  that in mind I want to end with a twofold exploration of myself not as translator but as the object of translation and variation. 

A few years back, while I was preparing (with the Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez) a large anthology-like assemblage of my own writings, Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, the retrospective nature of that work opened me to the idea of applying to earlier poems of my own the procedures I had followed for Lorca and others in the “variations.”  That meant, as with the other variations, taking a poem of some length, isolating mostly the nouns and some adjectives, rearranging the order in which they appeared, and using them as what Jackson MacLow called “nuclei” in the seeding or composition of new poems.   I was also mindful of two statements attributed to Henri Matisse when he was my age or possibly a little younger: “One should be able to rework an old work at least once — to make sure that one has not fallen victim — to one’s nerves or to fate.” And again: “When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.”

[Reads: the first “hell” from Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi & its variation]

The final experience of translation, however, came on the various occasions when my work was being translated into another language, but particularly where I was familiar with that language and, even more so, where I was able to work along with the translator.  That process in several instances was truly exhilarating while it also brought me up against the limits of translation and the strategies of the translator in trying to address them.  Some of this is obvious to all of us here and applies in whatever direction the translation is going: how to distinguish heaven from sky in most European languages, or spirit from mind in others.  For the former too I ran into a problem compounded by an element of word play, when I included a short sentence — “I will change your mind” — in a series of manifesto propositions, for which the translation could never be handled properly or lightly enough.  Or there is another instance where I speak of mind changing into spirit or of spirit changing into mind, and yet another example in a line and a poem title: “the sky that harbors heaven.”

            Those of course are familiar instances, but the translation problem has been compounded for me in a recent series of poems (“Divagations”) where rhyming enters the picture.  I don’t here mean structural or end rhyme, where the rhyming words don’t have to be consistent between the original and the translation.  Rather what I’ll present to you now is from a series of poems called Divagations, which are currently being translated for a new book in French.  The rhymes here are obvious and have a relevance both to sound and sense.

[Reads and discusses: Divagations (1)]

An even clearer instance is a poem from a series that drew on images from Goya’s masterwork Caprichos and were then translated into Spanish by Mexican poet Heriberto Yépez.  What the Goya image gave me were two animal figures, a monkey and a donkey in English, but most literally “un mono” and “un burro” in Spanish.  My poem however took the rhyming coincidence in English as a point of departure to seed the entire poem with rhymings.

[Reads: “A Monkey & a Donkey”]

In this instance anyway, since Yépez and I were very close, we worked on several of the rhymes together, and at a couple of points we rewrote lines in question, to get the same effect if not the same meaning in Spanish.  It strikes me that more was possible here — a greater degree of Dryden’s “imitation” or de Campos’s “transcreation” or my own “othering” — but maybe we’ll get back to that in the years ahead.

[Reads: “Un asno y un chango”]

I will close then — if the time allows — with a translation of my work that I was most able to incorporate into the performance of my own poetry once it came into my possession.  The poem in question was the opening of Poland/1931, my attempt in the 1970s to create an ancestral poetry of my own “in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves and madmen.”  Amos Schauss, a translator whom I had met briefly and who was a rabbi and teacher at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, worked up a translation of the poem into Yiddish — possibly with my assistance, possibly not.  What resulted, from my perspective, was a perfect match for the English and allowed me the pleasure, in performance, to top off the range of Jewish works I was pursuing at that time — what David Meltzer called my “yiddish surrealist vaudeville.”  For this I remain grateful to Schauss for a gift of translation beyond any that I’ve ever had, either then or later.

[Reads: “The Wedding” in English and “Di Khasene” in Yiddish]