Jen Hofer & John Pluecker, Blaffer Museum. Photo courtesy of Antena/Madsen Minax
Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, Blaffer Museum. Photo courtesy of Antena/Madsen Minax.

The Intermedium series concludes with my conversation with Antena, the collaborative created by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker.  As individuals Hofer and Pluecker have carried out extensive projects in translation and poetics.  United as Antena, they create manifestos and how-to guides regarding translation, among many other thought-provoking interventions.  As the conversation demonstrates, Hofer and Pluecker have reflected extensively on values and practices associated with literary translation while pursuing experiment.  In the context of a poetics magazine, the Antena project merits special attention for another whole zone of exploration:  it advances conversations and events to highlight specific complexities of interpretation (spoken and signed), with special attention to language justice. 

Synthesizing realms, "Antena activates links between social justice work and artistic practice by exploring how critical views on language can help us to reimagine and rearticulate the worlds we inhabit."

KD:  It seems that one of Antena’s goals is to frame conversations around translation in a maximally holistic way -- to ask what we see if we take the translator's position as a place to view the world out of every fiber of one's being.  Many of Antena's published projects explore the social and intellectual possibilities of translation, particularly your series of DIY booklets, which present a set of manifestos to the field.  Since the booklets seem so rich in these registers -- and perhaps because I see a careful use of abstraction in them that reminds me of a recent translator's commentary Jen was writing -- I'd like to ask questions cutting back across fields of translation at a distinct angle.

What are some of the most emotionally powerful moments you recall around translation? Are there book projects completed or underway that present unique emotional dilemmas for you?  How have you navigated those pressures, and would you call abstraction a central strategy for bearing up to the difficulties of translation today?

JP: Your question is making me thinking about different scales, different sizes: on one hand, a line of a translation and on another, a translated book. One of the things we have been thinking about (and feeling about) recently is how to think about the dilemmas at the level of the line and also at this larger societal level: not only a translation’s existence on the page, but also thinking through how a translation moves in the context into which it is introduced by the actual fact of being translated and published somewhere else. At the micro level, there is an intensity of focus, of attention, which feels healing, despite all of the emotional and affective dilemmas in our specific struggles around words, phrases, lines and sentences. An intensity of concentration I experience as a kind of cleansing, a limpia, a way of shedding all the millions of contextual escombros (debris) and momentary distractions of lived daily life. And then at the same time, we’ve been thinking (and writing) together recently about how our translations move once published, specifically how they circulate in the context of white supremacy and racial hierarchies within the United States, where, for better or worse, we make our home and a home for our translations. A translator is faced with the dilemma of how to operate and how to make decisions in the context of U.S. white supremacy, as it is replicated and reiterated (seemingly) endlessly. We have been writing about our thinking around this dilemma for a pamphlet that will be coming out sometime soon. Though the dilemmas have tended to multiply and expand as we have continued to write and to think.

Our dilemma(s) also seem(s) to be linked to the conversation about translation and “context” that has been going on recently on-line and off (here or here for example). Johannes Göransson has written that translation is a “deformation zone” that has “boundaries” and “traverses boundaries,” and he asks if its “contexts might extend beyond the national boundaries.” Within that sense of translation as zone then, how could we think about translation and its uses and abuses, utility and futility within a U.S. institutional “context” which is deeply and inextricably white supremacist? What we are thinking about it is how the U.S. “context” might not allow for translation to “overcome,” “possess” or “change” (to use Göransson’s terms), but rather uses non-U.S., non-English poetry as a sick currency (to be traded and exchanged) within the belly of the imperial beast.

Jen: Another person whose writing about translation and context is really important to me is Daniel Borzutzky, particularly in his Kenning Editions Ordinance Series booklet Memories of my Overdevelopment. He writes about translation as existing within continuums of language and continuums of violence, and also about translation as a kind of decomposition. About the ways that “the broken bodies and the broken nations and the broken institutions” from different sites of atrocity around the world become commingled and begin to seep into one another, while concurrently strategies for the privileged to maintain their dominance are enacted on a global scale.

It seems to me that to think through a practice like translation—a practice that is always and inherently about mediating otherness, transiting (and being transited by) difference—in a context of white supremacy (we call that context a “smog” in the title of our piece) and specifically as people with white privilege in a context of white supremacy who are committed to undermining not just our own privilege but the structures that would afford it—this is all inevitably emotional. And more so, perhaps, for me, as a person who is mixed-race and has white skin privilege—I can’t rest in either of those realities nor can I deny either of those realities, their very material effects on my experience and outlook. Their very emotional effects. And those effects have nothing to do with abstraction—quite the contrary, in fact. Black lives matter, and on an institutional level the state incarcerates and murders those lives as if they do not matter, and there’s nothing abstract about that.

I suspect I might be (cue ominous music) a poet. Because I don’t really see myself as trafficking in abstraction in my writing—or perhaps, put another way, I see all language as abstraction. It’s just sounds in the air or gestures in the air (if the language in question is signed) or shapes on the page or screen, really. And as such language is a rather abstract social and cultural agreement, but one that has very real material consequences.

Perhaps there’s a parallel to the micro/macro oscillation that JP mentions in relation to our current writing of “dilemma” (the differences between the possibilities to revolutionize language, and hence political imagination, at the level of the line or poem and the problems of trafficking translations in white dominated publishing contexts) where there are these tremendously, magically, almost alchemically powerful emotional moments in the minutely intimate processes of translating—moments when I as translator might feel my body or my consciousness to be actually possessed by the language-body or the thought processes of another person—and then there are these moments of reception of the translation that can be truly alienating, or just alien to my former (emotional) experience of the text from inside it. And there are also, of course, the very real affective relationships we often develop with living writers we translate. Often, however, it’s easier to think of emotional moments in relation to the very differently intimate act of interpretation, in which the interpreter is inhabited by the words and expression and narrative of another person, and in turn, the person receiving the interpretation is aurally possessed by the intense closeness of the interpreter’s voice in their ear. Sometimes the content of what we’re interpreting is enormously charged, or violent, or traumatic. We’d have to be superhuman, or maybe subhuman, not to feel those emotions and be affected by them.

KD:  One of the conversations that Antena prompts is an address to simultaneous interpretation.  You remind audiences that an interpreter’s skills, and the public uses of those skills, can’t be routinely collapsed into other forms of translation, even though these practices share the general issue of bridging divides with language. With that in mind, I noticed the importance of location in your replies, particularly since location factors into this debatable thing called “context.”  I wonder if there are particular sites that have become especially memorable to youpersonally and/or socially symbolic locationsin the Antena projects involving interpretation.  I also wonder how your interlocutors may have asked you to situate and identify yourselves in sites of interpretation, perhaps as a precondition for extending their trust in you.

JP: Yes, we are continually thinking and re-thinking through the differences and similarities between interpretation and translation. Both of us experience these two practices as inexorably linked, especially because we both live in cities where we are constantly moving between English and Spanish: on the page, while interpreting, and in our daily lives. So the experience of these two languages is visceral and corporeal (just as it is for so many people and so many authors in the U.S., particularly and centrally for those of Latinx origins). This means also that our thinking about language justice, about the process of pushing back against English-language dominance happens not only in meetings or events, but also on the page. I think our insistence on language justice can often come off as unnecessary or awkward or difficult or appear “overly radical”; each of these adjectives signals the appearance of art (or I could say poetry) for me: art as something that is unnecessary, awkward, difficult or extremist.

Jen: I think it’s worth mentioning that interpretation and translation are entirely different activities that require entirely different skill sets—though as you mention, Kris, they are both endeavors that seek to facilitate communication across language difference. Interpretation is spoken or signed transfer from one language to another, and translation is written transfer from one language to another. As JP notes, these two practices are linked for us, but there are many cross-language practitioners who engage in only one or the other. In my experience, the term “language justice” is most often used in relation to live experience—that is, meetings, conferences, workshops, or any event where more than one language is present and the effort is being made to insure that no one language will dominate over the others. Translation pushes back against language dominance in a different way—especially translation that’s conceived and enacted purposefully as a decolonizing practice. I tend to think of language justice as a collective endeavor—one that requires nurturing and commitment from an entire group, one that happens between and among various bodies, in real time and space, in relation.

As for relation, in terms of the question of trust, I think it’s always present and always in flux. The people for whom we interpret (and keep in mind here that in an effective bilingual space, we’re interpreting for everyone in the room who is not bilingual in the languages in question, not just for the people who don’t speak the dominant language) are in some sense dependent on us to represent their self-expression accurately, to make effective and genuine space for their perspectives and interactions. And all kinds of things can interrupt that trust—but only some of those things have to do with us specifically. I’m not sure I can separate the factors that might make the people for whom we’re interpreting skeptical of us, or on the other hand trusting of us, from larger set of factors that make people feel welcome or unwelcome, comfortable or uncomfortable, in a space. A language justice approach makes the interpreters a more integrated, visible, human part of whatever event is taking place, and that can make a real difference, I think, in the relationships we’re able to build both with event organizers and with participants. A more traditional “service model” of interpretation would suggest that no such relationship should exist in the first place: the interpreters are there to provide a service, robot-like, and then—thank you ma’am—they make an exit. Language justice also provides a framework where we’re always aware of working in service of the message, in service of engaged communication, but also in service of the autonomy and agency of the people whose communication we are helping to facilitate. So as we interpret, we’re thinking not just about accuracy of message, but also about making sure the people who are listening to the interpretation have all the information they need in order to be able to make their own decisions about how to react or respond to what’s being said. I’m thinking here of moments where someone says something very offensive to someone else, and I have to make a decision about how to interpret that comment. It might cause me pain or embarrassment to repeat an offensive comment to the people listening to the interpretation, but if I avoid the comment, or water it down, then I’m not allowing the people who are listening to the interpretation to understand fully what’s going on, and make their own decisions about how to respond.