Image Credit: Nava Waxman – “Polyphonic No.5” (2015). Encaustic on canvas.
As my book Trilce was mentioned by Johannes Göransson and Daniel Borzutzky in the recent illuminating roundtable on translation, I would like to provide my views on what is a different kind of translation from the more established form of denotative-centered work: homophonic or connotative translation.
My impulse to write a mostly homophonic (there are German interventions) version of César Vallejo’s magnificent Trilce is precisely because I wanted to write against/within/across a language that I did not know. Unlike denotative translations, where the translator is attempting to shift or transfer denotative meaning, context, and intent across languages, I wanted to not have the knowledge of those inherited meanings, which create context and intent, and vice versa, in my head. Unlike, for instance, I do with German, somewhat. (I am 2/3rds German, ancestrally, had two years of German language courses in college, grew up in a German American community). It was this awkwardness of not knowing that I wanted to highlight. I wanted to highlight my uncertainty, perhaps my feebleness, lack of mastery, but to also grant full attention to the sounds of the language, apart from the denotative meanings agreed upon. But this decision to do this, to purposively elide another poet’s denotative meanings, or purported, or contested, meanings, was also to show how much I didn’t trust meaning, or at least to problematize the reception of it.
Denotative translations—the high majority of translations—privilege meaning: semantic cohesion, summation, explanation, story. What is being said, what the poet is saying, from the subject to the verb to the object. This is fine. This is laudatory. I have tremendous respect and admiration for translators involved with this type of translation. My own writing, and life, would be completely impoverished without the fine work that the denotative translators do.
This kind of meaning, however, has always been suspect to me in my own life. From the earliest years in Catholic school, with the hocus-pocus of the three-in-one of God, Man, Spirit (which is it?). Or the Body and Blood of Christ being treated metaphorically, yet there was the stale wafer and the red wine. I grew up among German Americans who would sometimes shift into German from English when something needed to be hidden, to be kept secret. I was always wondering what was being said, and what wasn’t being said. I could hear the sounds.
I felt a kind of connection with Vallejo’s surrealism, his solemnity, maybe, his flights of imagination, and his estrangement of/from what is called, out of fear, reality. These seeming links—links in my mind, at least—occur through language, through text, through the defective system of language, as I have never met Vallejo. Not yet. So it is a sensation—of being in league, in concert, in mystery with. I also felt connection with what Guillermo Parra said, “I believe there’s an aspect of translation in which I’m channeling not just the poetry but also the poet I’m translating.”
My friend Steve Timm, a tremendous poet, was the person responsible for pushing me to continue with the homophonic project that I began in my first book, and to do the entire book of Vallejo’s Trilce.
Johannes, in the roundtable, said “translation is volatile” and that what people don’t like is there are “too many versions” of the text. Jennifer said, among other things, that she thought “US poets are a special kind of provincial.” Daniel said translated works are better than English works because “they are scarier, fiercer, wilder, stranger, more beautiful.” I agree with all of these things. I am attracted to the diffuse, the unsettled, the evolving. I am reminded of a reading that Jennifer gave in Oakland just recently, where she conjoined disparate elements of text, and read them in different patterns. To me, this is meaning, because meaning is under question; this is the varied and extravagant and erratic life that thrills me, that I love. This is also what attracted me to Vallejo’s work in the first place, through Clayton Eshleman’s denotative translation.
So what does one do with intention? What the original author intended. Everything I have said previously has been heavy with I, I, I, I and I. I think the original author’s intention matters when the work has not been translated denotatively into another language first. To me, Vallejo did not need another translation of Trilce. We had them. I felt comfortable doing a translation that spoke to the emotional undercurrents in the work, loss and sadness, and the wild and grasping, while bringing it off in a different way, by a different method. I also, I think, was interested in perhaps being honest about my position as an American in the translation. I wobbled in all realms though. I think, more recently, Brandon Brown’s and Sampson Starkweather’s more colloquial translations, and Sandra Simonds’s vampirisms as well, have pushed the cultural and social histories of the translator much more into view. It seems this is also where Marie Buck’s translations fall.
In the roundtable, there was some talk of colonizing the original text. For me, this feels pretty overstated. Unlike actual colonization, where a language is completely overturned, and people are forced to use the colonizer’s language, nothing of the sort is happening with my homophonic translation. The Spanish language, which was itself a colonizing language in Vallejo’s Peru, is not going to fold up, people are not going to be silenced, and no one is going to be imprisoned.
It should also be mentioned that there is this privileging of non-colonizing in the traditional form of translation, yet the original language is also disappeared into English. So, the exception, the distinction, then, is based on being sincere to the intention of the original author’s wishes, because the original language is also being colonized in the standard translation. But does one know always what these intentions truly are, especially when the author is dead?
The following is from an interview with the scholar and translator Carla Billitteri, on hold—in aspic—but a piece of which I feel is important for this discussion: deception.
James Wagner: I recently came upon an entire manuscript I wrote in 2011, which I had completely forgotten about. It’s called “Expositions.” Inside there were many things, including this clipping of the preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I thought of you in the sense of the “poetics of error” you mentioned. I also laughed, as I read Spivak, that perhaps a major part of my poetics could be found in one German word, Sinnhineinlegen. Deception through meaning. Here’s the full pulled quote: “Interpretation is “the introduction of meaning” (or “deception through meaning” -Sinnhineinlegen ), a making-sign that is a making-figure, for there is, in this thought, no possibility of a literal, true, self-identical meaning.” –Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Translator’s Preface, in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology.
Carla Billitteri: Oh my–yes! Deception through meaning, precisely. I wanted to begin again from your interest in a poetics of mirage, and here we are: Sinnhineinlegen … Figuration, not identity. Non-identity, that is …. Interruptions and redirections of thought/perception ….
This little mention perhaps gets to something that Marie said about her interest in “the public performance of affect or emotion.”
For me, it is getting to something I feel strongly about, this notion of meaning, and how it is created, how it is assured as a certainty, how it is transferred to others, like a perfect virus. This, before, translation. And what happens afterward? The assumptions that the translator is doing due diligence? And where is the verification that this is happening, and happening in the same way?
I have questions and questions and questions, and the answers I come up with seem transitory, degraded already, in the second I put them forth.
Meaning, to me, is a story. A version of something. My story right here, in fact, of what my intentions were, for instance, of when I began the translations of Trilce nearly a decade ago: Are those really one and the same? What I was doing then, and what I think I was doing now? How much of what I am saying is to be seen in the light that I want to be seen in?
In the end, it was the music of Vallejo’s language that entranced me, and I would repeat the sounds of his words to the point where they took on mystical, spiritual, and/or otherworldly shapes. This is another vibrancy, then, another aspect of the word, that holds multitudes—and thus the meanings fragment, which complicates intentions, which invites the warm embrace of deception, not all of which I am even aware of.
But deception implies there is a textual truth somewhere, and not multiple truths, multiple versions, multiple stories. I don’t trust in deception either, for this very reason. Just as there must be many truths, there must be many deceptions. My heartfelt deceptions are true, my sincerity is there. I care deeply about César Vallejo, his poetry, his life, his music. If my work brings more people to his careening, lyrical, and powerful work, in Spanish or translation, I will feel like my book will have achieved something for the better, in reverse.