What follows is an installment from the weekly discussion blog for the graduate poetry workshop I taught this past semester at the University of Notre Dame. Along with the reading of fellow students’ work, I assign books of contemporary poetry and various essays and interviews to help the class develop a vocabulary with which to discuss and think about poems (including both the students’ and the outside reading), and hopefully to inspire the students’ work.
Here students discuss Sawako Nakayasu’s book Mouth: Eats Color and Haroldo de Campos’s essay “The Rule of Anthropopaghy: Europe Under the Sign of Devoration.” The class offered many interesting perspectives on Nakayasu’s book, so I thought it might be useful to publish the discussion as a kind of essay-in-the-making—i.e. not a finished essay, but a discussion-as-review, complete with disagreements and provisional observations—and the class agreed. Below, readers will find not a finished argument, but an engagement with this book. Perhaps others will respond and join in the discussion, so that even though the class is over, the discussion will continue.
AE HEE LEE: Mouth: Eats Color is a collection that includes several languages and voices. Not does it only contain poetry by Sawako Nakayasu and/or Chika Sagawa, but others such as Harry Crosby, Frances Chung, and Mina Loy make appearances. English, Japanese (which in turn can be divided into three types of writing: Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji), French, Spanish, and Chinese appear throughout as well.
This might be a stretch, but would it be possible to say that the inclusion of several languages and voices is Baroque in the linguistic level? This diversity also reminds me of Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia (“hetero- ‘different’ and glōssa ‘tongue, language’”) and polyphony (“diversity of point of view and voices”). How would they fit in this book? Would they fit at all (as they are usually used in the context of a novel and a single “language”)? Does the interaction of the different voices and languages in the page cause conflict like it usually does in instances of heteroglossia and polyphony? In what way?
One of the things that I noticed through the book is how personification and synesthesia seem to reign in the poems. For me, they worked similarly to translation, magically acquiring characteristics they usually are not associated with, changing, and yet retaining parts of their original self. This can be observed in the poem “Black Air” (17):
In the distance, dusk cuts the tongue of the sun.
Underwater, town after town in the sky stops
All shadows drop from the trees and gang up on me.
Forests and windowpanes go pale, like a woman.
Night has spread completely. The carpool takes a
flame abroad and crosses the park.
At that point my emotions dance about the city
Until they have driven out the grief.
The poem “Waves” (61):
The laughter we have today
Is captive to the eternal
And silence only grows deeper still.
Because the tongue is simple, like a pair of clappers.
Simply open their mouths
As when yawning.
And even the title itself, “Mouth: Eats Color,” which comes from the poem “Waves- A List of characters and backside” (72), does this.
I would also like to point out there is an interesting element of voicelessness in these poems and some others, despite the many words flowing out of the pages.
Since there were many series in this book, I will only talk about “Promenade.” In this series, the “same” poem (is it the same though?) gets translated again and again, from English to English, from English to Japanese and French, from Japanese to English…, changing form, the way it is displayed on the page, syntax, meaning in each poem, and yet still sharing elements, such as the title, certain words, and words that are semantically related to them, which connect them to each other. However, to what point could we say that something is a translation and when does it become a recreation, a new piece of work, despite having the same title? For instance, the poem “Promenade (Pass the Hand Over a Life as Fleeting as the Dew)” (51) looks and reads like a completely different poem from the other ones that are under the title of “Promenade,” as it does not even include the usual words found in the others (“flower,” “afternoon,” “season,” “3 o’clock”). Would this still count as a translation or an original, per se?
In his article “The Rule of Anthropophagy: Europe under the Sign of Devoration,” Haroldo de Campos talks about how through the differences and otherness of Latin American literature, Latin American writers devoured European literature and made it their own, just like the cannibals who eat warriors in order to appropriate their strength. In de Campos’ article, there is a moment where he juxtaposes translation and digestion/devoration, implying they could be equal: “Today, in both Europe and Latin America, to write means, more and more, to rewrite, to re-chew” (57). There might be a “devoration” of language and meaning going on in the act of translation in Mouth: Eats Color, a sort of deconstruction and a reconstruction. What do you guys think?
On that note, I would like to bring up the question of what is an anti-translation, especially in the context of this book. Does it refer to the impossibility of a truly complete translation or mistranslation? Which poems are translations? Which ones are anti-translations?
When reading Mouth: Eats Color, unless one is fluent in all the languages that this book presents, readers will pass through some poems without understanding even a single word and other poems understanding only parts of them. Poems such as “Promanade” (7) and “Cloud-Form/Delicate Fingertip, Like a Leaf” that combine different languages let us have the illusion of understanding the poem without knowing its “foreign” counterparts, and yet their presence lets us know that this understanding is truly incomplete. This could be viewed as an aggressive approach to the audience, seemingly marginalizing groups of people who do not understand the languages in the poems. However, it could be the opposite. It is like a reflection of our world: one filled with diverse languages, code-switchers, and words we might never grasp, ever. This, I think, is normal and at the same time terrifyingly wondrous.
KATY COUSINO: Ae Hee, I think you’re spot on in saying that Mouth: Eats Color is firstly Baroque on the linguistic level. French, Spanish, Chinese, and English: these languages become themselves over and over again, recasting words to create more and more. More mastication, more meaning, more expression to experience regurgitated life.
There are many moments in this collection that ascribe to both heteroglossia and polyphony. For example, in “Confluence of [Texture …]…” (75), English and Chinese not only coexist, but compliment each other. Together, joining confluently, they form an entire poem as the languages literally play on the page. There are two points in the piece wherein blocks of the differing language face one another adjacently only to converge again at the page’s bottom. As someone who does not speak Chinese, I can only surmise that the blocks are translations of themselves. In these moments polyphony appears and the concept of “original” ceases to exist: different voices in the same moment, in the same poem, with different meanings derived from the same words. These wondrous moments, while a bit baffling due to my inability to speak any language better than I do English, are fascinating due to the willing exchange of an artist’s marrow.
Speaking of marrow, this poem includes a lot of strawberry-flavored cannibalism. Painting a scene in which a fat man nearly devours the hand of his feeder, neither person particularly enjoying the texture nor feeling, the reader sees the persistence of the pained pair:
…the man finds it impossible to chew with a hand in his mouth… although one is hard-pressed to believe that a mere bite of strawberry shortcake could require much chewing… My hand has been cramping from its contorted attempts to avoid getting blood on the top side of his tongue. (76)
This exchange is not easy, but seemingly necessary; the hand must feed and the man must eat. For me, this ongoing struggle suggests translation’s merit. While the translator’s masticating jaw quivers and aches, overwhelmed with strawberry marrow, he is dedicated to the survival of strong poetry, to eating cake in a new way: “Any literature, closed upon itself, finally lapses into tediousness, when it is not renewed and revivified by means of a contribution from without” (Goethe by de Campos, 57). Considering the feeder’s perspective now, her hand must endure the painful contortions if she wants the cake and blood to form something new.
I find throughout this collection that the use of declarative sentences, written and remastered within pages of a poem’s “original,” is certainly no accident. In “Glass Wing,” the repetitive, “this is ____:” makes the poem read as a factual booklet on the world:
This is what the fun destroys on the street corner, easily: love, smashed between glass-wings, previously passed along among the people– gently, gently.
This is what the sky faces: the window, darkening with each rotation of the ventilator.
By the poem’s end, the poet is instructing “Everybody now”:
Everybody now: wear your summer finest and get in line. Here is your flask, now get inside. Will you crumble. Perhaps. Is this what you would call a happy shadow. A shadow of happiness. Does it rain. Does it fruit. Is this my heart and why do I feel so– (10)
The poem ends mid-sentence, an extended line suggesting more. Is the poet passing the torch to a different poet, to finish and reimagine the same poem? I think so; it is, after all, rewritten on page 19. By extracting question marks, too, the poet’s tone seems to repeat answerless questions they have already asked themselves. These questions are predictable of the novice because the master had already long ago asked themselves of shadows, rains, and hearts.
I feel I only came to this conclusion because of de Campos’ article, “The Rule of Anthropophagy: Europe under the Sign of Devoration.” Exploring Brazilian poetry’s origin, de Campos reveals to me a beautiful sense of artistic community:
Among us, poetry began as an art, as something that could be taught by the skilled and learned and practiced by someone who had a basic level of talent for the goals in questions. In Portugal as in Brazil, in the seventeenth century, one learned to write poems from manuals like the famous El Arte de Trobar: the older poets taught the less experienced, and the academies began to flourish. (48)
A manual on how to write poetry makes me think of Dead Poets’ Society when Robin Williams makes his class rip (“Rrriiipppp it!”) a book apart because it gives instructions on how to write a good poem. Somehow, though, I think Sawako Nakayasu’s manual is more supportive, though no less fierce.
RACHEL ZAVECZ: I’d like to address Ae Hee’s suggestion that the poems in this book contain an element of voicelessness because I had the exact opposite feeling when reading this book.
I felt in my reading that Sawako Nakayasu was extremely present in these poems—issuing a challenging taunt directed both at the principle of translation as a direct process from one point to another, and also at the reader. Nakayasu creates a compilation of poems that are difficult to define—are they “direct” translations, interpretations, or new poems entirely? They blend together to create what felt to me almost like one single epic poem, filled with a multitude of voices. There are so many techniques of translation coexisting that meaning blends and shifts in ways that bluntly defy any attempt to define or enact “correct” translation.
The very first poem, the first encounter with “Promenade,” utilizes two languages to create a floating, cloud-like experience—it feels softly vague and allows multiple interpretations of its linguistic use and placement. The first few English words are “Seasons change their gloves / in / fading / afternoon / light” (7). Skipping ahead, “Promenade (Pass the Hand Over a Life as Fleeting as the Dew)” feels like an entirely new poem. The first sentence reads:
A back turned on subsequent loss of money
under the drunken hand of rovers
in the vicinity of fire. (51)
It is entirely in English, addresses what seems to be an entirely different landscape, and embraces a very specific prose-y form.
However, this proliferation of technique alone is not what makes this book so remarkable. The fact that Nakayasu includes so many different ways of interpreting, translating, and writing poems creates a space of influence not only from one point to another, but backwards from the new to the original. In the notes section, Nakayasu states that any person who relates to this book must admit “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (p4 of “Notes”). This seems to correspond directly with de Campos’ view of nationalism:
Hence the necessity to consider the difference, to consider nationalism as a dialogical movement of difference […]: the dis-character, instead of the character, the rupture instead of the linear course; historiography as the seismic graph of fragmentation, rather than the tautological homologation of the homogenous. […] A new idea of tradition (anti-tradition) to be made operative as a counter-revolution, as a countercurrent opposed to the glorious, prestigious canon. (45)
Nakayasu includes original poems, works of more traditional translation, and anti-translations because as a whole they create a more true representation of the broad concept “translation” itself. It is a work that offers no exact answers to the questions of veracity in translation, and perhaps mocks those who try to say that these answers actually exist. This is a book filled with a multiplicity of voices and personality that simultaneously creates fragmentation and an entirety. Yes, translations exist, but the idea that transfer of meaning can never be directly imparted is countered with the anti-translation sentiment of: does it need to? does the street not move both ways? Again, I really don’t think the book attempts to answer these questions, but it brings them to light and challenges preconceived notions of what translation can and cannot be.
Ae Hee, I’m not sure if I’m really responding directly to your earlier statement regarding voicelessness, because I should perhaps have asked for clarification as to what you meant – however, I think my initial reaction was a good jumping point for considering the book as a whole.
AE HEE LEE: I apologize for the ambiguity. I guess I was thinking about “voicelessness” in a very literal way. There were many instances in the book where the physical tongue was cut off or did nothing, which I contrasted with the abstract and synesthetic variety of voices that seemed to permeate the collection. Still I’m glad this bit got quite a debate going on.
RACHEL ZAVECZ: Yes, I think that even though it was a somewhat ambiguous statement, it was also a very interesting one and provided a great point for discussion. I really like your further explanation though – I didn’t even consider the comparison of the physical tongue and I think that’s an extremely astute observation.
JULIA HARRIS: I want to kind of start talking about “The Rule of Anthropophagy: Europe Under the Sign of Devoration,” and then jump into talking about the book.
As a whole, I thought this essay did something very similar to what Mouth: Eats Color does… I’ll get to that. The essay attempted to create a sense of universality by bringing in different references and origin points that you would simply not understand if you didn’t have the context, or previous reading knowledge… for instance, “a critical view of a negative function (in Nietzsche’s sense of the term). If you want to completely understand this sentence, you are forced to do outside research on what “negative function” really means in that specific context. This happened to me a frustrating amount of times. I ended up making more notes about how I felt some of the digressions in the essay were a bit weak in my judgement, or just not necessary (page 52 in reference to who was more of a painter)… the frustration I felt was because I found it rather distracting, but I know this was because I was very overwhelmed reading it, as the lens began to narrow and narrow and narrow.. and become so specific I would have to absorb a whole lot of unknowns, which begs for a very extensive literary base/ knowledge of international art, literature, poetry, philosophy that I unfortunately do not have…
Structurally, I see a parallel between this essay and Mouth: Eats Color. I simply don’t have 100% access to this text at any given point. So, I assume that the author of both texts has a sort of kinship with all of these languages or references… and creates for themselves, a sort of personal national identity through a book… which in part, gives it that universal feeling—as people will pick it up and understand parts in fragments. (How I felt reading both the essay, and book). Affectively, the texts build a sort of compilation of their own influence, readable to them, and read as code to others, who are only given snippets of visibility and clarity.
It was interesting to subject myself to the essay/book in this way, and kind of just adhere to the references I found obscure (as I would another language) because, on one hand, de Campos mentions on page 42-43 the belief that world literature is essentially the sum of individual national literacies. Therefore, to create something universal, one must kind of define themselves semi-locally (which I think the author addresses as archaic, as literature now is infected and contaminated with international voices… translations… re-translations… anti-translations etc…)
This is interesting because he refers to the Baroque in this way: “the alternating current of the Baroque brasilica was a double speech of the other as difference: to speak a code of otherness and to speak it in a state of otherness” (p. 48). I hope I am understanding this correctly, but to intentionally write in a code of some type of otherness…. in a state of otherness… there are a couple removals from familiarity in this sentence.
Sounds to me like an intentional imitation of some sort passed off as some type of original.
So how much of this pertains to Mouth: Eats Color? Well, I couldn’t find a concrete definition of what an anti-translation is, but I think that it kind of acts in the same fashion as the above example of the Baroque… something like an intentional imitation of something, in a complete different, foreign sense. So the translation must have some type of awareness of the original… while recognizing itself as a copy. A copy of a copy, in some senses, if the translation is filtered between multiple languages.
I thought a lot about that, and how the poems began to share commonalities yet deviate from the original in a way that the translations begin to destabilize the notion of which poem was the original, and which was its predecessor. I found that extremely interesting, looking at a translation as an imitation, and how the deviations begin to take a life of their own and an “original” in that sense. The process of deviating from the original spurs a new kind of otherness from a state of the original otherness… which just begins to grow farther and farther and farther that the deviations seamlessly become the author’s original work.
I found this particularly telling in “Promenade.” The poem reoccurs many times in many forms, its association begin to falter. “Seasons change their gloves in fading afternoon light” … “seasonal gloves” …. some images stick, others drop off. The ones that drop off lose a sense of identity with the original, and regain a new sense of originality.
PAUL CUNNINGHAM: Ae Hee writes:
This diversity also reminds me of Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia (‘hetero- ‘different’ and glōssa ‘tongue, language’) and polyphony (‘diversity of point of view and voices’). How would they fit in this book? Would they fit at all (as it is usually used in the context of a novel and a single ‘language’)? Does the interaction of the different voices and languages in the page cause conflict like it usually does in instances of heteroglossia and polyphony? In what way?
Ae Hee, to answer this first series of questions, I would have to say that I think “anti-translation” is a great phrase because it immediately draws our attention to the present-day dilemma of the word “translation” itself. Its history and its variety of meanings make it a rather problematic word when it comes to forming dialectics regarding poetry in translation. Historically, the word was used to signify transmission or transferral. A death-in-motion. A motion-in-death. For example, in Fears in Solitude, Coleridge writes, “As if the wretch, Who fell in battle…Passed off to Heaven, translated and not killed.” The notion of translation, in the preceding passage, acknowledges a spiritual metamorphosis. An idea of eternal life that goes beyond one’s body as a vessel for the human soul, or spirit. A state of flux.
The idea of a ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ or ‘finished’ or ‘correct’ translation between two languages disrupts the Bakhtinian idea of polyglotism. In terms of translation, the harmful, mediating logocentrism behind an idea of ‘completeness’ thereby renders the outcome of any act of translation as truthful and this could be severely destructive to a successful concept of ‘world literature.’ What do I mean by “successful”? Demanding and maintaining a state of flux across languages. I am reminded of the Goethe quote that de Campos posits in the conclusions of his article, “Any literature, closed upon itself, finally lapses into tediousness, when it is not renewed an revivified by means of a contribution from without.” In other words, no ‘chewing.’ No ‘re-chewing.’ Starvation. Death.
I believe this notion of “anti-translation” permits successful polyglotism. I believe the act of translation should be perpetual and never ‘finished’ or ‘complete.’
Thanks to this book from Nakayasu and Sagawa, we are invited to access the fourth line of a poem like “Promenade” in a way that allows or makes room for discrepancies across languages during the constant act of translation:
Three o’clock afternoon / At 3:00 pm / After three-time meridian / A 15:00/ 15:00 / Three o’clock / A three o’clock Trace of sun / At three o’clock / three o’clock /
Do you think any of the above excerpts are ‘correct’ or absolutely ‘complete’? I don’t.
As far as Ae Hee’s interesting “voicelessness” comment—like Rachel, I’m also not sure what to make of that. But I wonder if Ae Hee means to stress that not one of these translated poems, or, anti-translations, employ a voice that could be considered dominant? Or entirely authentic?
I’m thinking of the ways in which Benjamin built off of Leibniz’s theory of monadology from ‘Discourse on Metaphysics.’ On the concept of The Idea, Benjamin writes, “The idea is a monad—the pre-established representation of phenomena resides within it, as in their objective interpretation. The higher the order of ideas, the more perfect the representation contained within them.”
I’m not entirely sure of what to make of his use of the word “higher,” but I’m thinking along the lines of “variety.” The more variety of ideas—polyglotism—the more opportunities there are for languages in translation. This idea of monadology is, perhaps, a great way to go about diminishing one’s logocentric perceptions of world literature. A book of anti-translations like Mouth Eats Color offers a reader a kind of supremely appealing objectivity. Yes?
Also, to clarify, when I wrote, “Do you think any of the above excerpts are ‘correct’ or absolutely ‘complete’? I don’t,” all I’m meaning is that any one of those lines can be viewed as permissible.
If one is aiming to produce one translation of a poem (as most do, myself included) it seems to become more of an act of, what Lawrence Venuti termed via Schleiermacher as, “Domesticating” translation or “Foreignizing” translation.
When one ‘domesticates’ in their translation they reduce the “foreign text to target-language cultural values, bring the author back home.” However, if a translator domesticates, they perhaps also reduce the ‘foreignness’ of a language.
When one ‘foreignizes’ they apply an “ethnodeviant pressure on those values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the reader abroad.”
ALETHEA: Hey Paul, I really liked your post. I am going to attempt a response here, but I’m still working through my thoughts so it may be a bit babble-y and incomplete. When thinking about reading (and not particularly translation, although I’ll get to that) I tend to disagree with the claim that there is no “correct” reading of a text. This comes from my personal relationship with writing as an extension of speech, of communication. Therefore, I like to distinguish the metaphysical question from the epistemological one. In other words, asking what exists is different than asking what we can know or what we do know about what exists. So as I see it, the author’s intentions are important. When I read a poem, I want to understand what the author is saying in the same way that I want to understand what someone is saying when they speak to me. In many cases, they can be intentionally ambiguous or evasive but that ambiguity is their intention. I often have to come to terms with the circumstance that I may never know with certainty what exactly the author was trying to express, but I ultimately hold that the author’s intention is at the core of the text, that there is a correct reading whether or not I will ever achieve that reading.
This thread of thought was my gut reaction when I began reading your post; however, you won me over when you clarified something you had written earlier:
Also, to clarify, when I wrote, “Do you think any of the above excerpts are ‘correct’ or absolutely ‘complete’? I don’t,” all I’m meaning is that any one of those lines can be viewed as permissible.
The idea of the permissible is a striking one when thinking about translation. I’ve never worked much with translation between languages, or thought about it much, other than when I read Dostoevsky as a kid and knew that some translations made the books suck whereas other translations made them great (thus granting me the vague idea that translation must be important). However, I do think of translation a lot within the English language, the idea of translating a circumstance that we would normally relay with a factual statement, e.g., “She was in an abusive relationship.” Yet in a certain sense that statement doesn’t properly relay the experience, so poems can translate this statement into an abstract language which creates an emotional experience: unease, imprisonment, violence, which may or may not be closer to the truth. Both expressions are permissible to relay the circumstance of being in an abusive relationship. So, all this to say, that I think you hit on something really important about translation in Mouth: Eats Color.
Now I’m going to talk about the book, but not in direct response to Paul.
When I read this book, I was totes confused at first. I didn’t know where the translations began and the originals ended. I can read a little French, so I experienced this book on different levels of comprehension at different times. When I confronted the Japanese, I couldn’t even make a sound. With the French, I got the jist, and could hear it, but needed a dictionary for full comprehension, and then English, my mother, spoke and I understood her as best one can. At one point I got overwhelmed and only concentrated on the English. Esp. enamored with the Promenades, I read Promenade 6 as a translation of Promenade 5 (both English), and only wondered later if they were both perhaps different translations of Promenade 4 (Japanese). Reading Nakayasu’s interview with Fink, really opened the book up for me, granted me permission to be confused, to experience the book as a fluid, non-linear experience of translation and reinterpretation. She says in the interview:
Though of course it’s all part of the same project, and one of my goals is to frame this translation–anti-translation continuum, moving away from the binary (here is the “original, and here, on the facing page, is the “translation”). I’m not trying to outright critique that model, either—it has its place, certainly—but I just wanted to make a different proposal. So there’s no table of contents, no en face, no easy order or demarcation between original and translation, source and target—though there is order, still.
My response to this book is very interesting to me, because if I were to read one of the English poems alone, I wouldn’t think much of it. I would think that’s an alright poem, and then probably never think of it again. Yet, the project of the book, multiple versions of the same poem, multiple authors, multiple translations, without clearly delineating authorship, bringing into question what is permissible, all of it knocked something loose (or into place) in my head. This book made me more conscious of translation within English as I talked about above. It is now an important book to me, like that time someone said something that actually changed your mind.
CHRIS HOLDAWAY: The Promenade / Puromunaado series was particularly interesting. As I went along, I started to accumulate a fuller picture of a text, noticing a new English segment that I thought probably corresponded to an earlier slice of Japanese. I really liked what Paul said about resisting the idea that translation can arrive at some kind of final complete perfected state: it is always happening. As a linguist, to me this kind of idea is by no means limited to translation: it is in fact a property of all language all the time. There is no such thing as entirely literal language. There is no such thing as language that means exactly and only what it says. Even the most simple instance of natural language always requires inference to arrive at what is meant by it. This is called the Linguistic Underdeterminacy Thesis.
Mouth: Eats Color performs this idea to an extreme degree, weaving latitudinally between different language in the same poem, and also weaving longitudinally between different languages across different instances or ‘translations’ of the same poem. To me there is no reason why this kind of practice or attitude is actually specific at all to the idea of ‘translation’ (per se). By tearing at the boundaries of languages, I think this book has the ability to remind us that even a native speaker of English listening to another native speaker of English is a kind of translation. Once accepting that kind of thing, a book like this seems very natural all of a sudden.
One of my favourite lines comes from what I came to call the first “Beard” poem on page 15:
…like the backside of an embroidery.
That told me a lot about how to read this book, I think. The most brilliant thing that Mouth: Eats Color achieves, though, is that there’s no telling which language/languages is/are the front, and which is/are the back. We even see both at the same time. And the notion of the “embroidery” itself even appears in a different guise later on (page 25):
…the extremities of this
I think about dimensions a lot, and this was no exception. You know how in 3 dimensions, all the sides of a normal square cube are the same length, and all the angles are the same size (90-degrees). It is of course possible to draw the illusion of a 3D cube in 2 dimensions (i.e. on paper), but then not all the lines are the same length, and not all the angles are the same size. It is even possible to represent a higher 4-dimensional cube (called a ‘tesseract’) in 3D space: this video does just that. In true 4D space, all the lines and angles would be the same size, but by projecting it down into lower 3D space we lose that, and the object must be rotated to see all its properties.
I feel like a similar thing is happening in Mouth: Eats Color. We’re seeing a higher dimensional object of multiple languages simultaneously occurring, projected down into a lower dimension restricted to monophonic streams, where only one language can be heard at once. The object must be rotated constantly and seen from different angles, in order to see what could be ascertained all at once, if we had access to that higher dimension.
Also, here is a thing I wanted to share with you guys just for fun, but I feel is relevant to this whole business. I might have mentioned it to some people before. It’s called Translation Party.
You put in an English sentence, and it uses the old Google Translate API to translate it into Japanese, then back to English. Usually you get something different from what you started with, because the translation protocol is variable. It then repeats this process until things stop changing, and an equilibrium is found. It can be really really really fun to see the strange things that come out. Here is one I did for a line from the book:
please cover with dirt every year
Should dirt cover every year.
You must be dirty cover, each year.
You must be dirty cover every year.
You must be dirty cover every year. ——-> equilibrium found!
Here is a really terrifying one I did with a line from Hart Crane. Crazy things start proliferating out of nowhere: http://translationparty.com/#11506022
SUZI GARCIA: So in comparison, Jimmy James (the man so nice they named him twice), wrote his memoirs (“Jimmy James, Capitalist Lion Tamer”) which flopped in America, but when translated in Japanese, skyrocketed on the international scene. He then of course, had it translated to English (“Jimmy James, Macho Business Monkey Wrestler”). This was pretty much during the peak of absurdism in Newsradio & generally classic stuff. Starring Stephen Root & Dave Foley, but appearances by Brian Posehn & Ron Jeremy (???!!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzNUg_IcKrI
The disrupted feel of these poems comes through not just in the language, but also in the ordering of the poems, something Rachel pointed out. It often frustrates, as we try to gather the pieces together, and find ourselves falling short. But there are moments of humor and satisfaction as well, namely “Watch.” In some ways, you feel as though you are playing a game, or involved in some sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” as you choose to either skip pages to read the poem as a whole, or wait patiently for the poem to appear between the other poems, a tool that other poems employ as well in the collection. However, at the end of “Watch,” we are given both mystery (what is the ant’s new invented system?) and humor, as the speaker and the ant exchange a few words. It is a brief moment of satisfaction in this labyrinth, but I also think it speaks to both Ae Hee’s & Rachel’s points about voice.
The poem begins with a strong voice, describing the thoughts of the ant and its conundrum, but as the poem moves from that first page (31), it becomes more scientific: the speaker no longer refers to “you” but instead “one” and even employs statistics. Then on the final page, the speaker becomes the most personal, using “I” to interact with the ant. I think the voice/voicelessness is another system of disorientation, much like the languages.
In some ways, it is difficult to discuss the de Campos article in relation to this book because I am less familiar with the cultures involved. Mouth: Eats Color is clearly polyvocal, there is clearly a devouring taking place here, leading to the multilingual Baroque moments, but I’m less sure of what that work is doing here.
I’m interested in how the devouring becomes so literal, from the consistent miscommunication of what “eating Chinese” is to the discussion of aliens that eat humans (“How to Serve Man,” of course, came to mind). The ants also heavily return, and the comparison is inevitable.
NICHOLE RIGGS: I think one of the things I was most interested in while reading both Mouth Eats Color and de Campos’s essay, was the concept of anthropophagy, and how it applies to poetry, translation, and to Nakayasu’s book.
De Campos writes on page 44 that:
Anthropophagy…is the thought of critical devoration of the universal cultural heritage, formulated not from the insipid, resigned perspective of the ‘noble savage’…but from the point of view of the ‘bad savage,’ devourer of whites – the cannibal.” He also writes, on the same page, “…the cannibal was a polemicist (from the Greek polemos meaning struggle or combat) but he was also an ‘anthologist’: he devoured only the enemies he considered strong, to take from them marrow and protein to fortify and renew his own natural energies.
While de Campos is referring to the Latin American re-appropriation of Western literature through translation here, I feel that this theme applies well to Nakayasu’s translations—especially the idea of anti-translation. If cultural or literary anthropophagy is a consumption, a mastication, a reconfiguring of literature through some sort of digestion, then perhaps this is one of the meanings we can apply to the Nakayasu’s version(s) of “anti-translation.” Translation is not a static or peaceful activity—it is messy and violently transformative.
This is exemplified in Mouth Eats Color with the different versions of various poems. As Ae Hee pointed out, Nakayasu writes many different versions of the poem “Promenade.” I noticed that other poems in the book bore resemblances to each other as well. For example, the poems “If We Empty Out this Air Will it Finally Go Black” and “Black Air”—in the former, on page 12, Nakayasu writes “Trees, hold on to your shadows./Windows, go pale./Forests, go long—like women.” The poem “Black Air” (17) has similar imagery: “All shadows drop from the trees and gang up on me./Forests and windowpanes go pale, like a woman.” It seems that these poems could both have come from the same original source, but are in differing states of mastication, via the translator.
So what is anti-translation? These poems supposedly come from an original source, as I just mentioned – but as an English speaker, I cannot know that original source. There are many poems in this collection that are wholly or partially in Japanese (or other languages). On my initial read, I viewed these poems as the anti-translations—translations that remained in their original language. However, after observing these translations in an anthropophagic fashion, I don’t know that the difference between the anti-translations and translations are that cut-and-dried. I assume that the poems in Japanese are re-imaginings of original Sagawa poems (other translations also in the various stages of “mastication”)—but because of the limitations of my language skills, I can’t know that. There is a chance that Nakayasu included original Sagawa poems, and the poems we’re reading in English are the “anti-translations” rather than the “translations.” I felt that Nakayasu did this on purpose—blurred the meaning of translation by writing poems that seem to blur into each other, and also by writing poems that alienate the readers who don’t know the language they are written in.