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from the April 2018 issue

New Battles for the Propriety of Language

In this 2014 essay, Marcelo Cohen reflects back on decades as a translator in Spain and the complex relationship between translation, exile, and identity.
 

This text takes as its starting point another that I wrote once for a talk on exile and Argentine literature. But don’t think I’m simply trying to make things easier on myself. Remembering Joyce’s famous motto, “silence, exile, and cunning,” I briefly considered as a title for this chronicle: "On the Translator’s Exile as Arduous Passage to Freedom."  But then I remembered Cabrera Infante, a very sad case of forced loss of one’s beloved language and nation, and I decided to be more prudent. If I’ve mulled over these ideas previously, it’s because I write and translate and because sometimes I think that, maybe even more than writing, translation inspires bitter and sweet and always interesting perplexities on language, perception, politics, exile as a generalized existential condition, and the truths and fallacies of identity. But I’ve never reflected on these issues for a very long stretch, much less developed a theory. I think that the best way to get to the point is to charge into the repeated occurrence of certain dilemmas.

I arrived in Spain in December of 1975. I hadn’t left Argentina out of fear, nor was I in any greater danger than your average political activist. I had the feeling I was suffocating, the product of something more than the ascension of López Rega and the Triple A, and, although I wouldn’t admit it to myself, I simply wanted to travel for a year or two. I was full of Hemingway and of Blaise Cendrars. Three months after I’d left, in March of 1976, there was a military coup in Argentina. I lived in Barcelona until January of 1996. It’s a lie to say that twenty years is nothing. In those twenty years I fell in love and formed relationships that later fell apart, I learned three new languages, I made friends and sometimes lost them, I lived in eight different neighborhoods, read the majority of the writers that I return to most often now and saw the movies and listened to the music that I prefer today; I had paying jobs and received unemployment benefits; I played in neighborhood soccer tournaments, wrote for the press, and participated in an athenaeum of free thinking; I translated over sixty books, half of them very good, and I wrote twelve. Those two decades transformed the young middle-class Jewish Argentinean maximalist into a shape-shifting aggregate of nutrients gleaned from people, books, and experiences. I arrived in Spain on December 12, 1975. Three weeks prior, on November 20, Francisco Franco had died. I’m not going to rack my memory to extract a distillation of everything I saw gush forth after the lid of the dictatorship was ripped off. Today almost all the resulting frenzy has simmered down, leaving a society of immediate satisfactions and digestible discomforts, just as in any society that knows moderate abundance. But I remember that in the beginning, one afternoon, I watched from a corner as a march for Catalan independence converged with a protest to free the caged birds sold on the Ramblas, which in turn intersected with a demonstration of the Workers’ Commissions, and that same night, on the Ramblas, I was swept up by a horde of transvestites who paraded among the dealers, Red Brigade posters, and illicit card games. I remember that a cultural magazine I wrote for, El viejo topo, shifted focus four times in half a year, from workers’ rights to gender equality to surrealist anarchy to Foucauldian ethics. I remember that every week new translations were published of books that had been banned for years, from Dylan Thomas to Alfred Döblin, Gérard de Nerval to Guy Debord. I remember the air of sensuality that made any publishing initiative, whether mundane, journalistic, or political, feel like a rock concert. The joy that this carnival provoked in me was multiplied by the fact that, based on the common law of the geographical transplant, I foolishly believed that I had virtually no responsibilities. This involuntary self-delusion consisted in believing that my true responsibilities lay somewhere else, in the place I’d left behind, and in the horrifying stories of my country that reached Spain. One night a childhood friend who I hadn’t seen for at least ten years called me on the phone. He was at the airport with his wife; two days prior they’d killed his sister, who like him was active in the Peronist Youth Party, and he didn’t know where to go and he didn’t have the slightest idea what Catalonia was. I remember the couple spent a week without leaving the room I got for them. I hosted many refugees from my country, most of whom had been married and living clandestinely almost since adolescence, never having learned anything about the streets, and they recalled with tears a Rosario or a Buenos Aires that I didn’t know. Apart from the rage and the grief of defeat, there was desperation, pain, longing for the protection of family or even for this lack of protection to become familiar. But all this was absorbed into the effervescent broth of a Spain in transition, which dissolved it, tempered it, transformed it. It was a situation of irritating, sometimes ridiculous uncertainty. It didn’t last much more than two years—three, maybe—until democracy was established, Spain accepted its geopolitical role, and began the slow path to liberalism. I followed this process with some apathy as well; but not too much, because many of us had learned from Argentina’s failures. The libertine climate of Spain at the end of the seventies fostered an almost automatic criticism of ideology, which in my case included a rejection of Leninism, all real Socialisms, and the philosophy of power, but also the local Spanish varieties of Buenos Aires fundamentalism, family machismo, military-like hierarchy, sexual violence, nostalgia, unbridled passion, and widespread petit bourgeois repression. All this fed into an expansion of consciousness, an urge to destroy paradigms that was as pressing as the need for independence. The endeavor was consolidated by disparate slogans. The notion, for example, that we weren’t trying to change reality in order to continue being who we’d been before but changing ourselves in order to create a new reality. Or later on: the realization that change implied accepting that one doesn’t belong, that every life story or biography is an impermanent and changeable version of what has happened to a person, what has made them who they are and who they aren’t, that we are the product of an extemporal, indifferent sequence of events whose other possible versions should be respected. What I had not yet accepted was that the condition of exile forces us to face up to our responsibilities. Irresponsibly, to be sure, after holding various jobs more or less typical of a young exile, I accepted a book translation through a friend. Translating seemed dignified, it meant playing at man of letters rather than adventurous narrator, and in general it seemed like a mentally absorbing activity. I believed I’d cut my teeth translating Beat poets and science fiction stories for Argentine literary magazines and I knew enough Latin to put on an air of annoying smugness. I was dealt a blow. The book they gave me was a biography of Indira Gandhi, and when it was reviewed the critic declared that it was translated using “a Spanish as messy as the dickens.” I was annoyed that that cruel accusation of barbarism hinged on the phrase “as the dickens,” which my mother used and which I thought was an Argentinean turn of phrase, and it annoyed me even more that in the future, if I wanted to survive, I’d have to worry about what constituted messy Spanish and what didn’t. I understood immediately, almost overwhelmingly, that no one who thinks about language regularly and in depth can avoid running into politics. And I began to understand why some visionaries, such as William S. Burroughs, affirmed that language is the most efficient instrument of behavioral and societal control; but not only control applied externally, through political, advertising, and educational slogans, but also from within; through the delimitation of illusions, the projection of who we are from the time we’re born and the fear of failing to meet expectations, the neural networks of ideology. Unfortunately, my first reaction was to take refuge in a devotion for my uterine language. But I found myself in an irremediable predicament: I needed to earn a living as a professional translator in Spain.

Meanwhile, just as I was getting over my aversion to fanatical leftism, I struck up a conversation at the bar on the corner of my street with an Argentinean who turned out to be Osvaldo Lamborghini. I’d like to pay homage to this intimidating writer. Around that time, I read La causa justa, in which, the story goes, a Japanese man who lives in Argentina ends up committing hara kiri because he can’t stand that Argentineans have no word of honor, and I realized that Lamborghini’s aberrant literature—comparable only maybe to Puig’s—shined a light on the pornographic nature of Argentine politics, which in turn was the manifestation of the Argentinean mindset. He was a cantankerous and very impolite man. One morning in 1983 he came up to my house, rang the doorbell, walked in, and, without asking for permission, snuck a look at my typewriter, which held a translation of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. “You’re not going to translate it using Castilian, are you?” he said, and discussed ways we could sneak subversive shards of our peripheral dialect into the thriving and arrogant Spanish publishing industry. He ordered me to read Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, by Deleuze and Guattari, and to reread more carefully some of Borges’s essays, especially “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights.” In this psychopathic yet effective way, he struck the heart of the exile’s dilemma: language. From there on out, my sights would be set on language, all other concerns disappearing with the stroke of a pen. This would unwittingly help me in the long run, as well. Because by then, although my reverential fear kept me from fully thinking it through, I felt that there was a contradiction in Borges’s objection to the dominance of identity, which he calls “the nothingness of personality,” and his fierce support of local dialects, translations irreverent about Western laws of language. Regional variations in language perhaps contribute to the individuality of bordering nations; but as would become evident over time, the emphasis on national, religious, or linguistic identity is catastrophic. But Borges, it would be foolish not to acknowledge, wasn’t advocating an anticolonial message but rather the continuous renovation of literature, breaking the confines of this deceptive world through localization of inherited expressions.

As for me, I had a very insistent urge to break all restraints, perhaps as a way to march in step with the unusual freedom I had crashed up against. The typical agents of guidance had disappeared: I didn’t have any family, political affiliation, university studies, nor did I have a steady job or relationship, I just had friends, elective interests, and no aims beyond literature. As a still-undocumented exile of little means and an incipient libertarian, I toyed with a modest amorality. The fantasy of breaking my restraints culminated in a myriad of heterogeneous shards that would shred my personality and lead to a loss of myself, casting my identity beyond the limits of perception, possession, imitation, and fear of the passage of time. Unfortunately, my internal agents of guidance, entrenched in the superego, had become fixated on an insidious defense of my Argentinean identity, and I became riddled with guilt at the slightest provocation. Deep down, I submitted and this manifested in a maniacal rejection of everything Spanish. It was something like a campaign for health. I wanted to disintegrate, yes, but while preserving my voice. It’s a known fact that the Voice, with an uppercase V, is the metaphysical absolute, the intangible, immaterial fact that language is a place. But the voice that I wanted to preserve wasn’t that pure desire for expression that separates culture from nature, but that second voice, unique and fine-tuned which, I supposed at the time, ties us to the source of the self by way of our biographical origin; a kind of shared fingerprint. I didn’t know it, but from there to the worship of one’s roots, so harmful to someone who wants to depersonalize himself, there was no more than a step. All I knew was that my voice railed against the oppressiveness of peninsular Spanish. I was a foreigner in a mother tongue that was not my mother’s tongue. A mother tongue with a long tradition of imperial centrality and theology, restored by Francoism, its illogical polished by the Academy and its hatred of the technocracy. It was the Latin Americans who “spoke poorly;” the Argentines, especially, used the vos and, as I already said, oozed certain Argentineanisms that in the Spanish publishing industry were considered blasphemous. Editors and proofreaders treated us with a polite smugness. I was plagued by the constant chafe of misunderstanding, distress over living in a language that hadn’t developed a culture of suspicion, that didn’t interpret; that, as we said, “lacked a subconscious.” The Spanish uttered refrains as if they could only mean one thing, what the refrain said, but they implanted them into an unending variety of situations. They confused the present perfect with the preterite indefinite—they said “Last year I’ve been in London”—and they didn’t distinguish between the direct and indirect object; they considered their way of speaking straightforward but their thoughts were imprecise. They crucified what could have been delicate expressions of emotion through sentences that were highly styled yet stiff as boards. The Spanish and I said very different things using almost the same words. Instead of examining these misunderstandings from both sides (weighing, for example, the presumptuous and gaudy tendency of Argentines to emulate great poets they have not read), I converted each misunderstanding into distrust and, eventually, disdain. I once photocopied an article by María Moliner which explained that the pronoun “lo” was the correct choice for replacing the direct object and “le” was only a tolerated exception. I gave it to one of my Spanish editors. Imperiously, and quite rightly, she explained to me the notion of usage and never called me again. These and other confrontations were where my exiled superego had gotten me, and by that time my identity as an exile had precluded any possibility of opening myself to new experiences, or more like new feelings. It’s a known fact that ideas function like fences. The most widespread notion of exile gives birth to and nourishes an obsession with returning to one’s country with one’s national identity as intact as possible, as the desired end to all migration (in this sense, it completely supplanted the idea of revolution), and as a way of recovering the self. This dominant self-narrative, which dictates one’s development and level of achievement, aims to foster an estrangement from reality that doesn’t aid understanding in the slightest; it’s a deceptive estrangement, fraught with constant comparison. There was, of course, a hint of political rebelliousness in my discontent. My Spanish surroundings alienated me from my culture, my language was a tool of possible emancipation; peninsular Spanish sullied me, it drowned out my voice, it obliterated me as a vehicle of exceptionalism. As you can see, I was engaged in a battle for the propriety of language, in both senses of the word propriety. It wasn’t only about settling who could lay claim to the language but also who employed it to greater effect. I was ultimately echoing Sarmiento’s bitterness (“the Spanish translate little, translate badly, and they don’t know how to choose”) and Borges’s sarcasm over Américo Castro. The battle was hard-fought, crude, astringent, more work than was needed to sustain the notion of a homeland and the emblems of the past, but it was a way to ensure that my exile’s narrative wouldn’t disintegrate into disjointed memories. I felt oppressed, not by the might of an empire but some residue left behind by the newspapers, dubbed movies, politicians’ anacoluthons, advertising slogans, and the increasingly depressing tendency of large publishing houses to simplify translations—sanding away stylistic relief, shortening and segmenting all sentences with more than one subordinate clause—in order to facilitate consumer access. (I’d like to take a moment, if you’ll allow me, to examine this process. The Spanish custom of dubbing all foreign movies instead of subtitling them had given birth to a strain of “translated Spanish” that the public could easily understand even though no one spoke in such a way. In the eighties many translators adopted these expressions, which offered quick and recognizable solutions, and eventually some publishing houses began to require them. The series of maneuvers that wiped out all stylistic uniqueness was referred to as “ironing out” the original. The not infrequent consequence was that in the majority of Spanish translations in the eighties, especially the ones paid for by publishing conglomerates, Michael Ondaatje’s prose showed an ominous kinship to Stephen King’s. The most varied characters of the two were capable of saying, for example, Six of one and half a dozen of the other, Well aren’t you a hayseed? or, Whatever are you thinking? Then this mix of false colloquialism and trite stylistics began to appear—and this was the truly savage part—in the writing of several young novelists who read translations extensively and little of their own national literature.)

These myriad motives for strife provoked in me an outbreak of Argentinean fundamentalism. My work would have benefitted, as it eventually did in the end, if I hadn’t taken the tension between a loyalty to my roots and the obligation to translate using the dialect of the Iberian Peninsula as a declaration of cold war. The irritating second-person plurals and the different names for the same things weren’t hard to accept, because my day-to-day speech was in fact already a kind of Catalanized half-Spanish. But it was the peninsular way of organizing sentences, the cadence of questions, and various other elements that signaled a major, agonizing rift between the diction, intonation, and prosody, that is to say the temperament of this language, compared to mine. But this difference consoled me. It was an abstract difference, treacherous, but grounded in the correct assumption that the main contrasts between Iberian Spanish and the South American dialects weren’t lexical but related to sentence organization and its implications for intonation, rhythm, the preference for certain verb tenses and the respective adherence to or defiance of rules and norms, for example the use or omission of certain prepositions. Ezra Pound reminds us that there is no language that contains the sum of all human knowledge; no tongue capable of expressing all forms and levels of comprehension. Instead of reflecting on this adage, I submitted every word that seemed like a possible Argentineanism to a quality control process that had each translation awash in a daily tide of delirious inebriation. Behind my superego’s back, from time to time, I’d enjoy the subtlety of great Spanish translations, such as those by Miguel Sáenz or Javier Marías, and I envied them the richness that, I knew, could only come from an intimate relationship with the more recent additions to the dominant dialect. My tradition included Quevedo, but it also included the Argentinean gauchesca style and the Latin American translations of North American literature.

Given that this was the way I experienced translation, as an asphyxiating space where everyone begrudged the existence of the Other, I tried to soothe my irritation through smuggling and linguistic insurgence. I thought that if I could graft, divert, and upset the language that was imposed on me, perhaps I could create small islands of alternate reality, makeshift shelters where readers could avoid their now inevitable condition as consumers, the new gold standard of oppression, and something from which Latin America could still escape. I insisted on using the preterite indefinite, rigorously avoided the use of le; the characters in my translations exclaimed What a lie! like my grandma, maybe What a whopper! but never Such a fabrication! like my Spanish tobacco seller, and instead of OK, I used Agreed. I obsessively strained my ears to find the strangest colloquial expressions the closest to “ours” that the publishers would tolerate, and I treasured terms from the Golden Age that modern-day Spanish varnished over but which had survived in the more flexible South American dialect or words miraculously shared by the Madridleñan Cheli and the Lunfardo of Buenos Aires. Does it have to be said that I refused to use the verb coger, which in Spain is used in a variety of mundane situations, but in Latin America means only one thing: to fuck? My objective, when the original allowed it, was an elegant omission, sophisticated, playful and inviting, conscious that all writing involves a mutilation of meaning, an incessant, fatal loss of the idea you aim to capture, the erasure of what is named, and in translation the problem is made double. This solution, which gave my projects a slightly whimsical texture, didn’t elicit any major reactions. Some publishers continued to call me, others discreetly got rid of me, and I ended up doing most of my work for two presses, Minotauro and Muchnik, which were run by Argentineans, or for independent houses such as Anagrama, Icaria, Lumen. By then I’d had the privilege of translating Martin Amis, Clarice Lispector, even William Burroughs, Henry James, no less, and as my self-pity began to wane my sense of responsibility began to grow. My next subterfuge redirected my ire toward the standard literary Spanish that privileged plot-driven narratives and the supposed balance of form, something book reviews at the time praised as “fluid language.” The balance of form! These people had never read Gombrowicz. The exaltation of fluid language was the black beast of my writer self, and I railed against the purging of my intimate language in a public explosion of rage against the contaminating factors: a very long article in two parts under the title “Some Questions on the Propriety of Language,” which I published—and this should’ve made me think twice—in La Vanguardia. The first part was called “On the Writer as Shoe Softener,” in a biting, melancholy homage to a job—softening the new shoes of the rich—that some eccentric poor people in 1950s Buenos Aires had done for work. To put it briefly, the article said that when we’re born, we fall into a language like a pair of shoes assigned to us at random; discomfort first emerges when we try to say one thing and people understand something different; that nevertheless it’s not easy to avoid language as an essential element of belonging, so in the end one forgets that the shoes hurt their feet and they adapt to common usage because it allows them to build ties more easily. Then I accused Spanish writers of having settled for a fixed set of tools to shield themselves against walking barefoot, that is to say protecting themselves in literature the way they do in life. The Spanish wore their inherited shoes as if they were comfortable; they made do with functional words, relied on the illusion of transparency. What set Latin American literature apart, on the other hand, was the awareness of an unavoidable discomfort, the incessant worry over correct usage, a constant insolence, impertinence, and suspicion of the word and the speaker; the acknowledgment that every voice is filtered through a mask, recognizing the arduousness and impurity of literature, which is born from dissatisfaction, so that the only correct word is the one that challenges the fallacy of the familiar. My obvious bitterness, the product of a not entirely unwarranted resentment over my position as a member of the cultural proletariat on the payroll of the literary industry, was distilled in a passage dedicated to the diffuse but sustained campaign that at the time—a period when the Spanish publishing industry was establishing and affirming itself—was being waged against the South American translations from the forties, fifties, and sixties that had nourished readers during the lean years under Franco but were now classified as crude and unbearable. I don’t want to get into the minute details of what we discussed at translator conferences. What mattered for me at the time was that Spanish writers not only attacked South American translations full of terms such as cuadra (a city block) or durazno (peach); they also refused to consider that millions of Latin American readers didn’t know the meaning of the Spanish equivalents melocotón or chaval.

And so on. If secretly I hoped for some response, what’s certain is that none came. All I received in recompense was a morbid swelling of pride. A few weeks went by and the swelling became a contusion, a hemorrhage, and I felt silly. Some years later, amid the hype of the five-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America, there would be an attempt to prove that the official neutral Latin American Spanish, a language no one speaks, could heal the wounds left in the language by local dialects. Translation was the ideal way to shatter that farce of homogeneity through a multiverse of voices that were simulated yet unique. The fact is that after publishing my manifesto I slowly began to let go. It wasn’t what I’d wanted. It was the breakdown of my romance with conflict which had dictated my behavior. I understood that my experience of exile was something superimposed, projected onto my consciousness, curiosity, and daily evolution, fabricated a priori through my culture and background. This thing or object fit the mold of a long list of documented exiles, fortified by tradition and history, and working daily to reproduce itself. Many theories throughout history have argued the moral superiority of the individual who is capable of self-examination by creating a coherent narrative about themselves. For me, not only my feelings but also my memory tended toward the erratic; sometimes I missed my country, but in general, to be honest, I didn’t miss it that much. My present didn’t allow for time to miss it, and instead I felt only a slight nostalgia. The food, the accents of my friends and lovers, reading the newspaper, song lyrics, smells on the street or those drifting in through the window, emotions connected to a particular hour, a time of day, and a precise corner of the city: I was an actor playing a part in these memories of an adolescence spent in Buenos Aires. I was an assembly of representatives from many different parties who recounted anecdotes of varied times and settings, put forth contradictory motions and argued over unrelated events; and the worst part was that sometimes an entire faction abandoned the meeting. The bewildered silence I observed deep within belied a lack of control, the absence of an commanding officer, an empty control center. Against a hazy background contrasting elements emerged: the typewriter and the computer, the large Spanish croissant and the small Argentine medialuna—member of a category of pastries called facturas—the greasy, torn seats of the number 60 bus and the cushioned cabin of a high-speed train, the Mediterranean Sea and the Luján River, a vine called Santa Rita and at the same time bougainvillea, President Menem’s sideburns and the gray heads of the Spanish Social-Democratic rulers. In my most intimate of exile narratives, if I ever had such a thing, the urge to return had lost its pull. To be clear, my life required of me a language that was on par with its multiplicity, with the temporal and spatial millefleur that was each moment. Beckett proposed poking holes in the hopes that, maybe, after much patience, some truth would finally seep out. According to Deleuze, writing was like inventing a foreign language that blew through the writer’s language like a gust of wind to shake it up and whip it into a frenzy. And for Walter Benjamin, after Babel, after the dispersion, each language was doomed to live out its underlying defect, its incompleteness. Armed with this battery of arguments, I proceeded to carry out my daily duty as an exercise in self-annihilation and the breaking down of my constraints. Break them down! Break them down!, was my motto, just like that, said two times. Exaltation. Surrender. The illusion of ego emulsified and fused with another’s voice, et cetera. I was totally convinced of the plan. Especially when I translated contemporary authors. Such was the daily pleasure of offering up my language to the diversifying pressure of Alasdair Gray, Kathy Acker, or whoever, that I formulated the theory that fidelity in translation meant creating a new theory of translation for each book. It was a strange period in which I only cared about sentences, then paragraphs, and I made feverish safaris to the Spanish Royal Academy’s official dictionary, fact-finding missions through Quevedo, Larra, Sarmiento, Mansilla, Lezama Lima, tango lyrics, Madrileñan coplas, Onetti, Juan Benet, Arguedas, the translations of Lino Novás Calvo and Consuelo Berges. I paid great attention to the voices of others and revised my grammar to come as close as possible to parataxis. But I hadn’t learned my lesson. And, as if to corroborate it, just then my translation of La vida de Jesus by Toby Olson was reviewed in an Argentinean newspaper and according to the critic the novel was very well translated, she said, “by the ultra-Spanish Marcelo Cohen.” All aspects of the review left me enormously satisfied, from the praise to the sarcasm to the Argentinean ignorance that led the journalist to mistake my personalized blend of dialects for traditional Spanish. More or less around that time, I also translated the memoirs of Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish man who learned the saxophone in the reformatory, played with Armstrong, and ended up selling marijuana in Harlem, and nothing could have pleased me more than the observation that the conglomerate of slangs I’d contrived was hard to understand but in the end had a unique sound. What I want to say is this: the self, who we are at our core, supposedly, that blazing symbol of identity and a term some feel obligated to translate as ego, is truly obstinate in its narcissism and attachment to anything that resembles it or references it, even if it does so through the voices of others. Its deepest, most ardent desire is, of course, style. And I wanted a writing style and a translating style, and I was very ambitious: I wanted my writing to have an imperceptible Argentineness and, let’s say, a sophisticated hybridity.

There I was then, caught once again in flagrante. The Spanish would say discovered, not caught. My discomfort with contemporary Spanish, the language of the househusband, castrator of understanding, had incited a political liberation. But with all my River Plate genealogy and my Joycean desires for a sexual anarchy of words, I’d fallen victim to the desire for distinction, one of the vices that can lead the exile, like a lamb, to an intolerance equal to the intolerance that marginalizes them. If the self’s greatest desire is style, and the creation of objects as symbols of understanding is a means of control, the self is the bourgeois object par excellence. The self is a fallacy a posteriori; exactly like commodity fetishism. “The self is the landlord’s salary and savings.” This Carl Einstein tells us. And that’s why Einstein thought that the “destruction of the object” practiced by the cubist painters and by Malévich was not a purely formal issue but implied destruction of the social and systemic order, the bourgeois order rooted in possession, individualism, and the fiction of the permanence of objects and subjects. This wasn’t my case. Instead of letting communication flow out through the wounds of exile, I allowed them to scar over and form armor, as if I could somehow capitalize on the long quarrel between my adopted country and my country of origin, as if exile weren’t forever. No good for translation, as you might imagine.

Everything was out of my control, it was nothing more than a chain of causes that led to the present. The laborious task of understanding this, even halfway, began as I took a step toward opening up, caught a glimpse of freedom. Just a glimpse.

But some people never learn. I returned to Argentina and once again fell victim to the spontaneous whims of my linguistic motor which entertained itself by asking for Argentine zapatillas at the shoe store or Spanish calabacines at the greengrocer; I cultivated eccentric insults, such as the antiquated Argentinean Go boil yourself or the charming Andalusian Get fucked by a fish. I’d lack a degree of discernment in my translations, but because I conceived of them as transitory spaces I could host a great quantity of nuances and accents. Of course, I immediately noticed that the pleasure of using Argentine localisms, Lunfardo, eventually the voseo, was obscured by the fact that often the best solution, and even the most enjoyable, was a Spanishism; and this dialectical schizophrenia destroyed any illusion I held of fully belonging. If it’s true that you can never go home, the excess of expressive possibilities that I’d acquired only served to underscore the fact that I was out of step, this time with my own country. I didn’t take long to become embroiled in new misunderstandings. It goes without saying that the language of Argentina today is not the language of Mansilla, not even the language of Walsh. It’s an index of samplings from journalism, advertising, political commentary, psychoanalysis, and the scraps of street slang “ironed out” by the middle class, where Spanish translations and Central American subtitles and voiceovers play not even a minor role. Today Argentines swim in Spanish piscinas instead of Argentine piletas, in a restaurant we don’t call the mozo but the camarero, who will utter buen apetito instead of buen provecho, receptionists and concierges say aguarde instead of espere (because they think it sounds more refined), but the general vocabulary is distressingly limited. There are comparatively few who can handle subordinate clauses. Literary professionals who are fairly good writers are oblivious to certain rules of temporal sequence, such as the preterite indefinite and the past perfect, resulting in strained memories and a cramped present. And while I might try to accept the idiosyncrasy of these usages, adopt them with a grudging respect, I’m sure that my translations don’t sound less strange than they did in Spain. I do it on purpose, of course. It’s not merely a whim. It’s once again an attempt to turn translation into a place, a synthetic space where the self might become lost among the multitude of possibilities, the understanding of identity as an aggregate. But this place should not be isolated, protected, preserved; because if there’s anything I’ve learned from so many scuffles, it’s that this hypothetical space must provide an atmosphere of community, of feasting; it must generate fresh tissue in the huge body to which we all belong. I believe that in a place like this, a translation or fiction that is more or less unique is also a convergence of voices, of multiple voices, and a gathering place, local but always provisional, shaking up the language of stereotype, now increasingly international, more tolerant of polymorphic expression.

It’s surprising how easily we’ve accepted that hate and violence contribute more than love and peace to the structuring of social relationships. But more surprising still is the widespread denial that the climate of stress, terror, and threat that enshrouds our world relates directly to the closed-minded defense of identity, of the individual or the group, and the disproportionate exaltation of memory. Identity, erroneously considered an innate component and not a chosen one, determines the direction of one’s life and must be defended from anything that might erode it, hamper it, unsettle or modify it, consume and digest it, or stamp it out. Identity as ethnicity, tradition, nationality, religion, or exclusive political affiliation, for starters. Because at present you don’t see any major groups or too many individuals who have accepted that deep down, they are—as is said of the dead—nothing. Some of the wiser voices the planet listens to, for example the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, suggest we accept that the identity of any human or group, far from being singular and inescapable, is always an aggregate—some would say a construct—and that many of its components are born of random choices or affiliations. Identity can change over time, against a person’s will, and without his or her knowledge, and it changes as a result of premeditated decisions; the composition becomes more diverse. In the merely social plane, for example, we carry a portfolio of identities that we draw upon depending on the context (gender, class, profession, job, race, political opinions, among others), and the weight that we give to one over another determines our behavior. Sen maintains that the refusal to accept the internal diversity of our identities is an error shared by experts on the clash of civilizations, communitarians, religious fundamentalists and cultural theorists, and that the illusion of a unique identity, which gives birth to the sensation of destiny, fatality, and impotence, feeds rage and violence toward “the Other.”

I don’t cite Sen because I want to get into an issue that has been dealt with at length by many artists and academics, namely that translation allows for the comparison and rejuvenation of our own ideas through the language of the other. But the observation that I and the Other are each in reality a miniature multitude strikes at the heart of translation, the work of the translator, and I think that, while the notion magnifies some problems, responsibilities, and complications, it also offers a glimpse of freedom.

Let’s take the much-discussed quandary between translation as hypothetically neutral and a localist translation—idiosyncratic, or, to put it another way, extreme. Argentine readers’ regular displays of contempt for Spanish translations, the angry accusations of clumsiness and colonialization through the stubborn and, some say, malevolent use of Iberian words or peninsular expressions which impede their enjoyment of a text, reflect the ignorant and longstanding refusal of Spanish book professionals to accept the inherent diversity of their language. But these angry Argentine readers overlook the fact that the invasion of our bookstores by leftovers from the prolific Spanish publishing industry is an issue of capitalism and geopolitics, caused by a decline in local publishing houses for which some measure of blame, dictatorship and economics aside, must go to the publishers. In addition to all this, these complaints ignore a point that, if it’s worth getting into, could be a political aesthetic of translation for these times.

Within the despotic global prose of the State that continuously produces advertising and political slogans as well as myths perpetuated by the entertainment industry, and the fictions that, passed off as information to condition us, our society of spectacle has incorporated, with unbridled enthusiasm and as a way to deal with human themes such as pain, beauty, death, et cetera, what critics call “international literature,” the basic condition of these works being that they are eminently translatable. I think that as a reaction to this attempt at subjugation, today the naturally resistant writer makes an effort to create independent literature, which is to say just literature, rejecting texts created with translation in mind. The poetics of the untranslatable lead to acknowledgment of the fact that very local expressions and slang, very personalized styles, demand localized equivalences.

So as not to get tangled up, I’ll present the problem using two examples.

First, let’s suppose that a group of my neighbors, sick with atavistic racism, are infuriated by a family of Nigerian immigrants, the Ababós, because they raise in their little yard some bushes bearing a nourishing but stinky fruit. The family is from a culture in their country that has historically lived off the cultivation of this plant and they were mistreated by a local mafia, etc. Let’s say that I know of a moving Nigerian novel that tells a story similar to the Ababós’ and allows us to understand them. I think that it will help my neighbors change their minds. But the translation of the novel is from Spain and the translator chose to use the Madrileñan Spanish of the Lavapiés neighborhood for the language of the Ababós and the Nigerian mafiosos. What should I do? Hope that my neighbors can see through the veil of a dialect that is foreign to them? Risk the chance that their interior social demons will take advantage of the confusion to accuse the Ababós of being Spanish bastards? Propose that some humble but valiant independent publishing house apply for a subsidy from UNESCO to buy the rights and translate the book using the local Buenos Aires dialect?

Another way of approaching the dilemma:

A few years ago the Argentine poet Leónidas Lamborghini published the narrative poem Look to Domsaar. An old man who was lecherous and perhaps powerful named Pigj lay dying on a scorched plain where nothing grew. He’s lying in a bed on wheels and accompanied by two women and a few others, and the poem narrates the bed’s laborious journey, facilitated by its very practical wheels, sometimes traveling in a straight line, sometimes zigzagging on its way to who knows where: like our country, like the progress of civilization. Burial of Pampan lyricism and sarcastic disregard for common usage, shadowy Beckettian skill and sacramental Peronist sketch comedy, monstrosity, lewd vaudeville act and highbrow commentary, story in verse, also serious drama on death, this superlative poem should not have implied any more risk than what Lamborghini had assumed from the outset, when he decided to employ a unique tone to express his vision. Lamborghini needn’t have had any goal in mind save that of projecting his voice, freeing, let’s say, his vision and shaping it. The search for answers or conclusions is abandoned in the face of needing to write well what is written, risk fades away and what remains is the poem’s best interest; for us, a kind of pain that is relieved, that is to say: aesthetics. He doesn’t know what kind of reach it will have. Lamborghini probably wasn’t worried about foreign distribution. Translating this text would be very tricky, overflowing as it is with localness. And if I choose this example it’s because it seems to me indicative, but I could just as easily have chosen something by Russell Hoban, an American who settled in England and wrote the masterpiece Riddley Walker. Hoban’s is a coming-of-age story set in a postnuclear world, written in a delightful neo-primitive style, and Hoban refuses to sell translation rights for other languages (as if he were afraid of denaturalization). Faithful to its extremist impulse, stubbornly rooted in its world of reductive circulation, literature employs the local dialect and enriches it; is renewed through diaspora, destroys the synthetic language which separates us by way of what is supposed to connect us. Not a few think that if literature has a future, it will be thanks to a large stock of untranslatable books, or of course for us translators, seemingly untranslatable.

Even in less extreme cases, it’s hard to imagine that a neutral language like the one dreamed up by the Spanish version of Life magazine could increase the translator’s commitment to his or her work. Equal opportunity among various groups of readers is a fantasy, because there are very few works that the publishing industry is going to translate for any given country, and because identity exercises an insane power of reduction: from the nation down to the region, state, county, race, city, neighborhood, family, self. Apart from the fact that the alleged “Argentine” language already incorporates expressions from the entire Spanish-speaking world, and from other worlds, an inevitable consequence of the global extravaganza. We’ve adopted the Spanishisms porro, cachondo, piscina, the erroneous and disgraceful use of the vosotros, the Mexicanism lucir and even the Brazilian todo bien, and make easy use of pinches bueyes, quiubos, pantaletas, and cabrones, all terms that have made their inflexible Lunfardo predecessors bray but haven’t weakened the undeniable legacy of Argentine vernacular accomplishments such as che, viste, mina, or many others. This is just one example. The same thing is happening with the national dialects in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, everywhere, and, with the approval of the Royal Spanish Academy, it’s begun to happen in Spain.

In this climate, the enduring battle between the translation of a work to a language that is believable for the particular reader or a language that causes estrangement could be resolved by a new alternative. It would be a provisional solution, and would announce that from here on out all solutions will be provisional. In reality, my hope is that it foretells of a future in which every book will demand of the translator, as writing demands, not only a partial solution, but an ad hoc theory, as if translation could become a branch of pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions. The translator, when not yoked to his or her daily pages, dreams of an ocean filled with plankton of dissolved identities. Let’s not forget that an ocean is a medium. Instead of creating twenty localized versions of an original, each translation will make use of all the language’s dialects and slangs, taking, for starters, the ones that best facilitate imitation or interpretative execution. It would be a rebellious usage: maximum strangeness obtained through the artifice of global familiarity. I don’t ask myself if this dream is contradictory or even harmful. In the seventeenth century, the version of El Quijote in English caused a literary earthquake from which rose mountains such as Tristram Shandy. The novels of Onetti would not exist without the versions of Faulkner translated in the forties in Havana and Buenos Aires. Some might say that commerce revives languages and that at each step a literature must decide, if it wishes to survive, which branch of its tradition is still vital and which it would be better to prune. Of course, if the decision is left to the industry—which loves the public, which in turn loves to be deceived—the only thing generated is profit, as they trample the world under the pretense of aesthetics. But this should be what we mean when we say we’re worried about language: not that we’re concerned about the beauty of its attire, but about usage, about its power to burst in on our consciousness and whip it into a frenzy.


"Nuevas batallas por la propiedad de la lengua" © Marcelo Cohen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Frances Riddle. All rights reserved.

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