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Translation and Censorship

By Fayre Makeig

Fayre Makeig is a poet and translator living in Brooklyn, NY. Past homes include Washington, DC, Arizona, and Maharashtra, India. She holds a BA in English from Yale, and is working toward an MFA in creative writing at Columbia. Several of her poems are forthcoming in the Western Humanities Review. —Editors

"Bush has been really good for translation."


Yet another surprising insight uttered by Eliot Weinberger (I think of him as New York's "sage of translation"; also the writer of What Happened Here: The Bush Chronicles), who went on to explain that the "dis-ease" suffered by Americans under George W.'s administration has turned them "to wonder what is being said in the rest of the world."

I hope he's right. If so, there may still be hope for American culture. As far as I know, every renaissance, every time of literary flourishing, has been preceded by a hell of a lot of translation.

Weinberger was one of five panelists speaking at a round table titled "Translation: Ethics, Censorship, Speaking Out." I was one of many young translators in the audience, all participating in the 2008 Graduate Conference in Translation hosted by the Center for Literary Translation (CLT) at Columbia University, March 29-31.

At first, the Censorship in the round table's title scared me. Would it be a voyeuristic account of the "repressive" practices found in "undemocratic" countries—all coolly spoken in the air-conditioned comfort of America, many of whose schools once banned… Catcher in the Rye? Please, America, get off your high horse and stop talking like a cowboy unless you really are one.

But, I tell you truthfully—the panelists rode no horses. Their statements were those of honest, self-reflecting translators thinking about their own choices and practices—with some excellent insights into the role of translation in 2008 America.

I wish you'd been there. It was a great discussion. For other events hosted by the CLT and its partners, go to the CLT website. Please note that the panelists' bios, as taken from a CLT-supplied handout, can be found at the end of this account.

The round table's moderator, Circumference cofounder Stefania Heim, started things off with the question, "Is translation always a political act?"

Becka Mara McKay replied, "I think it is…Every time you pick up a pen or decide what to translate—it's an act of subversion." Mckay translates from Modern Hebrew, the language of a country that, as she put it, "takes up a lot of energy" for the small space it occupies. She is interested in broadening the perception of what comes out of Israel by translating works that are not overtly political.

Further reflecting on her decisions as a translator, McKay said, "I choose things because I like what the Hebrew is doing." Specifically, she is interested in work that could never have been written in English (in other words, not a Dan Brown-style thriller set in the Middle East).

Lucas Klein, who, among other things, translates Chinese poetry from the Tung Dynasty, questioned what he is accomplishing politically by translating medieval court poetry. In the face of real censorship issues in modern Chinese literature, Klein asked, "What truth am I speaking, to what power?"

In answering this question, Klein paraphrased the translator Ammiel Alcalay, who once questioned the ethics of translating into English. While English-speaking Americans—recipients of the goods gathered by a world-domineering culture—expect to buy summer fruits in winter, is translating poetry from other languages furthering consumers' demand to get what they want for practically nothing? Klein said, "I think this is something worth thinking about… [pause] …and, after thinking about it, I disagree." Klein pointed to the canonical role of ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin—languages that were most often translated out of, not into. Do we want English to be such a behemoth? (See an often-quoted report by CLT-cofounder Esther Allen, available from the CLT website.) Klein went on to stress the importance of translating into English so that it maintains its position of just "one language among equals."

Thomas Anessi, who among other things helped compile a Polish-English dictionary, referenced the U.S. publishing industry's odd constraints on translators. (To channel the thinking of a major publisher: "Maybe if we don't put the translator's name on the cover of the book, maybe the book will sell better because our readers will just assume it's written by a real author…"! What a far cry from the culture of, for example, Iran, where the great translators of the 20th century were literary stars in their own right.)

Referring to Lawrence Venuti's book The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation, Anessi reflected that it was precisely that invisibility that made translators valuable throughout communist Eastern Europe, where they were both smugglers of information and important political critics. "Polish translators couldn't get into trouble for translating Gabriel García Márquez" while at the same time making an important statement on totalitarian rule easily decodable by the like-minded.

Nathalie Handel spoke of the necessity of translating across cultures while translating across languages, pointing out that culture and language are inseparable. She discussed the particular challenges of bringing the poetry of some cultures into English, and her own difficulties finding translators for several of the lesser-known languages of Central Asia.

Eliot Weinberger responded to the Alcalay assertion by saying, "We're not stealing poetry by translating…Translating poetry is not running a sneaker factory in Indonesia." He then outlined a trend he has observed in American poetry. From the early 1900s to the 1970s, major American poets felt a responsibility to translate from other languages. Since the 1970s, he has instead seen the rise of the workshop poem (in my favorite quote of the afternoon, he described this as a New Yorker short story written as a poem, as in 'I went ice skating after my divorce'") and the "era of multiculturalism—often just a front for nationalism, not true internationalism," in which "hyphenated Americans" can be used by publishers to "stand in" for international writers.

I think this is an interesting point, and one that I recently discussed with an Iranian-American friend as we bemoaned the lack of good-quality translations of 20th-century Persian poetry.

But, before continuing, I want to clarify that—as a young American writer myself—I, without question, want to see the work of new American writers published. And all Americans are "hyphenated." I think this is what it means to be American. Writers whose work specifically deals with issues of heritage and migration have a particularly important story to tell—a story that is, in itself, a living translation. On the other hand, a Korean-American writer who never once references kim chee but instead tells the history of Senegalese folk music will, I hope, break publishers out of their continual quest for the expected.

In sum, I want to read American stories. I also want to read the work of the major writers of non-English-speaking cultures and countries, published in high-quality translations. And I don't want to have to choose—I want them both. And I don't see how one can stand in for the other.

But, I'm afraid that Weinberger is right. Sometimes publishers think they're "doing good" and publishing "international" work when all they're doing is publishing the work of—guess what?—more Americans. I do not mean to offend the editors, but an example of what I'm talking about can be found in the new Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (Norton, 2008). I saw this book and formed my opinion about it two weeks before attending the round table, and so it was only coincidence that its co-editor, Nathalie Handal, was one of the panelists.

My praises deservedly go to Handal. She is one of the few people out there not only championing international literature—including, thankfully, the poets and writers of the Middle East—but actually getting this work in print in English in high-quality form.

Now for my complaint. I was excited to see the beautiful glossy cover of this anthology near the check-out counter of my favorite New York bookstore (Book Culture, 112th and Broadway). I was especially excited to see the phrase Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East. Many of you know about the incredible literary heritage of Persian poetry. There is not just one Persian Shakespeare—no, there are at least five, whose powerful poetic vision may, I think, be unequaled anywhere else in the world. Persian culture is steeped in its poetry and—I wonder how many American readers know?—this is not something of the past. The great 20th-century Iranian poets rival Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and W. C. Williams in their output and scope. But these poets (including Ahmad Shamlu, Forugh Farrokhzad, Sohrab Sepehri, and Mehdi Akhavan Saless) are, with few exceptions, not available in high-quality English translations.

I will measure my complaint in inches. When I looked at the anthology's index "by nation" to see how many of my favorite Persian poets were included, I was happy to see the names of two or three (definitely Shamlu and Farrokhzad; maybe Sepehri) but sad to see that the length of the list itself was barely an inch. I looked at the list for China, thinking "over 20 percent of the world's people!"—again, just about an inch and a half. The length of the list of poets from the United States? If I remember correctly, at least eight, maybe ten, inches. I was happy to see the familiar names of some of my favorite American poets, but how can the output of all the great poets of 20th- and 21st-century Iran be condensed into an inch? It can't.

I know the case of modern Iranian poetry is not an anomaly. U.S. readers are missing good translations of the great modern writers of major nations and cultures around the world. For now, all we can do is try our best to read these works in the original…and make our own translations.

Thank you for your time, and good luck with your own reading. Buy works in translation. And watch out for New Yorker short stories disguised as poems.

Fayre Makeig

"Translation: Ethics, Censorship, Speaking Out" Panelists:

Thomas Anessi came to Columbia University in 2001 to study Polish literature after working as a lecturer for six years in the Department of English of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland. While in Poland, he worked as a professional translator and was one of the ten lexicographers who compiled the New Kosciuszko Foundation Polish-English Dictionary, which was released in 2003. He speaks Polish fluently and has studied Russian, German, Latin, and Swedish at Columbia.

Nathalie Handal is an award-winning poet, playwright, writer, and translator. She is the author of two poetry books, The NeverField and The Lives of Rain (short-listed for The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize/The Pitt Poetry Series and recipient of the Menada Award); two poetry CDs Traveling Rooms and Spell; the editor of The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology (an Academy of American Poets Bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award); and co-editor along with Tina Chang and Ravi Shankar of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond (Norton 2008). Her third poetry book is forthcoming, she is finishing a new play for the New York Theatre Workshop, where she is in residence, and she is part of the production team for the feature film, Gibran.

Lucas Klein is a union organizer and editor of the online journal of creative translation, After living in Beijing and Paris, his current home is in Connecticut, where he slouches towards a PhD in Chinese Literature at Yale. His translations, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming at CipherJournal, Frank, Mãnoa, Composite Translations, Palimpsest, and Big Bridge, and he regularly reviews books for Rain Taxi and other venues.

Becka Mara McKay earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and an MFA in translation from the University of Iowa, where she edited eXchanges, an online journal of translation. She is currently working on her PhD in comparative literature. Her poetry and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in ACM, American Letters & Commentary, Columbia, Controlled Burn, Crankey, The Iowa Review, Third Coast, Rattapallax, small spinal notebook, TWO LINES, Words Without Borders, Zeek, and others. Her translation, from the Hebrew, of the novel Laundry will be published by Autumn Hill Books in August, 2008.

Eliot Weinberger's books of literary essays include Works on Paper, Outside Stories, Karmic Traces, and, most recently, An Elemental Thing. His political articles are collected in What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles. He is the editor of The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry and World Beat: International Poetry Now from New Directions. Among his translations are the Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges' Selected Non-Fictions, Vicente Huidobro's Altazor, and Unlock by Bei Dao.

Published Apr 14, 2008   Copyright 2008 Fayre Makeig

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