Lost and Found in Translation

Lost and Found in Translation
To translate is to commit treason.
George Steiner

I had thought to open this meditation on translation in relation to documentary poetics,
specifically to the process of working on my book of interview-poems, When the Water
Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, co-authored with the photographer Rebecca
Ross, with the following sentence:

Creating these pieces was an inductive process of exploration and discovery begun with
an act of “attentive listening.”

But the first word, creating, is misleading, because it suggests quite a different project
than the apparently simple act of sustained listening to someone being interviewed,
after which I then transcribed the spoken words, formalized their presentation, and
transformed them into something resembling poetry.

Although the works are narrative, I term them interview-poems to distinguish them
generically from lyric or narrative poems, and to acknowledge that they had an actual
source, the interviewee-evacuee. I used only their words (with their permission), and
worked carefully with each one to ensure that everything in the poem was accurate to
their experience. I wanted to individualize evacuees from New Orleans who did not
have a voice—not to “give” them voice, but to offer a forum in which their voices might
be audible, particularized, and dignified by the poetic measures that I came to hear as I
worked on transcribing the interviews, meditated on the material, found the gold thread,
as it were, of the story.

How does one come to the work one does? In the sense that watching on TV the
beautiful, historic city in which I had once lived drown compelled me to find a way to
respond that was not about my feelings of loss, I was “called” to this work. In the sense
that seeing a significant number of our fellow citizens being filmed as “breaking news”
while they were stranded for a week on the bridges and roofs and overpasses of New
Orleans, I sought out evacuees in order to hear their side. I wanted desperately to
counter the unconscious stereotypes of those stranded in New Orleans, as purveyed
uncritically by many journalists. In the sense that I learned so much about race
relations in this country from living in New Orleans, a truly multicultural (if troubled) city
for four years, I did not “find” this material: it found me. It could be said that I found a
way to translate it.

It is sometimes said of the process of translation that what gets lost in translation is
the art. We think less often about what is entailed in turning some source material that
isn’t aesthetic, in this case a conversational interview, into something that is. That
process is a precise reversal of what we usually consider translation to be: that is, what
gets found in translation is art.

The more presence with which the voice can be conveyed, the more sense of the
person speaking—with all their human hesitance, heartbreak, grit and insight—can be
apprehended. I tried to step out and stay out of the picture (much like the
photographer), so that each of the poems could reveal the individual who had been
interviewed without framing them. When I conducted the interviews, I was aware that I
was consciously practicing “attentive listening,” the first step in conflict resolution as
taught by the Mennonites, with whom I trained over a decade ago (as it happens, the
year after I left New Orleans). This practice is an ancient form of offering respect by
inviting another to share his or her deepest feelings, his or her story. I was also very
aware that each of the interviewees had given me a great gift, in telling me their story, in
order that it be available to others—to inform, perhaps to instruct, and hopefully, as with
translation from one language to another, to enlarge the reader’s world.

“When we learn to speak, we learn to translate,” writes Octavio Paz, to which I would
add: When we learn to listen, we are translating our openness to another. As Heather
McHugh has put it, “A translator is an openness to more than one language.” An
interview-poem involves a translation of the body’s, the mind’s, the heart’s “speech,”
available initially only to the interviewer. Her task, the task of the poet-translator, isn’t
the magic of apostrophe, as Jonathan Culler theorizes it, conjuring animate presence
from the inanimate or from an absence through the poem’s power, but rather, conveying
a real presence into the imaginary—and shared—realm of the poem.

When I was asked about the process previously, I called the interview-poems
transcriptions that were nevertheless “distillations” of long, prose interviews. In that
sense, making the poems entailed a “concentration” of the substance of each interview
down to the “essence.” But that description essentializes a process that was much
more open-ended, exploratory, a feeling along through the voice’s words until
the poem began to emerge. The work is more accurately characterized by the process
of translation, and as all translations are, each of the interview-poems entailed a
discovery of the way, which comes, when it comes, like the spark of insight into
another’s interior language.

Describing the process by which I made these interview-poems
as translationacknowledges another significant aspect of the project, that in making
interviews into poems, I betray unavoidably the very individual presence that I was
attempting to convey. As George Steiner remarks, in the quotation that serves as my
epigraph, “To translate is to commit treason.” By invoking Steiner’s contention, I note
the fact that—whatever the craft of the translator, and some of our greatest artists were
also great translators—translation fails necessarily to translate the original. Translation
succeeds in accomplishing other things, we can say, but not in transporting the original
into its new form, another language or media, anymore than Ross’s photographs
translated—or even attempted to translate—the interview-poems into images.
This fact was best illustrated for me dramatically this fall, when all the evacuees in the
book still left in Phoenix were honored at our exhibition reception, a “Meet & Greet” held
at the Scottsdale Public Library, and one of the evacuees, Deborah Green, made a
passing remark that suddenly brought home to me the truth, which is that I had not
succeeded in transporting anything but her words to a page—certainly not her “self,”
absolutely not her “presence.” “Debbie Green” on the page and the wall was a stranger
to Deborah, the woman standing in front of me.

“I am going to reacquaint myself with Debbie over there,” she said to me. “Who?” I
asked blankly. I had always addressed her as “Deborah.” “Why Debbie!” she nodded
over at her photograph, so full of sorrow and fortitude, I had always thought. She was
doing much better since she’d had a knee replacement, which gave her some measure
of mobility again. “Ah,” I said at last. “You mean you five years and another life
ago!” “Hmm-mmm,” she said, as she had so many times in her interview.

A line break or caesura marking hesitancy on the speaker’s part, or the deep emotion of
the act of telling for the speaker, bears the body’s mark, I suggest, and the cadence,
line length and syntactic unit trace the voice and the character of the person as she or
he emerged to me while I transcribed the interviews. I got to know those voices so
intimately through listening to them again and again that I could believe I’d transported
their essence wholly to the text. But, as Steiner’s remark underscores, we betray the
source in transforming it. I could, like any good translator, hope that I had conveyed
something of the source, the person, by turning their words into poems, but what was
lost in translation was, precisely, them-in-flux. I had fixed “them” into a form that was
static. With each public reading, I reanimate their words dramatically, but as an
impostor. For it was I, cited as the book came out as the “co-author,” who found myself
being called upon to speak for the very evacuees whom I had so carefully refrained
from framing in the poems, to whom I had tried to offer a forum so that they might speak
for themselves. It is a paradox not only at the core of translation, but at the heart of
documentary art.

Ross and I envisioned the interview-poems together in the book with the photographs,
in concert, choral, the poems in dialogue among each other and with the photographs,
interfacing in fresh and unpredictable ways. In the interviews, many of the evacuees
made similar remarks, for example, so I included the repetitions in order that they
bubble up and echo each other. I imagined that a poetic record of individuals analyzing
their own predicament, observing the failures on the government’s part, remarking on
race relations as historically and geographically embedded, could illustrate a simple
truth: if individuals who are otherwise invisible and inaudible are rendered visible and
audible, they have much to tell us, and we have much to learn from them.
But, of course, no truth is simple.

The author wishes to thank James Belflower and his Poetics of Witness class at
SUNY/ Albany for the lively
exchanges that served as the seed of this essay, and expresses gratitude to her
team-teacher, Paul Morris,
and their 2010 graduate class in Literary Translation for the semester’s engaged
work and brainstorming about
translation. Altogether, they’ve been an inspiration!

criticalBarzakh Mag