In Memoriam: Keith Waldrop
The errant translator begins with a scene from a Gertrude Stein play called Listen to Me:
No dog barks at the moon.
The moon shines and no dog barks
No not anywhere on this earth.
Because everywhere anywhere there are lights many lights and
so no dog knows that the moon is there
And so no dog barks at the moon now no not anywhere.
The errant translator translates the no-longer-howling dog. The moon is no longer visible and thus is not available for translation.
And the moon makes no one crazy no not anywhere.
Because there are so many lights anywhere.
That the light the moon makes is no matter.
The moonlight in Stein’s play is flooded out by what modernist Japanese writer Tanizaki Jun’ichirō would call “the evils of excessive illumination,” as translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward Seidensticker. Tanizaki writes in praise of shadows. The errant translator is praised for nothing, but was not in it for the praise.
The errant translator translates by the light of the moon. It is not as poetic as it sounds. The light of the moon is flanked by an unkindness of shadows. In this hazy vision, the errant translator makes mistakes. Strays and wanders off the page. Falls off. Excessive illumination beckons. Errant translator gnaws at the light of the moon. It tastes like dirt.
And so then there it does not matter
The sun yes the sun yes does matter
But the moon the moon does not matter
Because there are so many lights everywhere that any dog
knows that lights any night are anywhere.
And so no dog bays at the moon anywhere.
In the presence of illumination powered by electricity, some might claim that the light of the moon has encountered a problem. Errant translator refuses to solve it. The problem of the moon, or of math.
Does X=X, or X=Y. The errant translator does not care for equivalence, nor for approximation. Let X= a cow. As a wife has a cow. The errant translator, like Jack, trades the cow, X, for a handful of beans, then translates the beanstalk. Errant translator translates the wild breeze rustling through the unkempt hair of Jack, climbing ever so high into the unknown sky. The problem of the moon, the math, the shadows, the wild breeze. The errant translator refuses to translate as if translation is a problem to be solved.
This is so
This we know
Because we wondered why,
Why did the dogs not bay at the moon.
They did not but why
But of course why
Because there are lights everywhere anywhere.
And that is what they meant by never yesterday.
The errant translator exists in verbs. Errant translator considers the imperative in “Solve for X” (as in math) or the continuous present in “The difference is spreading” (as in Stein). The errant translator is the spreading of the difference. The errant translator positions translation in the continuous present, eschewing the linearity implied in past tense and future tense. Errant translator impolitely asks of Stein, of Tanizaki, why is your relationship to time, and to light, so linear. But it is not. The errant translator contemplates structure as a manifestation of translation. Manifestation, also meaning to protest.
When people have forgotten that writers and translators and readers and dogs and moons and shadows have bodies, the errant translator has a body. Even if the body is wrong. Or differently located, oriented, or visible. Even if the body is differently abled.
Objects of literature create the illusion of not having bodies, as if the literary object has teleported from the head of the writer directly into the head of the reader. Never mind the head of the translator. The reality is that the literary object has passed through many dark crevices of multiple bodies.
By contrast, objects of music and dance and theater do not need to insist on having a body because no one forgets it even for a second. Objects of literature detach and disperse away and all over the place, and are consumed in places where the body of the artist is no longer attached. This masks the existence of bodies.
The errant translator knows that the author has a body, the editor has a body, the proofreader has a body, and that those who work at the printer’s, the publisher’s, the distributor’s, the bookseller’s have bodies, that the reader has a body. The errant translator is full of bodies.
Errant translator remembers all the bodies it has been, and been with. The bodies it has howled at the moon with. Fucked like a dog with. The bodies in darkness and the bodies in excessive illumination. It remembers a different math, and the problem of all the bodies, the struggle of all the bodies fighting to exist.
The errant translator is not only not invisible, but the errant translator has a body. The translation made by the errant translator has a body at every conceivable point on the space-time continuum, which begets the question: what kind of body? Which body? What are the specific details pertaining to the body of the translator, the body of the author, the body of the reader, the body of the translation?
The body is errant. It is the wrong body. The moon shines and no dog barks.
The errant translator uses their body to hold a book in their hands, uses their eyes to read the ink on the page and decipher its code, and possibly moves their mouth or tongue a little bit in the process of reading. This initial and physical mode of reading is an early, one of many, instance of translation. Throughout the process of reading, the errant translator has and uses a body. The body is a container for the memory of language.
The errant translator could be errant because of errant translations, or the errant translator might be a translator in an errant body. The errant body of the errant translator might be errant by virtue of size, shape, color, or orientation—or darkness, or resources, or abilities, or training, or mastery, or virtue.
As such, the errant translator might, from this errant body, produce an errant translation. Or an illegitimate translation. Or a small, insignificant translation. Or an illegal, inaccurate, imperfect, incomplete, or otherwise wrong translation. The errant translator might hide the errant translation in the dark, in the shadows of the moon. The errant translation might howl and it might bark, but it cannot be solved. The errant translation might be dragged into the light, but it remains difficult to read.
Excessive illumination emanates from the dominant center. Anyone and everyone can see it. The errant translator does not care for it.
But the dominant center and the marginal edges are distinguished by the reach of the excessive illumination. At the blurry dark edges of the reach of the excessive illumination, this is where the errant translator can be found, this is where the errant translation is staged, this is the theater where the errant bodies of the errant translators can be found dancing in the dark.
Like the moon, the math, the shadows, the dog, the translation.
The dominant center is well-lit and easy to find. It holds the non-errant, beautiful translations made by non-errant translators and law-abiding citizens. It holds the best-selling, the best-awarded, the best and most glowing reviews. Everything points to it, aspires to it, admires it. Everything is oriented toward or is defined by it. Its borders are patrolled by the Translation Police, its walls are protected by the Gatekeepers. In the dominant center is the Center for Canon Control, as well as an ancient central bell tower from which are broadcast conventionally attractive notions of beauty, along with promises for more and more light, and more and more of itself. It naturalizes as it self-replicates. The dominant center is irresistible, dazzling, and unforgettable.
In the shadows of the dominant center, the errant translator makes friends with the margins, with all the hags from all the cultures across all times, with the crooked and the jagged, the freaks and the geeks, those who are not conventionally attractive or otherwise normative, whose eyes are lined with dark edges that bleed into the night.
The errant translator knows that this embrace of the not-conventionally beautiful is not just a repudiation of the power of conventional beauty, but is more like a grassroots movement slowly organizing and shifting the contents of their psyches, which will be useful in the larger and impending struggles to come.
The errant translator lies down to rest.
In the shadows of the dominant center, there is no source and there is no target. A target is too narrow; it is only a point. Even a line is not enough. Rather, from the shadows and in the margins, there is a departure and there is an arrival. Multiple birds take flight at once. Arrival is ongoing, locates a new place and new context and new friends, it is in the continuous present and becomes part of the spreading difference.
In this way, the errant translator proliferates errant translations. Instead of excessive illumination, the errant translation absorbs excess darkness. There is too much and it is all over the place, everywhere except the center. It expands and expands. The center narrows into a target. A target gets hit, and disappears.
The errant translator shares a text they will be translating. It goes like this:
Libera me, Domine,
de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda
Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.
Errant translation may take the form of performance, at any time or place. Such translations are difficult to see, publish, or police. Difficult to replicate, commodify, or canonize. Difficult to know if it is good or not. And being of uncertain or downright poor quality, is difficult to sell.
Gabrielle Civil’s debut book, Swallow the Fish, is a book generally described as a performance art memoir. One chapter is titled Fat Black Performance Art. This title could be uncomfortable to say out loud. (For whom? And why?)
Civil uses plain, straightforward language to provide a series of brief descriptions of well-known works of performance art. Upon these texts, Civil performs a microtranslation: the names of iconic performance artists—Carolee Schneemann or Karen Finley, for example—are replaced with the phrase, in brackets, “A fat black woman.” So it might read:
Slide 3 (1975)
[A fat black woman] stands naked. Her posture is a semi-squat. Presumably, it is red paint painted in a circle on her face and splattered around her crotch. But who can be sure? She pulls a long scroll from her vagina, reading from it a searing litany of male criticism of her art work.
The work referenced is Carolee Schneemann’s influential work “Interior Scroll,” and those who are familiar with the photo documentation are expected to “complete” Civil’s work, on a stage located inside the mind of each reader/audience, by replacing the naked white woman with a specifically different-looking woman, one with a body that is not dissimilar to that of Civil.
As a work of literary translation, the work strays from common practice in multiple ways. Whereas commonly a published book is translated into another published book, Civil’s work transforms a brief paragraph of text into an alternative and imaginary performance, one that is only visible in the mind of the reader/audience, who now carries the responsibility of determining the specifics of this new body in this particular provocative context, as well as how that specific body will be interpreted.
Of course it is also errant at the linguistic level of translation, for deciding to change only one word or phrase, violating the basic premise and common assumption that all the words are going to change. Further, it violates a more basic and common assumption that the purpose and function of translation is to make a literary text accessible to a group of people who are somehow linguistically deficient—and only by the graces of a benevolent and masterful translator are they given the opportunity to access the inaccessible.
Translation theorist Clive Scott would back Civil up. In his monograph Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading:
If, then, we insist that translation should preoccupy itself with readers familiar with the source language, what kind of translation should we envisage, and what should its function be? What we can immediately say is that interlingual translation should forfeit its present monopoly, and that our engagement with intralingual translation (translation of a language into a different version of itself) and intermedial translation (translation across media) should become correspondingly more conspicuous.
Because everybody hates a monopoly. But of course because performance is difficult to mass produce, package, and sell, it’s a tough monopoly to break up.
On the other hand, those who have studied translation under the late Keith Waldrop might recall his refrain, “make it better in the translation”—which can generally be interpreted as a call against the standard inferior posture of the translator in relation to the genius, godlike author of the original text. Make—it—better—though, makes use of a brilliantly unassuming yet assertive English-language word, “it.” And there is a way in which Civil’s mode of translation speaks to that “it”—what exactly is being made better in translation.
Civil uses, and changes the structures of, translation to smuggle herself into the canon and tradition of a predominantly white, feminist performance art, thereby making more space for herself and others in an otherwise closed-off tradition. On her website and elsewhere, she states: “The aim of my work is to open up space.” If performance art in the Western art world didn’t seem to have space for someone with a body like hers, that is the space that Civil opens, using translation as a mode of illegitimate infiltration—making “it,” the spaces we occupy, better and more capacious. And it starts by asking a simple thing of the audience: imagine this, if you will.
There is a certain kind of faith, a hopefulness and belief and challenge, in the translation acts of Gabrielle Civil. What she’s true to is herself, in the most passionate and complex of ways, throughout all of her books and performances. It’s as if that very notion of equivalence in conventional translation is an antiquated bid for conservatism—let’s keep things exactly the way they are! —denying translation its radical possibility to be an agent of change, given its inherent basic process of breaking apart and rebuilding.
Poet and translator Erín Moure is also open to change. She calls out what she notices as a “false fidelity”—noting that conventional translations tend to be “focused on securing a voice that appears at home in the target culture, one that appears to emanate from the target culture with no taint of foreignness. In a curious turn, the faithful translation is as much about dissembling as it is about fidelity.”
In an essay titled “Fidelity Was Never My Aim (but Felicity),” Moure describes—almost breathlessly—–her joy, pleasure, raucous laughter, outbursts, and her guiding principles in writing a book titled Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, which is billed as a “Transelation” of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa’s O Guardador de Rebanhos. The word she uses here is “transelation”—a word she coined no doubt to smuggle the word “elation” into “translation.” One of her guiding principles is “excessive or exorbitant gesture was permitted.”
She swoons. She merges multiples of herself into the multiple selves of Fernando Pessoa, who in this case was writing under one of his heteronyms, Alberto Caeiro. She is downright exuberant. In the midst of a perfectly ecstatic retelling of this wild translation process, she insists: “Transmitting the exact meaning would have distorted the joy and movement I found in Pessoa, which were essential to the pleasure of reading. I wanted to build a structure with the same weight and weight’s relation as the Pessoan text.” In fact, Moure describes a long list of the elements she was being faithful to—gesture, movement, humor, philosophy, a “totality” as catalyzed in the idiosyncratics of her own readerly experience.
Which truth is right? Which fidelity? Moure’s transelations of Pessoa are so true to her ecstatic joy and pleasure of reading that they are accused by the Translation Police of being “false translations.”
In casual conversation, the errant translator, who teaches translation, is asked to describe their teaching to a non-errant translator, one who resides in the excessively illuminated center. Upon listening to their reply, non-errant translator asks, puzzled: Do you want your students to be successful? Errant translator wonders: would you want your students to successfully replicate and reproduce and uphold a set of values without having considered any alternatives, or outward repercussions of the interlocking webs within which this plays a part?
The next day, an errant translation student, grappling with how her admiration of the love poems of Pablo Neruda conflicts with her hatred of his misogyny, uses translation as an opportunity to subvert and reinvent his poems into lesbian love poems, the kind of poems that she wants to live with.
The errant translator has a body, a fact that is easy to forget. In This Little Art by Kate Briggs, a friend describes a fervent desire (interpreted by Briggs as perhaps naïve, or willful) to believe that Italo Calvino wrote his Cosimicomics just for him, like a direct transmission—ignoring the existence of the translator, as well as any other body that may have mediated this transmission.
Briggs takes note of the Romantic fantasy of unmediated address in the Calvino fan. Errant translator suspects that embedded in this kind of longing—as if longing for a “life of the mind”—is a desired escape from the dirty, messy realities of having a body. And then there is the worshipping of the godlike artistic genius of the writer. The errant translator does not claim or attribute godlike artistic genius status to anyone, not even god. An interviewer once asked John Lennon what he does first thing in the morning. I go to the bathroom and take a shit, said the rock star.
Because bodies. Having a body allows for translators to acknowledge the bodies of others, which is a checkpoint in the path of translation. Bodies and languages are attached, detached, reattached, or recombined in various ways over the course of a life, for some more frequently than others. “A part of me got stopped at the border,” says writer and translator Madhu Kaza. Her body immigrated to the US at a certain age, but the migration of languages wears a different chronology.
Currents of power run in specific directions between languages, bodies, cultures, and nation-states. Insidiously, an act of translation has the possibility of acting as a foil, of creating an appearance of surrendering or bestowing power, while doing nothing to disrupt the underlying forms of power that hold and buttress the whole enterprise in the first place. Worse, by offering a convenient mask, it can tacitly collude in it. Erín Moure called it a dissembling, this keeping up of appearances. Appearances that function to create illusions of false comfort and goodness.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me:
But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
Errant translator mumbles—
But all our phrasing—domesticating or foreignizing, visibility, decolonizing, etc etc . . . serves to obscure that translated texts arise from translated bodies, that language is a visceral experience . . .
—Errant translator gives up partway, begins to make incoherent noises in a dark corner.
In an interview in the ’90s, the filmmaker Todd Haynes claimed that he believes most mainstream gay films are essentially straight films, even though the bodies are swapped out: a boy-meets-girl structure might be replaced with boy-meets-boy. He says, “Heterosexuality to me is a structure as much as it is a content. It is an imposed structure that goes along with the patriarchal, dominant structure that constrains and defines society. If homosexuality is the opposite or the countersexual activity to that, then what kind of a structure would it be?”
Errant translator seeks to translate Haynes’s mode of translation. Even though Haynes does not engage in the translation of language, he participates in the conversation about the translation of structure, and the translation of concept. Haynes says about films that they are “machines that either reiterate and reciprocate society—or not.” Errant translator says, “likewise translation.”
Theorist Paul Preciado, author of Countersexual Manifesto, shows errant translator that sexualities are naturalized into a psyche just as powerfully as a language is. From day one. But they can be learned and unlearned and multiply learned. The errant translator hopes to speak not only multiple languages and multiple sexualities, but multiple modes of translation, beyond the first one that has been imposed on us in childhood and thus naturalized deep in the psyche.
Audio recording technology uses the term “fidelity” to refer to how much the recorded sound resembles the sound, not recorded but in real life. Difference from this “true fidelity” or “high fidelity” state is measured in units of gain or loss. The deaf community has modified this concept into what can be called deaf gain, referring to the heightened sensory awareness experienced and developed by those lacking hearing ability. It can more broadly be conceived as the ability to see, know, and experience something by virtue of holding a particular and commonly marginalized position.
Christine Sun Kim is an artist whose medium is deaf gain. Poet and critic Michael Davidson describes this aspect of her work as a “redistribution of the senses.” This is why the errant translator insists on having a body, a body with many sensory functions. Kim’s work translates sound, or the lack of sound, into everything else—sight, touch, language, pie charts.
At one point, she felt frustrated by what she felt was the paucity of the imagination of those employed in the making of closed captions, who create subtitles for film and video, to increase accessibility for the hearing disabled. Her resulting work, “Close Readings,” reveals what was missing: sound beyond the immediately audible. To make the work, she invited four deaf friends to join her in creating captions for a few scenes from The Little Mermaid. Together they articulated—and share with us—their universe, one that is capable of conceptualizing a sound for many things, including “frenetic silence,” or a “light that never flickers,” or “a problem that is not a problem.”
Rhetorically, these expressions belong to a lexical class called ideophones—words representing in sound, sensory or emotional ideas that are both sonic and non-sonic. The English language in particular lacks this lexical class, and only has onomatopoeia, which is a small, sounded subset of the larger group of ideophones. Ideophones, with their rich ability to express in sound non-sonic sensory and emotional states, are common in indigenous, African, and Asian languages.
The reduplicative words that can be found in Don Mee Choi’s writing and translations (“pigspigs,” “hailhail,” “failfail”) are her own invented ideophones. Perhaps she is the sole inventor of USAmerican English ideophones. Deaf gain and translation gain here combine and amplify, in a circumstance that is conventionally saddled with the stigma of loss.
Kim dismantles the hierarchies of physical sense (vision over hearing) in the dominant culture. The errant translator likewise seeks to dismantle such dominant-culture hierarchies of value when it comes to the translation of literature. The errant translator considers how to distribute, or redistribute, the values and modes in the process of translating. If a closed-captioned film can redefine which elements are worthy of captioning, what the boundaries of sound might be, then the errant translator can also redefine which elements, and how much of them, should be translated.
The errant translator continues to live within social structures that hold bodies of humans in relation. The moon shines and no dog barks. Ta-Nehisi Coates says that you must remember. Errant translator has visceral, physical memory of the way Gabrielle Civil’s work, staged in the mind of the audience/reader, is a grassroots movement organizing and shifting the contents of their psyche. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō raises a fist to the “evils of excessive illumination.” Clive Scott says that interlingual translation should forfeit its present monopoly.
The errant translator feels nauseous considering the chasm between rhetoric and bodies. The errant translator is impolite, makes ugly noises in polite company, makes ugly books and sells them to no one. The errant translator is a tramp, finds it crass to pretend that everything is okay, and would prefer that poetry, for example, “Vomit out the truths about the infinite pain and violence of our present-day inferno, our present-day apocalypse [ . . . ] Vomit out the truths about the shameful, racist, bloody apocalypse that keeps killing and killing and killing” per a blog post by Daniel Borzutsky in 2014, the year Michael Brown was murdered by the police and a week after the US Department of Justice announced Darren Wilson would not be charged in the shooting, a year after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin.
The errant translator, along with everyone else, lives in and observes structures of power, both from a distance and with a microscope. Nausea informs the structure. The shameful, racist, bloody apocalypse contributes to structure the errant translation. The errant translator might translate beautiful things, but they also translate the vomit.
The errant translator is in the wrong band, singing the wrong song in the wrong style at the wrong tempo in the wrong language from the wrong religion at the wrong time in the wrong place with the wrong set of vocal cords. Baritone solo from the Faure requiem.
Libera me, Domine,
de morte æterna,
in die illa tremenda, in die illa
Quando cœli movendi sunt
Quando cœli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris iudicare saeculum per ignem.
Presented as the keynote of the American Literary Translators Association annual conference, Tucson, Arizona, November 10, 2023.
Special thanks to Elisabeth Jaquette, JD Pluecker, Édouard Glissant, Eugene Kang.
Gertrude Stein, Listen to Me, a play
Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, In Praise of Shadows, translated by Harper & Seidensticker
Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson, “Manifesto of the Disabled Text”
Gabrielle Civil with Madhu Kaza, JD Pluecker, and Sawako Nakayasu, Translated Bodies, a performance
Johannes Göransson,Transgressive Circulation
Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategies
Gabrielle Civil, Swallow the Fish
Erín Moure, My Beloved Wager
Don Mee Choi,Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-Neocolonial Mode
Clive Scott, Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading
Kate Briggs,This Little Art
Madhu Kaza, Kitchen Table Translation
Douglas Robinson,The Ethics of Postcolonial Translation
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Justin Wyatt, “Cinematic/Sexual Transgression: An Interview with Todd Haynes”
Paul Preciado, The Counter-Sexual Manifesto
Christine Sun Kim, “Close Readings”
Daniel Borzutsky, “They kept killing him, even though he does nothing to them”
Gabriel Fauré, Requiem, baritone solo
Copyright © 2024 Sawako Nakayasu. All rights reserved.