Every readable sentence carries a subliminal thrum of voltage. Language is the total circuitry of power relations that take place within the groups deploying that language. If translation means the movement between languages, then the act of translation is in some sense a rerouting of that linguistic voltage.
To paraphrase David Bellos, however: an “asymmetrical relationship” is involved in any translation act. Upward translation moves from a less prestigious or powerful language to one considered “stronger.” Almost all translations into English, for example, can be conceived of as “upward translations.” Translation-downwards, therefore, implies movement from a stronger language to one with a smaller readership, or which possesses less cultural and economic prestige.
Have you ever noticed how “un-Japanese” Haruki Murakami feels in English translation, compared to other Japanese writers? Part of this is his own writerly project, born as it is out of an admiration for the likes of Raymond Chandler and J.D. Salinger. But where his translations are concerned, it feels as though twists which may have caused his foreign-language audience to read twice have been effaced or unkinked in the English.
One might expect Murakami to feel a lot stranger than he does. He operates from an aesthetic territory similar to that of Yoko Ogawa and Ryu Murakami, and all three share a preoccupation with cold, ceramic spaces that breathe quiet disturbance.
But what happens with Haruki Murakami is one of the duller effects of upward translation: namely, a diminution of cultural otherness to the point where the translated text dissolves into its new home without a trace.
Upward translations espouse the concept of a cultural centrality. The point being that you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t have to meet anyone halfway. It seems as though anything deemed “too foreign” about the writing is hollowed out by translation to become no more than “ local color.” To a great extent, upward translation reverses the Russian Formalists’ dictum of “making strange” and converts it into “making same.”
Downward translation does the opposite. The source language bends out of shape to express as fully as possible the original text. German is considered by many to be the philosophical language par excellence, and the translation of German philosophers is almost always approached by its practitioners as downward translation: think of all those breathless compound words in English translations of Heidegger, for instance, and their hyphens like moments when the text stops and tries to get its breath. The same is true in a Spanish-language context, where the predominant practice is not to translate German terms such as Realität orWirklichkeit but rather to insert lengthy explanatory footnotes.
Translation is about the almost-imperceptible adjustment of voltage and signal within a language system. But every adjustment is an ideological statement.
The texts we choose to translate may say a lot about who we think we are, but they say more about who we think we want to be. For all that they’re hidden, the direction of these adjustments to the linguistic voltage—upwards/downwards, American English/Mexican Spanish—is fundamentally ideological in conception and political in product.
As writers and literary translators we must be aware our decisions only accomplish one of two things: either they reinforce dominant power structures (however subtly), or they trouble them. Translations never have an ambiguous or a neutral effect: they incessantly confront questions of how and whom we translate.
You don’t need to lose yourself in Foucault to observe how translation can reinforce imbalances within any given linguistic environment: look at the numbers. Simply checking the index of anthologies of poetry in translation can give us an idea of how it is generally approached within a given literary culture.
To illustrate the point, let’s turn to a Mexican context. Only five women are represented among the 30 U.S. poets in in Agustí Bartra’s 1955 Antología de la poesía norteamericana. The anthology was considered canonical for a number of decades, and there’s no doubt that it introduced many vital countercultural currents into Mexican verse. But it’s the disparity that interests us here: five women, considered against twenty-five men.
Another, more recent anthology of literature in translation ought surely to reflect the increased presence and importance of women writers in the U.S. canon. But in the 1995 edition of Octavio Paz’s Versiones y diversiones—the last one to be overseen by the author—only two of the 57 authors included in the anthology are women: Elizabeth Bishop and Dorothy Parker.
Little has changed since the days of Paz and Bartra, at least where women in translation are concerned. The Fundación de Letras Mexicanas (FLM) keeps a database for all poetry publications in Mexico, including poetry in translation. Even a cursory scan of those titles suggests there has not been a significant shift between 1995 and 2015.
Authors translated between 1995 and the present include Virgil, Homer, disciples of Anacraeon, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Leopardi. Of the 10 books of poetry in translation published in Mexico in 2013, Rae Armantrout (one woman) and Ali Ahmad Said Esber (one POC writer) rub shoulders with Homer and Mallarmé. The following year, 12 books of poetry in translation were published in Mexico. Only one was by a woman: a selection from Adrienne Rich’s work.
It is important to note here that—of course—this aspect of the status quo is very, very distant from the big-picture translation scene within Mexico, which is among the richest and most multifarious in the world. But this issue is symptomatic of a global under-representation of women in translation: there is not one national publishing industry in the world that can feel proud of its record on this front.
But part of being effective in that global struggle is identifying how to do something about it at home. Many thousands of lifetimes are dedicated, often thanklessly, to political change within Mexican literature. But the problem cannot be solved through the work of too often isolated critical voices. When forced to operate in a market that over-valorises male voices, the best one can hope for is a slight tipping of the scales.
As a consequence, real sea-changes often begin outside that market. Independent presses like Bongo Books are a case in point. Their forthcoming anthology, Mexican Poets Go Home, represents an equal number of male and women poets. This was not a question of gender quotas: after all, the standing army of Mexican poets is and always has been so numerous that high-calibre poets of either—or neither – gender are never in shortage.
Mexican Poets Go Home is a radical document of poetry in translation. Eugene Tisselli, for example, channels the spirit of Oulipo in a 79-line auto-generating poem based on an algorithm designed by the poet himself. Also excerpted in the anthology is Karen Villeda’s book-length retelling of the extinction of the dodo, a polyvocal epic woven out of quotes from contemporary scientific journals, colonial documents, and the imagined monologues of sailors.
These, and the other poems in the book, are restless texts: they are far from happy to remain within the confines of a national literary tradition. But the free, bilingual, digitally-distributed format of Mexican Poets Go Home puts it on the frontline of the politics of translation.
The anthology’s format allows it to transcend linguistic borders and forces people to read Mexican writing on its own terms. So in terms of distribution as well as content (form, as well as meaning) Mexican Poets Go Home remains so stubbornly hybrid as to defy any given aesthetic or cultural stricture.
As mentioned, the poem in the anthology is an autogenerative text based on an algorithm. As such, the text collapses language to its most basic atoms and mechanisms of meaning-production. Each line starts out as the buildup of all of its denominators: for example, line 32 is made up of lines 16, 8, 4 and 2.
In order to do justice to the original text’s daring and originality, the translator cannot be satisfied with producing an instruction-manual as to was assembled in Spanish. Instead she must produce a translation that reflects the poem’s inherent auto-generative mechanism.
So instead of translating line 32 in a (more or less) literal way, the translator attends to that line’s DNA strands— lines 16, 8, 4 and 2— and rebuilds them in English, according to the poet’s own algorithm.
The English-language versions of these lines respond differently to the algorithm’s mechanism: this is precisely the point. The poem’s verses develop in a cumulatively different way, as if the seed of that poem had been transplanted to a different linguistic ecosystem and flourished there just as abundantly, if differently.
As such, the putting-into-English of Tisselli’s text stands as an example of radical translation. It would be easier to translate the text more or less directly line for line from Spanish to English, but this would be to transfer the text as if it were a dead specimen in a glass display case. But Tisselli’s poem takes on a new life in its new habitat.
A similarly radical approach was taken in the translation of Karen Villeda’s text. The translator, John Z. Komurki, and the poet collaborated to translate the historical details and scientific terms that stud the text. Villeda’s glosses took the form of tracked comments in a Word document.
In the final “English” version, these chunks of data were left embedded and un-translated in the text, giving rise to a stylized meta-commentary on the act of translation itself. The author’s voice, then, takes on the status of a character within the text, instead of hovering above it in a position of supposed authority. The utopic ideal of an originary, authentic, pre-translated version of the text goes out the window.
Mexico City Lit seeks to enshrine a similarly unconventional and dynamic approach, rethinking translation as a semi-permeable membrane between linguistic cultures. In this way, ideas such as upward and downward translation, language barriers, or national literatures are dissolved in a more accommodating context of mutual osmosis.
It has become a truism that representation is power. As a way of influencing or questioning dominant representations, translation is also a way of doing political and cultural work; removing linguistic obstacles so as remove conventional power dynamics from the equation.
Mexico City Lit quietly opposes traditional imbalances of representation. For instance, the ongoing Trilingual project invites Mexican and Latin American poets to adapt the work of U.S. voices from beyond the publishing mainstream. The project also involves U.S. poets adapting the work of Mexicans and Latin Americans.
In the forthcoming first round of Trilingual, Mexican poets Yohanna Jaramillo, Ambar Past, and Ánuar Zúñiga Naime radically translate the poem “Dinosaurs in the Hood” by Danez Smith, relocating Smith’s text to a Mexican context. What, exactly, this process involves is left up to the poet-translators themselves. The intended result is a new, Spanish-language poem that has employed the ‘original’ text as a starting-point rather than an end goal.
Among the most interesting young voices on the Mexican and international literary scene is Juana Adcock. Mexico City Lit has had the privilege to publish a number of the exchanges which comprise the One-Handed project she curates with U.K. translator Rahul Bery. One-Handed pairs Mexican and Scottish poets who work from literal translations from Adcock’s 2014 collection Manca. The versions are not printed alongside the source text, which is imagined as “decaying and falling away like a perishable item cast in plaster”.
One-Handed collapses the distinction between writing and translation, doing away with the idea of the author as the primary generator of a text. Again, the source text is treated as a starting-point for radical re-composition rather than the end goal. The translator supplants the author, who surrenders all “authority” over her poem.
These—and countless other projects in Mexico and around the world—are rethinking the process of translation, and trying to redress traditional imbalances in the translation of literature. The practices they adopt put them at the forefront of a new radicalization of the traditional roles of author, editor and translator.