The Erotic Place of Translation
Literary translation is neither here nor there: between languages, between cultures, neither in full view nor fully invisible. Translators are often described as caught between the extremes of a series of paradoxes that become irreconcilable dilemmas through our work. Translations are les belles infidèles—an expression I first heard in translation in Spanish as something like, “Translations are like women, either beautiful or faithful.”
We—women and translators—are said to be true either to the letter—the body—or the spirit. The language we reproduce on the page is judged to be either too fluent, familiar, complacent, or too literal. Framed thus, translating can feel like a high-wire act over a pit of snakes called aesthetic and ethical compromise, textual betrayal, the limitations of language, the failure to find equivalencies. Some claim that nothing that truly matters—mystery, poetry, resonance, the ineffable—can “really” be translated; it can only be re-created in a new language, as if those two activities—translating and re-creating—were not ultimately the same thing. And yet, despite these pitfalls and dangers, we carry on, day in and day out, failing, missing, betraying, mangling, falling short. Losing?
There is no question that the practice of literary translation is a constant reminder of the plurality of meaning, even truth, and of the importance of context for that meaning. Translators must find some kind of satisfaction in relative equivalencies and imperfect solutions, or quit. But my actual experience when I translate is not primarily one of conflict, self-denial, or subordination. There is a “place” I as translator inhabit with increasing comfort and ease, a place that allows me to affirm, conscious of the paradox, that the untranslatable—the poetry—is the only thing worth translating at all. Not unrelated, my return to translating seven years ago was in large part due to having fallen in love, with a text, that is. What is more poetic, ineffable, mysterious, and resonant than love?
One might ask, as the song does, what’s love got to do with it? My own immediate, intimate experience when facing the text I am translating, or that I am reading in order to evaluate if I want to translate it, is one of engagement—with the text, the word, and ultimately, the world. And this engagement, on this most basic level, could be deemed “erotic.”
A few comments about the word “engagement.” Rather than use the English participial adjective, “engaged,” we often use the French term. Somehow, the phrase “littérature engagée” has a deeper resonance than “engaged literature” does in English; the French clearly refers to a more conscious tradition. In order to define “engaged literature” in English, one can turn to an internal translation and say “committed literature” or even, though much less explicitly in the U.S. context, “politically committed literature.”
To further complicate matters, English uses the word “involved” to talk about somebody who is active in politics. The most common translation into Spanish for “engaged” and “politically involved” is “comprometido,” or “committed,” wherein the “political” is implicit and the involvement is explicit. The place where these meanings overlap in English is when we are talking about a pre-marital arrangement, where commitment, engagement, and involvement become one.
Which brings us headlong into “erotic.”
For this we have John Berger, who wrote a book some thirty-odd years ago called Ways of Seeing. He is still, with each new book he writes, teaching me new ways of seeing. He’s not a translator, nor do I read him in translation. But the power and strength of his spare, luminescent prose must be related to the fact that he is an Englishman living for four decades in a village in rural France. He lives in a translated world, and his prose seems to contains its own translation, where meaning and means coexist in a dynamic post-translated harmony.
In his 1965 book about Picasso, The Success and Failure of Picasso, Berger wrote that “part of the force of sex lies in the fact that its subjectivity is mutual.” Forty years later, in an essay titled “The Other Side of Desire,” Berger says that he prefers the adjective “erotic” to “sexual” because it is less reductionist. Following Berger’s example, let us say, “Erotic, but not necessarily sexual.”
What do we literary translators actually do? We engage the text, the corporal or incorporated text. Through it, we engage the Other and the Other world out of which that text emerged and of which it is an integral part. We dig into the text; we penetrate its meaning through its means. And moving away from paradigms of domination and submission, which are necessarily genderized, we also bring the text inside us, arguably to a place before language. We allow it to move with the force of its own mystery back out into the light in new and decorative garments. The urge to translate might be a desire to clear away the mist, pull aside the veil, denude the text. The hook that maintains that desire might be that the more one unveils the more one feels the text—the skin, the sinews. But language is coy, a tease, which never shows itself in full frontal display, like Aphrodite, always wearing something and turned slightly away from the observer.
In that same essay, Berger goes on to talk about desire as a “conspiracy of two” (the French pulsates right there beneath the surface of that phrase, and, under that, the Latin—“conspirare” to be in harmony with, to breathe together). It is a conspiracy that offers a reprieve from pain, from the wound that is implicit in existence; a conspiracy that creates a place, a locus, of exemption. Viewed from the outside, this exemption is a parenthesis because it is a disappearance, a shift elsewhere, an entry into a plenitude.
A place that exists outside of place or in the place of all places. This is quite different than being neither here nor there. But it is akin.
We all know, however, that no coupling, no matter how ecstatic, is ever completely harmonious. One and the Other, no matter how close they come, each always remains distinct, in part because this discourse, or intercourse, is alive, thus constantly changing. Where would it take us if we imagined the relationship, or interaction, between the translation and the original, the translator and the text, as dynamic, charged, electric, erotic in the sense of vital and giving of life? And then might we see this dynamism, this imperfect harmony, the struggle to become, as lending translation the freedom rather than the onus of placelessness, the privilege of living in the interstice, both temporally and spatially, the elation of engagement and involvement without attachment?
In his essay “Our Feelings Reach Out Beyond Us,” Montaigne writes, via his translator, Donald Frame, that “All passions that allow themselves to be savored and digested are only mediocre.”
The translator’s relationship to the text may be many things—intense, obsessive, impassioned—but it is never mediocre, even during times of repressed literary free expression.