Violent Phenomena (eds. Kavita Bhanot and Jeremy Tiang, Tilted Axis 2022) rolls the south and east of the globe to the top. 21 essays address racism in the publishing industry in general and literary translation in particular:
If you’re dual heritage, or mixed, or more, these essays will resonate. It’s time to get over monolingual nationalism and the naive idea that most people have just one “mother” tongue. Most people don’t. How can a translator build a bridge between two linguistic islands when she has several languages jostling in the city inside her? Gitanjali Patel and Nariman Youssef remind us that “our mother’s tongue may be different to our father’s and it’s possible that we know neither”. They continue, “I can’t imagine that many of the white translators I know feel the same debt to the source language, the same desire to do it justice… from my own experience of having my English(es) mocked, disparaged, invaded… I do not want to reenact that violence on another language.”
“Western poets building bridges to where they don’t belong”. Mona Kareem decries the practice of “co-translation” based on a “literal draft” for someone who doesn’t speak the source language. “World literature is no Lonely Planet” says Lúcia Collischonn in her essay. But translation can inform and expand the target language. It can decolonize.
The essayists expose structural racism in publishing. We need to get away from “the mythical English reader” who, as Anton Hur worked out his publishers meant, is white. Despite the risks, Kaiama L. Glover translated Depestre’s Hadriana for Afro-anglophone audiences. The “extravagant ludic register” of the Francophone Haitan poet was too much for many publishers. She is not alone. “When I began translating from Telugu, I ran into a major difficulty: a clash of literary cultures” says Madhu H. Kaza. US publishers kept saying the work was “not a good fit for us”. Sandra Tamele had to translate Ammaniti’s Io non ho paura into European (not Mozambican) Portuguese, so people could read her translation across Lusophone Africa.
Should a white translator even be writing this? I know I have more work to do. But I wanted to hug Eluned Gramich, the author of the Welsh chapter and yell, “yes!” She describes a violent phenomenon I grew up in. The Welsh language is on the margins of its own turf, but Welsh people were complicit in the expansion of empire. Did you know some Welsh speakers prefer to talk of Y Deyrnas Gyfunol, the combined kingdom (not “united”)? Gramich cites the immortal R. S. Thomas:
“Speak up is, of course
The command to speak English.”
In her amazing essay-as-snake, Ayesha Manazir Siddiqui shows that translator-intermediaries can be “part of the colonial project”. If the play was not about, but for, Birmingham Pakistani Muslims, her translation of it would be different. As she asks:
“Who is doing the translation, and for whom?” The author and the audience need their say.
Sometimes the best choice is not to translate, but to tell the story right within its community.
Or to choose a language closer to home. Translate a poetry performance on Bali into BISINDO (Indonesian sign language) for the locals, not Auslan (Australian sign language) for the tourists. Khairani Barokka is clear on the “right to access, right of refusal: translation of/as absence, sanctuary, weapon”.
Or to provincialize the “big” language by translating into it out of the “small” language. “I often ached to hear the sound of my life in this language” said Yogesh Maitreya on translating into English out of Marathi.
Or to find autonomy in orality, like Kashimiri translator Onaiza Drabui. When there’s no word for novel in your language, you could start with “verse, sung not written; dramatized folklore, performed not read.”
Or to decide to publish a bilingual translation that is “plainly a faithless act” because the poems don’t match. Hamid Roslan does this with Singlish and without paratexts in parsetreeforestfire.
M NourbeSe Philip knows that “those involved… believe that they can best bestow meaning, their meaning, on the work”. As she said on discovering that her Zong! Had been translated into Italian without her consent: “If you are lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate, write to him or her. Get to know the person; ask him or her questions.”
Yes, translators, publishers and writers do this often. But not often enough. We could all ask more before we start to bestow meaning.