Joel Scott reviews Southerly

29 November 2010

Southerly 70.1: Golden Tongues: The Arts of Translation edited by David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon
Brandl & Schlesinger, 2010

Faced with the considerable range of work in Southerly‘s Golden Tongues: The Arts of Translation issue, I have resorted to the what’s hot/what’s not school of literary criticism, identifying what were for me the ten most notable elements in the collection. In the interest of balance, there are five positive and five negative elements, focusing on translations, critical essays, and the general themes of the issue.

FIVE THINGS SOUTHERLY ARE TO BE COMMENDED FOR:

– Doing a Translation Issue

In the geographically and historically extraordinary monolingualism of Australian literary culture, it is very easy to believe that no one translates. This is due in part to an element of truth (nobody translates), part to a cultural disinterest in translation (some people do translate – for example Chris Andrews, one of Roberto Bolaño’s major translators, and an inexplicable absence here – but publishers and readers tend not to take notice). In almost every other country in the world, translation is a daily exercise, not just in literature, but in supermarkets, bakeries, in taxis. For many Australian writers and critics though, reading and writing in/on translation is theoretically interesting. Which is not to say that they’re interested in translation theory, but that it sure does sound like it would be interesting to do, in theory. In this climate, any intervention is a good intervention, and the editors at Southerly must be commended for taking the initiative to collect an edition on translation.

– Including Lionel Fogarty’s Work

Here is a language in transit, in the process of becoming, of ripening and after-ripening: here is an undressed language. As Fogarty’s bio describes, he does indeed enact a conquering of the English language through his poetic voice. English comes out of its encounter with Fogarty battered (in both senses), somehow simultaneously compromised and enriched. Bruised and confused, thrown into the fryer. Listen to this:

THOSE PAST AUDIENCE ARE WOKEN TO A
BLACK SMILE OF FURIOUSLY
REALIZED VOICE OVER GRINNING
REPEATIN MOCKERY ARE SOME PEOPLES
REMARRY PRECIOUS FREE MIND
THOSE EYES OF YOURS GENTLY WIDENED
THOSE LIES OF YOURS PRIVATE SERIOUS
DAMN RELAX IN SETTLED AT BUPU BUPU
HEARD SONGS BURST OUT PEACE AND QUIET
DEADLY WHITE ESQUISTS DESIRES

Fogarty grapples with the dilemma of all minor (in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka) writers: how to write in the major language without succumbing to it? But I can hear Fogarty’s furious laughter as conservative English lit. critics grow edgy at verb/subject disagreements, worried what an “Esquist” might be. To me it seems obscurely obvious. And utterly devastating.

– Including the Two Bernhards and Stoklosinski’s Critical Essay

It pleased me greatly to see two versions of Thomas Bernhard’s short story ‘Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy?’ side by side. This obviously required some negotiation on the part of the editors, but also some nerve, taking up such a large portion of the available space. But it is worth it. It brings us toward a thinking about reading and writing and reading; beginning again and again, difference and repetition; and how translation informs a contemporary poetics. Eduard Stoklosinski’s critical essay is one of the more thoughtful pieces I’ve read on translation in Australia for a while (he’s Stuttgart-born, but we’d do well to claim him). His pointed critique of Michael Hofmann’s domesticated Bernhard is convincing, strengthening his argument for allowing his English translations to be “affected” by Bernhard’s Sprachskepsis (linguistic scepticism). Following on from Stoklosinski’s vocabulary though, I would like to suggest a more biological conception of the process, to infect rather than affect, a Sprachsepsis as much as a Sprachskepsis.

– Including Extra Work on the Website

I was equally pleased to find extra work in ‘The Long Paddock’, Southerly‘s online supplement. In particular, Stuart Cooke’s Pablo de Rokha, a Chilean poet whom I will certainly chase down if these poems give an indication of his work. This stanza:

Just like the seeds, you tore yourself into children,
and, just like a dream that multiplies,
the painful flesh filled you with sons:
little woman of winter, storm cloud of sighs,
the sadness of sex eats your voice.

reminds me that the question of how we are to engage with the language of the heart in a contemporary poetics, will happen largely through a conversation with Spanish-language poetry. Both literatures need this conversation equally.

– Including Martin Harrison’s Dialogue with Michel Deguy

Martin Harrison’s pair of poems, ‘Waters’ speaking back to his close rendition of Deguy’s ‘Cardiogram (May)’, and sets us on track, into a writing space that is informed by our relation to translation in a profound way. It engages the moments of dislocated grammar in Deguy and the polysemy of individual words wonderfully. The last line being a great example: “Du goût de rien sur le goût de tout” translated as “of nothing’s flavour over the taste of everything”. It certainly leaves a real sense of style on the tongue.

FIVE THINGS SOUTHERLY ARE TO BE CONDEMNED FOR:

– Doing a Translation Issue

Really, there should be no such thing as a translation edition of a journal. Like the supermarket, the bakery, the back/front seat of a taxi, translation should be such an integral thread of our literary text/fabric that it cannot be unpicked and set aside. I’m not conflating translation and literature here. Translation does deserve its own place in thinking and writing, but part of the progress in literary studies comes in honestly reckoning the debt that all writing and thinking owes to translation. This is monumental, but the first step is to include translations, writing about translating and translated/ing writers in every edition of all of our journals. As David Brooks points out in his Editorial, “Southerly‘s mandate, often missed by critics who find it their task-of-the-moment to review one issue or another [hello David!], is to publish, almost exclusively, new writing by Australian’ writers”. My point though, is that translations by Australian writers fit that description – as this issue of Southerly indeed recognises – but I would like to see that writing integrated, rather than cordoned off – no doubt the editors would prefer to say showcased – from the ongoing literary dialogue. This point is more of a provocation than a criticism. The question being: is this edition an indication of an increased cross-lingual dialogue in Australian writing and publishing, or do we now settle back into the monolingual drone?

– Including Only Lionel Fogarty

Where are the younger indigenous writers who speak language? Now, this is a harsh criticism, because our urban-based, Anglo literary culture tends to be quite separated from largely remote, multilingual indigenous communities. So this takes work, but that is no excuse. Again this is a provocation. Hopefully in the next ‘translation edition’…

– Including Extra Work on the Website

I know that all Australian journals operate under constant threat of extinction; website development can be expensive; and ‘The Long Paddock’ claims to be “still in development”. But the argument that “Material published in the Long Paddock is not in any way secondary to the material in our print edition” doesn’t really hold up considering that the Southerly print edition actually has one of the nicer design aesthetics – if conventional and conservative – of Australian literary periodicals currently getting around. The website not so. Reading something like Saadi Nikro’s essay/review in that format turns what would be an enjoyable reading experience into torture. The internet is not a photocopying machine. Can I suggest something like wordpress or Tumblr as cheap, fairly flexible options?

– John Kinsella’s Note on Himself

While John Kinsella historians will no doubt be grateful for this small piece, for me it works against the value of his and Ali Alizadeh’s Persian poetry translation project. It is not that I don’t think translators should write about their work – I wish more would – rather it is Kinsella’s front and centre self (“I naturally … tend to get (contemporary Farsi) poetry and poetics more readily. I enjoy working though, and as someone with a bit of a “history” background, I like to explore eras and contexts”) that irks me. One of the great values of translation as I see it, is that it posits a writing which pushes the self out of focus, and puts the Other (text, writer, culture) firmly at the centre of the practice. It approaches an ethical writing practice, rather than an ontological one.

-Not Including Original Texts

I was quite excited to get my hands on this edition of Southerly, but so confused to realise there were no originals. Like all my condemnations here, this one is qualified. I understand that bilingual publishing is problematic. There is space to consider: do you halve the contributions? There is copyright, payment issues: do you pay the original writer also, his/her publisher? Then there is the question: would anyone even read them? Well, yes. What really surprised me, though, was that there was no mention of the decision in the Editorial. Was this ever discussed? If so, was it not important enough to mention? At the very least, couldn’t some originals have been included on the website? One of the effects of this decision is the way this review has turned out. More about the issue itself than the translations, because it means that I am largely unable to discuss them as translations. And I can’t help but feel that to some extent, it is indicative of an attitude that is summed up in John Watson’s poem ‘In an Old Magazine’, which opened “by chance” to a poem which “despite being translated” [my emphasis] is beautiful and sad. Maybe this is unfair to Southerly, but it is an apt description of our broader cultural conception of translation as a literary form. And it is time we finally left it behind.

Joel Scott is a Sydney-based poet, currently completing a PhD at Macquarie University.

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