(Self)Translation and the Poetry of the ‘In-between’

By | 1 February 2016

Self-translation and linguistic nomadism

I am conscious of the way my own subjectivity is negotiated across two languages, cultures and histories, and it is this ‘deep story’ that is central to my poetry. From the perspective of an author who consistently uses a first-person poetic voice in his work, this shift away from notions of source, origin, equivalence, loss and so forth also signifies a shift away from conceiving of subjectivity in similarly derivative terms. For me it demonstrates the notion of the self-in-translation as functioning in a space where a doubling and ‘building up’ occurs: here, the textures of a life lived across two languages / cultures entwine.

I therefore wish to extend the traditional definition of self-translation beyond the simple transposition of one’s own writing into different languages. For me, self-translation does not simply mean the translation of my poetry from one language to another, but also refers to the practice of translating the self in new and interesting ways. The capacity to write and translate one’s own work across languages has the potential to unshackle the poet from strict identifications with a native tongue, an ‘original’ nationality or a fixed sense of home. No one language or culture or text is ‘first’ or more authentic for me: it is the movement and negotiation between them that best reflects a life lived between, within and across more than one place or culture.

While much of my poetry is built around literary and physical nomadism, here I wish to propose the idea of linguistic nomadism: a reflection of the continuous movement between languages that is a feature of my life and my writing. The idea of nomadism is also a way of understanding the kind of negotiated movement between languages and texts that Eco describes, and which Pierre Joris uses as the basis for his theory of nomad poetics (2003), whereby translation destabilises the notion of a unitary allegiance to an ‘original’ language and may result, following the thinking of Delueze and Guattari, in a minor literature.

However, from the perspective of someone interested more specifically in the connection between subjectivity and self-translation, I am particularly drawn to Rosi Braidotti’s theory of the nomadic, non-unitary subject who identifies with more than one culture, language or home (2011a, 2001b). Braidotti draws upon her own experience as a migrant and a multi-lingual philosopher to argue that ‘the polyglot is a linguistic nomad’ (2011b, p. 29). It is this linguistic nomadism that I associate with my own experiences of self-translation: translation for me is not simply carrying words back and forth across a page, but is bound up with my personal experience of living between and across languages.

I am not alone in this regard. The writer, performer and scholar Merlinda Bobis, reflecting on her own practice of writing multi-lingual poetry, refers to this movement between languages as ‘shuttling’ (1995, p. 7). Bobis describes the process of moving between Bikol, Pilipino and English in her writing as part and parcel of living across more than one nation and culture. Despite or even because of her experience of migration, Bobis questions the idea of an original, first and authentic voice:

That I am born to a particular soundstation (Pilipino or even my dialect Bikol) is accidental … I am born with the timbre of the first sound, that first prehistoric grunt in the caves. So, in a way, I am bound by kinship to all the languages that grew out of that first primal cry. No language can be imposed on me, because each language by affinity is mine (2007, p. 7).

Because of this affinity, Bobis does not see translation in terms of a diminution of her ‘true self’ as she moves from one language to another. Instead, translation is a space in which her cultural hybridity and border crossing is staged. For Bobis, self-translation is a means by which to investigate relationships to nation, culture, language and place: to celebrate the possibilities of bi- and multi-lingualism.

When writing / translating poetry I am reminded of my own translocation – physical, psychological, historical, linguistic, cultural – required by my dual identification with the home of my birth and the home of my ancestors, Australia and Italy. This shifting and ‘shuttling’ entails a linguistic nomadism, an ongoing process of moving backwards and forwards between English and Italian (and even dialect) in which my poetic voice is never entirely at home, rooted or identified with one single language.

Indeed, Braidotti points out that a nomadic consciousness de-emphasises ‘nostalgia for the site of cultural origin’ (2011b, p. 39). In line with this thinking, the bilingual poet is therefore positioned as ‘a person who is in transit between () languages, neither here nor there’ (p. 39). As such, the bilingual poet is ‘capable of some healthy scepticism about steady identities and mother tongues … (B)eing in-between languages constitutes a vantage point in deconstructing identity’ (p. 39).

Thus, the in-between-ness of translation practice opens a space in which the fixity of national, cultural and linguistic identities comes into question. While the migrant may possess the sense of a home left behind, a history of belonging and a mother tongue that precedes the culture of their host nation or culture, the first generation migrant exists in a state of mixed and multiple allegiances to culture and place. In effect theirs is a life lived in translation, in what Homi K. Bhabha calls a ‘Third Space of enunciation’, ‘the ‘inter’ – the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the inbetween space’ in which it is possible to enunciate the splitting and doubling of identities that connect across more than one text, history, nation or language (1994, p. 56, italics in the original).

As I have suggested, self-translation challenges previous discourses about translation that focus on authenticity, originality, unity, equivalence and diminishment. This practice offers what Bhabha describes as an ‘intervention’ that ‘properly challenges our sense of the historical identity of culture as a homogenising, unifying force, authenticated by the originary past’ (1994, p. 54). Indeed, the ideas I have outlined above can be understood as an intervention into the pre-established discourses about translation, one that transcends the idea of an original subjectivity shaped by birthplace and first language.

While this is important, the notions of linguistic nomadism and ‘Third Space’ offer something more than just a critical counterpoint in translation studies. For me, they are a means by which to foreground the self in the translation process, to consider the effects and implications of bilingualism in my writing. The space between and across languages becomes ‘a new territory’, as Eco (2003, p. 102) puts it: a terrain in which to explore my identity through creative practice. Here the self is moving, multiple and negotiated, itself a kind of text-in-translation.

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