War Photographer: J.R. Goudeau

J.R. is the coolest. I could gush all day long about how smart and cool and driven this girl is. She starts companies that empower refugees, raises her girls, writes her doctoral dissertation on poetry (!), and she sends me care packages when I am sad and lonely. I love J.R. because she laughs at all the same things I do (how all our international friends adore Spicy Hot Cheetos, for example) and cries at all the same things too (refugees, orphan care, the marginalized). For me, meeting J.R. makes the internets worthwhile. She is my sister-from-another-mister, and I can’t wait to squeeze her one day in real life. So read her killer post, and then head on over to her blog. You won’t be sorry. 

Bishop and Lowell
image from the cover of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Bishop and Lowell

How Free do I have the Right to Be?

The mid-twentieth century poet Elizabeth Bishop spent much of her adult life living in Brazil. Her partner and many of her friends were well-known Brazilian artists and elites; in many ways, she is the definitive translator of Brazilian poetry to this day. Her long-time best friend and pen pal Robert Lowell was also a poet and sometimes translator. The title of his book of French translations, Imitations, gives an idea of his values in translation. He translated poems in the same free-wheeling, anything-goes way he wrote about his life; he was part of the confessional movement in poetry, along with Sylvia Plath and other poets beloved by undergraduates everywhere.

Once he just put line breaks in his ex-wife’s actual letters and published them in a book. Understandably, she was pissed.

Lowell’s translations made Bishop really uncomfortable. After Imitations came out they had one of their very few arguments. As Bishop wrote Lowell in a rather tense letter, “I just can’t decide how ‘free’ one has the right to be with the poet’s intentions.”

Her concern about translating a poet’s intentions was ethical: she valued faithful translations that carefully matched, often literally, the word choices made by the original poems in Portuguese, Spanish, or other languages.

The problem with this, Lowell would have countered, would be on an artistic level—he may have changed the French poems significantly, but the end result was a beautiful poem in English. He valued aesthetics more than ethics in translation.

Their poetic argument might seem like the kind of stuff academics argue about without any sort of effect on real life (except for the undergraduates who I force to write papers about these poems). But they reveal a spectrum that is critically important for me on a practical level every day.

I have two jobs: I’m a grad student writing a dissertation on translation and poetry who teaches undergraduate English. I’m also the director of Hill Country Hill Tribers, a non-profit that works with Burmese refugee artisans in Austin.

Ray Noe weaving

In order to tell the background about the women and men who hand make earrings, scarves, bags, baby dolls, and other beautiful things, I “translate” their stories into narratives that are familiar to my audience. And in doing so, I hear the voices of the critical theorists and postcolonial scholars whose work I study in graduate school. For me what was an academic conversation, examining how writers translate poetry, turned into a very real question of what to write on my blog and in the online store and our artisan descriptions on our website.

I am constantly conflicted about how “free” I have the “right” to be.

These stories are not mine. I want to tell them in a way that is appealing (in order to sell the products my friends are making), aesthetically pleasing (because I want to be a good writer) and economically valuable (so someone is more likely to buy the scarf my friend has made) without objectifying my friends or using meaningless tropes and lingo (because they are people, not objects of pity or “the poor”).

I don’t want to reduce my friends into simply inspirational, Hallmark-card stereotypes.

These are complicated issues that I find myself wrestling with all the time. Like Bishop, I’m not sure I have one over-arching theory of how to do this. But I think it’s critical to lay out a framework from which I can at least begin to work.

The first thing I think we need to recognize is that there is violence in representing one group, language, text or people to another. As Anuradha Dingwaney says in Between Languages and Cultures, “The process of translation involved in making another culture comprehensible entails varying degrees of violence, especially when the culture being translated is constituted as that of the ‘other’” (4). We don’t always acknowledge the ripping act of violence that occurs when we tell stories in a way that “others” other people.

Any act of simplification is also an act of violence.

The expectations of the audience who is reading these representations, whether it be Hill Tribers’ customers or mission-board members or Facebook friends, affect the way we portray people. It is something I constantly resist—the desire to play up my friends’ poverty and their gratefulness and downplay the difficulties we have in relating to each other.

I have to recognize the conversation I’m entering and my own position of power within it. As Dingwaney continues, it is critical “to recognize that translations can be (and often are) tainted by power, time, and the vagaries of different cultural needs” (6). There are power relations when people talk about other people who are different from them. When the translator and audience are in a position of economic or cultural privilege, the power relationship is asymmetrical—skewed to the power.

It’s hard. And yet, translation is important. The representation of poverty is important. The telling of these stories is important. This struggle to be an effective, ethical, aesthetically-pleasing, economically-helpful translator war photographer is important.

I love the way Talal Asad puts it: “translation is not merely a matter of matching sentences in the abstract, but of learning to live another form of life and to speak another kind of language” (quoted by Dingwaney 7). The implications for me as a Christian of Asad’s argument for anthropologists, ethnographers and translators is remarkable: I need to learn to live another form of life and to speak another kind of language.

This means analyzing my own tropes, my own baggage, my own expectations, my own firmly-held beliefs. It means being aware of my privilege but not paralyzed by it. It means letting go of my own intentions and learning to listen hard and well. It means educating myself and educating my audience on the issues and values of the community I’m portraying.

Asad’s use of the gerund “learning” implies that this is an ongoing, never-ending, ever-changing process. I have certainly not arrived at a definitive solution about how and when and why to portray my refugee friends, much less other groups. Like Elizabeth Bishop, I have more questions than I have answers. I’m still not sure how free I should be in translating their stories. 

I just know that I need to keep struggling with it. For me, the halting, hesitant act of translation is part of the new language I’m learning. This place between cultures is the new form of life I’m learning to live.

J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at loveiswhatyoudo.wordpress.com.

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35 thoughts on “War Photographer: J.R. Goudeau

  1. Christiana says:

    This is awesome. I think one of your best posts, Jessica. This is what you should write, I think.

  2. I have nothing to say for now except that I love this. I may be more articulate later…okay maybe now…I think the discussion of the violence inherent in translation is something I will be thinking about for a while. What an apt word and I think that feeling of violence applies to my daily life in Djibouti. I want to figure that out more, but that is probably why it resonates so deeply. The stripping of history and culture and preferences, essentially the constant translating of life itself that is part of being an expat in a place so different from my passport culture. Still thinking on it…thanks for stirring this up in me.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      I’m so excited to share this because these are concepts I’ve been wrestling with internally for years now. We talk about the “violence of translation” as an academic concept in my classes, but to see what that looks like on the ground in real life makes it a much more weighted issue. I don’t know what to do with that but live in this tension–glad to know you’re there with me in this.

  3. Christie says:

    Such great questions. I think this is why I always refused to teach poetry in translation to my students. However (as much as I hate to admit it) avoiding the issue doesn’t make it go away. Also, I never got to teach Rilke. 🙂
    You are right that these stories need to be told, these connections between cultures need to be made. God help us to do it with wisdom and the sort of kindness that truly sees the other.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      You would geek out with me, I’m sure, at my favorite activity I have for undergrad English–I make them take a poem in Portuguese with a literal prose trot beside it (I just translate exactly with the poem means with lots of options for words with complex meanings) and then I make them write a poem based on it. Then they share those poems with the class in groups, so that the entire class hears the same poem 4-5 times in a row with lots of variation. It’s so fascinating for them to realize the nuances and differences in translation and they feel empowered in “translating” their new poems. It’s so extremely fun. Now I miss teaching.

      I’m not even sure I would know where to start with Rilke. Do you read him much? I love his work deeply but feel really unknowledgable about his poetry.

      And I don’t know what to do or how to move forward, but I’m learning and I love talking with you smart people about how to do it with wisdom and kindness.

      • Christie says:

        Oh, that’s brilliant! See, this is why it’s probably best that I gave up teaching. I never did anything half so great for my students.
        The only non-English poetry I read much of is Rilke and Milosz. Love them both. Thinking we need some kind of long-distance poetry reading club. 🙂
        Thanks, again, for the brilliant post. I love how you integrate your scholarly work and Christian faith while making it so relevant for the rest of us. Incredible.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      I love Rilke and Milosz. Rilke’s Book of Hours is sacred text to me, especially 17, which is basically the theme of my life: “She who reconciles the ill-matched threads / of her life, and weaves them gratefully / into a single cloth…”

  4. Caris Adel says:

    What a fascinating way to think about translating.

  5. You are brilliant, simply brilliant. So this is another skype conversation we need to start. I so agree with the challenges and opportunities of translation.

    I think of ‘the danger of a single story’ when you speak of simplification. When we reduce someone to one trope, stereo-type or narrative we’ve diminished their fullness. To name it as violence… ups the ante, to say the least.

    Sometimes I want to highlight the brightness, resilience, moxy or graciousness of my Batwa friends. So many only see their poverty. I want to fill out the story. (I want to add another story because I see the goodness others might miss.) The hardship is each story doesn’t tell the whole story. So if I tell the story of a community’s best day, when they loved their neighbors with selfless generosity, am I denying the truth of their other days when they squabble, content for power amongst themselves or steal from the village fund? I don’t want to tell those stories, honestly, because I fear they play into too many tropes already in operation. So with my story telling am I adding to an on-going narrative, bringing balance by speaking about all their virtues? Or am I creating imbalance in my own story telling as I prefer the good story to the normal or even harder stories that are also true? It’s hard.

    Maybe some of this comes down to audience. In the community development circles in Burundi, they’ve heard so many stories about the Batwa. So my stories might actually help bring a corrective, fill out the truth a bit more, bring some balance. But maybe when I share with a wider audience that only know the Batwa through my stories, I offer a skewed version of the story. They only hear how wonderful my Batwa friends are… since they don’t have the wider in-country context. So I think our audience matters in how we communicate our stories. They are part of the story telling matrix, what they bring as a reader/listener.

    So I could go on and on here… but let’s skype soon! Let’s get D.L. in the call too!

    Brilliant and thought provoking.

    • I love, love these words and ideas and one thing I’d just like to add is a question of whether or not it paralyzes story-telling? We need to be sensitive and wise and accurate and honest and sometimes it feels so daunting that I want to retreat into fiction for fear of, well, so many things. So how do we balance that? I suppose a large part of it is having conversations like this. Who are some writer’s y’all feel do it well?

      • that is exactly why i started the series! there IS a need for war photographers–so the question is, how do we strive to do it well. i know for a fact you were born to tell stories from your corner of the globe, rachel.

      • J.R. Goudeau says:

        I agree with D on this–I think you do a great job of this, Rachel. What I’m most concerned about is that we not stop telling stories. I think we need to. I have asked my refugee friends what they want from me when I tell their stories and they’re pretty passionate that we tell people that there has been war in their country and there is still fighting going on right now (I have another post about that coming–my Kachin friends can’t find relatives in the fighting in the Kachin state–this is still very real). So it would be worse, I think, to NOT tell the stories. And, like Kelley says, we can’t make one person’s story a summary of all of the stories, but sometimes that’s the easiest way to make a situation relatable. What if we identified some questions and talked about them on our blogs in the next few weeks? Like, how does audience impact or change our representations? What about single-person stories? What are the problems of talking about poor people? What are some ways to do this well?

  6. J.R. Goudeau says:

    Thank you, dear. I’m still buzzing with excitement about our last conversation. And I think audience is a critical piece we need to explore–I want to be thinking through the concepts and values in our representations. I’ll try to post more on that next week, but you’ve given me so much to think about here. I don’t know where these friendships are going, but I cannot wait to see–I love talking about these issues with such brilliant, like-minded, go-getters. Love you muchly.

  7. Abby Norman says:

    This is brilliant. It is hard this telling, but it seems to need telling. I was working on my post for your series and realized that the stories that people sometimes most want to hear are the ones that show that they don’t have to do anything. I am grossed out to think about the ways I have helped that narrative, but I don’t yet have the words to do better.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      Thank you, Abby. I don’t think I have the words yet to do better, but I want to keep working toward them together. Thanks for your encouragement–I can’t wait to read your post!

  8. idelette says:

    This is brilliant, Jessica. Thank you so much for bringing context and knowledge to something I am really struggling with, especially since coming back from Moldova this week. I am wrestling with telling the stories–or even if it’s appropriate. What is helping me is that I am now Facebook friends with many new Moldovan friends. It reminds me that I don’t want to write or share something, I wouldn’t share with them right in the room. I am certainly wrestling here. I so appreciate your thoughts and insights today.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      Thanks, Idelette. Your trip to Moldova is exactly what I have in mind when I say how important it truly is to tell these stories–we cannot ignore trafficking and injustice, we just can’t. Your going is so important, I think, to come back and share with us how and what we need to do. But to tell the stories with integrity and authenticity is difficult. Somehow I think you’re going to end up doing it just right! I was thinking about what you said about Facebook all day–it really does make a difference. As our Hill Tribers are moving online more and more, I want to honor them and tell their stories in ways that they and their teenage/adult kids can be proud of. I’m not sure I succeed, but that’s my goal.

      • Yes i have been thinking about this too. It almost seems too simple, but we alwaya need to write as if our subjects were in the audience. Too often i have left them out.

  9. Erin Wilson says:

    Hmmm… interesting ideas. I’m going to have to sit with the concept that there is violence inherent in translation. Not quite sure how I feel about that.

    I can tell you what does feel violent to me… the often used phrase ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. Mercy, that bugs me. Everyone has a voice. What they may not have is a broad platform. It is utter arrogance to presume to give voice to another.

    I haven’t studied language or translation, so these are merely thoughts that come from my own work and relationships with Kurdish kids. I’m always very aware of how small the world is. When I write about our students on the blog, I try to be aware that they are my true audience. They may not speak English now, but it’s only a matter of time. I want them to be proud of what they find said of them when they find themselves online someday. I know I don’t always get it right. But that’s the lens I try to use. The Kurds have been oppressed for so many centuries, their language developed without a future tense. I think they’ve seen enough violence already.

    And I’m with Bishop, fwiw 🙂
    Peace

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      I will be honest, I hear what you’re saying about the word “violent.” I think it’s a bit of a shock word which the academics whom I read use in order to make a stronger case. And it’s certainly true in some cases that objectifying bodies or people groups can be a violating act, but I don’t think that “violent” is always the best word. I’ll have to think of a better term, maybe. I love what you’re saying about Kurdish kids–I would love to hear more about that!

      And my LEAST favorite phrase of all time is “voice to the voiceless.” I feel violent about that! 🙂 Seriously, I was just talking to my sister about that phrase yesterday before your comment. It’s such an irritating way to think of others.

  10. I stepped into some of these issues without realizing it, when on a church trip to Nicaragua I volunteered to be the photographer because I didn’t have any other skills. It seemed like the easy job until I got there, and there were real people on the other side of my camera! (I know how that sounds, but I really was entirely that naive.) I really didn’t have any idea, until I had to choose how to frame each photo, what a huge responsibility it would be. My first choice was to not take any pictures at all, especially out in the streets. But a companion on the trip said, “Honor their stories.” I gave it my best shot, but I felt so exposed in that moment. All my prejudices and everything else, just so exposed.

    thanks for the series.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      I have done this so many times, but I had several trips behind me before I even began to think about these issues. I feel pretty adamant about these issues of representation mostly because I’ve broken so many myself! Thanks for sharing!

  11. Ed Cyzewski says:

    This is such a wonderful reflection on the issues we face when bridging cultures. My wife is working with postcolonial and transnational modernist literature for her PhD, and that has made me really aware of who gets to determine the narratives.

    I’m also reminded of my Hebrew poetry class. Most of it made no sense. None of it stuck. However, I was amazed at how beautiful the Hebrew was in the Psalms. I’d always read them as more narrative than poetry, and it was like I realized a whole other world was out there.

    • J.R. Goudeau says:

      I think your wife and I would have a lot to talk about–my dissertation is post-WWII, so I’m relying on a lot of the tenets of modernism. I’d love to know more!

      Every time I read the Psalms I think I should study Hebrew and learn more. Maybe that will be my next degree! 🙂

  12. Great post. 🙂 I think this is a very important question- how can members of one culture portray another culture (and its needs) in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t reduce them to caricatures, but still is effective at communicating their needs and motivating people to make a difference in the world?

  13. […] War Photographer: J.R. Goudeau (dlmayfield.wordpress.com) […]

  14. amber@mercyrising says:

    Beautiful…

  15. Jenn says:

    I really loved this. Thank you for sharing – so much to think about here.

  16. […] representative person and strips them of their uniqueness. It is a dangerous act of simplification (J.R. Goudeau). We can all learn from each other, we need to. I am constantly learning from the people around me […]

  17. […] so many ways I could do it better, so many fears of not doing it right. Like translating poetry, as my friend J.R. says. We have a choice: it is too much work, too perilous, too fraught with complications and you leave […]

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