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.
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.
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.