Thursday, October 30, 2008

Common Words for Common People - Repackaging the Liberals

Reading this New York Times article on a psychologist who is helping liberals re-brand their message I had a two-fold response: it's about time, and now we're no different than the conservatives. Because those of us with critical thinking abilities have seen for a long time that the conservative message is just neatly packaged and sold, and ultimately gets people to vote against their political, social and economic interests by playing on fear and emotion. And I for one have been proud that the liberals aren't stooping to those tactics.

On the other side, a friend and I were lamenting a few years ago that 'liberal' has become a dirty word. That tolerant and progressive are negative qualities, at least according to the conservatives and their populist rhetoric. It's not that the voting masses were actually against tolerance or progress, just that these things had been metaphorically tarred and feathered. And it seemed like the liberals, who for all intents and purposes should be master word-smiths, or at least be able to draw upon some, were just spinning in circles, unable to reclaim or re-imagine the context of the debate.

But should we really use the dirty and deceitful rhetorical stylings of the right? The article reads:
The handbook does not offer a script so much as a menu of options, each of which was poll-tested against
conservative arguments. On economics, for example, one message begins with “I want to see the words ‘Made in
America’ again.” Another reads, “We need leaders who don’t just talk about family values but actually value families.”
These insubstantial phrases are all bells and whistle, sound and fury, with no purpose. These, frankly, are something I can hear Sarah Palin or George W. Bush saying to a crowd of cheering people who don't want anyone smarter than them to be in charge. That's the whole problem with this "common words for common people" take, as far as I'm concerned.

I am not the smartest person in the country. I don't think that people who are smarter or better educated than me are inherently elitests or privledged. Many incredibly smart people come from working class backgrounds, and make their opportunities with the help of a system that is designed to reward merit (at least as well as wealth and class). This is a uniquely American construction, and something I'm proud of. And when it comes down to it, I want the person in charge to be smarter than me, by a lot. I don't understand the complexities of government, economy or foreign policy. So this reliance on 'straight talk,' which is just a euphamism for dumb talk, is part condescention taken to it's worst and part shame of being intelligent. Neither of these is a good thing.

However, it is past time that the liberals get energized, come up with some new messages or new ways of conveying the same messages, and stop rolling over for conservative dirty tricks. I just don't know if the lowest-common-denominator rhetoric is the best way to do that. Because then, how are we any different?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Spider Curtains

Recently I got involved with a filmmaker who is doing a project on the translation of poetry. I've long been interested in the interplay between poetry and film, since both as an art form rest so heavily on expression of image. Her project is examining the aspects of poetry that are able to be translated, and will consist of several translations of the same poem being read over sequences of images. I'm thrilled to be involved - especially since the poet is Enrique Molina, a brilliant 20th century Argentinian poet.

So I started working on my translation today, and was humbled by the language in this poem. Much of what I've translated has been prose-poetry, or more generally approachable lyrical poetry. This piece, besides the modismos (word usages specific to the author's country) and elevated diction, is mostly lacking in punctuation. It makes it difficult in some cases to determine the grammar of each phrase, and if I happen to find myself moving too quickly I end up with delightful neologisms like "spider curtains." The phrase, properly punctuated (or prosaically punctuated) would be "...spiders, curtains..." But as I've always found when working through someone else's language, these mistranslations that are often as rich as the intended meaning.

Spider curtains: webs in an abandonded house grown so thick that they diffuse the light; finely wroght lace curtains with a web-like pattern; the image is layered with potential. It is only by suspending my own voice, my own sense of logic and structure and image that I can genuinely translate, and it leaves me open to words and pairings I wouldn't have come to on my own. That, perhaps moreso than any other reason, is the joy in translation - the being rendered open by language, and to language.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Poet Arrested for Insulting Islam

Last week I came across this article on the New York Times website, and then this one on the BBC website. A 27-year old Jordanian poet, Islam Samhan, was arrested for combining Qur'anic verses with sexual themes in his poetry. According to The Guardian the controversy surrounds his first collection, Grace Like A Shadow, Menassat that it is called Elegant Like A Shadow (oh the rich problems of translation), and The National says it was a collected works called In a Slim Shadow. This blog hedges the middle saying that the current controversy surrounds Grace Like A Shadow despite the popularity of his previous release of collected poems In A Slim Shadow. Whichever it is, sources agree that his poetry has been called innovative and beautiful, and is now at the center of a heated controversy in Jordan.

The poet is still imprisioned in Jordan, and will appear in court on October 30th on charges of apostasy which might carry a potential death sentance, a banning of the book, fines and imprisonment according to various sources. This blog has it that the poet could be forced to divorce his pregnant wife and not contact her or their children again were he to be found guilty of the charges. The details may be skewed but the issue is painfully clear.

It is both terrifying and heartening to know that in some places poetry can land you in jail. In the United States poetry hasn't been able to land you in jail since the 50's, which some may think speaks of tolerance and I think speaks of unimportance. But here, this poet and the writers who are supporting his cause, are given an opportunity to make a difference in their world, change perception. Reminiscent of the controversy over the Danish cartoons, which drew global attention, a major difference is that Islam Samhan has said he was not intending to mock, disparage, or insult Islam, that he was merely influenced by the beauty of Qur'anic language. Intention should count, especially in the interpretation of abstract, perhaps even esoteric art forms like poetry. But it can't be everything, and it traces a dangerous line to assert no harmful intention, for where would that leave more controversial poetry? Islam's poetry, in any case, cherishes and celebrates Islam, but in a way that makes it surprising, new, unexpected, as any poet worth the name must do. This is called innovation.

Saud Qubeilat, head of the Jordanian Writers Association, warned: “One shouldn’t judge poetry based on literal terms, otherwise many of the poets would be declared apostates. And if anyone has a say in literature, it should be a literary critic and not anyone from a different field who doesn’t know anything about old or contemporary literature.” This is similar to the arguments made in the smut trials in the US during the 50's over now-classics like Ulysses. Artistic freedom must be granted in order to allow the best art to develop unfettered, and art can only be interpreted by artists. All in all, a sound argument, at least so determined the US courts. Now we can only hope the Jordanian courts will see the logic of letting poets to their own devices, and not interpreting literally the verses they read. Perhaps an Art of Poetry class is in order for the officials charged with determining the offense of poetry.

All glibness aside, this poet deserves the freedom to express that which he finds beautiful and moving, deserves the possibility of surprising his contemporaries and the ability to intend to innovate. I hope he will be acquitted, and his book made available. Frankly, I would love to read it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I've wanted to start blogging for a bit now, never quite mustering the inspiration necessary to do it. But finally, I've figured out that if I want to start I need to just start. So this is the purpose: literary translation. Hopefully not only a catch-all for interesting news and new books, but also to think out loud in a manner of speaking the processes of translation, of publishing, of research and the quest for a graduate program suited to the interests of literary translation.

And why was I not informed that underwater archeology was a career possibility? Really?

So why Beneath Sense? Other than the fact that sometimes I am. My husband asked me what was the process, the path so to speak, of literary translation. The first thing that occurred to me was that, in the translation of poetry in any case, we delve beneath sense - the surface meaning - to excavate the poetry.

Robert Frost famously quipped that poetry is what is lost in translation. I disagree, not with Frost but with how that statement is commonly interpreted. Perhaps he really did believe that poetry could not move between languages. But I'd like to think that he was poet enough to recognize the universal, transcendental qualities of poetry: those that make Dante relevant today, that make Du Fu important, that make Neruda necessary. I understand the statement to be merely that the translation of poetry requires a poet to reintroduce the poetry that is "lost" into the final work. Transliteration requires a good dictionary and a native speaker. But the subtle secondary meanings, insinuation, allusion, hyperbole, rhythm and syllabance--those require a poet to recreate in the target language. I've seen it argued that Frost refers to the 'essence' of poetry here, that which absolutely cannot be translated. Without beginning to consider if poetry has an essence, and if so what that could possibly be, it seems to me that poetry must be translatable, if only because it moves from the page to the voice. Translation of medium requires a mutable essence, one that can be formed and reformed. Perhaps, through translation, even improved as Neruda and Paz believed.

These things I will seek and fall beneath sense.