SIGNAL BOOST: CAN TRANSLATION BE RADICAL?

by Alex Valente, in conversation with Cadi Cliff

This conversation starts in Norwich. The fault is mine, of course, as I start doubting my place within the Norwich Radical, and the role that I, as a translator of poetry, could possibly play in a radical, progressive, critical publication. Enter Cadi Cliff, editor and co-founder, green radical, and a mountain range of humanity.

This conversation, then, is a dialogue of sorts; a voicing of those doubts, translator to editor, reader to reader, uncertain radical to radical, on the place of translation, and poetry, within these virtual walls.

A – What I really mean, I think, is that my regular contributions seem out of place with a lot of the others. Even just looking at the tagline for NR: ‘A progressive analysis of politics and the arts’. I analyse very little, in a fortnightly poem. It’s just sort of dumped there.

C – I’d disagree. If anything your sense of being out of place is our fault, for not having more poetry and translation within our publication. Analysis doesn’t just mean deconstructing current politics or the state of education in a comment piece. I see your work as being performative – by simply being translation it analyses the limits of language and the often forgotten role of the translator, it opens a window to a world of Italian poetry and culture, it breaks down boundaries…

A – I wouldn’t know about breaking down boundaries, I think mine is more of a tentative nudge. The idea of translation and poetry in general as a performative act, however, is something I can definitely get behind. My choice not much of subject matter, but of types of poems, might also factor into the equation: to only translate women who write in Italian, published or unpublished.

On the other hand, than opens a scarier door. As a translator, I do not believe in my invisibility; these are my English versions of Italian poems, I am not simply an application, I am rewriting them in my own words – am I somehow, then, appropriating voices that do not belong to me?

C – Yes, you’re not a female Italian poet, and their individual voices are not your voice, but appropriation is not a term I would associate with your translations here, it feels too violent.  I am not a translator, and cannot speak as one, but I have never read a translation and expected it to be the exact replica of the original, or even the original voice. That just isn’t possible. Words, like thoughts, aren’t bound things.

Instead of appropriating a voice, I would say instead that a dialogue is being created, an exchange. Whilst I am not a translator, I am a writer, and writing is a way to communicate – to communicate own ideas and ideas we have absorbed from others. Are you not, instead, multiplying that communication and exchange of ideas exponentially? For someone who defines as an uncertain radical, just being a translator seems pretty radical to me.

A – You’re making me sound like a signal booster, or at least a catalyst of sorts! I do believe I enter in conversation, to some extent, with the poems (if not the poets, though I have done that too) I translate for the Radical. In fact, much like Elisa Biagini does with Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan. But to what extent do I help amplify that dialogue that is already present in the Italian text? And how radical can my role be, if my addition is simply to nudge the poem into English, and scatter it to the virtual wind of online readership? Should I not be more proactive in ensuring the communication happens somewhere?

Also, to answer your point about translations being replicas: there is a fun saying in my field, that claims that a translation is exactly the same text as the original – except for all the words (this incarnation I heard from current Society of Authors chair and friend Daniel Hahn.

(© hyalescence)

C – I think only you can answer those questions. But as for how radical your role can be … Maybe you should be more proactive, but that’s your call. We are giving you a platform, you came to us to translate poetry, and maybe we’ve failed because we don’t have more translation and more dialogue about the act of translation on society, but it’s about steps. By stepping onto our little platform of writers, as a translator, you are bringing translation onto the same playing field. Instead of your translated work nestling with other translated works in a book of purely translated works, your work is instead speaking side by side with pieces which offer their own progressive analysis of politics and the arts.

By simply being on Radical – you and the poems you have sourced and replicated (or at least the ideas within them that you have replicated, if not necessarily the words – who knows, I haven’t read the originals) –  you’ve created the conversation here, one of translation and its place on our publication…

Many of the poems you translate look at issues sexuality, conflict, identity etc. and many do not. I guess I should ask why you chose to translate only poetry for your regular submissions to us? Does that play a part in your uncertainty towards your place as a writer for us?

A – Radical by association, perhaps. Admittedly, I had not thought about my standing out as a way to actually fit in. The disturbance created by the poems I contribute does help, in this sense, to reclaim the visibility of the translatorial process – which is strange, as I usually fight the other way round: authors/ editors/ publishers/ readers/ reviewers not acknowledging the translator. And I now find myself in the awkward position of wondering if I acknowledge myself at all. Huh.

It’s true, I never really choose a poem specifically for its content or theme (other than it has to be written by a woman, and in Italian) – though I have intentionally ignored a number of pieces that I personally dislike, content-wise, and that I think go against the Radical’s aims – but I did make a conscious choice to focus on poetry, rather than prose or other types of writing. Because it’s harder to get poetry published, in any country. Because Italian poetry in English seems to be stuck in various pasts. Because Italian poets that make it through are mostly men. Because I wanted to explore more Italian poetry myself.. Maybe that is some kind of answer to my doubts: I wanted to change the perspective on Italian poetry for a contemporary Anglophone audience, so I sent poetry your way.

I suppose at this point, my still unanswered question is: am I doing enough? And does it really matter, after all this? But I do suppose those are unanswered for a reason (and as you said earlier, are mostly down to me).

 C – I feel we’ve come to a meeting of minds here, a brain-bump. This conversation is looking at the place of translation, and poetry, within Radical’s virtual walls. You said you’ve chosen to submit the pieces to us because it’s harder to get poetry published, because those Italian poets that do make it through are mostly men…. There we have it, in a way. I see Radical, amongst many things, as a shared place for the publication of that which would not necessarily be published elsewhere.

Why do I think much of our work wouldn’t be published elsewhere? There are many reasons, which I won’t go into here, but mostly it’s the collaborative sharing of the platform by writers of a radical tilt of some sort, on a range of topics, which makes all of this a bit different. They all, in their infinitely different discussions, sit together. Your translations which might not find a home or even a voice in English elsewhere, sit with them; they’re going out to an audience not just made up of translators or linguaphiles, not just hidden in a niche somewhere.

Are you doing enough? For now, yes. Does it really matter, after all this? You’re doing something, that’s what matters. If we’re to be radical, to encourage a new consideration of things, on areas and discourses and peoples often sidelined, then yes – translation and poetry matter, your voice on our publication matters, just as Radical matters.

This conversation does not end in Norwich. It doesn’t end anywhere else, either, but rather it insistently leads into more questions than the ones both Cadi and myself started with.

There is no fault, really – the answers we give (and those we didn’t right here) are both personal and pervasive in communities of writers, translators, activists of all declensions. But as much as our conversation, my translations are static in what they’re doing on Norwich Radical, I hope that the signal is being picked up, and we can keep it going further, pushing just a little harder with each new voice.

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