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Translation and money laundering

A friend just sent me a link to this excellent interview at the Loggernaut reading series (dateless, it seems, and also timeless?) with Ammiel Alcalay—author, most recently, of neither wit nor gold” (from then), out from Ugly Duckling, and founder of “Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.” The interview is a remarkably concise and wise gloss on the problems & complexities of translating and publishing translations—how to approach the question of context for each writer and each work, and how to preserve and nurture the collective, communal nature of the endeavor, resist the commodification of translations that can too easily happen when they’re published here in the US. “For me,” Alcalay says, “an essential element has to do with the choice of the materials and figuring out ways to somehow insulate or attempt to insulate the fate of the text.” Alcalay narrates:

When I was in Jerusalem the first time, in the late 70s, I worked as a kind of general gofer and assistant at this very old organization called the Council of the Sephardic Communities – most of the people there were old Jerusalemites, from families that were there for hundreds of years, and just by hanging around I learned and intuited a tremendous amount, things that led me to understand what I found and didn’t find in books. During the intifada, we had a close friend who was a Mennonite and she ran the Mennonite Center there which became a kind of clearing house for all kinds of people that later went on to become both famous and infamous. Just by spending time there and listening, engaging with various people, I was able to gain the kind of nuanced understanding of things that is just unavailable otherwise.

This has always characterized my approach, for instance, to the literary world – I’d much rather work with a small press and get deeply involved in the whole endeavor at a very modest level than strive and hob knob with big name type people. That just doesn’t interest me because there is little or no exchange involved – those kinds of people are just moving ahead, with little or no concern for anything common or collective. That too, I feel more and more strongly, is part of an intellectual ethics, a way of putting into practice various power relationships and breaking some of them down rather than falling into them and simply accepting what’s given. Everything also changes as the context changes – I put a tremendous amount of effort into translation and enabling access to various literatures and traditions but as that gets taken up in a more organized way by others I find it less urgent and have shifted my energies elsewhere.

Things always work at cross-purposes: as I worked to make things accessible, the accompanying risk is that some of those things would just become commodified. In our post-NAFTA world, I’m coming more and more to feel that now Americans feel they have a right to literatures from other parts of the world, much like they have a right to Chilean cherries in New York in the middle of January, Argentinian wine, or an endless flow of products made somewhere else. At such a point, I think it may be wise to NOT translate certain things because we are then only reproducing the process of getting something at no cost, of occluding the labor involved and the price one pays for that kind of knowledge. If you have to learn a language and immerse yourself in another culture to the point that you can begin discerning things about it, there is a significant cost and a significant renunciation of one’s own powers in American English, as an inhabitant of the empire.

Certainly the idea of not translating certain works gives one pause, especially if one works, like me, for a press that publishes literature in translation. Alcalay goes on to discuss the problems of American readers’ consumption of translations: what happens when Americans turn to other literatures looking to have our needs met, demanding a certain experience (wanting to read a novel in order to learn more about the Arab world, perhaps; to get “behind the headlines,” in that troublesome phrase)—as, in his example, we might demand cherries in January.

Now that we’ve entered a kind of post-NAFTA world, along with the post 9/11 idea that it might not be a bad thing to be informed about other parts of the world, all kinds of people are ready to step in as speculators, in some sense panning for the gold of some unknown potential Nobel Prize winner by suddenly becoming interested in all kinds of previously obscure literatures. I think of Thoreau’s wonderful line that goes something to the effect of, if a man comes to your door trying to help, turn around and run. While there are a lot of good intentions out there now and some very valuable work being done, I remain deeply skeptical and suspicious about how translation continues to be done in this country. We get solitary literary works, removed from any context, and often this only helps to buttress and reconstitute the privileged ideas of art and the literary artifact in our own tradition, removing texts from social, political, economic, historical and spiritual contexts.

… This allows for a kind of money laundering, in which people deeply discredited in their own countries can come to us, the uninformed, and seek full rehabilitation through translation and adulation by our own mediocre and insular intellects who use these works as opportunities to display their own apparent courage and social consciousness.

Alcalay also talks about what Americans tend to perceive as “political writing,” how we read or misread works that we’ve labeled in advance, or had labeled for us, as “political.” The entire interview is excellent and wholly relevant—I’m thinking of the surge of literature from the Arab world that we will no doubt see being published in English in the next year or two, and how translations from the Arabic have moved from the purview of small press publishers to larger houses who suddenly want in, and which writers and which kinds of writing are being singled out for money (-laundering?) and attention here in the states.

For all those of us who work at small presses or literary magazines, Alcalay’s insistence on community and collective endeavor as a means of resisting commodification and combating these problems is stirring. At Interlink and Clockroot, where I work, we’ve often discussed this idea of community—by what models publishing might be made more collective (of course Ugly Duckling Presse’s collective structure comes to mind), and how, as Alcalay seems to argue, these long-term relationships and years-long conversations with writers, translators, readers, and critics may not be “merely” friendships but also are essentially part of the work, allow different choices to be made around what’s translated, what’s published, and how the work may be discussed and experienced in the larger culture. Food for thought, indeed.