Some Girls Translate Not in Twos

Some Girls Translate Not in Twos

by Ainee Jeong

Nakayasu, Sawako. Some Girls Walk Into the Country They Are From. Wave Books, 2020, $18.00, 176 pages. ISBN 978-1-950268-11-5

Peeling back the ongoing discontents in literary translation reveals longstanding binaries within the field: the author and the translator, an original text and a translation, the source and target languages/cultures/readers. While these pairings may read like “this or that” debates, the issues surrounding them often have to do with visibility, agency, and priority.

Thus, the tensions of the binaries are essentially power struggles: Is the translator’s labor and creativity secondary to the author’s artistry and process? Is a translation always tied to an “original,” forever doomed to be a “lesser” version? Does a successful translation privilege the target language over the source (domestication vs. foreignization)? The notion of power is inherent to these questions.

Poet, translator, and performance artist Sawako Nakayasu addresses these questions more explicitly in her essay Say Translation Is Art from Ugly Duckling Presse’s 2020 Pamphlet Series. A salient line from her pamphlet is “Say nonbinary stance towards texts and translations” (2). In her most recent collection, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From (Wave Books, 2020), she demonstrates this nonbinary stance through mode and subject.

In terms of mode, shape, and form, Some Girls is reminiscent of Nakayasu’s earlier collection, Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals (Factorial Press, 2011). Both collections readily blur the line between author and translator. Mouth: Eats Color’s attribution is “Sawako Nakayasu with Chika Sagawa,” and includes Nakayasu’s and Sagawa’s original poetry and [anti-]translations together. Some Girls is attributed to Nakayasu alone, but includes multiple instances of her self-translations, simultaneously making her fully author and fully translator.

Like Mouth: Eats Color, Some Girls also includes multiple translations of others’ poetry and translations, either by Nakayasu or its seven contributing poet-translators: Genève Chao, Lynn Xu, Hitomi Yoshio, Kyongmi Park, Kyoko Yoshida, Karen An-hwei Lee, and Miwako Ozawa. In this way, the 95 poems in Some Girls are unapologetically multivocal and multilingual: there are poems fully attributed to a contributor, poems totally in languages other than English, and poems that use multiple languages within them.

While this mode makes the symbiosis of two author-translators the subject in Mouth: Eats Color, the mode of the work doubles as the lens through which Nakayasu interrogates the “girl(s)” subject in Some Girls.

As a term, concept, and embodiment, “girl” has long functioned within a heteronormative binary. This brings another necessary layer to the aforementioned binaries in literary translation. The binaries could also be coded through gendered and/or racialized tensions: the translator as subservient to the author; the original as dominant to the translation; the target reader privileged over the source.

In Some Girls, “nonbinary” could further apply to the false dichotomies of diaspora. For example, the vocabulary through which (im)migration is often understood employs “mother” -land or -tongue to refer to one’s heritage nationality or language. Additionally, the assimilationist rhetoric frequently framing these narratives in the US suggests that forfeiting these things—or, at least, privileging English—merits full citizenship. And the idea of “full citizenship” is also racialized in the US, wherein certain bodies are perpetually foreignized, over-policed, or unwelcome regardless of their technical citizenship status.

This draws parallels to the domestication concept of literary translation’s “domestication vs. foreignization” debate, where, for the US, a translation’s “success” may be thought to depend on whether it caters enough to the English reader. Another parallel is with the identity politics in translation that orbit “legitimacy”: who should translate what, or who is believed to have the linguistic and cultural fluency fit for the work of translating into English. Non-white translators are commonly racialized through the assumption that they cannot be “native” English writers who could deliver a satisfactory translation to the target readership.

Some Girls thus disrupts these presumed orders of literary translation via its dissection of the tenuous nature of “girl.”

Though Some Girls has a table of contents, I found the collection to be completely nonlinear in how it presents translations and corresponding original(s). In other words, though I technically read Some Girls “in order,” it was not the presumed chronology that made immediately identifiable which poems were translations of which, and vice versa. I still found myself bouncing around, especially as a reader who could only read the English among the Japanese, Chinese, and French.

One such instance was “Couch,” whose first iteration appears on page 17. The poem is indicated to be a “Translation of ‘Couch’” and is either a phonic translation or in a language I am too ignorant to correctly identify. Pronouncing the translation phonetically out loud, I concluded “Tu egs en the fraing pann” was “Two eggs in the frying pan.”

The next poem also marked as a “Translation of ‘Couch’” was “Blow Up and Accelerate” on page 25. My first instinct was to think that these two poems must be two different translations of another poem called “Couch”—the so-called “original”—until I remembered that the poem on page 17 was titled “Couch.” What if “Blow Up and Accelerate” was a translation of the “Couch” on page 17? And, in turn, page 17’s “Couch” was a translation of the original “Couch” (otherwise, why would it be marked as a “Translation of ‘Couch’”)?

Then, on page 88, I encountered another poem titled “Couch,” with no note that it was a translation but with this line: “Two eggs in the frying pan.” I excitedly confirmed to myself that this “Couch” must indeed be the “original” and that “Couch” on page 17 must be a translation of this one. Then which “Couch” did “Blow Up and Accelerate” come from? Looking at “Blow Up and Accelerate” and “Couch” on page 88 side by side did show me fascinating syntactic parallels: “I throat, you knee” (25) to “I entry, you execute” (88). But this didn’t feel like a guarantee that page 88’s “Couch” was the immediate source of “Blow Up and Accelerate.”

Finally, I reached “Charge” on page 93, the third and last poem marked as a “Translation of ‘Couch.’” “Charge” was written in Japanese, for which I tried Google Translate’s auto-translation camera function. The most cohesive line was a familiar one: “Two high-pitched eggs in the frying pan.”

This interaction with the “Couch” series confronted me with the preconceptions—or perhaps, misconceptions—that unwittingly plague my approach to reading translations. First, I was preoccupied with finding the “original.” Then, the assumption that page 88’s “Couch” was the “original” gave me a sense of security. But this strange relief could never be substantiated in Some Girls: the fact that two of the poems are titled “Couch” prevents the ability to safely trace the “derivatives” to one source.

Furthermore, whereas other translations in the collection often indicate which of the seven contributors inspired or translated them, none of the “Couch” poems are attributed to another translator, suggesting they are Nakayasu’s self-translations. In the Say Translation Is Art essay, Nakayasu articulates this in reference to Ryoko Sekiguchi: “Say self-translation as eliminating the myth of the original (RS)” (10). Nakayasu upsets any urge to always relate a translation to a “preceding” text by disengaging the perceived linear process of reading as well as writing translations.

To disengage any perceived linearity in writing translations, Nakayasu includes a “Selected Chronology & Notes” archive with Some Girls. The archive is a separate, staple-bound pamphlet that accompanies the Some Girls book, with an identical cover. Here, Nakayasu does provide a dated timeline of the production of Some Girls, but this chronology is not antithetical to her binary-breaking.

The “Selected Chronology & Notes” maps out Nakayasu’s creation and curation of the collection by documenting her own process as well as the moments of collaboration with the seven contributors. We get to see when she translated, wrote, revised, rewrote, and received contributors’ translations or revisions. We are shown the searching, unearthing, and even abandoning of poems involved in the process, spanning two years.

To have insight into this process and feel a sense of the labor makes the author-translator and contributing translators unavoidably visible and present. It reveals how translation is not a one-way street of production from author to translator(s), or text to translation; rather, translation—even between one author and one translator—can be messy, communal, energetic, slow, intimate, roundabout. It opens up the ordered binary into a generative paradigm. With the multitude of translations and translators, and their collective resistance to a “clean” temporal order, an “original text and translation” binary cannot exist here.

Some Girls makes apparent and shakes up the temporal, physical experience of writing and reading poetry in/and translation. If every page turn is another unit of time and distance between poems, a bilingual translation publication removes that space by displaying a translation and original beside each other on the same spread. There is no chance to taste the robust process behind a translation, no way to see the correspondence between author and translator, no opportunity to sit with a translation as its own poem apart from its source.

Nakayasu gives us all of this by including the “Selected Chronology & Notes” with Some Girls; the archive is part of the collection—it is its (re)collection. This glimpse behind the scenes alongside her (dis)ordering of the poems in the book gave me a history to glean from, making reading the collection even more of an informed, bodily experience. By the time I’d reach another poem in the “Couch” series, whichever ones I’d already experienced were in my body as a distant yet weighty memory, allowing each poem to stand as its own as I sought connections.

The “Girl Soup” series is another example of this temporal untethering, and with implications of the “girl” subject. “Girl Soup” on page 14 does not have any attributing notes, but “ガールスープ” on page 37 is noted to be a translation of “Girl Soup” by Hitomi Yoshio. On page 69, the “Ochikubo Stew” attribution reads “Via ‘Rhodopis Soup’ via ‘ガールスープ’ via ‘Girl Soup.’” “Ochikubo,” I would learn, is a Cinderella-esque tale from the Japanese Heian period. Similarly, “Rhodopis” refers to what is considered the earliest Cinderella story from ancient Greece. What does it mean for the word “girl” to be translated into the names of cultural Cinderella figures?

I also could not ignore how the first Google search entries I found for “Ochikubo” and “Rhodopis” explained both figures by referring to “Cinderella,” the English-language variant of the character. As expected, these English-language sources on a US search engine “translated” Ochikubo and Rhodopis while privileging the target culture and reader. Though Some Girls is a US-published text, Nakayasu doesn’t explain or give footnotes about Ochikubo and Rhodopis, privileging readers who are familiar with these characters. Readers who know all the languages featured in Some Girls arguably would have the “fullest” experience of this collection, shattering any importance given to “domestication” in US literary translation publishing.  

Even though I am not one of these readers, it still feels satisfying to see how these translated titles connect with and “mirror” one another in different cultures and languages. “Ochikubo Stew” reads like an elaboration on “Girl Soup”—a variation on a theme: “[…] when I squint I see that there are girls all over the floor with varying amounts of soup clinging to their clothes (you didn’t think they were naked, did you?)…” (14) becomes “I squint. They are all over the floor, pumpkin bits clinging to their dresses. A quiet chant against forced female nudity is emitted from the depths of the bowl” (68).

Like in “Girl Soup,” the figure of the “girl(s)” throughout this collection shakes up the stratified ways in which women and femininity are sociopolitically determined and conceptually defined. The “Girl(s)” are frequently placed in food objects, notably processed foods: “Ten Girls in a Bag of Potato Chips,” “Some Girls Fight Inside a Bag of Cheetos,” or “In a Plastic Bag of Jell-O with Nine Other Girls”—blunt imagery that evokes a capitalist consumption of female bodies and the ways in which heteronormative ideals of the female body/embodiment are often reduced to binary conversations.

The Girls are labeled alphabetically from “Girl A” to “Girl J.” We come to learn their distinct characters, backgrounds, and stories throughout the poems, but they remain anonymized in that they are labeled, not named—foregrounding their identifications as “girls.” The choice to use “girls” rather than “women” might speak to “girl” as a sometimes diminutive and reductive term. Logically, “girl” should indicate age, but the term becomes muddied when certain women are afforded “girlhood” and then adult “womanhood,” while others are hypersexualized, fetishized, and/or infantilized regardless of age. “Womanhood” must be regarded with intersectionality and multiplicity, rather than with singularity as one half of a binary.

At times, the Girls are one collective body, such as “Ten Masturbating Girls Utopia,” where “All ten girls go like this:/[Sing]” (15). Some poems, such as “What a Crazy Country,” show the Girls in their individual bodies moving as a collective: “Girl B then passes the vomit into Girl C’s cupped hands, who passes it to Girl D’s cupped hands. And so on” (70). Others, like “Board Game,” show them in conflict with one another. This range of spaces in which we see them interact suggests various contexts in which the contentious hierarchies and binaries shift. The Girls are lumped together in some spaces or pitted against one another in others, and notions like white feminism frequently suggest these are the only possibilities for equity and “progress”—again, singularity as one half of a binary.

But the poems in this collection dedicated to one girl as the main character, such as “Girl P—Whose Story Never Ends,” remind us why a nonbinary stance towards feminist, racial discourse and translation is imperative. “Girl P,” who was not born on the continent she is currently on, lives in a liminal space, with “[t]he language of the continent flickering between the brick houses.” In one brick house, “the language of her parents envelops Girl P. No, entraps,” even though her parents “knew of the language of the continent to some degree. To survive” (72-73).

This image of diaspora and (im)migration is a social formation in need of nonbinary approaches in itself, where, for instance, a Korean American person like me could simultaneously be fully Korean and fully American—the in-between space as full personhood. This could also apply to gender and sexuality, where queer and trans women should be considered with the entirety—and beyond—the instituted spectrum, and not solely by the two supposed “ends” of it.

Some Girls is a creation from the in-between spaces of girlhood and diaspora, and Nakayasu unveils the in-between spaces of poetry and translation from which she is working to create. In doing so, she deconstructs hegemonic modes of literary translation and heteronormative systems of gender and diaspora. She dances in the liminality. She allows abundance to flower there.

Imagining otherwise like this opens up opportunity and acceptance for more, for new, for different. What happens when the process is the product? Perhaps, many of these binaries persist because a translation is only considered through the standards of a finished product, or “girls” are regarded through stagnant lenses of existence.

This “liminality as completeness” is what is inherently beautiful about the art and act of translation. Nakayasu demonstrates a “nonbinary stance” by transforming the tensions and power struggles that occupy the in-between into a collaborative synergy, undoing the myth of these binaries altogether.

Abundance in the liminal is immediately apparent with this book that comes bundled with its “Selected Chronology & Notes” archive. It’s immediately apparent flipping to the first pages of the front matter, with seven other names listed under “Featuring.” To the table of contents, where a quick glance gathers poem titles repeated and rephrased, in English and other languages.

And then the expanse that is the collection, with multiplicity and possibility in terms of poetry, translation, voice, story, girl on each page. The process is transparent; the progression is welcoming. The reader—without the classification as either source or target—is invited into the poetry/translations’ space and process: to search and unearth, to collect and recollect.

Ainee Jeong is a translator and freelance book designer. She completed her MA in English with a Certificate in Literary Translation at the University of Connecticut. Her translations of Korean kisaeng poetry are published or forthcoming in Modern Poetry in Translation and The Hudson Review.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Success! You're on the list.

Comments are closed.

A Website.

Up ↑