Language is a Foreign Language

Language is a Foreign Language/ Experimental Translation as Device

by Nancy Seidler

Language shapes the way we see. Experimental translation shapes the way we see language. The way we see language shapes the way we construct our selves, the landscapes we inhabit.

This paper will explore experimental translation, or translation that calls attention to itself as translation, and will attempt to examine some of the ways it works: through polyglossia, aesthesis, and altered subjects. Before we can begin to delve into translation, the rendering of ideas first expressed in one language through the constructions of another, we have to begin with the basic question: What is language? Language, like the laws of physics, sets the rules by which objects relate to other objects in space and time. When relativized, some objects become subjects. Different languages set up different ways of organizing these components, generating different landscapes within which the subjects and objects exist. 

Language is the stuff of the self, the matrix that makes I, me… you, you. Language is accessed through the eyes, the ears, the heart. Its constellations entangle mind with material. It is the condition of our knowing. We are the apparatus through which phenomena flow, language the filter that shapes everything. Time, space, matter. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o notes that the choice of language is “central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe” (4). How do we navigate these different landscapes when we move between languages?

My interest in translation springs from an embodied experience in knowing the world through more than one language, of knowing that I say things the way I do not because that is the way they are, but so that we can engage in the making of meaning about what they, we, might be. Language is always speculative, always a creative act. For me, like many acculturated in a monolingual society, learning a foreign language was at first a struggle, as I tried to make connections between the absurdity of an object and its gender. La table? But why? Nonsense! Nouns are both the most obvious concrete things and the most abstract notions. What is a thing?

Ernest Fenollosa, the nineteenth-century historian of Japanese art and orientalist scholar who influenced Ezra Pound’s exploration of Chinese poetry, questions the presumptions of an object-oriented language like English. He describes Chinese characters as depicting neither objects nor actions, but rather, “something which is neither a noun, verb, nor adjective, but something which is all of them at once and at all times,” (Chinese Written Character, 18). How do we move between languages, then, when the senses of what a word itself may be are so vastly different? Fenollosa describes the act of translation as a moment when we might attain “the inner heat of thought, a heat which melts down the parts of speech to recast them at will” (17). In experimental translations, we feel the friction, the heat Fenollosa describes, in the rub between languages.

Language shapes the way we see. Experimental translation shapes the way we see language. The way we see language shapes the way we construct our selves, the landscapes we inhabit. This paper will take as its site of departure the term “enstrangement,” the neologism Alexandra Berliner chooses in her introduction to her retranslation of Viktor Shklovsky’s classic text, “Art, as Device” (1917), upon which the title of this paper riffs. Shklovsky aims to elevate the art of literature above the prosaic, as he describes our general relationship to language as one of “automatization,” in which “life becomes nothing and disappears. Automatization eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife, the fear of war” (162). Art, he claims, “exists in order to restore the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing things…” (ibid). Experimental translations take enstrangement a step further: not only do they highlight the linguistic and cultural gaps between languages, but they enstrange the meaning-making and materiality of the text itself.

There is something that language holds that is invisible below the words. In their Acts de fundación, the Outranspo [Ouvroir de Translation Potencial] collective proclaims, “A word always means more than it means to mean” (Outranspo). Experience with how objects relate to other objects in time and space, with landscape, and with us, occurs not only physically, but qualitatively through the mental (and literary!) constructions of metaphor. Through metaphor, we come to understand abstract concepts by mapping the qualities of more concrete things onto them. Thus we understand time through spatial metaphors. Current studies in cognitive linguistics ask questions such as, “Do speakers of different languages understand time differently?” (Boroditsky et. al); “Does language change what we perceive? Does speaking different languages cause us to perceive things differently?” (Lupyan et. al). These researchers have found empirical proof that these questions may all be answered with a resounding “Yes!” Given the shifts in mediated experience that occur among speakers of different languages, and the underlying qualitative differences between languages, experimental translation can work to convey this deep level of alterity.

I will review several examples of experimental translation to examine the ways they make the space between languages visible. There is a wide range in the approach to experimentation. Eliot Weinberger does not necessarily set out to do anything experimental, but in Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, he shifts the focus away from a direct one-to-one translation-as-product to a fractured view through multiple lenses. This fracturing brings translation itself into question, which, to my mind, is an experimental move. Sawako Nakayasu pushes this form of experimentation to its limit in Mouth Eats Color, where she works iteratively through multiple translations, mash-ups, interminglings of a single poem using various languages, formats, forms. Chantal Wright takes equal space to Yoko Tawada in her experimental translation of Portrait of a Tongue, inserting a new subjectivity into the translation process. Xiaolu Guo pushes this subjectivity itself to the edge and beyond in her essay “Crossing the River.” In my own multimedia work, I attempt to decenter the notion of the self as it is transmediated from language to material and translated in time and space.

I begin my analysis by reviewing the collection Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, compiled by Eliot Weinberger. This collection, based on its individual components, may not seem at first to be terribly experimental. Each translation appears as an earnest attempt to capture the essence of the original poem, each with its own poetic flair. Reading any of the poems from the anthology in isolation, one might take it as an original, its identity as a translation being subsumed below its imagistic, sonorous, or rhythmic qualities. The experiment here is not in any single iteration of Wang Wei’s poem, but in the multiplicity of iterations in the collection. It is not so much an experiment in writing a translation as in reading works in translation.

Wang Wei’s poem “Lu Zhai,” written during the Tang Dynasty (c. 700-761), originally appeared on a scroll, incorporated into an epic horizontal landscape. Interestingly, the word for “read” in Chinese (看kan) overlaps with the words we use in English for “look” and “see,” so looking at Wang Wei’s poem is actually quite an accurate way of perceiving this text. The scroll would have been unfurled bit by bit, read scene by scene, and there would have undoubtedly been other forms of writing, other poems, all floating in this visual world/text.

Weinberger begins his collection with the original text, the first way of looking at Wang Wei, written in Chinese. He focuses the reader on the visual, material qualities of Chinese characters, the ways that characters are like and unlike words in English. The second iteration is a transliteration, introducing readers of English to the original sonic qualities of the poem. The third is a character-by-character rendering, which reads more like a chart than a poem. By grounding the following translations in relation to the original, and by offering ways of reading a wholly unfamiliar textual experience grounded in “looking,” Weinberger gives the reader footholds with which she may begin to grasp the transformations that occur from one variation to the next.

The translations that follow are organized chronologically, and thus invite the reader to think through the historical context in which each rendering was created. Translations are printed on the left page, with commentary and analysis on the right. Translations that were initially written in languages other than English include a bracketed (though unformatted) translation, presumably by Weinberger, below. There are two French iterations (G. Margoulies’ 1948 version and François Cheng’s 1977 translation) and one in Spanish, written by Octavio Paz in 1974.

There is one translation, however, that might alone fit a more experimental model. Weinberger includes it in his postscript as he only learned of it after the publication of the collection thanks to a furious letter written in response to a review. The correspondent’s ire was due to what he considered a severe oversight, and a “crime against Chinese poetry.” Weinberger hadn’t included a privately published essay by Peter A. Boodberg called “Philology in Translation-Land.” Weinberger hilariously describes Boodberg’s “still inadequate, yet philologically correct” [Boodberg’s words] rendering as something that “sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD.” He nevertheless thanks the furious professor for sending him on the path to find “the strangest of the many Weis” (51).

Weinberger notes that “Chinese poetry was based on the precise observation of the physical world” (13). The translations in Weinberger’s collection spin multiple worlds from a single, four-line observation of “the real world,” but there are several problematics that are revealed in the process of translation. Most commonly, the translators feel the need to insert a subject, a narrator who witnesses and notes the scene. If no one observes, they seem to posit, how can the poem come to be? Yet there is no observer in the original poem, just the observed, as if the words spontaneously arise out of the landscape in which they appear. The need for a subject in a Chinese poem is perhaps overcome when the poem lives within the visual field of a landscape. Here the visuality of the pictorial and textual depiction merges, and the observer is outside the frame. When translation becomes an act of pure textuality, the material of the landscape shifts. The stability of both text and landscape begin to break down through the act of translation. The collective power of the nineteen ways of looking destabilizes not only the landscape and the text, but also the notion that language has the capacity to render the world as it is.

Weinberger makes the assertion that observation is the stuff of Chinese poetry. The translator who moves from Chinese to English moves from a visual to a phonetic realm, even in the most prosaic of contexts. In this case, the translator’s observation is doubly removed as the text is disaggregated from the landscape, transmediated from the visual to the textual. But of course, for Chinese readers, this poem also exists in printed format as a textual artifact, and has been read for hundreds of years as text extracted from the original landscape painting which has been lost. Karen Emmerich explores this tenuousness of an original text in claiming: “Textual instability is there, whether or not we are aware of it. Instability is not limited to nonliterary texts, or quasiliterary texts, or works from ages past. It is not in fact [a] special problem… but part and parcel of what translation is” (9). Instability is not only inherent to translation, but to language itself. If Chinese poetry is itself a visual experience, the relationship between words and things merges while it simultaneously cleaves apart, leaving the reader to wonder whether observation, the aesthetic experience of looking, can ever translate, ever become language.

Things themselves are inherently unstable. Karen Barad, the posthumanist physicist, writes, “Matter, like meaning, is not an individually articulated or static entity… Matter is not a linguistic construction, but a discursive production in the posthumanist sense that discursive practices are themselves material (re)configurings of the world through which the determination of boundaries, properties, and meanings is differentially enacted” (pp. 150-151). As words AND things are both unstable and mutually constitutive, experimental translation may allow for a more accurate view of the ways language functions in enacting materiality. Yet, what is lost, what is gained in the process of transmediation – the move from one modality to another? 

Octavio Paz, in addition to his translation of Wang Wei’s poem, offers comments at the end of Ways of Looking in which he explicates the challenges of translating a Chinese poem into Spanish and the textual choices he makes. He discusses the influence of Ezra Pound, whose theories about translation he found “unreliable,” though he was nevertheless enchanted with Cathay. He asks, “Do Pound’s poems correspond to the originals? A useless question: Pound invented, as Eliot said, Chinese poetry in English. The points of departure were some ancient Chinese poems, revived and changed by a great poet; the result was other poems. Others: the same” (46). The status of being at once other and the same, this is the paradox of translation. And yet, would we consider a product of transmediation “the same”? A thousand words in exchange for a picture, some would say, provides a sort of equivalence.

Pound’s translations, unlike those in Nineteen Ways, are also doubly removed: they are removed from the act of looking, just as they are removed from the landscape they once inhabited. It is the gesture of reconnecting the poem with its inherent visuality that brings Weinberger’s collection into the realm of the experimental. He invites readers to conceive of not only the poetic endpoint of translation, but the materiality of the poem and the ways of looking, shifting the modality to the visual. James Elkins, an art historian and visual theorist, asserts that Chinese landscape painting, as we understand it in the Western academy, is a product of Western Art History, in that the framing of these paintings relies on the art historian, whose methods of analysis are based on Western constructs contingent upon the history and vicissitudes of academic institutions and disciplines. So, too, the act of reading a poem is altered in the different cultural/textual contexts within which poems exist. Elkins proposes that “any description of another culture’s art is going to be an impure affair, and that the art historian’s task is to control the damage that is done and to remain alert to unsuspected biases” (15). Is a translator bound to the same task? Can we remove the poem from the landscape? Elkins asks:

Since cross-cultural comparisons are necessary, is there an optimal strategy for minimizing the distortions they inevitably cause? It might seem modest and reasonable to say scholarship should aim at promoting self-reflexivity and opening representation to critique… Can an expert help alleviate misrepresentation simply by knowing more about her own practices? (ibid)

There is overlap between the role of the art historian, tasked with explicating visual artifacts from other times and cultures, and that of the literary translator.

Chantal Wright takes Elkins at his word as she creates a translation praxis that is not only self-reflexive, but requires the reader to reflect on the translation process as well. She takes an activist stance toward raising awareness about the role of translators in the literary world. In her introductory video on literary translation for the “Perplexed, Curious and Uninitiated,” she describes the translator as “subjective,” “not neutral,” “a living, breathing person made of flesh.” She calls for her viewers to respond to the social media hashtag #namethetranslator. And, in her “experimental translation” of Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue, she makes her subjective, fleshy presence known.

Yoko Tawada, an exophonic writer from Japan, living in Germany and writing in both German and Japanese, writes Portrait of a Tongue as a collection of observations of a German woman living in the United States. The set-up is triangulated: Japanese, German, English. The narrator is a painter, but has trouble capturing her observations on canvas. She claims she is more of a writer than a painter, yet she is in the US as an artist-in-residence. For painting? Writing? The edges are blurry, just as the woman whose face she intends to paint seems to shapeshift each time she looks at her. Observation, seeing, painting, writing, all are intertwined. This is a painted portrait in text form, a translated transmediation.

The format of the translation breaks the page in half with a vertical line running down each leaf, verso and recto. The left side of the page houses the translation of Tawada’s text, a strange collection of observations about a friend from Germany living in the US, living life in a language that is foreign to both the friend and the narrator. The translated text is broken into small chunks, paragraphs often no longer than a single sentence. The right side of the page is reserved for Wright’s commentary, questions, explanations. Because the commentary is often longer than Tawada’s observations, there are many long gaps between the translated text, so on either side the reading experience is staggered, disjointed. One can read through Wright’s commentary and move to a new page, and be tempted to continue reading the right column moving farther and farther from the translation itself.

Tawada’s observations are often about language; Wright’s comments also take the form of observations about language. As Wright describes in the introduction, Tawada’s writing style is characterized by “defamiliarizing techniques that the reader encounters in her texts, and the texts’ tendency to foreground structures and properties of language itself, achieved via metalinguistic reflection” (4). Wright’s comments, then, go beyond the meta. Wright connects Tawada’s intention to the Russian formalists’ goal of “ostranenie,” Shklovsky’s notion of enstrangement, but Tawada’s observations are often of the most prosaic: “I once tried to paint a picture of a woman; it bore the working title ‘Portrait of a Lady’” (37); “People don’t talk in America – or so I thought. How nice” (44); “P showed me the famous Widener Library. We met a friend of P’s there, an American” (58). While the language is plain, there is a deep strangeness to these observations. Why is she noting them? It is as if every common experience is enstranged. Tawada seems to observe from a liminal space between languages, or outside of the language in which her first experiences were mediated, and, as Shklovsky might have said, automatized.

Elsewhere, in an interview, Tawada describes her experience of living in Germany, observing the world through a language whose pronoun structure is incommensurate with Japanese. She finds herself speaking a language in which she is unable to express herself as the same subject that exists when she describes herself in her native tongue. As she narrates this experience, she says that it was through encountering the German language that she first became aware that Japanese had many ways of expressing “I,” in which one is obliged to qualify the first person in terms of gender, social relation to interlocutor, or from the outside, as if the subject itself were a third person, whereas in German one is limited to a single “ich.” She notes that German subjectivity is also framed within social relations, but she asks, “Is this ich always the same? Can one always be the same?” Her questions about language have no resolution, “and that’s exciting” (Tawada, 2018). These questions without answers, this paradoxical positioning between languages, is the enstrangement she lives in a multilingual subjecthood.

Multilingualism comes to the foreground in the work of Sawako Nakayasu, a poet born in Japan but who grew up in the US. She provides a collection whose title jolts us into questions about aesthetic experience as well as issues of originality and authorship. Mouth: Eats Color, Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations & Originals by Sawako Nakayasu w/ Chika Sagawa is a recombinatory, iterative, creative attempt to stake claims as a poet+translator that lifts both acts onto equal footing. It also positions languages other than English in the spotlight in a book printed for an English language audience, making space for languages other than English to exist, to take space, to matter.

The collection begins without warning, without introduction. The first poem, titled “Promenade,” begins with a line in Japanese text. Can we assume these are the original words? That these are the words Chika Sagawa laid down on a page? There is a wide horizontal gap between the first phrase(?) word(?), made up of two traditional Chinese characters, or kanji, and a second mixed set of text types. These words are set at an indent, and an English line follows. English words float across the page, interspersed with Japanese text. Long and short segments in various combinations. Is it possible that the one line containing ten characters and one English word, “fading,” are equivalents? Is this a translation? What’s going on? My eyes roll across the page, and I pick out what is immediately accessible to me in English: “Seasons change their gloves/in/fading/afternoon/light/the day clouds over/with nothing left to vow.” I don’t speak or read Japanese, but I look for kanji that I might know, though having learned Chinese in mainland China, I am more familiar with simplified Chinese characters than the traditional ones adopted in Japan centuries before the radical 20th-century transformation of the language. I see “hand, sun, white, three o’clock, black, cloud, east…” No answers to my questions here.

The second page is text in Japanese, in a combination of kanji and hiragana, the syllabary script generally used for Japanese words. This text is much more condensed than that in the first page. It looks like prose, though line breaks are irregular. Is this the original text? Did Chika Sagawa write this one, this way? The third page is also in Japanese, though this one includes katakana, also syllabary text, though generally reserved for words that Japanese has borrowed from other languages. Katakana is awkward-looking, all elbows and angles, unlike the liquid flow of hiragana, which retains more of the appearance of traditional brushwork. Here, like little implements, protractors and miters, words spread on the page. Are these words all borrowed? From whom? What is the source? What is the original? This is a promenade through an enstranged landscape.

Some versions of “Promenade” recur throughout the small volume, interspersed with other poems, in other languages, texts, formats, at least eighteen times. It is possible there are more, titled in a language I don’t have easy access to. By the ninth iteration, “Promenade (Puromunaado 7)” is written in mostly French, with the exception of the transliterated version of “promenade” the way it would be pronounced in Japanese, and the inclusion of one Chinese character. Promenade, a word whose roots are from French, that walks the earth, walks throughout this book. Where do words come from and where do they go? In a random block of text, buried in the notes about the authors included in this book, a question appears: “Are ‘[Katakana text] (Puromunaado 2)’ and ‘[Katakana text] (Puromunaado 4)’ in Chinese or are they not?” Nakayasu herself is unable to say.

Several of the texts are attributed to other authors besides Chika Sagawa. One piece in the collection is Mina Loy’s “Widow’s Jazz,” which looks nothing like the original, published in Loy’s collection The Last Lunar Baedecker. Nakayasu’s version appears to be a reverse translation of Chika Sagawa’s translation of Loy’s work into Japanese. This recursive move leads the reader to wonder if not only poetry is a foreign language, but whether language itself is something that slips beyond the known, the knowable. Is language itself a foreign language?

A collection such as this exemplifies Bakhtin’s notion of polyglossia, which he claims “fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language and its own myth of language” (61). Nakayasu does something that lies outside the frame of translation. In labeling this collection Translations, Anti-translations, and Originals, she leaves the reader to wonder where the line may be between these three modes and whether translation is ever really possible.

As textually rich as Nakayasu’s odd collection is, perhaps the most radical experiment in translation is what Xiaolu Guo describes as “self-translation.” Guo, a native of China and an exophonic writer in English, uses the image of crossing a river to describe her experience of moving between languages, between cultures: “To get across you have to deal with treacherous weeds, hidden rocks and whirlpools of culture and concept” (1). The rushing water, the vortex, the space between the banks, this is the space of translation. While she claims her aim is not to discuss untranslatability, she points to the gulf between the visual nature of Chinese as compared to alphabetic languages, and believes this gap would leave European translators to flounder in their attempt.

In order to support her journey into writing, Guo sets up an armature, a mental diagram to map her world. In her matrix, she thinks of horizontal and vertical aspects, where the horizontal is the landscape and the vertical is the social space. For her the landscape, the horizontal, is primary when she writes in Chinese; however, when working in English, in England, the landscape shifts. She writes that this shift is “not a mere matter of linguistic translation (which is hard enough) but a deeper matter concerning the translation of the writer’s self” (3). The relation of self to landscape, self to the reality in which one lives, is altered. The self is discursive and the matrix she creates supports the narrative expression her self-translation takes. 

Moreover, Guo goes on to say that to “self-translate is to study what surrounds me in the present life and how it relates to my past experiences. The past is always the sub-text…” (7). Time, too, is a discursive element, the Z axis of her internalized matrix. Landscape, time, and subjecthood are relativized through the apparatus of language. Moving between languages reveals this act. While Guo’s diagram is not realized here in visual form, Johanna Drucker explores a type of graphical organization that this implies and how it may support meaning-making:

Diagrammatic images spatialize relations in a meaningful way. They make spatial relations meaningful. And they do so according to conventions that embody assumptions about how we translate observation, sensation, perception of phenomena into knowable forms. The interpretative acts that become encoded in graphical formats may disappear from final view in the process, but they are the persistent ghosts in the visual scheme, rhetorical elements of generative artifacts (66).

There is an underlying array of space and time, qualia that Guo becomes aware of in the translation of self as she moves across culture and language.

Guo qualifies translation not as a creation of something “authentic,” but rather the creation of a simulation, an imitation of something without an original, something inherently unstable. Guo supports this notion when she describes the attempt to re-cross the river, only to find that the “bank that you have come from has changed, and you can never quite return” (15). Even in translating the self, one can only make something new, something that springs from a source that itself is always already caught in the eddies. Like Tawada’s reliance on the prosaic, Guo acknowledges that “there is an inherent creativity in our daily communication, in crossing cultures, languages, and different personalities,” a creativity that is revealed in the act of translation, but that underlies all language.

It is interesting to note the work of another artist, Zhang Huan, in contrast to Guo’s idea of self-translation. Zhang Huan, a Chinese performance artist, lived in New York for a time, knowing little English. Here his work began to incorporate language into his performance, the performance of himself in a new landscape. Text, body, and image become one in the photographs of his piece “Family Tree”:

Zhang Huan, “Family Tree” (2001)
Image courtesy of the artist and of Yale University Art Gallery
(Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund)

Like Guo, Zhang Huan sets up a mental diagram of his experience, where he conceives of the body as language. Zhang’s model is atomic, with a central nucleus, his body, himself, his creative power; surrounding him are the outside forces of otherness. In an interview, he claims: “I had to find a strategy to keep my individuality and let it grow out of this idea of the periphery and the core” (Artspace). In the case of “Family Tree,” Hearn notes that we can see how “language and culture can intrude upon personal identity to such a degree that they obscure individuality” (66). An alternate reading might assert that the accretion of language on the body both effaces the language and the artist’s identity. The experience of translating the self, in this case for a monolingual subject in a foreign land, is the loss of all sources of self. The body and the embodied experience that both makes and is made up of language disappear. Without access to the language in which he exists, he is unable to translate the self, and instead becomes something of a black hole, body and language wiped out of view.

In attempting to show the deep contrasts between Chinese and Western conceptions of the self, Hall and Ames argue that “the interpretative vocabulary associated with Chinese constructions of what we would identify as ‘self’ or ‘person’ is radically distinct from that drawn from the primary semantic contexts forming the major interpretative constructs in [the Western] tradition.” They go on to say that “if we are strictly limited to the interpretative categories associated with the Western theories of the self, the Chinese are, quite literally, ‘selfless’” (23). Before this begins to sound like a denial of what we consider central to our humanity, we must look at problematics within translation. In English, the self is something that we both have and are, whereas in Chinese, this externalized object of the self simply doesn’t make sense. Through Confucian tradition, the self/other relation is not mutually exclusive, but rather, “mutually entailing and interdependent correlatives… not dualistic in the sense of representing some underlying ontological disparity” (27).

Translation of the self, then, is far more complex than the translation of a single bounded word. Alterity at this scale is, rather, a shift from one ontological positioning within the framework of all that we know that places us in a subject position. This framework contains the contingencies of more than language, including historical, philosophical, and linguistic components.

“Language,” Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes, “is thus mediating between me and my own self; between my own self and other selves; between me and nature. Language is mediating in my very being” (15). The language that allows us to say “I, myself,” is entangled within these frameworks. As Yoko Tawada mused, “I” am not the same “I” in another language.

This piece, a work in progress and my own contribution to the project of experimental translation, attempts to decenter our understanding of landscape and to help visualize that mental land/guage/scape.

Land/guage/scape, in process, 2021

The four vertical planes of the face form the substrate upon which four key Chinese characters sit. The sides of the face are painted with the characters 东 dong and 西 xi. When these characters appear separately, they can be translated into English as east and west. They carry with them the sense of directionality, of space. However, when collocated, 东西 dongxi comes to mean “thing.” The words on the front and back of the head are, respectively, 下 xia and 上 shang, below and above. Placing them on the vertical planes of the face may seem weird, destabilizing. They carry with them the sense of verticality, of the relation between up and down. However, these words are also used to express relational positions in time. Last time is 上次 shangci, next time is下次 xiaci. In English there is no way to express time in a vertical orientation. What does it mean when the past is above, the future is below? The vertigo is almost unbearable.

The words at the base of the throat are separately 山 shan, mountain, and 水 shui, water. Together they mean landscape. The head rests upon a rendering, a translation, of a Chinese scholar stone, a miniature representation of the world in which to project our journey through life, through the making of meaning. The words, the grammar we use, shape the way we understand that journey. Xiaolu Guo writes: “One language is not enough to fully understand the world, just as knowing only one kind of climate is not sufficient to understand nature. As long as we live in one language only, we miss something in the world” (6). Yet how can one express the meanings that exist within and between languages? It is my hope that this experimental attempt at a transmediated translation of the array of time, space and subjecthood begins to do this.

Language is the universal construct humans have created to communicate the relationship between objects in time and space. All languages do this, but the ways that these systems vary can construct vastly different qualitative understandings of the relationship between things. It is this compound construction that creates the landscape, the mediated reality, in which we live. The Outranspo collective declares: “We are all estranged from our own tongues, though our tongues become us” (Acts). Experimental translation, making language visible through the lens of multiple systems at the same time, allows us to see the gaps that are always already present within each individual system. Experimental translation is thus a device that enstranges language to itself. Language is a foreign language.

Works Cited:

Artspace Editors. “New York Made Me Sick at Heart.”: Performance Artist Zhang Huan Reflects on How America Made Him More Chinese, _features/book_report/new_york_made_me_sick_at_heart_zhang_huan-55042.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” trans. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist, in The Dialogic Imagination, UT Austin, 1981.

Barad, Karen M. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. 

Boroditsky, L., “Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently?” Cognition, Volume 118, Issue 1, 2011, pp. 123-129.

Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Emmerich, Karen. Literary Translation and the Making of Originals. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. 

Fenollosa, Ernest, and Ezra Pound. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1991.

Guo, Xiaolu. Crossing the River, unpublished essay.

Hall, David L, and Roger T. Ames. Thinking from the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in Chinese and Western Culture. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1998. 

Hearn, Maxwell K. Ink Art: Past As Present in Contemporary China. New York, US: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014. 

Loy, Mina, and Roger L. Conover. The Last Lunar Baedeker. Manchester: Carcanet, 1985. 

Lupyan, Gary, et al. “Effects of Language on Visual Perception.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 24, no. 11, Nov. 2020, p. 930. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/j.tics.2020.08.005.

Nakayasu, Sawako, and Chika Sagawa. Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations & Originals. Rogue Factorial, 2011. 

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Nancy Seidler is a professor in the Humanities and Media Studies department at Pratt Institute, where for many years she directed the Intensive English Program. Her research and teaching focus on translingual practice and pedagogy. As an artist, she also connects the visual and the verbal, exploring the intersection of these ways of knowing.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 29, 2022

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