Mexico City Lit on Radical Translation: Part I

"Translation is the adjustment of voltage and signal within a language system. But every adjustment is an ideological statement."

Every readable sentence carries a subliminal thrum of voltage. Language is the total circuitry of power relations that take place within the groups deploying that language. If translation means the movement between languages, then the act of translation is in some sense a rerouting of that linguistic voltage.

To paraphrase David Bellos, however: an “asymmetrical relationship” is involved in any translation act. Upward translation moves from a less prestigious or powerful language to one considered “stronger.” Almost all translations into English, for example, can be conceived of as “upward translations “ Translation-downwards, therefore, implies movement from a stronger language to one with a smaller readership, or which possesses less cultural and economic prestige.

Have you ever noticed how “un-Japanese” Haruki Murakami feels in English translation, compared to other Japanese writers? Part of this is his own writerly project, born as it is out of an admiration for the likes of Raymond Chandler and J.D. Salinger. But where his translations are concerned, it feels as though twists which may have caused his foreign-language audience to read twice have been effaced or unkinked in the English.

One might expect Murakami to feel a lot stranger than he does. He operates from an aesthetic territory similar to that of Yoko Ogawa and Ryu Murakami, and all three share a preoccupation with cold, ceramic spaces that breathe quiet disturbance.

But what happens with Haruki Murakami is one of the duller effects of upward translation: namely, a diminution of cultural otherness to the point where the translated text dissolves into its new home without a trace.

Upward translations espouse the concept of a cultural centrality. The point being that you don’t have to go anywhere, don’t have to meet anyone halfway. It seems as though anything deemed “too foreign” about the writing is hollowed out by translation to become no more than “ local color.” To a great extent, upward translation reverses the Russian Formalists’ dictum of “making strange” and converts it into “making same.”

Downward translation does the opposite. The source language bends out of shape to express as fully as possible the original text. German is considered by many to be the philosophical language par excellence, and the translation of German philosophers is almost always approached by its practitioners as downward translation: think of all those breathless compound words in English translations of Heidegger, for instance, and their hyphens like moments when the text stops and tries to get its breath. The same is true in a Spanish-language context, where the predominant practice is not to translate German terms such as Realität or Wirklichkeit but rather to insert lengthy explanatory footnotes.

Translation is about the almost-imperceptible adjustment of voltage and signal within a language system. But every adjustment is an ideological statement.

The texts we choose to translate may say a lot about who we think we are, but they say more about who we think we want to be. For all that they’re hidden, the direction of these adjustments to the linguistic voltage—upwards/downwards, American English/Mexican Spanish—is fundamentally ideological in conception and political in product.

As writers and literary translators we must be aware our decisions only accomplish one of two things: either they reinforce dominant power structures (however subtly), or they trouble them. Translations never have an ambiguous or a neutral effect: they incessantly confront questions of how and whom we translate.

You don’t need to lose yourself in Foucault to observe how translation can reinforce imbalances within any given linguistic environment: look at the numbers. Simply checking the index of anthologies of poetry in translation can give us an idea of how it is generally approached within a given literary culture.

To illustrate the point, let’s turn to a Mexican context. Only five women are represented among the 30 U.S. poets in in Agustí Bartra’s 1955 Antología de la poesía norteamericana. The anthology was considered canonical for a number of decades, and there’s no doubt that it introduced many vital countercultural currents into Mexican verse. But it’s the disparity that interests us here: five women, considered against twenty-five men.

Another, more recent anthology of literature in translation ought surely to reflect the increased presence and importance of women writers in the U.S. canon. But in the 1995 edition of Octavio Paz’s Versiones y diversiones—the last one to be overseen by the author—only two of the 57 authors included in the anthology are women: Elizabeth Bishop and Dorothy Parker.

Little has changed since the days of Paz and Bartra, at least where women in translation are concerned. The Fundación de Letras Mexicanas (FLM) keeps a database for all poetry publications in Mexico, including poetry in translation. Even a cursory scan of those titles suggests there has not been a significant shift between 1995 and 2015.

Authors translated between 1995 and the present include Virgil, Homer, disciples of Anacraeon, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Leopardi. Of the 10 books of poetry in translation published in Mexico in 2013, Rae Armantrout (one woman) and Ali Ahmad Said Esber (one POC writer) rub shoulders with Homer and Mallarmé. The following year, 12 books of poetry in translation were published in Mexico. Only one was by a woman: a selection from Adrienne Rich’s work.

It is important to note here that—of course—this aspect of the status quo is very, very distant from the big-picture translation scene within Mexico, which is among the richest and most multifarious in the world. But this issue is symptomatic of a global under-representation of women in translation: there is not one national publishing industry in the world that can feel proud of its record on this front.

But part of being effective in that global struggle is identifying how to do something about it at home. Many thousands of lifetimes are dedicated, often thanklessly, to political change within Mexican literature. But the problem cannot be solved through the work of too often isolated critical voices. When forced to operate in a market that over-valorises male voices, the best one can hope for is a slight tipping of the scales.

As a consequence, real sea-changes often begin outside that market. Independent presses like Bongo Books are a case in point. Their forthcoming anthology, Mexican Poets Go Home, represents an equal number of male and women poets. This was not a question of gender quotas: after all, the standing army of Mexican poets is and always has been so numerous that high-calibre poets of either—or neither – gender are never in shortage.


Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow. 


Tim MacGabhann, Mariana Rodríguez, and John Z. Komurki are editors at Mexico City Lit, which has recently released a digital book called Poets for Ayotzinapa, a bilingual, free-to-download anthology.