Posts featuring Rabindranath Tagore

How Should We Review Translations? Part II

Above all, the translated poem allows us into its world—which exists somewhere between a language we don’t know and a language that we do.

In this second installment of our forum on reviewing translations, Lauren Albin and Sue Hyon Bae, two of the translators of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, reflect on their engagements with both the poet’s work and the culture in which it was produced. They highlight the dangers of adopting the role of an interrogator and emphasize the need for good faith in any encounter with a translated work. Today we also feature a contribution from Matt Reeck, who takes the opportunity to reflect on the ways that reviews might take into account contexts of reception and underscores how the idea of world literature can restrict our ability to understand local specificity as it attempts to develop a global framework. If you missed the first installment of this forum, be sure to check it out here, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s contributions from Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson.

I want to point out this sentence in Matt Reeck’s review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, which becomes the foregrounding reason for his question of whether Korean poetry should be made more Korean in translation: “Kim’s poems are not confessional (which might make them indicative of the writer’s life and culture), nor are they written in a style that’s reflective of a social reality.” The reviewer’s desire for the poet’s confession quickly brings to mind one of the seminal poems of Kim’s collection—“Cultural Revolution in My Dream”—where Ms. Photon, a symbol of the bright light used by an interrogator to extract confessions, uploads a confessional software to the poet’s body. What I mean to say in drawing this comparison is that, Reeck got it wrong. Kim’s poems are confessional, but perhaps, they are not the confession that the reviewer wishes to hear—a situation that recalls Ms. Photon, who keeps on interrogating the poet even after there are no real crimes left but only a continuously generated confession. Therefore, the reviewer rejects Kim’s poems and along with them he rejects Kim’s social reality and Kim’s Korea, asking for translations that are more Korean than the originals and pressing for a false confession. 

Moving away from Reeck’s review, when the reviewer of translated work plays at interrogator, the perspective of the translated poet is immediately endangered. The interrogator is a figure employed by repressive regimes to reconstruct narratives, to revise the truth, to rewrite what actually happened, and to reconstruct history. Interrogators often already know what story they wish to tell and work to illuminate only that reality. An interrogator is also someone who has inherent power over another. While Ms. Photon extracts false confessions, the sun, in Kim’s “Lady Yuhwa,” “streaming like a searchlight / pursues and violates the woman” of the poem. A reviewer who steps into the role of interrogator assumes power over the poem and violates it intentionally or unintentionally by forcing it to conform to their own ideas about what it should be; silencing the poem, instead of allowing the work to speak in its own language of idea, even when that language seems to push at the boundaries of our minds.  READ MORE…

In Conversation: Hamid Ismailov

I wish that different literatures were mutually translated, bypassing English or other dominant global languages.

Very rarely does contemporary Uzbek prose get translated directly into English. Yet English readers have just been given a rare chance to discover the novel The Devils’ Dance (Tilted Axis Press, trans. by Donald Rayfield), by the prominent Uzbek writer and journalist Hamid Ismailov. In it, Ismailov introduces the curious reader to perhaps the most famous modern Uzbek writer, Abdulla Qodiriy. The novel tells the story of Qodiriy, who, like many intellectuals in the Soviet Union in the late 30s, was imprisoned and eventually shot dead. While in jail, Qodiriy attempts to recreate the unfinished novel the KGB has just confiscated, which portrays Oyhon, a poet-queen who lived in the last, grand days of nineteenth-century Turkestan when London and Saint Petersburg were fighting over Central Asia in the Great Game. I interviewed Ismailov about his diverse identities and the place of Uzbek literature in today’s global writing. 

Filip Noubel (FN): You are a global writer: you were born in what is today Kyrgyzstan, studied and worked in Uzbekistan, and now live in London. You write in both Uzbek and Russian, and appear in translation in a number of languages ranging from English to Chinese. In your books and interviews, you often refer to the plurality of cultures but also to their clashes. How is this multiple identity shaping your writing?

Hamid Ismailov (HI): Recently I did a DNA test, and aside from the obvious, I discovered that 4% of my genes are of South Asian origin and 2% are Irish, not to mention 1% Native American. So if my genes are telling me that I’m related to people like Rabindranath Tagore and James Joyce even on a genetic level, so be it! But, generally, the people of Central Asia, which is an area historically placed in the middle of the Silk Road, should be blessed to be born into multiculturalism, multi-lingualism and multi-identity. If you read my book The Railway you can see how many nationalities, traditions, and ways of life I have been exposed to in my childhood, so no wonder that I love to write in different languages, and to put myself into different shoes. In fact, exploring “otherness” both as a subject and an object is the most interesting part of literature.


The Nobel’s Faulty Compass

After all, it seems hard to believe that the magnetic north of the literary lies in Europe or in the languages that have emerged from it. 

In the will he signed in Paris on November 27, 1895, Alfred Nobel established five prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace. In the sciences, the key characteristic of a laureate’s contribution to the larger field was that it should be the “most important” discovery or improvement, while the peace prize was intended to recognize “the most or the best work” performed in pursuit of fostering what he called the “fraternity between nations.” Yet when turning to the award for careful work with language, Nobel would distinctly modify his own: he specified that the literary prize should go to whichever writer had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”

From 1901 to 2017, women have exemplified that ideal direction a mere fourteen times. Although that dismal distribution has somewhat improved in recent years, it is nothing to brag about: only five women have won since 2004, and only six in the past twenty-one years. Such disappointing diversity continues when we turn to languages: of the 113 laureates in that same period, twenty-nine have written in English. That number does not even include three laureates who each wrote in two languages, one of which was English: Rabindranath Tagore, the songwriter who won a century before Bob Dylan and who also wrote in Bengali; Samuel Beckett, whose most famous work is titled En attendant Godot in the original French; and Joseph Brodsky, whose poems appeared in Russian and whose prose was written in the same language as the documents certifying the American citizenship he had acquired a decade before winning.