Foreign to Oneself

Amanda DeMarco

Illustration by Dianna Xu


This essay about foreignness and translation is strictly composed of quotations. However, I have taken the liberty of replacing select words and phrases with “translation,” “translator,” and the various verb forms of “translate.”

It is one of a series of texts I have made that use various collage techniques to create a voice—one that could not possibly be my own. Others can be found in Hotel and the Los Angeles Review of Books. The collage approach has been useful to me in examining various experiences of voicelessness and alienation, but also reveling in the downright Dionysian profusion of voices that can be summoned from the books I love.

Dionysus, if you'll recall, was a foreigner too.

Foreign to Oneself

One of the great experts on history, culture, and the art in Berlin—Walter Benjamin—once wanted to compose a description of the city using only old descriptions, with all of the monuments described by close contemporaries from the time of their creation. The result would be rather like seeing one’s backyard reproduced with extreme fidelity, but in such a perspective that it becomes a place which one has never seen or visited, which never has existed, which never can exist. This is just like translation. Both are limited, as legends are limited, by being—literally—unlivable, and by referring to the past. Every legend, however, contains its residuum of truth, just as all magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshold we all step into other worlds.

Travel is a substitute for life. So is translation. Both mean getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story so tightly to your chest; the bigness of the world is a redemption. In translation, you have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. After all, literature is the ideal form of possessing the world for a wanderer, or a refugee; to miniaturize is to make portable.

The older generation of translators described translation as a heroic effort of attention, an ascetic discipline, a mystic receptivity to the world. I believe it is a form of knowing without knowing; of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it. Though I had grown accustomed to thinking of myself as looking upon the world with a hard, penetrating eye, the truth is that remembering my country, I imagine it; unreality and semblance hold sway over all the area. That sounds histrionic, but isn’t it true?

That pure far world still fascinates me. The fantastical etchings of galleons sailing off the edge of the flat earth and toppling headlong into the void are more accurate representations of our lived experience than the spherical empirical truth in which we happen to live. Metaphor makes the familiar strange; translation makes the strange familiar. It is the familiar edge of the unknown, forever licking at the shore. Like digging a hole to China and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then translating took me all the way through to connect with people again in an unexpected way.

We in the West have been muddled by Plato’s assertion that art is imitation and illusion; we believe that it is a realm apart, one whose impact on our world is limited, one in which we do not live. What in Benjamin is an excruciating idea of fastidiousness, meant to permit the mute past to speak in its own voice, with all its unresolvable complexity, becomes—when generalized, in translation—the fabrication of a new, parallel reality. Of course, the root function of language is to create the universe by describing it—the etymology of fiction is from fingere meaning “to shape, fashion, form, or mold.” For the translator, the book is the world, because what is beyond it does not exist for her; it could not even exist for her. Thus, the difference between reading the world and living in it breaks down and woe to the woman who does not recognise which story she is living in.

Reading is hazardous. To put it one way, the soul establishes itself. / But how far can it swim out through the eyes / And still return safely to its nest? Yet a great woman quotes bravely. (“Who leaves the dangerous path for the safe,” says Galessin, one of the knights of the Round Table, “is not a knight, is a merchant.”) In this way I translate myself into a boldness that is foreign to me, between the Scylla and Charybdis of the humanities: the Void (which is Truth) and Form (which is Illusion).

For literature repeats itself. (In 450 b.c., Bacchylides wrote, “One author pilfers the best of another and calls it tradition.”) Likewise the only true reading is re-reading, and homecoming is the flight from flight. Thus, I’ve dedicated my scruples and my sleepless nights to repeating already extant books in an alien tongue, discovering new continents of fact and the hidden treasures of buried secrets, knowing, in short, what I do not know.

With respect to what is foreign to oneself, as I’ve said elsewhere, translation makes everyone a tourist in other people’s realities, and eventually in one’s own. The translator is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, recording the overwhelming power of custom, the limitations of human knowledge, the primacy of experience, the dangerous absurdity of fanatical belief, the vulgar pretensions of civilization, and the abiding truths of nature. The translator’s anonymity means you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. And yet, those who believe they can unite in their person all possible human divisions and fragmentations are obtuse to the truth of disorder. Just as every man has within himself the entire human condition, we are always also only in our own company. There is nothing you can throw at me that I cannot metabolize, no thing impervious to my alchemy. In the end, you must become the shepherd of the flock of yourself.


Hans Abendroth, Null und Eins (Berlin: Nothungs Verlag, 1953).

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York: Beacon Press, 1955).

Hans Blumenberg, Care Crosses the River (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010).

Amanda DeMarco, "A Collection of Quotes from Former #1 Pound-for-Pound MMA Fighter, Ronda Rousey, & Her Mother, the First U.S. Citizen to Win a World Judo Championship" in Hotel, June 2016:

Stephen Greenblatt, introduction to Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall by Sir Thomas Browne (New York: NYRB Classics, 2012).

Franz Hessel, Walking in Berlin, translated by Amanda DeMarco (Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2016).

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Sleep of the Righteous, translated by Isabel Cole (San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2015).

Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso Books, 2013).

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015).

Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey (Seattle: Wave Books, 2012).

David Shields, Reality Hunger (New York: Knopf, 2010).

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (New York: Viking, 2013).

Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966).

Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980).

Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977).

Eliot Weinberger, Oranges and Peanuts for Sale (New York: New Directions, 2009).

Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Book I, translated by David Hawkes (New York: Penguin, 1974).