Friday, November 17, 2006

Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women

As a follow-up to Liz's post on Wednesday's event at Poet's House, I wanted to share my first thoughts on the anthology Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women, which I have been rereading since that night. I am cross-posting this entry from my website, Stingy Kids. I also took some notes on the panel discussion but they are nowhere near as comprehensive as Liz's!

My post begins:

Belladonna*, Poets House, and the Bowery Poetry Club have organized a three-day festival on "contemporary and innovative" Japanese womens poetry. The impetus for this event is the recent publication of the anthology Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women (Litmus/Belladonna), which features the work of Kiriu Minashita, Kyon-Mi Park, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Takako Arai in English translation (most of the translations are by Sawako Nakayasu, editor of Factorial). I purchased a copy last night, the first night of the festival, and devoured most of it on my subway ride home. The translations are spectacular and I admire the decision to include the Japanese originals, even if doing so meant that fewer poems could be included. An essay by each poet follows the selection of poems and these provide a further glimpse into the different ways in which issues of idenitity, language, and representation have affected and shaped their individual work. These essays do some of the work that readers have come to expect from an introduction, but rather than have the translator and/or editor speak for the poets and "group" their work in collective terms, the anthology insists on a multiplicity of voices moving in and out of private and public positions.

I was interested in the decision to present the poems first in translation and follow these with the original Japanese text. I often prefer original and translation to face each other, but letting the translation "speak" first, as it were, is very provocative. I began my reading of these texts in a language that is known to me, even the language tricks and contortions they perform are familiar, so for a moment they belong to me: I can domesticate them, incorporate them, ingest them. I turn the page and, suddenly, I am facing another language and my grasp on these texts begins to slip away. But what also intrigued me is how the translations continued to shadow these originals so that they too could be "read" in a way but without the illusion of fluidity that facing translations encourage. Though this is a spare work, its reach is expansive and aspires "to seep [the work of these poets] out further into a universal poetic" while keeping their individual contexts in view. The prose texts, I would argue, are a defense against the risk of over generalizing and globalizing these works. They give us a glimpse into the influences and experiences that have shaped these authors and further elaborate their individual poetic interests and concerns.

Full volumes of translations of the individual poets are in order and I hope this collection inspires this future work, but last night's dialogue at Poets House also underscored the importance of gathering different voices together. As the conversation progressed it became clear that there were no easy categories in which to collectively position these writers. Even the category "women" found itself challenged and placed under scrutiny.

End of original post.

Since writing this, I've had the chance to read more attentively the poems and prose, particularly Kyong-Mi Park's essay "My Asian Bones are Ringing," which begins on a winter day in New York. The following passage is just stunning:
There's no such thing as your "own" language. Words that we call words all belong to others. To speak and write, and to learn and comprehend words--it is all a matter of giving yourself over to the process of other people's words as they come and go freely within you, and placing your own self atop the words of someone else. What I discovered through my own personal experience of translating Stein, the mother of modernism, was the spell-like quality of words, that language was in fact a medium--a spiritual medium as well as an intermediary--and that the act of using words is that of being possessed by the words of someone else.

(In this sense, it really makes no sense to speak of a "native" language. There is no language we are born with. Children are possessed, like a medium, by the language of whoever they first meet in their lives, and then copy and repeat this process, placing themselves atop it.)
During the panel discussion, Ryoko Sekiguchi told us that she is often asked, "why are you writing in French, Japan wasn't a colony of France?" Her reply: "The question becomes: what is wrong with engaging in a language to which you have no historical connection?" This brought up for me the issues surrounding the argument that translators should only translate into and out of languages they know intimately or to which they are legitimately bound by history. But history becomes a tricky prescription for writing and translation when you think of all of the unwritten contacts and encounters that have occurred between people and languages over time. Not to mention how much would be left untranslated if we only dealt in recent historical connections or with languages we know. Arguably, the act of translation creates these connections and this knowing.

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