I used to think of translation as a process, as what happens when you move words from one language to another, recreating meaning, effects, echoes. Creating new elements, too, out of potentials buried in the source text.
Now I’m starting to think of translation as a place. Part of what makes it conceivable as a locality is your constant effort to get to know it and imbue it with meaning. To fashion it out of meaning, first, and then to layer it with more. Words are responsible for its strata and its topography, and then for its weathering.
Edition 4 brings together seven translation places. It opens and closes with experiments in self-translation that, as the author-translators will tell you in their accompanying notes, come close to drifting free of meaning altogether. To my mind, their willingness to teeter on this precipice is one path for newness making its way into a culture. Hold your breath: skirt the edges of meaning with them.
The edition is arranged into two suites of translations, hinged by one other. The first suite, from Gamilaraay, Indonesian and Georgian, has a post- and anti-colonial thread. The bridge piece is a story translated from youthful, suburban Parisian French. And the closing suite is propelled by movements symptomatic of our globalised world: there is poetry by an ethnic Albanian Kosovar writing from Mexico in non-native Spanish, a multilingual text that is a collaboration between friends, and an act of creation born of travel across both space and time. Let me introduce them to you.
It’s the year 921 and Ibn Fadlān, a theologian in the court of Abbasid Caliphate al-Muqtadir, is making a 4000-kilometre journey from Baghdād to the encampment of the semi-nomadic Bulghār khan on the Volga River. He is serving as secretary to the caliph’s envoy.
Rare for his time and later—fabulator Marco Polo will come centuries afterwards—he doesn’t invent wonders in the account he jots down in spare moments.
The party comes across people with a language like the cries of starlings. The Amu River freezes, and horses and carts slide over the ice as if on roads. They reach a land so cold that beggars don’t wait at the door but step inside, a land where his beard turns into a block of ice. His face freezes to his pillow. The cold splits trees in two.
When the ice melts, they buy camels and boats made from camel skin, three months’ supply of millet, bread and salted meat. Each of them wears plain trousers, padded trousers, a tunic, a caftan, a cloak of sheepskin, a felt outer garment and head covering, and two pairs—one over the other—of horse-hair boots. They can hardly move because of all the clothing. The camels flounder in snow up to their knees.
[…] ‘In this betwixt-and-between period, in this fruitful darkness’, wrote Victor Turner of liminality, the ambiguity or disorientation of the middle stage of rituals. Don’t look down; there’s an abyss yawning just before your toes. Don’t force it, let the words come. Shift, make it fluid, back and forth. The Latin ‘translatio’: a ‘carrying across’: just a simple relocation, no labour of transformation, no alchemy involved here. Likewise the metaphor of the translator as a bridge: so passive! But the liminal space of translation as a fruitful darkness, now that bears greater reflection.
In the middle of this fruitful darkness, you could take the unusual privilege of looking to the work’s protagonist for advice. Makina herself has to contend with equivalence and the unstable nature of isomorphism; she too must try to fix routes between words. She packs what she calls a ‘latin–anglo dictionary’, which she describes as ‘by old men and for old men’ but still useful, ‘like people who don’t really know where a street is and yet point you in the right direction’. Routes between words are more rivers than highways in that their course is always shifting. Revise, and revise again. Make sure you keep up. Maybe all a translator can do, in the end, is point the reader in the right direction.
Makina muses on Spanglish, that language-between-languages, dependent on the existence of both Spanish and English and also on a large enough community of speakers who know both; it is a manner of communicating that is, of course, a kind of language-in-translation. She names it ‘a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born’, which recalls, again, liminality, the point at which the old self is dead and the new self, not yet birthed. There are creative possibilities in this space; translational decisions can reinvigorate the world, can make it new: ‘if you say Give me fire when they say Give me a light, what is not to be learned about fire, light and the act of giving? It’s not another way of saying things: these are new things’.