Necropastoral Translations: Exoticism, Illegitimate Meetings, Blacked-Out Spaces

by on Sep.29, 2011

It seems that the most interesting stuff being written about translation right now (Joyelle McSweeney, Don Mee Choi, Christian Hawkey) are all suggesting a more mobile idea not just of translations but of all of literature: something more like an illegitimate “meeting” in a zone of art, a zone one might call a necropastoral, or a crypt, or a translation zone, or Art.

Here’s Joyelle on the Necropastoral meetings:

A key factor of the necropastoral for me is not just the way it manifests the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classical pastoral— ie the most celebrity resident of Arcadia is Death—but also its activity, its networking, its paradoxical proliferation, its self-digestive activity, its eructations, its necroticness, its hunger and its hole making, which configures a burgeoning textual tissue defined by holes, a tissue thus as absent as it is present, and therefore not absent, not present—protoplasmic, spectral. In the next couple posts I want to look at three phenomena: Wilfred Owen’s War Poetry, Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, and WikiLeaks– to try to think about how the necropastoral stages networks and ‘strange meetings’.

My hypothesis is that the strange meetings in the necropastoral eat away at the model of literary lineage that depends on separation, hierarchy, before-and-after, on linearity itself; simultaneously, the ‘strange meeting’ could be considered as one of the necropastoral’s political modes. The strange meeting of Lady Gaga and Julian Assange, the strange meeting of Cairo, Egypt and Madison, Wisconsin!

In many ways this description of the necropastoral is one of the best description of translations I’ve read in a long time. Translations have this kind of proliferative movement, generating excesses (too many versions, too many authors, too many texts) and holes through which texts move and are moved, creating copies, sisters, tattoos, lovers, doubles, kitsch, stage props etc. Like the “hygienic borders” National Literatures try to maintain a kind of linguistic purity in order to maintain and promote “lineages,” monoglossic orders, canons, which translation with its contagion is contagions undermine, counterfeit, destabilize, poison.

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Translations always seem to lead to charges of inauthenticity: How do we know that you didn’t just invent this foreign poet? That she’s a true master in her own language? That’s she’s important? That your translation is legitimate? That we would get the right words? That it’s the same as the original? That it’s faithful? That you’re faithful? That you’re not some counterfeit dealer in exotic trinkets? That all translations are not just exoticism? Kitsch? That it won’t ruin our community? That there’s a real person behind that text? Not just a corpse? Not just a puppet? A monkey puppet? With arsenic pills for eyes?

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In Ventrakl, an oft-discussed book on this site, Christian Hawkey writes about translation (reanimating, to the extreme, Ezra Pound necro metaphor of translation as the re-animation of a corpse, done in the spirit – intriguingly – of ridding modernism of the “corpse language” of victorian poetry with all of its frills and orientalism…) as a kind of seance: “And to read the deceased is to reanimate their words; the between-voice is a ghost, a host.”

The result of this reanimation is more like violence than healing! As Joyelle points out, Hawkey’s book is full of holes: once he shot in the book with his rifle, blots on a photograph. One “poem”/translation is called “Ten Holes” and it’s a list of “one”-phrases from Trakl: “The dark one,” “the sick one,” “the patient one,” “the one alone” etc. The text is wounded and through the holes the translation leaks.

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Don Mee Choi’s introduction to Mommy Must Be A Fountain of Feathers is one of the most insightful recent discussions of translation that I can think of. In this short essay, Don Mee begins by writing:

I met Kim Hyesoon for the first time in Seoul, in 2001. We decided by phone to meet at a Starbucks in the arts distct called Hyehwadong, so we could find each other easily.

If translation is a seance, then how do you translate a poet who is still alive? You may meet them in a foreign land, thanks to global/imperialist kitsch (Starbucks) and Art (especially art from a place with a strange name).

Choi describes Kim’s poetry as coming out of a kind of crypt, a kind of necropastoral meeting space, a kind of dark space, or ecstatic “in-between” space that Hawkey talks about in his book:

She began to tell me how she had met her husband soon after the military coup led by General Chun Doo Hwan in 1980… As soon as General Chun came into power, all publications were even more rigorously censored. Newspapers hit the stands with whole sectiosn blacked out with ink. Kim Hyesoon… was in charge of Yi’s play called Kaeppul (Dog Horns), a piece considered the quintessential expression of life under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Submitted to the state censors, Yi’s play came back to Kim completely blackened except for the title and Yi’s name. It is from such blackened space that, I believe, Kim Hyesoon’s poetry emerges.

She compares this black space to women’s literature, a result of women being banned from official literature for so long, relegated to oral poetry. Away from the official writing, the official language of poetry, this literature was a space for the promulgation of “shaman narratives” or “muga,” and the figure of Parigongju (or “Princess Abandoned”), a princess notably who has been discarded by her parents – her true lineage – which allows her to roam through hell:

For Kim the blackneed space is not only the space oppression but also a place where a woman redefines herself, retranslates herself. Therefore, I see Kim’s poetry as poetry of translation. And in my role as a translator, I guide Kim’s translated blackened self to another place, another language, across a bridge forged by history – the history of the US presence i Korea since 1945. The US presence translates into about one hundred US military bases and installations in South Korea…

This blackened-out space is not surprisingly “populated by rats copulating, raising a family, mommy rats gnawing at baby rats surviving hell.” This space is characterized by its proliferations: “Kim translates hell, as a daughter of a neocolony, and I translate her translated hell as a daughter from the neocolony – two daughters too many.”

It’s too much: too many daughters, too many rats, too many texts, too many authors, too many infections. Not enough: lineage, mastery, legitimacy. To me these texts suggest a kind of “necropastoral translation theory” as well as a poetics of translation, versions, illegitimate friendships, counterfeit meetings in necropastoral landscapes.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Kyle Minor

    I keep thinking about how this discussion isn’t just a discussion about experimental poetry, or poetry in translation, or the pastoral, or reading in general, or any other narrow thing. It’s a discussion that is opening me to new ways of thinking about the making of many different kinds of things, and not only literary ones.

    Joyelle, do you have plans to bring these thoughts about the necropastoral to book length? If so, it’s something I would very much love to read in manuscript, and not only to be a helpful reader, but also because this talk is nourishing my reading and writing so much.