Workshop: International Poetry, Translation, and Language Justice

As a poet, do you think of yourself primarily as a citizen of your own language and country, or in relation to the work of poets writing in other languages in other parts of the world?

Are there sorts of poetry that translate better than others, or aspects of poetry that do?

What criteria do you believe determine what work becomes part of an international conversation?

These were some questions that Susan Bernofsky had pre-circulated to participants in the “Workshop on International Poetry, Translation and Language Justice”, a gathering of poets and translators, or poet/translators, working across and through multiple languages.

The participants were drawn to questions of citizenship, belonging, and what it means to write in a “local” language and then be translated for a “global” audience. For some, the (geo)political could not be separated from language and literary translation, and determining what gets translated and what is left out, while others spoke about an inclusivity in translation that could help overcome differences. Undoubtedly, however, considering the diverse presence in the room in terms of language, profession, and nationality (which is itself a contested concept), the conversation developed into many strands that fluctuated between these two positions, embodying the uncertainty that accompanies poetry in translation and language justice.


The forensic interest in Arabic in a post-9/11 US and how it has become an issue of national security was mentioned by Sinan Antoon; he said that he writes increasingly in Arabic “to defend the language from internal and external enemies”, and he expressed being “allergic” to the category of the universal or world literature. Translation, he said, “is a very radical business”. The poet and translator Jennifer Hayashida’s experience of living in countries like Sweden and the US where she has always been racialized has also led to her serious interrogation of the categories of world literature and issues with globalization. Yet she mentioned that her primary interest in terms of translation is the “global diversity” of languages that encounter one another. There was the sense, therefore, that the category of world literature can be useful for anti-imperialist projects. For example, she mentioned how she has translated the works of two female poets who are originally from Iran, Athena Farrokhzad (based in Sweden and writing in Swedish) and Solmaz Sharif (based in the US, writing in English), and when these two women met, they were able to have a dialogue about being young, female writers whose narratives deal with post-9/11 racialization, gender, violence, and militarism.

The poet Tonya Foster declared that language locates us both politically and socially, and that a “particular universality” as one possibility among many others can allow for categorizes such as “citizenship” that are contingent for many to be erased. In this case, therefore, a foreign language creates the space for one to articulate their sense of foreignness and contingent citizenship. Anna Deeny, a translator, playwright, and poetry scholar, mentioned that she strives to depict the distance of immigration in her translations by using the rhythm and sounds of the original language in the English translation. The experience of immigration, after all, means that you develop a unique relationship with distance, and that the language you hear in your new community is different from your own; thus, “Language is doubly mourned”.

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Translation offered itself as a tool for facilitating interaction between people. Mohammed Bennis spoke about how translation “is vital for anyone interested in understanding others”. Yet he also mentioned the divisions in translation politics across the North-South binary, and that the desire for cultural homogeneity must be eradicated. For him, “Pluriverse” means that vast numbers of translations must happen between the Arabic and Western worlds. Zhai Yongming and Nabaneeta Dev Sen continued these threads with a focus on Chinese and Indian languages and literatures respectively and lamented the hegemony of the English language. Zhai spoke (through the translation of Chloe Estep) about a trend that started in the 1980s which included the best works of Western literature being translated into Chinese, but regretfully, she mentioned that the best works of Chinese literature are not known in the West, especially modern Chinese poetry; classical Chinese poetry is translated widely, demonstrating the desire to portray certain aspects of Chinese literature and culture. Dev Sen, in turn, mentioned that one of the issues of translation in the multicultural, multilingual context of India, with 24 major languages, is that not enough translation happens between these Indian languages. Class and language are interlinked in India, with English being associated with the higher echelons and thus affording more access to publication and translation for Indian writers who write in English.

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Nomadism seemed to offer itself as a possible resolution of the two somewhat contrasting strands above. Pierre Joris and Uche Nduka both used the term, with Joris declaring that “all language is translation” and that the notion of an original text is tenuous. Nduka referred to himself as nomadic and his experience of translation is affected by this nomadic existence; his biculturality and bilingualism finds its way into his translation work: “Translation for me is sometimes a bridge and sometimes a frustration[…] My translation does not hinge on regionality, and I don’t have apologies for that”.

By Atefeh Akbari Shahmirzadi, Graduate Research Fellow in Global Language Justice and PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. This workshop was part of the Sawyer Seminar Series in Global Language Justice kick-off event, titled “Poetry as Pluriverse: Thinking Global Language Justice”; the workshop took place on September 23, 2017, at Columbia University.

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