August 21, 2017
Daniel Aguirre-Oteiza
Translating John Ashbery through Spanish and Latin American Poetry
While working on the galley proofs of my translation of John Ashbery’s Where Shall I Wander, I asked the poet about an idiom included in one of his poems: “cigarette pageant.” Ashbery smiled and said: “I don’t know. It must have slipped into my mind sometime.” The proper meaning of this idiom escaped not only native speakers but also the author of the poem. I felt disoriented: How could one possibly fix such an elusive idiom in a Spanish translation?
According to Pierre Joris, this approach to translation reflects “a conception of the poem as needing to be as ontologically defined, 'proper,' as the poet him- or herself.” For the translator who insists on this method of working, translation entails “the necessary fiction of fixed languages & self-contained, individual authors.” But, as Joris warns us, “we do pay a price.”
Part of the price we pay for this fiction, when too rigorously applied, is that of forgetting what a translation can set in motion if it is understood as a practice that allows us “to think beyond the vagaries of the proper versus the improper”; that is, beyond identity (the proper, the subject, the author) and universality (the general), “toward any number of other improper language-enactments.” This suggestion derives from the premise that “all our languages are improper, opaque, local,” and thus “gypsy dialects.” In this sense, a language is not a “dialect with guns,” as the old adage goes. According to Joris, a language is “a dialect with translators.”
If translations are necessary because languages blur the borders between fixed or defined identities, Joris’ definition can be pushed a bit further. Idiolect defines a “limiting case of dialect”: the speech habits of a single person within a speech community. Critics contend that Ashbery feels “impelled to reintroduce the idiolects of everyday life as part of its aesthetic.” Ashbery’s speech habits would then make up a singular idiolect made of idioms such as “cigarette pageant”—idioms which must have slipped into and out of his mind from various singular speech communities.
Let’s agree with Joris that “a translation (& a poem too) is always already an “improper object” and “a translation is the most improper possible being because it is always derived.” Joris’ redefinition itself can then be redefined: a language is an idiolect with translators. Furthermore, a poem can even be considered—pardon the pun—as an idiolect with idiotranslators. And idioreaders.
Idiolect takes its suffix from idios “personal, private, peculiar, separate.” Idiōt ēs is defined as “common man, plebeian, one without professional knowledge.” In Athenian democracy idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born. Citizenship—the opposite of idiocy—was effected through formalized education. Hence the distinction between ordinary citizens—idiotai—and the recognized set of expert public speakers in the State.
Giorgio Agamben refers to an idiot or a barbarian as someone who, “in the face of signifying discourse, certainly understands that there is an event of language.” However, the idiot or barbarian experiences the “thought of the voice alone,” which is “no longer the experience of mere sound and not yet the experience of a meaning.” Rather, the “thought of the voice alone” indicates a “pure taking place of language without any determinate event of meaning,” showing “that there is still a possibility of thought beyond meaningful propositions.”
If a poem can now be defined as an idiolect with idiotranslators, a translation of Ashbery’s poem can be a singular event of language, deriving from the linguistic experiences of common people, barbarians, improper persons in the sense of those lacking a formalized education within the State. These common people, barbarians, improper persons have “bad judgment in public and political matters” because their voices and idioms—voices and idioms such as Ashbery’s “cigarette pageant”—keep unfixing and deforming each other, slipping into and out of each other’s idiolects. This event of language is not just a “gypsy dialect,” but, rather, a “taking place of language without any determinate event of meaning.” Therefore, the task of the idiotranslator is to set in motion barbaric, improper events of language that hint at indeterminate places.
What sort of linguistic place would that be? How would one translate a singular event of language derived from the improper singular language-enactments of common people? Toward what sort of community would that translation impel the reader to travel?
As a Spaniard living in America, when I translate Ashbery’s poems I experience a familiar yet singular cultural shock. This shock is similar to the one that reading Cuban Lezama Lima’s poetry gives me. In both cases I feel impelled to travel through an unfixed place—a place that languages “without any determinate event of meaning” seem to be incessantly changing. Despite my formalized education, I feel uncannily close to barbarian, an alien citizen, both inside and outside the State, but impelled by voices that won’t stop slipping into and out of my mind. I feel a la deriva.
I respond to Ashbery’s and Lezama’s singularly changing voices by uttering my own supposedly singular voice: by writing. My voice is thus both fixed and unfixed—it is singularized again and again. In this sense there is familiarity between my experience and the spiral that Joris’s experience of translation sets in motion: “I read to write. The closest reading I have yet discovered is translation. Which is writing. And thus a circle or, hopefully, a spiral is set in motion. The pleasure of reading combines with the desire to write to engender a third, the work of translation.”
This supposed familiarity between readers, writers, and translators elicits questions about cultural communities, singularities, and identities.
According to Ernesto Livon-Grossman: “For Lezama cultural blending is neither an ideal nor a goal, but a reality.” This “reality” “is anything but transparent and tends to set in motion an almost out-of-control mechanism of encyclopedic references that provide the content of baroque sensibility.” Both Ashbery and Lezama give the sense of an “improper, opaque, local” reality—an “event of language” in motion, “an almost out-of-control mechanism of references”, a “making place of language without any determinate event of meaning.” That fleeting shock is as far as I allow myself to go in recognizing a familiarity that cannot account for the singularity of each poet.
And yet there seems to be a family or community of Lezamian poets—the neo-baroque poets. One of these poets, José Kozer, recognizes in current Latin American poetry an “opaque” lineage that includes Gertrude Stein, Charles Olson, even John Ashbery. One of the “founding fathers” of this Latin American line is Lezama. Livon also makes a connection between Olson and Lezama: “Both were concerned with a foundational poetics capable of accounting for the originality of the Americas as the ultimate, limitless place for intellectual self-discovery and invention.”
Ashbery’s and Lezama’ s linguistic reality is not totally opaque. In its movement between the familiar and the unfamiliar, it resembles a kaleidoscopic linguistic spiral.
According to Eduardo Milán, “the neo-baroque stance is a critique of cultural identity. As a crossing of identities—as a culture whose values are not totally consolidated—the Latin American multicultural condition seems to be in constant transition.” Is this “multicultural condition” a viable approach to the “democratic vistas” towards which the reader is supposedly impelled to travel with Ashbery’s poetry? Lezama’s poetic suggests as much. In this context it is useful to remember Lezama’s distinction between metaphor and image. For Lezama a poem “manages to create a body, a resistant substance set between a metaphor that advances by creating infinite connections and a final image that assures the survival of that substance.” Poems are “artificial bodies that are both caressable and resistant, like nature itself eluding and yielding to our touch.” An image is “the reality of the invisible world”. This definition can be rephrased: an image is the opaque reality of an idiolect—an opaque reality that sometimes may “slip” into and out of our minds, setting in motion a kaleidoscopic linguistic spiral.
This definition explains why the reader plays such an important part in Lezama’s poetics. For Lezama it is more important “to propel the reader into his or her own series of associations than to reach a unique interpretation, a definitive meaning.” According to Livon, Lezama proposes in his poetry “a tension between what we readers are able to recognize as familiar and what we are out to discover.” Our knowledge of the “familiar,’ which could be equated to the “metaphoric’ or the “proper,’ “is minimal in comparison to what we don’t know and therefore should not be taken as a means of arriving at a safe harbor, but rather as an incentive to constant movement.” Lezama’s foundational poetics is unfounded by the unpredictable deriva inscribed in discursive self-discovery.
Ashbery’s poetry aims at democratizing all forms of expression: “both the most demotic and the most elegant forms of expression deserve equally to be taken into account.” The lineage of this idea of representative poetry can be traced to Whitman’s Democratic Vistas: the proposal of a “native literary” formulation that will enable America to “understand herself, live nobly, nobly contribute, emanate, and, swinging, poised safely on herself, illumin’d and illuming, become a full-form’d world.” What translators are constantly out to discover, then, are kaleidoscopic democratic vistas on a world in constant transformation, a world seen neither as the “proper,” the “familiar,” or the “native,” nor as the “improper,” the “unfamiliar,” or the “alien,” but as a “taking place of language without any determinate event of meaning.” In this linguistic experience the force of singular human voices slip into and out of our minds, dislocating us, deforming us, unfixing us, in the necessary fiction of the idiots or barbarians who will not be expert public speakers in the State, but a singular common people whose educations resist formalization, consolidation, and possibly even discovery and citizenship.
Kaleidoscopic democratic vistas can be understood neither as a way between the proper and the improper, nor as a mere drifting beyond this polarity “toward any number of other improper singular language-enactments.” Kaleidoscopic democratic vistas would set in motion unpredictable derivas between undefined discursive practices: the no longer improper of the metaphor and the not yet proper of the image; that is, between two necessary fictions—the fiction of the citizen and the fiction of the nomad; universality and singularity; transparency and opaqueness; fixed languages and individual authors; unfixed languages and multiple authors; safe harbors and endless drifting; self-discoveries and undiscoveries. Or, rather, the fictions of common yet singular peoples. This is the sort of community towards which a translation of Ashbery’s poems would impel the reader, the translator, the writer to travel: an indeterminate community “eluding and yielding to our touch,” yet showing “that there is still a possibility of thought beyond meaningful” or formalized propositions—a caressable yet resistant community.
An ideotopic or ideotopian community?
Daniel Aguirre-Oteiza is a lecturer in Spanish at Harvard. His current research interests include the interplay between poetry, photography, and modern understandings of testimony in representations of the Spanish Civil War. He recently translated Wallace Stevens's The Rock and Ideas of Order. He is now completing a translation of John Ashbery’s Planisphere.
(Posted May, 2011)