One of the things that you don’t know about me (will this make us closer or drive us further apart?) is my love of Dante in translation. But only in translation. I can’t read Italian, so I can’t say that I love Dante, any more than Dante could claim to love Place (we are inert to each other). But I read the translations like a glutton at a buffet—there’s one for each part of the palate: Singleton’s for a narrative stroll, Carson’s coarser Celtic turns for a jeu de maux, the Hollanders for rigor and statelier play, and creaky Ciardi for when I wonder why I was so dour at thirteen. One of the ancillary pleasures of reading translations is the translator’s introduction, in which the translator invariably defends translation as a matter of translation. Translation, in other words, being the hopeless and hopelessly optimistic effort to communicate the thing that may not be communicated. Leaving aside the easy case—there is, for example, no word in English for the sound of the separation of skin from flesh, such as, I am told, there is in Japanese–there is the harder nut, where words seem to mean the same thing, betraying in their seductive and false fungibility, the infra-thin difference between inhabiting the bon and mal mot. (The latter would be a joke in Swedish.) And so, translators are a uniformly fretful bunch, caught in the content-impossibility of their task. Though, like contented sado-masochists, they have perfected the single gesture of expatiation and inculpation. And like lucky voyeurs, we may be witness to this: in the London Review of Books, Julian Barnes recently used Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary, and her associated public slaggings on prior translations, to perambulate the well-ploughed grounds of translation itself. Oh, it’s a very good read, indeed.

That is to say, full of gossipy pleasures plus the kind of armchair participatory satisfaction usually felt (one imagines) by followers of televised sports. And while my reading French allows me the luxury of whistling and booing the above game, Sawkao Nakayasu-Chika Sagawa’s book both opens and forecloses such flabby participation. For Nakayasu, a poet of our time, has collaborated with Sagawa who has been dead for some time, but was a poet of the modernist period, a time possibly closer to our own than the more recent post-modern past. For although it cannot be said with mathematical precision, it is true as a rule that everybody loves their grandmother. The moderns reveled in the possibly libratory freedoms of free-ranging authority the postmoderns found so disappointing/embarrassing, which we find simply acts as matters of fact. (There is great relief in stasis.) Mouth: Eats Color is a book of poems about a book of poems, its translations and translations of translations turn and detourn and are intercut with new and rehashed information to no end save another stanzic ending. Though I don’t know as I agree with the “anti-” qualifier in the title, as it seems that the concept of a kind of translation which is against-translation, like that expression which is against-expression (see Dworkin & Goldsmith), is very much for translation as such. For, strictly logically speaking, the negation of something is also proof positive of its predicate existence. (For a brilliant poem on/not on/about/not about translation, see Caroline Bergvall’s “Via,” composed of all the first lines from all the translations of Dante’s Inferno in the British Library, by date of publication.) In other words, Nakayasu and Sagawa work here in French, English, and Japanese, revisiting certain pieces with a particular kind of fidelity, spinning off on others with another kind of faithfulness. I say Nakayasu and Sagawa both because that is how the title goes, and as the process used by Nakayasu to establish collaboration is as conceptual as it goes: http://www.sawakonakayasu.net/mouth-eats-color-an-interview-with-thomas-fink/

Now that you are back, one of the things that is very interesting about Nakayasu and Sagawa’s book is how it confounds history: not only relative to the multi-lingual stance taken based on the time Sagawa originally wrote, a time in which Japanese modernists were, like their European counterparts, very hot on the polysemous (this involved signification via various Japanese scripts as well as other languages, an affective register lost to the mealier-mouthed among us), but to the time of this writing, as noted above. So Nakayasu used Google language tools to compose some of the “Promenades” pieces which wend their way through the book, torquing the French and Chinese by feeding them through the internet machine, and deployed what she calls (by way of an email to me) a “keyboard hiccup,” typing while thinking in English on a keyboard set to Japanese, then translating the results into English. (I’ve done the same using symbol fonts, such as Wingnuts, but these results are more transubstantiation than hiccough. This is the third register of medieval materiality, where a thing is transformed—i.e., rendered legible in its other instantiation—only by way of the grace of the Geist.) The techno-melts fold in nicely with the modernist mash, oddly leavening the whole. (Japanese modernists liked to incorporate French, while l’ecriture chinoise was favored by a number of French modernists, such as Claudel, who used it allegorically, in addition to Pound’s ideograms, which worked in the collage as a kind of second space, given that the characters often functioned in a kind of constellatory description versus a strict immediate transcription.) (For Japanese modernism in the 1920’s, see William O. Gardener’s Advertising Tower; for the ideogram, see Marjorie Perloff’s essay, “Refiguring the Poundian Ideogram: From Blanco/Branco to the Galáxias.”
) (I’m not sure why I say oddly, though it opens up another discussion as to the pains and pleasures of reading in translation, wherein happiness is found at that point at which the text is both familiar and foreign enough. Both are matters of cognition and recognition: the translated text should be understandable as a text and understandable as a text that is not entirely at home. In other words, I want something “Italian” left hanging about my Dante.) And it is this sense of leavening which also underscores the possibility of smoothing the lines on translation’s lovely brow. For in this, our conceptualist age, translation is not a matter of difference and repetition, but of simultaneity. The poems in Mouth: Eats Color are all faithful unto themselves. You have doubtless noted that this review has not quoted a single one of the poems in the book. To quote any one of the poems in the book would be to select one as more something something than another, like picking my Dante du jour and forcing it on you. Or to identify the pieces as versions or inversions of some phantom originary work. Alternatively, I could have cited a series of single lines or pieces to illustrate how each moves and mutates through the book, but this would be a show of showing rather than telling. For the larger point is that these are all poems. Not translations. Not variations on a thing or theme. In other words, each work is its own piece in which the fact of translation, however defined, however infidel or true-blue to whatever Platonic notion of communication (there is this thing X which is conceived in language #1 as A and may be rendered in language #2 as B, which is to say, a kind of equivalency, such that x = a = b, where we all kind of know that metaphors, like all language shifts, are matters of addition and subtraction) is not a matter of mutation but metamorphosis. There is this poem. There is another poem. There are similarities between them, arguably no more or less than may be found in any other linked collection. The piling-on here works as a matter of simultaneity, not difference, not repetition. (Where was it said recently that all poetry is a matter of equivalencies? It was a wrongheaded statement, of course, but interesting as betraying a fundamental belief in fungibility, or the numbing aggregate effect of snowflakes.) (Just as my parentheticals in this are not parenthetical, but paratextual asides.) Like a jealous spouse or second-rate deity, translation loves to examine its partners for signs of cheating. Once we embrace the faith of the faithless, however, we are left with the even more optimistic hope of an open communion.