An Introduction

Madhu H. Kaza

I wanted my work to be the work of disabling the art versus politics argument; to perform the union of aesthetics and ethics.
—Toni Morrison

here, of a place in the world
—Birhan Keskin, tr. Öykü Tekten

Let me start plainly. On the day that Nick Rattner emailed me, introducing himself as Editor-in-Chief of Gulf Coast and asking if I’d be interested in guestcurating a section of translations for this issue, I’d been talking on the phone with a friend about difficulties with a publisher. I had announced, with my friend as my witness, that I was taking a long break from anything having to do with literary translation. I hung up the phone and opened Nick’s message. Right away I dismissed his proposal but I forwarded the email to my friend with the note, “Life is weird.” My friend encouraged me to consider the trickster energy of the timing of the invitation and at least weigh the possibilities. So I put the editor through a test: I wrote to him and asked, Could we talk on the phone? He had originally suggested that I might curate a selection of under-represented translators, languages, or authors, and while I felt that to be a worthy project, I’m wary of art expediencies; I don’t want to be consulting on representation improving institutional diversity quotients. What I wanted to know was: Who are you, what kind of collaborator will you be, how do you care for process, why is this important to you, and what are your unresolved questions about literature and translation?

Reader, here we are. I am tremendously honored to present to you a selection of translations from Arabic, Kurmanji, Turkish, Turkmen, Kazakh, Telugu, Nepali, Vietnamese, and Chamorro. I framed this project around an urgent need to see more writing from less-translated languages in circulation. As Catalan scholar Albert Branchadell notes, “less-translated languages” are not necessarily minor languages, endangered languages, or vernaculars—though some are. Lesstranslated languages include some of the most widely spoken tongues in the world such as Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Javanese, Punjabi, and Telugu. Whether the languages are large or small, national or regional, the term doesn’t speak to anything inherent in these languages or their literatures, but rather to the ways in which global power operates.

If this project is political, then, and it is, it’s so because the status quo of literary translation in the U.S. is political; the culture rests on and reproduces imperialist histories. But I, too, want to lay down the tired debate of art versus politics for now (since what is at stake is always art and politics and aesthetics and ethics anyway), in order to avoid flattening the work presented here. There’s livingness in these pages.

When I first wrote to the translators, I noted that my approach to this special feature was not to make any big claims about world literature, but to offer a small sample of divergent work. And that’s what we have: the spare evocation of nature and longing in Öykü Tekten’s translations of Birhan Keskin; the dense, visceral stream of consciousness of Kaitlin Rees’s rendering of Nhã Thuyên’s experimentation; Muna Gurung’s translations of Sulochana Manandhar, who makes night into a territory for contemplative conversation; Orhan Elmaz and Zohra Saed’s translation of the seemingly direct sweetness in Annasoltan Kekilov’s lyrics, which are pierced by the poems’ occasional telling awkwardness; the refrains in the song poems of Rojavan poet Xoşman Qado as translated by Zêdan Xelef and Shook and of Telugu Dalit poet Joopaka Subhadhra in Nitya Rayapati’s version; the tenderness and bravado of call and response quatrains in Danielle P. Williams’s adaptations of ancient poetry of the Mariana Islands; the clipped lyrics that speak of destruction, dislocation and mourning in Sinan Antoon’s self-translations; and Mirgul Kali’s translation of Baqytgul Sarmekova’s humorous story of patriarchal culture and exchange value, a story whose pace and structure bears no resemblance to American realist fiction.

We should be careful not to read these writers as cultural ambassadors whose works are representative of their original languages, literatures, or nations. Many of the poems are political, and some—as in Joopaka Subhadra’s “Sing Sister Sing,” Danielle P. Williams’s translations of kantan chamorrita, and Sinan Antoon’s “Smoke”—take aim at imperialist violence and implicate U.S. readers. But a number of the writers also dissent from the dominant literary traditions within their cultures. Nhã Thuyên has been actively engaged in community building with marginalized writers in Vietnam who are neither state-sanctioned poets, nor necessarily opposition writers. Joopaka Subhadra’s work includes critique of the Telugu literary tradition’s caste exclusions. After Annasoltan Kekilov, a twentieth century dissident Turkmen writer, filed a complaint about state corruption and misogyny with Soviet authorities, she was forcibly committed to a mental asylum where she spent the rest of her life. Her manuscripts were disappeared.

Many kinds of silence attend these works, including the active repression of a writer’s voice in Kekilov’s case, and in the more pervasive, invisible silencing of nonEuropean writing in Anglo-American literary translation culture. But productive silences might be found here, too. Perhaps all translation is in conversation with silence, with aspects of an original text that cannot be conveyed in a new language. Much can be said about what gets lost in translation. For me it’s also vital to honor that gap as a condition of what it means to be worldly. If you care about others—if you genuinely respect their languages, cultures, their difference—then you must take really good care of silence and not merely close the door on what escapes you or confuses you. Moreover, most of the works selected for this feature are poems. And isn’t silence the undertow in all poetry?

A common element in these pieces is attunement to place and the natural world. Land is in these poems, and the wind, the rain, the sea. The stutter of cliffs, circling birds, barking dogs. The voices of collective local experience as well as one speaker’s ordinary desire to be recognized as they are: a person, with the memory of a fish, who forgets to protest and only wants to live. What do you hear in these works? Where do they sing? Where are they silent? Where do they leave you silent? Can you feel, as I do, how strange a word like “here” can be, how it must always be translated from writer to reader, from reader to reader, from one place to another, from one instant to the next, so that we sense the embodied intimacy and also the drift when someone says, “a place in the world, here”?


To read the entire special feature "A Place, Here", curated by Madhu H. Kaza, purchase issue 34.2.