In Defense of Poetic Translation

Growing up, I lived between two worlds defined by two different cultures. While my father is American born, with Irish and Jewish backgrounds, my mother was born and raised in Vietnam.

In the postwar period, my father traveled to Vietnam to establish an exchange program for American and Vietnamese veterans-turned-poets. My mother, then working for the government in International Affairs, was the language interpreter assigned to his group. In many ways, I owe my existence to transnational exchange and my parents’ personal desires to explore, learn and experience first-hand a culture that was not their own. More concretely, it was their determination to overcome language barriers, to fight through obstacles of communication, that brought me into this world. Being raised in a bilingual, bicultural and binational family has shaped the way in which I approach my personal and academic studies, as I have always been curious about different ways of living within the common human experience.

When I first started studying poetry I did not think much about why exactly I was drawn to translation beyond my personal interests in language cultivated in my upbringing. It was not until recently when I read Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters (2010) that I was really forced to reflect on my academic interests. While discussing the debate over reading books in translation—Grossman tackles the common belief in higher education that works of literature should be read exclusively in their original language or else the essence or value of the work is lost—Grossman poses a question to her readers. Think about the books you have read that have been most influential in your life. What language did you read them in? If in your native language, would the reason you love that book have been lost if you had read it in a foreign language? If the book was originally written in a foreign language, imagine that you never could have read that book because you do not speak the language and a translation did not exist. Does it seem fair? Grossman’s inquiry really struck me as I thought about myself. I can trace my academic breakthrough to the moment I read Jorge Semprún’s Adieu, vive clarté (1996) and I knew instantly that I wanted to write my undergrad thesis on him. Interestingly, Semprún’s work is written in French though Semprún himself is Spanish. He chose to write his autobiographical novel, which deals with his exile in Paris during the Spanish Civil War, in French because he could not imagine portraying in writing moments of his life in a language other than the specific language he lived those moments in. As a result, his native Spanish felt insufficient.

Now in graduate school, I am most interested in how transnational dislocation and reintegration shape the ways that individuals conceive of their identities and how those complex constructions play out in their creative work. Transnational migration is intrinsically tied to language and multilinguistic identities. I think to myself, what would have happened if I had never read Semprún. No English translation exits of his work and if I could not have read it in French who knows where I would be now. Further complicating the issue is the question: If one should not read works in translation, should writers likewise not be able to write in foreign languages? I do not think that Semprún’s novel would have had the same effect on me if it had been written in Spanish because it was precisely his reflections on the difficulty of writing in French and the nostalgia for Spanish that struck me most while reading since it resonated with my own linguistic identity. Translation matters because it expands the reach of writing both for readers and for authors. For me, the importance of poetry, and of literature in general, is that it can be shared and discussed; that its effect and influence can serve as a bridge between people and cultures.

Mai

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