Between Us: Lily Robert-Foley & David Hadbawnik

In this series, we listen in as Drunken Boat’s renowned translators talk with one another about art, craft, and the role of translation in the world.

Lily Robert-Foley teaches English at the University of Anger, France. She recently completed a doctorate on the translation of extra-terrestrial languages. She is the author of a book of poetry-critique-collage (Corrupt Press, 2013), graphemachine, a chapbook of visual poetry (Xerolage, 2013), the North Georgia Gazette (Green Lantern Press 2009), and Jiji, a book of prose poems and conceptual writing. She also writes and performs choral poetry internationally, and is the mastermind of The Very Rich Hours, a prog-pop group based in Paris, France.

David Hadbawnik is a poet, translator, and medieval scholar. His Aeneid Books 1–6 was published by Shearsman Books in 2015. In 2012, he edited Thomas Meyer’s Beowulf (Punctum Books), and in 2011 he co-edited selections from Jack Spicer’s Beowulf for CUNY’s Lost and Found Document Series. He is the editor and publisher of Habenicht Press and the journal kadar koli and a co-editor of eth press, which focuses on creative interactions with medieval texts. Recent poems and translations have appeared in Blackbox Manifold, seedings, and Drunken Boat.


David Hadbawnik: First, I want to say that I find your talk — experiment, treatise, I’m not sure what to call it — provocative and generative in the best way. It’s really wonderful, and your ideas about translating and queering as metaphor get at a lot of what I’ve been trying to think through and articulate in my own approach to translation — and I hope and suspect that’s true for others as well.

Lily Robert-Foley: You too! I love the way your translations mix classically “beautiful,” touching moments with a sort of casual, laid-back orality. You create the outlines of a contemporary world, and then these little nuggets of verse magic pop out here and there like lights coming on in a city at night. I’m like, “oh! there’s one, oh look another one!” And of course I so much appreciate this approach to text, and testing what is possible with text in this time when we are kind of caught between something like an rationalist vision of text as unity, and a medieval or postmodern idea of text as kaleidoscoping fractals, unauthorized perpetual transformation.

DH: You push at the terms “translation” and “queer” and you point out what I think is the key similarity between them as verbs: they involve “conflation of creation and critique, of reading and writing…a creation and a critique that happen simultaneously…translation interprets a text as it rewrites it and queering puts into question without erasing.” (And by copy-and-pasting this selection of your text I’ve already queered/translated it, in a sense.) The terms are moving targets, in a sense; every translation enacts some idea about translation as it translates, and the same could be said about queering. Doesn’t this make it difficult, if not impossible, to say anything about either of them? Is there a way to talk about translation/queering without at the same time doing them, engaging, enacting them? Should we even want to?

LRF: Short answer, no. But I’m speaking for myself. And part of the “ethics” of translation, and I hope of queering as well, is that there is always more than one right answer. Which is not to say that there isn’t always also more than one wrong answer (this is what I try to explain to my translation students). In my line of inquiry and in my writing (the same thing), I take everything as performative (“enacting” as you say), and therefore, perpetually transforming, and also then proliferating. It’s a little bit of a mind-fuck. But, like everything, it’s not as original as we think. I can think about Peirce’s signs that are always signs of signs of signs of signs, and forever without every coming still.

That said, I think that, in any area, the collectivity of researchers working together tend to come to certain agreed-upon lynchpins of stability. So that I can leave the conference and come back next year and we still know what we’re talking about. Personally, again, I’m not really sure we’re ever talking about the “same thing” and I also don’t really care. (As César Aira says, “we never know what we mean, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter,” 130, translated by Chris Andrews). However, I totally respect people who do care, and am profoundly grateful for research that does postulate certain fixed points in the real or elsewhere (History, Science etc.)

I wonder, for you, because you mention in your translator’s note that your creative project is connected to your research on Chaucer: what is the difference for you between an academic discourse and a creative one? I feel like, in general, people tend to save “performative” (“enacting,” doing what it says at the same time as it says it and thereby transforming it) iterations for creative work, but it seems as though this creative work has much nourished your academic work. Is there space for performative discourse in academic research? Could poetry, translation, or the translation of poetry be considered “research”? And if so, what is the future of Science?

DH: It seems to me that there’s a new generation of academics emerging who, for a variety of reasons, don’t adhere to sharp and clear boundaries between their creative work and more formal research. Unfortunately, part of the reason for that is the erosion of the academy itself — it’s difficult to find a job, and you have to be a lot more flexible and versatile as you pursue a career than you would have maybe ten, twenty years ago. Especially within the medievalist world, younger scholars are open to the idea that you might engage with the material by tweeting about it, blogging about it, and having a playful, fluid, and public relationship with your research, above and beyond writing articles for traditional journals.

For me, it’s absolutely necessary to keep things both rigorous and fun, and translation is the best way to do that. It’s not as wide-open and free as writing poetry from scratch, but it’s a lot freer than researching and writing an academic essay. And the insights I’ve gained from translation have certainly helped my research — it’s impossible to ever really know what a poet is doing, but you can learn more and different kinds of things by getting on board, so to speak, and taking a ride in the poem, its language, rhythms, images, and so on. Whether it leads to a concrete “discovery” that can be turned into an academic commodity is very much beside the point; we’re told as beginning scholars that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake, but then almost immediately the academy begins to resemble the hustle and bustle of the corporate world. Hopefully, this is the future of Science — something we’re able to do because we love it, and make it up as we go along.

Which leads to my next question for you: One of the frustrating things about translation theory, to read through the long history of it, is that one seems constantly plunged into this comparative “economy” — you get at this especially with the Judith Butler quote, but there are traces of it in every statement about translation, from Benjamin to Borges to Nabokov, and so on. Evaluating the relative “faithfulness” of a translation, what is “lost” or “gained” in translation. Is there a way to avoid this sort of zero-sum thinking? Is queering, or some third term or concept, helpful in this sense? I have always liked Borges’ ideas about translation because he’s so playful about it, but I wonder if there’s a way to push beyond the binaries even he expresses.

LRF: Yes, definitely! One of my biggest pet peeves about translation theory is this rhetoric surrounding “loss” and “gain.” Of course, on the one hand, you have the unscholarly notion of “loss” in translation, which is the discourse held by most people who don’t know anything about translation or translation studies. And so, in the past forty years or so, translation scholars have tried to shift this to be more “positive” to talk about “gain.” But, um, hello! Translation is horizontal, and whatever is lost in one text is gained in the other and vice versa — for starters! And then we have to talk about the back and forth of texts, their proliferation, and the deconstruction of binaries… But I think I’m preaching to the choir!

There are, of course, many alternatives to this “mathematical,” “market-place,” binary thinking about profits and losses. My prerogative is the performative invention of new metaphors: that in the perpetually renewing generation of metaphors we can effectively change the way we think about things (although a critique of the capitalist hunger for surplus haunts and troubles me on this). I explore a bunch of this in a digital chapbook I very recently published on essaypress.org, Money, Math and Measure, where I talk about the math of the supplement, proliferation, bad or impossible math, scams, speculation, debt, gifts, and lot of other things. We could also think about this in terms of how we count people. My doctoral dissertation developed the notion of a “third text,” a place both difficult to count and to chart. I argue that the economics of translation troubles the rhetoric of economy.

I believe some of these issues are present in your work as well. Both of our work seems to be undergirded with a desire for political resistance. These are, indeed, troubling times. What are the politics of reading (Virgil) in your translation? Tangentially, is there a critique of the political-economic machine in the way we count texts? Susan Bassnett says that Borges would have loved the internet — and I had much occasion to think of this when reading your work. You make frequent references to internet-based interactions, “liking” and whatnot. I love this! Perhaps you could elaborate on how the horizon of textual diffusion (diffraction?) on the internet is connected to your translation process. Is our notion of text now more similar to a pre-printing press notion? Is textual fixity a political issue? And if so, what might its concrete, political reality look like? I guess I’m also asking the question of the connection between politics and textual production.

DH: In After Lorca, Jack Spicer writes, “Tradition…means generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem, gaining and losing something with each transformation — but, of course, never really losing anything.” “Tradition” is its own slippery and problematic term, as Raymond Williams would remind us. But it’s easy to imagine this statement extending to translation as well, especially given that After Lorca is Spicer’s foundational project of creative translation. I can’t help thinking of it as I take in your provocative notion of the “third text” and “troubling the rhetoric of economy.” What also haunts Spicer’s statement is the idea of a community of poets, no matter how far apart in time and space, working together, agreeing or disagreeing, but always contributing in some way to the vast project of poetry. And in a striking way, a model of this idea is what I find when I look at Virgil’s Eclogues. In “What Is Pastoral?”, Paul Alpers writes, “the representative anecdote of pastoral is the lives of shepherds,” and he later adds that, in the first Eclogue, “Virgil recognizes the human causes and conditions of the idyllic mode of pastoral.” In other words — remembering that Eclogue 1 depicts the very different situations of two shepherds, one who will have to leave his fields and flock, one who is allowed to remain thanks to the largess of a ruler — pastoral poetry is political and communal right from the start. I was trying to give a sense of that, on a very basic level. Instead of meeting up in a meadow, today people hang out online to gossip and argue and share views. This became a way for me to translate not only the language of the poem, but also its structure and creative, communal, political situation — and hopefully comment on it, as well.

And to address the last part of your question: It’s interesting that the information overload of digital life has in some ways brought us back around to a more medieval, democratic relationship to “original” texts. We can make choices along a spectrum of texts and meanings, rather than relying on a single authority. And, as I think your question implies, that’s inherently political. I don’t know what to make of it, really. I wrote this translation before the past year of political upheaval — “fake news” and Brexit and Donald Trump — but there’s a sense of the danger of that haunting my version of the Eclogues, I think. Hopefully, what comes through, at the very least, is that there are real human bodies at stake, beneath all the “likes” and the sharing and the theory.

Back to you: The common term in your consideration of “translation” and “queer” is “theory.” Do we need it? I’m not just trying to be contrarian here; well, maybe a little. As a medievalist, I’m drawn to a time before theory. Which I realize is a bit of a false lure, because of course writers always had ideas about how and why they were translating. But there was no “translation theory” as such for, say, a writer like Chaucer. And it strikes me that both terms, as you describe them, work against any proscriptive theoretical concept. Doesn’t “theory” imply that some concept has been thought or worked out, and we can now use it, apply it? Does “theory” have a rigidifying effect, and if so, is there some other way to think about these things that is more fluid? You seem to hint at this when you suggest we think about translation and queering as “metaphors.”

LRF: Yes, I think the term “theory” is helpful, if only to anchor it in a tradition. I would say that, for translation, it is important to distinguish practice from theory — certainly pedagogically. And also, the field of translation studies (although, is this the same as “translation theory”? of course not, but I don’t think it’s necessary to belabor the distinction here) has only recently started really coming into its own as a discipline. And as much as we can problematize the organizing of “disciplines” (and the word “discipline!”), I think its arrival on the scene of the humanities has had many positive, concrete consequences for thinking about language, culture, politics (everything really!) through the lens of difference and interaction. There is so much work to be done, and I think the moniker “theory” allows us to gain ground, institutionally speaking.

As for queer theory, I would say the distinction is even more urgent. I’m thinking of a study day on Queer Theory and Comparative Literature that I attended in September — where two young people sat in the corner all day and listened to a bunch of old academic windbags (including myself) hash out texts and theory, and at the end of the day, they were like, “Ok, so what’s your definition of Queer?” and, escape artists that we are, we’re like, “There isn’t one; it’s mobile, it’s fluid, it’s performative bla bla bla.” And they were like, “Well, that’s kind of a problem for us, because it’s our identity and we’re in a vital process of self-identifying that is necessary to our very survival.” (So basically, “go fuck yourselves.” They didn’t say it like that, but they could have, and they would have been right to.) What I mean to say is that “Queer” is a powerful everyday reality for lots of people who have absolutely nothing to do with Queer Theory, nor should they necessarily if they don’t feel like it. This is a fascinating and urgent point of tension in activism, but I won’t go into it here. But it necessitates distinction and specificity.

That said, I certainly understand why you would want to move towards other ways of thinking about things, apart from “theory.” For me, the word “theory” is still useful, but I definitely am thinking about it in a different way, as something elastic and deconstructible. At the moment, I’m really interested in upsetting the hierarchy between Theory and Fiction, for example, and am currently working on a project using notions from Feminist Science Fiction to read translation and metaphor theory. In other words, I think theory is useful, but only insofar as it gives us the raw material for creative deconstruction. The etymological roots of “theory” tie it to “speculation.” I guess I think of theory as a sub-genre of speculative fiction :P.

I want to finish with a question regarding translation and creation. Of course, translating a creative text is a creative endeavor (even translating an uncreative text can be sometimes). However, the kind of translation that you practice here goes one step further and deforms the text in an outranspian kind of experiment. I read your translations as originals — that is to say, I didn’t read them stereoscopically comparing them to the originals. I don’t know Virgil. Traditionally, this is the point of translation: to allow texts to be read by people who don’t know the language of the original. So what is the point of creative translation? Is it different for canonical texts like Virgil and unknown or untranslated texts? Did you write two translations? One original and one stereoscope translation?

DH: Well, I had been translating the Aeneid for a long time, and for that (ongoing) project, I had developed a practice of doing a “gloss” or “raw” translation that proceeds more or less word for word, and then going back over it later and working it into a more creative, dynamic, experimental place, hopefully without losing the sense and pacing of the Latin. For this work on the Eclogues, I wanted to play it much faster and looser. So I would read over the poems in Latin and just try to get a feel for them, and then, without anything like a word-for-word step in the process, head straight into the poetry-making phase, letting it take me wherever it wanted to. I don’t know what the point is! Certainly I don’t feel as bound by the concept of “faithfulness” when it comes to translating Virgil as I would translating an unknown text by a more contemporary author, because, again, anyone is free to look up a dozen different English translations of Virgil online and compare them, if they want to. There’s no translational need that my work is filling, and that frees me considerably. And I hope it frees the reader as well — to read Virgil or not, to imagine different avenues the text and its rhetorical situation might take. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that one of the tasks of the contemporary translator is to stretch a text as far as it can possibly go, in any direction, just to see what happens. Shatter the definition of translation in order to save it, if you will.

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