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Published: Tue Feb 20 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2024 Translating Arts Mysteries

Mao's poem "A White Horse Is Not a Horse" appears in AGNI 98.

“Translation,” in the contemporary sense of the word, refers to a process similar to the metamorphosis described in Ariel’s song from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Like Alonso’s bones becoming coral and his eyes becoming pearls in a “sea-change,” a paragraph of text leaves one language and enters another through monomeric alterations at the level of the word. This is in contrast to the other meaning of “translation,” which Euclidean geometry defines as “a geometric transformation that moves every point of a figure, shape, or space by the same distance in a given direction.” Although the two definitions appear to be at odds, they are intuitively and metaphorically linked: the translator lifts a text from one language and transfers it into another.

The concept of translation haunts biomedical science too, the field at the center of my professional life. Where fundamental research pursues knowledge for its own sake, translational research seeks to influence things beyond the scientific community. A new drug is lifted out of the laboratory and sent into the wider world, fulfilling the Euclidean sense of “translation.” But almost all drugs are tested and refined in animal experiments before being used in humans. Translation, in this case, entails the reconstitution of a scientific concept developed in nonhumans models. To imagine that a drug will work as well in humans as in mice is to imagine an equivalence between them: to imagine, in other words, an Arielian “sea-change” from one species to another.

Though the putative goal of translational research is to discover better therapies, the goal, in practice, is commercialization. Human bodies are the stuff of our common inheritance, but so are human purses, and in a post-capitalist world neither exists without the other. I’m reminded of a startling image from Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights (translated by Jennifer Croft), which explores, among other themes, commerce as a nexus for the double meaning of translation: to migrate and to transform. One of the vignettes in Flights follows Charlotta, the spinster daughter of a famous anatomy professor in seventeenth-century Holland. With her father, Charlotta has produced a collection of preserved human specimens using a novel fixative; their collection is being purchased by the Russian Tsar for a handsome 30,000 guilders. But despite her scientific contributions, Charlotta is historically invisible, subsumed by her role as her father’s helper: “Almost no one remembers what her name is . . . she will not go down in history alongside her father.” Now fifty, she is socially invisible too: “An old maid in black.” On a whim, she visits the port where the vessels of the East India Company are gathered, and she sees “a big, sturdy man and his naked shoulders” moving goods onto the ships:

his naked torso, tattooed, covered in colourful drawings dominated by ships, sails, half-naked women with darker skin; it is as though this man wore his life story written out on his own body, these drawings must represent his travels and lovers. Charlotta can’t take her eyes off him.

We realize that this sailor—or rather, his arm—has made an appearance earlier in the book, though chronologically later, as a preserved specimen floating in a jar:

Male, powerful (the circumference of the biceps was 54 centimetres), 47 centimetres long, cut clean with the clear aim of showing the tattoo—multi-coloured, representing with great sensitivity to proportions a whale. . . .

The sailor’s arm has, literally, been transposed from his body into a jar, where it is changed by preservatives (“a mixture of water and formaldehyde with a small amount of glycerin”) that chemically cross-link the proteins in muscle, bone, and skin. The image is both macabre and delicious as it quietly ironizes the masculine European world of commercial translation: here, it is an agent of the East India Company who is “translated,” not by motives of mercantile ambition, but seemingly by a spinster’s sensual fascination with his body.1

If translation through formaldehyde is a way to preserve the body after death, translation of the soul to heaven is a parallel attempt to preserve personhood. But what if this posthumous translation of the soul fails? This is a possibility that Emily Dickinson ponders in her poem “Because I could not stop for Death” (479), which is preoccupied with translation’s double aspect as metamorphosis and movement. Now dead and released from temporal existence, the poem’s speaker joins Death and Immortality in a carriage, which begins a journey into the afterlife:

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

After death, the soul has become separated from the daily and seasonal activities of the world, freely passing by the children “[striving] / At Recess” and the “Fields of Gazing Grain” on its journey through the hereafter. But at the stanza break the locomotion of the soul is called into question:

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

This shift in perspective from “We passed” to “He passed Us” maps the speaker’s realization that she remains circumscribed by the sun, unable to properly exit the world and enter heaven. Even if Death removes a person from the cycles of the living, Dickinson’s nightmarish suspicion is that Death’s carriage leads only deeper into the limbo of “Eternity.”

She was right to be suspicious. The idea of a successful translation—where everything changes but some essential element stays the same—might be inherently absurd. Shakespeare himself explores this possibility in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (The word “translate,” incidentally, appears more times here than in any of his other plays.) In Athens, Helena, bemoaning Demetrius’s love for her rival, wishes “to be to her translated.” But when, thanks to Puck’s love potion, Demetrius switches his affections to her, Helena is incredulous. “Wherefore speaks he this,” she asks of Demetrius’s sudden love, “To her he hates?” The play’s translations culminate in the character Bottom, a boorish amateur actor who accidentally crosses Puck’s path, having his head suddenly exchanged for that of an ass. His companion Quince exclaims:

Bless thee, Bottom! bless thee! thou art

There’s a pun at work: Bottom’s head and the ass’s head have been switched, altering Bottom’s appearance but preserving his asinine nature. Though leavened by comedy, Helena’s disbelief and Quince’s dismay underscore the absurdity and uncanniness contained in certain acts of translation.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare lets his characters happily imagine that the translations they experience are nothing more than dreams, but in his other plays, the characters are not always afforded the same consolation. Cressida, transported to a Greek camp as part of a prisoner exchange, readily translates her affections from Troilus to Diomedes in Troilus and Cressida. The shock for Troilus is monstrous; he cannot reconcile the Cressida he spies in the Greek camp with the one he pledged himself to in Troy:

This is not she. O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt: this is, and is not, Cressida.

Troilus is caught between conflicting beliefs: that Cressida’s change of affections has caused a fundamental change in her identity, and that she somehow remains the same. He is left comparing Cressida’s old avowals of love to “fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics / Of her o’er-eaten faith,” summoning, as a resolution to this paradox, the metaphor of our bodies’ daily translation of food to waste.

Troilus’s dilemma is the universal one of translators, who are all engaged in a kind of metaphysics. If a successful translation is one that preserves the essential identity of the original, how can we discover or define this essential identity? How much change changes its essence? To refuse or refute translation brings to mind those with a dogmatic respect for originals, whether an originating ideal or an originating document. But if the identity of the original is not fixed to begin with, how can we distinguish a faithful translation from a willful interpretation? Finally, the double aspect of translation as movement and metamorphosis raises a question fundamental to a globalized world: can you retain who you are after leaving home?

I wish to end with some words on the idea of the new. Something that is “new,” strictly speaking, should be born de novo, with no prior models, and free from all elements of translation. Ezra Pound’s injunction “Make it new” became emblematic of the link between novelty and poetry after critics canonized it in the 1960s. But the phrase itself is from a translation of the fifth-century BCE Confucian text Great Learning (大學) by James Legge, a nineteenth-century missionary to China.2 This backstory is not often considered alongside Pound’s famous slogan, and that omission seems to have played a crucial role in the slogan’s success. Is Pound’s injunction, then, an example of a successful translation, in this case from ancient China to the modern West, or of a failed one with something essential lost in between? Perhaps the idea of translation as a whole is illusory, and it is better to appreciate the beauties and absurdities of change than to hope, like poor Troilus, for continuity.


1. Formaldehyde fixation is a routine procedure in biomedical research. Like Charlotta, I often find beauty in these “frozen” bodies, a topic I explore in my first book of poems, Abattoir. [return]

2. The original text in 大學 is: 茍日新,日日新,又日新。[return]

Angelo Mao is a biomedical scientist and the author of Abattoir (Burnside Review Press, 2021). His poems and reviews have appeared in Full Stop, Lana Turner, AGNI, Poetry, and elsewhere. He is managing editor of DIALOGIST. (updated 10/2023)

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