Hindi poet and novelist Geet Chaturvedi wrote me a letter last year in response to my questions about the position of Hindi literature, and I was so struck by the passion of his letter that I asked if we could publish it in MPT. Geet’s letter describes the high status of English in India and the resulting inferiority felt by Hindi speakers and writers. I have been thinking a great deal about the relative status of languages because I translated a play by a Ukrainian playwright about the war in Donbass, a war in effect between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. She, a Ukrainian patriot, was writing in Russian, the language of the separatists and their Russian supporters, because her Russian play would be more readily translated and staged around the world and would therefore have more potency. In the same way Geet puts his elegant and thoughtful English at the disposal of his Hindi, he makes a case for Hindi’s validity as a literary language in the very language that stifles it.
The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura writes in her novel The Fall of Language in the Age of English that ‘There is a hierarchy among languages.’ All of us who are translators know intuitively about this hierarchy of languages: the way that languages, as well as currencies, are stacked against each other and ranked: hard and so”.
We know that English is (for the moment) a high-status language and speaking it confers power on the speaker, we know in our heart of hearts that translating a poem into English is given a disproportionate importance, that publication in English may be valued more than publication in another language. Such a very personal disappointment, that even poetry translation does not stand outside relationships of power! To say that the Slovenian, Estonian or Afrikaans translation may reach and mean something to someone in a way the English translation or original couldn’t is a correction, rather than a statement of the obvious.
Don Mee Choi, a South Korean poet and translator who has made her home in the United States, writes about this hierarchy in poetry and poetic essays. She calls South Korea a neo-colony of the United States, and all her translations of its poetry and literature are marked by this context: translation into the colonial language from the colonized language. She argues that it is not possible to escape the political context in translation, we live with it as we translate and it subtly acts on our selections of words, thoughts and rhythms. In her case she is giving voice to a smaller less influential literary culture in the powerful language of the dominant literary (and military) culture. To fail in this task is to be voiceless, dehumanized, but conversely the successful importing of Korean linguistic experience into English will mark English, make it expand to incorporate new works, rhythms, associations, and thereby new political possibilities, too.
In many ways Don Mee Choi’s openness about geopolitical forces acting on poetry and translation is exemplary. Poetry is often allowed a purity and nobility, it can appear free-floating and distanced from the grubbier and compromising world of historical determinism and foreign policy. In part this is because it is poetry’s rare ability to transcend the specific, or to work at such an oblique angle to reality that the resulting view is unrecognizable. However it would be a terrible mistake to assume that it was therefore never grounded in a specific political situation or translated into and through another.
None of us work in a vacuum, and admitting that is both a relief and the knowledge of a lifetime of care.