Thanksgiving Is Ruined
July 10, 2007
We have the "translator-traitor" name-throwing always behind us. And I think we might very well come to it openly.
from the great Muriel Rukeyser's "The Music of Translation,"
Most of the above embedded links represent me trying to entertain myself, playing around, and attempting to figure out how appropriate Rukeyser's remarks would sound, if spoken today.
She sounds to me as if she foresaw, from 35 years in advance, and plopped herself into the middle of certain post-9/11, GWOT-era, nativist, "English only," "Fortress America" tendencies.
Then again, I might be entirely misreading her.
By that, I mean: My ears are very tone-deaf.By that, I mean: I always misread and distort other people's statements with willfulness, consciousness, cruelty and malice.By that, I mean: I do it accidentally and thus horrify myself afresh every day.By that, I mean: Oh, please.By that, I mean: Whatever! [Sigh.]By that,
However, let's pretend for the sake of argument, that Rukeyser, who in the USA of 1970 spoke during wartime, put her finger on the following phenemenon: When a nation
(or a multicultural "nation of immigrants," like the USA in particular?)is at war against another nation, a possible tendency of some within nation # 1 is to believe that a way to help "win" the war is to achieve on a national level some kind of regulated mental, ideological and linguistic unity -- or purity. The polyglot is suspect.
(Her actual point seems to be that the USA's monolingual ideal in modern wartime is a regime of Orwellian doublespeak. I admittedly am taking her observation about "translation" more literally here.)
How much further would be the lengths that the USA would need to go, in today's circumstances, with today's "enemies," to achieve such purity, compared to the situation in Rukeyser's 1970 USA?
[Consider:According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization services, only 650 Vietnamese arrived from 1950 to 1974.vs.[Yes, I know that a truer 1970-era statistic would be the size of the population in the USA that a paranoid Nixon thought to include Communist sympathizers.]In 2000, 1.2 million people reported an Arab ancestry in the United States.]
Different question: How "appropriate" was it for Rukeyser, almost alone among her fellow conferencers, to mention the Vietnam War in a conference of scholars in NYC in mid-May 1970? More generally, was it not weird that she would have reminded her colleagues of armed conflict and political unrest, phenomena which one might think are far removed from the worlds of academia and study?
I have no idea. I guess the answers depends on whom you ask.
Here, however, is a chronology of some events that were going on during the first half of May 1970:
Friday, May 1: US invasion of Cambodia begins
[OK, I know what "you" are thinking:
The above is actually just a roundabout way to get to the real point of this whole post, which simply is to post some text about a poem that Rukeyser quoted, that I thought was very funny.
She went on to say:
There is only one poem in the world that I know that can really be translated. And it's the only abstract poem . . . .
The movement of Rukeyser's argument is clever.
First, she presents the issue of war among humans who speak different languages. Then she implicitly counterposes all humans, regardless of language, against another species, and its language.
The gentle suggestion here is clear -- so obvious that I should not even need to mention it.
The above can only mean that Rukeyser and Morgenstern before her foresaw and prophesied a day when humans of all nationalities would need to unite against a common, non-human enemy.
Moreover, they foresaw that the threat would come from the sea.
Could I mean ---?
Yes. The next and final trend in translation studies is apparent.
Learn to speak squid.