Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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July 10, 2007
"Traduttore, traditore"

We have the "translator-traitor" name-throwing always behind us. And I think we might very well come to it openly.

Perhaps it is not so bad to be called traitors.

Many of us have become used to this. We have to translate news; as the government says, to kill is to save, to go in to pull out, and so on. We have been translating all the time.

And we are called   traitors: many of us are called traitors for being against wars and so forth, because what treason is it to translate?

It is some kind of mandarin thing to which we are traitors, but underneath that and I think -- to get to the music here -- one must dive far underneath into a place where we share experience.
from the great Muriel   Rukeyser's "The Music of Translation,"

found in The World of Translation: Papers Delivered at the Conference on Literary Translation, held in New York City in May [11-15,] 1970, under the auspices of the P.E.N. American Center
(1971, P.E.N. American Center)

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,
I mean:

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?


According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization services, only 650 Vietnamese arrived from 1950 to 1974.

[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

Saturday, May 2: Kent State ROTC building burned

Sunday, May 3: U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew on "Face the Nation" (CBS-TV): "We know we can't win a ground war in Asia."

Monday, May 4: Kent State shootings

Tuesday, May 5: "Freeway March" in Seattle's University District.

Wednesday, May 6: Irish goverment ministers (including the late Charles Haughey) sacked over "Arms Trial" allegations of illegal weapons importation to the IRA.

Thursday, May 7: In response to days of worsening student riots, California Governor Ronald Reagan's shutdown of university campuses begins.

Friday, May 8: Hard Hat Riot against student protestors in NYC

Saturday, May 9: over 150,000 mainly student protesters descend on Washington, D.C.; Nixon & Kissinger barricade selves in White House surrounded by armed guards and machine guns.

Sunday, May 10: anti-war student protester sets himself on fire in San Diego

Monday, May 11: FBI secretly proposes to local cops a "disruptive-disinformational operation" against the Black Panthers in San Francisco and Oakland.

Tuesday, May 12: "Darin Invasion"-era Bobby Darin [blog here!] at LA anti-war rally announces "Phone for Peace" campaign.

Wednesday, May 13: Beulah ("We're not raising our kids to go fight your war") Sanders of National Welfare Rights Organization occupies (.pdf) (or "liberates") HEW offices

Thursday, May 14: Elmer Dixon appears before U. S. House of Representatives in its hearings (.pdf) on the Seattle Black Panther Party, invokes the Fifth Amendment in response to every question.

Thursday-Friday, May 14-15: Police gun down students in Jackson State killings.

[OK, I know what "you" are thinking:

What does the above chronology really explain?

Chronologies are great things, because when you create and present one, you can kid yourself into thinking that you have actually explained something.

So, a chronological list is a red flag.

You can always tell when certain people are anxious and about to realize that they are sinking into a bog of confusion, because they start to put things into chronological order. A timeline creates a false sense of order. Construction of a timeline has the same effect on some confused people as does swallowing on the sly a little pill of anti-anxiety medication.

Why do you think that so many holy scriptural books being with chronologies and genealogies? Someone might answer that this is because the book writer is about to attempt to lull and bamboozle the reader, the more easily to sneak past them a heaping pile of bulls--t.

TiR knows that its readers are too smart to fall for such a transparent ploy. Its readers have learned long ago immediately to navigate away from this page as soon as they see the start of a chronological list of something.

Therefore you are not even reading this paragraph.]

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 . . . .

It's Christian   Morgenstern's "Fish's Night Song
[Fisches Nachtgesang]."
                ∪  —  ∪  —
                ∪  —  ∪  —
       ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —
       ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —
       ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —
       ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —  ∪  —
                ∪  —  ∪  —
                ∪  —  ∪  —
That can be translated, yes, but you can only do it by opening and shutting your mouth or anything else you have.

But that is it.

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.