Promethean Risk: The Poet as Translator | Risking It: Scandals, Teaching, Translation.

Promethean Risk: The Poet as Translator
Risking It: Scandals, Teaching, Translation.

by Kristin Prevallet

Editor's note: the following paper was presented at the 2003 Associated Writing Programs Conference as part of a panel moderated by Tom Radko of Wesleyan University Press. Radko asked panelists Clayton Eshleman, Pierre Joris, Donald Revell, and Kristin Prevallet—all poets who are regularly engaged in the taxing labor of translation—to comment on the dangers and advantages working poets face when translating the great masters of another tongue. The papers by Eshleman, Joris, and Revell can be found in the Summer 2003 Print Edition of Rain Taxi.

In reviewing a new translation of The Histories by Herodotus and The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the poet Charles Olson makes an analogy to a Bulldog Drummond mystery in which a man, exhausted from a day of exploring the streets of a foreign country, returns to his hotel room only to find that any trace of his existence has disappeared—the concierge doesn't recognize him, the room he was staying in has a new number on the door, and his luggage is not to be found anywhere. He begs the concierge to hear his story, but without tangible evidence of his existence, he is no one—and the concierge refuses to help him. To Olson, this scenario sums up two opposing but magnetic approaches to history—on the one hand there is the concierge who, like the early Greek historian Thucydides, is determined that in order for any event to be legitimate, there must be facts, tangible evidence, proof that it happened. On the other side is Herodotus who, according to Olson, would have taken the man's oral word for it, and represented his story as fact. He would have, in other words, respected the man's humanity. Confused as he may have been, certainly he knew where he left his luggage and therefore was an authority on his own whereabouts. Herodotus relied heavily on oral accounts and rumors, ritualistic traditions and folklore and took plenty of imaginative leaps when evidence was lacking. It was his humanity that Olson appreciated, the fact that to Herodotus, "the voice is greater than the eye (343)."

With interpretation as their nexus, certainly history and translation have a lot in common—dealing on the ground level with how language itself works, both must consider the authenticity, the truth-value, and the inevitable subjectivity of source texts. Like the historian, the translator is faced with a decision: to be Thucydides saying, "stick close to what the original text is doing. Try and rearrange the furniture in the room to look exactly as it looked before you began muddling with it." Or, the translator can choose to think like Herodotus who might say, "every translation is like being in a room that is constantly in the process of being rearranged. It is impossible to get the room to look exactly like it did originally. The furniture always has to be in a new place because any trace of the original room is itself subject to perspective."

Given either model, the original text is going to be changed. No matter what, it will be put through a kind of time/space warp and come out altered, disfigured, marred; (or, in some cases made over, new-and-improved, fixed.) Translation, reliant as it is on interpretation, essentially engages language's limitations to reveal either absolute authenticity or unbiased truth. Therefore, as the post-structuralists would say, the task of the translator is to reveal the play, the language games, at work in the act of translation itself. And yet, there are risks involved in straying too far from the text, from taking too many liberties, from imposing too much of our own human will—poetic imposition and play—on the remodeling of the text.

As the title of this panel (Promethean Risk: The Poet as Translator) suggests, perhaps these risks are related to the fate of the good-hearted but ultimately failed translator Prometheus, who thought that fire stolen from the Gods could work to further human knowledge. Tragically, (at least according to Shelley) instead of using it to develop science and culture, humans used it strategically in war to gain power over each other. Something was certainly lost in the translation, and for his faith in humanity, the translator had to pay with his liver.

How this mythological parable of tricked gods and selfish humans is being played out in current political events is yet another story of the risks of translation. After all, we're living right now under the rule of arrogant God-impostors, an administration of war-hawks who took enormous liberties in the manipulation and distortion of texts in order to justify an attack on Iraq, for which there was no solid evidence and certainly no immediate urgency. Many documentary distortions were presented as Truth. There were pages of manufactured reports and twisted interpretations of texts and evidence: Although the actual document submitted by Iraq to the UN in December 2002 was 12,000 pages long, the Security Council's 10 elected council members only received 3,500 pages of it—and of those pages, crucial information regarding the sale of weapons by US and European countries had been "blacked out," according to the Washington Post. Then, On March 7, 2003, Colin Powell gave a speech to the U.N. in which he attempted to prove that Iraq was duplicitous, using forged documents fabricating some arms shopping spree in Africa and a graduate student's paper from ten years (complete with spelling errors and inaccuracies) outlining Iraq's movement of weapons. A week before Powell's speech, there was a tape alleged to be the voice of Bin Laden which was broadcast throughout the Middle East (with the notable exception of Iraq). The tape was instantly translated and summarized by a variety of internet and cable news sources. MSNBC online reported that "the message also called on Iraqis to rise up and oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who is a secular leader." (The story I read on Yahoo had the headline, "bin Laden Calls Hussein an Infidel.") But an hour later, Powell comes up with a different spin: that in spite of bin Laden's disdain for Hussein, in fact this tape solidly proves the connection between bin Laden and Hussein. All Powell had to do was say the word, and the news agencies instantly re-wrote the story, altering their original interpretation and ultimately deleting the "Infidel" sentence entirely. Amazing. When there are no documents, create them; and as for the documents that do exist but don't reflect the official version of history, destroy them. This is a post-structural joke of textual reflection in which the mirrors themselves can't figure out which one holds the original image.

But these are just a few of many examples of the textual risks that are still being taken by this supposedly God-fearing administration. Promethean risks (in which the assumption of high power is democratically distributed to the people) have been subtly transfigured into Satanic ones (Milton's Satan, Prometheus's alter-ego, who stole powers from the gods not to benefit humanity but to benefit himself). I keep waiting for the good—gods, the ones we pray to for hope, not power, to descend and chain the real infidels to the Washington Monument, sending their battalions of eagles to slowly pick at the vile-infested hearts of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz. Or maybe Prometheus can come down from the mountain and return our fire to Zeus. Now that we're using it to build weapons and wage war over the existence or non-existence of weapons that may or may not be used to wage war, it is as if the weapons themselves are in charge. How is this logical?

To return to the immediate topic of this panel: a text undergoing translation is always in danger of being scandalized—meaning, in danger of being used to prove or disprove allegiances to nation, identity, boundaries, or larger structures of power. (This use of the term "scandal" comes from Susan Stewart's book, Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). For example, in the ballad tradition there are several players involved in the creation of scandals—one example is the English ballad collectors who came along in the 19th century, and the Scottish "folk" who, since the 12th century, had been singing ballads without writing them down. The ballad collectors, instead of transcribing the songs directly from the folk who sang them, re-wrote the songs as embellished English verse—an undertaking that ultimately served nationalist and certainly colonial endeavors. Not only did these collectors establish another class of readers for ballads (stealing their soul away from the largely illiterate people of the hills who sang them and publishing them in chapbooks for drawing room entertainment), but since many ballads originated in Scotland, this tearing at the root of tradition allowed England to achieve a certain cultural as well as political and economic dominance. What these scandals of poetic translation bring into question is the problem of authenticity—in the case of Scottish ballads, there is no definitive author, no "Homer of the hills" who composed the ballads and then set about spreading them orally among the people. What there is, over the course of over 500 years, is a constantly evolving genre as each singer of each generation in each town took license to change the ballad at her or his will, passing down a song that held a trace of some original, authentic ur-ballad, but in reality was a hybrid composition—a constantly evolving translation. However, although the songs were constantly being reinvented, they ultimately served the purpose of renewing and rejuvenating an oral tradition in order to preserve cultural memory from generation to generation. And this is very different from the motives of the ballad collectors, who translated the oral tradition into English verse with the intention of wiping away the identity of the people who originally sang them.

In his essay "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights," Borges writes about the scandalous translations of The Thousand and One Nights, a text which was thoroughly abused by English translators who projected every sort of insecurity onto it, removing any iota of tone and logic from the original Arabic and embellishing it with their own moral dilemmas—one generation of translators taking out scenes that were deemed too offensive, and another generation embellishing erotic scenes beyond belief in order to titillate English social codes. This is a text that suffered extreme impositions of poetic license—every translator defaced and maimed the text a little differently than the last, depending on the agenda (either his own, or England's) to which he was complicit. Like the ballads, Orientalism itself is another scandal, aided by overly poetic translators, who would take such liberties with Asian and Middle Eastern texts as to render the rhetoric and logic of the original language into nothing more than placid parlor reading. Again, there is always an imposition of a larger social and political context onto the original text as it is being translated. There is no translation without a motive—and although in these so called progressive modern times our gestures towards the original text are more self-conscious and sensitive, still we play out larger contexts in how we approach texts.

In her essay "The Politics of Translation," Gayatri Spivak writes about the responsibilities that we have as Western readers and writers to question our position and privileged identity over, in particular, third-world translated texts. "Translation is the most intimate act of reading," she writes. "I surrender to the text when I translate." Surrendering to the text means careful attention and awareness of both the logic and the rhetoric of the original language—an attention that would be difficult to master without doing the hard work of actually immersing oneself in the culture and language of the text being translated. Ammiel Alcalay, in an interview with Benjamin Hollander, writes that learning another language is crucial in the agenda to "stretch the American context to engage with experiences that are not made to fit existing models"(184). To Alcalay it is crucial to resist mono-lingualism and to "give permission to other languages, literatures, and cultures to come into the space of the language you happen to be writing in."

There are numerous ways that, in creative writing classrooms, teachers and students get around this issue of intimacy, and set about translating texts from languages they know nothing about. For example, homophonic translations, or exercises in which students are asked to mix and match four or five different translations of a text in order to come up with their own, English compromise. In a way, these kinds of translations (when they are done as a first, and last step) are another kind of scandal—they reduce the original text to a linguistic experiment and teach nothing new about language. What they ultimately teach is that anything can sound good in English. The dangers that poet-translators are capable of inflicting onto texts when our own poetics expand to overtake an original is a question, once again, of authenticity and ownership. Who has the right, the permission granted, to rewrite...and for what purpose? What kind of colonization is being taught when texts are handled in this way, and what nation, empire, or ideology, does it mimic?

This issue of translation in the classroom brings Spivak to call for students to do the work of learning both the rhetoric and logic of a foreign language—most specifically a third-world foreign language—before translating it or even before reading translations from it. To apply this to creative writing programs, I will simply question how many creative writing programs have any language requirement attached to them at all. This question is one that I ask myself in reference to the BFA writing students I used to teach at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. They all wanted to be writers—they all wanted the assurance from me that they had what it takes to be published. And yet, how to "have what it takes" is the last thing I wanted to be teaching them. My goal was that they began to question their motives in wanting to be writers, and from there, begin to critically examine how language works in the larger world around them. Translation offers multiple ways for young writers to be estranged from their language, to put their cockiness aside and actually feel what it is like to struggle with a text, to contextualize their own writing projects within an understanding of language as a complex system of meaning-making.

And yet, I know that most of these students will never learn a foreign language. So what does that mean? That I avoid teaching translation all together, or do it in an "experimental" way that teaches them good lessons about textuality, but nothing about larger cultural and political ways that culture and language work to create meaning? I am torn about how to handle translation in the classroom—Herodotus and Thucydides both taunt and challenge me to come up with a solution to this dilemma.

Before relaying my personal solutions, I'd like to introduce myself and talk briefly about my own first encounter with translation—since certainly it shapes my thinking about these issues. I can say with some confidence that translation changed my logical framework, and thereby changed the entire direction of my work as a writer. I had three years of high-school French, and spent two semesters of my sophomore year in France. While I was in France, I was taking language courses but ironically ended up failing them—literally. I did learn how to read and speak French with some proficiency, but probably due to the difficulties I had with learning the logic of French grammar, have never been able to write in French. My failing of French was probably due to the fact that at that time, although I knew I wanted to be a writer, I had not yet encountered any teachers who stressed the idea that poets could do more than write poems.

I returned from Paris to the University of Colorado, where in my desire to hang out with the bohemian-cool students, I encountered Ed Dorn, Stan Brakhage and Naropa, and saw my first glimpses of the kind of poetry and intellectual pursuits that I still follow to this day. Reading Rothenberg's ethnopoetic anthologies, hearing Brakhage talk about Duncan's poetry as akin to the kinds of explorations he was making in film, working on Ed Dorn's magazine Rolling Stock and from there learning about Clayton Eshleman's Sulfur magazine—I picked up on the amazing revelation that the poems I was writing (mostly about love affairs gone awry, or Proust-imitations on lofty things I knew nothing about) were terrible. Dorn stressed the necessity of young writers to embark on what Olson calls a "saturation job" of one particular author or subject. I chose surrealism, and from there developed my first poetic project, of translating Ernst's collages into prose poems.

I went to SUNY Buffalo for my M.A., and it was there that, quite accidentally, I re-encountered French as poetic tool, as something that would enable me to hear my own language, my own poetry, in new ways. The poet Peter Gizzi, who was at that time working on editing Jack Spicer's letters, went to Paris and found a poem by Jean Cocteau called "L'ange Heurtebise." (Heurtebise is the angel-guide in Cocteau's film Orphee who helps him navigate the underworld. Heurtebise also plays an important part in Spicer's poetic cosmology.) Peter asked me to translate this text, although I had never translated anything before. This text was basically written by Cocteau when he was on an opium high to soothe his grief over the death of his lover in WWI. It is a text that abounds in word play, puns, and illogical leaps that end up exposing language as suspicious, alien, and not to be trusted. It took me months to translate it, a total immersion into the rhetoric and logic of French that I had never before conceptualized. I said earlier that translating this text changed my writing forever—and it did. More than anything else, it developed my ear, the way I heard English and the way I then explored tone, measure, and line in my writing—and made me want to pursue poetry as a means of investigating the way language is used to shape my relationship to the world, as an artist and as a thinker.

I'd now like to give some practical suggestions for ways in which translation can be handled in the space of the creative writing workshop. Assuming that creative writing programs will likely never adapt a foreign language requirement, and assuming that most MFA writing programs are comprised of primarily English speaking writers (who, if you ask them, maybe took a few years of French or Spanish or German in high-school), the question is how to engage students to open up their field of knowledge and expand their assumptions about what poetry is and can do. Also, translation exercises can challenge students to question English-only, question their identities as writers, and ask them to consider what "responsibilities" writers have in their textual dealings.

These ideas are centered around a classroom designed after what Charles Bernstein calls "Creative Reading Lab" as opposed to "Creative Writing Workshop." In all my poetry workshops I hand out a heavy dosage of texts, many of which are statements on poetics, manifestos, articulations of what the writer is doing and why. So it is always through close reading and intimacy with other texts that creative writing happens in my particular classroom. What I have done in my creative writing workshops is to make translation and issues around translation the "hub." Which means that I include a wide representation of international texts and movements (Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg's anthology Poems from the Millennium is good to teach for this reason, as is Carolyn Forché's anthology, Against Forgetting. However, finding poems printed with both the original language and the translation is more of a challenge.)

I begin with what I have been calling the "experimental" translation exercises, which again I have adapted from Bernstein's curriculum. (See Translation Phase One of my handouts, located at: I think of these experimental exercise as a means and not a ends to the translation workshop. I have seen these exercises taught in a few different writing workshops, usually in order to get students to appreciate the English language and to connect some basic post-structural dots such as: (1) that translation is impossible; (2) that texts are always open to interpretation; (3) that writing is an active practice of reading. These are all valuable lessons, but again, they are only the beginning. There is still the pervading questions of logic and rhetoric, politics and culture. To deal with this, after having students do a translation experiment, I have them collaboratively work on an actual translation. (See Translation Phase Two of link, above.) After they have worked together to produce this translation and have written a response about what can be learned navigating between two languages, they then have to do a close reading of the poem and research the poet and the country he/she is from. A close reading means looking up all of the references, exploring the cultural history of the poet's country, as well as figuring out what was going on in the world during the year or decade in which the poet was writing (even if the poet is not herself writing about politics). After doing this, the class is ready to talk about the larger cultural and political issues that many of the poets face: issues of war, exile, homeland, censorship, and how their use of language may be situated within these larger concerns.

This is just one example, and I hope to develop more as I continue teaching writing courses. My ambition is that these exercises work in some way to encourage students to pursue foreign language study on their own, and to make translation central to their own lives as writers. In other words, I would personally like students to see the contextual links between history, politics, poetry, and translation. When poets are trying to figure all this out, poetry is understood as a means of working through knowledge to arrive at a understanding of, as Benjamin Hollander formulates in a question to Ammiel Alcalay, "the boundaries we've drawn around what we left in or exclude from our understanding of poetic practice, and from how we think and act in relation to the world in a time of emergency." Alcalay, in responding to Hollander, makes a very practical analysis that provides a conclusion for the larger point I'm attempting to make in this essay: "The turning away from a grounded poetics and the backlash against its concerns in much of what is now in vogue seem to me a great loss of breadth and scope, a willingness to not only settle for less but to become domesticated and so willingly participate in, and accept, structures of power...we have pretty much come to the point of removing poetry from knowledge, and sticking it in the creative writing department." The creative writing department is not just a factory for producing poems and stories that are then published and consumed, but is a site where minds converge and think through writing about language, self, boundaries and the larger concerns of the world.


Alcalay, Ammiel. from the warring factions. Venice, CA: Beyond Baroque, 2002.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights," translated by Esther Allen. In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 34-47. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Cocteau, Jean. "L'Ange Heurtebise," translated by Kristin Prevallet. Chicago Review, (Winter 2001/Spring 2002): 181-186.

Olson, Charles. "It was. But it Ain't" in Collected Prose, edited by Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander. University of California Press, 1997.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "The Politics of Translation." In The Translation Studies Reader, edited by Lawrence Venuti, 397-416. New York: Routledge, 2000.


"Some Call Iraq Declaration Pile of Disjointed Data," Washington Post, December 18, 2002.

"Some Evidence on Iraq Called Fake: U.N. Nuclear Inspector Says Documents on Purchases were Forged." Washington Post, March 8, 2003.

Pitt, William."Osama Rallies Muslims, Condemns Hussein." Truthout, February 12, 2003.

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