Translation is a kind of grasping. In her volume Nay Rather, Anne Carson considers that which stops the hand from even attempting to reach out. There is an essay entitled “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” with a poem en face and artwork beneath the poem. In the essay, she considers metaphysical silences in translation—when something is untranslatable. Carson writes, “Metaphysical silence happens inside the words themselves,” giving an example of a Greek word of Homer’s creation—“you can pronounce [its letters] but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.” With thoughtful metaphysical silence, we have an author/translator/artist marshaling us to an unknown, a blank, asking us to interact with the unknown otherwise. Carson writes,
No one has ever seen a black hole yet scientists feel confident they can locate its essence in the gravitational collapse of a star—its massive violence, this something which is also, spectacularly, nothing.
A “massive violence” that is “something” yet “also, spectacularly, nothing” gives me pause. The title “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” gives me pause.
I grew up in a place where the majority of those arrested by law enforcement were Latinos, often those who were non-English speakers. The Sheriff instructed his officers to read Miranda Rights in that language foreign to the alleged perpetrators. He was elected Sheriff in 1992, and still holds that post. I live in a country that has incarcerated more of its citizens than most nations in the world. Adam Gopnik writes, “Over all, there are now more people under ‘correctional supervision’ in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.” And, “More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives.”
I’m writing this just after the Baltimore uprising, after time and time again many women and men of color (often black) are killed before even being arrested (wrongly or not) and never given this right of silence. Or in the case of Freddie Gray, his death post-arrest, perhaps he was. But all of these people seemed to have died, forced to permanent silence, because, as poet Kima Jones writes, “The body is evidence. —The police.”
The whole world feels tainted with this trouble right now—even the usually glorious and untouchable Anne Carson.
There is one arrest in this essay—that of Joan of Arc. During Joan’s trial (spoken in Middle French, transcribed, translated into Latin), her judges focused on the voices that gave her directives fostering her militaristic and heretical behavior. They attempted to give the voices shape—“Joan despised the line of inquiry and blocked it as long as she could.” When asked, “In what language do your voices speak to you?” Joan responds, “In better language than yours.” Carson’s favorite momement is “when the judges were pressing her to define the voices as singular or plural,” and Joan explains, “The light comes in the name of a voice.” Carson: “[This] is a sentence that stops itself. Its components are simple yet it stays foreign. We cannot own it.” Here is a woman imprisoned, with no agency, interrogated for months, who will be burned alive—yet Joan locates a means to respond transgressively, to dodge. Carson: “It is her rage against cliché that draws me to her. A genius is in her rage. We all feel this rage at some level, at some time.” Most rage I feel these days is the pendulum’s emotional upswing from despair.
I say catastrophe is an answer because I believe cliché is a question. We resort to cliché because it’s easier than trying to make up something new. Implicit in it is the question, Don’t we already know what we think about this? Don’t we have a formula we use for this?
If cliché is the status quo, I am all for catastrophe—but catastrophe on the terms of those who are oppressed rather than a catastrophe imposed upon them. It may seem cliché for oppressed populations to respond to violence with catastrophe (uprisings). But, like Joan, there are only so many means of transgression available.
No one is transcribing.
Put your body in a place authority does not want it to be. Nothing. So, begin acts of “violence” upon structures and materials that have monetary value. Lure the authority (media) so transcription begins. As much abusive translation that happens between those acts/statements and what is printed/broadcast, it is better than no transcription at all.
While Carson’s notion of metaphysical silence is one that stops meaning, it is at the hands of the artist/speaker. Here those with power marshal powerless populations’ acts/speech into silence. For, as Claudia Rankine illustrates so effectively in Citizen, the black (and brown) populations in this country are simultaneously hypervisible (policed) and invisible (neglected). It is a different kind of metaphysical silence. So when Joan responds to an inquiry with “…You asked that before. Go look at the record,” I think of how many of us, oppressed and allies of the oppressed, think something very similar with every new act of violence on a black or brown body by law enforcement that reaches media outlets. Go look at the record.
Carson ends Nay Rather with Oulipo translations (“exercises”) of a poetic fragment by the ancient Greek poet Ibykos. She uses Brecht’s FBI file, a poem by Donne, her microwave owner’s manual, for Oulipo source text. The structure is always the same: “on one hand…on the other…Nay rather,” the latter acting as a kind of volta on which each translation spins, followed by a powerful listing, attempting to define. What is in each hand and follows “Nay rather” changes, but the feeling of weighing and working to pin down is there. I imagine hands held out, like scales.
Carson writes about Francis Bacon, about how “When Francis Bacon approaches a white canvas, its empty surface is already filled with the whole history of painting up to that moment.” I want to make this sentence into an exercise of my own, swap out words with blanks, fill them in. The structure and message (approaching something that seems singular, in your possession, “empty,” but what all is underneath), is a situation far beyond art. Far beyond translation.
Carson, Anne. Nay Rather. Paris: Center for Writers & Translators, American U of Paris, 2013. Print.
Gopnik, Adam. “The Caging of America.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 39 Jan. 2012. Web.
Jones, Kima (kima_jones). “The body is evidence.—The police.” 7 March 2015, 9:38 a.m. Tweet.