“It’s Very Common for me to Constantly Switch Codes While Thinking.”
The poems in Klara du Plessis’ debut collection, Ekke, treat translation like ekphrasis, exploring in English the impossibilities of fully communicating the soul of her native language, Afrikaans. This failure of language becomes its own form, as if attempting to relate something personal and interior: the psychological or the lining of the vase. Ekke itself meaning, as stated in the books’ translation notes, “a dialectic, emphatic form of ek (I), similar to French, “moi, je . . .”
The poems in Ekke seem to be born from the friction between two languages: English and Afrikaans. When reading I found myself often witnessing both languages existing side by side, as if commenting on each other. At least to me they seem be be in a dialogue, but I’m interested in what led you to write these language-based poems and what kind of relationship the two languages have in Ekke.
Klara du Plessis:
“Friction,” “side by side,” and “dialogue” all imply a duality, but on some metalinguistic level I see English and Afrikaans as existing on a single plane, for me. I learned both languages simultaneously as a baby and this coexistence is deeply solidified in my way of thinking; it’s very common for me to constantly switch codes while thinking; it’s not that I’m translating myself, but rather that my mind flows seamlessly from one language to the other and back within a single thought. So in the poems in Ekke I try to capture this process or to experiment with its poetic potential. I love off-kilter word progressions like “knapsack” to “knapsekêrels” (meaning the weed “blackjacks”). It feels honest, like I’m not constructing an arbitrary linguistic barrier. But while allowing myself the freedom to roam, I realize that I’m simultaneously constructing a different barrier for readers. Or, put more constructively, placing Afrikaans within the context of an assumed English audience gives language the agency to complicate the freeflow of reading; language loses its sign to semantics sequence for a moment, while never being gibberish either. If you understand Afrikaans, the multilingualism collaborates to form the poems, but if you don’t understand it, its presence challenges the erratic nature of language. Language becomes “noise,” in the sense that someone like Erín Moure understands it--a kind of interference with linearity in order to broaden the scope of interpretation.
All of this is very personal and perhaps self-indulgent. There is, of course, also the fact that both are colonial languages, and that English and Afrikaans have their own fraught and antagonistic history, which is a whole other question that I’ve written about a bit elsewhere.
Often when poems or collections use non-English words (and are intended to be read by an English-speaking audience) they come with a “Translations” section at the end, as Ekke does, for the curious reader. Ekke’s translation section also lives next to its “Notes” section at the end, which clarifies the references you use throughout. As a reader, I always feel like I’m being given a choice when I know these sections are waiting for me at the end: keep reading the poem knowing I may not understand what the poet is referencing, or disrupt my reading and flip to the end to discover what was worth clarifying. So I wonder, how do you see the endnotes in Ekke as disruptors in comparison to the Afrikaans words?
Now I’m curious how you decided to read? Poems or notes first?
The endnotes are facts I want the readers to have, but I feel resigned to the translations? They felt like something I should provide, but how to do that was actually a hard decision. I spoke to Oana Avasilichioaei at one point and she’s of course a translator as well as a terrific poet; she suggested that I find a way to make the translations a creative component of equal weight as the rest of the book. While I loved the idea, my own minimalism and clean-cut rigidity cancelled out that plan, and instead I opted for the simplest solution, translating as literally as possible. The translations display no attempt at being poetic. Which is a contradiction if you think about it--the version of the poems that most North American readers can understand isn’t as pleasurable to read as the Afrikaans verse itself. I’ve likened the translations to explaining a joke. Whereas the Afrikaans itself disrupts the poems in a way that activates non-linear meaning, the translations disrupt creative reading to return to semantics, dulling. Personally I dislike having to read footnotes or endnotes, any form of flipping around in a book, so the translations are really a bit of a practical sore point.
I chose to disrupt my reading and flip back and forth because I enjoy books that play with paratext and because Afrikaans is such an unfamiliar language to me, I was curious to see what these words meant.
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There’s a beautiful section in “Someone Other Than Else” from Ekke that I think illustrates this.
is the equivalent of a mixed drink.
The first half meaning dusk,
to sip at the onset of sunset.
Yet there is literally no translation
sufficiently beautiful to convey kelk
almost the same pronunciation as the first syllable
of quelque chose, but lacking something--
the floral instinct, the tubular grace of a lilly,
the insinuation of petals opening,
fingers cupping in nocturnal gestures.
As someone who only speaks english (and some mangled french), “there is literally no translation sufficiently beautiful to convey kelk,” is something I worry about whenever I read translations, even if they don’t involve kelk specifically. And this section seems to express that worry or frustration--that there is literally no translation sufficiently beautiful. So then how do you view the results, the translations? Are they still beautiful in their own flawed, lacking way or are they like runts to you?
Aw now I feel bad about my previous slightly overstated answer re the translations, haha, they’re not runts! They’re quite literally an appendix though, in the anatomical sense. They’re not necessary, neither to the body nor to the writing and reading processes, yet somehow they do complete both the human organs and the book.
The particular example you chose is interesting though because the poem itself attempts to explain the significance of the word kelk in a way that a literal, one-word translation couldn’t accomplish (my endnote translation just says “glass”). In other words, it’s the reverse of the rest of the book, in the sense that usually an Afrikaans section within a poem would force the reader to seek an elucidation in the endnotes, whereas here the poem--while still using a different language--clarifies itself. I’m always going back to a quote by Rosi Braidotti, which my friend Jordan Howie brought to my attention, about the possibility of being multilingual within a single language (just fascinating considering the kind of deconstructive assumption of language slippage this could imply!). In a way, the section of my poem you quoted is grafting an Afrikaans word to English, turning English multilingual in and of itself.
To return to kelk, I just checked my bilingual dictionary again and it suggests: “kelk cup, chalice; calyx (of a flower); hull (of a strawberry).” Notice how even the dictionary is struggling! “Chalice,” “calyx”: these aren’t everyday words, one needs to go ahead and look them up in English too; these are definitions that need further defining. Likewise, “calyx (of a flower)”: the dictionary adds parenthetical qualifications because a single word isn’t enough. The dictionary is waxing poetic. And for my kind of brain, poetry can be more accurate in conveying a sense of a word than a rote definition anyway.
I’m not a translator in any professional capacity, but I am deeply fascinated by the interdependencies of languages, the connections and discrepancies; the instances where one language simply can’t express the same sentiments as another, the ways in which different languages could potentially complete one another if they were seen as one communicative structure rather than distinct entities. Note, for example, that while it’s difficult to translate kelk into English, French comes along as quelque chose and lends a hand, at least with pronunciation!
You may not be one, but how do you think a professional translator should be? Is it just about faithfulness to the original text, or is creativity in translating more important? Are there any translations you think are particularly good?
A combination of both faithfulness and creativity? There’s probably a place for both approaches, depending on the audience, and maybe it’s also about being honest about what the translation intends to do. I recently read Anne Carson’s 2017 version of The Bakkhai and it is amazing. But it’s also clearly a very loose translation--there is a marvellous introductory poem addition, and she does things like define words at length in the “translation” proper; she is also somehow able to include anachronisms like “crewcuts” without seeming pretentious or silly. She has a pretty special way of merging ancient and contemporary though, it’s not easily done or something I often enjoy.
On the one hand, it’s hard to tell whether a translation is good when one hasn’t read the original, especially when it comes to poetry. On the other hand, if you can’t tell that something is a translation, it’s probably good. I’m thinking of Jessica Moore’s translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which I didn’t seek out to read, but bought because I like Jessica as a person, and was then blown away by. She was able to make the language of the novel completely her own, and yet I imagine that it stays relatively true to the French too.
I really liked Mary Jo Bang’s translation of The Inferno, but it is also a very silly translation. She does away with much of the rhyme and metre and instead goes for accessibility. In her introduction she writes, “I will be most happy if this postmodern, intertextual, slightly slant translation lures readers to a poetic text that might seem otherwise archaic and off-putting.” So don’t base a book report off of it, but if you enjoy it, maybe try the original. I never did, but love thinking of her version of The Inferno as a separate, non-consensual collaborative text between Bang and Dante. Besides, he’s dead, so what does he care? Or, is there a moral obligation a translator has to the original author? Especially a deceased author who isn’t able to comment on this new version of their work.
I haven’t read Mary Jo Bang’s translation of The Inferno, although now I want to! (Partly because I am currently working on a book-length poem and researching/reading what others do with the medium.) Again, it feels to me that the obligation a translator has to the author depends on the intention of the work. Is it meant to be a copy in a different language (as much as that is possible) or a revision of or collaboration with the original text?
I rarely work directly with another writer’s work, but I do very often find inspiration in visual art. So for example in my poem “Las Meninas,” which is based to a certain extent both on Velázquez and Picasso’s paintings of that name, I relay the visual through words (ekphrasis, I suppose), but also interpret what I see. I understand my writing in this line as a form of art criticism, a way to discover things about artworks in a genre that can be free of linear argument and yet still offer a rigorous expression of it.
I have never deeply thought about the ethics of basing writing on visual art; the work of deceased authors feel like open source, and living artists have given me permission to collaborate. It’s definitely important to credit, to send readers to the artwork to look, to reach between creative mediums. Intertextuality (intervisuality?) without acknowledgement of material used simply isn’t cool.
I know we’ve been discussing much about translation, but it’s hard for me not to think of ekphrasis as another kind of translation in this context. But instead of going on more about that, in “Las Meninas,” how were you most concerned about representing the paintings? You likened your approach to art criticism, but was there also a desire to express the visual elements for the painting? To--pardon me here--translate the visual to text?
Yes definitely, I think that’s what I was trying to say earlier on. I have a very visceral relationship to visual art. When I like something I can literally feel it in my body, it’s an adrenaline kick, a huge surge of energy that often “translates” to poetry and increasingly I’m consciously seeking out that feeling to spur on my writing.
Yet if I were to call my written interactions with visual art “translations,” mine would definitely be on the looser end of the spectrum. While a poem might include some representational description, it never ends there. The artwork also serves as a source of energy, a starting point from which I move onward into weird mind terrain. People like asking about inspiration--and art is a way to launch myself into that space where I’m able to write, whether the writing is obviously about the art or more abstractly fuelled by it.
To be more concrete, there are sections of a poem like “Las Meninas” that are based on paintings and quite directly representational. Small example, but: “Las Meninas is a whole lot of little girls” (it is!). With the Picasso version of the painting, representation gets weirder though because the art itself is more abstract. To describe verbatim what he painted would be doing a disservice to the artwork. My strategy was to pileup words, to merge and mount them in a way that created a similar defined chaos to the painting: “calculated disarray / robes and the painter / all curves like a male version of woman / smaller curves / moustache / ceremonial insignia / stimulus muse / light.” There are other sections of the poem that are more interpretational, analytical, or connotative. Also, my critical thoughts and visceral experiences in relation to the artworks are included in the poem just as Velázquez included a self-portrait to the side of his canvas.
“Las Meninas” is more layered than a usual one-to-one example of ekphrasis though because Picasso did a reproduction (read translation--actually he did 58 “reproductions,” but that’s a whole other story) of Veláquez’s painting and I came along and did a verbal interpretation of both. If we flatten out this situation, it’s almost like I’m incorporating a different translation into my version; like I’m cross referencing and letting my research show.
Also, no idea what I’m going to do with it yet, but I recently wrote a sequel to the Las Meninas poem, so it’s becoming a thing?
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.