Eros as Activist
The task of the translator is to facilitate the love between the original and its shadow, says Gayatri Spivak. The poet and translator Helena Boberg (b. 1974) in this essay discusses the role of literary translation in our times. Besides translating between Danish and Swedish, Boberg has taken part in the feminist project Shaerat that for the past ten years has engaged poets from Sweden and the Middle East with a focus on translation workshops and building networks between women poets. This has entailed several visits to various countries in the Middle East in the period after the Arab Spring. Boberg has translated poetry by poets from Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
Helena Boberg lives in Stockholm. Her poetry collection ”Sinnesvåld” (Sense Violence, 2013) translated by Johannes Göransson and published by Black Ocean, U.S.A., in 2020 was among the finalists for The 2021 PEN America Literary Awards.
“To surrender in translation is more erotic than ethical,” writes the post-colonial thinker Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in “The Politics of Translation.” I suggest that ‘erotic’ be translated beyond the erotic, stretching towards being about eros and that special kind of desire that language and literature can release in a poet or translator. Spivak writes: “The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”
More than once I have translated poetry from languages that I do not understand, languages with an orthography I cannot even decipher. Most often it has been in connection to meetings and sharing sessions within Shaerat, an ever widening and ever more inclusive network of poets in Sweden and the Middle East.
Our collaboration in Shaerat has led to performative translations sparked by the meetings of writers, and mediated through a third language, English, in order to reconstruct poems in the target language Swedish. These meetings have entailed an enormously worthwhile sharing of poetry and poetics, of experiences of being active poets in the societies and contexts we work within, of experiences of being writers, experiences of the various techniques and strategies used by the patriarchal order to silence and diminish women and non-normative identities, experiences of being feminine subjects in the world—no matter how that femininity is expressed—and the shared fundamental experience of being subordinated the real universal subject ‘man’. These experiences explain why ‘women’ do not have the same perspectives, poetics, or write the same kind of poetry as their male counterparts.
In Shaerat we have lived together, discussed and worked, rested, shared our meals, and together we have created new experiences and reference points. Collectively we have pooled many months of unpaid labour in order for this to happen and to give results. With different inputs and in various ways we have taken risks to be able to meet in order to have translations see the light and be conveyed to new readers and listeners, in a new orthography, and in new situations. Shadows animated by love.
Even Spivak problematises the term ‘woman’ and calls it a subject defined by social inscription, which in turn is discriminatory and shapes language (which of course touches on the French, comparative literary concept écriture feminine). Spivak also problematises the ‘cultural’ practice of translation when poetry from Asia/South America/Africa is translated and brought into the languages of the West, since there exists a colonial hierarchy between them.
This hierarchy is an interesting issue that can be tackled in various ways. Of course, we all live under very different circumstances and we have for example, economically (through aid etc.) and military-wise a disparate history that is brutally present in the policies surrounding, for example, the Swedish weapon industry; weapons produced in Sweden from both the legal and the black market are circulating in the various conflicts in the Middle East today. Unless my world view is completely haywire, within the region Sweden is diplomatically closer to the former colonial masters and the USA than most regimes here.
Translating poetry, a genre and oeuvre that does not pay, must be driven ´by other motives than to colonise another culture, no matter how that interest is expressed. For example, one can imagine a person motivated by empathy for what we lazily call ‘the third world,’ driven perhaps by a wish to do charity or to discover and inform the Swedish reader of, as in the case of Shaerat, what could be seen as the Hidden Secrets of the Orient. The fact that these power relationships shape us and our language in ways that are hard to account for, is this reason to put down one’s pen and not want to take on the interpretative prerogative that translation entails? Is it egotistical as a Westerner from a privileged country to want to dive into these translation practices and, so to speak, fetch something from the poetry of the Other?
In her essay “Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-Neo-Colonial Mode,” the Korean American poet and translator Don Mee Choi examines inequalities between the USA and South Korea and between the English and Korean languages, which are the languages into which she translates. She claims that precisely due to these two countries’ mutual colonial history, translation becomes an act of decolonisation. Within the Shaerat project, since Sweden and I are in a totally different historical and personal relation to the countries and languages I translate into, perhaps it is farfetched to compare myself to Choi and the dominant relationship between USA and South Korea, but I still think her example can be a mirror, albeit a misted one.
I think the subjects play a role: the person who has written the poem and the one translating it. To collaborate in order to spread the written word, to jointly have an impact on the kind of poetry there is and what it looks like and who the persons are that are allowed to take up space with their art, to decide who will be able to meet to exchange experiences, to discuss poetry, life, and politics with one another. To publish poetry according to our own wishes. To give ourselves a sense of agency that is not to be taken for granted in this world, where many of us who work to create written word art are taking large risks. In several of the countries where these poets work or come from there is no freedom to meet, and both the regime and more informal organisations decide who may meet and which common interests or subjects they may address and who should have the right to speak and how.
Who would want the logic of eugenics to steer literature and poetry? These would suffocate if they did not contain elements of various subjects, languages, experiences, grammars, alphabets, thoughts, social classes, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, functionalities, religions, beliefs, politics and poetics—apart from the fact that any other than an eclectic literature or poetry is both unimaginable and laughable. It is not possible to turn back time to any false “primordial state.”
Personally, I am privileged to be able to move freely and to express myself relatively freely, but glass walls and glass roofs are in place even in the affluent context in which I am living and working. There is still a wide consensus as to what higher, more universal, existential literature should (not) contain, a consensus that strangely is highly gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class coded—to only mention four larger and rather rough categories—in a way that does not seem to have changed much in a long time.
Translating straight from the source language in my usual way, which in my case often means Danish poetry, entails making deliberate selections. One Danish poet whom I have translated, Shadi Angelina Bazeghi, who is also a translator (she translates poetry by the Persian poet Forough Farrokhzad), writes that translation creates “a dislodging and expansion of time and place when the connection is established. New possibilities arise, new perspectives and horizons, and foremost: a shared body. With this shared body it is possible to stretch, to place oneself outside the ego, the self, and one’s rigid concepts.”
Translation can be an activist deed or at some stage of the process it may contain similar elements. “The task of the translator is to facilitate this love between the original and its shadow,” as Spivak writes, but I would add that the process should still be allowed to interact with political and ethical issues. On my part, it is a question of courage and the ability to embrace those who are not like me or who are challenging norms and ideals that are confining. It is to momentarily become one body and to visualize the shadows.