Eugene Ostashevsky

Berlin, 02 April 2020


Dear Daniel, 

I think your article is terrific but here’s my issue with it. Admittedly, it is more of an issue with Anglo-American poetry criticism in general, but it’s especially relevant here, since you write about diction. You write about it in a way that is both observant and erudite, but your discussion of diction has a blind spot that may be more visible from my perch in Berlin than from yours in LA. It has to do with extending—or not extending—the inclusivity of diction to not just the many American ways of speaking but also over the borders of “American” to other languages (and cultures) without seeing them exclusively through an American frame. I realize that it’s the wrong thing to ask of American criticism, but I think that when we start talking about mongrelitude, hybridity, inclusivity, etc., we should be prepared to—I’m building on the term “de-colonize,” so much thrown about lately—de-Americanize a little. Let me try to explain what I mean, and I hope I won’t be too confusing or confused.

Point one. English is not just any language. It is the language of globalization. In fact, it is far and away the most ubiquitous and powerful language that has ever existed, reaching into every nook and cranny of the world, as neither Sanskrit, nor Latin, nor Arabic, nor Chinese ever managed to do. The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura, in her The Fall of Language in the Age of English (Columbia UP, 2015), who brilliantly  examines the mechanisms of the global spread of English, contrasts the conditions of contemporary English-language literature (and, more broadly, culture) to those of literatures (and, more broadly, cultures) in all other languages. Everybody else is, at minimum, bicultural: they must observe English-language culture at the same time as they observe their own culture. Observation of English-language culture takes place in everyday life, from shopping for toilet fixtures to going to the movies, but it also happens in literature. Of course it happens stylistically, but let me just mention the simplest level, that of dissemination of one’s writing outside one’s borders. For works written in any other language to have access to global readerships, prizes, etc., they have to be published in English translation as well as in the original. Since translation also entails at least two kinds of winnowing to suit the English-language market—selection among works as well as selection among translation strategies—literature originally written in English has a tremendous advantage over literature that isn’t. I was once by the “staff-picks” shelf in a bookstore in Naples (not Florida) and I personally knew half the novelists on it—in fact, they all lived within a short walk from my former apartment in Brooklyn! Is Brooklyn really home to so much world-class literary talent? English is the observed of all observers. The observed of all observers observes no one else but themselves. The culture of English speakers is one-of-a-kind in that it has no need for biculturalism. Instead it tends to be narcissistic, focusing on what happens inside it, while taking almost no notice of external things. Of course we are talking here about American culture and American English first and foremost. The US is a huge country, with a mega-powerful internal market, and it has only one border with a country where English is not the main language. So linguistic consciousness in the US is just very different than from anywhere in the EU, where one is always beset by other languages that exist on equal terms by virtue of being the national languages of other EU states. When I buy food in Berlin, the same package will list the ingredients in a dozen different languages. But in the US, when one hears other languages in the street, they are immigrant languages, far less powerful than English, and existing under its toleration and oversight. That is to say, the more public a discourse is, the closer it is to decision-making and money-getting, the more it will be in English. American speakers of immigrant languages tend to be bilinguals who switch into English to speak outside their community and even to their offspring, since immigrant languages don’t last longer than a generation or two. I understand that it’s unavoidable but I resent it anyway.

Point two. As you know, I write on a bed of American English with the occasional embedding of fragments of other languages: often Russian, which is technically my native, but also German, which surrounds me in Berlin, and some other languages that I’ve had to do with in the past. Perhaps naturally or perhaps naively, I have been using the term translingual to describe my writing, because it goes to and fro between languages, violating linguistic borders. To explain to other people what I do, I’ve been reading different scholarship about code-switching, second-language writing, bilingualism, linguistic anthropology, etc. What’s astonishing about “translingualism” as a term in the Anglo-American academy, is that it mainly intends variation in English-language diction—lexical and syntactical deviations from “standard literary English.” To put it otherwise, it intends the employment of different English-language sociolects, which, as with your diction examples, may be used to index identities. It also includes immigrant Englishes, and even extends to global English, i.e. English as spoken in communication between nonnative speakers for whom it is the language they have in common. The books I am talking about are interesting—Suresh Canagarajah’s Translingual Practice: Global English and Cosmopolitan Relations (Routledge, 2013), Jerry Won Lee’s The Politics of Translingualism: After Englishes (Routledge, 2018)—and I am fully in accord with their desire for greater linguistic flexibility and inclusivity, and with a lot of their post-structuralist positions. But they too have a blind spot, and it is vast. You can read all about it in the first sentence of Jerry Won Lee’s Politics of Translingualism: “Translingualism refers to an orientation in scholarship that recognizes the fluidity of language boundaries and endorses a greater tolerance for the plurality of English worldwide.” Silly me, I thought that language boundaries were between things like Tagalog and Spanish, or Hindi and Chinese—not English and English! Some current translingual scholarship denies the very existence of different languages, regarding them as an invention of the modern state and its education system, which replaced a putative dialectal continuum by discrete units. (See Ofelía Garcia and Li Wei’s endorsement of that argument in their Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). I am not going to discuss the merits of that argument here (except to note that wheels are also “invented,” but try to ride a car without one). I just want to say that it converts anything anyone anywhere speaks—any imaginable Gagavai—into something that exists merely within the frame of English and by relationship to the standard English that lies at the center of that frame. It pledges allegiance to difference, but actually shrinks difference to variation within a single field, past whose bounds there is nothing. Its globalist optics are—unwittingly but conveniently—imperialist and appropriative. 

Point three. Sarah Dowling’s pioneering and illuminating Translingual Poetics: Writing Personhood under Settler Colonialism, discusses “translingualism” from the point of view of Anglo-American poetry criticism. Emphasizing “the capacity of languages to interact, influence, and transform one another,” Dowling writes about poetry that she defines as translingual, that is to say “self-consciously situated between languages,” and engaging “with diverse linguistic codes in ways that are context-dependent.” On the one hand, translingual poetry may “refuse to presume or perform translational equivalency,” or making everything in another language transparent for English speakers, with some parts of the text remaining illegible to some or even almost all readers. On the other hand, Dowling, who believes that translingual poetry is especially suited for political engagement, focuses on translingual gestures in poetry that addresses past and present social injustices in North America—histories of colonization, slavery, and population control. Now I am going to make a point that I don’t entirely know how to make, since I have not found any of my attempts to formulate it convincing. North American history is the right thing for these poets to write about, and it also the right thing for Sarah Dowling to write about their writing about. But is it possible for American poetry anywhere to have any space for issues that would not have to do directly with America? Is it possible for us to employ other languages in our work in a way that would not be apologetic (in the sense of both apology and apologia)? Is it possible for us to employ other languages without preening for English-language monolingual majority readers—to employ them for a linguistically multiple audience? The fact that we write in a global, culturally imperial language means that our audience is global and consists of not just of Anglophones but of many and many bilinguals. Can’t we have any space for a literature that engages people outside our borders on something like not our terms only? Again, this is not a criticism of Dowling or her poets—I do think it is absolutely necessary for North American poetry to confront North American history, and colonization and slavery especially—but shouldn’t the term “translingual” also apply to work that issues outside the English-speaking world? To work where other languages are not constructed as immigrant languages, that is to say not as languages that recognize the power of English over them?

Point four. In the past decade or so there has been—as you mention—a major turn towards translation in American poetry. Lots of translation is now being done by American poets from many of the world’s languages, and it being sought out for publication by many journals and small presses. There now exist great, truly global translation journals like Asymptote. Translation has also started being actively taught in creative writing programs, and new methods of writing are being developed that fuse translation with original work. This is something to celebrate but it is also something I am acutely ambivalent about. What exactly are people reading when they read my translations of Alexander Vvedensky? They are not reading Vvedensky. They are reading me. They are reading my work as translator on Vvedensky. Inasmuch as I can be considered a part of American literature, they are still reading American literature. Now, I’ve spent decades translating and thinking about Vvedensky and his entourage in the 1930s Russian underground. Their work has had a tremendous impact on my English-language writing. I am arguably translating Vvedensky into an English that has been made especially suitable for translating him. But there is no way around it: the readers of my Vvedensky are still reading me. They want to read Vvedensky? Then they should learn Russian. Even a little Russian would go a long way to actually reading Vvedensky. Why? Because the world of poetry is a Whorfian world, that’s why! Because when the smallest verbal adjustment greatly changes your meaning, as it does in poetry, you are working in a medium where linguistic materiality—by which I mean sound, spelling, prosody, morphology, syntax—is semanticized as in no other verbal genre. The microscopically exact world of poetic language shows concepts to be language-specific. Concepts in the language of poetry are not reducible to logical propositions. Ergo: different language, different concepts. We are necessarily Whorfian by occupation. What does my thesis of the—to be honest—utter untranslatability of poetry imply for poetry translators? Who are translations for? I often say I translate for my friends who cannot read the source language, but if I think rigorously, my translations, like all texts, must be for the reader group best placed to understand them. In other words, for other Russian-English bilinguals. Only people who can read poetry in both languages can appreciate the to-and-fro of the dialogue between the translator and the author. They alone can hear the something else that the translator says in her echoing. This group of ideal readers, of course, includes the translator, who translates for her own sake, as a way of responding to the original. I am therefore all for our Translation Renaissance, but what I would really love to see is more American poets reading poetry in other languages—in the original rather than in translation, or in the original alongside the translation. I would love to see foreign language requirements in creative writing programs. I would love to see creative writing seminars discuss poetries in other languages. Poetries in other languages are full of things that do not exist in English-language poetry, and that translation into English cannot convey. These foreign things can suggest–from their source-language beds–new things in target-language poetry: things that the eye has not seen, the ear has not heard, and that the heart has not yet accepted in English. In general, literatures need literatures in other languages in order to develop. Literary evolution takes place by exogamy. Endogamy gets you only so far. 

Conclusion. My response to your essay addresses only the margins of it, and I doubt that I was justified to respond as I have. Diction is a crucial issue in American poetry today, and it is a good vehicle for introducing social-justice concerns. But opening yourself up to diversity of diction, to diversity of sociolect, really ought to include opening yourself up to actual other languages, especially if we are sailing under the flag of “speaking in tongues.” You do give examples of work with Spanish, but Spanish here is positioned as a minority language seeking legitimacy from speakers of American English (except the resonant fragment from Rodrigo Toscano, which looks at cross-linguistic communication from several angles at once). But why should Latin-American Spanish need recognition from English? Why should dialects of American English need recognition from mainstream literary American English? This is not a complaint with you but with a lot of American poetry: it might expand its diction, but it still keeps speakers of standard American English in the power seat. Given that this poetry is written in a language that is the international koine of globalization, its excursions into nonstandard American diction remain exclusivist despite every intension of inclusivity, since the diction, however nonstandard it might be, exists within a linguistic-cultural system that is the standard for everyone outside it. But our poetry feels no need to look outside it. Why can’t we have poetry where other dialects and languages have equal rights, where they aren’t subservient? In the same way, you talk about Anglo-American poetry critics from the sixteenth century to the present day as if criticism in English were a closed tradition, but all of them were in fact multilinguals, who were also responding to texts coming from outside their language and culture. Why can’t we talk about poetry and criticism the way they are actually written and not the way they are broken apart into fiefdoms by national-literature departments? I remember reading somewhere decades ago—maybe in Greil Marcus—that Johnny Rotten initially performed in a T-shirt that said “I hate Pink Floyd.” If I had a T-shirt like that, it would say “I hate national literature.”