It strikes me, having studied translation in one form or another for the past ten years, that we seem to rehash the same tired arguments with each successive generation of scholars, critics, writers, and translators. Is the translation “natural?” Is it “foreign?” Is it “faithful?” Is it “true?” We characterize translation via metaphors of xenophobia and misogyny. (And I’m certainly not the first to point out this fact. Scholar Lori Chamberlain was writing on it before I was even born.) In conversations with friends and colleagues, I’ve discussed translation’s mire of metaphor, tried to come up with different images to conceptualize translation, but even there, the ghost of the feminine, of the derivative, rears its head. So I find myself wondering what happens if we run headlong into the “original” metaphor, which places us in the role of the subservient woman, and instead of acting with demure decorum, we dig deep into our feminine wiles. What if we don’t merely do the performativity of translation, but overdo.
Some of the translators I admire most—Sawako Nakayasu, Don Mee Choi, Anne Carson, Elisa Chavez, and countless others—are far ahead of me, already out on the stage and in the spotlight. They gleefully dance on the grave of the fabled “faith” and serenade us not as silent domestic wives to the husband-text, but rather as shamanesses and muses, performers and trouble-makers, who channel the “original” text in loud, messy, vibrant ways.
Through their performances-of-text, I’ve started to think about a kind of hypertranslation, a translation-as-drag. Rather than being meek and submissive, what happens if we translators toss on outlandish wigs and glistening gowns and take our cues from Judith Butler and the queer community at large, using our linguistic makeup to make up our own trouble in the colonizing tongue that English has become. In “Imitation and Gender Subordination,” Butler writes, “…there is no original or primary gender a drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original.”
In the world of literature, the notion of the “original” text has also been similarly troubled. As Karen Emmerich points out, “Translations are derivative, of course—but so are so-called originals.” This is to say that literary works do not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, they don’t even exist as singular endeavors of genius lone writers living in the woods with only a typewriter and their thoughts for company. Writers draw on other writers; editors fidget at words, phrases, and structures; typesetters design books, rearranging words on a page until they are pleasing (or displeasing) to the eye; texts are lost or corrupted. The “so-called original” is only one tiny seed of the great flowering languages of humanity, and it exists only in response to what has come before, a timeline so vast and incalculable that any original was lost long before the written word. There is no original. If we embrace this concept and reconceptualize our translations not as copies, not as facsimiles, not as faithful wives, but as performance of performance spiraling into infinity, no origin to be seen, what kind of linguistic trouble can we manage to get up to?
This translation-as-drag I’m envisioning is anything but haphazard, anything but an excuse to be sloppy in our loudness, our brightness, and our exuberance. One need only look as far as RuPaul’s Drag Race to see that to do drag, in whatever capacity, “You better work.” Drag badly applied can become mockery rather than parody, clownish rather than playful. In the literary context, it could very well become Orientalizing or narcissistic. What I mean here is that surface gestures like leaving sombrero untranslated (never mind that sombrero means “hat” and could indicate any number of styles) are less raucous riot and more quaint colonizing moue.
What does translation-as-drag even look like? What is the vision I see here, unveiled and stamping a rhythm out of sync with literary norms? How do we dress these words, our tasks, in sequins and rouge? I’d like to suggest that one fine drag outfit is a refusal to conform to gendered standards, as with drag queens who wear full beards or dress in “boy bottoms.” This blatant statement of “We’re here, we’re queer” unabashedly troubles binaries that are taken for granted. Here in Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War:
I refuse to translate
I refuse to translate
I refuse to translate
I refuse to translate
I refuse to translate
Choi’s refusal to translate is a refusal to comply, a refusal to naturalize, a refusal to play the game of collecting pretty Oriental objects for a well-decorated bookshelf. Her mixed linguistics is a harsh reminder that this work is not in English and its appearance in English comes from labor, from voice, from someone. It’s even more deeply uncomfortable for those who can read the Korean and who know the context: childhood games contrast with children on battlefields, nationalistic novels of unity juxtapose against crushing dictatorships. Sometimes drag is meant to shock, meant to make the viewer pull back, visibly disrupted in the flow of what is “natural.”
And sometimes translation-as-drag is eye-painted eyes, comically large and cartoonish, only open with eyes closed, an anti-translation, as Nakayasu so brilliantly calls it in Mouth: Eats Color. From Chika Sagawa’s opening line of the poem “Promenade:” “季節は手袋をはめかへ,” Nakayasu translates, “Seasons change their gloves” but on subsequent pages she also anti-translates “Season bag” and “A back turned on subsequent loss of memory” and “背亜損sちゃん下テェイrgろゔぇs.” The multiple iterations of a singular poem are a reminder that the myth of the Septuagint is a veritable impossibility. Hand seventy translators the same poem to translate and they will hand back seventy different pieces of text, no two the same. A translation that at first looked perfect—which is to say faithful and true and good—on closer inspection, is an illusion of all those ideals and can be undone or redone or overdone or misdone or outdone.
And sometimes translation-as-drag looks like a set of genitals tucked out of sight, all the better to draw attention to both what is absent and what is present. Consider first Elizabeth Wyckoff’s rendering of the Chorus as it introduces Creon in Antigone.
Now here he comes, the king of the land,
Creon, Menoeceus’ son,
newly named by the god’s new fate.
What plan that beats about his mind
has made him call this council-session,
sending his summons to all?
Ah the phallic destiny of the ruling man, fated by the gods, rallying his councilors, king seated in his power. Wyckoff’s translation is of course fine: she worked hard to make it. But where her version emphasizes an understanding of word-to-word equivalence (as if any one word can ever perfectly equal any other, even in one single language), Anne Carson translates with different aims. In Antigonick, she seeks not to hide herself away, but rather to tuck away the fleshy bits of the text-of-a-text-of-a-text, leaving only spare, biting wit which speaks to our age and brings Kreon into our world. Even as Carson disguises the text, she bares it.
HERE COMES KREON
ROWING HIS NEW POWERBOAT
Translation-as-drag may even be a reveal moment, when the wig is ripped from the bald cap, when the falsies go flying. Self-translation (also called auto-translation) is often considered the most “faithful” form of translation because who could know the book better than the author themselves, but Elisa Chavez’ Miss Translated series turns this notion on its head, self-translating not with any attempt at self-faith (Could one perhaps liken such a concept to a nun?) but rather with deliberate self-betrayal, mistranslation. Here is her poem “Tenochtitlan:”
Leí que los Mexica ahogaban a mujeres
de cercanos pueblos para apaciguar
a la diosa de las lluvias.
Su templo mayor tenía dos
estantes de cráneos.
Mis antepasados que adoraban al sol
mantenían a sus dioses cerca,
escuchando a sus voces rapaces.
En sus nombres, perpetraban
maravillas y atrocidades.
No debe sorprender entonces
que los pueblos a fuera de Tenochtitlan
les daron la bienvenida a cualquiera
que prometiera un final al sol cruel,
las flores mentirosas, los aguas
pavimentados con los huesos de tributas.
El dios de los Hispanos fue el oro,
y él les mandó a quemar Tenochtitlan,
enviándola para reunirse con
las doncellas ahogadas.
And the translation:
Cortes’ men thought the Mexica’s
floating city must be a dream:
stone temples jutting from the water,
voracious bright gardens
and grand estates.
My sun-worshipping ancestors
kept their gods close,
heeded their rapt whispers.
In their names, they built marvelous
canals and walked on the waters.
It shouldn’t then surprise
that artists have tried to recapture
Tenochtitlan, brooding on the dream
journals of Spaniards: they imagine her
bright causeways, the lush gardens
paving her streets like enchantments.
The Spanish, steely god-mongers
that they were, knew well
how to deal with enchantment:
They burned Tenochtitlan to ash.
Chavez invites her readers to produce more “faithful” translations of her work, and this collaboration in turn produces new iterations, retranslations or even “de-translations.” Here is Francisca Cázares’ rendering of the Spanish above:
I read that the Mexica drowned women
from nearby towns to appease
the goddess of rain.
Her temple had two
shelves of skulls.
My ancestors who adored the sun
kept their gods close
listening to their rapacious voices.
In their names they perpetrated miracles and atrocities.
It shouldn’t then surprise
that the towns outside Tenochtitlán
gave welcome to anyone
who promised an end to the cruel sun
the lying flowers, the waters
paved with bones of tributes
The Spanish god was gold
and ordered them to burn Tenochtitlán
sending her to reunite with
the drowned maids
From the examples given above, you may draw the conclusion that when I imagine translation-as-drag, all I’m really imagining is experimental translation. I do think the world needs more experimental translation, more questioning of our basic assumptions about what the act of translation actually looks like, but I don’t think translation-as-drag necessarily needs to look loud or flashy or obtuse. I think there are also quiet ways, deliberate ways of resisting the “original” English impulse. This is why I turn to Sonja Arntzen’s translation of The Kagero Diary as my final example.
Japanese, both ancient and modern, freely flits between verb tenses, often using the past tense to establish an action’s completion before jumping into the present—or to use a term suggested by Arntzen via classical linguists, “tenseless”—to bring the actions of the past closer to the reader. Furthermore, at least in ancient texts, poetry and prose mixed freely, and lines often resounded in poetic meters even when not themselves a poem. In general, English translations of Japanese ignore this unstable time and normalize the text to either all past or all present tense. Arntzen, however, embraces the fungibility of Japanese temporality and works hard to preserve the poetics of the diary, written by one of the most poetically accomplished women of her age, Michitsuna’s Mother. (Heian noblewomen were only ever known by sobriquets, it being impolite to use their real names.)
In comparison with Choi or Nakayasu or even Chavez, Arntzen’s translation is tame, but there is still something jarring about it, something that takes rereading and deliberate contemplation. Everything from the odd placement of the dialogue to the setting of Japanese readings against English translations is a quiet reminder to us that this text is performative, is a reading, is not a substitute but rather an expansion, and one which seeks to explore other ways of literary-being, other ways of writing than those handed down in the hallowed halls of writer’s workshops. After all, translation is not simply a mathematical equating of a=b, but rather it is an act of interpretation, of critique and of, yes, writing. The words on The Kagero Diary’s pages are not Michitsuna’s Mother’s; they are Arntzen’s, and in jarring the reader, she makes them aware of her presence on the page.
The translator in drag drags the translation, but who is doing the kicking and screaming? Is it the translator? Yes. She is shouting, she is stamping, she is conjuring, she is pointing here and here and here. See how this is different? It is not the same! It is not ours. Are you uncomfortable? Are you afraid? Good. Now you. You, Queen. You better work.
I debated for some time whether conceptualizing translation via drag might be a problematic appropriation, but the more I thought on this, the more I felt that everyone should try drag, unironically, at least once in their lives. Drag helps us understand concepts of gender not through empathy but through work, pain, difference. Drag yourself. Dress your verse loudly, angrily, playfully, sensuously, against its “true nature.” Tuck, pluck, bronze, dance, prance, dare I say split, until your words feel not your own. If you can claim two tongues, three, four, more, ask them to dislocate themselves, to fork, two tine, too twine and see what delicious dish they serve you, and what you, in turn, serve up.
Here is an example of my own attempt to drag my translation practice with Miyazawa Kenji’s most famous poem, “Ame ni mo makezu.”
to the rain, unyielding
to the rain, unyielding
to the wind, unyielding
to snow, to summer’s heat, unyielding
strong in body
always quietly smiling
every day four bowls of brown rice
with miso soup and a few vegetables
putting others first
carefully watching, listening, understanding
and never forgetting
in field’s pine thicket shade
a little thatched-roof hut to live
if to the east a sick child
going, caring for him
if to the west a tired mother
going, carrying her rice bundles
if to the south, someone near death
going, telling him to be unafraid
if to the north squabbles and trials
telling them “it’s not worth it, stop!”
in drought, shedding tears
in cold summers walking shaken
called a blockhead by everyone
but also untroubled
that kind of person
is what I want to become
Let me be one neither troubled nor praised nor called a fool for senselessly walking cold summer fields or weeping in drought. Let me find those in the north senselessly fighting and struggling and tell them “Stop, it’s not worth it,” and let me find those in the south on their deathbeds and tell them “Don’t be afraid,” and let me find those tired mothers in the west and bear their rice bundles, and let me find those sick children in the east and nurse them. Let me live in a little thatched hut in the shade of pine thickets in the fields. Let me not forget to carefully watch and listen, that I may understand, and let me put others before myself always. Let me eat a few vegetables and miso soup and four bowls of brown rice a day. Let me smile quietly and never anger. Let me be selfless. Let my body be sturdy. Let me stand against summer’s heat and winter’s snow, against wind, against rain.
to the mind, unyielding
elements have never been my worry
rain, wind, snow, summer’s heat
temporary conditions of physicality
but you know that, don’t you kenji-san
namu muhengyou bosatsu
your unflagging smile
your conviction that all things
deserve respect and love
bean curd over body
namu jougyou bosatu
a simple life
a simple poem
what do they know
namu tahou nyorai
yield to me
not of the body but
of the soul
namu myouhou renge
to the end chatting
farmers and fertilizer
namu shakamu nibutsu
did you too fixate
on these little littles
matters that don’t matter
what’s a comma next to generosity
namu jougyou bosatsu
you, kenji-san, do not want
for your body to yield
I, kenji-san, do not want
for my mind to yield
namu anryuugyou bosatsu
Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Ablelove, Michele Aina Barale, David M. Halperin (New York City, NY: Routledge, 1993. 307-320.)
Karen Emmerich. Literary Translation and the Making of Originals, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)
Don Mee Choi, “With her brother on her back,” Hardly War, (Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2016.)
Sawako Nakayasu and Sagawa Chika, Mouth: Eats Color, (Tokyo: Rogue Factorial Press, 2011)
Sophocles, “Antigone,” tr. Elizabeth Wyckoff, Sophocles I, ed. Mark Griffith, Glenn W. Most, David Grene, Richmond Lattimore, (Chicago, IL: UChicago Press, 2013)
Sophocles, Antigonick, tr. Anne Carson (Cambridge, MA: New Directions, 2012)
Elisa Chavez, “Tenochtitlan,” Miss Translated (Miss Translated, 2020)
Elisa Chavez, “Tenochtitlan,” tr. Francisca Cázares, Miss Translated (Tenochtitlan Miss Translated Thread, 2020)
Michitsuna’s Mother, The Kagero Diary, tr. Sonja Arntzen (Ann Arbor, MI: UMichigan Center for Japanese Studies, 1997)
Laurel Taylor is a PhD candidate in Japanese and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis and holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. Her translations have appeared in Transference, The Offing, and The Asia Literary Review.