Tuesday, May 8, 2012


An interview on Sawako Nakayasu and Sagawa Chika’s “Mouth Eats Color: Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals” (Rogue Factorial, 2011)

Thomas Fink: I wish my Japanese exceeded sambyaku go. And I wish I could recognize more than goju kanji. So I can’t comment on the parts of the text in nihongo. Anyway, Mouth: Eats Color is a wonderful title. Synesthesia reigns. You are co-author of this text with the first female Japanese modernist, Chika Sagawa (1911-1936), though Frances Chung, the Chinatown poet who also had a regrettably short life, Mina Loy, Harry Crosby, and others make appearances. So I’m not sure if the impetus for the title comes from you or Sagawa or both? What can you tell us about the titling of the book?

Sawako Nakayasu: I guess the subtitle is the best explanation – this is a book of Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, and Originals, and the book itself (sometimes at the poem level, sometimes at the whole-book level) is trying to do that, to embrace this concept, whatever it is. I mean “embrace” sort of literally, as if I spread my arms out wide to encompass the various aspects of Sagawa and aspects of me-translating-Sagawa all at once. Which meant I was going to include the fact that Sagawa herself was a translator of Mina Loy and Harry Crosby (included in this book) as well as of James Joyce, Charles Reznikoff, and others. Thanks to the diligent labor of an editor here in Tokyo, a collection of Sagawa’s translations has recently been compiled and published, and this gives another kind of insight into her work.

The title, Mouth: Eats Color, does indeed “come from” Sagawa – or from my translation(s) of her. It’s the last line in “Waves – a list of characters, and Backside,” a poem that combines (anti)-translations from two poems titled “Waves” and “Backside.” “A list of characters” is a list of the Chinese characters in that poem, translated into English based on whole or radical components, and then reframed as a “list of characters” as if indicated for a play.

The thing that’s become important to me about this whole process of engaging and interrogating translation is that it frees me to be more expressive about the various things I see going on in Sagawa’s work. Her use of color is one thing that’s always fascinated me. Or sometimes I have the desire to combine several poems into one, to shed more light on either and both. There is a promiscuity in it – once I break the one-to-one contract, it allows for multiple relationships, and somehow this comes out of a desire to attend to both the needs of the original (to not be confined to a single reading and interpretation) and to the translation (to be allowed enough breathing room to exist on its own right, in addition to its role as a translation of something else).

Fink: So would the first “Promenade” poem, which combines Japanese passages (that include kanji, hiragana, and katakana) interspersed with a nearly equal amount of English, be comprised of original lines from Sagawa that come from different poems or Sagawa’s translations of Loy and Crosby into Japanese, as well as retranslations of her Japanese translations back into English, or do you retranslate her English back into Japanese and translate her Japanese into English, or, hey, do you want every reader to do the work of figuring this out for themselves with a bevy of texts and a good dictionary?!

Nakayasu: I acknowledge that the multilingual aspect can make this book seem daunting, initially, but no – I think it’s much simpler than that. I try to stay honest in my titles – so every poem called “Promenade” (or “Puromenaado”) is just that; it’s a version of that poem, no lines from elsewhere really. The poems by Loy, Crosby, Willard, Chung are indicated as such, and when I combine poems, that’s apparent in the titles too, as in “Waves – A List of Characters, and Backside.”

As far as translation technique, there are many involved, and I feel like this book is only the beginning of a big big project. It was originally supposed to be a chapbook for Poor Claudia to publish, but in the process of writing it, it just grew and grew until it was no longer chapbook size in page count. I wrote and edited and produced this book in a very short time, in a Linda Montano-style performance (where I was performing being a Poet for roughly a month), so this book also serves as a document of that “performance.” But as far as exploratory/ investigative/ experimental translation goes, I still have a lot more work to do on that front. Throughout all this the question of audience sort of comes and goes, but ultimately what motivates my work comes from a desire or need to stay and be true to my immediate and surrounding conditions.

But you seem to be asking what I expect of the reader. One of my interests here is in shifting the emphasis from product (the complete, perfect, final translation) to process (everything that happens on the way to the product). In poetry we learned this lesson from the Language Poets, and this also connects to my interest and involvement in improvised dance and music. When you put “poetry” and “improvisation” together it takes you to slam poetry or free-style rap, which is interesting but limited. Recently I made a performance exploring the middle ground between dance improvisation (a process-based art) and the writing of a poem (which leads to a product called the poem). Though it was a staged performance with performers and audience and all that, the poets (myself and the Japanese poet Hachikai Mimi) did not read/recite poems we had previously written – we wrote poems on stage, in improvised conversation with the dancers.

So my interest in developing these ideas overlaps with my interest in developing the interstice between translations and their originals. It’s actually an even older idea I had when I was translating the Hiraide book, because some of the questions I had, and the replies he gave, were simply poetry in itself, and it felt too interesting to ignore just because it wasn’t part of the final product. And then, now, in the process of typing this I’m come to an even earlier memory of singing music in choir. The part of it that was most interesting to me was never the performance itself, but the rehearsing of choral works with multiple parts. There’s a lot of messiness in the rehearsal process of hearing and feeling how the melodies and harmonies fit together – and those transitions where the dissonant mess eventually gels together correctly were so pleasurable and brilliant and gorgeous – I remember thinking that that was the (impossible) thing I wanted to perform for the audience.

In terms of Sagawa, it also made sense to do something multilingual because of the particular times that she lived in, with everyone translating poetry and theory and appropriating new foreign vocabulary at a crazy pace – which meant that some translations were better than others, but there was tremendous energy and momentum behind the whole act. And just so much experimentation going on….at least until Japanese militarism in the 30s eventually shut down most of it.

Fink: The subtitle is “Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals.” In your development of this concept, how does a translation differ from an anti-translation? And what is an anti-translation in the first place, desu ne? (I keep in mind that there’s a poem translated into French and one into… Spanish? Portuguese? And is “original” meant to be sous rature or are you using the term unironically, in opposition to the other terms?

Nakayasu: French makes appearances here and there, the way it did in a lot of Modernist Japanese poetry. My subtitle is a gesture towards acknowledging that some of the pieces here would make (some) people nod and say, “This is a translation.” And some of the pieces here would make (some) people shake their heads and say, “This is not a translation” or, “This is doing something that a translation should not do.” Those are the anti-translations. Though of course it’s all part of the same project, and one of my goals is to frame this translation – anti-translation continuum, moving away from the binary (here is the “original, and here, on the facing page, is the “translation”). I’m not trying to outright critique that model, either – it has its place, certainly – but I just wanted to make a different proposal. So there’s no table of contents, no en face, no easy order or demarcation between original and translation, source and target – though there is order, still.

I initially meant “originals” quite literally – those are indeed the Japanese poems as written by Sagawa Chika herself, but my intention also includes putting pressure on that term itself, which is compounded by the aspect of collaboration, and collaboration with a dead poet, at that. It is unclear to the reader just what was written by Sagawa and what was written by me, but somehow the two of us combined wrote all of this book. It’s just a shame that she isn’t alive to engage in this endeavor with me…

Fink: Then what about those other poets in the book, like Frances Chung and Mina Loy and Steve Willard?

Nakayasu: I know…since I’ve gone rogue with the translation idea, it seemed like a reasonable extension that I would address issues of ownership. Back when the notion of writing was new in Japan and there were very few people who could even write anything, a scroll of writing would get torn into pieces, the individual fragments coming under ownership of various folks, who then marked their ownership of the writing by placing their seal on it. As the fragmented texts passed from hand to hand each new owner would place their seal on it, finders-keepers style. This applies to speech, too, I think. My daugher is almost two. If I say something, she repeats it, and once she learns it she gains ownership of those same words – and so it appears that language, and text, and writing, are all constantly accreting owners.

Fink: Well, this “Untitled Poem by Frances Chung” really is in her posthumous Selected, and it’s pretty explosively ironic about white racism: the speaker’s “Italian girlfriends” tell her that they’re “going to eat chinks after confession,” and the speaker feigns ignorant that it means heading “for Chinatown.” It sounds as though, by including that prose-poem, you may be “owner” of her interrupted identity as one who exposes racism, or else, you’re not; you may be a “wild ‘n crazy” anthologist who aims to facilitate new readers’ access to reception of that socially charged writing, and complicated by its appearance in a context that Chung herself might consider “foreign,” far from Manhattan’s Chinatown and Little Italy. So are you placing a “seal” on this poem by Chung, and if so, what kind of seal?

Nakayasu: A little bit, maybe. Steve Willard is the only other living poet in this book, and he did ask “why me?” – I told him that I simply want the people reading this book to read a Steve Willard poem at the same time. But more than that, it turned out that Steve was working with very similar concepts in his own work, so it fit right in. But actually I think all of this was inspired by a poetry reading I saw CA Conrad give in San Diego a few years back. It was “his” poetry reading, but he read a bunch of poems he liked by other people, which I had never seen anyone do before – and I really liked it. It made perfect sense and I’m been meaning to do something similar in book form for a while now. I’ve also, in the process of editing Factorial, come to see the creative aspects of curation and editing. And I’ve always been interested in merging or blending genres, and here I was doing a bit of editing/curation in tandem with the writing and translation of poetry. So there’s much I could say about the particular poems I’ve chosen and the multiple vectors along which I hear resonance, but perhaps it will take too long…

Going back to the Frances Chung poem – the reference to “eating chinks” is echoed in my poem called “We the Heathens,” and I’m interested in these parallels between cultural appropriation (here in the form of food) and literary colonialism and the ways in which translation has historically been accomplice to this colonialism while also giving access to opportunities for cross-fertilization. This is Lawrence Venuti’s argument, that the “invisible” (conventional) translator is guilty of domesticating foreign literature into writing that is easily assimilated by the dominant (here, anglophone) culture. His writings have certainly been an influence on me, and while I continue to produce translations that are more “domesticated” than this book, I’ve come to see it all as a continuum that I can slide around on.

Fink: I remember when my daughters were under three; now they’re 21 and 18 respectively. That stage of owning new words seems different from what happens with poet-types who have been hanging out with many words for a long time. We don’t so much place our seal on particular appropriated combinations of words—though that can happen with the Conceptualists and Flarfists, I suppose—but on our often intricate recombinations of many such sources. So our “sense of wonder” (horrible cliché, desu ne?) may resemble a two-year-olds, but it’s put to slightly different uses. Does what I’m saying pertain at all to what you’re doing in Mouth: Eats Color?

Nakayasu: Actually now that you mention it, you may be right – perhaps this book is not so much influenced by Marina’s use and acquisition of language, but her whole way of conceptualizing and figuring/reconfiguring and engaging with the world. It fits with what I said earlier about improvisation – and I find that playing with a child, really being in those moments of free play with her, is much like improvising with another artist – the simultaneous listening and responding and being present together to allow things to develop is really exciting, and I felt a similar sense of pleasure in writing the poems that went into this book. That’s a huge contrast from the usual feelings of agony and torment that come with translating poetry.

Fink: I notice that “Beard of Death” is followed ten pages later by “A Beard of Death Grows on Me.” Hmm.

Nakayasu: What do you think?

Fink: Certain key words and concepts are repeated with interesting differences. Here are a few:

A chef clutches the blue sky.///To make food while gripping the astounding blue sky.

Even here the sun is crushed./// Consider all that is killed, including the less astounding sun.

I hear daylight run by.///In the face of escaping daylight.

In prison they keep watch over a dream///The dream lasts longer than your sentence longer than life.

Death strips my shell.///As death, I shake off this shell.

I don’t think the second poem exists in its relationship to the first in the way that Yeats’ “Byzantium” has as its beginning intention a problem that Sturge Moore found with “Sailing to Byzantium.” There’s nothing “wrong” with the first; intertextuality becomes a strong aspect of the poetry in the poems, if we can make the leap of ten pages and hold them both in our internal or external visual field. The double terrain induces us to wonder about the possible difference between “clutching” or “gripping” “the blue sky,” and we can ask whether it’s any easier to do either when the “chef” is focusing only on that literal impossibility (and figurative possibility) or also “making food.” And “the blue sky” in the first may be pretty ordinary, whereas we are told to find the heavens “astounding” in the second poem. And in the next line, I guess it’s better for “the sun” to be “crushed” and have a chance to bounce back, somehow, rather than to be “killed,” even if it is “less astounding” in the latter than the sky. If in the first, “running by” does not imply attachment to emotion, the subjectivity of “escape” is very clear. The metonymic shift from “prison” to “sentence” is accompanied by the possible difference and congruence of the duration of “life” itself and the sentence, which might, after all, be for life. And the final lines are most fascinating of all. The “I” in the first is affected by the power of death, not necessarily in the sense that she dies and writes about it in poetry, as Dickinson sometimes does, though that, too, is possible, but in the sense that its impact assails her psychological defenses. However, in the second coda, the speaker is death, and what shell does death as agent controlling the poem itself shake off: life? Daylight? The sun? Dream?

So that’s what I think. But maybe you remember something about the process of composing these two poems that can help or felicitously confound your readers!

Nakayasu: It’s terrific that in considering the two versions of the poem above, you talked through many of the considerations and questions going through a translator’s mind in the moment of translation, which was definitely an intended effect. I’m not sure if the average reader is interested in doing that kind of work, but the fact that these versions are there allows for the poem, the “real” translation, to become present in an alternative space, floating somewhere in between (or above) those pages. That’s my Benjamin (“Task of the Translator”) influence. And that very last line of the poem has been one of those lines I’ve found quite maddening to translate, for the original line in Japanese creates an ambiguity and multplicity in meaning that felt quite impossible to recreate exactly. And now, having rendered two versions of the same line, I feel very, very, good. In the case of this line, the “true” translation is a combination of the two.

Although the structure of the book creates a chronology, the order of poem appearance is not the order in which they were written. So the first version is not the first translation I did. This is true for Texture Notes, and also with Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, and many many (perhaps most) other books out there, I’m sure.

Also interesting you mention Yeats – what we have in common is that our conversations with others are just as vital to the generation of ideas and development as anything else. So in this case, I would say that Jen Hofer was my Sturge Moore – the exchange went like this (on Facebook):
Sawako Nakayasu I said this to Eugene this morning: “Should we give her some rape-gay?”… I was only using pig latin!!
September 13 at 10:16am

Jen Hofer I’m working on finalizing the syllabus for my translation workshop (in which I am teaching your stellar work, by the way) and this seems eerily apt to my current state of ind-may ecay-day…

September 13 at 1:22pm

Sawako Nakayasu O Jen, what a wonderful thing that you are teaching translation! I just wrote to someone saying I wanted to make a book of Chika Sagawa Translations & Anti-Translations!

September 13 at 1:24pm

Jen Hofer can you make that book in the next week or two? (ha)

…and then I took her up on it. Shortly before that, Drew Swenhaugen at Poor Claudia had invited me to submit a chapbook manuscript for possible publication – and I had two weeks left before the semester began and I would get swallowed up in the teaching routine – and so I just hit “go” and went with it.

As for the differences you note between the variations of the poems, I figure it’s only confounding to those who feel the need to absolutely understand everything – and if that’s the case, they probably have larger troubles than that of reading my book. I mean, numerous times in my life I’ve been in some foreign country where I understood none, then little, then some more of the local language, and I’ve just come to accept that life is like that. But I mean even in languages I am supposedly fluent in – depending on who and what is being discussed, of course I won’t understand everything. Just a few weeks ago I started a new semester with my Japanese students (taking a class on science writing in English). I always pause after I’ve spoken a bit, and ask them to raise their hands if they understood at least 50% of what I just said. Usually they fall in the 50%-75% comprehension range, and that’s just fine – more to learn.

I’m also reading Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English right now, and I feel some kinship to this – it doesn’t look quite as “unreadable” because all of the text uses roman characters, but her interests in the unpure, multiple, “meddled” language feels very right to me, even in the process of feeling that I don’t fully understand all of it.

But more importantly (to me), I’m trying to get away from the way we tend to obsess about the problems, or difficulty, of translation – it’s nice to sometimes let go of the need to stick to the established modes (translation plus footnotes or endnotes or introductory notes), a one-to-one relationship: one translation per poem. To that end, it was the Ernst Jandl translation book published by Burning Deck that really influenced me. Numerous translators per poem, each translating a different concept or intention or process or feature of the poem – it’s a brilliant book.

Fink: And then there’s the “Promenade” that constitutes a walk among English, Japanese, and French. (My French is much better than my Japanese, malheureusement.) What an outrageous sequence of dislocations to experience that seven line poem! I have less trouble with Eliot’s The Waste Land because the English dominates, but I guess it’s akin to some of Pound’s Cantos. Do you have anything to say about the dialectic of readability and unreadability in this “Promenade” among three tongues?

Nakayasu: Although I’m not thinking terribly consciously about Pound in this process, of course he’s a model in many ways, with regards to multilingual writing as well as experimental (or loose) translation, and I expect the same kinds of criticisms could apply to my writing. What’s interesting to me about the criticism (or perceived problem) regarding multilingual writing (mainly: it’s not readable) and the criticism regarding loose (or various) translations (mainly: it’s not right) come from a similar stance, one that doggedly clings to the idea of singularity and correctness in language and literature.


Sawako Nakayasu was born in Japan and has lived mostly in the US since the age of six. Her most recent books are Texture Notes (Letter Machine, 2010), Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009), and a translation of Kawata Ayane’s poetry, Time of Sky//Castles in the Air (Litmus Press, 2010). Her translation of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (New Directions, 2008) received the 2009 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent.

Thomas Fink has authored seven books of poetry, including Peace Conference (Marsh Hawk, 2011) and Autopsy Turvy (Meritage Press, 2010), a collaboration with Maya Diablo Mason. A Different Sense of Power (Fairleigh Dickinson, 2001) is his most recent book of criticism. In 2007, he co-edited “Burning Interiors”: David Shapiro’s Poetry and Poetics.

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