In this Q&A, we speak to John Pluecker, the translator of the recently reviewed book Gore Capitalism, about his language work. In the interview, he discusses his experience of translating different literary forms, translation as ‘productive failure’ and the notion of language justice.
This interview is part of the LSE RB Translation and Multilingualism Week, running between 10 and 14 December 2018. If you are interested in this topic, all posts published as part of the week can be accessed here. If you would like to contribute on this topic in the future, please contact us at Lsereviewofbooks@lse.ac.uk.
Q: How did you became a translator, and what languages do you primarily work with and in?
Since I was very young, I’ve always been obsessed with language and languages, with studying them and speaking as many as I could possibly access. In my mid-twenties, I was primarily working as a community organiser in multilingual communities in Houston, Texas, where I’m from, and I realised that I wanted to cast down my buckets where I was, as Frederick Douglass put it. I became aware of translation, and specifically literary translation, as a space for cross-language work, a space for connection, experimentation, play, activism and more. This realisation of the power of translation (and interpreting) led me to focus my studies and my attention on Spanish, due to its historic and contemporary relevance in my home state of Texas, along the border with Mexico.
Q: You have described translation as ‘a process of crossing … Crossing borders to learn there is no there on either side’. Could you elaborate upon the significance of crossing to understanding translation?
In the act of crossing, we find ourselves changed. We also find that our assumptions both about our origins and our destinations are necessarily altered. In the crossing, ideas about home and foreignness are re-considered as our own thinking and position are changed by these acts of reaching outside of ourselves. Through movement, we are pushed to redefine conceptions of what might belong to us, or what we might belong to.
Q: You are a writer yourself, across and between genres and disciplines. Is your engagement with language in these different forms intertwined with your work as a translator?
I see translation as writing. As Kate Briggs has written in This Little Art, the work of a translator is to ‘write a translation’. In this sense, the act of translation is necessarily an act of writing, and vice versa; writing is a form of translation from experience, from other texts, from lived experience. So yes, they are permanently intertwined, or rather they are inseparable, one and the same impulse.
Q: What are the different challenges – and possibilities – when it comes to translating non-fiction and fiction works, as well as ‘experimental’ writing?
Though I began as a translator of prose, I find the most creative vibrancy when I am working on translating poetry or hybrid experimental work. The constraints of the line, the role of meter and rhyme, the challenges of language play and linguistic experimentation: all of these make me excited to sit down and translate. I find other kinds of possibilities in translating more traditional prose, but not the same sense of joy or excitement as a particularly dicey poem or hybrid text.
Q: You have undertaken co-translations too: how does this process differ from an individual translation?
I have done a lot of co-translation over the years, particularly with my Antena collaborative partner, Jen Hofer. This has been an incredibly rich and productive experience, as I have learned so much from her and with her about what it means to translate, the importance of attention to detail and the necessity of dialogue and discussion. When we co-translate, we are constantly negotiating, assessing, commenting and responding. This process – which normally takes place through video phone chats, in person or in the comments section of a Word document – entails an attention to every line, every word, an openness to mistake and a willingness to learn from one another. Co-translation has been deeply productive for me.
Q: Do you feel that the work of translators is sufficiently acknowledged within publishing?
No, there is still much work to be done to acknowledge the work done by translators. I still find numerous publishers who do not want to place the translator’s name on the cover of the book, or academics or other writers who do not credit or cite translators, despite the work that we do and the years we invest to become competent and skilled. That said, the infinite labour done by small publishers and editors is not sufficiently lauded either. The fact is that under capitalism, all work that does not generate substantial profits is under-valued and often elided.
Q: You are the co-founder of the language justice and literary experimentation collaborative, Antena. Could you explain what ‘language justice’ involves?
Language justice is the idea that each person has a right to speak and express themselves in the language in which they feel most comfortable. It is tied to the idea that communities have rights to their languages, a right to use those languages and to see them supported at a societal, national and international level. This concept was born out of the US South and efforts to organise across barriers of language in social justice and community organising worlds. The Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee was an important site for development and experimentation around the concept of language justice. For more info on language justice, please download a PDF of Antena’s How to Build Language Justice for free here on our website.
Q: In the introduction to their edited collection Feminist Translation Studies, Olga Castro and Emek Ergun discuss how translators can also be ‘power brokers’ in encounters due to their role in facilitating, constructing – and perhaps at times also inhibiting – dialogue and exchange. Is this something you have reflected upon in relation to your own translation practices?
Yes, definitely. As part of my work with Antena, I work on an editorial committee for a series of chapbooks called Señal, which is operated out of Ugly Duckling Presse. As part of that committee, we have worked to broaden conceptions of what Latin America might include, moving beyond simply Spanish-language work, including Brazilian Portuguese and Afro-diasporic tongues and Indigenous languages. This year I am particularly excited about the publication of No Budu Please, a book of poems by Guatemalan Garifuna writer Wingston González.
Q: You have spoken of translation as ‘inevitable failure. Productive failure.’ Can you speak more about the creative potential of translation that does not – perhaps can never – fully ‘succeed’?
All writing is a record of failure, an inability to fully express all that one might yearn to say. Or writing is an attempt to use language to describe the world, a world much too large and unwieldy to allow for encapsulation within language. So then, writing itself becomes a kind of elegant failure, a beautiful way to trip and fall. In that sense, I see translation as a form of writing with all of the same attendant (im)possibilities. I continually push back against the deleterious suspicion most often applied to translation, the idea that something has been ‘lost’, as if the original version were perfect and without flaws. As if the world were not itself inevitably flawed. All writing is flawed, and this is why we keep writing, because it is impossible for anyone, ever, to get the last word. There is always more to be written, and thus always more to be translated.
Q: Reading a 2014 interview with HoustonPress, I was very struck by your allusion to the potential tension between the desire to create, engage with and participate in public, communal projects, and the recognition that often as writers we might desire the solitude and aloneness of writing. How do you navigate these potentially conflicting pulls?
This is a delicate balance for most writers and artists, but especially those of us who prioritise engagement with our communities and the larger society. We inhabit a world in which our work as cultural producers is often seen and analysed in a larger context of social movements and inequalities. Our work is not seen in a vacuum, but rather as part of a wider dialogue and a larger struggle to right the obvious injustices in the world. This means that as writers and translators, we are constantly having to situate our work in a world that does not allow for all voices to be heard, and amplifies the voices of the powerful far more than those of the marginalised. Because of this, solitary projects are in fact located within larger social and historical networks, just as collective work is often carried out by individuals. So the binary between solitary and public projects does not always hold. Sometimes the lines between the two are not clear at all. Though, yes, I do think I am continually thinking about how to move between the two forms of engagement, needing time for reading and reflection and nourishment, while also remaining committed to the sparks and epiphanies that can come from collective work and communal projects.
Note: This interview was conducted by Dr Rosemary Deller, Managing Editor of the LSE Review of Books blog. It gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics
Image Credit: (Pixabay CCO).