How Do You Want to Be Wrong?: Talking with Madhu H. Kaza

The norms of Anglo-American translation culture? I really believe in live events, when they are done well, and I put a lot of care into curating them. It was a fascinating experience to shift from orality into literacy as an adult. Not only in terms of what they contribute to the host country, but also in their very receptivity to the host culture, their willingness to be changed. On the other hand, there are so many people who have some type of access to other languages—immigrants and diasporic peoples, for instance, who don’t enter into translation because they doubt their competence to engage literary translation if their exposure to a language hasn’t been primarily academic. Raj Chakrapani has lived in Romania, Liberia and Myanmar and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I did a project, for instance, called “Here Is Where We Meet” where I read strangers to sleep in their homes. That project wasn’t focused on translation, but it’s connected. Eiko Otake, Dagmawi Woubshet, and Amy Sara Carroll at the 2017 PEN World Voices Kitchen Table Translation   event
Images provided courtesy of Madhu H. But there are also questions about who or what gets to cross a border. We have wide and divergent aesthetics and we want to create a space where we can bring together different works, discourses, lineages, trajectories, and people who normally don’t come together. Our mission statement read: No. I’ve been curious about this. It’s never simply about me presenting my ideas. I think there is something so beautiful in that. The classical work is highly Sanskritized; I work from the contemporary demotic. Last fall after winning the Warwick Prize in the UK with Yoko Tawada, translator Susan Bernofsky posted on her blog: “We still need a Women in Translation Prize for books published in the US. What do we expect from them? We are thinking about modes of being together as writers and readers—what can happen when we read and do things with books together that can’t happen when we are alone? I can’t express how much this emotional connection to the audience matters to me. I was brought to the US when I was five, and mostly stopped speaking my first language. I’d show up and they’d give me a book and I’d read to them. Kaza writes:
Some of us, when we translate, call on our family (rather than colleagues) to help us with challenging passages or words. It was an incredibly moving experience of trust between me and the people I read to. It’s a gesture of love, encouragement and a way to spread the word about great writers. 1 Gold was a form of collective self-education and development for us; we learned to be artists from books, museum and gallery visits, passionate conversation, movements through the streets New York City, and earnest practice outside of official art institutions. Rumpus: What has been the response from presenting or discussing Kitchen Table Translation at conferences and in public? I am amazed at the confident, progressive, relatively linear—even if slow—trajectories of those stories. There are many forms of excellence and some of those forms are less socially recognized than others. Kaza’s editorial introduction to Kitchen Table Translation. What do you want to be faithful to? Writers should be recognized. Though I went to school as a child in India, I really learned to read during college when I spent a summer at the University of Wisconsin. Madhu Kaza: I’m always interested in stories of how people come to do translation. (I enjoy translating from other languages.) It’s painful because I’m constantly reminded of loss. We’re making a scheme of our own. I don’t see that as a deterrent. 1 Gold
Rumpus: What other forms of literary advocacy related to the book do you have in mind? That language is a love of my life—I think of Dante’s evocation of the emotional call of the “language of the cradle”—and it feels very far away from me most days. I think it’s important to say that before I did Kitchen Table Translation I was unable to talk about translation in public—I felt ashamed about my translation dilemmas and I felt excluded by the world of translation. 1 Gold by our voracious love of books and language and our unending desire to be astonished. I am interested in forms of translation (and relation) where we don’t simply demand the other to assimilate, where we meet each of us, all of us, on unfamiliar ground. Let me also be clear that I don’t think of “mastery” as the same thing as “excellence.” Mastery can coincide with a discourse of domination. Kaza: Yes, it’s incredible labor. How do we greet them? We’ve just relaunched No. It involves no payment from writers or publishers, no submissions, no drawn out long-lists and short-lists, which I admit must be useful for marketing and sales. Who are we—a group of highly educated, ultra-literate, multilingual, super smart women of color of uncommon sense and excellent taste who read across genres, who teach literature, who write, who edit, and who deeply care about work in other languages and in-translation—who are we to give out a literary prize? Kaza: I decided I wanted to launch a literary prize this year. King in the artist collective No. Essentially we’ll operate like the MacArthur Foundation except that we’ll be giving out several hundred thousand dollars less in cash to each winner. I love nothing more than reading out loud to someone or being read to—just not in the form sitting in a row of chairs at a public reading with an author at a podium. Kaza: For a decade, I did a series of performance projects around the theme of hospitality. For a long time I thought of translators as those white Americans who grow up monolingual and who take a random German or Japanese class in college, say, or read Nouveaux Romans or Latin American boom fiction and get inspired, and pursue the language and years later become translators. Founding members of No. Our projects primarily included literary, performance, and conceptual art interventions in public space. This little project feels like it has the capacity to make a difference. These projects were concerned with questions about guests and hosts, strangers and natives—again it circles back to immigration. Rumpus: How do you decide on which writers to translate from Telugu? But I also realized a few years ago through some young people I knew who worked in publishing that many of the big prizes are schemes; they are pay to play. I love the possibility of what can happen when smart, thoughtful people are together in a room and genuinely thinking through things together. 1 Gold, which was the art-making wing of our literary arts education non-profit, Witness Tree. But imagine if we were able to speak about the generosity of immigrants. I ask the question because I have not read much Telugu writing in translation, or Tamil for that matter, which leads me to the question of how the translator might have additional labor of unearthing writers not already in the conversation of contemporary fiction. I don’t read Telugu very well. I love that we are creating new conversations for emerging translators of color. Why not?” The No. But to connect it to the other projects, the prize, too, is about community and about the relational. I can’t emphasize this last part enough. ***
The Rumpus: Could you talk about how disobedient or unfaithful translations can open up the world of translation to people who have been previously excluded? I also wonder: What if we had a discourse about the generosity of the immigrant? The question is how do you want to be wrong? Kaza: In the late 90s Gabby, Rosa and I formed an artist collective called No. To do translation is to become intimate with being wrong. They let me into their homes and let me watch over their sleep. No. In these respects I see a continuum with projects like Kitchen Table Translation in that it’s all work centered around literary advocacy, community building and creating more freedom for ourselves. 1 Gold performance
Rumpus: As a child of parents who moved to the US myself, I found the double loss of being separated from a mother language particularly resonant. Is there a literary scene of Telugu writers in India or do diasporic writers interest you? His poems can be found in the Des Moines Register, Sequestrum, and his short films on Youtube. Who’s going to start one?” I love how much of an advocate Susan is. The sensibility of the literary culture and context to which it belongs? Only later in life did I realize that I had lost something. There is no single, stable answer. Rumpus: I would love to hear more about how the translator can be changed by the works she is translating, how translation is not “a difference to overcome” but rather an act of hospitality, welcoming a difference with attention and care. I have enjoyed the Kitchen Table Translation conversations that I’ve curated and moderated so much. Kaza

By Raj Chakrapani
May 14th, 2018

“At some point I began to understand that my discomfort with translation was connected to the trauma of immigration,” starts Madhu H. That it is generous to translate a text. These stories fit with Western ideas of mastery. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa. It was about voice and sharing the experience of narrative and language together, entering into liminal states. There are so many fantastic writers whom we love and who we feel don’t get the recognition they deserve. The way that we receive texts from other places, is not disconnected to me from how we receive people from other places. Some second generation, diasporic and indigenous writers who speak (or partly speak) an ancestral language at home might find the discourse of mastery fraught, especially when access to a language has been lost through historical violence and dislocation. The style and tone of the source text? For instance, your work with Gabrielle Civil and Rosamond S. Kitchen Table Translation is about the political act of translation, what texts are translated and why is as important to the discussion as the text itself. I’m interested in having the disobedience named. If the work is nurturing in any way it’s because it’s a way of staying with loss, mourning—which is to say remembering. Sony Coráñez Bolton notes in his discussion of translation in a Filipinx context, that the colonial model of disability involves “characterizing an entire population unfit to engage their own intellectual and cultural patrimony.” For post-colonial or marginalized translators who reject this colonial model, I think there can be a great energy in disobedience to dominant literary values, which can overlap with market and neo-imperialist currents. I’ve felt really happy that the Kitchen Table Translation conversations have been reaching immigrant, POC and second-generation writers—many of whom also have felt excluded from translation. In March, Kaza and I talked about more ways to engage with history, erasure and error, and seeing translation as a continual crossover. It’s about being women of color who lay claim to everything, not just the little corners of identity that are allocated to us by cultural institutions. Kitchen Table Translation gathers numerous well known and emerging translators—Don Mee Choi, Bruna Dantas Lobato, Dagmawi Woubshet, Eiko Otake, and Sony Coráñez Bolton—to celebrate work that resists the largely white world of literary translation; works that do not seek to erase otherness and welcome translation as an intimate act. Kaza: I think that most of us believe that translation is a wonderful thing. Rumpus: I’m interested in the idea that translated texts are related to the movement of bodies and modes of translation centered on how the body itself is translated by a “receiving” culture. I was constantly surprised by words I thought I knew—like, “Oh, there’s an ‘r’ in that word?”
Telugu has a rich classical literary tradition as well as a very active modern literary culture. And grandiose? I’d already been thinking about the prize idea but when I read her post my immediate response was: “Us! Any translation choice will require some form of disobedience or suppression. When did you start imagining a collection of translations that focused on migration? Translation from my first language, Telugu, is actually quite painful for me. I want people who attend our events to feel an intellectual spark, I hope they gain new perspectives on writing, literature and translation—and I also want them to feel that literature matters. Kaza: I’m humbled and thrilled at the response. What is powerful and nurturing for you in translating this gap or silence, this sense of an unacknowledged self? We were three young women of color (aka “those black girls and that Indian one”) who created for ourselves a creative laboratory around race, creative writing, performance, and conceptual art. Kaza: It would be inaccurate for me to say that translation is nurturing. As I say in Kitchen Table Translation, I think of translation as an act of hospitality. I think that for people who feel excluded from translation, disobedience opens up a way of thinking more politically about one’s right to translate from a marginalized position, and not simply from the legitimated positions of mastery. Because I’m a very slow reader I don’t pour through Telugu journals looking for good work to translate. We have a discourse of the generosity of the host. Rumpus: How does Kitchen Table Translation connect to other projects you are involved in? Mostly, I follow up when someone tells me that they’ve read something really great. On the other hand, I also deeply appreciate the many established people in the field of literary translation who have reached out to collaborate or have expressed interest in using their resources to create more space for POC translators. The book challenges the emphasis on accuracy or mastery in translation that can elide the political and cultural variance of a foreign text; sometimes disobedience and unfaithfulness can serve to remind us that translation exists under a dominant culture. 1 Gold Literary Prize—I mean, doesn’t that sound great? What kinds of intimacy are possible between two very different languages and cultures? We place a great emphasis on joy, surprise, and imagination. In my rediscovery I wondered how I would be perceived as a translator of my mother language, which was not a European language. Translation for me is repair work. Our work will be slow, and we want to remain small as a way to think big. We want to honor a few of them. I trusted them to welcome me with care. We are spurred on in No. It required the hosts to be open and vulnerable in their own space to what was unknown or foreign to them. For instance, for the Gold Leaf Project we distributed 10,000 poems wrapped in gold foil across all five boroughs of New York City on a single day. We want to play with old forms of literary events and transform them, making them smarter and weirder. Kaza invoking Adrian Piper in a No. I do translation from Telugu as a way of reckoning with that loss, so that the loss is not simply a disappearance or void. I spent some time in Myanmar for work these past few years and trying to learn more about the refugees fleeing that country, and reading about the refugee crises in the Mediterranean, and considering the discourse around the US border with Mexico–I felt dissatisfied with many of the conversations I was hearing about translation—which primarily emphasize technique. Kaza. That it is generous for a nation to take in immigrants, for example. Her editor’s note is one of the best introductions to an anthology I have ever read and I could not put the book down—each sentence was thunder down my throat and awakened something that been quiet in me. Gold Leaf was all of these things, especially a ton of labor! The original text, too, in this view, can be called generous in its openness and availability to translation. 1 Gold? 1 Gold = writing / urban travel / labor / space / aesthetics / represent / dilettante / astonishment. I think prizes, big and small are great. Audience members sometimes get choked up, and I myself nearly cried at one event while listening to Eiko Otake and Dagmawi Woubshet speak. I wanted to think through what it might mean to take in the voices, narratives, ideas of others. How Do You Want to Be Wrong?: Talking with Madhu H. The one thing people always say to me about the Kitchen Table Translation events are how moving they are. 1 Gold this year with a new member, Wah-Ming Chang (so now we are “black, brown, yellow”) and with some new areas of emphasis which I’d put under the umbrella category of “doing things with books.” This includes some publishing, but also collective reading projects, live events, performance collaborations. It was centered around reading and the kind of reading I love. More from this author → Madhu H.