Benjamin implies a crucial distinction between sentence (the container of information) and syntax (the container of cadence).
A literal rendering of syntax—that is, a blinkered focus on cadence—into the second language threatens comprehensibility, converting language from a medium of exchange, information, transposition into an open-ended rhythm, a filament, part of a harmony existing in space, to which, Benjamin says, “meaning hangs loosely, as departure,… tangentially,… like a royal robe with ample folds”(p. 75, Ill.).
In a translation the relationship between words and meaning is tangential, residing not in words but in the movement among them—that’s what cadence is—visually, in the potent, mind’s eye space emanating from and surrounding words.
In this hypertext space, both languages lose their autonomous identity; they fragment, rearranging themselves in a continuous unity. In this space (notice how Benjamin’s concept of pure language is visual, shifting the focus of language from the ear to the eye) the concept of authorship, of yours and mine disappears. Benjamin: “Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together... need not to be like another... as fragments of a greater language.” (p. 78, Ill.)
A deep ambivalence underlies Benjamin’s analysis of translation. While its impulse is idealist, Platonic, contemplative, it is pregnant with disintegration, as if unity (the mind) and explosive fragmentation pun in this transparent arcade.
Jack Spicer’s Mars, the messages from which through a radio in a blinkered focus on the present avoiding the furnitures of language are transmitted, is Benjamin’s ideal language. His Homage to Creeley (book one of The Heads of the Town ) and After Lorca formally reenact Benjamin’s dialectics of translation.
Spicer is perhaps the most charmless of modern American poets. His eerily flat language, at least to me, creates no poem which gives pleasure as a poem, in the physicality of its language, in its luscious unity. His power lies in the structure in which he puts these poems, words, in the emptiness he creates among them. This space, utterly new—emphasizing distance—is dynamite, introducing translation as a poetic genre into the language.
The poet as a radio, as a translator, as a creator of new poetic space. The reader (also necessarily a poet) as an improviser, not reading words along the linear/physical structure of a sentence; but through sparks created across space, random, chaotic, the poem retranslated each time into his/her mind.
Spicer calls Homage to Creeley hell. Poetically, what is hell? A sequence of pairs of opposing texts in which a bottom “footnote” purports to clarify, “translate” an original, the “poem” at the top. But their relationship is at best fleeting, as Benjamin says, “just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity.”
Infinity is not in the original point (text), but in the fleeting gesture, the desire of touching (the translating, the reading impulse).
Mismatches electrify the page, top and bottom moving to the empty space in between. Each side cedes its semantic identity to it. Homage to Creeley can only be experienced visually, as the reader focuses on the empty space and tries to elicit elusive contacts between two recalcitrant texts. It is the reader’s partly frustrated attempt which empowers the space—which remains full with suppressed language, a mystical space where language is potent with ineloquence.
The space of Homage to Creeley is Benjamin’s space of ideal language before any words appear in it. It is hell because words can only wander as shadows in the grim, empty space.
After Lorca, which precedes The Heads of the Town, explores the relationship between the original and host tongues, what attracts (repels) one to the other. The “translations” in the poem are curiously unsatisfactory, flat, less like Lorca than weak versions of Yeats. What explodes is the correspondence between Spicer and Lorca, whom he pursues unto death.
Spicer is “after” Lorca as an exploiter, as a predator is after a prey, set to destroy the autonomy of the prey, as it also abolishes his own autonomy as an expressing self. “After” denotes not an homage but a violent, destructive act, an ingestion.
The poem starts with a sullen rejection: Lorca: “Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume. My reaction... is fundamentally unsympathetic.” (p. 11, The Collected)
Lorca: “More often he takes one of my poems and adjoins to half of it another half of his own, giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur.... Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place.” (p. 11)
Translation is not a recreation of a poem, but of the state of the dying; full of disintegration in the ideal space of pure language: Benjamin: “Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together... need not to be like another... as fragments of a greater language.” (p. 78, Ill.)
While The Heads of the Town turns translation into a contemplative, essentially radical/mystical genre by creating a new space, After Lorca prepares for it by demolishing the concept of ownership, of individual authorship and ego -poetry as private property; medievalizing the process, replacing self expression by intertexuality, the poet becoming a scribe, a copier, a radio, a scholar, a translator, etc. If the autonomy of individual work of art is the beginning of modern poetics, embodied in the ethereal loftiness of Mallarmée’s A Coup de Dés, After Lorca is its anarchic end where the values of unity and ownership, inviolable wholeness, are literally smitten into dust.
(Translation as an anarchic genre contains intimations of mortality—in the body of text—interestingly, as photography does in the reflection of the pose.)
Armand Schwerner’s The Tablets, a translation of undeciphered gaps, Robert Grenier’s visual constructs where words thin into almost incomprehensibility becoming visual entities and which, as I noticed in his The Poetry Project reading, are supported by a tangential text of commentary, my Turkish Voices and Io’s Song belong to this genre.*
To point to the spiritual dimension of translation as a genre—the thereness of its space—one may notice that Saint Ignatius pops up in Spicer’s Vancouver lectures, Armand has translated Dante, Grenier is a Buddhist, the melody of the Eda which I explore in my Turkish translations is based on a Sufi poetics.