NEW INTERVIEW BELOW
Interview with Conor Bracken for Scorpionic Sun & A Beginner’s Guide to Translations
One of our editors, colin james sturdevant, spoke with Conor Bracken about translations. This interview has been in the dark some years now. Bracken translated Scorpionic Sun, a collection of translations of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Soleil arachnide. The following transcript covers the struggle and beauty of working with translations in general, Scorpionic Sun being an example, and some pointers are given for writers that would like to break the ice in working with translations on their own.
Scorpionic Sun is a slipstream of history that intersects with modern life, as well as experiences by Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, that are a blend of Amazigh-Moroccan culture, rulers and colonialism, and the liberation of the self from said dispositions. How does one free oneself with a stolen or washed over culture? How does one express realization and revelation? How does one iron out ancestral and passed down trauma? Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s work does exactly these.
Here are some samples of what lies within the pages of Scorpionic Sun – little bursts of richness waiting to be withdrawn from each poem that is a husk of history and identity. Poems: Sagho, Horoscope, and To Jean Dufoir (https://www.poetrynw.org/mohammed-khair-eddine-three-poems-translation-by-conor-bracken/) & Barbarian, Swashbuckling, Exile (http://waxwingmag.org/items/issue17/53_Bracken-Translators-Note.php#top) & Where, Laterites, and Barrage (https://bombmagazine.org/articles/from-scorpionic-sun/).
If you’d like to support the arts, writers, and the unheard, and of course, you have the means, you can purchase Scorpionic Sun here: http://www.csupoetrycenter.com/books/scorpionic-sun
Also, a bit of information on Conor as well - Conor Bracken is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press), as well as the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center) and Jean D’Amérique’s forthcoming No Way in the Skin without this Bloody Embrace (Ugly Duckling Presse). His work has earned support from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and has appeared in places like BOMB, jubilat, New England Review, The New Yorker, and Ploughshares, among others. His first book of poems, The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, is out now with Diode Editions.
We are also excited to announce that we will be holding a Translations Prize during a special submission period (November 1st, 2021 – December 1st, 2021). We will have a primary winner. This contest will be fee-free. And the winner will receive a prize of 150.00 USD. Stay posted with our social media for more forthcoming information! Follow us on Instagram @tablefeastlitmag
The transcript of the interview is below.
colin james sturdevant: If there are writers interested in pursuing work in translations, are there any books you could recommend that would be helpful to a beginner in translations?
Conor Bracken: Great question! My first recommendation--which I received from Pierre Joris as I started out on my own translation sojourn--was to first find work that you want to translate, and get into it. There's no education like the praxis. And what translation imposes upon you as a translator, is a deep focus on the work itself. Getting to know it, trying to bring it into the target language (or to bring the target language to it), really digging around in the bowels of both languages figuring out shades of meaning and inflection, inculcate in you a sense of the process that is hard to cadge from reading. That said, though, there are a lot of great texts on translation. One to begin with might be Lawrence Venuti's The Translation Studies Reader, which provides a broad overview on different essential theoretical texts in translation studies (Nabokov, Borges, Spivak, etc.). A more accessible one would be Umberto Eco's Mouse or Rat, which is a collection of lectures he gave at Oxford, digging into the process of working with translators on his own novels. Two books I read recently that I've enjoyed--and which help to offer a sense of the range of approaches to the practice of translation and the aesthetic act of it--are This Little Art by Kate Briggs and Transgressive Circulation by Johannes Göransson. Aside from that, following translation-related publications, like Asymptote, Words Without Borders, or Anmly, are great resources for both examples of translated poetry, and critical conversations around it.
cjs: How long have you worked on this project? Were there any worries or insecurities you had going into it? Were there times where some parts were culturally or linguistically challenging to translate?
CB: This project--Scorpionic Sun--ended (in the way most projects end--by having to finally abandon it, not necessarily by 'perfecting' it) this spring. I started it in the summer of 2015. So I worked on it, off and on, for about four years. My process was extensive partially because this was my first full-length translation project; partially because I was doing this on the side; partially due to the density and avant-garde nature of the original; and partially due to the process itself, in which I worked through four or five full drafts of the translation, with smaller tweaks to individual poems as well.
Going into it--and throughout it--I had to grapple with worries, definitely. Though I've studied French off and on since childhood, and have lived in some francophone countries, my grasp of the language isn't perfect. On top of that, though I've spent some time in Morocco (Khaïr -Eddine's country), I am far from an expert on the culture, history, language, customs, etc. of the nation and the many groups that make up its population. This impeded me frequently, and had me second-guessing myself, on the level of semantic sense (was I getting an idiom right? Is this phrase modifying that phrase, or is it its own phrase juxtaposed?), as well as on the level of culture (is this a reference to a particular event at this place, or the place itself? Am I missing an idiomatic turn here?). So, I returned quite frequently to my translations to tinker and tweak. One thing that has come to solace me, though, is some of Göransson's central contentions in Transgressive Circulation: too frequently, we let this fallacious attachment to mastery--of culture, of language, of the text itself--get in the way of actually translating the work. This has ensured that not enough work is ultimately translated into English, and so feeds this negative vortex of not-enough translated literature. Göransson also talks about the sources of this mastery, rooted in a kind of neoliberal conservatism that seeks to keep borders bright and tidy. He also talks about how translation is an inherent disruption to that, and thus a violent refutation both politically and aesthetically of constraining, nationalistic ideologies. And the thing about translation is that others can translate the same text and approach it entirely differently, and produce something that has inherent value and interest despite any differences of interpretation.
What I've come to think is that beginning the conversation--not creating some definitive, perfect text--is what this should be about. And though I wanted to ensure that any choices I made fit into some larger mosaic of aesthetic and political concerns and to reproduce effects that I thought were important in the book itself, I've become less anxious about them being the "right" choices, because right is ultimately relative, and arbitrary, and to a degree self-determined.
cjs: Did you get to have a kinesthetic or tactile experience with his work and drafts of poems? Did you get to see the way he put his poems together? Was he experimental or did he use automatic writing? As far as the language he had used, he used the French language, instead of an ancestral or pre-colonial language? What does the work, if it does, suffer? Or gain?
CB: In terms of his work, alas I did not have any kinesthetic experience with it, aside from paging through a second edition of the book so much as I transcribed from and consulted it that the glue on the last stack of pages came loose. In terms of how he put his poems together, from my understanding it was improvisatory and pretty ferocious. He called his technique "guerrilla linguistique" which more or less means 'linguistic guerrilla war' which is a fascinating way to think of composing poems, I think, as if you're engaged in an asymmetric conflict with them, with you always trying to outsmart and surprise them, ambush them where they sleep and kidnap them. This particular metaphor comes in part out of Khaïr's temporal and political context: it was the mid-60's and though Morocco had been ceded independence by France the decade prior, King Hassan II ruled brutally over the Moroccan people, tolerating no dissent (Khaïr and many of his peers spent time either in prison or exile). The Moroccan people themselves, too, had not thrown off the cultural yoke the French had, with years of colonization, thrown over them, so even in the wake of independence, art and literature and other creative pursuits were judged by their ability to participate in French ideas of those genres. To Khaïr this was intolerable (not to mention that on top of being a postcolonial subject he was also Amazigh, or Berber, one of the main ethnic groups of Morocco, resident there for millennia, but always unrecognized politically by successive waves of colonists). And so Khaïr had a pretty adversarial relationship to poetry and French, in which he wrote his poems (to answer your second question), to say the least. It's worth noting that he talks about using French not as a choice but as something natural--it was as much his mother tongue as Tashelhiyt, his regional Berber dialect. Although, when he talks about writing, he says that a poet must be a stranger in the language he writes in. I think that this view, coupled with the general dismissal of his humanity and intelligence by the French, motivates the belligerence underlying his linguistic guerrilla war.
I'm glad you ask about automatic writing, because Khaïr is definitely what we can call a surrealist (he notes in some poems his indebtedness to Breton), although his relation to it is less through the habits and aims of continental surrealism than to what Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour note as a version that is autochthonous to North Africa, and which has been resident there thanks to sufism for centuries. More like the dervishes we associate with Persian mysticism than the smoky salons of 1920's Paris, though with a lot more desert iconography, esoteric zoological terms, and tricontinental communist revolution thrown in. As to whether anything suffers due to Khaïr's choice of language, I'd say not--he's a consummate user of the language, as his grasp of both vernacular and recondite scientific and philosophical terms attests. If anything, I think his choice of French brings the poems more vigor, since not only is he wielding a tool he's wielded his whole life, but he's doing so to repudiate and humiliate the 'original' users of the language, and to prove that those who look and talk like he do are just as, if not more, intelligent and capable as they are.
cjs: Were there any other works by other writers you were interested in? What drew you to choose Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine's work?
CB: In terms of other writers I was interested in, I'd done a little work with Aimé Césaire's poetry while in grad school (reading epics, and particularly his landmark one Notebook of a return to the native land) whose vigor and swiftness I found exhilarating. I translated a poem and found myself really enjoying the process. When I was looking for work to translate, I read some more contemporary French writers but didn't feel the same spark that I found in Césaire. They were cerebral, experimental in a way that was very think-y and ethereal, but when I found Khaïr's work, I found something rooted firmly in the body. That's ultimately what drew me to his work, and the work of his peers, like Abdellatif Lâabi, Mostafa Nissabouri, and Tahar Ben Jelloun, which I read excerpts of in an anthology of Souffles/Anfas, a journal they worked on together in the 60s: this sense that experience, specifically of postcoloniality but of life and politics and other phenomena, is mediated by one's body. It ties back, for me, in a way, to WCWilliams's dictum 'no idea but in things'--that without some sort of physical corollary or vessel, without praxis, the idea withers or dissipates. It's something that animates a lot of my work, as well, so that aesthetic correspondence closed the circuit for me, so I was able to feel and appreciate the electricity surging in the work.
A heartfelt thanks to Conor for his insight and for letting us interview him and his work in translations. Our Translations Prize contest (elements&flour//LOAFOFBREAD Contest) is fee-free and the window for submissions will be between November 1st and December 1st. Details and rules will be posted come mid-October 2021.