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

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“At some point I began to understand that my discomfort with translation was connected to the trauma of immigration,” starts Madhu H. Kaza’s editorial introduction to Kitchen Table Translation. 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.

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. 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.

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 writes:

Some of us, when we translate, call on our family (rather than colleagues) to help us with challenging passages or words. 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.

In March, Kaza and I talked about more ways to engage with history, erasure and error, and seeing translation as a continual crossover.

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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?

Madhu Kaza: I’m always interested in stories of how people come to do translation. 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. I am amazed at the confident, progressive, relatively linear—even if slow—trajectories of those stories. These stories fit with Western ideas of mastery. 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.

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. 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.

There are many forms of excellence and some of those forms are less socially recognized than others. 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.

To do translation is to become intimate with being wrong. I don’t see that as a deterrent. The question is how do you want to be wrong? What do you want to be faithful to? The norms of Anglo-American translation culture? The style and tone of the source text? The sensibility of the literary culture and context to which it belongs? There is no single, stable answer. Any translation choice will require some form of disobedience or suppression. I’m interested in having the disobedience named.

Madhu H. Kaza invoking Adrian Piper in a No. 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. Only later in life did I realize that I had lost something. In my rediscovery I wondered how I would be perceived as a translator of my mother language, which was not a European language. What is powerful and nurturing for you in translating this gap or silence, this sense of an unacknowledged self?

Kaza: It would be inaccurate for me to say that translation is nurturing. Translation from my first language, Telugu, is actually quite painful for me. (I enjoy translating from other languages.) It’s painful because I’m constantly reminded of loss. I was brought to the US when I was five, and mostly stopped speaking my first language. 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 do translation from Telugu as a way of reckoning with that loss, so that the loss is not simply a disappearance or void. 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. Translation for me is repair work.

Rumpus: How do you decide on which writers to translate from Telugu? Is there a literary scene of Telugu writers in India or do diasporic writers interest you? 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.

Kaza: Yes, it’s incredible labor. I don’t read Telugu very well. 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. It was a fascinating experience to shift from orality into literacy as an adult. 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. The classical work is highly Sanskritized; I work from the contemporary demotic. Because I’m a very slow reader I don’t pour through Telugu journals looking for good work to translate. Mostly, I follow up when someone tells me that they’ve read something really great.

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. When did you start imagining a collection of translations that focused on migration?

Kaza: I think that most of us believe that translation is a wonderful thing.  But there are also questions about who or what gets to cross a border. 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.

I wanted to think through what it might mean to take in the voices, narratives, ideas of others. The way that we receive texts from other places, is not disconnected to me from how we receive people from other places. What do we expect from them? How do we greet them? I’ve been curious about this. What kinds of intimacy are possible between two very different languages and cultures?

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.

Kaza: For a decade, I did a series of performance projects around the theme of hospitality. These projects were concerned with questions about guests and hosts, strangers and natives—again it circles back to immigration. I did a project, for instance, called “Here Is Where We Meet” where I read strangers to sleep in their homes. It was an incredibly moving experience of trust between me and the people I read to. They let me into their homes and let me watch over their sleep. I trusted them to welcome me with care. It was centered around reading and the kind of reading I love. I’d show up and they’d give me a book and I’d read to them. It was about voice and sharing the experience of narrative and language together, entering into liminal states. 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. That project wasn’t focused on translation, but it’s connected. It required the hosts to be open and vulnerable in their own space to what was unknown or foreign to them. As I say in Kitchen Table Translation, I think of translation as an act of hospitality. 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.

I also wonder: What if we had a discourse about the generosity of the immigrant? We have a discourse of the generosity of the host. That it is generous for a nation to take in immigrants, for example. That it is generous to translate a text. But imagine if we were able to speak about the generosity of immigrants. 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. I think there is something so beautiful in that. The original text, too, in this view, can be called generous in its openness and availability to translation.

Rumpus: How does Kitchen Table Translation connect to other projects you are involved in? For instance, your work with Gabrielle Civil and Rosamond S. King in the artist collective No. 1 Gold?

Kaza: In the late 90s Gabby, Rosa and I formed an artist collective called No. 1 Gold, which was the art-making wing of our literary arts education non-profit, Witness Tree. 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. No. 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. Our projects primarily included literary, performance, and conceptual art interventions in public space. 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. Our mission statement read: No. 1 Gold = writing / urban travel / labor / space / aesthetics / represent / dilettante / astonishment. Gold Leaf was all of these things, especially a ton of labor!

We’ve just relaunched No. 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. We want to play with old forms of literary events and transform them, making them smarter and weirder. 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? 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. We place a great emphasis on joy, surprise, and imagination. Our work will be slow, and we want to remain small as a way to think big.

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. 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. We are spurred on in No. 1 Gold by our voracious love of books and language and our unending desire to be astonished. I can’t emphasize this last part enough.

Founding members of No. 1 Gold

Rumpus: What other forms of literary advocacy related to the book do you have in mind?

Kaza: I decided I wanted to launch a literary prize this year. 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. Who’s going to start one?” I love how much of an advocate Susan is. I’d already been thinking about the prize idea but when I read her post my immediate response was: “Us! Why not?” The No. 1 Gold Literary Prize—I mean, doesn’t that sound great? And grandiose? 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?

But to connect it to the other projects, the prize, too, is about community and about the relational. There are so many fantastic writers whom we love and who we feel don’t get the recognition they deserve. We want to honor a few of them. I think prizes, big and small are great. Writers should be recognized. 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. We’re making a scheme of our own. 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. 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. It’s a gesture of love, encouragement and a way to spread the word about great writers.

Rumpus: What has been the response from presenting or discussing Kitchen Table Translation at conferences and in public?

Kaza: I’m humbled and thrilled at the response. 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. I have enjoyed the Kitchen Table Translation conversations that I’ve curated and moderated so much. It’s never simply about me presenting my ideas. I really believe in live events, when they are done well, and I put a lot of care into curating them. I love the possibility of what can happen when smart, thoughtful people are together in a room and genuinely thinking through things together.

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. I love that we are creating new conversations for emerging translators of color. 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. This little project feels like it has the capacity to make a difference.

The one thing people always say to me about the Kitchen Table Translation events are how moving they are. Audience members sometimes get choked up, and I myself nearly cried at one event while listening to Eiko Otake and Dagmawi Woubshet speak. I can’t express how much this emotional connection to the audience matters to 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.

Eiko Otake, Dagmawi Woubshet, and Amy Sara Carroll at the 2017 PEN World Voices Kitchen Table Translation event

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Images provided courtesy of Madhu H. Kaza.


Raj Chakrapani has lived in Romania, Liberia, and Myanmar and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His poems can be found in the Des Moines Register, Sequestrum, and at Crevice.ro, and his short films can be found on YouTube. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Iowa. More from this author →