It’s complicated, reading poetry in translation. On the one hand, a reader may feel compelled to pursue translated poetry as a good “literary citizen,” as if the action’s moral correctitude were a bygone conclusion. Translated literature, the thought goes, can interrogate and pierce one’s cultural blindspots and preconceptions. If you exclusively read books written in your native tongue, you risk upholding hegemonies that stymie voices we need to hear.
On the other hand, the translation act itself contains tensions that are hard to ignore: the imbalanced translator-author binary, the indeterminate goal of translation, the cultural chasms that must be straddled. Should the translated work prioritize veracity to the original or artfulness in the target language? Are readers of the translation getting the “full picture” or some warped and anglicized caricature? Who is allowed to translate what? If these unresolvable tensions hang in the background of the translation act, Sawako Nakayasu crisscrosses them like a tightrope walker in her book Some Girls Walk Into the Country They Are From, published in 2020 by Wave Poetry.
Nakayasu is the author of several books and collections of poetry, some of them originals, some of them translations, and some of them, like 2011’s Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals, a hybrid-blend of the two. “I was really interested in taking certain established ideas about translation,” she said about Mouth, “and seeing how far I could abstract myself away from them.” The title (Anti-Translations?) gives credence to this effort, and Some Girls can be seen as an elaboration and continuation of this impulse.
To be clear, this isn’t a book of translations, but it also isn’t solely a book of originals. The book lists seven collaborator-translators: Genève Chao, Lynn Xu, Hitomi Yoshio, Kyongmi Park, Kyoko Yoshida, Karen An-Hwei Lee, and Miwako Ozawa. Four languages appear (English, Japanese, Korean, French) sometimes fighting for space in the same poem. The project is structured unpredictably, deliberately undermining the organizational conventions of a book in translation.
In one instance, we get a phonetic translation and a re-re-translation of the poem “Couch” long before we get the original. In another, a pictorial translation of a poem early in the collection appears way at the end, after the acknowledgements page. Some poems are labeled as translations, others are distinguished as being “via” a collaborator. Some of the translations are self-reflexive, commenting on the translation within the translation (one of them ends: “There’s no translation without love, I say to Sawako.”). The very structure of a book seems ill-equipped to accommodate the sprawling project’s formal logic. There are so many voices filtered through other voices, languages shaped by other languages.
These decisions destabilize the reader’s idea of the translation act. For example, the translated poems don’t inherently claim veracity. How could they when their shapes and titles and lengths differ drastically from the originals? The author doesn’t prioritize her works over her collaborators’ refractions; on the contrary, some originals aren’t even present, just reworks and the author’s reworks of those reworks. There’s no real hope here of getting the “full picture” because the project feels too slippery for that definition to equilibrate. And of course, that’s the point. Deconstructive works like Some Girls shine a spotlight on the hidden assumptions we bring to literature.
All this structure talk and we haven’t touched on the actual content of the poems! They primarily center on a group of girls named (labeled?) Girls A through J. “Girls” is a deliberate word choice here. It’s a word that can be used with purely factual intent, but carries with it a dismissive edge (the paratextual material calls it a “psuedo-slur”). By further abstracting these girls to mere letters, the reader is invited to consider them as interrelated fragments of a “community” object. It’s less important what Girl H does as an individual: “Stop asking me if it’s Girl A or B or C or D. It is none of your business,” opens one poem. Each Girl is one variable, one facet of a gang of Girls that roil through the strange universe of these poems.
Strange, yes, and violent, somewhat nightmarish, but also funny and thoughtful. The Girls are sometimes annihilated, sometimes eaten, sometimes fighting, sometimes spiking drinks, other times showing tenderness towards one another. In one poem, they’re trapped inside a bag of Cheetos. In another, Girl J is packing Girl A’s vomit into hardened puke balls to use as projectiles while bemoaning the past (“it was much less complicated, they threw rocks at each other”). In fact, there’s a lot of barfing and eating going on here. Girls in dumplings, Girls in soups, Girls pulling flowers from their mouths. They interrogate one another for their names, fall in and out of love. It all has the vibe of a demented late-night cartoon, one where the continuity is erased at the end of each episode.
In this dreamlike instability, the Girls are rarely allowed to settle. In “Girl F In An Ocean of Hats,” “the waves roil and froth around the pussies as they swim, free and proud and safe for once.” As they swim, they “[leave] a wake of chauvinist detritus.” They can “hold their own in a hotdog eating contest,” we’re told. One Girl photographs another, who complains of being exploited, but it feels like a playful tête-à-tête. The moment is soured when “the shadow of a figure in an oversized suit arrives and casts itself down over the entire scene.” The Girls respond by firing bullets into the figure’s knees. Gendered language stands out, not least with the constant focus on the word Girls. They’re like a roving diaspora in a world that can’t digest their wild, blazing presence.
Some Girls Walk Into the Country They Are From is an avant garde work. And like any worthwhile avant garde work, it feels infinitely unpackable, suffused with possibility and ideas and danger, crackling with energy, never solidifying into one “full picture” interpretation. It resists as it entreats, frustrates as it rewards. Even after finishing the book, one gets the sense that Girls A through J live on, nebulous and inseparable, oblivious to the desires of the reader, tucked into the spaces between languages, forever resisting the deadening curse of being defined.
(WAVE POETRY, BOOK, OUT NOW)
August Smith is a poet, musician, and game dev living in Austin, TX. You can findlinks to his work, including more poetry book reviews, here: http://august.mostlymidwest.com/.