World Within World

As I continue posting these translations, I'm thinking of several problems that arise from this activity. First, the fact that I'm one translator working on a dozen or more poets. Always the possibility that their voices are being subsumed into my own. In the early 1990s I studied at the Naropa Institute for a summer, and during a workshop with Allen Ginsberg he wrote on one of my manuscripts: "sounds like translationese." There's the danger, then, of misrepresenting these poets as I transfer excerpts of their work into English. But also the danger that my own work as a poet will be neutralized by a muddled, "translationese" English.

But danger is one of the unifying elements of this age. We're all in grave danger, whether politically, spiritually, or materially. Maybe this blog is my attempt to work through these dangers as a reader and writer. I've been re-reading Aijaz Ahmad's In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (Verso, 1992), and finding plenty of helpful observations relating to these translations. Regardless of whatever privilege I may have lived in my postmodern Caracas of the 1970s and 80s, Venezuelan literature is still considered marginal to the Anglo-American/European traditions. For instance, very few people have read Arturo Uslar Pietri or know his accounts of his friendship with Alejo Carpentier and Miguel Angel Asturias when all of them lived in Paris in the 1920s. During their conversations in Paris these three novelists ended up developing the initial theories behind "el realismo magico."

Ahmad's magisterial book offers insightful explorations of the relationship between "Third World" literatures and the literary traditions of the West. I read his essays like I do certain poems or novels that I cannot imagine living without. They sustain me throughout the dangers that assault us each day.


"It is in the metropolitan country, in any case, that a literary text is first designated a Third World text, levelled into an archive of other such texts and then globally redistributed with that aura attached to it. It is useful, therefore, to demystify the category of 'Third World Literature' which is emerging in the metropolitan university now as something of a counter-canon and which--like any canon, dominant or emergent--does not really exist before its fabrication." (45)

"For this is the first time large ethnic communities from various ex-colonial countries have gathered in the metropolises in such a way that considerable segments are making historically new kinds of demand for inclusion in the salaried, professional middle class and its patterns of education, employment, consumption, social valuation and career advancement." (81)

"...even if I were to accept [Fredric] Jameson's division of the globe into three worlds, I would still have to insist, as my references not only to feminism and Black Literature but to Jameson's own location would indicate, that there is right here, within the belly of the First World's global postmodernism, a veritable Third World, perhaps two or three of them. Third, I want to insist that within the unity that has been bestowed upon our globe by the irreconcilable struggle between capital and labour, there are more and more texts which cannot easily be placed within this or that world. Jameson's is not a First World text; mine is not a Third World text. We are not each other's civilizational Other." (122)


This makes me think of W.G. Sebald. I was introduced to his work through James Wood's essay on The Rings of Saturn. I was also led to his books after hearing the Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramirez praise Sebald's innovations in the form of the novel. Sebald seems to me to be unclassifiable, in terms of First or Third World. He was obviously writing from a distinct European tradition, but within his books I find an awareness of defeat, a sadness perhaps, that I usually associate with literature from outside the American/European cultural centers. Sebald inhabits an indefinable place that appeals to me. Perhaps it comes from being a translated writer, carrying Germany with him in England, carrying the entire 20th century nightmare on his back as he travels, writes and reads throughout Europe.

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