Methodological Potentiality and the Untranslatable: Sounding Difference in the Translating Riff. A Response to Helga Zambrano

Thanks to my colleagues at Ethnomusicology Review for inviting me to submit a response to a recent article on the Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén and Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. My article is posted here, but I’m including the text below as well.

In her article, “Reimagining the Poetic and Musical Translation of ‘Sensemayá,’” Helga Zambrano presents a model of scholarship for parsing intermedia interactions via a powerful reconsideration of the relationship of Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén and Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Invoking translation studies—particularly the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Efrain Kristal—Zambrano questions the primacy of an originary text or author, as well as the logocentric methodologies (even those in music studies) that rely on these primacies. Zambrano opens her article with a Borges epigram, a translated quote that dismisses “the concept of the ‘definitive text’” and asserts that “there can only be drafts” [my emphasis]. What then follows is a careful exegesis of Guillén’s “Sensemayá, un canto para matar una culebra” and Revueltas’s orchestral setting of the poem wherein Zambrano positions the two artists as friends, political compatriots, and aesthetic counterparts not necessarily as tied up in nationalist discourses as previous scholarship on the men and their art has suggested. More importantly, Zambrano makes a compelling argument for listening as scholarly activity—to analyze, theorize, and come to know through the hearing senses, or what Steven Feld calls an acoustemological approach to scholarship.[1] Through analyses moving among the disciplines of musicology, poetry, historiography, linguistics, and comparative literature, Zambrano produces definitive work on these two artists and convincingly demonstrates the potential of interdisciplinary research approaches.

To be sure, translation, especially among artistic media and academic fields, seems to offer a formidable tool for scholars ever more saturated with discourses on inter-, trans-, and even anti-disciplinarity. It figures prominently in my own work. Yet, as tempting and potent a concept as translation might be in this environment, I am reluctant to embrace its potential for “dissolving boundaries” as positive or emancipatory, whether those boundaries are disciplinary, methodological, discursive, or otherwise. Zambrano’s multiple metaphors and uses for translation—as theory, act, process, dissolving agent, bridge, doctrine, framework, and recreation—beg the question: what work does translating actually accomplish? Is there a common thread among all these associations, or are we free to map layer after layer on top of it? Here I’m inclined to look backwards, as Zambrano does with “Sensemayá” and scholarship thereof, to the history of translation before moving forward with it as a revisionary tactic for scholarly methods.

As a musician, educator, and ethnographer, I address the promise and problems of translation through critical improvisation studies. I see many points of intersection between these two processes as potential interventions in all three areas: emphasizing the performative aspects of music-making, teaching, and scholarship brings out their collaborative, ethical, and illusory elements, all of which suggest  translation and improvisation as operative analytical paradigms. This perspective in my own work has emerged from ongoing musical collaborations and ethnographic research in the Canary Islands, which, unlike Guillén’s Cuba or Revueltas’s Mexico, are still under the aegis of the Spanish government. For my work, academic paradigms such as postcolonial studies, Caribbean or Latin American studies, and the Black Atlantic present boundaries that isolate my interlocutors, their histories, and cultures. My desire to redress this situation and dismantle the assumptions of those paradigms led me eventually to translation studies, as it has for Zambrano. For me, engaging with colonialism—not as historical past but as a still negotiated present—in the Canary Islands mitigates the liberatory potential I see in translation, as operative as it might be in my work. As Tejaswini Niranjana and many others have pointed out, translation has long been used as one of what Homi Bhabha calls the “technologies of colonial power” for rendering the Other knowable.[2] As Niranjana points out, this technology can and has been reappropriated to critique the systems of Western knowledge production on which colonial rule was founded. However, because of this history, I think that any invocation of translation from within the traditions of those systems should reckon with its legacy before moving ahead. In Clifford and Marcus’s seminal volume Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Talal Asad makes precisely this point when discussing translation as a model for ethnographic research, where he suggests that “‘cultural translation’ is inevitably enmeshed in conditions of power” and that it is only through “the relations and practices of power” that an anthropologist might also “act as translator and critic at one and the same time,” a position which he finds “untenable.”[3] And so, while translation can offer new perspectives or points of departure for negotiating academic disciplinarity, its historical legacy of rendering difference more accessible and more easily navigable should caution us from treating it as a methodological panacea.

Employing translation as a means of achieving greater fluidity necessitates another note of caution: one against the suggestion of universality or universal access.[4] While there may only be drafts, not all drafts—nor those who compose them—are equal. Zambrano hints at this when she says that translation dissolves boundaries only to reveal more complexity. Regardless of this, the structures that can and often do contain or obfuscate this complexity exist, are built, and are maintained by people. The act of translating to dismantle power structures and reveal these complex relations is in itself a powerful act, which not all can perform and to which not all have access. So, while translation may render some disciplinary boundaries more porous, relying on translation as a means of dissolving categories at least calls to mind translation’s legacy as a colonial weapon and could ultimately reproduce the same erasure those employing it might seek to problematize.

Zambrano’s call for translation as bridge-building is more productive: it is a call for methodological approaches that construct points of intersection and new pathways that do not promise free-flowing, unmitigated movement but rather preserve the labor and working out necessary for traversing physical, ideological, intertextual, or sonic space.[5] This architectural metaphor more accurately instantiates Zambrano’s paradoxical characterization of translation as rendering “the possibility and impossibility of fusing.” Translational spaces maintain critical potency because of their intersectionality and liminality; but these spaces are not inherently liberatory nor utopian. In fact, read slightly differently, we can cast the Borges epigram in light of translation’s potential for erasure as “there can only be drafts” [my emphasis]. Resisting this potential requires lingering in the translating space, viviendo “al margen de su propia belleza”—bringing difference into relief without hope of or impulse toward achieving cohesion. Instrumentalizing this erasing potential for the purposes of methodological critique, then, lies in conveying more fully that which refuses and resists translation—Zambrano’s “nuanced residues” or Apter’s “Untranslatables”—not resolving dissonance, but rendering it more sonorous. In one of the article’s strongest moments, Zambrano shows how Revueltas utilizes dissonance and polyphony to “present a process of translation as recreation” that “expand[s] and transform[s]” Guillén’s poem through augmenting and amplifying its references, characteristics, and political message by drawing on the unique qualities of music as a sonic phenomenon to invoke the intoned speech of the Yorùbá rite that served as Guillén’s inspiration. This is not translation that obfuscates complexity nor glosses over difference; it is translation that produces new understanding through articulating (as in rendering in a discrete fashion) each sonic and written text that informs it.

Zambrano’s work is forward-thinking and demonstrative of the promise of transdisciplinary scholarship, especially in regards to importance of acoustemologically informed research. She brings into relief many of the elements that come to bear on Guillén’s and Revueltas’s rendering of the Palo Monte Mayombe rite of Matar la Culebra in a way that maintains balance among each and all. This work is accomplished through close reading and historiographical analysis, just of a larger set of texts; in this way she adopts a very traditional approach to hermeneutically informed scholarship. Zambrano’s openness to these texts and willingness to line up several pathways of research “to make [multiple] emerging channels visible”—rather than superimposing or supplanting them with a new one—is in fact where I see the most potent translating move in the article’s methodology. The constant shuttling between perceptual modes of analysis elucidates a closer and more grounded understanding of the relationship between Guillén and Revueltas and their two works.

The paradox remains, though: isn’t adopting translation as the“framework,” “discipline,” or “theory” through which we achieve a liberatory methodological shift just supplanting one approach with another? Paving over the failings of disciplinary constraints to achieve a more fluid scholarly approach in the same way that translation has always dissolved difference? For translation to achieve the critical work Zambrano hopes for, I think translation can in fact be none of these. Whatever operative role we might attribute to it, each subsequent layer of associations we map onto translation should necessarily entail addressing its history of unequal power relations In the end, for translation to work as an effective methodological critique, the best we can hope for is a more translucent (or sonorous) admission that, as with texts, so with methodologies: “there can only be drafts.”

[1] Steven Feld, “From Ethnomusicology to Echo-muse-ecology: Reading R. Murray Schafer in the Papua New Guinea rainforest,”The Soundscape Newsletter 8 (1994): 4-6.

[2] Homi Bhabha, “Signs Taken as Wonders,” cited in Tejaswini Niranjana, Siting Translation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 35.

[3] Talal Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 163-164.

[4] This is one of Emily Apter’s main arguments in her recent bookAgainst World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (New York: Verso Books, 2013).

[5] I’m also thinking here of Zambrano’s invocation of Kofi Agawu’s call for the study of African languages “as a gateway to understanding the tonal, accentual, acoustic, and phonological levels inherent in the language.” [my emphasis] cf. Bernard Streck, “Translation as Pontificium: The Task of the Humanities.” inTranslation and Ethnography: The Anthropological Challenge of Intercultural Understanding, edited by Tullio Maranhão and Bernhard Streck (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), 195-208.

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