Here is a Google translation of the opening of Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no Hosomichi. It reads:
The day and the year when I travel as a passenger in hundreds, I also traveler, ya. Life is lifted above the boat…
In the Donald Keene translation of the same text, called The Narrow Road to Oku, the ghost of Bashō opens by exploding the traveler’s world into the cosmos:
The months and days are travelers or eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those that float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.
Both translations house the ghost of Bashō. One has filtered the original text through algorithms—the other mediated through Donald Keene’s years of dedicated scholarship. Yet this is the universal image of the seventeenth century traveler, not yet distilled to a purely Japanese experience. The meticulous lists of place-names and references to local figures that characterize latter parts of the work are nowhere to be found. His leading horses and floating ships were the sights of the everyday.
In Narrow Road, generalizations like these are interwoven with prosaic descriptions of Bashō’s extended journey through the Japanese country-side. Then Bashō retreats into Haiku—both in life and in his travel diary. The haiku themselves break up the monotony of the journey, both as the habitual task of writing and textually on the page. With their syllogistic quality, each haiku functions both as a minute constellation of passing images and a burst of cosmic wisdom.
The beauty I find in these lines comes not only from the original lines themselves—which, unless I take up a rigorous study of the Japanese language—I will never have access to. They come from the journey which the writing itself has taken. A journey that is as emblematic of the 21st century as Bashō’s opening description of a travel scene was of the 17th. What is moving about these lines is the way that Bashō transfigures time into a material, a path—so that travelers are no longer the masters of their excursions. Time becomes both a medium which we travel through and a force able to travel itself. It is a translation of sorts that echoes the work of both Donald Keene and the “work” of Google.
But that’s not the end of Narrow Road’s metaphysical trip across time and space all the way to us. There’s another leg of the voyage that goes beyond translation from one language into another. Reading itself is an expedition into the world of translation, but miniaturized—the linguistic units shifting like dream objects, bumping up against one another and somehow coalescing into meaning which is then filtered through the thick lens that is the reader’s own experiences, emotions, biases…It’s a long road and sometimes crowded. There are a lot of opinionated travelers on this semantic excursion. As they say: where you read /təˈmeɪ·t̬oʊ/ I read /təˈmɑ·t̬oʊ/ and none of us know what tense that sentence is meant to be in—because English (like any language) is surprisingly, and sometimes frustratingly, ambiguous.
It would seem then that any work is so far removed from its point-of-origin to render it semantically unintelligible. But these acts of translation/transformation are million-fold, billion-fold. Every day we rely on these ‘transgressions’ which form the core of being human, the ability to understand and express our innermost thoughts through language. Which is, arguably, what makes reading in translation so perfect a symbol for life and work in our particular literary and artistic moment—and a great pleasure—everything so far removed but readily available, multiplied into a neat array of versions. There’s consolation in the fact that every writer is a translator. And every speaker is a translator. And every artist.
The writer creating in the expanded field relishes working under these complicated conditions. He or she knows that every medium is a transfiguration of another. Like Bashō, he or she knows that time is a substance that can both travel and be travelled through, that natural phenomena can operate under these peculiar dualities. The writer working in the expanded field explodes the landscape of his or her medium and genre. He or she makes work that challenges the very units of language—and in doing so translates a tiny piece of human experience into a universal truth.
In her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Rosalind Krauss argues that postwar American sculpture (and painting) has been “kneaded and stretched” until it became “infinitely malleable.”[i] Something similar takes place in the writing of the expanded fielder. The transition from “commemorative representation” to a form that stresses its own materiality is matter of history both for sculpture and for poetry. Today, experimental poets range from artists like Tracie Morris whose performances stress the need to make the voice the central instrument of the poem, to Amaranth Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen, a work that marries our generations fascination with new-tech and a writer’s old school love of the book as an object of nostalgia, to Khaled Mattawa, whose work inhabits a space between cultures so many US poets and artists now inhabit.
Amidst our own fellow students here at the MFA of the Americas there is a recognition of Krauss’ statement that “the logic of the space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material” but “instead through the universe of terms that are felt to be in opposition within a cultural situation.” To add to Krauss’ oppositional pairs, perhaps writers in the expanded field are oscillating between grammatical-or-local expression/universal-or-global expression just as sculptors were treading the lines of architecture/landscape and painters uniqueness/reproducibility in order to create work that exists in many forms at once.
A prime example of student work that straddles these lines is Savannah Kater’s series of crypto-poems, tentatively titled “Covering Up: Women in War”. In “Covering Up,” Kater transports us into women’s lives by echoing rhetoric from Vietnam era speakers. She creates a code using cosmetics that becomes the medium through which women’s voices must speak. The code itself engages the reader in the act of translation—in order to understand this piece, we must reconstruct the poem that we are given. It seems unnecessary to point out the surface irony that this work points to, one that we have become increasingly accustomed to over the past political year: that 1970’s women’s issues are today’s women’s issues—what is of note is the way in which the work’s materiality itself transports the reader through time and space. Kater layers today on yesterday, the new, glossy cosmetics placed on prints of historical images, creating a portal through which we are able to travel to disparate times and places. The translation poem is no longer a grammatical issue of English for we are translating a from a code, no longer an expression of local concerns for we are pondering not just an American past—it encompasses a greater portion of history, encouraging us to extrapolate the universal/global consequences of these political actions.
The very act of “reading” her work is taking a trip into the expanded field, for its “reading” requires more of us than what we are (perhaps) accustomed to. Not only are we taking in the image and the superimposed code, we are participating in translation and the construction of a new history of silenced voices across time and place. Like Krauss’ vision of expanded field sculptors admonishing the necessity of the commemorative, and Bashō’s transfigurations of time and travel, the writer in the expanded field decouples from the limitations of medium and seeks new modes of expression. So that we are not, as readers, limited to a single destination, but entitled to a vast and ever-changing journey.