Jacob Edmond

“Re-visioning the I/Eye: Lyn Hejinian’s Poetics of Translation”

Jacob Edmond

The Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and the American poet Lyn Hejinian have collaborated on a number of projects, including the translation of each other’s work.  By focusing on two poems and their translations, I argue that Hejinian’s work as a translator can be seen as part of her broader interest in using collaboration to create dialogic, open texts. “The Composition of the Cell” / “Kompozitsiia kletki” by Lyn Hejinian and “Martovskaia elegiia” / “March Elegy” by Arkadii Dragomoshchenko disrupt and investigate acts of translation from sense and perception. Play in and between languages places received concepts of perception through vision and of the person’s sense of self on trial. Gaps in meaning reveal their poetic potential in and between the languages of the two poets, as both writers use non-correspondence in semantic fields as a starting point for poetic development in their own writing. In this paper I focus on how Hejinian’s poetics of translation incites readings between the lines, adding further layers, or translations, to these still unfolding texts.

That which is missing in a translation can be just as suggestive as that which comes across. Take, for example, the following lines from “Martovskaia elegiia”/“March Elegy,” the seemingly incomprehensible image of which seems to prefigure the absence that follows:

Chto gliadit v ochi priamo gipsovoi v zolote kukle...
Nikogo. (10-1)
Staring straight at a plaster doll in the gold...
Nobody. (11-2)

In translation a lacuna, a gap in the text, will always be present where two semantic fields do not entirely overlap. In much the same way as references, rewritings, and translations open up new contexts, these absences can open up new fields of interaction and, hence, new creative possibilities. Here “kukla” translates to “doll,” which retains a connotation of the feminine that is inherent in the grammatical gender of the Russian word. At the same time, the translation creates the hint of a Russian doll. This connotation is not present in the Russian text. In English, however, this connotation hints at hidden, possibly endless layers of meaning and foregrounds the foreignness of the text.

Here rather than passively analyze the translation I would like to investigate a gap in meaning that the English translation “doll” creates. I think this active approach of translation as interpretation opens up Dragomoshchenko’s poem to further readings and relates to an important vision-related trope in Hejinian’s poetry. The alternative translation is “puppet.” The English word “puppet” has as its Latin antecedent pupa, a word that is also grammatically feminine. Pupa is Latin for “puppet” or “girl.” Suggestively, such a reading, or translation, feeds back into the original text through “pupil.”  This is another English word derived from pupilla, the diminutive of pupa, a girl or doll, which was so called because of the tiny images visible in the eye. The “pupil” of the eye makes “sense,” that is creates new links, with the words “gliadit v ochi” (“staring”) and with the “glazom” (“eye”) of the previous line. In fact, the Russian could also be translated as: “staring at the doll/girl in the eye,” at the tiny image in the eye from whence the English “pupil” is derived. That image is, of course, the reflection of the “I” doing the gazing in the eye of the object of its gaze. The previous line’s two other nouns, “lunu” (“the moon”) and “promoinakh chernykh” (“black gullies”) then appear as a blank eye returning the gaze, a white round iris and the black hole of a pupil. “Kukle” connotes not only the blackness of “pupil” but also whiteness through paranymous attraction (a linguistically possible, though imaginary, etymological connection) to the “kukol” (“hood”) of the second line, which “is white” (“beleet”) like the plaster doll.

Support for such a reading can be found by another “jump” across languages to a poem by Hejinian in The Guard, which—when first published in 1984—appeared with a dedication to Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (although this was removed when the poem was republished in a later collection).  Both The Guard and “Martovskaia elegiia” / “March Elegy” were written in the mid 1980s, not long after the two writers first met in 1983. The opening lines of The Guard explore the connection between the two meanings of the word “pupil”:

[. . .] The open mouths of people
are yellow & red — of pupils. (1.5-6)

The partial rhyme of “people” with “pupils” suggests one should read “pupil” as a “person,” which is the only “I” that Hejinian’s poetry recognizes, because the “person” in her poetics is the “I” in context. As she writes:

          All my observations are made from within the matrix of possibly infinite contingencies and contextualities.
          This sense of contingency is ultimately intrinsic to my experience of the self, as a relationship rather than an existence, whose exercise of the possibilities (including consciousness) of its conditions and occasions constitutes a person. (“Poetics of Everyday” 167)

The circular holes of the “open mouths” in The Guard, however, hint not at an “I,” but, rather, at the pupil of an “eye” and, thus, exploit this strange etymological development from pupa.

Pupa both signifies a hole and provides a gap in meaning, or lacuna, that allows space for change and indeterminacy. The English pupa (kukolka in Russian, which also means “little doll”), the strange, hidden, transitional stage between caterpillar and butterfly, also resonates with semantic metamorphoses, or translations. The word in all its diversity becomes the focal point, the eye of uncertainty.

The “eye” also becomes the point of a semantic shift in translation in the opening lines of “The Composition of the Cell”/“Kompozitsiia kletki”:

1.1     It is the writer’s object to supply.
1.6     Rocks are emitted by sentences to the eye.
2.13   Circumstances rest between rocks.
2.14   The person of which I speak is between clocks.
1.1     Dolg pisatelia — v predlozhenii.
1.6     Predlozheniem izluchaemy skaly zrachku.
2.13   Predposylki pokoiatsia mezhdu kamniami.
2.14   Chelovek, o kotorom ia govoriu, nakhoditsia mezhdu chasami.

Here the English “eye,” perhaps of the “person of which I speak” becomes the Russian “zrachku,” which literally means “pupil” of the eye. Marjorie Perloff inadvertently suggests this connection in an intra-lingual context by proposing that “the ‘person,’ designated ungrammatically as ‘which,’ not ‘whom,’ might be one of those little puppets that come out of fancy cuckoo clocks and wave their arms in both directions” (215). This suggestion refers one back to “pupa,” the source of both “puppet” and “pupil.” Perloff’s reading becomes more likely in the Russian translation as “chasami” denotes “clocks,” “hours,” and “[something] o’clock,” the times at which the puppet would presumably emerge. Thus the play of words from “I” to “person” to “pupil” to “eye” here runs in both directions.

The Russian word “zrachku” (“pupil [of the eye]”), however, adds a new twist to this wordplay, for it has the root zr, which connotes things connected with “sight” or “vision.” In Description, in which the translation “March Elegy” appears, Dragomoshchenko writes, through the translation of Hejinian and Balashova, that:

“Everything begins as an error of vision...” Just imagine, I somehow read this in I don't remember which of your letters, transmuting a simple phrase into a ridiculous one. And regardless of the obvious unfoundedness of such an ‘interpretation,’ without long consideration I included this line in the text of the poem now known to you as “Accidia.” (89)

Van Elburg discusses the complex translation “game” that lies behind this passage:

The poem was of course written in Russian and translated by Hejinian. The misread letter was, presumably, written in English, because if the letter was in Russian the result of an unclear phrase would more likely be a request for clarification. If so, the misreading must have been translated into Russian to be included in the note to “Accidia,” in the original, Russian version of Descriptions [sic], and therefore re-translated from Russian into English by Hejinian. Her “own” words have come full circle, transformed like a message in a whispering game. (62-3)

In Dragomoshchenko’s translation of Hejinian’s poem the “error,” or semantic shift, is, quite literally, in a word with the root meaning “vision,” which is zrenie in Russian. This adds yet another layer to the self-reflexivity of the mistranslation “‘everything begins as an error of vision...’”

It is particularly errors in vision, or sight, that interest Hejinian, because, as she sees it, the “visual dominates our access to knowledge; we are overwhelmingly inclined to look or, where that’s not possible, to visualize, in order to understand or even conceive” (“Quest” 185). If knowledge and understanding depend on a consistent repeatable translation of that which is there into that which one perceives, then any error in such a process suggests a more problematic relationship to knowledge.

28.9 I’ve thought that many times—myopia exacerbates the psychosomatic.
28.9 Ob etom dumala neodnokratno: blizorukost’ takzhe obiazana telu, kak i dushe.

The English here draws attention to the eyes through the repetition in “myopia” and “psychosomatic” of the letter o, which is like an eye staring back at the reader. As Hejinian “sees” it, “myopia” is, like mistranslation, a productive “error of vision”:

Meanwhile, because our models of perception are geared towards vision and sight, “myopia” is a handy metaphor for uncertainties vis-à-vis perception, an awareness that what you perceive may not be what’s there—that distortions are intrinsic to perception. I am myopic. (“Roughly Stapled”)

The Russian translation of “psychosomatic,” “tak zhe obiazana/ telu, kak i dushe” (“bound to both body and psyche, or soul” [author’s translation]), emphasizes the link between the physical and spiritual or mental, it does not, however, translate the connotation of hypochondria. “Hypochondria,” according to Hejinian, is a metonym for “the disfunctionality...of the self in its previous, romantic incarnations,” and for “anxiety” that is “literally embodied” (“Roughly Stapled”). Uncertainties in perception make the relationship between mind and body problematic. Here the physical receptor of the eye through myopia affects what the person knows. At the same time “the psychosomatic” is the reverse process, whereby the mind affects the body. These interrelations, which break down the opposition between mind and body, mean a Platonic pure intellect is impossible. The translation of sensation to perception, which involves the distortions inherent in this unstable interrelationship, suggests an aporia in the concept of an inner, irreducible, consistent self, and is part of the process of knowing, which also includes the hunt for meaning.         

The oscillation between the eye, as a metonym for visual sensation and perception, and the person, the I in context, is part of a focus on relations, including translations, rather than essences in Hejinian’s poetry. This transgression of self, as we have seen, also includes the relations between reader and writer and is part of Hejinian’s definition of the “open text.” As Paul Naylor puts it, “Open texts such as My Life and Oxota, then, transgress the boundary between the ‘I’ that writes and the other eye that reads,” and one might add “The Composition of the Cell/Kompozitsiia kletki” to this list (137). Furthermore, this transgression is not static, but, rather, constantly in motion, as it oscillates between I and eye, reader and writer, writer and translator, always in uncertainty. The text and translation here make a similar argument to the one Hejinian sees in another inherently dialogical text with a similar focus, her collaboration with Leslie Scalapino, Sight: “the moment of coming to see is active and dialogic, and as such it is dramatic” (“Experience / ‘On’ Sight” [vi]).

Works Cited

Dragomoshchenko, Arkadii. Description. Trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1990.

_____. Opisanie [Description]. St Petersburg: Gumanitarnaia akademiia, 2000.

_____. “Martovskaia elegiia” / “March Elegy.” Trans. Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova. In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian Poetry in a New Era. Newcastle, UK: Bloodaxe; Brookline, MA: Zephyr, 1999. 266-71.

Hejinian, Lyn. “The Composition of the Cell.” The Cold of Poetry. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1994. 111-24. Trans. as “Kompozitsiia kletki.” Trans. Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. Mitin zhurnal 41 (1991): 115-27.

_____. The Guard. Berkeley, CA: Tuumba, 1984. The Cold of Poetry. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1994. 11-37.

_____. “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem.” Disembodied Poetics: Annals of the Jack Kerouac School. Ed. Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1994. Rpt. in The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. 209-31.

_____. “Roughly Stapled: An Interview with Lyn Hejinian by Craig Dworkin.” Electronic Poetry Center. State U of New York, Buffalo. 24 May 1999 <http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/hejinian/interview-backup.html>.

Hejinian, Lyn, and Leslie Scalapino. “Experience / ‘On’ Sight.” [Foreword.] Sight. Washington, DC: Edge, 1999. [iii-vi.]

Naylor, Paul. “Lyn Hejinian: Investigating ‘I.’” Poetic Investigations: Singing Holes in History. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. 106-37.

Perloff, Marjorie. Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Northwestern UP, 1999.

Van Elburg, Fredrika. “Hunting through Oxota: An Exploration of Clues and Connections in Oxota: A Short Russian Novel by Lyn Hejinian.” Diss. U of Auckland [NZ], 1997.

Bio: Jacob Edmond is an Auckland-based critic who is currently completing a PhD thesis at the University of Auckland on the politics and aesthetics of contemporary experimental poetry in Russia, the United States and China, and on the writers Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Lyn Hejinian, and Yang Lian in particular.

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