May 6th 2023 was the day of the Coronation of Charles III, the latest frenzied manifestation of what Tom Nairn in The Enchanted Glass
called Britain’s “national backwardnesss”. It also saw the launch of Will Rowe and Helen Dimos’s new translation (with glosses)
of Cesar Vallejo’s Trilce
, a work that in every resists the kinds of cultural spectacles which imagine that identity might cohere around fictions, figureheads, all the bathetic spectacle of nationalistic power.
Trilce was written a hundred years ago last year, and Rowes’ and Dimos’ translation has been more than a decade in the making. In the basement of the Hundred Years Gallery in Hoxton, they, along with poet-translators Cristina Viti, Stephen Watts and Sacha Kahir alternated readings of the originals (in Spanish), the translations and glosses (in English), John Manson’s Scots translation, and poems by Amelia Rosselli, Elsa Morante and others in dialogue with the spirit and letter of Vallejo’s attempt, in Rowe’s words, to “crack Spanish open from the inside”.
As this collective reading emphasized, Rowe and Dimos considered this translation of an already frequently-translated work a collective front, and the translation not as a definitive or fixed version, but in turn as something in some was unfinished and un-finishable. The project began as Rowe’s, before he handed the material to Dimos, in his words, to “pull apart”, the two then collaborating to put it back together. The process of revision and rebuilding is thus central to the work. In turn, the decision to include glosses emerged from the sense that translation in itself was not enough: that the investigation into the meanings and nuances and multiple possibilities of the original, and their sometimes-uneasy conversion into another language, created a kind of runoff or excess with a polyphonic relationship to the text. The large-format book thus prints the text in four columns: Vallejo’s Spanish and Rowe and Dimos’ English on one page, the glosses facing on the right-hand side, with space in a further, blank column, for the reader’s own annotations and notes.
In this spirit, the collective discussion that followed went in multiple directions, that combination of “wildness and rigour” that Viti—whose translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s extraordinary film script-cum essay-cum poem La Rabbia
recently appeared from Tenement Press
—argued is essential to the project of translation. Vallejo wants to split Spanish open from within, commented Stephen Watts. Picking up on this point, Rowe noted the motivation for such a split: the realization of imperial dominance contained within the dominant language and its classed and erased exclusion and erasure of indigenous cultures. The relation of Scots to English in Manson’s translations suggests—a language that relates but that also parodies, distorts, twists. In turn, there’s a classed element—as Sacha Kahir suggested, the “language of the poor” always has to change, to hide or disguise itself in relation to the surveillance of dominant culture, to keep on the move. Language changes, is something built upon or built over—what Kahir called a “burial mound”.
For Vallejo, it’s not just a case of cracking Spanish open, Rowe continued. Rather, it’s also about including within that South American Spanish a European modernism or late Romanticism, such as the work of Verlaine, which is in turn cracked open. In parodying, mocking and tearing apart from the European-aspiration characteristic of the colonial regimes who spread out of Europe with imperial zeal centuries before, Vallejo manifests a resistance to European aspiration on the part of the colonial bourgeoisies, their spectacles of gaudy cod-European magnificence, cathedrals, opera houses, music and language, growing up literally alongside the genocidal labour of mines and other extractivist sites as Eduardo Galeano so brilliantly dissected in Open Veins of Latin America.
Neither the language of bureaucrats nor bourgeois and petty-bourgeois faux-European sophisticates, Vallejo’s is the voices of Spanish children and adolescents, of vernacular or neologistic linguistic practices of everyday resistance and survival. At the same time, it also lays claim to the cultural superiority generally associated with Europe. It’s also the language of philosophy, of Feuerbach and Hegel, so often associated with Europe, but here reclaimed for those outside Europe. Moving from a provincial university to the capital city, Vallejo was aware of these conditions of imbalance and dominance, where, in Rowe’s words, “the people who do philosophy are European”. Yet in the second poem of Trilce, Rowe suggested, Vallejo seeks to prove that one can do philosophy in poetry just as well as in analytic philosophy, out-doing Wittgenstein.
And as well as fission, of splitting and rupture, there are moments of fusion or synthesis—or a struggle towards such movements, even if they often and perhaps of necessity fail. It’s not enough, as some of Vallejo’s contemporaneous, Dada-influenced South American modernist peers had, to break things apart and leave them in fragments. Rather, one has to struggle with the experience of synthesis, of forging new forms to replace the old. This is a destruction that attempts to engender synthesis, one often expressed in the work in the figure of numbers. In some of the poems read on the night, that could be heard in the figure of the ticking of a clock or tolling of time on a bell, as in the third poem.
In more complex fashion, it came through too in the twenty-third, Vallejo’s great elegy for his mother and her role as bread-giver, as breadwinner, handing her children time, in the form of food--that which enables one to live, and thus, to inhabit time. Here, the figure of a crumb stuck in the throat gestures towards the impossible reclamation or reparation with a gendered legacy built into the very structure of language, into the very act of opening or closing the thought to expel language or to take in food. Such moments challenge the parcelling out of experience into the “common sense” of language and number that, Vallejo suggests, reinforces the order of things. Vallejo wrote a number of the poems from prison: prison, write Rowe and Dimos in their gloss on the second poem (“Tiempo Tiempo”)--the poem where, Rowe claimed, Vallejo out-does Wittgenstein--
punctuates time with its physical order; it creates a time
that’s equally subdivided and empty. Language administers it.
Whether one is in actual prison or not, prison-time is a static
present, an empty time excised from the continuity of time’s
movement. But the time it takes to say the word time continues.
The juxtaposition of these two times, sun-glare of nausea, is
beat out by the poem’s metronomic repetition of words in twos
and fours. Vallejo was imprisoned on remand for 112 days.
As Rowe’s and Dimos’ glosses suggest, in Trilce,
with its fractured scenes of the taking in of food, of hunger, of the parcelling out of time in church bells or prison-hours,
it’s precisely what
doesn’t add up or balance that constitutes possibility, perhaps even revolutionary possibility. Broken words, language stretched beyond itself; the crumb in the throat, sums that don’t add up: all these exceeds the bureaucratic-book balancing of completed sums, balanced fractions or equations. In that excess, that remainder, lies both the unassimilable and unspeakable process of trauma and the resistance to totalizing incorporation—linguistic, numerical, national, imperial—where resistance resides, where, as Rowe writes in his essay ‘The Political in Trilce
’, “the intimate formation of the subject of emancipation is fought out.”
Picking up on Rowe’s mention of Wittgenstein, Viti suggested that Vallejo’s use of numbers, a crucial element of this work in particular, had to do with a relation of mathematics and indeterminacy closer to that of pure maths. A number of big name thinkers have tried to construct a political philosophy from some form of maths in the past few decades, with results that may or may not be of import, but this line of argument, it feels, is one of a different sort: an argument made by poets about and from and in poetry. But it’s precisely here where lies its materialism, its resistance to abstraction, one which can stretch across time and be activated at different moments in time, not so much as an index of changing times but as the ringing Benjamian alarm clock that refutes the onward logic of a mendacious “progress” that is nothing of the sort. What’s tried out in experimental language emerges from the social world but is worked out outside it: yet from it, it reveals the faults in that social world and provides another basis that still maintains possibility today. As Rowe put it, Vallejo’s Spanish is a horizon to which we may still look.
What of the famously neologistic title, came a question from the audience? Is this a manifestation of this new form of Spanish? Running through some of the theses—a fusion of “triste” and “dolce”, a joke about the vernacular phrase for the cost of the book—Rowe suggested that the word was between a synthesis, a splitting, and something else entirely. Or, as Dimos put it, “Trilce” is not so much a word with a defined meaning or unmeaning. Rather, she noted, “Trilce is this book”: at once object and process, something standing outside. Cracking open the fiction of language as monoculture, Dimos continues, the book layers up a multiplicity of voices, a layered chorus, in which the speech of kids and adolescents is not separable from that of adults, of modernism and philosophy from the street and from politics: they are all heard at once.
In the movement from Vallejo’s Spanish to the Englishes of Dimos and Rowe’s translation—or, indeed, the Englishes found in the translations of the tri-lingual Amelia Rosselli, Viti’s translations of Elsa Morante, and the other texts heard tonight—as Viti put it, the task is to create “fault-lines”. As Vallejo disrupted Spanish in 1922, in 2023, translation and poetry today might and must seek to “disrupt our English from within”—a task all the more vital in the face of renewed nationalist spectacles and a border-focused racism dissected in a poem of his own that Kahir read near the start of the evening, organised around the refrain “no, but where are you really from?”
No homeland but language. (Miłosz) No homeland in language. Glosses, glossolalia, exegesis. Ghosts, grammar, a language that explodes the fiction and function of borders, that brings the citadel down from within.