Translation Performance

It pains me to tell you this, but what translation and performance share is antagonism and imperfection. These may not seem like especially lovable qualities, but they are the foundations of what we do, which depending on who you listen to is an art, a craft, or an insoluble crime. 

  • Josh Stenberg

Since we are those who come too late, the antagonism is directed at the original text. Just like a Chinese child, none of us can meet the demands of filial piety—our hands are always too clumsy or too soiled to manipulate the sacred text. And yet, it is the job of the translator or the performer to interpret the untouchable and impossible verses, to crumple and despoil them into a version that can be read or seen, no matter how debased our era is, no matter how forgotten is the golden era of the Duke of Zhou. Secretly, all know this to be an illegitimate enterprise: under the guise of rendition, of transmission, of interpretation, we put the work through the whole squalid process of gain and loss, spreading over the battlefield, the mad-scientist laboratory, a cloak of respectability, all governed by a contract, a tissue of lies about how x = x.  

Already encumbered by our mendacity, our chicanery and our charlatanry, our arts must also share the trial of public exposition, with all its delicious possibilities of judgment—all without the function of rejoinder: someone consider a wrestled-over interpretation to be an error, or posits a carefully considered choice to be oversights, to be crude superficialities. The translator or the actor can always be branded, tarred, dismissed: while the original text floats placidly above the fray, secure in the legitimacy of its wrongs, incoherences, and falsehoods. 

The audience (origin, enemy, beloved) reads a translated text or watches a performed script ever-glimpsing their own ideal rendition beyond it, and denigrating the real and unique chain the agents have been trying to forge between wildly different understandings. Since transmission can only be a distortion, we are vulnerable always to the charge of debasement, of superficiality, of lacking the comprehension of some omniscient and omnipotent reader/viewer. And yet, like a politician, we may not judge, charge or even criticize the people: this incurs damnation in the public court. Our main difference is perhaps that where the translator is left aspiring, cravenly, that our handiwork is invisible or forgotten, is possessed by the wish for dissolution/absolution—the performer must stand, when the curtain rises again, at the edge of the abyss, and bow for whatever modicum of bouquets and applause will be granted this time. 

Nevertheless: though these are arts born in the fall, yet they share also the one signal redemption, which is the following: they are permitted their faults because the errors may yet be remedied, may seem to be recoverable. Translation—as opposed to the grim irremediability of interpretation—is a craft which lives in impossibility but offers hope of improvement in its nooks and intersections. The text is open, penetrable, vulnerable—even the whole world can be remade from time to time: English or French will acquire a new Iliad and a dozen new Daodejing every generation; but the originals—cast in moulds imperfect but changeable—cannot be fiddled with. Yesterday’s disastrous performance is remade tonight anew from the same materials, and through some alchemy become a triumph, or—more likely— something on the never-completed path towards a triumph. Perhaps this is what makes ours the most human of arts, since the main goal of life is the ludicrous, endearing, pursuit to set things, somehow, right again: an enterprise both hopeless of success and the very wellspring of hope.

Josh Stenberg

Published March 22, 2017 - 00:00, in Paris

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