By Emily Bieniek
Body language is how I first understand translation, interpreting movements to carry certain meanings. It’s essential when a barrier exists between people – whether a child hasn’t learned to speak yet or two people who speak different languages interact. I’m always thinking of what my body is saying, how I am communicating my gender, how subtle details create huge signals.
I’ve found that life is translation. Existing in different spaces and communities forces one to develop ways to communicate between these constantly shifting environments, whether it be with people around us or our own internal thoughts. I’m often blending parts of my personality and practice, translating them into new ways for people to experience. I love to add a performative element to a poetry reading, specially curated for the audience to see how they interpret the combination of my actions and words.
I’ve talked about this with my friend and former boss, Elizabeth Metzger Sampson, on a few occasions, but never so formally. Sampson is the Executive Director of the Chicago Poetry Center, which runs two school poetry programs and curates a traveling reading series.
Tell me some stories about your experience with translation.
Knowing just a little bit of several languages has given me the opportunity to: create poetry out of mistranslation, create a bilingual issues of a literary journal (Arabic/English), build a dual language poetry residency for young people (Spanish/English). Knowing a little bit also allows me to make fantastic errors — once in Cairo I was looking for garbage bags and, in an attempt to cobble together a few words I thought I knew, asked the store clerk if they had any “yogurt purses.” Learning a second script/character set (to learn Arabic) was perhaps the single most humbling education experience of my life, it broke my brain open in a really wonderful way.
When I was running a literary magazine for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (the gorgeous and now-defunct Dear Navigator) we published an issue of contemporary art and literature coming out of Cairo. The magazine was electronic, which allowed us a lot of freedom to support visual and literary work, and experimental electronic literature. Ironically though, what had been digital freedom became a sort of digital curse when we tried to program outside of our Western script — the site coding was not suited to Arabic, and truly everything went wonky. It took a wild amount of tests, fails, trial and error, to get that issue out. It eventually came out and looked stunning, which is very much thanks to friend of the magazine, artist and writer Amira Hanafi who essentially became our volunteer-tech-and-language-editor-at-large, as she can both code and read Arabic. It was also a very good lesson for me in how the internet (in 2011) was very much set up for my native language of English to thrive, which of course, I hadn’t yet bothered to notice, as it was set up for my convenience.
As you know, SAND is a German publication. What is your relationship with Germany and the language?
One of my names is German for “butcher.” I’ve had work shown in Germany, I’ve had German friends, and my family has roots in the French/German border area of Alsace-Lorraine (and as such, no one can decide if we’re German or French – obviously this is deeply important and I hope someone makes a final decision for us soon). Aside from a delightful layover at the Munich airport (great teacups!), I’ve not been to Germany and hope to rectify that as soon as possible.
Actually, my favorite translation story of all time has to do with my German name, a German Egyptian friend, a Cairene friend, and my time in Cairo. I was doing a project in Cairo and one extremely pleasant part of this was that I went out early in the morning to meet the Egyptian writer, Hamdy el-Gazzar, for a long walk through Cairo. We had our coffees and had just crossed the Nile when I received the most fantastically cryptic text from my friend Phillip that went something like “You are walking with a man with whom you share a name. Figure it out and come over for pancakes.” Hamdy and I started by listing off all our names, and none of them were “the same,” by our early standards. We tried everything, gave up, and insisted that Phillip tell us and make us pancakes. It turns out both Metzger and Gazzar mean butcher. (Surely Hamdy knew what his own name meant, but I did not, until that day, know the meaning of my own name.) It’s all thanks to Phillip’s fluency in Arabic, German, and English that I know what my own name means.
In what other ways do you experience translation? I find myself interpreting communication from others in the form of movement mostly. Is this the case for you?
I think almost everything is translation — certainly any use of language is translation, but also cognition, gender expression, fashion, art… it’s all translation. For me, in my daily use, my most common translations are actually between different communities. It’s a natural place for me to live because I seem to exist in a sort of in between realm.
I know that right when I was leaving the Chicago Poetry Center, you had just announced that next school year there would be Spanish-language poetry classes, which was super exciting to hear. How is the program going?
We’re hiring even more right now because the program is growing, I’m so happy to report. We’ve been building curriculum in collaboration — myself, our teaching artists, classroom teachers and curriculum designers in the schools – to make sure it’s super high quality for our young people.
All right, now tell me about some exciting things coming up for your organization.
We’re about to have poets read on a boat as it cruises down the Chicago river, right through our gorgeous skyline. I love this reading because not only does our audience get to look at sky and water and Chicago while poets do their thing, but everyone along the banks gets peppered with lyrical moments that they didn’t even know were about to magic up their evening. Everything is better with good poetry. After that we’ll have poets reading in the store where I buy all my tarot cards and artist-made banners of bones, so that should be fun. Next month our students from across Chicago will get to read at a big festival in Chicago’s iconic and central Millennium Park. And of course, we’re ramping up to the school year – every year we’re paying more poets to teach in schools and supporting more Chicago schools with poetry programming.