Maddison Colvin’s ongoing series called Compression supplies the exquisite visuals for this issue. Its depiction of proximity and stillness also offers an analogue to translation and inspired the title of this issue. Colvin creates these striking images by going out at night into her garden and pinning plants under her scanner. In Colvin’s own words, her project attempts to “simulate the futility of a desire to make three-dimensional organisms readable, conveyable, archivable—in other words, for the thing to become a document and for the organizing power of ordered thought to make that document readable.” Colvin’s project also holds meaning for translation. The translator’s task is to accept this futility of one-to-one representation and imperfectly create another work with as much beauty and merit as the original. This issue of Exchanges features twelve works that show how translation attempts to capture the depth and breadth of an original text, with all its sonority and range of meaning in another language—as difficult and impossible as this seems.
Though there’s no shortage of analogies for translation, we offer another. Closeness: feeling both stiflingly too close to the text and yet, never close enough. Translation, at its best, performs the closest of readings and in this delirious proximity, every detail becomes a world of meaning and possibility. Yet the need to pin it down into another word or phrase can feel like crushing a delicate three-dimensional rose into the glass of a scanner to be photographed, glitchily, and only from a single side. “If you draw the front of the plant you don’t get the back of the plant, if you pull a plant out of the ground and dry it and put it in a book, you’re taking all the life and growth out of it and you’re freezing it in a moment in time.”
Though every translation in this small collection exhibits this closeness, a few resonate with the theme especially strongly. Chung Kwok Keung’s “Mosquitoes” in May Huang’s flowing translation depicts a swarm flying so uncomfortably close, “I could / clearly see the space between their fuzzy antennae // and empty / stomachs.” Likewise, Damion Searls’s translation of Robert Walser depicts a “thrilling coming together” of a “white, hot, wild, sweet, magnificent kiss” that seems almost deadly and hellish in its intense bliss. Each translation “comes closer, closer, and bites down on the heat of the nape, on the ease of living things” as JP Allen’s translation of Francisco Layna Ranz says. We invite you to experience the thrilling closeness that each of these translations offers and to join with us in celebrating each translator’s daring attempt to hold their text still long enough to make a translation.