In 2015, Asuka Goto began translating her father’s novel, Elizabeth, from Japanese to English. Over the course of three years, Goto annotated the book’s 200-plus pages and translated the words by hand. Rather than complete a separate manuscript, she left her rendition alongside her father’s, revealing the thought and labor that goes into a translation. These pages are now spread from floor to ceiling at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Bushwick, the walls vibrating with so much writing. As a translator myself, I found the project profoundly satisfying and at times anxiety-inducing.
Any translator will likely identify with Goto’s torrent of notes: the repeated question marks next to words; the multiple phrasings to express the same thing (“to reach; to amount to; to befall; to happen to; to extend”); the flying lines across the page. A translator’s annotations are like that of an obsessive, deep reader. That is, after all, what we are doing.
Among literary translators, there are two main camps: those who wish to revise a canonical text and those who want to introduce something entirely new. Goto, however, happens to be the kind of translator I identify with the most: one who translates to gain a deeper understanding of the language spoken at home.
Goto has titled her project lost in translation and calls it a “flawed approximation” of her father’s novel. As we shuttle between the Japanese and English words, connected by asterisks, arrows, and circles, we begin to grasp how bewildered, uncertain, and insecure Goto was while translating. There is this sense she will never be content with her rendition, that there is no exact equivalent to the original Japanese words.
The day before I saw this installation, I happened to attend a translation reading at the Poetry Project in Lower Manhattan. Each of the participating translators had grown up in a bilingual home. When asked what influence this might have had on them, translator from Portuguese Katrina Dodson said, “You always know the way to say things is a choice.” Perhaps it is this hyper-attentiveness to language that exacerbates our self-doubt.
In some of the most amusing exchanges, Goto has taped her text message conversations with her mother, who serves as the interlocutor between daughter and father. “Hi mom, I have another question for daddy,” Goto will say. She asks what a certain word “means” in a particular sentence. “It’s quiet — nothing happening in the police station,” her mother responds. “Deserted?” Goto asks. “No, just quiet,” her mother affirms. At one point, the mom questions the father’s judgment — “His translation doesn’t make sense to me so he’s thinking of another way to say it.” These back-and-forths felt warmly familiar to me, as I will often rely on my parents for their approval of my translations from Portuguese.
Back at the panel, Anna Moschovakis, a translator from French, explained the difference between writing and translating: “As writers we distance ourselves, it’s more of a performance. As translators, we step in as actors.” In other words, it’s a different kind of performance, where we attempt to inhabit or reenact another person’s voice. Dodson, to take off the pressure, has also been thinking about translation as a performance. It helps her let go, rather than feel like she has to perfectly uphold and mirror the monumental, canonical Brazilian texts she translates.
It would seem that Goto has fully embraced the role of translation as performance. Not only does she expose her process — destroying the illusion of a translation as clean, neat, and complete — but she dates each of the pages once she’s finished working on them, as though they were individual artworks.
While Goto may not be a translator by profession, her project is a useful reminder for those of us who practice and battle with the craft regularly: a translation, we learn, is never static, but always ready to be picked up and played with again.
Asuka Goto: lost in translation continues at Tiger Strikes Asteroid (1329 Willoughby Ave #2a, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through March 25.