Forrest Gander on editing untranslatable poet Yoshimasu Gozo

Yoshimasu Gozo is a one-of-a-kind artist. While he’s usually referred to as a poet, such a categorization almost always comes with some sort of qualification. His work is often called “unconventional” or “unorthodox.” Others stress that his poetry draws heavily from performance, music, and/or multimedia art. In a word, he writes the sort of poetry that’s regularly deemed “untranslatable.”

Despite the many challenges in bringing his work into English, New Directions published a new collection of translations of Gozo’s works, Alice Iris Red Horse, last fall. But to call this collection simply a work of translation feels like underselling it, and not just because there are interviews, photos, and extensive notes collected alongside the translations. There’s something unique about these translations. By convention, we consider translation a unidirectional process between two objects. There’s a “source language” that gets rearranged and recoded into a “target language.” Certainly, theorists have problematized this and pointed out the many ways “source” winds up altering “target.” Others have tried to map the complicated process that occurs within the black box of “translation.” But this whole schema feels not quite right for discussing these translations.

Gozo’s work, especially when read in translation, as translation, demands we ask a different set of questions. What happens when there isn’t a “source” any more? What happens when that “source” is suddenly diffuse? When the object of translation is no longer a single, originary wellspring, but rather a field of countless, tiny pools? Alice Iris Red Horse doesn’t answer such questions, nor does it propose to. However, it draws our attention to the very possibility of such questions. It makes clear that your “target” can’t remain quite the same once your understanding of translation has shifted away from the unidirectional process we’re so used to.

Despite a 17-hour time difference and the largest ocean on the planet between us, Forrest Gander, editor and contributor to this collection, kindly made the time to talk with me about Alice Iris Red Horse, face-to-digital-face. While at first I thought this would be a conversation about the challenges that presented themselves in translating Gozo’s work, as our conversation continued, it became increasingly clear that what’s truly unique about Gozo’s work is not the challenges, but rather, the opportunities his work opens up.

Kalau Almony

Kalau Almony: The first thing I really wanted to ask is, at the beginning of your introduction to the book you have this beautiful scene of the first time you saw Yoshimasu Gozo performing. How did you get from that first performance to deciding that this was something you want to have people work on translating, to bring into English on the page?

Forrest Gander

Forrest Gander

Forrest Gander: Well, just watching him perform and having this feeling that you don’t get so often, that you’re seeing the real thing, that this is an extraordinary artist working, and then looking for his work in English and finding these old translations focused on the semantics, even though semantics isn’t, perhaps, central to what happens in Gozo’s work. That made me realize that we really needed good translations of his poems. And in your generation now, there are adventurous translators who can take on such a challenge. People who have a more developed poetic idea of what translation might produce. And so it seemed like a great, timely opportunity to bring some young translators together and approach the rendering of his work into English.

KA: That’s really exciting. And it turned out great. From the start was your image to bring a bunch of different translators together to work on this?
FG: Yeah, it was. I thought that Gozo’s work is so open-ended. There are so many different ways you can approach its restless openness. And such a radical work almost calls out for different translators, each developing different aspects.

KA: What was the process of picking works, picking translators like? What went into that?
FG: I couldn’t not include two of the older translators that have been involved with Gozo’s work for a really long time, Hiroaki Sato and Richard Arno. I wanted to honor their translations, but also— There’s a beautiful rainbow. Oh amazing. Hold on one second . . . Sorry. It’s just an extraordinary rainbow. It’s been raining for months here. This is the first one I’ve seen, and it’s a double rainbow.

KA: That’s great.
FG: It’s kind of appropriate, because in a way that’s what I want. I want to bring all of that color out of Gozo’s work.

KA: Right.
FG: So I brought together different translators.

KA: It’s as if these translators work like a prism, refracting all the light.
FG: Yeah, putting multiple translators together creates that prismatic effect.

“I was really trying to give them as much permission as possible to explore the notion of translation in their translations.”

KA: That’s a great image. What about the format of the book? I was pretty surprised when I opened up it up and saw not a parallel translation with the Japanese on one side and English on the other, but parallel translator notes. Each translator’s comments are on the left, and poems are on the right. This is something I’ve just never seen before.
FG: At first, I was working with Derek Gromadzki, and he had the beautiful idea of rewriting the translator’s notes into vertical columns that would bring the reader of the translation closer to the Asian axis of reading, up and down. And he also metamorphosed the translator’s notes to make them more poetic. New Directions’ editors, I think rightly, figured that the notes ended up competing too much with the poems themselves. The notes looked too much like his poems and acted too much like his poems, and the densities became competitive. At the same time, because Gozo’s work can’t really be read in a conventional way, it seems like the notes, which I normally avoid in translations, are really necessary to open up a fulsome reading of the work for an American reader. I wanted to put that context into play from the start. [Read Gromadzki’s “A Note on the Notes”]

KA: To have the notes right there next to the poems instead of tucked away at the back of the book is certainly one way to foreground them.
FG: Right. I think in this case it’s really necessary to explore those wormholes in Gozo’s work.

Alice Iris Red Horse-Gozo Yoshimasu

KA: I also want to ask, as an editor for this work, how did you approach each poem? They’re so different. How did you imagine your role working with these very, very different works by different translators?
FG: I closely read the translations and made suggestions even to Richard Arno and Hiroaki Sato. Sato’s been a hero of mine forever for his translations. With the other translators who were translating Gozo for the first time, I was really trying to give them as much permission as possible to explore the notion of translation in their translations. So I offered to Jordan A. Yamaji Smith, for instance, an innovative translation by Jeffrey Angles. That opened up possibilities, Jordan told me, for his own approaches.

KA: So was there a lot of exchange between translators?
FG: I was working, once again, directly with Kyoko Yoshida, and Derek Gromadzki was working with Sayuri Okamoto, so the four of us were in touch. Jordan had seen Jeffrey’s translation. I think Sawako Nakayasu had seen Jordan’s translation. So there was intermingling of genetic code while everyone was sort of contributing their own.

“I think that’s a really powerful thing to offer the contemporary reader. The guarantee that they can’t be passive during this experience.”

KA: This sounds like such a fun project to work on.
FG: It was really fun. It still is a complex thing, because I know when people look at this book, they can see that it’s gorgeous, that the New Directions editors did a great job. The cover is inviting. Of course, the typographical layout was just a nightmare. Still, I know that for most readers it’s just way too weird of a book to read. And I wanted that to be okay. I think Alice Iris Red Horse offers us a different modality for reading. You know, Gozo’s work is so unconventional, it forces readers to read in a different way than they have before. You can’t just sit down and read this book from beginning to end. It doesn’t work that way.

KA: It’s an experience to sit down and read. Or stand up and read. I have to say, as I was going through it the first time, and the second and third time, I wound up just filling up the margins with more and more notes.
FG: You did? That’s great. I love marginalia and so does Gozo.

KA: In my copy, pages are dog-eared, and there are multiple colored memos all over the place. I feel like you really have to get into this book, to put yourself on the page too, to get something out of it.
FG: I think you’re right. I think Gozo’s work begs that, and I think that’s a really powerful thing to offer the contemporary reader. The guarantee that they can’t be passive during this experience. They have to be participatory.

KA: I can also see why it’s a bit daunting at first, though. But it’s definitely worth it once you dive in. Since we’re talking about poems and performance, Gozo’s not just a poet. He’s also certainly a performer. How do you see the act of performance carried over onto the page?
FG: Well, look at any poem. What you see are typographical explosions, a wealth of different fonts and texts and languages, and some echoic acting out of sound. It’s there everywhere. That’s mostly what happens in Gozo’s work. Reading it out loud helps. It’s impossible to read for its simple semantic value. That’s almost a worthless way of approaching the text. Even on the page, Gozo’s poetics is performative.

KA: I guess it’s a striking feature of Japanese literature in general, but you have this break where a character can represent a sound or a meaning. And they don’t necessarily coincide. There’s a lot of that going on in Gozo’s work.
FG: And that’s the kind of stuff that’s impossible, you know, impossible in quotation marks, to represent in a language like English. And that’s what makes trying to do that so exciting for a translator. Jordan talked about actually crying with happiness as he realized what was going on in the work he was translating. It was so distinctive from his more familiar experience as a reader and translator.

KA: This sounds like a transformative experience for the translators, too.
FG: Yeah, I believe they’ll say it was one.

KA: To echo what you said earlier, it’s really great to have all these different translators to see different approaches to these sorts of problems.
FG: And you as a translator would likely agree that there’s never a definitive translation of something. Particularly with Gozo’s work, which is kind of ethically and aesthetically based on there not being something definitive about a reading.

“And that’s the kind of stuff that’s impossible, you know, impossible in quotation marks, to represent in a language like English.”

KA: Yeah, going through these poems, I could just imagine Gozo picking one up tomorrow and adding a few lines, or cutting something out, or just rewriting the whole thing.
FG: I don’t mention this much, but in addition to shamanism, Gozo is also influenced by jazz and jazz improvisation. So he’s often worked with musicians.

KA: It’s really interesting to see how the act of reading and performing comes out in a lot of the writing, too. For example, “My Pulse” is almost like two poems intertwined. He’s reading someone else’s poem, and then there’s his reaction coming back at it.
FG: A whole lot of his work is like that. Which made me excited when you talked about the way that you read the book. Scribbling notes everywhere on the page. There’s a way that his work is already Talmudic, with text and text around text. The reader adds her own interpretation in the act of reading. For me, seeing notes of revision and commentary is one of the most exciting things about looking at other people’s work. I just translated a book of Neruda’s poems, the now famously “lost” Neruda poems, and the editors at Copper Canyon published the translations with Neruda’s holographic texts—so you can see what Neruda crosses out, changes, how he messes with his syntax. Being able to watch a poet’s mind work, in revisions, rewritings, and marginalia is a rare gift. I remember visiting Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s house, in the Berkshires, and seeing his Shakespeare open on the desk and all of his marginal notes there. You see someone thinking as they read. And so your experience of reading Gozo’s work is kind of a reenacting of Gozo’s experience of writing. Which is almost a spiritual act of listening to other voices and registering them and responding.

KA: I hope more people get an opportunity to pick up this book because it’s a genuinely pleasurable and unique read. Even if you’re too daunted to make it through the whole thing, taking in a few pages at a time is such a good experience.
FG: That, too, is what I’m hoping people will do. The book proposes itself as something that needs to be read differently. Anyone who wants to sit down and read through Gozo like a novel in the evening is, well, they’re going to be surprised. It doesn’t work that way.

“Gozo’s turning the camera on the reader, and on the things and the people with whom he’s writing, so we see them, we see ourselves. And that’s a really unusual way of considering otherness.”

KA: I think the way Gozo brings in all these different languages, too, is disorienting, but in a good way.
FG: The transnationality seems really utopian in a good way. And you might have a better sense of this than me, but it seems to me that Gozo, despite that his work is very Japanese, has been an international poet for a very long time, with his antenna out. His work is about internationality. Even while it’s Japanese. You would have a stronger way of understanding that than I would.

KA: Yeah, I definitely get that sense. From the American perspective, we tend to think of Asia as something we study. We have our East Asian studies departments. But no one really thinks about the fact that if you go to The University of Tokyo, you go to Keio University, they have huge English literature departments, French literature departments, Russian literature departments. So they’re looking out on the world, too. And I think that comes through really strongly in Gozo’s work.
FG: Me, too. There’s a scene in Antonioni’s movie The Passenger, this really beautiful scene where Jack Nicholson is interviewing a man who’s become a shaman. He’s from an African country, he’s western educated, and he goes back because that’s where he feels his place and his role is. And Nicholson is interviewing him in this sort of typically anthropological way, asking questions about his culture, and the guy turns the camera on Nicholson. The power dynamics change completely when the camera is facing the other way. In a way, Gozo’s turning the camera on the reader, and on the things and the people with whom he’s writing, so we see them, we see ourselves. And that’s a really unusual way of considering otherness.

KA: And it’s a really important one, I think, to bring into the English language.
FG: Exactly. All the more important for that to happen in English, the language that’s displacing so many other languages.

KA: I think another one of the points of Gozo’s use of other languages that might be more uniquely Gozo is that he’s focused on all these marginal languages. Personally, as a native Hawaiian, I was kind of shocked to see the Hawaiian language pop up in a poem.
FG: Yeah, yeah. And that seems very much in keeping with his identification with the Ainu, with marginalized people and cultures and languages. Certainly not to be stealing from it, but wanting it to be included in the opera of our moment. That seems like an ethical and aesthetic gesture.

KA: It doesn’t ever feel like a colonialist taking. It always feels very appreciative, when these elements, or these experiences—I’m thinking of the Cheyenne on the side of the road in the poem “Lamy Station”—there’s this sense of kinship almost. We’re on the same foot.
FG: That’s nicely said. I agree with you.

KA: This book has been out for a few months now. What kind of response has it gotten? What has it been like to tour with Gozo and see people’s reactions to the performances?
FG: The performances have all been completely packed. San Francisco, New York, Brown University. And we have a second round of tours coming up in April as part of the University of Iowa International Writing Program. There’s a whole lot of curiosity about him, and a whole lot of early interest in the book.

KA: Do you have anything else planned with Gozo Yoshimasu? Anything in the works?
FG: I don’t know. He’s really inspiring to me in terms of his Gozociné. I’m really interested in finding a place for film and poetry to come together. I’ll spend some time this summer in Tokyo with Yoi Suzuki, a filmmaker who has collaborated with Gozo on numerous occasions. We’ll see what ideas get sparked.

KA: That seems really appropriate.

Forrest Gander, a writer and translator with degrees in geology and literature, was born in the Mojave Desert and grew up in Virginia. Gander’s book Core Samples from the World, a meditation on the ways we are revised and translated in encounters with the foreign, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among his more recent titles are the novel The Trace, the poems Eiko & Koma, and two translations: Then Come Back: the Lost Poems of Pablo Neruda and Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo. He is the A.K. Seaver Professor of Literary Arts & Comparative Literature at Brown University.

Gozo, Yoshimasu. Alice Iris Red Horse. Ed. Forrest Gander. New York: New Directions, 2016.

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