‘“So It Can Flourish as a Whole Within Me”: an Interview With Poet and Self-Translator Alison Whittaker’, by Elizabeth Bryer

To celebrate The Lifted Brow’s foray into publishing translated books, TLB’s new Translation Editor, Elizabeth Bryer, talked to Gomeroi poet, essayist, and self-translator Alison Whittaker.

The Lifted Brow: To start with the general picture: How, if at all, does translation or self-translation inform your creative practice?

Alison Whittaker: In a way, it’s all the creative practice I’ve got! I work mostly in the English language, so I’m always changing concepts and codes from this Gomeroi formulation I have of the world. Even when I’m working in my own language, Gamilaraay, my understanding and my expression is mediated through English as my first language. So, even though I’m working from a language frame that’s at the foundation of being Gomeroi, using Gamilaraay in my cultural practice is almost a double translation. That’ll change as my language knowledge grows, I hope, and I’ll be less bound by this colonial language frame. Translation’s at the core of what I do, wanted or unwanted!

TLB: ‘Wanted or unwanted’: This makes me wonder what the relationship is between language and oppression in your opinion. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s decision to forsake English to write in Gikuyu springs to mind. He said in an interview,

It was a revelation for me, in a practical sense, that you could write in an African language and still reach an audience beyond that language through the art of translation. Through the act of translation we break out of linguistic confinement and reach many other communities.

This view might be putting a rosy filter on things, but do you think translation can be a tool to work through the relationship between language and oppression? If there are losses along the way, how do you think these can be mediated, challenged or counteracted?

AW: I suppose it’s always bound by the context that clads a language, isn’t it? If I didn’t have that double-translation binding, maybe translation from Gamilaraay to English in order to expand a readership should shake a bit of the oppressive context of meaning-making in English. But it’s not that simple, and meaning-making in language isn’t always just a question of perspective or emphasis that’s explored through other words. The words themselves make the meaning. What is easily expressed in Gamilaraay might have no proper answer in English, and why would it? So much of colonisation has been about edging us out of our own meaning-making and ideas. If that meaning is at the level of the word, not just in a perspective that can be reflected in English, then translating into English is going to suppress that meaning. There’s little getting around it.

Our emphasis in translation needs to shift if we’re seriously thinking about it as a decolonial tool. I think it can be one. Readers themselves need to engage in translating (which might mean an incomplete translation or reading notes or guides), or translation has to eschew perfect readability for integrity. That’s integrity both in the ethical sense, and in the structural sense of meaning-making. And that means translation as an act of deep listening to a text rather than trying to depict a text.

TLB: Let’s talk a bit about specific examples in your work. Heteroglossia is an important feature, including in ‘O, Eureka!’ and ‘Sharp Tongue’. In the final two stanzas of ‘O, Eureka!’ the implied translation that happens in the space (and friction) between the juxtaposition of the ‘languages’ of Nan and the academy is very powerful. There is of course an aesthetic dimension to using different ‘languages’ within the same language, but how is your use here political?

AW: I use the friction between different languages—including between English, Aboriginal English and Gamilaraay—to highlight how they make and use power. When I wrote these poems, this friction was at the front of my mind. How can one language or way of knowing elevate itself over another? What kind of strength can push back? This is especially the case when we’re looking at language as a way of being precise and conveying expert truth as I was in ‘O, Eureka!’, or when looking at language as a way to revive as I was in ‘Sharp Tongue’.

Now I think I want to move beyond using Aboriginal English and Gamilaraay only to resist English, even though I think this use is important. As limiting as it is to work within a power dynamic if you reject it or disregard it and make it invisible, I’m now trying to pull my language use away from the friction it must withstand in coming up against English so it can flourish as a whole within me. That friction’s pretty significant when you’re up against a majority language. I want to know: what if my use of Aboriginal English or Gamilaraay just is, just sits on its own? I want to assert their worth prima facie, not just in terms of what they can push back against, but in their richness and complexity as self-standing ways of knowing and expressing. It’s a way to translate or do language without making Indigenous languages a flat, ‘anti-racist’ answer to English, I hope.

TLB: Sounds very exciting! What about your translation of your poem ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ into and then out of Gamilaraay for Seizure Edition Four. Your first English version of course already had Gamilaraay influence. But after translating that version into Gamilaraay and then back into English, were there any changes between the first and second English versions that surprised you? If there were, what do you attribute those changes to? And what do you think the effect could be for readers of seeing on the screen not only the English versions but also the Gamilaraay?

AW: So many surprises! The big shift was the movement towards sustenance and reconstruction in the latter version. Whereas the original ‘Wattle in the Dykes’ had a focus on friction in conflict and sexuality, relying on innuendo to get its point across to those with the requisite cultural knowledge, the second English version shifted its focus towards an ecology of relationships, selves and places. I attribute that to a few things. Like, for instance, the different architecture and focus of Gamilaraay as a language. Where I see English as descriptive, Gamilaraay is something else. Even its nouns seem to verb, for me. Only a little of that can come back into the second English version, which I guess is what English readers see in its transformation. It’s important that readers see the poem in Gamilaraay on the screen as its own poem, not just as a catalyst to change the meaning of a poem in English. I hope the effect of this is that readers might get their mouth around the words (especially since the text is a poem), or at least be able to understand how the transformation takes place. Even if they don’t, those words must still be there.

TLB: It’s an incredible poem, and fascinating to get to sound out those Gamilaraay words and read your translation of them. Is there anything you’d like to add about translation, either in your own creative practice or more generally?

AW: Thank you, Elizabeth! The only thing I would add is that the most crucial component of translation is the act of listening and reading deeply.

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and essayist from the NSW floodplain fringe. Alison’s writing links the visceral with the political, drawing from her scholarship and work in cultural studies and Aboriginal women’s law and policy. She has words in Meanjin, Colouring the Rainbow, Archer, Tincture and the UTS anthology Seeds and Skeletons. Her debut verse novella, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, winner of the State Library of Queensland’s 2015 black&write! Fellowship, was released by Magabala Books in March 2016.

Elizabeth Bryer is The Lifted Brow’s translations editor, and wants to see your translation submissions (see guidelines here). Her translation of Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Americas Prize–winning novel, Blood of the Dawn, is out with Deep Vellum Publishing this month. Recent writing has appeared in The Lifted Brow, Sydney Review of Books, Meanjin and Best Australian Science Writing, and she curated Seizure Edition Four: Translation.