05 January 2022

May be a review of text-image

Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, translated from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim (Balangay Productions, 2021)


1. Borges’s company

“I shall endure in Borges, not in myself (if, indeed, I am anybody at all), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others’,” so said Borges in the prose poem “Borges and I”, from Collected Fictions (Penguin Books, 1998), translated by Andrew Hurley. The poet’s hostile relationship with his doppelgänger—himself, in a fugue-like state—was explored rather gloomily, with a backward glance at a legacy of letters and a sigh. “Years ago I tried to free myself from him ... So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away—and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.” The speaker was sure the legacy will outlast the man, so he lived, allowed himself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, which is the speaker's sole justification. He was yielding his private persona to the public identity of Borges. He learned he could not escape from the edifice of words which now belonged not to himself—may be not even to Borges—but to language or literary tradition.

2. The original and the erasure

A similar identity crisis as Borges’s hounded Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles in Pesoa, a book of erasure poetry translated by Kristine Ong Muslim. Given the violent nature of production of the book—erasure, a kind of parasitic technique, like a vampire feeding off the blood of its victim—the literary hostility was there. Hostile, too, like “Borges and I” because it could not be a paean to its source text, certainly not a homage. The choice of a book—Personal by Rene O. Villanueva—was personal but the deliberate erasures must have been a serendipitous combination of chance, accident, and murder. Arguelles at first channeled his erasures to speak to his doppelgänger. It was the ambivalent struggle of the erasure with its original (erased) identity. Eventually, Arguelles’s doppelgänger multipied, splitting into personalities he could not tame or control. After some walking and self-questioning of Arguelles by Arguelles, other heteronyms joined the fray like the specters of Fernando Pessoas (plural), giving rise to more self-questioning. ‘Arguelles and I’ branched out to ‘Arguelles & Co.’

3. The erasure and the translation

Seven years ago, in writing a few words about Pesoa in its original language, I posed a question: Is not the translation of erasures another set of erasures? Little did I know that one of my favorite poets would undertake the task of translating one of my favorite poets. And that the attempt to answer that question—the appearance of Muslim's English Pesoa last month—would never really fully answer it, would only point to an indication of an answer, and would propound more unsettling questions about the production of poetry, its value, and its reception. How dare the poet hide the process and just bring out the end-product for all to read. How dare the translator translate the product and not the process. Translation excerpts are found here.

It turned out that translating and reading erasure poetry was as straightforward as translating and reading non-erasures. You just have to translate and read them straight through, like how they appear on the page. The process might be hidden, invisible, but the end-product, the crime, was exposed in the light of day to be scrutinized and re-erased.

How then to account for the process in the background, the nagging sense that we are an accomplice (twice over) to Arguelles’s crime of erasure by reading the erased poetry, first in the original and then in the accompanying translation? We were conscious of the crime and hence were complicit to it. Why then do we, I, reader, not feel any guilt? Probably because erasing something was, in the first place, a liberating experience. And to read something that was effaced was equally liberating. The redacted words blended into the surrounding white and the words were compacted to achieve the syntax of what may be poetry: what may be an image of text, as the cover of the translated book—the design was credited to Arguelles himself—proudly displays. Pesoa is an image of a text erased. Text-image (read: erasure) culled from violence sans blood and bruise.

Muslim’s translation intensified the text-image by expounding on simple, short sentences of the original. This is translation through explication and it tended to enhance or emphasize the effect of dislocation from the original. This is translation through elaboration—or belaboring—of the fugue state by creating, for example, double negative. Where in “Ilan” (Count), the first prose poem of the original, it simply said, “Malayo sa buhay ko” (literally: Far removed from my life), the translator opted for redundancy to heighten Arguelles’s—the speaker’s, not the poet’s, but who can be sure anymore—longing for the lives of his literary precursors. The precursors—Fernando Pessoa, Nick Joaquin, Virgilio S. Almario—paved the way for the appearance of (how many? 40? 20?) heteronyms. The translation of the simple sentence was highlighted below.

Fernando, Joaquin, Virgilio, and others. These people from the past, their world and history grew inside me. They lived completely different lives that were far removed from mine. Whenever I read them, I could not help but covet what they had and did not have. There is no such thing as self: only a world of questions. How much and how many should be counted. A lot, and it is never enough. 40, maybe in excess of 40, more than 40, I think twenty is not enough. A person is made up of dissociated identities. I did try to become a stranger to mankind. No, really, I have been untethered from myself for far too long. Only one of them is among the ones present here.   

The maximalist translation approach in lieu of the minimalist original was in itself a form of erasure, splitting the concise chemical compound into its constituent atomic elements. The translator said so in her note to the translation as she made a case for a fit-for-purpose poetics of translation.

As a translator, I am very much into clarity of purpose and uncovering ‘ulterior’ motives. I intervene, holding a portable light source to illuminate the passageways and figure out what lurks in the narrator’s peripheral vision. ... My translation becomes an act of filling in the gaps because it is my contention that the narrator is not being intentionally evasive. His hold on reality is simply too shaky.


Pesoa is translated this way—with a broad stroke, its coded message presented partly decoded in English but just enough so as not to spoil it for the reader.

So she opted for clarity over ambiguity/vagueness. Yes, I dig it. I would rather have a somewhat clear text-image than unintelligible rhetoric. Which should be the task of the translator, according to Walter Benjamin whose credo of translation is a form of illumination of the original, facilitating the view of the original through transparent lenses. 

The significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade. [translated by Harry Zohn, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt]

Literalness, in Benjamin’s reckoning—“a literal rendering of the syntax”—was not being too literal but being literary or having the creative license to draw or invent the arcade’s text-image. In Pesoa, the arcade of self was crossed by Arguelles and Arguelles. The definitive break or split of selves into more than two—40? but 20 may be enough!—personalities was apparent on page 19.

Marami ang ako o hindi ako. At kulang ang sarili. Pero ako, ako! Siyempre hindi ako lang ako. Maya-maya, ipagpapatuloy ko ang paghakbang, tatawirin ang labirinto, maglalakad.

I, as well as the selves that are not me, comprise a multitude. And the self is never enough. But the me inside of me is me! Of course, I am not the only one in me. Later, I will continue to walk, to cross the labyrinth, to trespass. 

And the translation would really sound staid if done literally. My literal attempt seven years ago proved this. I noticed, though, that the first edition of the poems in 2014 were not prose poems but poems set off properly in broken lines. This second bilingual edition removed the line breaks and connected the sentences. This new prosing of the poetic text-image was, I could not help but say, a second erasure of the original text! The original was re-erased, done over again, re-rendered.

Erasure (and re-erasure) was a perfect method of thievery because the evidence was non-existent: it was erased. It may even be a perfect murder because no blood is spilled in its wake. Muslim’s way of translating the text-image was reading between the texts, between the interstices of invisible ink and the premeditated violence of disappearing the words.

“The self is a concoction”, the poet wrote. So was the text-image in original and in translation. If meanings were a concoction of our imagination, then the discovery of meaning, the discovery of the self, was also a concoction. Ad infinitum.

4. The crime of the eraser

The awareness of the process of re-rendering kept me wide awake as I read. This made me tense as I read. I may have overtly romanticized the idea of erasure to the point that I considered it a crime of theft or murder.

I should just say instead that Pesoa is guilty of the crime of obsession, of stalking. The author stalking for meaning someone's text to produce a poetic text-image. Then re-rendering that text-image into prose poetry format. The translator stalking the poems to produce her own text-image where a poet stalked himself to generate other selves.

I discovered that there was a me who could be a multitude. There goes the banality of self. I figured there had to be a me in order for others to be themselves.

The assertion of self was always a way to engage with the world. How much more the assertion of a company of others who hid behind the banal existence of the self and the self: the eraser and the erased: the text-image and the text it is derived from. 

5. Arguelles & Co.

In “Borges and I”, the eponymous poet wrote: 

I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.

In Pesoa, Arguelles wrote: 

I have been untethered from myself for far too long. Only one of them is among the ones present here. 

Something wrote the page. Someone who was present. But still one could not be sure who among the poet’s company was the one present in there, in the book of poetry. I propose it is the reader of the text-image. The reader is ever present in the reading. He is a faithful heteronym of the eraser Arguelles, author of the Pesoa.

Enter: Pierre Menard.



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