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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 297-327

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Manners of Mistranslation:
The Antropofagismo of Elizabeth Bishop's Prose and Poetry

Justin Read
State University of New York, Buffalo

IF TRANSLATION, TO BUILD UPON THE SUGGESTIVE THOUGHT OF WALTER Benjamin, 1 serves the angelic purpose of sustaining the essential kinship of languages, and thus the possibility of a universal pure language, then translation must inevitably perform its own undoing. Although the translation may appear secondary or parasitic to the original work-of-art, the original also comes to depend upon translation for its continued existence (its "afterlife"). The good translation effectively re-creates the originality of the original, and in doing so, surpasses the original in its ability to reconcile the sign to its intentio. In other words, translation increases the level of transparency between language (all language) and its intentions, in much more profound ways than the original itself. The "successful" translation should be no mere sycophant to its original, but rather a new original that exceeds the power of the old original. Yet translation in this sense only seems to imply power relations of dominance and dependency: the original source-text comes to rely upon its once-sycophantic translation in order to realize its true originality. Thus, one might quibble with Benjamin that implicit within the angelic aims of translation lurks a sort of demonization, some [End Page 297] diabolic fall from pure language incapable of avoiding inter-linguistic disequilibrium. If one is willing to accept the semantic contradiction of a "new original," then the task of the translator may well be mistranslation.

For the Americanist, of course, such notions are not simply fodder for philosophical or religious inquiry, since "translatability" (in the Benjaminian sense) may be an essential mode of culture—of any sense of the "American" and its corresponding Americanisms. As a matter of editorial policy, for instance, one prominent Americanist journal holds "that the language of the Americas is translation, and that therefore questions of translation, dialogue, and border crossings (linguistic, cultural, national, and the like) are necessary for rethinking the foundations and limits of the Americas." 2 Very well; but what if every translation is mistranslation? Carrying the previous discussion into the conceptual framework of Roberto Fernández Retamar, we may find translation—this eminently American mode of communication—to be the language of the demonic Calibán, not the angelic Ariel. 3

Yet the scope of the present essay is not Calibanism, but rather cannibalism—a slight, yet significant, distinction. 4 As the "American" in "Americanism" shifts its meaning from "United States" to "the Americas," Americanist literary/cultural scholars will inevitably embark on projects of theoretical revision. 5 Surely, Latin Americanists will adopt a critical perspective from el norte (or should we say, continue to do so, since such adoptions already have an impressive history in Latin Americanist scholarship); yet it remains uncertain whether Anglo Americanists are prepared (or even willing) to accept critical theories from el sur. In any event, a truly American American Studies (inter-Americanist, trans-Americanist) will not be possible until all sides agree to eat each other—or at least consume each other's corpus of theory and criticism. Here, I mean to suggest a double (and perhaps duplicitous) practice of disciplinary translation: Americanists—whose fundamental object-of-inquiry is translation—must steadily come to translate their discipline from the perspective of the other America (however defined). In this essay, I propose such translation of Anglo American culture from the vantage point of Brazilian antropofagismo, especially that variety practiced by Haroldo de Campos. [End Page 298]

Although de Campos has already written extensively on Ezra Pound, his works on translation and cannibalism are particularly well-suited for another (or an other) canonical figure of U.S. poetry, Elizabeth Bishop. We have in Bishop a poet of central importance to U.S.-American late modernism. And of course, such centrality and canonicity belie the multiform eccentricity of Bishop and her work. For one thing, Bishop herself was both U.S.-American...


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