Open Letter: Translation and Acknowledgement

Open Letter is a small press affiliated with the University of Rochester that publishes nothing but literature in translation. A good idea. Starting out with the correct assumption that English speaking readers don’t have full access to voices and viewpoints from around the world, these translators want to change that. That is, they are trying to change the conditions of recognizability, so that Westerners can begin to acknowledge other voices. Their recent publications include “Season of Ash” by Mexican novelist Jorge Volvi, Brazilian political poetry, and an anthology of eastern European writers titled “The Wall in my Head.”

Open Letter and their recent project brings me to think the issue of acknowledgment in aesthetics. Once the authorial voices gain representation through translation, the public gets to acknowledge these formerly un-heard, un-read voices. No doubt that this is a great idea, given that there is a set of readers out there that’s very interested in translations and international literature, and is not getting what it wants. But it is also a great idea to specifically want to translate social critiques, political poetry, and literature that addresses suffering and the perils of violence. The issue of literary accessibility takes me to Judith Butler’s book “Frames of War.” Butler addresses photography related to violence in her work, but I believe the issue is the same with political works of literature. It is not exactly true that an excess of images of suffering makes us callous and passive towards these ethical/political issues. It is rather the opposite; the dominant media carefully selects and filters the images we get to see, excluding anything that may have more than a superfluous meaning. This is evident in times of war for example. As Buttler argues, it is in the realm of representation that humanization and dehumanization are confirmed endlessly.

Butler’s assumption that whoever can be represented stands more of a chance of being regarded as human, while those that are not represented, are at risk of being de-humanized can be used in the realm of photography but also in literature. What this publishing company is doing then, at the level of recognition or representation, is allowing us to acknowledge and, thus, giving others the chance to represent themselves through the translation of these voices. I’m loosely interpreting Buttler over here, so bear with me, but if we fail to acknowledge due to a lack of translated political works, these voices and what they want to represent are at risk of loosing representation. Not just politically, but at an ontological level (because we don’t take into account their precariousness, vulnerability, interdependency etc. if we never get to read them.) So I think that when Butler argues for more egalitarian norms of recognition at the level of representation in photography, we can also incorporate this view to the literary realm, where more egalitarian norms of recognition would demand for more translators that could help us gain more access to political literary works. So Open Letter press is not only translating but also allowing us to acknowledge, by giving us better, more egalitarian norms of recognition, how’s that for a good book deal.

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