Maintaining the Past: Ed Dorn as Translator
Ed Dorn is not a poet ordinarily associated with translation. He did, however, translate with his colleague and friend, Gordon Brotherston, who transliterated texts from Nahuatl and Spanish for Dorn. During an interview conducted in December 1998, referring to Recollections of Gran Apachía, Ed Dorn states: “I don’t need to, or don’t intend to address Indians […] [b]ut attitudes exhibited and displayed from my own race are my business, and that’s the business of any poet” (Ed Dorn Live 157).[i]
To “address” another “race”, interpreting a sequence of historical events from the perspective of a white, western male was undoubtedly problematic for Dorn. I believe that his opinion related to “race”, and of a poet’s “business” therein, informs his translational process. My aim in this article is to draw a brief parallel between Dorn and Brotherston’s translations of the Florentine Codex and Dorn’s own creative work, Recollections of Gran Apachería—a selection of poems forming an account of the Apaches in the 19th century American-Indian wars—to demonstrate how the activity of translation, together with his refusal to “address” other cultures, influenced Dorn’s subsequent compositional approach as a poet. Consequently, I will aim to justify that Recollections of Gran Apachería is a form of translation through the trace of the evidence it presents, the social and historical commentary it offers, and through the omniscient narration of Dorn’s own poetic voice.
Lawrence Venuti’s provocation in The Translator’s Invisibility cites translation as a form of “ethnocentric violence” (20); that there is a “reconstitution of the foreign text in accordance with values, beliefs, and representations that pre-exist it in the translating language and culture” (18). It is from this view of translation as a mode of cultural distortion – or “violence” – that the insurmountable problem of how one might translate a source text from another race into a target language with any validity or authenticity arises. If one is to accept that there will always be “ethnocentric” damage inflicted upon a source text while it is in transit from one literary space and culture to another, given Dorn’s reluctance to “address” other cultures, who is the speaker in his poems addressing—and how?
Dorn and Brotherston’s translation of “Good Times at Tula” from the Florentine Codex provides a means of understanding this. The translation conveys a sense of Dorn’s own reluctance to be implicated with addressing another culturally distinct groups:
The toltecs were certainly rich
Food was not scarce enough to sell
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The toltecs did not in fact lack anything
No one was poor or had a shabby house (12).
A parallel can be drawn between Dorn’s narration and the documentation of Bernardino de Sahagún,[ii] as each line functions as a commentary on the indigenous Toltecs. Dorn states that the Toltecs were “certainly rich” and they did not “in fact lack anything”, presenting a register that does not permit itself to be drawn into anything other than a factual account. This is, however, unavoidably laced with subjectivity: Dorn’s use of “in fact” suggests that established fact has been made redundant, and that it is not correct compared to the version that the poet offers. This is furthered through the presence of Dorn’s vernacular, as the adjective “shabby” lends an American mid-west roughness to the tone, widening the gulf between Dorn’s white, western American roots and that of Mesoamerica.
If one compares the above translation to the stanzas below, excerpted from Recollections of Gran Apachería, similarities are evident:
It is bright to recollect
that the Apaches were noble
not in themselves
so much as their Ideas
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The children of both sexes
had perfect freedom
And were never punished
They were wired to the desert
And they were invisible
in the mountains (Dorn, Collected Poems 368)
Dorn presents us with a distanced, historical commentary through the past tense, authoritative statement “the Apaches were noble”, prefaced by the present tense comment “it is bright to recollect”. This shift from present tense to past enables Dorn to generate distance between the people he is describing and himself; in doing so, the Apache wars transmute into sober reminiscences, presented through the lens of present-day and through Dorn as the poet. The language that connects both the translation of the Florentine Codex and these stanzas also bears a continuation of tone: the Apache children were “wired” to the desert, which is steeped in Dorn’s vernacular. However, and crucially, his refusal to speak for the Apache is clear: that they are noble “not in themselves / so much as their Ideas” removes the implication that Dorn is a mouthpiece for the Apache; he does not want to call them noble as a people because he is not one of them, yet he can perhaps form a judgement of their ideas, the product of the Apache.
Consequently, Dorn’s prerogative through both translation and in writing Recollections of Gran Apachería is not to speak to or for another culture, but to speak of another culture. Such was his intention: the “business” of a poet being to comment from the poet’s perspective alone, and so, when speaking for his own culture, the narrative activity present in Dorn’s translational work with Brotherston clearly manifests in Gran Apachería. As a further comparative example, consider the following extract from the translation “The Aztec Priests’ Speech” set against “The Moving, Invisible Spectre of the Phratry On the Traitor Peaches”:
And now what? How is it,
What are we supposed to say,
What shall we present to our ears?
Can it be said we are anything at all?
We are small subjects (Dorn and Brotherston 37).
Who can tell what a traitor is?
To What? His own comfort?
Are there any traitors to that?
Those dying of discomfort
can accommodate it most (Dorn, Collected Poems 374).
The string of emotive, indignant rhetorical questions found in the Nahuatl of the Florentine Codex is emulated in Dorn’s own poetry; this is notable because in both instances the questions precede an acceptance that “We are small subjects” and “Those dying of discomfort / can accommodate it the most”. Even when Dorn uses “we” in translations from the Florentine Codex, he is not comfortable speaking for the Toltec: the line “Can it be said we are anything at all?” is perhaps revealing in this case, as it questions whether the pronoun “we” is “anything”, and whether it is at all appropriate to be used by the translator. In this case, I would argue that Dorn is writing of a common humanity between different, culturally diverse groups of people that transcends pronouns; and in the example above it is the subjugation of man that becomes translatable above notions of “race”, ideology and atrocities of war. These are themes that cannot easily be addressed (“How is it”; “To What?”) or, indeed, are not able to be spoken for by another who has not experienced them.
When approaching any poet-translator’s work, one would expect to see evidence of a personal, poetic voice in their translation. In Dorn’s translations of Nahuatl this is no exception, although what is also clear is the parity of tone and method in both Dorn’s translation and his own creative work. To frame the preceding analyses, it is pertinent to revisit Dorn himself and consider his correspondence with the war archaeologist, Karl Laumbach, as he comments on the subject of Gran Apachería:
[Laumbach] is saying that my statements about Victorio are interesting because they, in the poetic sense […] justify and confirm his own work about the placement of the artefacts and the relics of the battle [of Hembrillo Basin] itself […] I’m just saying that the faith in poetry as an instrument [of] maintaining the past is legitimate (Ed Dorn Live 160).
It is his belief of “maintaining the past” that informs Dorn’s verse. It explains the poet’s reluctance to assume and alter elements of the past, and instead to present them as objects curated by the speaker and examined by the reader. In this sense, Recollections of Gran Apachería can be read as a kind of translation because it is a simultaneous unfolding of historical trace and a present-day assessment of it, forming a collection that both recounts the nature of man under forces of oppression and forewarns of its consequences.
To maintain, the Oxford Dictionary of English states, is to “cause or enable (a condition or situation) to continue” (1068). It is the utilization of poetry and translation as a method of continuing the past in the present that problematizes the issue of how one might address other cultures—how a translator chooses to speak through a translation—because the past cannot be prolonged or maintained without change. There is a fundamental dislocation between the difficult, collective past experience of a race and the poet’s very different, personal present; Dorn goes some way in demonstrating that historical sources can only ever be interpreted and expressed in new and varied ways.
In this short article, I have not sought to present an exhaustive list of examples of Dorn and Brotherston’s work; I am sure there are many more poems and translations that could be used to further these observations. Yet even from these comparative case studies, Dorn stands as an example of how the creation of new poetry can use the translation of historical sources—pieces of evidence, documents and artefacts—that act as prompts for the poet.
[i] It should be noted that when Dorn uses the term “race”, it was likely socially acceptable in historical context, taken to mean culturally different and indigenous groups, such as the Apache.
[ii] Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590 AD), a Franciscan friar and missionary priest who documented the culture and traditions of indigenous Mesoamericans in the Florentine Codex.
Dorn, Edward. Collected Poems. Edited by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn. Reprint edition. Manchester: Carcanet Press Ltd., 2012.
–––. Ed Dorn Live. Edited by Joseph Richey. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
–––. and Gordon Brotherston, translators. The Sun Unwound: Original Texts from Occupied America. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1999.
Oxford Dictionary of English. Edited by Angus Stevenson. Third edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.
Dr Simon Everett is a poet and poet-translator. His latest pamphlet of poetry, Tamám (Litmus Press, 2020), is an experimental reimagining of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. His translations of Chinese T’ang dynasty poetry have been published in magazines such as STAND, and his translations of contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Yangyang appeared in Chinese Arts and Letters journal. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Essex, funded by the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts South-East England (CHASE). Simon was also the Layout Editor of the Brief Encounters open access journal from 2017-2019, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Muscaliet Press.