Joanne Savio talks with her former student Roland Folkmayer about the retrospective of her dance photography and about what she seeks to achieve in a photographic portrait.
RF: What does it feel like having a retrospective of your work?
JS: It’s a very emotional experience. Each of those images have some kind of memory, some more than others. As I looked at the negatives down in my basement—surrounded by, you know, the washer, the dryer, the water tank–working on this very tiny, light table with an old magnifying glass—it wasn’t just picking out images for a show from thousands of negatives of dance, but it was also a visual memoir. I shed tears over some of those images. Some of these subjects are not with us anymore. Some of the assistants that helped me create this work are not here anymore. Awam Amkpa, a friend of mine who is a scholar and artist here, said, “Don’t think of it as a retrospective. Think of it as an introspective,” which I thought was excellent, you know, a good way to look at it.
RF: Absolutely. When you were going through your pictures, how did you know what to exclude, and what to include?
JS: In the film department, as you know, we have the expression “Kill the darlings.” And I had to do that for this show. I kept editing, editing, editing, taking things out, and trying to stand back in my mind, to see how these images converse with each other. Do they have something in common? Is there a gesture? Is there something that would make the images live together as a family? [Laughs.] I still mourn some of the images that I couldn’t fit into the show.
RF: So you were looking for—something more like an emotional attachment for you, or some other sort of quality?
JS: I had to say to myself, “Okay. Is this [image in the show] because I’m so attached to this person, and I’m really remembering that moment shooting them? But how will an audience react to this image?”
RF: Why did you choose this twenty-year time frame for your exhibit? Why not shorter, or longer?
JS: That’s a great question. One way to think about it is 1986 was the first dance project I ever photographed, of Merce Cunningham. And there was no budget. I had gone back to school later in my life, at 33, I had already graduated with a degree in English Literature–
RF: Great. [Laughs.]
JS: —and I was then studying at Cooper Union, which is an amazing art school, and engineering, and architecture school in New York. And almost all of the students there were appropriate college age but we became friends. There was one young man there who later became an extremely famous designer and writer, Abbott Miller, who ended up art-directing and designing the beautiful magazine called Dance Ink. He called me and said, “I have this project, a portrait. I think you’d be perfect for it. But there’s really no budget.” When he said the subject was Merce Cunningham, I said, “I’m ready. I’ll go.” And my husband, Jim, went with me as an assistant. So that was the beginning. And even though I didn’t stop shooting dance in 2004, it seemed like the bulk of my work, including my book Vital Grace, as well as most of the work I had done for Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance Ink., seemed to finish up at around that point. So it seemed like a perfect chapter to try to illustrate. But I intend to continue shooting dance and taking portraits for the rest of my life.
Portrait of Pina Bausch, Italy, 1994.
RF: How does dance keep you inspired? Why do you think it’s an essential and important topic in your life?
JS: Because for one thing I’m so clumsy. And these incredible, beautiful beings can do something that I cannot do. So the ones that are performance based, it was exciting to shoot. There is some kind of gut reaction about when to press that shutter. Someone who came to my opening said, “That’s a perfect moment with Baryshnikov and Trisha Brown. How did you know to shoot that moment?” But it was the instinct of seeing a beautiful form. I would hear myself gasp behind the lens. For that moment in time I also feel like I’m flying through the air, I am these dancers. But when I stop time for that second, it forces the viewer to study that image. So the image appears important, or it appears that it’s something that needs to be looked at.
RF: That’s very interesting. So you weren’t necessarily capturing a particular moment but could, sort of let it happen?
JS: I’m usually working with these people not as they’re performing for an audience. So I can say, “I want to make sure that I got that jump. Can you try it again?” No one’s saying, “Oh, you should get that.” You know, there’s just something inside of you that feels a moment you connect as human beings, something about that person that’s reminding you of yourself. Like, I’m looking at you now, how you’re holding your hands. I’m looking at your gestures, your eyes. If I were taking a portrait of you right now, I’d be looking for those moments where it would feel right to take that picture.
RF: When I look at these pictures, I wonder—how do you bring out the vulnerability in people?
JS: You know, the first thing is that you try to establish a sense of trust and respect between you and your subject. If it’s someone famous I do research before the shoot, because I want them to know that they’re not just another project to me, that I’m interested in who they are, what was there upbringing like, where were they born. I also feel when a camera is on you, you can feel vulnerable. And I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty. Also, I don’t rush them. It goes back to the class you took with me [“Sound, Image, Story”], when I tried to stress slowing our world down, looking at tiny moments of light, little gestures, a look in the eye, expressions on a face.
RF: How can we practice slowing our world down?
JS: That’s—I’m still— [Laughs.] I’m still struggling with that myself.
JS: When I slow my world down, I don’t tend to fall as much. [Laughs.]
I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty.
RF: Your exhibition is called Grace, and your images were featured in a book called Vital Grace. So I wondered, what is grace to you, in your life?
JS: Even in this context, it’s not just grace in the sense of being graceful, but also in the sense of giving blessings and giving thanks to something. These photos are a way also to honor the people that were willing to sit in front of my camera and willing to show themselves to me. So it’s also a grace in the sense of giving back to these people a blessing of gratitude.
RF: Putting together this exhibit was a long process. What will you take away from this whole exhibition?
JS: I’m still processing it all but it does feel really good to see my work around me. Because it’s like being almost in the company of friends, subjects, memories in my own life. So I walk away from the exhibition feeling very grateful for the life I have.
Top photo: Trisha Brown, archival digital print from film negative, 156 x 111.8cm. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Images courtesy of the artist.
In the third part of Sebastián Rojas Cabal’s interview with Charles Siebert, the pair discuss the teaching of Creative Writing at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Part III: Teaching
Teaching full-time here has been a new experience for me. I’ve only done visiting professorships in the past. I was a bit apprehensive at first about teaching Intro to Creative Writing and have to cover so many different forms, like the personal essay, fiction and poetry. I mean it’s one thing for me to have stuck my nose back into poetry, my roots. I began my writing career as a poet. But it was really exciting today. We’d been doing the personal essay before. It was unbelievable to see how excited everyone was. I’m still getting a little resistance on the writing of it. But the reading of it I think to have six students flipping over T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” you know, a poem that was written back in 1910. They were responding to it like it was a contemporary work. So that was pretty cool. That was fun.
I’m also having them read persona poems, where the poet, you know, takes on the persona of some other person, like James Dickey’s “Lifeguard,” a beautiful poem in the voice of a lifeguard who can’t save a drowning boy. And Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” imagining herself as Lazarus, coming back from the dead. Incredible.
In my feature writing and travel writing courses in which students are asked to compose a long-form narrative work of creative nonfiction I have to tell everyone, “Stop leading with your premise. This is not an academic paper. Just find the stories that add up to your premise.”
This student down in Ghana kept saying, “I wanna write about the justice system in Ghana and how it’s the antidote to the corruption and nepotism of the government.” I’m going, “Okay, but I don’t want a thesis, okay? Sit in the courtroom. Be an observer. And find the stories that add up to what you just told me. You know, ’cause if you go the other way, you’re gonna write me a term paper. And I don’t want a term paper.”
And that’s what’s been the hardest thing to get across here. And a lot of that’s a function of age. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now at the undergrad level. You know, I too was filled with my premises and my theories and the only escape I got from that was writing poetry. I understand the impulse. It’s not until you get a little older and a little more worldly and do this for awhile, where you’re out in the real world listening to people’s stories. I’m not a reporter. Not by training. I’ve never had a journalism class. But I just figured that stuff out by virtue of wanting to tell a good story. And for telling a good story you gotta ask some questions and you gotta go see things and then give the world back to readers in as compelling a way as possible. But I still miss poetry. There are so many days where I just go, “Should I just go back? You know, just throw all this away?”
Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation.
Photo by Sebastián Rojas Cabal
Q: But do you think training as a poet has somehow fits with your life as a creative nonfiction writer?
A: I was very conscious of form when I wrote poems, else why write it? And I think being highly attuned to and conscious of the form of free verse poems especially, and how it’s shaped, the beginning, middle, end, I think somehow it gave me an instinctual sense of how to structure a long-form narrative piece. We talk a lot about the structuring of a narrative piece in the feature and travel writing writing classes. So I think that’s one way.
Every time I gotta go into a science section, or weave science in, I do it through metaphor that makes you see it.
The other way that poetry helped is what we discussed earlier about the function of metaphor. That works so well for so many of the kind of pieces I write now because they deal in these unseen landscapes of science. There’s not a piece I write where at one point I’m not talking about things like the neurons that are attached to empathy or that get wounded in trauma or where I’m not talking about cells and the makeup of cells, and where viruses came from.
Every time I gotta go into a science section, or weave science in, I do it through metaphor that makes you see it. Thus, for example, my friend Francisco Goldman, who had me up at his class at Trinity College in Hartford. He asked me, “You know, where did you come up with this line?”And it was something to do with the crooked streams and blown-out bridges of an embattled psyche or something like that. And of course at the time I was thinking of the first war when we first came up with the idea of shell shock and war trauma. Well when one thinks of the First World War you think of those dreary landscapes of muddy trenches and barbed wire. And the blood and rains in crooked streams. So that’s where I came up that image. But that’s what it is, giving a physical shape to unseen inner landscapes. And that’s the challenge of writing today. It really is, that’s what we’re facing more and more. And that’s where poetry couldn’t be a better tool.
Q: What has it meant to you, to be a professor of practice?
A: I still don’t know. When I arrived here and saw that on my door, I just kind of chuckled. I had actually seen it because Judy Miller, who hired me, sent me something very early on, saying—oh, it must have been the contract—“And you’re to be known as a professor of practice.”
And I just went, “What? That’s kind of weird. It makes me sound like all I do is practice. “Yeah, he’s just in his office, practicing.” I guess it fits, in the sense that what distinguishes me from other professors here is I’ve really not lived in and worked in academia for the majority of my life.
So now that I’m teaching it, I can also say I’m doing it. I’m still out there, doing it. And I’m really proud of that. I think it makes me a better teacher. Because I don’t wanna just share my past enthusiasm for this form of writing. I wanna have people seeing me sweat over it now. Because it’s like your struggle. So it makes me a better teacher. I don’t mind talking about myself in class. I don’t wanna do it to a braggadocious sense or anything. I do it only in a utilitarian sense.
I use myself as, you know, a case in point, the guinea pig. This is what this feels like. I tend not to like to teach my writing because there’s so many good writers out there. But I was really happy about getting this parrot piece out. This was one of the few times I’ve had to write a piece like that, you know, while teaching. I wrote another one that wasn’t as complicated while at Columbia last year. Here it was really hard ’cause of the time difference. The week of closing that story I was up until 4:00 in the morning, four nights in a row,
Q: Have you had any ideas for a story based in Abu Dhabi?
A: A couple have perked up. I already knew coming in there was potential with the falcon hospital. And something about displacement and a conversation actually that I had with you—very early on last semester—that I actually thought of incorporating into the opening of a book called The Anatomy of Empathy. I have started writing it from time to time. But I’ve been too busy to get too far with it.
When I first got here I also wanted to start keeping a memoir, or a diary. But I don’t keep diaries. I keep notebooks perpetually, but I don’t keep diaries per se. But I kinda thought, that probably everybody and their mother’s had this idea: “I’m gonna write about a book about teaching in Abu Dhabi or my experiences.” Who knows …
But I do love the teaching and I do like the fact that I’m forced to read a bunch of books or revisit books I haven’t visited in awhile. That’s fun. Although I’m a horribly slow reader. So it’s tough work for me. You know, just like, “Oh, don’t read the whole book. Just read chapter four and five.” And I’m doing that just to give myself a break.
Q: What do you think of teaching classes like Intro to Creative Writing or Future Writing or Travel Writing is doing to you as a writer?
A: I guess the parrot piece answered that for me a little bit. I had to write it here so maybe the classes helped. It’s not just lip service when I say writing a piece takes you back to school in writing every time. And you are a beginner every time. And you feel the same terror every time. You feel the same frustration over your stupidity. You feel the same anger at the ripped up openings, the indecision, the amount of decisions, the same doubts about it. “Am I losing it? I’m losing my edge?” I drive my wife crazy with that.
Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)
Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation. Photo: Sebastián Rojas Cabal.
Part II. Science
Q: Do you think we’re always looking for metaphors to write about science?
A: I’ve given talks on the bond between science and poetry. And the reason why what you just asked is really prescient is that poetry is about building a bridge via metaphor from some complex recondite, muddled mixture of emotion and thought. You’re building a bridge out of metaphor, back to sense, to understanding. Science now is defined by all these recondite, arcane, unbelievably complex and often invisible worlds. There’s microbiology, for instance, one of the new landscapes of discovery, from which we need to build a bridge of metaphors back to understanding.
So if someone goes on to me about, for example, chromosome 13 and this whole series of numbered codons on that chromosome, how do you describe that so it’s not just codons? Suddenly you’re thinking of chromosomes as a suburban culdesac with all these mailboxes lining them, the specific addresses of the residents that dwell with our cells and make us us who we are..
You come up with metaphors to give a physical shape and look to these unseen landscapes. And because the world, the visible world, has been fully discovered, and mapped, the next “as yet to be” discovered landscape is our own inner biology. We need armies of writers to build metaphors back from such largely invisible worlds. That’s my feeling.
Q: And what do you think are the biggest challenges of building those metaphors?
A: The challenge is it’s hard. It’s a challenge for the actual scientists, which, in turn, makes my job easier. Because, you know, they need idiots like me to come and ask them the questions, over and over, so even I can begin to understand it. At least enough to build the bridge of metaphor back.
That takes patience on the part of the writer. For an actual scientist—and there are some who are brilliant at doing the very thing that I do—they have the information at their disposal. But it’s hard to be a scientist and hover above your material and all that minutia and be a good writer too.
Examples of these are Oliver Sacks, the British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who writes so poetically and beautifully about science. So there are some out there. Lewis Thomas was one of the forerunners of that, a doctor who could also write very poetically. I think the challenge is just finding the right language to express the poetry. The mandate should be, if you ask me, to make people feel the poetry. Because I believe science is supplanting the old stories now, the creation myths, all the Bible stories, and all the old religions.
I think it’s telling a new story that’s just as wonderful and mysterious. And that is what people who write about this stuff need to try to do, to slowly, incrementally get people not to fear science, and to see how lovely it is. I mean, it confounds me that we live in a time where people are still staring up to the heavens and believing in nonexistent beings, when the real story is looking downward and inward, in the opposite direction, looking into the details of where all biology came from, including us.
That story is the new creation story, and it’s a story that doesn’t preclude people’s religion. It doesn’t shove anybody’s God out the door. But I don’t understand for the life of me why human beings can’t embrace that story for its coolness and its wonders.
Look in that direction: you’re gonna find everything. You’re gonna find everything that people thought they were gonna find looking up there. Eternity exists in the details, or as Blake said, in a grain of sand, right?
Q: But don’t you think scientists have been too intent in killing mystery?
A: Well, no. I think that’s a common belief about what science does. That Oh shit, love is caused and can be traced sometimes to chemical reactions. Everything is explainable. Or the moon’s not made of cheese. It was the physicist Richard Feynman who said something to the effect of “Why is the moon any less poetic because we know it is comprised of methane and ammonia and so on and not cheese” .
So it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean science is reductive. It means it’s reinventing mystery in explosively, excitingly new way. Take consciousness, for example. Are we ever gonna totally explain consciousness?
No, because it will be a million times harder than explaining a great Beethoven symphony. In fact, I believe that those kinds of creations so move us precisely because they open up the biggest and longest window that we can get on the true underlying complexity of our biology and of how we got here.
Four billion years of things happening, from the atomic level to the cellular level and, you know, that’s a lot of history. And people just dismiss that. don’t think there’s anything there? And that’s where it is. If you just look back at that stuff, if you find out where the first complex nucleated cell came from. It’s just ridiculous.
The other day I went to Jack Szostak lecture, Nobel Laureate, on the origins of cellular life. That’s the kind of lecture I go to. It’s crazy. I’m fascinated by that stuff because, when you know the true story of how those cells first assembled, the very beings that allowed us and every other living thing to be here at this moment, it’ll knock your socks off, how it happened.
And it’s full of every symbolic significance that you can think of. If you really know how a cell first came together, and what the first cell was, you go, “Oh, that’s the blueprint for the first city. That’s the first cooperative. Those early cells were the first cooperatives. I had a biologist say to me once, during an interview, he said, “You know the best way I can describe what the inside of a cell looks to you like?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You know the opening to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the movie, where those cars and trains are going by and little airplanes are flying and everything’s doing this little mission on monorails?.That’s what the inside of a cell looks like. All the parts in our cells are all, like, ‘Oh, I gotta deliver this message,’ ‘I gotta take the trash out. I gotta do this.'”
But originally on Earth there wasn’t any of that. There were just vast slime mats of singlecelled bacteria burping oxygen into the air, giving us the oxygen we now breathe. But because they lacked a cell nucleus, they kept making one version of themselves over and over and over and over and over again, for billions of years. For billions of years it was a onenote planet. And then something happened where one bacteria got inside the cell wall of another and got gobbled up by it, but didn’t get fully digested. So the history of life forming on earth is really a story of indigestion Which ins kind of cool. The life-form that got inside the other one, you know, persisted there and started to perform a function for its new host. And symbiosis developed. And then another thing got inside. And it started contributing its particular functions to the workings of the host, it started to cooperate. And that’s how cells got more complicated. In fact, some scientists now think that the cell nucleus, which contains DNA and RNA and controls cell division and the emergence of complex multicellular lifeforms was originally a virus that insinuated itself into an early cell and began to direct its functions. And so that one one cell went over to two and then to three and then to four, and from a onenote planet, a symphony began to emerge, one that would build over the next 3billion years. And that’s why I went back to Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and others. I always think what geniuses like them do is lay bare some of the true fabric of that massively complex original composition called life. That’s my theory.
Q: In many of your pieces about animals, the message always seems to be something along the lines of ‘hey, we should care about these guys too, right?’ But there are many stories out there about human beings that also need empathy, right? And that’s when the choice to write about animals, as opposed to writing about people, strikes me as a little odd. Is there something about that choice that actually makes it easier to care for our own?
A: Absolutely it does. Absolutely. See, because the conceit behind that oft asked question is, “Well, fine to write about animals, but there are bigger problems in the world.” And one of the things that I’m proud of about my animal writing is that this dignifies human beings as well as animals. Because it can only help us to know our bond with the nonus. It extends our understanding. And it especially extends our empathic reach. How could it hurt for us to be more understanding of the commonality, the common bonds we have with all these animals? How could that hurt human beings, even if I’m also getting you to care about the plight of the animal?
I mean, let’s face it. Most of these animals I write about are doomed if not for a fence that we put around them and that means that they’re doomed anyway, because they won’t have any genetic diversity. But most of my pieces stress how there but for the grace or accident of a few neurons go we. That we are them and they are us. And especially with pieces like the one about elephants, the whole dynamic of the piece was you see what’s happening here to them, wilding bands of young elephants raised without the usual parental care because we destroyed the complex social fabric of traditional elephant herds? That’s exactly what happens to war orphans when they’re not raised correctly. Elephants not raised correctly, children who are disconnected from correct parental and societal upbringing, they become wilding bands. Now, that’s not just some bleeding heart animal tights story about save the elephants. That’s a piece about stretching the definition of humanity and the embrace of that.
There are pieces that bring that out more clearly, our commonality with nonhuman animals. I think that’s why this recent parrot piece touched so many people. Because there are cocharacters here. There are wounded war veterans. These guys who go off to war and are just shunted in America afterwards. I mean, they get it twice. They get the trauma of the war and then they come home and they’re just forgotten. And then you have these parrots who are twice traumatized. Traumatized first by being deprived of their flock and their flocking instinct. And then again by being abandoned by the humans who kept them. And now these two entirely different and yet mutually offended beings are helping one another.
So I think that’s why that story helps to dissolve the phony human/animal divide. I’ve learned to not even regard it anymore. I’m not saying we’re elephants. We’re not as good as elephants in a lotta ways. They’re more devout than we are about things. And we’re not whales. But, you know, we sure share a lot with each other. We sure have common motives and makeups. We do.
[Part I] [Part III]
Siebert keeps his precious animal figurines on the windowsill of his office at NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo: Sebastián Cabral.
As a kid who grew up in the city, Charles Siebert spent a good deal of time staring at animals in the zoo. Nonhumans made a lasting impression on him. To confirm this, it suffices to look at his office. A string of animal figurines parade on the windowsill, as if they were preparing to flank the towers of books and opened notepads that clutter his desk and encircle his keyboard. He has seen and written about most of these animals in their natural habitats–everything from elephants to beluga whales and seals. Joining this menagerie is a group of meerkats; plastic transplants from the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, just blocks from his longtime apartment. Those, Charles tells me, are there for whenever he feels homesick.
Part I: Animals
ES: What is it about animals that makes for such great stories?
CS: They’re easy interviews; they don’t talk back [laughing]. I think I know what it is. Part of it is rooted in the childhood fascination with the non-us. Being able to stare into a chimp’s eyes and wonder what’s going on there, knowing that there’s a “there” there. Like someone who’s not human but is definitely cognizant. So, as a little kid, in my own dim way, I kind of intuited that. And I think it’s a fortunate happenstance of history that the science on animal intelligence has developed to an extent where it’s freed up storytellers to be more imaginative and even anthropomorphic in our conjecturing, but without the sin of anthropomorphism. Science of all things—which is supposed to be the enemy of mystery and storytelling—has allowed us to be better storytellers. That’s why I write a lot about science, because I see the poetry in science now. I couldn’t when I was younger.
With animals specifically it has freed us up from the old dictate that held us back from writing about animals—the B.F. Skinner behaviorist thing of we can’t even know what each other are thinking, so how could we write about an animal? My point, that I make ad nauseam, is, well, science has now shown us that while we will never know what it is to have a whale day or an elephant day or chimp day, we do know that they have days and that we can ruin them. Science has shown us that [animals] have minds enough to lose—a phrase that I use a lot in my writings—and that’s why it’s so exciting to write about animals.
And the more we find out about them, like with the parrots and with the elephants and with the whales and the chimps, the more we understand how like them we are, and the more like us they are. So we’re learning about these structural homologies, as they say in science; the analogies, the parallels. All those things make it I think the richest time in the history to write about animals. Richer even than in Darwin’s day. It’s almost like we’re back to the mythological age, but armed with science rather than fantasy.
The animals on Siebert’s windowsill include a parrot, the subject species of his most recent article for the New York Times Magazine. Photo: Sebastián Cabral.
ES: What’s the first close encounter with an animal that makes you think, “I’m gonna write about these guys”?
CS: I usually know why I want to write about them before going out to the field. I went into the parrot story because I had read that traumatized parrots and veterans were healing one another. I went into the whale story because I heard the gray whales off the coast of Baja came out of the water to look at you. I went into the chimps story because I just wanted to see what a chimp retirement home looked like. With chimps, it was originally the editor’s dictate that I write about human consciousness. I had written a bunch about the heart for The New York Times,and the editor told me said, “I’d like you to do for the brain what you did for the heart.”
I’m like, “Time out. Slightly different organ there.” I mean, yes, they’re both organs. They’re physical. But, the heart’s a little more … approachable. The brain’s a little intimidating. I chickened out, essentially. And I said, “Look, rather than write about the brain, and the whole complex issue of consciousness”—which really is one of the great avenues of exploration going on right now—I told him, “I just read this piece about chimpanzees and retirement at this new retirement home in Louisiana.”
It was the last law that Bill Clinton enacted before leaving office, called the Chimp Act. And it was a way of finding nice homes for all these chimps we’d abused in research labs for many years. My editor went, “That sounds so cool.”
So I went down to Louisiana, and I saw this still uninhabited retirement facility that was in the final stages of construction. And it was hysterical. Because I thought, “I wanna retire here. This is gonna be nicer than my retirement.” You know, they had nice little rooms, showers, and their own little backyards with a swing set. And then they had their own little fenced off section of woods to play in.
I went back there when the first chimp arrived. And that was a very moving moment, you know, a chimp being freed from a cage and padding along on the ground for the first time. That was incredibly moving.
Once you’re there on the ground, involved in researching a story, you have encounters that you didn’t expect, and you’re just madly writing down in your notebook. And one day you hear a story and you go, “That’s gonna be my ending,” or “it’s gonna be very near the end.”
And in every story there’s a moment when I go, “Oh, either some event or something someone said is going to be the ending.” With the elephants, for example, that moment came after weeks of being out there in the jungle in Uganda. I was back in the lodge one night. And this this my ritual: I get home, I shower, and I get my notebook and rove over in my mind the things I heard that day. I went out on a veranda and I order a drink. And I was out on the lodge balcony at that lodge, overlooking the Kazinga Channel in Uganda. And hippos are out there with the moonlight on their backs. And I went, “Oh my God, that story. That story today about the elephants that killed this man in Murchison Falls, and the other elephants got together and got the body and buried it with all the devotion and care with which they bury their own kind.”
The idea that elephants—who we are torturing—are tending to the body of one of us in the way they would do to an elephant. I’m going, “I think that’s my ending. My piece has got to arrive at that ending.”
Same thing happened with the parrot story. One of the first days I’m there, a caique parrot from the Amazon just got on my head and on my shoulder and walked around and then dove into my shirt pocket and took a nap, and then came up again, and started to clean my teeth. That was just so funny. And she plucked out one of her feathers and put it on my shoulder. And I went, “Okay, that’s gonna be my ending.” Actually, I had a two-part ending because I was reading—and this is why I tell students to read whatever and as much as they can when writing a story—The Book of Beasts by T.H. White, and I looked up a section on parrots [which is] only a page and a half. And at the very end there’s a footnote about Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, and how, when he went into the jungle, he came upon this parrot that was the only remaining vessel of this lost tribe’s language. The parrot was repeating the words of that lost tribe.
And in my head I went, “Oh my God, that’s my ending.” A world without us, where we and all of our traumas are done and the only thing left of us is the parrots flying around, repeating random shards of our language. And when I said that to my wife, who is an instant bullshit barometer, she said, “You got it. End it there.”
Interview with Frederick Ahl
TRANSLATION STUDIES AND WORLD LITERATURE
Frederick M. Ahl is a professor of classics and comparative literature at Cornell University. He recently visited NYU Abu Dhabi to visit classes and deliver a talk entitled “Lost in Translation,” Electra Street sat down afterwards with Professor Ahl to talk further about the difficulties that arise during the process of translation and to explore some of the problems that beset the teaching of literature in universities today.
ES: How did you first get involved in translation studies?
FA: I think, first of all, if you’re brought up in a culture with more than one language spoken, you end up being involved in the process of translation, because you’re inhabiting parallel universes.
My parallel universes, when I was very young, came from being in a family in which my mother was not a native speaker of English and my father was, and from living in a country whose language neither my mother nor my father spoke. So I went to school speaking and learning to speak a third language [Welsh].
ES: Was it ever confusing?
FA: Well, for example, when I was talking to my father, he would call an equine a “horse.” But my mother called it a capall, and in school it was called a ceffyl. And I remember being in school one day. My teacher said to me, “It’s not a capall. It’s a ceffyl.” And I said, “But my mother said it’s a capall, and my father said it’s a horse.” But the teacher insisted, and I was just very, very confused about what the animal was at that moment.
So, really, the process of translation was one that I was engaged in at a very early age, but the experience for me was not continued once we left the alien language environment and moved to England and were all speaking English.
When I’d tried to speak [Welsh] to my parents, they just looked at me very blankly. And I don’t remember at all the process of learning. Nowadays, you could use a computer analogy: we were on one computer program, and we were also on another computer program.
So what we are doing in the humanities through translation is often teaching doctrine in the same way that the church teaches doctrine.
ES: How have you learned to deal with this duality, and what does this duality mean for reading and teaching texts in translation? Do you have any advice to offer to those who are undertaking the challenge of designing frameworks to teach this kind of material?
FA: Maybe one out of every thousand teachers is going to give you access to what is actually happening in a Greek text like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, because the way we approach that kind of text is as much an item of belief as a life after death is for an orthodox Christian. So what we are doing in the humanities through translation is often teaching doctrine in the same way that the church teaches doctrine. You end up being programmed by a system that you’re not conscious of being programmed by. It’s scary: very Orwellian in a way.
ES: So what should one do with this awareness?
FA: If you’re wise, you pretend you haven’t noticed it. Then you can have a career.
ES: And if you aren’t wise?
FA: No one wants to notice. Because entire scholarly careers have been built by using that little cataclysm as an assumption. We’ve gotten ourselves into this whole binary way of thinking.
ES: How do you think that the problems identified by translation studies affect the teaching of “world literature”?
FA: I think “world literature” is problematic because you have at some point or another to be able to use translations. But you also have to be able to use translations knowing that they actually are going to get you to the author.
Personally, when teaching comparative literature at Cornell, I have refused teach texts that I have not read in the original, because I just don’t consider I can speak with authority about them.
It’s almost as if we try to spread everything very wide when we don’t have anything very deep. But, on the other hand, if you take people like classicists, who believe in depth, then you don’t get width at all. And you get a very sort of naïve reading.
Either way, in America the liberal arts education is—well, it’s dying.
ES: Can you teach world literature without having breadth?
FA: No. So you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.
But we need to ask, “To what extent is this high literature and poetry even part of our culture anymore? Are we in a sense trying to keep alive something that’s trying to die?” You can compare it in many ways to classical music, because it takes a huge effort to keep classical music alive. You need to have an orchestra, and unless you have people in very high places with very large billfolds, it’s going to die. But where classical music has the advantage over great works of literature is that they don’t have to be translated.
So should we just let “literature” die? Or should we let it survive in the handful of a few people until we pass into an age when someone has a really active will to revive it? Right now the people who run universities don’t care about literature. You do have students who love literature. I find this all the time at Cornell. Students come to classes and say, “Professor, I actually like poetry.” But they want courses on authors, not on the theory of literature. They say, “We want to learn literature, but it’s not what you want to teach us. You want to teach us about Derrida; you want to teach about Bakthin. And we want to read Shakespeare.” At the same time, though, you also get others who are the merchandisers of the modern culture, who want to learn a system, which they then apply like a cookie cutter to everything they read.
Either way, in America the liberal arts education is—well, it’s dying.
[A longer version of this article will appear in print in ELECTRA STREET 03.]
Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)
The original is unfaithful to the translation.
— Jorge Luis Borges
Translation is everywhere at NYUAD. Students and faculty read in translation, translate their own work, and confront the question of what is “lost in translation” every day. Some classes, including Fundamentals of Playwriting (taught by visiting playwright Abhishek Majumdar last semester), integrate translation directly into the writing process — students were encouraged to write their first drafts in any language, and present a final portfolio with the play in the original language and in translation.
The Sibelius Monument in Helsinki, Finland. The artist, Eila Hiltunen, attempted to translate the composer’s music into sculpture. (Photograph by Hannah Walhout)
It is common for Writing Fellows to hear from students, “I always write in my first language, then translate later,” or “I am translating in my head every time I write a sentence.” How can this process of translation affect the way we think and write? What can we gain from the act of translation? What can we lose? What amazing things can we create with language on a campus with a hundred different mother tongues?
With this tension in mind, Writing Fellows Claire Pershan and Mohit Mandal have been working for months on a new project they call the Translation Network. The site aims to get the GNU community creating work across languages and grappling with questions of translation and meaning. Electra Street sat down with the team to discuss their work.
Electra Street: Tell us about the project – what are you building here?
Claire Pershan: So, the Translation Network is a digital platform for anyone in the NYU community – anyone with an NYU email address, basically – to post texts that they have written (in any language), and those texts will be available to be translated into any other language. The idea is to create a space to encourage translation, to encourage languages that are not English, to encourage the creation of texts in languages that are not necessarily used in classrooms here. Because, obviously, the student body is so polyglot, and not necessarily encouraged to draw on that amazing resource they have.
Mohit Mandal: I see this website working as a very messy and complicated and dynamic space – because it will kind of mirror how messy and complicated and dynamic translation is. And it will also open up conversations, not only around the production of written work, but also the translation of written work. Because there is a lot that is lost and gained when one crosses from one language to another. As it is right now, in terms of spaces for students and other writers on campus, there isn’t much conversation around translation.
ES: What got you interested in translation? How did this project come to be?
MM: Well, Claire was the one who started this idea. I’ve always been interested in the question of translation and what possibilities there are in the amazing hybrid space between languages, so the two of us started working together in September, and went from there.
CP: I actually thought of this as a ridiculous idea that might happen if I got the job here – this was before I even arrived. I was working at a small Los Angeles publisher called Phoneme Media, and doing some thinking about translation for them. Then, I encountered a project through them called the Enemies Project, which was an event between poets in London and Mexico City. These poets exchanged work, translated each other’s work, and then read simultaneously. So I liked this weird communication across traditional boundaries, and this idea of translator also as creator, and this collaboration and polyphony. And I thought, “Well, NYU has a similar setup between these different campuses, and between different students and faculty who come and go here all the time.” So it seemed like an amazing space to test this project and facilitate more translation.
ES: Why is translation important? NYUAD students certainly read a lot of scholars and writers who have theorized about this (Borges, Derrida, Eco, etc.) – but why is it important on a more tangible level, especially in the NYUAD context?
CP: It’s just everywhere. I think language is an essential technology that we’re using all the time – we haven’t found a better one yet. We have emojis, so we’re working on it. But as long as we’re using language, we’re translating, necessarily.
MM: I think translation is one of those things which is so embedded in our day-to-day lives. Just for our student body, who is constantly translating between languages – and a large part of our student body is bilingual, if not trilingual, which is just crazy to think about. We have so many of these languages roaming around in our heads, so we wanted to have them come together and see what would come out of these interactions.
CP: And I think translation is necessarily political, and necessarily represents (and perhaps reinforces) systems of power and knowledge. So in that sense – I mean, in the United States, there’s that famous percentage: only 3% of all texts published in the U.S. are in translation. Meaning the U.S. is just reading anglophone stuff again and again. I see translation into other languages, from other languages, as working to equalize that and share voices.
MM: We wanted to start within the NYU network, because the notion is that the Translation Network is founded on community. It might even be counterproductive if it’s open to everyone, because that reduces a kind of intimacy that exists in the NYUAD community and the larger GNU.
CP: The student body obviously speaks so many languages other than English. Students are also learning so many other languages, and have the desire to know so many – and to know each other. So I think of the Translation Network as a space where they can do that, in a small way. It would be problematic to extend it outside the GNU, because we shouldn’t be putting translators out of work. It would be dangerous for translation to just turn into a wiki. And the Translation Network is about community, about practice, about small pieces of text. It’s not supposed to be producing the next novels.
ES: How should people use the Translation Network?
CP: The ideal use of it is just for people to put drops in this bucket, and to experiment. I think of this as kind of a heuristic for translation, and as a way for anyone to see themselves as translators – since they’re probably already doing this all the time, without thinking about it in that way. So this is something someone could do in that half-hour break they have after lunch. They read a post, and are inspired by it, and want to translate it into another language. We would also love to see the Translation Network integrated into classroom spaces, since it could be a great tool. But that’s mostly just to get the ball rolling. I want it just to be an open, fun thing. I see it as also a portal for communication, where some student here is maybe practicing Italian – and they can go and read some student’s post from Florence, and translate it into English, or vice versa. This idea of crossing those paths through dialogue with other current students.
MM: Just to add on to the idea of the Translation Network as a tool for community – I see a lot of potential for people learning different languages, especially for, for example, security guards on campus who are taking “English in the Workplace” classes. A lot of the security guards actually write poetry themselves, in Urdu, or in Hindi, or their own native languages – and it would be lovely for these poems to be translated into English, and then translated into other languages as well. And for them to work with their own translations, as they’re learning different languages.
CP: And also, this is not supposed to alienate monolingualism at all. I’m basically monolingual myself. It’s about showing the nuances within language – I would love to be seeing English to English translations, or Arabic to Arabic. It’s about just thinking about words, and there are so many languages that exist within our delineations of “one language.” So I would love to see students really pushing at the border – I would love to see a submission in half Spanish, half English. Any quote-unquote “weird” stuff.
ES: Awesome! So what should people do if they want to submit or get involved?
CP: We’re looking for anything, any text – the Translation Network is really open with the idea of text, because we don’t want it to be just something literary. It’s not necessarily a projection of literature at all. Haikus are something that would be a nice length, because it’s approachable. But if someone wants to give an excerpt of something longer – a journal entry, anything. Anything goes. It’s really easy to go through our website, and people should submit whatever they want, about anything they want. I would also really love to see more translations of stuff that’s there, to be interacting more in the space.
MM: People should definitely feel free to submit work that they’ve already produced. We would love to see snippets of things people have written for class, or journal entries, or personal projects. And eventually, our website will have a neat visualization which shows the relationships between different posts – how one post was changed into another, and what that was changed into. Which I think will make the spiderweb, messy nature of what we do more visual.
The Translation Network is actively looking for contributors, translators, and curators. To submit or translate, simply visit the “Contribute” section of the site. Original submissions will be reviewed for suitability, and translations will be briefly checked for relevance, but no edits will be made.
A team of curators is responsible for reviewing all contributions submitted to the network before posting them to the site. If you are interested in joining Claire and Mohit and participating more closely with the project as a curator, email email@example.com.