Grief Gave Agency


Petrach’s Virgil, c.1336

From Electric Lit:

Translation is the loss of one form of communication but the gaining of another. A non-dualistic understanding of the world can in turn lead to a non-dualistic form(s) of communication within language. No longer does the language move from one side to the other but the two sides experience one another continually in the production of meaning. This translation project was far from a quest for equivalencies; it was a way to understand a way to remember my mother and, above all, to come to terms with the end of the form of relationship I’d had with her for twenty-nine years. Being able to use language to find language proved to me that there was a way of continuing my conversation with her.

Jacques Derrida, in Ear of the Other, writes:

A translation puts us not in the presence but in the presentiment of what “pure language” is, that is, the fact that there is language, that language is language. This is what we learn from a translation, rather than the meaning contained in the translated text, rather than this or that particular meaning. We learn that there is language, that language is of language, and that there is a plurality of languages which have that kinship with each other coming from their being languages.

Translation has often been what it takes for me to find kinship with language. Only after years of translating other people’s stories and poems did I feel comfortable putting my own work, independent of a source text, into the world. I think this may come from some inability or hesitance I have around accessing true feelings and emotions. Prayer works for many people, sometimes therapy works for me, but literature has really been the most reliable way for me to access emotion. As Derrida reminds us, however, I have been in touch with language, not the emotions themselves. Whether these two things exist separate from one another is debatable, but the process of language grants me freedom in a way nothing else can. This freedom is essentially agency and that agency allows me to have subjecthood, something essential for an authorial voice.

The poems in translation lead me to poems about my mother. I wouldn’t have had the courage without the initial translations to move forward. I am not the first woman who has used her tears to claim subjecthood or to write about difficult material. My grief gave me agency. I remember reading about Margery of Kempe, the 14th century mystic. She began having visions during the post-partum depression she faced after the birth of one of her fourteen children. Once, when she returned from pilgrimage to the Holy Land she couldn’t stop weeping. All the tears she cried. The weeping was the only way anyone would listen to her messages from God. Men in positions of power called her a whore and a liar. The tears allowed her to reach her public, to have her story published, to have a voice.

“Translation Beyond Metaphor: On Petrarch, grief, and my mother”, Allison Grimaldi-Donahue, Electric Lit