Crossing Borders Is My Life
Doing and teaching literary translation in the age of customs and border protection
“It is the opposite which is good for us.” –– Heraclitus of Ephesus
I grew up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, in a country afraid its citizens would leave and wary of foreigners somehow contaminating or stealing something from the homeland. As we were preparing to leave Moscow forever (we thought) in 1978, my grandmother’s youngest brother, whom she had raised back in the shtetl, called from Vladivostok to condemn us for abandoning the motherland. He was a rail engineer who had been briefly jailed under Stalin on false charges of “wrecking”
We could not bring rubles with us and so were obliged to buy vast quantities of tchotchkes that we could supposedly sell abroad. For three months in Italy, and for many years after we arrived in Miami, we lived surrounded by Russian folk kitsch that nobody would buy: lacquered chess tables and chairs and coffers, infinite nesting dolls, wooden motion toys consisting of bears roasting mushrooms or playing tennis. After a while, getting rid of them became unimaginable. The bears would hoist their little wooden buckets to remind us of who we were and who we weren’t: not Russian enough for Russia, and forever Russian in America.
The Soviet Union was a fortress, a place embodied by its border guards. It even policed the domestic travel and migration of its own citizens. In Stalin’s correspondence one finds the following remarkable response to his henchman Lazar Kaganovich, from June 23, 1923:
1. We should limit ourselves to establishing one more Donbass district in Ukraine. 2. Regarding the grain exports, our recommendation is to reduce sharply the Rozengolts plan (for the third quarter). 3. In my opinion [Isaac] Babel is not worth our spending hard currency on for his trip abroad. – I. Stalin.
Such was the profound concern of the Soviet state over the travel plans of individual citizens.
One of the first things that struck us about the United States was its relative lack of borders. My mother and I took a Greyhound bus from Miami to Syracuse without anyone checking our papers. And if you had an American passport or green card, you could pretty much come and go as you pleased. Visiting Canada was perfectly banal. We even visited the Soviet Union in 1989; it seemed that nearly everyone there at the time, Jewish or not, wanted to come back with us. After each trip abroad, one would be welcomed back into the United States with a smile, or at least without any reproach about whether you liked it better somewhere else.
Of course, this wasn’t true for everybody. Never true for Haitians or “economic” refugees from Latin America — and before that for Japanese Americans interned during World War Two. But still, compared to the fortress of the Soviet Bloc, the United States could still lay claim to being a gateway, a window, a country of immigrants and free movement. After 2001, however, the balance began to shift towards Homeland Security; and after the 2016 election, it is clear to me that we are quickly becoming a nation ruled by Customs and Border Protection. For now, we can still leave, but we are now treated more or less shabbily when we return. Flying into Miami or JFK from abroad, one is confronted with the multi-step, biometric, hi-tech, low-tech disaster called Customs and Immigration, in which CBP personnel herd the disembarked into a bewildering labyrinth of queues as though this is the first time they have ever done this — as though you are really putting them out by trying to re-enter the country. Look at you with the fancy passport! You went abroad, and now you want back in, huh? Sad!
The walls of the fortresses are rising. It’s a great time to be a border guard. Only 36% of American citizens have passports for foreign travel, shockingly low for a developed country, so perhaps this shift towards nationalism was inevitable. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians, and Vietnamese face deportation after years of temporary legal status in the U.S. The Department of Homeland Security has referred 1,600 cases to the Justice Department as part of Operation Janus — an effort to revoke the citizenship of immigrants whose naturalization is being deemed retroactively illegal. The DHS also wants to deny citizenship to any permanent residents it has deemed to have ever been and might become “public charges” — a legal term from 1882 predating the income tax and the modern welfare state, with roots in 17th century English “poor laws,” now being interpreted to indicate anyone who has ever used nearly any government entitlement at all, including Obamacare. Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei, faced with a fresh wave of protests, banned English instruction from primary schools, decrying “cultural invasion.” The United Kingdom is Brexiting its way into disunion. In a throwback to the Franco years, the Catalonian government has gone into exile, threatened with arrest upon return to Spain.
How am I — as an escapee from the Soviet fortress, and as a translator and teacher of literary translation — supposed to feel? As I said in my introductory remarks at the Open Forum on Literary Translation, Publishing, and the University a year ago at The New School, I have been fortunate to find a refuge in the translation workshops I teach. What makes the experience of these workshops so unique at this historical juncture, so fraught with respect to the ability of language to conjure any kind of experience held in common? We are living in a strange moment when everybody feels they can mark off and assume their own set of facts and ignore facts that they don’t like or understand. At the same time, literature is being taught in American schools in an increasingly literal-minded way, as though it is identical to experience or testimony, held as truth transparent, as though fiction were really just fancy non-fiction with a message. This world strikes me as being very different from the microcosm of the workshop, which brings together people translating from a wild array of languages and texts, translators coming from wildly different backgrounds and assumptions — all of which are at once made visible and then sublimated in the purely practical and collaborative process of understanding what a text is saying, from the inside out, and how this may be conveyed in English to as many different kinds of readers as possible. What are the relevant contexts and subtexts that reveal its meanings? How and why do different languages allow for different ways of meaning things?
Not surprisingly, the Soviet fortress was a golden cage for literary translation into Russian, as the best of its trapped authors often found it easier (and probably liberating) to make money publishing translations than writing original work that the regime did not want. In the age of Customs and Border Protection, in our prison house of languages, the workshop depends on difference, opposition, obstacles, and weirdness to build the bridge that is literary translation.
Val Vinokur teaches literature and translation at The New School, where he serves as Chair of Liberal Arts in the Adult Bachelor’s Program. He was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in translation. He is the founding editor of Poets & Traitors Press, and is the author of The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas and Relative Genitive: Poems with Translations from Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. His translation of Isaac Babel: The Essential Fictions is available on Amazon here. A different version of this essay appeared in the Best American Poetry blog.