Book review: Mouth: Eats Color

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book, but I remember being very excited about it. The full title is Mouth: Eats Color – Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations and Originals, and the authors are given as ‘Sawako Nakayasu with Chika Sagawa’. Sawako Nakayasu is a contemporary Japanese-American poet and performer; Sagawa Chika is a little-known Japanese modernist poet who died in 1936, aged just 25. The book is a collection of poems by both of them – though, as the title suggests, it’s a little more complicated than that.

While I was waiting impatiently for my copy to arrive, I looked up some examples of Sagawa Chika’s poetry online – I find it breathtaking in English translation as well as in Japanese. I like my art (visual as well as poetic) full of weird beautiful fragmented images, strange and intoxicating and preferably not making any obvious sense. I like to feel overwhelmed by it. Sawako Nakayasu takes this to another level with her translations, or semi-translations, or anti-translations, of Sagawa’s work.

From the very beginning (from the title alone!), the book questions our assumptions about translation as a straightforward source-text-to-target text process. Flipping through it, you’ll see some poems half in English and half in Japanese, some partly in French, some wholly in English or Japanese, some in Japanese with the grammatical markers taken out and only the nouns and verb stems left in. Some are retranslations of Nakayasu’s English translations back into Japanese, and others are back-translations of English-language poets’ works which were translated into Japanese by Sagawa in the 1930s. It’s a glorious linguistic game that tests the limits of what we think of as translation, and has a huge amount of fun doing so. The same poems appear in various different guises throughout the book (プロムナード/Puromunaado, ‘Promenade’ appears nineteen times), mingling together and adding to the confusion of images, reminding us that translation is always about creativity, about making choices.

The title suggests that Nakayasu sees this work as more of a collaboration with Sagawa than a translation project as such – and indeed, several of Nakayasu’s own poems also appear in the book, sometimes riffing off Sagawa’s ideas, sometimes appearing to be entirely unrelated. The notes at the back say that ‘unless otherwise stated, all translations, anti-translations and originals are by Sawako Nakayasu and-or Chika Sagawa’, but no distinction is made between the two – if we want to know which poems are by which author we can try to figure it out, but the book itself seems to say that that doesn’t matter, that it’s not even a sensible distinction to make.

More than anything else in the book, the idea of ‘anti-translation’ stuck in my mind and wouldn’t leave me alone. I have no idea what an anti-translation is. When I look it up on any kind of academic search engine, pages and pages of scientific articles crop up – I gather that it has something to do with magnets. In the translationsphere, it seems to be a term invented by Nakayasu – though if you’ve spotted it anywhere else then please please let me know! I am not sure if it needs a definition as such, but the way I understand it is this: translation is generally seen as a way of making a work accessible to a new audience – people who couldn’t read the original text are able to read the translation, which acts like a bridge (from the Latin ‘carried across’ etc etc). But to access the poems in this book, you need to know the original language plus other languages, English and French: rather than giving the text a wider audience, this book gives access to a narrower audience and encourages them to think about the text in new ways (which, by the way, is not to say that you can’t enjoy the book without knowing all of its languages). I…can’t even think of what a good metaphor for that might be.

I’m glad that Mouth: Eats Color stuck in my mind so firmly and so persistently – in the end it planted the seed of an idea which will hopefully turn into my M.A. dissertation. More about that next time…

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