USEREVIEW 043: Tower of Babelfish

A.G. Pasquella/ July 21, 2021/ Book Review

In this traditional review, A.G. Pasquella makes use of a wide range of tools — from linguistic theory to allusions to The Simpsons — in an effort to parse the meaning of The Untranslatable I (Gordon Hill Press, 2021), the latest poetry collection from the Trillium Award winning author Roxanna Bennett.

ISBN 978-1-77422-017-7 | 88 pp | $20 CAD


Pain cannot be translated. We can never know how a person actually feels. In Roxanna Bennett’s newest book of poetry, The Untranslatable I, they jump headfirst into “the impossibility of translating pain into language.” Bennett’s work often concerns the limitations of language and failures to communicate, as can be seen in The Untranslatable I as well as their last book Unmeaningable. Both ask rhetorically: can mere words successfully communicate another person’s thoughts, feelings and pain?

The limitations of words to express meaning, to foster real understanding, parallel the described limitations of Bennett’s disabled body, but also all bodies: “No body embodies meaning more than another one” (‘Babelfish Key: Stairs & Whispers’) “& all understanding is projection” (‘Purplefish Key: The Far Side of Suffragette City’). Even as Bennett details the weaknesses of the physical self, and the weaknesses of language, the writing that emerges is paradoxically powerful. Bennett’s strength comes vibrating through the page: the strength of will to get through another day, to write another line, to exist in a world not built for them, where the disabled are, as we are shown multiple times throughout the book, all too often ignored or overlooked.

In 2020, Bennett won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry for their book Unmeaningable, even though writing actually causes them physical pain (“It hurts to scribe, to type, to move the line” Bennett says in ‘Travel Diary: Delightful Butcher Bird’). Pain is a constant in Bennett’s life and work — the epigraph of The Untranslatable I is the same as the epigraph in Unmeaningable: “May you be free of suffering.”

Bennett’s own suffering remains present, and untranslatable, though they make exhaustive efforts to render it otherwise. Still the question haunts: “Is madness translatable, is pain?” (‘Symptom Tracker: Food Ghosts’). Doctors, too, try to interpret Bennett’s body like a text. “I’ve been labeled / every flavour of strange on the spectrum / but here I am, same skin, same skeleton” (‘Postcard from the Bottle City of Kandor: Every Flavor of Strange’). The doctors keep trying while Bennett suffers: “Starve as doctors / recoil from your riddle, unfixable” (‘Purplefish Key: The Far Side of Suffragette City’).

In this case, unfixable equals untranslatable, unknowable. Or, as Bennett puts it, “You’re incurably you” (‘Purplefish Key: The Far Side of Suffragette City’). Bennett tries to communicate with their doctors through a variety of signs and symptoms but the doctors just don’t understand. Bennett wonders “How to be seen without being dissected” (‘Travel Diary: Petite Sphinxes Ermite’). This is a very human conundrum — how can we be understood without being picked apart? — rendered literally.

One way to communicate, as any Simpsons fan can tell you, is through shared cultural references. Or as Bennett puts it, “clinging to conversational islands, safety of shared fandom” (‘Travel Diary: So Long, & Thanks For All The Fish’). Bennett liberally salts their poems with references to both so-called “high” and “low” culture (I don’t believe in those distinctions, and Bennett doesn’t seem to, either): from the leather-bound tomes of the academy to the dime store spinner rack stuffed with fresh comics. I love poets who can achieve this balance (see also Michael Robbins’ brilliant debut, Alien vs. Predator). In much of the literary world, though, there’s still a stuffiness about these distinctions, a snobbery, as Bennett makes clear in their poem ‘Postcard from the Bottle City of Kandor: How Far From Nerd is Neurodivergent’:

An elder poet
once told me classic equals Greek myths,
not Golden Age, accessible isn’t “real” art,
comics are for kids (nerds), I should be ashamed.

Right after this poem comes ‘Babelfish Key: What Kind of Genius Doesn’t Know They’re Autistic?’ which solidly refutes that elder poet (I can just picture that poet’s dusty shelves), referencing, among other cultural touchstones: Brainiac, Vision, Solomon Grundy, Harley Quinn, Lex Luthor, The Joker, Martian Manhunter, Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate, Wolverine, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.

Throughout The Untranslatable I, Bennett uses the ongoing metaphor of The Bottle City of Kandor, which presents us with the illusion of safety and security (“the safest space is the Bottle City / of Kandor unless Clark’s feeling shitty” Bennett writes in ‘Purplefish Key: The Far Side of Suffragette City’). Ultimately, what The Bottle City of Kandor metaphor suggests is that we are all fragile creatures whom Nature can undo in the blink of an eye. One sneeze from Superman and the bottle tumbles from its shelf and shatters.  

Bennett feels, and expresses, this fragility. Near the end of The Untranslatable I, Death comes creeping, omnipresent: “This skeleton is a bombed-out building / & I’m the last tenant left, abandoned.” We all inhabit our skeletons but Bennett is painfully aware of this fact. Bennett wrote The Untranslatable I during a year in which they were experiencing unexplained weight loss, their body wasting away, literally starving. After the flesh melts, only the bones remain. All of our skeletons will outlive us, in a matter of speaking: the remains of the building still standing after the last solitary tenant has moved away.

Another ongoing metaphor is Douglas Adams’ Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. The Babel fish can translate any language, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. As Adams put it:

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

Or, as Homer Simpson would say, “The problem is communication. Too much communication.”

Without communication, there can be no misunderstanding. “ ‘I’m sorry, I can’t understand you,’ / a phrase I wish I knew / in every language” (‘Travel Diary: The Well of Initiation’), Bennett says. But without communication, though, there can be no understanding, either.

Ultimately, does it matter if one’s self cannot be translated? “I don’t care what you call me, / I am,” Bennett insists in ‘Travel Diary: Petite Sphinxes Ermite.’ Labels are just labels. They can never capture the totality of the self. Throughout all the pain, Bennett remains, perseveres, even as the labels falter, slip away.

According to linguist Dr. Alexandra Jaffe, as quoted in Brian James Baer’s Translation and The Making of Modern Russian Literature:

When translators talk about untranslatable, they often reinforce the notion that each language has its own ‘genius,’ an ‘essence’ that naturally sets it apart from all other languages and reflects something of the ‘soul’ of its culture or people.

Bennett repeatedly proves to be incredibly skilled at using language, but occasionally they doubt their own power: “The fear / of being misunderstood so severe / I haven’t spoken in years to anyone / but my kid by code in a bubble of / poems & pot smoke” (‘CBT Worksheet the Nth: If I Could Harvest the Sound of The Dark’). Writing for a public audience is about communicating. The writer and the reader close the circuit and hopefully understanding is the result. Bennett, for all their doubts and fears, is an incredibly skilled communicator. Their words and wisdom are right there on the page. Through their work we can know them — somewhat. Bennett’s inner self remains, as it does for all of us, ultimately untranslatable.

A.G. Pasquella’s writing has appeared in various spots including McSweeney’s, Wholphin, The Believer, Black Book, Broken Pencil and Joyland. He is the co-editor (along with Terri Favro) of PAC’N HEAT: A Noir Homage to Ms. Pac-Man. Pasquella’s three novels in the Jack Palace Series, Yard Dog, Carve the Heart and Season of Smoke, are available from Dundurn Press. More:

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