Float

Anne Carson

First, this is an intriguing object: a clear box filled with twenty-two chapbooks. Each cover is printed in a similar texture in shades that to me represent the range of hues of bodies of water at different times of day and in various types of weather: blues, deep blues, grays, greens. Inside the text has similar variance whether verse, prose, lecture, play. The themes also range about from the classics (Carson’s field of scholarship) to “a chorus of Gertrude Steins performing an essay about falling” to philosophical studies of translation in “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent.” She prefaces it with a John Cage quote, who of course did his own explorations into the framework of silence, before she begins:

Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation. This may sound like a cliché. (I think it is a cliché. Perhaps we can come back to cliché.) There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator: physical, metaphysical. Physical silence happens when you are looking at, say, a poem of Sappho’s inscribed on a papyrus from two thousand years ago that has been torn in half. Half the poem is empty space. A translator can signify or even rectify this lack of text in various ways — with blankness or brackets or textual conjecture — and she is justified in doing so because Sappho did not intend that part of the poem to fall silent. Metaphysical silence happens inside words themselves. And its intentions are harder to define. Every translator knows the point where one language cannot be rendered into another. Take the word cliché. Cliché is a French borrowing, past participle of the verb clicher, a term from printing meaning “to make a stereotype from a relief printing surface.” It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable. English has different sounds. English falls silent. This kind of linguistic decision is simply a measure of foreignness, an acknowledgment of the fact that languages are not algorithms of one another, you cannot match them item for item. But now what if, within this silence, you discover a deeper one — a word that does not intend to be translatable. A word that stops itself.

Float’s far-ranging format means inevitably some pieces of it will be harder to connect with compared to others, depending entirely on one’s own interests. But then you can just put that one aside to drift and pull another one out of the pile.