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Every Way Oakly: Homolinguistic Translations of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons by Steve McCaffery

Reviewed by Aaron Beasley



“Diverse times require not only different words, but different thoughts.”

–Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt, “Preface to Lucian”


“This play could also occur within the same literature––why pass from one language to another?” –Jorge Luis Borges, “Two Ways to Translate”


Citations, like translations, are timely. If the reader will not object (but even if she does) I have one more context-free quote for fast validity: “Time will run out if I repeat the testimony of all those who have translated according to the sense. It suffices for the present to cite Hilary the Confessor, who in turning some homilies on Job and many contemporaries on the psalms from Greek into Latin, did not attend to the drowsy letter nor contort himself by translating [interpretatione] the boorish style of rustics, but by right of victory carried the sense captive into his own language.” –Jerome, Letter to Pammachius (trans. by Kathleen Davis)


Semantic fidelity be damned, the sense of a translated work only corresponds to ‘meaning’ in the sense (or case) that ‘sense’ (as in perception, sound, site) is part and parsed-all of sense (as in semantic information, the more ‘stable’ horse in nay-giver Pope’s decree: “The sound must seem an echo to the sense”). Language invites its own contextual and perceptual feedback. The static transmits. Pierre Menard could not go back. I could go on, but look at the time!


Steve McCaffery’s Every Way Oakly (2008 BookThug) is a reprint (originally a limited edition of 100 copies) of his late 1970s experiment in homolinguistic translation of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. People reading English-to-English revamps in 2013 (from Dickinson to Shakespeare, etc.) need no valid-splaining1 for this designation, nor does McCaffery’s 1977 introduction provide one. Anyway this is a review not an apologia. Apologias take time.


Time is when you say, ‘What is paraphrase,’ while staring at a picture of a page on a canvas without words. Time is those words writ in the space of a single black line or between two black pages (“The shadow is not shining in”), a host in the sense of a haunted piano (“objects on this keyboard are like words”) playing as the black tie audience finds their seats (“certain that the lines are rows”) whose cushions have been removed for sanitary reasons (“but lullabies fall through/ her legs into/ the heap of blood wiped clean”).


While McCaffery’s edition treats only the “Objects” portion of Stein’s Buttons (less than half the whole) it makes much of time. The shift from prose to verse lineation immediately signals a different temporal relation to reading in terms of sequence, “perhaps you should read the/ poem backwards reverse/ the descent to where the top/ forms a beginning as/ your end so that// you end as you start,” yet also in approaching the point when reading stops, “we counted the letters/ into zero// to form/ a cover up of nil.” ‘When’ is a time from whence meaning is lost, words skimmed, meals skipped. Stein’s “A time to eat” signifies punctuality, “This is not tardy,” while McCaffery’s translative elision “is no tar” on the source text, but a shellac of recognition in its rushed postponement of inert sempiternality––“(the gaps felt later).” Stein’s pages momentarily refresh––“Rub her coke” simulacrized as “we// erase// her cola”––although some upgrades may take a nap while loading: “that wrist is leading” remains analog2 in McCaffery’s “your moving/ hand until// you ask me/ the time.” Although Stein’s masterpiece3 pretends to a middle ground where process, acting as content, temporarily dislocates the watch––“to be certain that looking was not confusing itself with remembering”––McCaffery’s version admits the felt fact that “no looking looks” beyond “time stretched out into/ its particles.” This admission is not a fresh coda to the source meaning but lies embedded in the intentio (Latin, “stretching out”) of the ‘original.’ As Stein says in “Portraits and Repetition,” “in Tender Buttons and then on and on I struggled with the ridding myself of nouns, I knew nouns must go in poetry as they had gone in prose if anything that is everything was to go on meaning something.” The “nuclei” of Stein’s nouns (yet also functional verbs, adjectives, prepositions, articles) remain in motion through these associative substitutions and distilled collocations. The innate structure of “Go to red, laugh white” quite naturally lends itself to “the traffic light is changing/ i can see your teeth.” McCaffery’s performance is never more than an extension of process, a proof (evidence as much as photographic trial) to the timeworn search for a lasting frame of referential possibility. His is not a salvaging of fixed ‘meaning,’ but an echoing of what Walter Benjamin4 calls “the original’s mode of signification.” The sense transmitted is not a derivative semantic content so much as a recommenced “looking.” The introduction says that Stein’s “cubist perceptual method” has been preserved and merely applied to her own texts, seen as “textual still lives” rendered according to their own “allusive reference and connotational structures.” McCaffery relates only what he sees, “colours in contrast to/ the adjectives the/ chiaroscuro to the text.” As per d’Ablancourt, “Diverse times require not only different words, but different thoughts.” The ‘original’ annexes (because annexed by) new depths of significance in its attempt “to go on meaning something.” There is a sense then (coincident with the expiring identity of objects) in which my little dog, now a cryogenic keepsake5, may once again know me, though ‘I’ may be someone else looking back to a timeless and indifferent past for signals that ‘speak’ (or ‘sit!’) in a locution format (English or otherwise) compatible with the horizon of the late now.


McCaffery suggests the ideal way to experience his poems: “get a friend to read the translation aloud whilst you, simultaneously, read the original Tender Buttons.” I recommend sitting in a chair while a friend stands behind you, out of sight, speaking so the words fall into the echo chamber of your mind’s ear as you watch time collapse (momentarily) and the words begin to move, sometimes lifting into the air where a similar charge of words begins to flicker and form in an instantaneous flash6, “look at the time// locating its mechanics in/ the atmosphere// (‘these words are clouds’// in a metallic midnight.”


Time will run out if I repeat the testimony of all those who have translated according to the sense. It suffices for the present to cite Stein, who in turning some looking on objects and many gerunds in the translation from Thing to Language, did not attend to the drowsy content nor contort herself by attempting the graphic medium of cubists, but by a perception of mechanics carried the sense captive into her own language.


A translation, that is a blind reference. A kind in glass and a custom, a spectacle and nothing foreign a single heard color and an arraignment in a system to hearing. All this and not original, not unoriginal in not dissembling. The spreading is different.





1 For skeptics of the idea that, as Ezra Pound put it, “Neither can anyone learn English, one can only learn a series of Englishes,” cf. Roman Jakobson’s “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” wherein “intralingual” translation (within the same language) is presented as first subcategory before “interlingual” (between different languages) and “intersemiotic” (between different sign systems).


2 According to Wikipedia digital wristwatches became affordable to average consumers in 1975, around but possibly after McCaffery’s writing.


 3 Those who read Stein’s aesthetic as a rejection of Masterpieces as such (as I did once) should cf. her essay “What are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” wherein she proffers it as a thing existing beyond time (and beyond identity).


4 Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”


5 People are actually doing this. Cryonics Institute claims it has 91 pets currently in cryostasis (as of this writing): http://www.cryonics.org/pets.html


6 “The perception of similarity is in every case bound to an instantaneous flash. It slips past, can possibly be regained, but really cannot be held fast, unlike other perceptions. It offers itself to the eye as fleetingly and transitorily as a constellation of stars. The perception of similarities thus seems to be bound to a time-moment (Zeitmoment).” –Walter Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar”


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