The Bridge and the Vacancy: Translation and Multilingualism in Poetic Collaboration
… a bridge
Does not exist for its own sake.
It commands vacancy.
(Charles Tomlinson, ‘More Foreign Cities’)
The bridge is perhaps one of the most common metaphors of translation, figuring it as the constructive and connective practice that it can be. Yet if, as Charles Tomlinson writes, the bridge ‘does not exist for its own sake’ but rather ‘commands vacancy,’ we might well ask ourselves what vacancy it is the bridge of translation commands, and in what sense it commands it. Vacancy in the context of a bridge is the space spanned by the connective structure, which in the case of translation must be the distance between one language and another. The verb command implies that the bridge demands vacancy, relies upon it for its existence (‘a bridge does not exist for its own sake’), but also that it in some sense marshals it, brings it to order. To command vacancy is therefore to span the empty space between languages, which in a positive sense means introducing something meaningful where previously there was only incomprehension. Yet the commanding of this space between languages has also been regarded, particularly in relation to global English and the study of world and comparative literature, as a form of domestication, assimilation or even imperialism, the bridge seemingly cancelling out linguistic and cultural distance while making itself invisible in the process.
Yet perhaps to command vacancy in the context of translation is not necessarily to cancel it out but rather to summon it, marshalling it as contextual frame for the structure that spans it, which itself becomes visible by virtue of contrast. In this sense the bridge that commands vacancy might be considered a rich and intriguing metaphor for the multilingual, especially where it makes visible both the plurality of languages and the translational processes that are creatively employed to bring them into dialogue. With that metaphor in mind, this paper will look at three poetic works produced in collaboration between authors working in different languages, extending the bridge over the vacancy without concealing or diminishing it, while avoiding also the danger of toppling into the void.
Dr. Laura Lonsdale
The Queen's College, University of Oxford
Dr. Laura Lonsdale is Associate Professor in Spanish, Fellow of The Queen’s College.
Her core research interests are in modern Spanish literature, especially 20th century narrative and theatre. Her project on multilingualism and modernity in Spanish and American literature has recently been published as a monograph with Palgrave Macmillan, entitled Multilingualism and Modernity: Barbarisms in Spanish and American Literature (2018).