On Translating Absence

On Translating Absence

By Jessica Harris

I was once asked if I had ever experienced absence or a great heart presence. I struggled with recounting whether I had or not. What I do believe is that absence is an underlying thread in life. A familiar language for some or a shadow no matter where you stand; it’s there. I love to travel. Whether it’s a couple of stops on the red line (when it’s not single tracking), on a flight to visit family or riding the bus to run errands; it is that perpetual motion, the unfolding of time I find myself returning to. But the scariest part is what I leave behind.

Being away I become more aware that in the place I left things are still moving. I miss them. Can’t go back or replay. They are gone. Absence has become a practice for me. I must accept that I am, by definition, in a state or condition that is not present. This is quite piercing because it is in our nature as humans to want to know, to experience as much as we possibly can. Absence is a constant reminder of just how human we really are. Therefore, it is easy to fear death. It is not the physicality of death but the awareness that a person will no longer be present. They will miss many things. They will not see or experience the afters.

Absence is the art of letting go—not recklessness but an unwitnessing and understanding that is bigger than all of us.

When someone tries to translate the word absence the result is often                  that right there—empty. There are words, moments, phrases, sounds that do not carry over. They, in a manner of speaking, drop off the edge or fail to exist. Trying to create a word or words to describe absence in another language is a disservice.

There is so much more beauty when there are no words. *Gasp* But you’re a writer?!  I know, so even I have come to appreciate words, their value, the weight they hold like a woman carrying water down a dirt road.

It is that emptiness, the lacking, the void or black hole that we, as bizarre as it seems, are drawn toward. When there are no words then we go into explaining. A black hole pulls matter into a tiny space. No light can escape. The gravitational force is so strong it emits no signs of being present. This can only happen when a star is dying. So, when we translate, let our words die, let the most eloquent and brilliant language simply rest or be pulled into the text with such force that what a translator brings cannot survive but surrender. Therefore, readers will simply marvel at the loss, an entity with no hue and become more enamored with absence.

Then it will resonate.


Image: Zara Walker

Jessica Harris is staff editor at  Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.This text was inspired by an assignment for Seminar on Translation (David Keplinger).

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