Untranslated: The Original Copy / Fotostaatmasjien by Bibi Slippers — Klara du Plessis

Untranslated
Untrans-salted
This salted butter-coloured book
Canary yellow as an accentuation of aged paper
The most beautiful dress I never bought was a muslin undergarment dyed in bossietee, discoloured more than tinted
I add salt to my porridge, it’s too salty
I add sugar to my porridge, it’s too sweet
How do I talk about poetry in a different language?
An untranslated slippage of tongue and taste

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Bibi Slippers—a dynamic, young Afrikaans-language poet—blessed her debut collection, Fotostaatmasjien, with a brilliant title in its insinuation of both contemporaneity and nostalgia. On the one hand, the eponymous photocopier is an agent of technological reproduction; as a machine, it is of our times. On the other hand, while still in use now, the photocopier’s heyday dates back to the time of secretaries, to offices with dedicated copy rooms and to the ecological nonchalance of guiltless paper trails. While each photocopy is born as an ideal, identical transcript of a document, it slowly erodes to an aged, yellowed page, merely recollecting the words it used to house.

untranslated_duplessis_image

The ability to reproduce by no means renders the photocopier flawless. In fact, it is exactly this imperfection of duplication, which interests Slippers. A photocopied page is rarely neat and clean. Usually it has dark strips along the edges (dark circles beneath the eyes); little specks of ink tint the clarity of paper’s surface; sometimes words bleach illegibly; a page is often printed skew. Of course, the defectiveness of reproduction has already been amply discussed in philosophical circles. Plato classically writes off poetry for its inherent inability to embody reality, in his view, being eternally suspended as a meager imitation of the original (is this basically the exact same argument that Ben Lerner makes today in The Hatred of Poetry?). Walter Benjamin, again, feels that the ability to create reproducible art removes the consumer’s unique relationship to the mystical aura of the original, thereby diminishing the impact of creativity. Here, in the extremity of examples, I’m led to the Bernadette Corporation—an art collective founded in the ‘90s—that exhibited a collaboratively scripted epic poem, A Billion and Change, as a visual work of art, refusing to circulate Xeroxed copies to its readership and thereby rendering the text defunct, since few wanted to read a 130-page, awkwardly displayed document while standing up.

Whereas the Bernadette Corporation didn’t allow readability into their visual art project, Slippers welcomes the visual, the so-called imperfection of the copy, into her writing, including pages that resemble photocopies in her perfect bound collection of poems.

Both visually and thematically, Slippers aims to redeem the reproduction, raises it up and dusts it off, embracing its imperfections and so also acknowledging its diversity. If every copy is a slight variant of its master document, then every copy is arguably also an original.

In a sequence of poems called “Alpha Xerox,” Slippers reinterprets the biblical creation myth as one large copy job, imagining the photocopier’s flash of light as God’s inspiration and original genius: “en god het sy hande / op die glasplaat / van die niks gelê / en hy het gebulder: / ‘laat daar lig wees!’” (“and god laid his hands on the glass sheet of nothingness and roared: ‘let there be light!’”). In a humorous train of events, an angel’s wing gets caught in the photocopier while God is printing lizards and so, through the juxtaposition of both creatures, the albatross is born; ranging from trees and mountains to tsunamis and tornados, everything on earth is a product of the photocopy machine. Slippers subtly fuses the notions of original and reproduction, deliberately confusing the hierarchy between authentic and copy. While religion’s rhetoric usually labels every being or thing as a beautiful, original creation, these poems posit the so-called originals as mere photocopies, albeit fabulous, distinctive facsimiles.

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“The oldest copier invented by people is language … The second great copying machine was writing” – David Owen

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It is particularly interesting to me—reading an Afrikaans book and now writing about it in English—to notice instances of code-switching. Some of it is colloquial, a manner of speaking in Afrikaans, which includes choice English words as a hip, polylingual inflection. But Slippers also includes many well-curated quotations ranging from essays on the invention of the photocopier, to lyrics and references to pop culture, to lines from a wide spectrum of other poets. These quotations are almost exclusively in English and often positioned as epigraphs to book sections or to the poems themselves. Untranslated and independent, that is, not integrated into the body of the poems, these English quotations stand sentinel; they are the words read first, absorbed as introduction to the poems. It is too reductive—both to the originality of Slippers’ poems and to the century-long linguistic conflict still waging on in South Africa—to suggest that the quotations are the primary texts that are then interpreted, translated, photocopied into Afrikaans. Still, the idea of a translation being a lingual photocopy of the original is worth considering in relation to Fotostaatmasjien—both translation and the photocopy grapple with the difference inherent to the attempt to convey similarity.

In the poem “laatnaggedagtes oor Sam Riviere” (“late-night thoughts about Sam Riviere”), Slippers poetically confronts the integrity of translation, in particular, the difficulty of finding words that could transmit the nuances of another language. According to the epigraph, she is reading Riviere’s “four poems to sophie,” translating them into Afrikaans, not in a literal way, but casting light on her reading process and relationship to his words. When he writes, “there’s no such / thing as an epiphany but there’s such a thing,” for example, she responds, “ek is byna seker dat ‘epifanie’ nie die korrekte vertaling van epiphany is nie fok jou google translate en al die slackers wat nie jou resultate bevraagteken nie” (“I am almost certain that ‘epifanie’ isn’t the right translation of epiphany fuck you google translate and all the slackers who don’t question your search results”). A dictionary search of my own confirms that “epiphany” could also be translated in a less anglicized way as openbaring (revelation), verskyning (manifestation), skielike insig (sudden insight) or plotselinge wete (abrupt understanding). Riviere’s oscillation between doubt and belief in the face of revelation is mirrored in Slippers’ inability to find a word to translate “epiphany” at all. A migration of potential words, each a copy of the preceding word, yet each with a slight twist, its own baggage, interpretative gradations and inadequacies.

An intentional travesty, Slippers offers a couple of poems based on deliberate homophonic mistranslations of the words “Copy” and “Cut” as the Afrikaans koppie (cup) and kat (cat). Copied, cut, but not pasted, the cup and the cat hover in the indeterminate space of their mistranslation.

They reside in the space between languages and between meanings, and as such, both query the ontology of their linguistic being.

The cup bemoans the fact that she is “een van duisende eenderse skepsels” (“one of thousands of similar creations”), hoping for a more unique, irreplaceable identity. The specificity of words are important to the cup; she purports to hate the Afrikaans word for a “tingling feeling” (“ek haat / die woord ‘tintel’”), seeking to pin down words and feelings as meanings. The cat, on the contrary, enjoys the indefinite. He attempts to define himself in a long, existential monologue, each label flowing seamlessly into the next, each equally accurate and insufficient to describe his feline mystique: “ek is twee derdes droom ek is spiere en rubber en rooi espresso en room ek is uitveër ek is inkpot ek is ernstig en geïrriteerd” (“I am two thirds dream I am muscles and rubber and red espresso and cream I am an eraser I am an inkpot I am serious and annoyed”). The cat is an eternal deferral of meaning and, as he switches code with the flick of a tail, signifies both in English and Afrikaans. A cat, a cut, ‘n kat, a copycat, he is a reminder that languages are just untranslated copies of one another.

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From the interlingual to the intertextual (and perhaps the interlingual intertextual), another role Fotostaatmasjien’s abundance of quotations plays is to allow Slippers’ writing to enter into conversation with that of other poets, poets she reads, admires, mocks, dedicates her work to, and sometimes emulates. Throughout, there are appearances by Elizabeth Bachinsky, Tony Hoagland, Margaret Atwood, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, Anne Carson, Anne Michaels and more. Within the Afrikaans literary tradition Antjie Krog, Ingrid Jonker, Breyten Breytenbach, Adam Small, Wilma Stockenström, T.T. Cloete, among others, stop by to say hi. While I hesitate to bring old Harold Bloom into this even as a counterexample, it is refreshing that Slippers’ work is completely divorced from any hint of “the anxiety of influence.” Instead of being restricted or intimidated by her literary predecessors, she invites them in, creating a social space in her work by deliberately engaging with that of other poets.

In a marvelous poem, “Antjie Krog wat wag om te gebeur” (“Antjie Krog waiting to happen”), Slippers fearlessly places herself within an intergenerational writerly lineage with Antjie Krog—a famous Afrikaans poet producing ceaselessly since the ‘70s—listing ways in which she aspires to resemble the older poet. Waiting on an airport like Antjie, petting a shy cat like Antjie, wearing a black one-piece swimsuit like Antjie, these are similes not metaphors. While rubbing shoulders with a role model,

Slippers never replicates. She engages with a kind of slippage into influence tinged with individuality. It may be redundant to spell it out, but being influenced or inspired by another writer isn’t the same as copying that writer’s oeuvre, unless it is the positively inflected mode of copying that Slippers explores throughout this book.

Copying which means not writing in a void (“ek begin nooit ‘n gedig op ‘n leë bladsy nie ek copy en paste altyd eers iets om die proses aan die gang te kry” (“I never start writing a poem on an empty page I always copy and paste something to get the writing process going”)). Copying that is never identical. Copying that is a means to invigoration, rearticulation and self-expression. Copying that stands as an original.

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In the margins of one of Slippers’ poem, during an epiphanic moment of reading, I pencil in an interpretative note that I now no longer understand:

stilte kan
‘n steuring wees
soos as mens beïnvloed is en dit nie aandui nie
word mens wakkerder as ‘n toewyding

(silence can
be disruptive
like if you’re influenced and don’t credit it
more alert than a dedication)

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“Poems are translations from the silence” – Charles Simic

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I wonder how silence and emptiness reproduce themselves. I wonder at the moment that copying stops embodying multiplication in favour of being. The stuttering stop, the dot dot dot of an ellipsis petering out into a copy of itself…


Bibi Slippers is a poet and journalist working in the TV industry. She has BA degrees in Fine Arts and Languages from the University of Pretoria and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Stellenbosch. Fotostaatmasjien, released by Tafelberg in 2016, is her debut collection of poetry. She lives in Johannesburg.

Klara du Plessis is a poet and critic residing alternately in Montreal and Cape Town. Her chapbook, Wax Lyrical—shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Award—was released from Anstruther Press, 2015, and a full-length collection is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press, 2018. She curates the monthly, Montreal-based Resonance Reading Series. Follow her @ToMakePoesis

Image: Photocopying photocopies, Hannah, Creative Commons