Babel Unbuilt: Alan Shapiro’s Against Translation

Against Translation / Alan Shapiro / University of Chicago Press, $18 (paperback)

How do we confront the absent and ephemeral? Do war and social injustice overwhelm individual bereavements, or does their omnipresence illuminate quieter stories? How can language describe and quantify loss? These are some the questions encouraged by Alan Shapiro’s Against Translation. Juxtaposing major historical events like the attacks on 9/11 and the Cuban Missile Crisis with stories of a child who orchestrates his disconnection from his grandmother—a woman who dies from cancer as her friends move on with their lives—and a man who sees visions of his late brother, Shapiro’s collection explores the past as it effaces and clarifies the present.

Against Translation opens with its titular poem, in which Shapiro depicts the “legendary smoke” of the Trojan War’s funeral pyres thinning into nothingness, while modern archaeologists unearth bodies of stillborn and miscarried children whose mothers sought to protect them from the “heroic / stench of burning / upward.” It is these unnamed victims whose bodies have survived to be discovered—just as, later in the collection, intimate anecdotes of illnesses and arguments take precedence over the historical events that have inspired Shapiro’s reflections—while the upward stench of burning heroes, forever remembered but never discovered, is translated into the burning of the Twin Towers.

In “Manhood,” Shapiro describes 9/11 as “an Esperanto we woke up knowing, as if what tumbled down with the towers were the civic Babels of our separate lives.” Tragedy brings the country together through a universal language of loss. But simultaneously, the poem’s speaker, a father chastised by a neighbor for allowing his son to ride a “girl’s bike,” watches his son forcibly indoctrinated into manhood; masculinity becomes the poem’s second Esperanto, a pseudo-universal language learned alongside the losses of 9/11. Nothing feels collective as the father witnesses his son’s shame in being “finally found out” by the laws of masculinity. Thus, the language of “Manhood” serves as a tool for both unity and disillusionment, and throughout the collection, Shapiro further explores its role in the manipulation of distance.

In fact, the poems of Against Translation are defined by their forms of distance—memory, history, imagination, conjecture—and their speakers negotiate these distances and the artistic control they provide. In “Photograph of Neo-Nazi March through Skokie, Illinois, 1977,” the speaker imagines the emotional states of the photograph’s subjects, switching from referring to the subjects as individuals to merely “the signified,” who “forlornly wait for what they’ll be.” The dismantling and reconstruction of stories continues throughout the collection, an exercise in linguistic distance already alluded to in Shapiro’s discussions of Babel. This exercise is emphasized in “Justice,” in which the speaker, after reading about the suicide of a murderer in prison, constructs their own vision of the suicide, effectively dismantling the prisoner’s subjectivity by controlling his body with linguistic movements. The speaker separates the prisoner’s feet from his body by referring to them as an entity separate from “him,” and continues by separating the body from the pronoun his:

he had greased the floor with shampoo
before he hanged himself so when his legs
thrashed his feet would just keep slipping
to increase the pressure they, despite him,
were frantic to relieve…
[when] his body jerked and kicked,
pissing itself till it finally hung limp, dripping,
it was as if I’d staged the suicide myself…

These adjustments in pronouns are minute, but their role in emphasizing the speaker’s authority over a stranger’s death—a vision that “isn’t right and is”—is critical, serving as a microcosm of Against Translation’s confusion of the boundary between imagination and reality. The speakers’ fantasies gain the status of truth, while history and the subjectivity of others fade into the “thinning smoke” of legends long burned away. Moments like these, heavily explored in the collection’s first three sections, emphasize Shapiro’s mastery of linguistic distancing.

If the first three sections of the collection have the work of dismantlement and reconstruction, favoring the speaker’s perspective all the while, the fourth section differs by creating moments of palimpsest. In “Keats,” the letters of Keats render him “more alive than…anyone living,” the speaker a ghost by comparison; in “Words,” one of the collection’s few poems told from a perspective other than Shapiro’s, a woman takes on the poet’s habit of imagining stories from photographs and letters and makes it her own; and in the collection’s final poem, the poet’s old and forgotten journal is taken over by a single entry from his daughter. We end with her words, quoted but not explained, escaping the effacing process of translation.

It is fitting that Against Translation, a collection that manages to enact, embrace, and overcome linguistic distance, references the Tower of Babel at its beginning. In the Book of Genesis, God scatters humanity and destroys their one language so that they cannot understand each other, cannot build the tower they hoped would reach heaven. This is why the unfinished city is called “Babel,” which translates as “confusion” in Hebrew. But an Akkadian etymology also translates the term as “gate of God.” God’s destruction of Babel creates different linguistic groups: another step towards humanity’s cultural-intellectual maturity. Disintegration is divinely and artistically favorable, and Shapiro’s collection thrives on these ambiguities of unity and separation: it acknowledges the dual need for translations to bridge divides and to simply recognize those divides. Beginning with the fall of towers and ending with the emergence of a new voice, the mastery of Against Translation is clear: 

And then where my writing ended, there was this, in the shaky script of my eight-year-old daughter who without my knowing had found the journal and for one day claimed it as her own and without date or detail, the page blank beneath it, had written just this and nothing else—written and forgotten about completely as the journal had forgotten me—“Dear Diary, in case you haven’t noticed, this is my first entry.”

Spencer Grayson is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English. She is the Associate Managing Editor of The Columbia Review, and also enjoys etymology.