Words & Sounds / Translation & Asylum by Ben Osborn

Photo Credit: Meredith Heuer; Garrison Retreat, December 2018
Ben Osborn reflects on an Asylum Network event he organized and performed in that took place on August 26 at Donau115 in Berlin. In addition to Ben’s performance, the event featured a night of readings and music from Asylum alumni Giuliana Kiersz, Hila Amit, Deenah Vollmer and Daniel Gerzenberg. We are proud to have helped support this special event.
Many times I’ve heard people tell me that they think it’s impossible to translate literature; poetry in particular. As writing, as they see it, is so much about a specific choice of words. They think that meaning is lost, lost in translation – but I tend to feel the opposite. It’s kind of a question of how you view language: do you believe it’s a reductive force, trapping meaning into a set of limited parameters – defined by language’s own abstracted form, as de Saussure sees it, or even by some sort of biological origin, as Chomsky sees it? Or do you think of language as something altogether chaotic, something unstable, where many meanings are contained within each meaning? Because if it’s the latter, translation is a process of gaining: taking one set of meanings and adding a whole new set of meanings to them. The translation doesn’t erase the original text, it exists parallel to it. It reminds us that there are other possibilities of meaning. It turns words into cross-roads, it turns texts into border-crossings. This, to me, is also the experience of being in a synagogue – hearing and reciting a language that I can’t really speak, inviting contemplation of words & their power, inviting interpretation & reinterpretation.
So, the Asylum: Words & Sounds event in Berlin was a multi-lingual event of poetry & music. Each performer had a different place of birth and cultural background: Israel (Hila Amit), Germany (Daniel Gerzenberg), the USA (Deenah Vollmer), Argentina (Giuliana Kiersz) and the UK (myself, Ben Osborn). Each was invited to read in their home language or in other languages if preferred. In fact, there was a blurring of languages throughout. Hila read in Hebrew, but discussed each of her texts in English – offering a unique perspective on inequalities within Israel, introducing us to a cultural perspective that’s not often seen from the outside. I sang in English, but blurred my words with a tribute to David Berman, incorporating his songs into mine. Daniel writes in English rather than his native German, incorporating Hebrew prayers as well as animal sounds into his work. Deenah read in English, but her playful take on inherited trauma recounted a complexity of cultural heritage. Giuliana read in Spanish, but she and I wrote a shorter English translation of one of her texts, that listeners could read in parallel.
Before the event, we had talked about the meaning of the word asylum: a place of madness, or a place of safety. An offer of home when you have lost your home. I hope that for those in the audience who had travelled many miles to end up in Berlin, there was some feeling of asylum in hearing their home languages far from home – & some feeling of asylum in having to interpret a mixture of words and sounds that they could not immediately understand. That’s how it felt to me, anyway.
Pictured: Giuliana Kiersz
Pictured: Deenah Vollmer

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