The Use and Misuse of Literature as ‘Bridge’

People often speak of translators, and translated literature, as the stuff of “bridges” between cultures:

The ferry to Guantanamo.
The ferry to Guantanamo. Illustration: Molly Crabapple.

I have resisted this metaphor, in part because of This Bridge Called My Back; in part because I prefer to draw attention to literature-as-literature and not to literature’s socio-political (or architectural) “function.” Bridges are attractive things, in theory: If only we could erect a giant cement behemoth between Baghdad and Boston, then we could walk back and forth, shaking hands, slapping backs, sharing one another’s lives.

Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security would get in the way of that one. So, instead? We have a metaphorical bridge. A literary one.

Still, translation as a “literary bridge” is awfully one-sided. While I was reading Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, there was not, I don’t think, a corresponding reader in Baghdad perusing Toni Morrison. Or maybe there was, but I had no way to touch this person. If The Iraqi Christ brought me in any sort of contact with a “real” Iraq, it was through a tinted mirror. It was through, as Molly Crabapple writes, “dark water.”

Further, when a book is praised as a cultural bridge-builder, it often is because the author — let’s say Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal in Germany — is saying something the folks on the other side of the imputed bridge really want to hear. (Islamists = Nazis!) This is less like a bridge and a bit more like an echo chamber.

But a yet more disturbing sort of “literary bridge” has been, over the last decade, the dozens of gossipy articles about “What Gitmo Prisoners Read,” with the most recent crop focused on whether or no prisoners were reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Rep. Jim Moran, who made the claim about detainees reading Fifty Shades, said — in what we can only presume to be a tone of mild hilarity — “I guess there’s not much going on, these guys are going nowhere, so what the hell.” Moran’s claim was (Muslims! sex!) widely repeated throughout the media, although one of the inmates’ lawyers denied it, saying it was either “some sort of a joke” or “some sort of disinformation campaign.”

Most of the recycled articles about what prisoners read in the US’s off-shore City of Lost Souls don’t have this sadistic edge to them. They bring us stories of normality — ooh, they’ve got Harry Potter in there! — which should, in a literary-bridge-world, lead to empathy. (Hey, I read Harry Potter, too!) But, more likely, these stories don’t lead to any sort of connection. Instead, they encourage us to forget the lives of Gitmo “detainees.”  After all, their lives are pretty normal.

Literature, here, functions not as bridge, but as whitewash. There is no foot traffic between Guantanamo and Greensboro. We hear that the “detainees” (prisoners of war?) have a library and lots of other fancy things. (It’s also “sunny, fun, and unique.”) If “detainees” are allowed a peek at our lives, it is not across a bridge, but through an entirely different one-way mirror.

Some reporters do allow US readers to feel a sort of contact. Molly Crabapple (@mollycrabapple), who has been regularly reporting on the US’s non-legal prison, said that, even for her, the official tours are like looking at the detainees’ lives “as if through dark water.”

Crabapple writes in a recent piece, “No One Reads Kafka in Gitmo,” that:

Before making it in to the library, each volume is read by two minders. Banned are books with sex or horror, extremism, prisons, military maneuvers or anti-establishment ideas.

Whatever the view is on the other side of this mirror, it is free of “horror, extremism, prisons, military maneuvers or anti-establishment ideas.” It is a lens that’s happily Kafka-free.


  1. I thought about this devastating post (wherein you seem to have scraped words down to their essential truth) all day yesterday, from when I read it in the morning, even on the bus to work, and then periodically at work itself. I too have avoided using that metaphor, it just doesn’t want to climb onto my tongue, but I understand those who seem attracted to it. It simply seems like something that be accomplished, something that can actually be built in some way and used.

    The image I always have is of the translator swimming from one side of the Tigris to the other, with large heavy stones (the translation) in a book bag slung across their back. That kind of swimming where your legs are way below the surface and your chin just above.

    I can only speak directly about translation as a poet, and it has played a very important part in my own writing. I have always felt that poets “open ground” for each other, that they give a kind of permission to another writer to try a new approach to their writing, or to include concerns that they were hesitant to address. My own list is long, from Spain to Mexico, from Russia to Yugoslavia, from Iraq to Palestine and Egypt, from France to Sweden and the UK.

    I found myself writing this to Dunya Mikhail the other day, it’s what I truly feel about the poets I read in translation –

    Good poets are my sister or brother, even if they are on the other side of the mountains, or a sea away from me. If they write a poem that moves me, even from afar, they are close to me. And as long as I read the words of their poem, and those words lodge in my heart, then I know their name and see their face.

    And if that poet swims against the current (always against the current) in a river of memory, I know what they fear and what they love. I know what they have and what they have lost.

    And that poet my friend is you.

    Ms Qualey, let me thank you for this post, because it made me wrestle with words all day. These are my favorite posts of yours, the ones that catch me up short, that hold onto my collar and pull me into considering the “easy metaphors” that I walk through every day.

    And Guantanamo, our government keeps trying to move it to the edge of the frame of reference, and people like yourself just keep dragging it back into focus.

    Many thanks wordsmith!!

    1. Thanks, Beau.

      I understand the appeal of the bridge metaphor; you’re right, it feels like we are “building” something. (Whereas I want to struggle against giving literature any easy purpose.)

      I like your metaphor of a sister or brother much more. It has often struck me how Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (a great translator, as well as author) called Mutanabbi and Shakespeare brothers. Yes, translation can put us into that proximity with one another. It can plow new ground in literature; it can open up new spaces and concerns.

      And poetry, too, can put us right up inside the soul of another.

      Thanks so much for sharing your word-wrestling. M.

Comments are closed.