Tidal-Lingualism: On Craig Santos Perez’s “from tidelands

Don Mee Choi proposes that “translation is a map, a mode that can trigger endless crossings from one party to another.” [1] The anti-neocolonial mode of her translations are actions of legibility against the imperial deformations—that is military, settler, or economic colonialism—embedded in the English and Korean languages. The “endless crossings” invoke arrivals and departures. Comings and goings. Encounters and re-encounters with different platforms of foreign and domestic power. Her claim here makes me wonder if we—as readers—can ever ethically settle inside translated literature or whether the possibilities of translation require a floating to some approximation of understanding.

I’m a limit. I’m not a translator so I can only speak from the position of a reader of translated literature. Maybe language is water. Or water is language. Nothing is really solid anyway, and poetry is often dispersive. I was thinking of Don Mee Choi’s crossings in relation to a sequence of poems in Craig Santos Perez’s 2017 collection from unincorporated territory [hacha]. “from tidelands” invokes an oceanic mode of translation, where the reader encounters edgings of Chamorro words. In one poem, for example, Santos Perez writes:


of breath” to recover—brief
            sounds kneaded “into sand buried” as

currencies “define” the ruins

now shored—

[tasi] of “endless thresh-

                                                [tasi : sea, ocean]
                                                         ~⁠                    (27)

As this poem (and a dictionary) tells me, tasi is a Chamorro word for sea and ocean, and its bracketing doesn’t feel like a foreclosure of its meaning. The spacing, the visual wave of the Spanish tilde, and the open quotation mark with the hyphenation (“endless thresh-) imply the absence of closure. Whether “thresh-” here refers to “threshold” or “threshing” is moot but either way, the poem underscores the partial drifts—the “ruins” perhaps—that are uncovered when languages are placed under inquiry. 

[hacha] isn’t a work of translation in the sense that the collection performs what we might call a normative crossing from source to target language. Rather, I read the collection as a tidal flow that carries its readers to various encounters of linguistic experiences. For starters, [hacha] integrates English with sporadic instances of Spanish and Japanese—languages that document Guåhan’s linguistic histories of occupation—as well as the Indigenous tongue, Chamorro. Other scholars, such Paul Lai, Hsuan L. Hsu, and Huan He, have already brilliantly mapped out the decolonial imaginaries that Santos Perez’s work enables, so I won’t rehearse their arguments here. [2] Suffice to say, the island of Guåhan represents the ongoing presence of military and tourist colonialism that remains an insistent reality of occupation in the Pacific Ocean by the United States, France, New Zealand, and Australia.

“From” in the poem’s title infers a point of departure with a possible point of arrival somewhere and sometime else. Santos Perez uses “from” as a vehicle to contest the neocolonial and settler colonial impositions on island states. In the preface, Santos Perez explains that “from” is an indicator of subjecthood in space as well as time:

“I” am “from unincorporated territory.” From indicates a particular time or place as a starting point; from refers to a specific location as the first of two limits; from imagines a source, a cause, an agent, or an instrument; from marks separation, removal, or exclusion; from differentiates borders. from: OE “fram,” “originally “forward movement, advancement”—evolving into the sense of “movement away” (11)

It is this simple word “from” that sparked my thinking on oceanic modes of languaging. This “from”—as a deformation of “form”—implies an ebb that simultaneously carries a promise of return. In fact, we return to the poem’s title, “from tidelands,” at multiple points in the collection: it is repeated no less than eighteen times with different iterations and new encounters with different Chamorro words. Each poetic tide or “tideland” carries something new to the shore to reflect the push-pull of linguistic desire, belonging, and place.

Valerie Solar Woodward proposes that Santos Perez uses a technique of delayed translation in the collection. [3]⁠ That is, Chamorro words are translated over time rather than immediately. But I also contend that [hacha] is performing something more than source to target translation but rather the poems nudge against the persistent resonances of history and context. The Chamorro words in “from tidelands undercut the certitude of the colonial tongue as the sole arbitrator of meaning. Indeed, the reader is introduced to “tasi” before its English translation. In the process, the imperial power embedded in the American English tongue is displaced. Languaging is leaky.

On the ocean, as in language, everywhere and nowhere is a centre. In Say Translation is Art, Sawako Nakayasu writes “Say translation oceanic as desire,” a line that I have read over and over again to apprehend the wanting that I see in her work as in Don Mee Choi’s translations and Santos Perez’s [hacha][4] Tidal-lingualism is an encounter with openness and multiplicity. Tides are sites of power, corrosion, and reparation. While I acknowledge that this metaphorical thrust of oceans, tides, and seas might reflect a romanticism of island interconnectedness as imagined by scholars like Epeli Hau‘ofa, I want to be clear that oceans are rigorous scholarship. In [hacha], translation is an example of formal inventiveness that destabilises the fixed public narratives of Empire and engages with the private desires of belonging embedded in Indigenous languages. And desire is often water.

[1] Don Mee Choi, Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2020), 3.

[2] Paul Lai, “Discontiguous States of America: The Paradox of Unincorporation in Craig Santos Perez’s Poetics of Chamorro Guam, Journal of Transnational American Studies 3, no. 2 (2011), accessed February 10, 2021, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/02f4v8m3; Huan He, “‘On the Perpetual Motion of Search’: The Transpacific Networked Poetics of Craig Santos Perez and Theresa H.K. Cha,” College Literature 47, no. 1 (2020): 185–212; Hsuan L. Hsu, “Guåhan (Guam), Literary Emergence, and the American Pacific in Homebase and from Unincorporated Territory,” American Literary History 24, no. 2 (2012): 281–307.

[3] Valerie Solar Woodward, “‘I Guess They Didn't Want Us Asking Too Many Questions’: Reading American Empire in Guam,” The Contemporary Pacific 25, no. 1 (2013): 83.

[4] Sawako Nakayasu, Say Translation is Art (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2020).

Works Cited
Santos Perez, Craig. [hacha]. Oakland: Omnidawn Publishing, 2017.

Orchid Tierney is a poet and scholar from Aotearoa New Zealand, who now resides in Gambier, Ohio. She is the author of a year of misreading the wildcats (OS, 2019) and chapbooks my beatrice (above/ground press, 2020), ocean plastic (BlazeVOX Books, 2019) among many others. She is assistant professor of English at Kenyon College, and researches garbage, air, and methane. Her website is www.orchidtierney.com.