passing youthful idioms
Translation is both an issue of language, but also of culture. It would be easy to veer off into a deep Derridian analysis of language, and place this difference some place between the definition of sounds and words, between words and text, or between text and authors. But as beneficial as this deep analysis might be, it misses the immediate point: it is one thing to understand a language, and it is another thing to understand the way that the language is used.
It’s a question of idioms, but not so much on the point of particular phrases. If only it was all code words, hip slang broken into tactical segments, that could be translated and explained piece by piece in the Urban Dictionary or other such expansive use of streetwise crowd-sourcing and hipster ethnography. But it’s not a matter of knowing what a particular term means. It is about knowing why it is used. And the choice of one particular piece of vernacular over another during the flow of speech is something that will only ever be understood by the speaker, if indeed the speaker is going to use that particular verbiage. It is the impetus to speak, that really defines what the speech means. The spontaneous flow of words, constructed in a crystalline structure of intended cultural meaning, is entirely an idiom to itself.
Transmitting this sort of meaning to an outsider is the most difficult of tasks. It is one thing to translate meaning from one language or culture to another. But how would one translate idiomatic vernacular to make it understandable, while maintaining that distance of difference that made it difficult to begin with? Our desire to understand other cultures comes from the difference, not from a minimization of the difference.
Lawrence Jackson’s “Slickheads,” from which the quote above comes, is to me an example of how precisely to present a culture’s language, without translating it. The culture in question is that of a personal reflection upon young Black men in Baltimore in the 1980s, which despite being one of the oldest and largest cities in the United States, is a foreign culture to many Americans. And perhaps this long essay is still not translated enough for many American readers. It could be that my own knowledge of that hip-hop culture’s progeny that was the hip-hop culture of the 90s suburbs—where I grew up—taught me just enough knowledge of a second-generation idiom that this essay hit the sweet spot for me—something familiar enough to understand, but still outside of my experience to seem that I was getting a taste of something I did not know about. It could be that this essay is written for me, specifically. The educated, cosmopolitan audience of N+1 (where this article originally appeared) could be said to be very much like me—knowledgeable of urban and black culture to a certain extent, though our own idiomatic culture of knowledge would always be second-hand to the sort of authenticity this sort of speech captured in such a Brooklyn tri-annual might be attempting to produce.
Whether or not that is true, “Slickheads” still approaches cultural difference in exactly the right way. Jackson’s idiomatic writing does not attempt to tour guide us through the Baltimore of his youth, or provide analytical apologia for the speech and mannerisms of any time and place. Whatever the editorial intentions of the magazine or its readership, this essay comes off as “subaltern as fuck.” In other words, subaltern, but without the sub-; separate, but in no single way subordinate. It presents cultural elements without assuming the reader has fore knowledge of them, and without assuming that they do not. While fading between a reflective and recounting voice over the course of the essay, solidly maintains what the essay is—a narrative of a particular place and time, told in a particular place and time that is not necessarily the same or different. It does not affect any particular authenticity, relying upon any particular resource to justify its speech, but affects only itself, relying only upon the idiom it produces to tell itself, for what it is. I am not enough of an expert to say precisely what language it is that this essay speaks, but I know that this is no translation. It may not be what I, as reader, want it to be. And for all I know, it may not be what Jackson, as author, wants it to be. But it remains what it is—strong writing, displaying a strength of difference that does not fall back onto this difference as a badge.
Again, perhaps only for me, or for people who are indeed nearly like me, would this be an understandable essay on something that is not like me. This might be the only way to present this sort of cultural idiom. Hitting a target that exists precisely at the fracture place between similar and different cultures is the way to turn the language around, not one phrase or piece of slang at a time, but the whole thing at once. The rift is visible, and so are our feet as we stand upon a piece of it. The strength of our own subjective point of view and understanding is met by the strength of the language of another who is not the same as us, but no less meaningful for it. The goal of all communications, large and small, perhaps. But in this particular instance, a communication a bit larger than many others.
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