Transmissions and Translations

Reviewed by Philip Miletic

Language is a funny thing. We grow up with it as we grow up in it. Perhaps we may be exposed to only one language, but often other languages sit on the peripheries of the tongue and/or ear and are learned to varying degrees of success. And throughout all this time, we use language to make ourselves understood to others as much as to make sense of ourselves. Helen Hajnoczky’s Magyarázni and Raoul Fernandes’ Transmitter and Receiver each approach this aspect of language from different angles, attempting to move beyond any perceived communication breakdowns and to revel in the communication that occurs between people, machines, things, cultures, and languages.

The title of Hajnoczky’s second book, Magyarázni, is a Hungarian term that translates as “Make it Hungarian.” Certainly, throughout Magyarázni Hajnoczky makes the English language Hungarian, attempting to make connections between the two languages as one does when one grows up with two languages—with slippages of meaning (“blurred / and bubbling”), similarities between sounds and spelling (“All to tell, not too dull” and “Altatódal”), and the confusion when learning both (“no letters, but caught / in your throat, you can / read your heart so well”). The poems are organized alphabetically, each poem beginning with a letter from the Hungarian and/or English language and accompanied by beautiful Hungarian-inspired drawings that are visual poems of each letter. This organization further elicits resonances between the two languages—in orality/aurality, visuality, and the meaning of words. But Hajnoczky is also interested in the silences, the “rift, this fault line along the / continents.” When the poems reach W, Y, and Z, there is no corresponding title in Hungarian because they are not “true Hungarian letter[s].” And the first poem, “Pronunciation Guide,” contains many parenthetical remarks—“Not used in English.” By opening and ending the book with these rifts and silences, Hajnoczky draws attention to the work and navigation that goes into mediating between two languages—carrying over a non-English cultural heritage into the English language—and the tensions that this work and navigation produce; it is a process, like Magyarázni itself, that requires you to “Wait for your / letters to bloom.” The “you” in Magyarázni does not, as Oana Avasilichioaei claims, make the reader Hungarian, but it does cause readers to consider their positionality and the cultural backgrounds that have influenced their English, as well as to acknowledge Hajnoczky’s excellent work of making the English language Hungarian.

Fernandes’ Transmitter and Receiver takes a broader approach to language—it is more concerned with communication. But what makes his book a compelling debut is its nuanced attention to communication—verbal and non-verbal—and to the fact that all living and non-living things in the world are both transmitters and receivers. This notion may be obvious, but I will admit that I sometimes think of “transmitter” and “receiver” as separate (and I blame a century of broadcasting for this). But whether or not you find the notion obvious, Fernandes approaches the subject in ways that surprise and delight; each poem considers aspects of quotidian communication in the world that are often overlooked. The opening poem does not begin with words, but rather place and image:

You have this thing you can only explain

by driving me out to the port at night

to watch the towering cranes moving containers

from ship to train.

Further in the book, there are poems about traces of communication in books (“the oil of our hands, the oil and sweat / of our shaking, paper-cut hands”), the struggles of writing poetry and communicating an experience or object poetically, the thoughts of an ATM as it communicates with people withdrawing money, and the communication that occurs with film, nature, objects, and life events. Despite its broad subject, Transmitter and Receiver is cohesive in the intimacy carefully created by Fernandes and in its attention to the relationality of communication. Transmitter and Receiver is more than an endearing and beautiful account of human communication—it is an intimate collection about an interconnected and communicating world.

Each of these texts provides a study of the relationality of communication—in Magyarázni, the relationality between English and Hungarian, and in Transmitter and Receiver, the relationality of communication between humans, animals, and things in the quotidian world. Each book reminds us that language is a funny thing.

This review “Transmissions and Translations” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars 2. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 228-229 (Spring/Summer 2016): 245-246.

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