The Overlooked Mistranslations in Blood and Guts in High School

side by side series of the cover of Blood and Guts in High School

Kathy Acker’s infamous 1984 novel, Blood and Guts in High School, is a convoluted, avant-garde amalgam of text, drawing, excerpt, drama, and translation centered on the shocking life of Janey Smith, a young girl who has an incestuous relationship with her father in Mexico. After traveling to the United States to live on her own, Janey runs into all sorts of traps, mainly consisting of sexual abuse, exploitation, kidnapping, and an endless cycle of pregnancy and abortion. Janey is never able to break out of the patriarchal, capitalist system that dominates her life—except, perhaps, in her dream maps—and at one point is held captive by a “Persian slave trader” who attempts to teach her to be a prostitute. During this time, she finds an old Persian grammar book and writes out translation exercises of words and short phrases in a section of the book titled “The Persian Poems,” pairing words written in Farsi alongside their translations in English. Fitting in with the violent sexual nature of the book, these exercises mainly revolve around sex, genitalia, and relationships, at least on the English side. While “The Persian Poems” have been lauded as emblematic of the embeddedness of power in all languages, however, it seems that very few scholars have paid attention to the actual translation of the Farsi written on the pages. The reader who does not understand Farsi assumes that both sides of the pages are equivalent, and thus most discussions of the section take the English translation at face-value, analyzing the impact of the language play based only on one half. The reader with even a cursory knowledge of Farsi, on the other hand, sees Acker deliberately mistranslate specific words, bringing an entirely new meaning to the section on Janey’s language learning process.

“The Persian Poems” appears almost exactly in the middle of Blood and Guts in High School, and is composed of twenty-two pages of handwritten translation exercises resembling a school project: the title page of the section reads, “‘The Persian Poems’ by Janey Smith.” After being kidnapped, Janey is held in a small, bare room, where “twice a day the Persian slave trader came in and taught her to be a whore. Otherwise there was nothing.” The Persian Poems emerge as an interlude into this space of captivity, allowing Janey to play with translating basic words and phrases from Farsi on the left side of the page to English on the right. Throughout nearly the entire section, however, Janey mistranslates certain words. For example, after she writes “house” in Farsi, she writes “cunt” in English. While she writes in Farsi, “There is a chair and a room and a window and a window and a window”—describing the physical effects of the room in which Janey is held captive by the slave trader—the reflecting English reads, “There’s a cunt and a prick.” Later, when Janey’s Farsi states, “There are chairs and rooms and windows and windows and windows and windows,” her accompanying English says, “A wonderful man whose large prick is in Janey’s cunt says to Janey, ‘I love you.’” By replacing the equivalents to the Farsi signifiers of her imprisonment—house, chair, room, window—with English words of her own choosing, Janey seems to free herself from her captor and enslavement. As a child whose life has been dominated by sex, incest, repetitive abortions, and abuse, however, the English words are metonyms of her imprisonment throughout the novel: cunt, cock, love, man. At the end of “The Persian Poems,” Janey translates the Farsi word for “home” as “cunt,” exemplifying her perpetual entrapment in the logics of violent sex.

In her many attempts to escape various forms of subjugation, Janey eternally reproduces larger systems of oppression behind her immediate situations. In her use of mistranslation, Janey deconstructs multiple systems of societal and linguistic governance. She erodes the conceptual meaning of translation by redefining keywords while still allowing the system of translation to be legible in the format of language learning writing exercises. By including sentences that describe grammar and spelling rules of Farsi, such as, “When suffix begins ..أي.; after ه, use هء or add ای,” Janey continually reminds the reader that she is fully aware of the rules of Farsi, yet she brazenly ignores them by refusing words their English equivalents. Mistranslating the words that describe her physical imprisonment is perhaps a method of setting herself free, but her overarching system of imprisonment remains present: she replaces these words with signifiers of her purpose as a prisoner, and of the destructive force in the novel. Her inability to move beyond the logic of her own world—the logic of sex—only reasserts her eternal confinement. Acker here perhaps implies that even if one attempts to break from an immediate captivity through innovation on the page, the culture surrounding language ensures that freedom is unattainable. All pre-existing systems of governance—whether in politics, the nuclear family, or through language—are linked to power relations, capitalism, and patriarchy, and using one to deconstruct another will only emulate the same forms of oppression.

In this way, Blood and Guts in High School can be read as an almost near-perfect embodiment of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist paradox. Deconstruction, to put it very briefly in relevance here, for Derrida involves questioning the origins of dominance in any given system to reveal the power and oppression inherent to its structure. The paradox inherent is that all attempts at deconstruction inevitably reproduce the system they break down. Janey falls prey to this paradox time and again, and this is most clear through the mistranslations of “The Persian Poems.” Even when learning and deconstructing a linguistic system external to her own, Janey remains governed by the structures of language and sex that dominate her. The mistranslations may afford Janey an illusion of freedom, a method of creating her own system, but left simply in the written word and contained in language, her freedom falls prey to the deconstructionist paradox of never truly escaping the systems she critiques.

The relevance of such a lesson to the recurring themes of sexual relationships and power structures in the novel renders the mistranslations a crucial aspect of Acker’s argument—yet they have been sorely overlooked in scholarly commentary. Before even reaching an understanding of their meaning, however, it is strikingly evident that this book demands close attention to the minutia of its text, elaborate drawings, varying fonts, and forms of writing; one can glean such a fact just by simply flipping the pages of Blood and Guts in High School. It is a wonder to me, then, that an equivalent close attention has simply not been paid to the Farsi text itself. After doing some research on the matter, I have personally come across only one scholar, Melissa Tanti, and one artist, Shagha Ariannia, whose work acknowledges and engages with the mistranslations, despite a vast reservoir of scholarly content on Kathy Acker’s writing. Interestingly, Tanti and Ariannia both interpret the mistranslations in light of their significance to cultural forms of desire but arrive at slightly different conclusions. Focusing on the act of replacing sexually-charged words in English with basic, non-sexual objects in Farsi, Tanti argues that Western modes of desire “flatten” non-Western modes of desire, while Ariannia sees this as indicative of how sexuality is either expressed or repressed in different cultures. In relation to my own interpretation, I find both arguments convincing and mutually constitutive—each of these readings in fact contributes to a more holistic view of Acker’s commentary on the hidden, unavoidable structures of power in culture in language. This variance in differing yet synergetic interpretations of the mistranslations only further accentuates the importance of the Farsi text to our understanding of the book as a whole, and to the vast array of possibilities left untouched by assuming the two sides of the page are the same.

If the translation exercises had centered on a language using the Latin script—French or Spanish, for example—it is unquestionable that many scholars would have immediately jumped upon the discrepancies of the exercises, but the Arabic script of Farsi presents a visual block for those who cannot decipher its letters. If the reader who is unfamiliar with Arabic script languages were to pay just a bit of attention to the shape of the Farsi words on the page, however, they would see that Acker actually includes an unmistakable decoding clue: each of the words that are mistranslated in sentence form appear immediately below the first mistranslated sentence as isolated words with their correct translations. These mistranslations are nearly thrust in the reader’s face—the words of the sentence, which in English reads “there’s a cunt and a prick,” are defined right after as “chair,” “room,” and “wall.” “Wall” here is actually a likely unintentionally incorrect translation: it should read “window,” but both words still signify the enclosure of the physical room. Even for a reader completely unfamiliar with Farsi or other languages that use the Arabic script, it is strikingly obvious that the Farsi words in the sentence and directly below it are the same. Acker’s intentionality is overwhelmingly clear, and she begs the reader to follow.

Considering the hidden messaging of the mistranslations—that power structures are unavoidable and that we continually reproduce them even in attempts to deconstruct oppression or innovate freedom—it seems even more ironic that the Farsi text has gone unnoticed by so many. While the barrier for readers of Latin script in interpreting the Farsi is real, I find it, quite honestly, lazy, at best. At its worst, then, is its implication of white supremacy and racism: the Farsi is likely deemed not worth the effort of close-reading, or even of marginal attention to the shape it takes on the page. In fact, much of the scholarship which does mention the existence of the Farsi in the book (but doesn’t go far enough to actually translate it) misidentifies the language as Arabic, generalizing all languages—and, particularly if we are to consider Tanti and Ariannia’s interpretations of the mistranslations, cultures—that use the Arabic script and originate in the Middle East region into one unparticular Other. I like to think that Acker may have foreseen this reaction from her anglophone readership, and so exposes the racism that underlies such a massive oversight on the part of the Euro-American scholarly community.

Rife with minute peculiarities that inspire heated debate and endless interpretations in any discussion, Blood and Guts in High School demands the reader’s constant focus at every moment. I find it disheartening—yet sadly unsurprising—that in light of such an involved book, so few have bothered to look closely at the Farsi. A fuller picture of “The Persian Poems” brings not just a greater understanding of Janey’s perpetual imprisonment in the text, but also indicates the deeply intricate level of Acker’s craft. The impact of these mistranslations on Acker’s messaging is profound, though dismal, at best: even when defying the rules of her captor’s language to create her own logic, Janey still remains bound to a linguistic and cultural system, and ultimately, the written word does nothing to free her from her reality. And in avoiding engagement with the Farsi text, the reader, too, only further reifies their internalization of power.