On the back cover of Wild Pigeon, you can read an interview with a Uyghur grandfather. Recorded during a time when Drake was making frequent audio recordings as a part of her culture gathering, it was only when the interviews were translated later that she discovered what her translator was saying. The interview is a reflection of how complicated the exchange is, rather than another sensationalized victimization story.
Although the dialogue is oblique partly because of the constraints on communication, it also raises the question of translation and the tricky subtleties of cultural meaning. The imperfect translation is also a metaphor for the problems of using photography to tell another person’s story–the difficulty of fully translating one reality into another.
Interpreter: Let’s share this food. Brother Abliz, please share this with me. I can’t finish it by myself.
Grandfather: Can she finish hers? You can ask her about it. We don’t understand her language, but you know it well.
Neighbor: It’s a difficult language.
Grandfather: It has been difficult for her to find some people like us, right?
Interpreter: Yes. Is that enough or too little?
Photographer: Ah, that’s enough.
Interpreter: If that’s not enough, I can just take some.
Photographer: No, that’s enough. Believe me, it’s plenty.
Grandfather: Tell her to eat until she is full. She should eat until she is full here, so she doesn’t need to have another meal in the bazaar. Abduweli, please sit close to the table, son. Does she have parents?
Interpreter: She does, she has parents. They were asking whether you have parents. Do you have parents? Do you have mom and dad?
Photographer: Apa ana bar. (Yes, I have parents.)
Grandfather: Okay good. Good. You haven’t forgotten this place, right? You came here again. You still remember it.
Photographer: Tell him I have very fond memories of this place and especially listening to his music.
Interpreter: She said she had a really good time here and really enjoyed this place. She was really happy when she came here the last time, so she remembered this place well. She said she couldn’t forget about your music, she kept remembering the music that you played for her last time, so she will always remember this place.
Neighbor: Did you play the Duttar for her?
Grandfather: Yes, I did. This is too much for me, my child, please take some out.
Granddaughter: They call the Duttar “music”?
Grandfather: Yes, they do. They call everything music, including Rawap, Duttar. Please give me a spoon.
Interpreter: Please come here, brother, let’s share this food. Brother Ërpan, you can share it with Abduqeyyum. Otherwise we won’t be able to finish.
Grandfather: Is there a driver inside the car?
Grandfather: Is he just lying there? Is he there now? We should bring him some food then. He doesn’t have anything to eat there.
(Food is brought to the driver.)
Grandfather: Does she go through Beijing on her way here? Oh, she goes to the embassy. The embassy of America in Beijing will give her a nice letter, right?
Interpreter: Actually they get the letter from Beijing even before they come to China, so when they come, they don’t have to stop in Beijing to take care of things; they can just come here directly. Now she is going to write a book about Uyghur culture, so she is working on it right now.
Son: If she publishes the book, she can make billions of dollars, right?
Daughter-in-law: Did she come alone?
Neighbor: Does she take responsibility for her own safety?
Interpreter: We will accompany her.
The interview is a crowded scene that unfolds like a play, where the actors must show and not tell. Throughout we see the kindness and authority of the grandfather, who wants to make sure that everyone, even the unseen driver, has enough to eat. Emphasis on the act of eating and all the aspects of the meal carry along the dialogue. This emphasis seems to say that the conversation (or interview) is not more important than the act of sharing a meal together, an act which will be repeated. We see distance played out: the distance between two cultures, and in the language itself. It is an echo chamber, where we hear the struggle of a stranger attempting to communicate in a foreign culture. The simple words used by the photographer and the rephrasing of her words by the translator–is this the translator’s way of making her statement more favorable in his own language? If so, does it tell us something?
Forgetting, remembering–words relating to memory are repeated in this short conversation. These words seem to hint at an undercurrent of loss–the fear of the continued eradication of the Uyghur language and culture is omnipresent. The question – “Does she have parents?” – underlines the obvious strangeness of the photographer’s presence and mission. Even though the photographer is welcomed, she is singular, pulled from any context, and perhaps it is hard to imagine her origins. When she answers “Apa ana bar,” the grandfather approves, seeing that she has learned Uyghur words, and that above all, she has not forgotten.