Translations of an Invented Sign Language: Excerpts from Ilya Kaminsky’s *Deaf Republic*

Much of what transpires in Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic goes unspoken. A brutal violence wrought upon people by people is committed, and observed, in silence, and passed along in gesture. These gestures are their own language, a way to convey the literally unspeakable. A note at the end of the book of poems explains that these gestures were a sign language of the villagers’ own invention, “derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.)” with other signs “made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.” Kaminsky, who is a refugee (he left the USSR in 1993), and hard of hearing, described in a recent interview with The Rumpus Poetry Book Club, that he is grasping for a language—or rather multiple languages—to better express the experience of the displaced, and the effect of physical disability:

“All I can say that I am interested in disability moving away from the realm of the hospital (where it is currently placed by the mainstream culture) to the realm of political minority. If we look at it that way: disability is already very much a political question in our country. […] But having said, that, I must confess that as a poet I am interested in the questions of language far more than the above: I am interested in images as a language of its own. Can one write in a language of images instead of English language?”

As the excerpts from Deaf Republic below suggest, the sign language of the Vasenka villagers functions as translation: between what’s spoken and will not be said, from the language of the occupier to one only understood by the occupied. The sign language breaks the appearance of indifference and makes visible unutterable grief; it is a warning, a call to action.

~ the editors


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Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union. He is the author of a poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, and coeditor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. He was a 2014 finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Excerpts above: “Deafness, an Insurgency, Begins,” “The Townspeople Circle the Boy’s Body,” and “Checkpoints” from Deaf Republic. Copyright © 2019 by Ilya Kaminsky. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

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