A kaleidoscope. A thirty-six square meter box with neon-spotted tentacles dangling from the ceiling and wiggling through the floor. A female voice spoke in unfamiliar syllables as I stopped in the center of the room and spun. Above and below, black fiberglass reflected the depth of the ocean and the endlessness of night, and on every side, mirrored walls refracted the infinity of nothingness and I saw every side of me, until a door swung open and reality flooded in. The neon lights vanished, the tentacles lost their life, and I saw the nine other people in the room. A silhouette stood in front of the blinding light. Our time was up after one minute inside.
There are words you never think you’ll need to know in another language. For me, it was tentacles. The architect asked what it was in English. The art handler asked what it was in Japanese. They kept forgetting, so they kept asking. I kept saying.
“They arrived early,” he pointed over his shoulder.
I had seen his eyes before. Not his, but ones just like them. Wide open and wild, he stared at his surroundings, as if he couldn’t remember where he had placed his blink. It was 12:30 p.m. I was supposed to arrive right then. They, the Japanese technicians, were supposed to arrive in thirty minutes, but over his shoulder, I could see them looking at a large white wall, pointing at things in the future. The thinner one wore a dark green turtleneck with white sneakers. A fanny pack hugged his stomach tightly. Next to him, the shorter one with a ponytail, stood as if listening to a national anthem—hands behind his back, chin slightly up. The architect glanced toward us, and I lowered my head.
They hurried over and we bowed back and forth, requested each other to do our best, and exchanged business cards: head architect, the turtleneck’s read; aeronautical engineer, read the ponytail’s. I didn’t have a business card, but I did have an electronic dictionary, so I offered it with two hands.
Buretto, the architect said, my name pronounced in Japanese, what is this?
Our translator. I smiled.
He slapped my shoulder and laughed. Buretto, where did you learn to speak Japanese?
I lived in Japan for two years, I said.
Lies! How great. He slapped my shoulder again and looked at the stressed out gallery man. “Buretto’s Jappa-neezu, ve-ri goo-dough,” he said in English, and gave him a thumbs up. “Paw-feck-toe,” he added.
I missed the way these words were broken into phonemes.
The gallery man wiped his forehead. His brown hair was dripping sweat despite the November wind. “Follow me,” he said, and he led us to a round table in a kitchen on the second floor, where for the next two hours, we talked about the next seven days.
“Can you ask them what they’d like to see while they’re here?”
The architect straightened his posture. Buretto, we are not here to sightsee. When do we start?
“What’d he say?”
“When do they start what?”
Buretto, what’d he say?
He asked when you start what.
Buretto, what is this. He laughed coldly. Building, of course. This is why we came. Tell him this.
“When they start installing. It sounds like that is what they are expecting to do? He said that is why they came.”
The architect and engineer started talking to each other.
“What are they saying?
They were saying how much time was already being wasted, how the American work ethic is laughable, and that in Japan, you stop working when there is no more work to start.
I started to sweat and said, “Not sure.”
I arrived early the next morning, but the engineer was already pulling tubes out of boxes and the architect had his feet up on a table the gallery set up for us.
“Kappa-cheeno,” the architect said smiling. He raised his tiny cup, and I apologized for running late. There was a packet on the table for me.
“My masutapeesu,” he said.
I’m sorry, one more time?
“Ma-su-ta-pi-su,” he said, chopping them into equally confusing syllables.
Sorry, I don’t understand, I said. “Masutapeesu?”
Buretto, this is an English word, he laughed. “Masstuhpeesu.”
And then it clicked—the borrowed words and faded er’s. “Ah, your masterpiece,” I said.
“Yes,” he said in English, “my mastapisu.”
I missed living in between languages.
His masterpiece was the forty-page instruction manual he designed for the installation. He had designed rooms like this before—infinity or mirror rooms, as they were called—but never one this big. It was the first of its size, but also of its kind: the first show between Yayoi Kusama, the eighty-six year old polka-dot pop artist and minimalist celebrated as the most famous Japanese artist at the time, and the David Zwirner Art Gallery, the second most powerful gallery in the world at the time. The gallery had, in a whisper, poached Kusama from the most powerful gallery in the world, in Soho as well and just up the street. And I would be interpreting between the architect, who was the twenty-year mastermind of Kusama’s optical constructions, and Zwirner’s lead art handler. Had I known any of this when I responded to the initial email, I would have either replied no or asked for more than fifteen bucks an hour. Somehow, the name for the exhibition was beginning to make sense: I Who Have Arrived in Heaven.
“Gene-yus-su,” the architect said pointing to his chest.
“I’m gene-yussu,” he said again.
Each morning, I brought the art handlers coffee from the historic hotel up the street. It was my way of chasing those little air bubbles, or pockets of pressure, out of their eyes. A mentor once told me the only way to break the back of frustration is to smash it gently over your knee with kindness. In this case, I replaced kindness with caffeine. I never did buy the architect coffee, but that’s because he would only drink cappuccinos, and only ones made by “cappuccino girl,” as he called her. I tried to tell him one shouldn’t say that, here or anywhere, to which he smiled and repeated it more loudly.
Each evening, I bought myself two Sapporos and sat at my desk, watching a flag flap in the wind and listening to records spin. I intended to write those nights. My notebook was open to a clean page, a sharpened pencil lying next to it, but nothing ever came. Sitting there watching the flag hold on for horizontal hope, I thought about the times I spoke in guessless directions. Some I recall with more clarity—the time in Japan when I bowed to my boss, the junior high school principle, and announced my after-school intentions. Today I am going to the beach to read a book. Except, I had been one syllable off, and so had instead said Today, I am going to the beach to find a bride. I was told about this mistake a month later.
Thinking about these blunders, I see the image of a blender, which is how interpreting feels—toss in some words, a little bit of accents, chunks of experiences, and press blend. What do you get? Not pure translations but purée translations. Or in my cases, baby talk. But each time I have sat in between languages, I realize how lost I’ve been. For some reason, whenever I find myself at a loss for words, I find myself the most.
“You the translator?” The man in the jean jacket and Motörhead mustache was staring at me.
“Sort of,” I replied.
He smiled and introduced himself. He was the lead art handler. “This the packet?”
“My mastapisu,” the architect said standing up.
“His masterpiece,” I said.
He flipped through the pages, nodding. “Okay, we’ll start soon,” he said.
Buretto, the architect said, when do we start?
“What’d he ask?”
“He asked when we start.”
“Can you tell him, kindly, after I have my morning cigarette?”
Buretto, the architect said, what’d he say?
I’m not a translator. I’ve only ever interpreted, which is the fraternal twin of translating. They share the same purpose—the re-communication of an essence—but everything else about them is different—the way they look, the way they sound and feel. I prefer the lexical freedom and tonal ambiguities of interpretation, but mostly, the physical proximity. Skilled interpreters achieve something similar to translation—reproducing speech with radial accuracy. Unskilled interpreters, like me, achieve something entirely different—we require people to come down from their ledges and speak on a common ground of observation, listening, and non-verbal gestures. It’s an awful burden to make people work hard to get across simple points, but I’ve seen translation and interpretation so clean it leaves no mark of impression. Not that I am in favor of the struggle, but there is something to the messiness of imperfect understanding, to running around in the rain without umbrellas.
“Will everyone just give me five fucking minutes,” the art handler shouted.
Buretto, what is going on?
I don’t know.
For hours, art handlers had been coming and going with pieces of wood, like some sort of colony of ants on time lapse, but now, everyone was huddled around the lead handler. The base of the mirror room had just been completed, but something was wrong.
“Just five fucking minutes so I can hear myself think.”
One by one, they turned around and headed toward the open garage door for a smoke, while the lead art handler paced the room, lying on the floor to measure things we couldn’t see, until finally, he threw the designs at the wall and walked our way.
“Brett, I need you to translate something for me—we have to start over.”
Stah-toe o-vah? the architect said before I could interpret.
Some words translate on their own.
“How does the wood block feel about being on a bed of nails?”
One of the art handlers, a heavy Irish man in need of two haircuts, held up a block of wood with a bed of nails in it and stared at me with wild goat eyes, as if he had been lost in the woods for days and had finally reached a campfire of salty people.
“Look,” he said taking another block of wood with a bed of nails in it. “It’s a bed of nails on a bed of nails.”
“Brett,” the art handler said loudly, “can you ask Mr. Cappucino here what the allowance is for these designs?”
“What do you mean allowance?”
“The leeway,” he said. “How much room we have to work with.”
“Margin of error,” another handler chimed in.
Christ, leeway, margin of error? I had no idea how to say these in Japanese.
“Margin of error,” the art handler said loudly at the architect, “what is it?”
Buretto, he asked, what is he saying?
I grabbed my electronic dictionary from the table, punched it in, and showed him a list of results. He scrolled through the possibilities.
Ah! He held up his thumb and index finger. One milli, he said.
“One millimeter, he said.”
“Thanks, I got that much.”
They had just finished installing the walls and ceiling beams for the mirror room, but the box didn’t look like a box. Bulging on each side, it looked more like an aboveground backyard pool, overflowing with water.
“In this thirty-six square meter set of designs, the margin of error is one fucking millimeter?”
One milli, the architect repeated. Paw-feck-toe. He pointed to his instructions and chest.
“You can tell him these are shitty fucking designs.”
“Brett,” the Irish handler said softly, “don’t you translate that.”
The base of the mirror room has to be, at the very lowest, exactly one foot off the ground so that the ramp, which will be at a five degree slope, hits flush with the rough opening, but also that the air-ducts can fit below the mirror room, which will inflate the balloons, the architect said. Translate.
“Rawson,” the lead art handler called. “Bring the architect over here.”
I called for the architect.
What is it, Buretto?
I pointed toward the wooden box.
“Get in here,” the art handler’s voice echoed.
When we stepped in to the object chamber, the art handler flipped two switches and pressed play. Neon lights raced around the room and inflatable tentacles were slowly waking up and rising like fast-growing plants until erect, with Kusama’s voice reciting on repeat a poem. We spun around, and I saw different sides of our smiles. The doors weren’t installed yet, so the neon lights could only color so much, but we didn’t need the spectrum of symmetry. This was the closest the architect would get to seeing his creation complete. He was leaving the next morning for Japan, so in some amount of suspended time, we played in the palace we built, this Dr. Seussian remix of Alice’s Wonderland, taking pictures and selfies in front of the tentacles, and only when the architect wasn’t looking did me and the art handlers make oceanic movements and gestures at the inflatable tentacles.
As we closed up shop, the art handler walked over. He pointed at the architect, “Genius.”
The architect froze.
“How do you say genius in Japanese?”
Tensai, I said.
“You are a tensai,” the art handler said.
A smile thawed the architect.
“No,” he said in English, “you. You gene-yussu.”
They embraced, bowed, and shook hands—a rare meeting of two brilliantly unseen minds. Outside, Kusama’s Number Two and Number Three were waiting for the architect and me. They had arrived a couple days earlier. The Number Two, a tall and thin woman with power in her posture, was the contact that the gallery man had mentioned in his email. She spoke fluent English, but being Kusama’s Number Two, she had more important places to be than in the warehouse during construction, and so my two-day gig turned into seven. The Number Three had the build and tinted glasses of Elton John, but straight black hair to the bottom of his back. His voice was so smooth I imagined it could never awaken anger.
“Tonight,” Number Three said in English, “we celebrate.”
We walked to a nearby izakaya and for hours, we drank sake from wooden bamboo boxes while talking about childbearing, ramen broth, and waste. Kusama’s Number Three was a family man, which explained his soft express, while the architect hated American food, which I knew well by then. Kusama’s Number Two steered a silent ship. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, and at that high of a position, I imagined she was used to watching her words.
When I said goodbye that night, I said it was a bummer the architect wouldn’t get to see his masterpiece fully finished. Swaying slightly, the architect paused, and then in Japanese said, I never do.
“This way please,” the silhouette spoke. I apologized into the brightness and walked down the ramp alongside the mirror room. At the end of the ramp, the nine others were pooled together shaking their heads.
Amazing, one said.
I stepped beyond them and saw a small pocket of safety alongside the opposite wall. From there, I looked back at the bright white box. Hundreds waited hours in line for that single minute. I had stood inside that box when it wasn’t a box, but when it was a pile of wood beams, acrylic panels, and slabs of mirrors with suction cups affixed to each, but now I watched them enter and exit the mirror room. The longer I stood there, the emptier I felt. I had experienced things inside that box, too, this time, but now, on the outside, I felt a great absence—one that made me feel I should be absent as well, and I recalled the architect’s words. Why did I have to come tonight? I should have left it where I left them, at the izakaya, not opening night.
People walked by me toward the other rooms, which were filled with sculptures of sea creatures and paintings of psychedelic mushrooms, but I remained affixed to the wall.
“Excuse me,” someone said. They pointed at my face. “Behind you, sorry,” they said.
I moved to the side. There was a sheet of paper taped to the wall. I hadn’t noticed it when I had walked over there:
Residing in a Castle of Shed Tears, by Yayoi Kusama.
When the couple left, I stood in front of the spot where I first saw the architect and engineer pointing at things in the future. They were pointing at this—Kusama’s poem—the one echoing in the mirror room, the one she wrote just after attempting suicide. They had the poem written on the wall and I saw it in English for the first time.
Brett Rawson is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a graduate of The New School’s Creative Writing MFA Program. He is the founder of Handwritten, a place in space for pen and paper, and cofounder of the publication The Seventh Wave.
Facing w/ Joseph Campbell
This week on the season finale of drDOCTOR: the doctors talk turkey on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Luke’s big move into homeownership, Sam’s lack of moves, and what’s next for drDOCTOR. (Note: there were some technical difficulties on Sam’s end, in that he was being difficult, but also, technically, there were some difficulties, so please pardon him sometimes sounding like a droid from a Star War).