Margin of Error: Notes, Failure, and the Reader’s Proximity

Proximity is not a state, a repose, but a restlessness… . Never close enough, proximity does not congeal into a structure… .—Emmanuel Levinas

Dwelling at the bottom of the page or in the back of the book, appended to the main text by tiny superscript numbers, notes (be they foot- or end-) are often considered to be the site of obscurity and pedantry. Yet in the past century or so, notes have moved conceptually if not literally from the margin to the center of certain works of literature. For instance, many have argued that the notes to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) should be regarded as part of the poem. For Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the notes are the novel. David Foster Wallace’s marginal shenanigans are well-known. More recently, Tyrone Williams and Jenny Boully have each written essays consisting entirely of footnotes.

Two works published this April put notes to innovative and compelling use: Jen Hofer’s essay on translation, “Proximate Shadowing: Translation as Radical Transparency and Excess” (published on the Poetry Foundation website) and Brian Blanchfield’s collection of essays, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Interestingly, both writers draw our attention to their notes by explicitly discussing them.

Hofer discusses how translation is so often thought of in terms of access and assimilation, providing readers with something they can completely comprehend. Hofer counters that the true aim of translation should be “empathetic not-understanding.” She explains:

For years I’ve been thinking and writing through ideas around the ways translation can generate empathetic not-understanding as an alternative to simplistic and often essentializing or assimilationist ideas around the way texts in translation can provide a “window” into other cultures, as opposed to being tools for unlearning the dominance of English and of USAmerican frameworks for conceiving and categorizing complex interrelated phenomena like race, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic culture, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and all kinds of other constellations that make people people.

Hofer points out that no translation wholly ‘gets’ its source text. But most translations work hard to cover up these inevitable shortcomings. Hofer thinks the translator should instead highlight the source text’s resistances, and acknowledge—even emphasize—the translation’s failures:

My approach constitutes interventionist translation … goes a little too far, while not getting near enough. It’s not quite right, as translation never gets things quite “right”—it’s not about rightness or fixity or one-to-one correlation, not about digesting the source or hitting the target, but about the always-in-process-of-failing attempt to recognize the substance and context of something from somewhere else, and bring that recognition here, while remaining wondrously aware of the processes of transfer, and of what resists transfer.

Here’s where notes become so important. A note in a translation is an acknowledgement of a failure: if the translation proper is “good enough,” no note needed. Even in traditional translations, the note, in its attempt to explain away a translation’s deficiency, only draws our attention to it—and to the essential otherness of the source text:

The notes come directly from and into the translation process itself—they are not afterthought or afterward, but interruption, excess, interjection, extraneous needful commentaries that leave the imprint of where I was or imagined or wished myself to be as I was in the moment of not-understanding that builds, question by question, impossibility by impossibility, the particularly political kind of not-understanding-but-coexisting-in-proximity translation can spark.

Proximity: much of Hofer’s essay is taken with an analysis of the spatial metaphors we use to talk about translation. We translate something “into” our language. We digest the text; translators hit the target. So described, the original of a translation becomes the quarry, something to be shot and consumed. Proximity offers an alternative to the violent paradigms of translation. It replaces knowledge with acknowledgement, silent assimilation with noisy interruption. Proximity is an uneasy coexisting, sustained and embodied by the notes.


Brain Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing has garnered significant critical attention in part because of its intriguing premise: this entire collection of essays—on everything from owls to Br’er Rabbit to frottage—was written with a constraint: “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.” Blanchfield adds a second and related constraint: “to stay with [each essay’s] subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.” Each essay begins with an “invocation of sorts” that recommits Blanchfield to his project: “Permitting shame, error and guilt. Myself the single source.”

This commitment to vulnerability, error and shame is underscored by what Blanchfield calls a “rolling endnote”:

At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called “Correction.” It sets right much—almost certainly not at all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs twenty-one pages. It may still be running.

Like Hofer, Blanchfield associates notes with failure. Notes are indices of weakness, error, or incompletion. He connects the “imprecision” that his notes seem to stress with his book’s title:

In the sciences… proxy… expressess a kind of concession to imprecision. A failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.

Proximity haunts Proxies: the subtitle of the book is “Essays Near Knowing” (my emphasis) and it concludes with an essay “The Near Term.” There’s an entire essay on “peripersonal space.” Blanchfield explains:

Peripersonal space … is the entire volume of space within a person’s reach, or within a single conceivable momentary extension of his person. Think da Vinci, and the geometry of his jumping jack in extremis sketch. All that. It includes everything at arm’s length and a bit more… .

Both Blanchfield and Hofer believe that the “failures” foregrounded by notes are essential. For Hofer, notes are an indication of/respect for a source text’s foreignness. For Blanchfield, they’re a necessary concession to not only the imprecision of memory/personal knowledge, but also the complexity of human relationships. For instance, the essay on peripersonal space is about his vexed relationship with his mother. And both writers are concerned in their own way with the proximate, the close-but-not-identified-with.

This leads me to a final “proximity”: the reader. Notes are an acknowledgement of the reader. Jacques Derrida has written of the “double-bind” of notes: that they attempt to close off a text, to make it self-sufficient, while simultaneously demonstrating that it is not, as notes are there for the benefit of readers who may need additional explanation. Notes are the site of vulnerability, a hemorrhage, where the boundary of the writing becomes porous. Blanchfield emphasizes this vulnerable aspect of notes. Combined with his ritualistic “invocations,” the notes become a serial confession. And the reader is his witness.

As Hofer would have it, notes create a double bind that’s significantly different from Derrida’s (or Blanchfield’s) understanding. For her, the note acknowledges the reader while emphasizing the foreignness of the text. The note brings us close without letting us in: proximity. These noted resistances of the source text aren’t difficulties to be surmounted; they are instead “opportunities for us as readers to become translated.” Hofer admits she’s not completely clear on what that means in practical terms, but I find the idea compelling. The translation becomes not a window into another culture, nor a tool of assimilation, but a means of exposing readers’ native conceptual limitations, and making us strangers to ourselves.

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