Frank Smith, translated by Vanessa Place

Editor's Preface

The texts which follow are excerpted from Frank Smith’s Guantanamo. The book is comprised of his French translations and adaptations of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals for detainees which took place beginning in 2004 in the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some of these transcripts were released, by judicial order, to the Associated Press in 2006, by which they were made public. Guantanamo was published in French by Editions du Seuil in 2010.

In July, Les Figues Press published a translation of Guantanamo, by the poet (and editor of Les Figues) Vanessa Place. In this book, as is represented here, the translations were juxtaposed with the original French translations. The adventure of these transcripts, as they are rewritten by Smith in French from an English that was in many cases rewritten from out of the detainees’ own languages, and then rewritten again, by Place, in an English based upon the French texts, enact many of the questions that the book poses: namely, what is an “original” and how can something original be represented in language?  What is the relation between language and experience? Can language, particularly when (but not exclusively) compelled under duress, represent truth?

These texts are based on transcriptions of trials. In a trial what is important is not the truth outside the trial but the determination that is made of guilt or innocence. The category of guilty or innocent has nothing to do with whether an accused did or did not engage in the activity that he or she is accused of. Upon the act of being declared guilty, one's identity inhabits the category: one simply is guilty. Anyone who has testified before a court, who has been questioned by the police, who has been interviewed for a Green Card understands what is at stake in the performance one creates with one’s interrogator. The performance must be deemed an effective one consistent with a series of conventions, which, even though they may be unwritten ones, are, in these circumstances, empowered by the force of law. One must speak in the operative language. And all speech, even silence, as Vanessa Place notes in her “Translator’s note,” is translated into institutional speech.

To speak, then, is to participate in a collective translation into the language of the institution, and into its conventions and categories which this language determines. It is perhaps for this reason that the first of the book’s two epigraphs is William Carlos Williams’ declaration, which became the imagist anthem, “No ideas but in things.” Without a category, there is no thing, nothing to see, no sense. We witness, in Guantanamo, the creation of a readable text. As Place puts it in her afterward to the book, ““The text event as such is the only event which counts.”

Yet in the case of Guantanamo, the paradox is amplified: the detainees were kept at Guantanamo in Cuba, and not in United States territory, precisely to avoid a series of conventions: first, those of the United States’ judicial system, and the constitutional rights upon which that system is founded. If they were considered to be prisoners of war, these detainees would be subject to the fifth article of the Geneva Convention governing the conduct of prisoners of war. Yet because the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are not understood to be affiliated with particular nations but rather, are accused of participating in a global terrorist network, the United States claimed that they did not have the rights to prisoner of war status, and the protections that the Geneva Convention is supposed to guarantee. Though the Obama administration has, since 2008, disposed of the Bush administration’s categorization of the detainees as “unlawful enemy combatants,” unaffiliated with any country and thus subject to no international treaty, their continued detention at Guantanamo Bay, and their continued lack of recourse to the United States judicial system, continues to belie the retraction of this category.

Of this category? The very idea of an “unlawful enemy combatant” was to create a place for the uncategorizable, the category for that which is beholden to no category. Not being part of the system of categorization, there is no conventionally determined authority to which these prisoners are subject, leaving the captors free to create a new system of authority. “Unlawful” here does not mean “against the law” in the sense of remaining within the system of the law, but rather “outside the law,” that is, subject to no law: those to whom law does not apply. But what makes this default category strange is the very fact that we are asked to understand it as “a category that is not a category.” We are asked to see Guantanamo Bay and its prisoners as an image of a category. Thus is the space in which the Combatant Status Review Tribunals take place. Read as a text, it becomes an image that serves as a portrait of the condition we find ourselves in: in which we can only understand the world as a system of categorization.

Smith’s Guantanamo, and Place’s translation of it, emphasizes this placelessness, the lack of context of these events in language. The re-translation mirrors the lack of an original text. Smith makes use of a variety of styles, from theatrical dialogue to reported speech. Above all, Smith exploits the ambiguity of the French on, modulating the pronoun so that it is at times impossible to delineate the speaker, to separate detainee from interrogator. The impersonal “third person” is made to serve as subject for both the questioner and the one who answers, flattening them into a discourse without a subject of attribution. Place continues this work, variably translating the on as "one," "we", "they," " it is said" or in doing away with the pronoun completely (“states that…”).

At other times, different strategies for citation are flattened into one text, as in this passage where the text makes use of, on the one hand, a form of  “free indirect style,” when the narrator/transcriber merges voices with the object of citation, and on the other, direct quotation (though without punctuation to indicate so): the conjoining of these two iterations of the speech event effectively render ambiguous the question of who is doing the writing:

The man says he has nothing to say
and wants to proclaim his innocence.
The man has no business here.
I have no business here,
he says.

Smith wryly addresses the notion of authorship on the book’s last page in a final dedication:

“The author would like to acknowledge President Barack Obama, without whom this book would not be possible.”

In the spectacle of Smith casting himself as “author-hero” offering his book's “benefactor” his due, Smith presents the specter of a text separate from the world which produced it.  As literary production takes its place alongside the Guantanamo prisoners, the field of literature itself is put into question.
                                                                                                 –by Noam Scheindlin

From Guantanamo
By Frank Smith, translated by Vanessa Place
Les Figues Press, 2014


It is said that the interrogated is associated with Al Qaeda.

It is said that the name and telephone number of the interrogated is included in a list of members of Al Qaeda found on a hard drive seized during a raid of the terrorist organization in Pakistan.
The interrogated says that it’s not his name on this list, and this isn’t his telephone number either. That a previous interrogator already showed him an Al Qaeda list, about a year and a half ago, a list of names. That the other names were crossed-out. He saw SAA written down. That this was the name on the list, not his name, his name is MSM. That his telephone number is X. That this number was not on the list. That the previous interrogator verified and certified this, by the grace of Allah, that it was not the name of the interrogated.

It is said that at the time he was captured, the inter¬rogated had a Casio watch, model F-91W, used by Al Qaeda to make explosives.
The interrogated says that this evidence is surpris¬ing. That millions of people around the world wear this kind of Casio watch. That if it is a crime to own one, why not condemn the stores that sell them and the people who buy them? That a watch, that’s not a logical or likely piece of evidence.

It is said that the interrogated offered to help the Taliban.
The interrogated says that is true; he did offer to help the Taliban . . . like many Saudis who wanted to help a legitimate government. That like many, he emigrated for humanitarian reasons, through charity. That after arriving in Afghanistan, he changed his mind and wanted to go back to Saudi Arabia. That he had not come to fight or kill. That he came for charity, that he left Saudi Arabia even before the problems with America.
The interrogated says, again, if he had known, he never would have left home.

It is said that the interrogated went to Afghanistan to conduct Jihad and fight alongside the Taliban in Kabul, from June to December 2001.
The interrogated says he immigrated to Afghanistan to support the Taliban, not to fight by their side. That they say he stayed in Kabul from June to December 2001, when in fact he stayed for four months in Afghanistan, no more, no more than four months. That he spent less than two weeks in Kabul, which can be verified with the Saudi government, or through travel documents.

It is said that the interrogated was captured by border guards near Pakistan then brought to the American authorities in Kandahar.
The interrogated says that this is true. He wanted to go to Pakistan then to try to return to his country. That because he had no passport, he tried to reach the Saudi embassy. That he never arrived, and, that to this day, he has been held here, in Cuba.



On dit que l’interrogé est associé à Al-Qaïda.

On dit que le nom et le numéro de téléphone de l’interrogé figurent sur une liste de membres d’Al-Qaïda découverte dans un disque dur saisi lors d’un raid de l’organisation terroriste au Pakistan.
L’interrogé dit que ce n’est pas son nom qui se trouve sur cette liste, et que ce n’est pas son numéro de télé¬phone non plus. Qu’un interrogateur précédent lui a déjà montré une liste d’Al-Qaïda, il y a à peu près un an et demi, une liste de noms. Que les autres noms étaient biffés. Qu’il y a vu inscrit S.A.A. Que c’est ce nom-là qui figurait sur la liste, mais que son nom à lui, c’est M.S.M. Que son numéro de téléphone, c’est le X. Que ce n’est pas ce numéro qui figurait sur la liste. Que l’interrogateur précédent a tout vérifié et certifié, par la grâce d’Allah, que ce n’était pas le nom de l’interrogé.

On dit qu’au moment de sa capture l’interrogé avait en sa possession une montre Casio, modèle F-91W, utilisée par Al-Qaïda pour fabriquer des explosifs.
L’interrogé dit que cet élément de preuve le surprend. Que des millions de gens dans le monde portent ce type de montres Casio. Que si c’est un crime que d’en posséder une, pourquoi ne pas condamner alors les magasins qui les vendent et les gens qui les achètent ? Qu’une montre, ce n’est pas une pièce à conviction logique ou vraisemblable.

On dit que l’interrogé s’était proposé d’aider les Talibans.
L’interrogé dit que c’est vrai, il s’était proposé d’aider les Talibans . . . comme beaucoup de Saoudiens ont voulu aider un gouvernement légitime. Que comme beaucoup il a émigré pour des raisons humanitaires, par bienfaisance. Qu’une fois arrivé en Afghanistan, il a changé d’avis et voulu retourner en Arabie Saoudite. Qu’il n’était pas venu se battre, ni tuer. Qu’il était venu par bienfaisance, qu’il a quitté l’Arabie Saoudite avant même les problèmes avec l’Amérique.
L’interrogé dit encore que s’il avait su, il ne serait jamais parti de chez lui.

On dit que l’interrogé s’est rendu en Afghanistan pour mener le djihad et se battre aux côtés des Talibans à Kaboul, de juin à décembre 2001.
L’interrogé dit qu’il a émigré en Afghanistan pour soutenir les Talibans, non pour se battre à leur côté. Qu’il est dit qu’il a séjourné à Kaboul de juin à décem¬bre 2001 alors qu’en vérité il est resté quatre mois en Afghanistan, pas plus, pas plus de quatre mois. Qu’il a passé moins de deux semaines à Kaboul, ce qui peut être vérifié auprès du gouvernement saoudien, ou par les papiers de voyage.

On dit que l’interrogé a été capturé par des gardes frontières près du Pakistan, puis livré aux autorités américaines à Kandahar.
L’interrogé dit que c’est vrai. Qu’il a voulu se rendre au Pakistan pour retourner ensuite dans son pays. Que, comme il n’avait pas de passeport, il a essayé d’atteindre l’ambassade saoudienne. Qu’il n’y est jamais arrivé, et qu’aujourd’hui il est détenu ici, à Cuba.



The man says he has nothing to say
and wants to proclaim his innocence.
The man has no business here.
I have no business here,
he says.
The man says
that he should never have been called before this Tribunal,
he is innocent,
and that he does not know why he is here.
The man begs, again, that we recognize his innocence.
The man says he has young children,
and has always wanted to support the new government.
To tell the truth, the Taliban oppressed us,
says the man.

The man says again,
you’re good people, you respect human rights.
Whoever denounced me also stole money from the Americans,
whoever denounced me, I believe, is a friend of the Taliban.
When the Americans came to my house,
they ordered me to lay on the ground,
and I obeyed. They isolated me for two days
and beat me severely.
Since then, I am sick
says the man.

The Americans beat me so badly
I’m afraid I no longer function sexually.
To the point that I don’t know
if I’m still able to make love to my wife.
Since then, I’m really very sick,
I can’t control my urination
and sometimes use toilet paper
so as not to soil my pants,
he says again.

The man resumes speaking
and says he will not complain
as long as there is justice
and honesty.
To you, I assign no blame,
and I’ll let you be the judge, he says.
I’m just saying that I am very innocent,
says the man at the end.



L’homme dit qu’il n’a rien à dire
et veut proclamer son innocence.
L’homme n’a rien à faire ici.
Je n’ai rien à faire ici,
L’homme dit
qu’il n’aurait jamais dû être appelé devant ce Tribunal,
qu’il est innocent,
et qu’il ne sait pas pourquoi il se retrouve là.
L’homme prie encore qu’on lui reconnaisse son innocence.
L’homme dit avoir des enfants en bas âge,
et avoir toujours voulu soutenir le nouveau gouvernement.
En vérité, les Talibans nous opprimaient,
dit l’homme.

L’homme dit encore,
Vous êtes de braves gens, vous respectez les droits de l’homme.
Celui qui m’a dénoncé, a volé de l’argent aux Américains,
celui qui m’a dénoncé, je crois, est un ami des Talibans.
Quand les Américains sont venus chez moi,
ils ont exigé que je m’allonge par terre,
et j’ai obtempéré.
Ils m’ont séquestré pendant deux jours
et violemment battu.
Depuis je suis malade,
dit l’homme.

Les Américains m’ont battu si violemment
que j’ai peur de ne plus fonctionner sexuellement.
Au point que je ne sais pas
si je serai encore capable de faire l’amour à ma femme.
Depuis, je suis vraiment très malade,
je ne contrôle plus mon urination
et mets parfois du papier toilette
pour ne pas souiller mon pantalon,
dit-il encore.

L’homme reprend la parole
et dit qu’il ne se plaindra pas
pourvu qu’il y ait de la justice
et de l’honnêteté.
À vous, je ne reproche rien,
et je vous laisse juges, dit-il.
Je dis simplement que je suis très innocent,
dit l’homme enfin.



FRANK SMITH is a French journalist, nonfiction writer, and author of multiple books of poetry including the recent collections Guantanamo (Seuil, Coll. 2010), États de faits (l’Attente Editions, 2013),  Gaza, d’ici-là (Al Dante Editions, 2013) and Le film des questions (Plaine Page 2014). He has worked as a producer for France Culture since 1999 where, after collaborating to create the programs Surpris par la nuit and Surpris par la poésie with Alain Veinstein, he codirected l’Atelier de création radiophonique for ten years. He also heads the book/CD collection “ZagZig” that he founded with Dis Voir, a publishing house, and contributes to L’Impossible/L’autre journal (led by Michel Butel).

VANESSA PLACE was the first poet to perform as part of the Whitney Biennial; a content advisory was posted. Place is also a conceptual artist, a critic, a criminal defense attorney, and CEO of VanessaPlace Inc, the world’s first poetry corporation.


Adapted by Éric Vigner