M. BUNA: Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation kicks off rather abruptly with Robert Frost’s remark that “poetry is what is lost in translation.” What follows is a baroque takedown of his stance, also (re)introducing poetry translation as deregulation that challenges the very idea of a nationally coherent literature, and proposing a transgressive circulation for translated texts — what is the geography of this circulation?
JOHANNES GÖRANSSON: It’s a convulsive geography — a geography of swarms and qqq-sounds. It’s not a geography that ignores borders and boundaries, but attacks, festers, and infects them. In contrast to the static notion of “World Literature” — an attempt to try the impossible task of representing all world literatures based on the nation model of literature — I’m not proposing representation, but instigation. The nation-based model of literary lineage (national canon) is an attempt to stabilize literature so that we have a field that we can master (I got my PhD, I mastered the nation’s literature so I can teach it to others). If we take translation with its flux and flows, its excesses (too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many languages) as an inspiration, nobody can “master” literature. There is simply too much of it, in a state of flux. We have to give up that illusory critical distance, and the stability it demands. We have to drown in art.
Foreign presences invading domesticity has long ceased to be just a literary trope — in the dominant literary culture in the United States, readers are required to properly discriminate in order to access “original” literature which, more often than not, is not a translated one. Translators are expected to stay invisible (for example, book critics not mentioning the translator’s name in their reviews), thus erasing the process of translation itself. How is translation supposed to blot out cultural hegemony and its restrictive economy of taste that perceives it as nothing more than a failure of communication?
Our dominant paradigm of poetry still imagines the poem as belonging in some way to the poet as originator, and mostly imagines the point of origin in the poet’s interiority (a static essence, some version of the Christian soul for which language is a corruption). This is particularly true of poems that claim to be “accessible” — what you’re accessing is the soul, turning the actual language into clothing, masks, something to get through rather than something to engage with. Within this framework, translation is impossible — it naturally gets in the way of this direct communication (a lot of my discussion about “communication” and “communication failure” comes from John Durham Peters’s Speaking into the Air). Once we let the “blot” — as you wonderfully put it — of translation into our reading of poems instead of abjecting it, we can begin to see them as “deformation zones” (Joyelle McSweeney and I wrote a pamphlet about this years ago, taking the phrase from a poem by Swedish poet Aase Berg). These are zones in which different versions of poems and poets interact, and refract with each other (and the world!). Translation opens up the poem into something more volatile than the “accessible” model. It accesses us, involves us in a zone. We’re no longer in control, we’re no longer “masters.”
But, more importantly, I would say translation counteracts the US establishment and its hegemonic position on a global scale merely by bringing foreign poems into English, into US literature. This is by itself an act of pushing back against this hegemony. The minute you start bringing the foreign into US discussions of poetry, I think you foreground the fact that the United States is a highly diverse country, a mingling of many languages and aesthetics, thus exposing the narrowness of imagining that there is one “original context” — not just for foreign texts, but even for US texts. Cultures are volatile, boundaries permeable, art infectious.
Taking a cue from Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (Verso Books, 2013) who argues against readability as marker for a “world literature,” and advances ambiguity and untranslatability instead, cultural dissonances can be used to challenge frameworks such as conformity and equilibrium. Drawing attention to the connection between kitsch and the threateningly foreign, you note that “translation, like poetry, creates waste.” Caught in transgressive circulation, why should the translator “assume the role of a hoaxer”?
I don’t know Apter’s work very well, but I think I disagree with her. There is nothing that is untranslatable. Texts always change in translation — they have to, by the mere fact that they are versioned in a new language! The words always change! But there was no stable original to begin with either. It is this anxiety about translation’s versioning that gives rise to the anxiety about the translator as a hoax, the idea that the translator must — because they can — be giving us a wrong or corrupt translation of the true original. This is like when the US government freaked out because they suddenly got this paranoid notion that the translators in Guantanamo must be leaking secrets from the prisoners. We fear the translator because we don’t have “access” to the original. The same is true in poetry. I’ve been accused of inventing poets I’ve translated. But I think there’s something useful or even subversive in occupying the abject space of plagiarists and hoaxers rather than becoming “visible” in the Lawrence Venuti model, which is largely about giving the translator author-like credentials. That is to make the translator visible, but also unstable/unreliable. This can advance unreliability about poems too, but also poetry itself. If poetry becomes “unreliable,” then we can no longer pretend to “master” it. This is why I think the hoax to be an interesting space to operate out of.
The fetishization of the author’s interiority has led to the perception of translation as counterfeit, as something that disturbs the balance between the original and the translated. In the absence of enduring confines and clichés such as mastery, fluency, and authenticity, what could this troubling of balance ultimately result in once translation concerns itself with political forces?
Bringing foreign poems into English, into US literature, becomes inherently political. In the “accessible” model, it’s a matter of “representing” an original from another culture. Once we acknowledge that this is neither possible nor even desirable, the poem takes on a more powerful dynamic. I think of Hamlet, where the uncle pours poison into the father’s ear. Translating is pouring poison into the US hegemony. US hegemony in literature comes out of US economics and military strength, strengths that have created the idea of US centrality. Poets and readers from the rest of the world often feel it is important to know what is going on in the United States — often more important than what is going on in their own country. Sometimes the political aspects of this dynamic are obvious, such as when US government and corporate anticommunist grants funded the spreading of “accessible” poetry around the world during the Cold War as a form of US propaganda (Eric Bennett’s Workshops of the Empire details this). But sometimes it’s less overt.
You argue that “people around the US have no choice: immigrants are constantly translating in order to survive,” and “poetry is not apolitical, not pointless or without effect.” But as foreignness and “minor literatures” gain more visibility, they also run the risk of becoming part of the mainstream literary canon, and getting toothless along the way. How would translated poetry elude sanitization in order not to lose its bite altogether?
My hope is that the transgressive circulation will undo the hierarchies through its sheer excess. But our literary climate is more complex than that. It’s possible to talk about translation in a “toothless way” as when we bring in a few “Great” foreign poets (like Pablo Neruda or Tomas Tranströmer), and translate them over and over so that they become a kind of “foreign canon,” thus stabilizing the foreign. The key is that we have to engage with literature as a flux and swarm. If we keep doing this as critics and writers, I think we will reach a better, more volatile space for art. But I am not opposed to foreign poetry becoming popular — which is quite different from the idea of “mainstream,” an illusion of popularity perpetrated by the MFA system. When I first translated Aase Berg’s work, I was super excited about it, and a lot of people I knew were excited about it, a lot of people who published it or read it in various journals were super excited about it. Yet no press would publish it. Many said it was not “accessible,” and would therefore “not sell.” This is why I started Action Books. But since then, Aase’s work has sold literally thousands of copies, many more than “accessible” and supposedly popular poets. And a ton of people have talked to me about how reading my translations of her work completely changed their ideas of poetry. It was exactly its popularity the presses had to (and continue to) protect the US poetry world against! I don’t want to create a new establishment of weird surrealist poetry.
In Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation, you’re also referring to your work as a translator. How does Johannes Göransson’s own corruption/deformation look and feel like?
I think that being open to the beauty of poetry is corrupting. Right now, I’m working on a translation of Sara Tuss Efrik’s Swedish translation of my first book, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place (first published by Apostrophe Books in 2007). We are both very dubious translators, bringing in our own experiences, ideas, and ghosts into the growing manuscript. Partly written with Ouija board, partly in trance, partly under the influence (of art and other drugs), this is a book that stages its own corruption. It’s frightening and exhilarating.
M. Buna is a freelance writer with work featured in Full Stop, Hong Kong Review of Books, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere.