After Translation

By Michael LeongFebruary 5, 2015

After Translation

After Translation: The Transfer and Circulation of Modern Poetics Across the Atlantic by Ignacio Infante

EZRA POUND occupies a central place in discussions of experimental modernist translation — and rightly so. In “Translation Wounds,” poet and translator Johannes Göransson writes, “Pound used radically materialistic forms of translation such as homophonic translations or the use of deliberately exotic or archaic words. The ‘meaning’ may have been ‘lost’ but the materiality of the text is brought to life.”[1] We can think of, for example, Pound’s translation of the Old English wrecan into “reckon” in his version of “The Seafarer.” This lineage of what Göransson calls “materialistic” or homophonic translation can be traced from Pound through Objectivist Louis Zukofsky to the language poets David Melnick and Charles Bernstein and beyond. We are, in fact, in the midst of a renaissance of experimental translations. (Göransson writes of Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, a creative translation of Georg Trakl.)

To be sure, the radical tradition of liberating the sonic from the semantic in both poetic and translational practice is an important one that has ongoing implications for contemporary experimental writing. However, the role that translation has had in 20th-century transatlantic poetics — especially if we widen our scope beyond an Anglophone focus — is extremely varied and exceeds the well-known Poundian model, which privileges the materiality of the signifier.

Ignacio Infante’s recent book After Translation: The Transfer and Circulation of Modern Poetics Across the Atlantic reminds us that

the case of Ezra Pound as a transatlantic writer whose own poetry and poetics is intrinsically connected to the experience of interlingual translation is not an exception. Many other modern transatlantic poets […] conceived their own poetic practice in part as a very serious linguistic engagement with various foreign languages and poetic traditions.

One of the great values of this study is that, in exploring such “other” poets, it gives us a richer and more detailed history of how translation has played a vital role in modern poiesis around the Atlantic, and does much to remedy what Lawrence Venuti has called the “continuing marginality” of “modernist experimentalism in translation.” In fact, Infante rejects the terms “modernist” and “modernism” altogether (in favor of “modern”). The field of Anglo-American modernism, he claims, fails to satisfactorily account for the transnational, interlingual, and transhistorical dimensions of major cosmopolitan writers who continue to get neglected within mononational and monolingual paradigms.

A case in point would be Fernando Pessoa, whose poems in English rarely get mentioned within English departments, let alone within mainstream Pessoa studies. Published in Lisbon in 1921, the English Poems exemplify what Infante, in his fascinating first chapter, calls Pessoa’s “Lusophone Englishness,” a kind of deterritorialized idiolect that allows for the articulation of an alternative cultural-linguistic identity. Synthesizing a range of theoretical approaches — from Freud’s, Marx’s, and Agamben’s conceptions of the fetish to Deleuze’s notion of the simulacrum — Infante explains how Pessoa “translates” both a Keatsian and Spenserian poetics (in his homo- and heteroerotic poems Antinous and Epithalamium respectively) in order to destabilize their place of privilege within the English literary tradition.

Pessoa was born in Lisbon, but before permanently returning to Portugal in 1905, he spent nine early years in Durban, South Africa, absorbing the English canon through the British colonial education system. He is most famous, of course, for the dazzling deployment of his many heteronyms (or alternate personalities), including Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, and Ricardo Reis. But Infante usefully contextualizes these groundbreaking innovations in non-normative authorship by arguing that his English Poems are, in fact, key to understanding their genesis: “Pessoa’s Lusophone Englishness became a catalyst for the heteronymic poetic system that informs his entire literary production in Portuguese.” This insight is especially striking in contrast to the widespread view that Pessoa’s Englishness was merely part of a transitory phase that had to be surmounted; for example, translator Richard Zenith says in his introduction to A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe, “It’s as if English culture — and Durban, at the time, was more thoroughly, traditionally English than England itself — were a wall that the young, displaced Pessoa successfully jumped over, while remaining forever and utterly Portuguese.”[2] Rather than seeing Englishness as an obstacle to an authentic contribution to Portuguese literature, Infante insists that Pessoa’s engagement with English poetry allowed “him to articulate a new cultural identity parallel to his native Portuguese self.”

In Pessoa’s English poetry, as in his Portuguese poetry, the self is, indeed, constituted by a plurality of fictions or “parallel” identities. In a poem from 35 Sonnets (1918), for example, he asks, “How many masks wear we, and undermasks, / Upon our countenance of soul, and when, / If for self-sport the soul itself unmasks, / Knows it the last mask off and the face plain?” “We are our dreams of ourselves,” he says in another.

Leong 1From Pessoa's 35 Sonnets (Lisbon: Monteiro & Co., 1918 )

Readers have often found an unnatural stiltedness to Pessoa’s English poetry, which does much to explain its obscurity relative to Pessoa’s writing in Portuguese. A reviewer of 35 Sonnets, a sequence dense with neologistic compounds and Shakespearean involutions, quips that “a certain crabbedness of speech” mars the excellence of the overall work. Another reviewer suggests that Pessoa’s English is merely an imperfect imitation based more on intellectual comprehension than fluency: “Mr. Pessoa’s command of English is less remarkable than his knowledge of Elizabethan English.” Yet Pessoa’s heteronymic poetry, particularly the verse of Alberto Caeiro, the so-called “Master” heteronym, is celebrated precisely for its foreignness of diction and unconventional syntax. As Infante reminds us in his introduction, Pound has claimed that “reading a good author in a foreign tongue will joggle one out of the clichés of one’s own and will as it were scratch up the surface of one’s vocabulary.” Pessoa has not only read in the foreign tongue of English but he has written in it as well — this is to say that he has translated the English tradition — in order to agitate and transform his Portuguese lexicon; hence, what Infante calls Pessoa’s “Lusophone Englishness” was a necessary and enabling condition for his “Anglophone Portugueseness,” which was decisive for the birth of Portuguese modernism. If Pessoa’s “nation” was “the Portuguese language,” as he so claimed in The Book of Disquiet, it was an imaginary nation with productively porous borders.


As in Chapter 1, Infante brilliantly treats a little known but important work by a crucial avant-garde author in his second chapter, “The Translatability of Planetary Poiesis: Vicente Huidobro’s Creacionismo in Temblor de cielo / Tremblement de ciel.” As a provocative pair, these first two chapters, as Infante promises in his introduction, “open up a critical space for the examination of the interlingual dimensions of modernist, avant-garde, and postmodern poetics that remain insufficiently studied within contemporary literary and cultural studies.” The glaring fact that international avant-garde poets continue to get overlooked by American critics was recently brought to the fore when poet and translator Kent Johnson trenchantly critiqued Marjorie Perloff’s entry on “Avant-Garde Poetics” in the new edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics for failing to even mention Huidobro and Pessoa.[3] Thus, Infante’s advocacy of and original scholarship on these two singular (and multilingual) figures should enrich our understanding of the history of transatlantic poetic innovation and how such innovation circulated across borders, both national and aesthetic.

Huidobro, born in Santiago de Chile in 1893, is famous for inaugurating a polemical and one-man vanguard, which he called creacionismo (and here one thinks, in contrast, of the various invented “isms” of Pessoa, including “Sensationsim” and “Intersectionism”). Throughout his life, Huidobro traveled to and from Europe seven times and acted as a dynamic switch point between avant-gardes in Paris, Madrid, and Latin America, helping for example to establish the journal Nord-Sud with Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, and Pierre Reverdy. He inspired the ultraísmo movement in Spain and, later, the Mandrágora group in Chile. According to Eliot Weinberger, Huidobro, a figure of deep and at times idiosyncratic ambition and controversy, is “one of the few poets of the century whose life deserves a fat biography, which has never been written.”[4] Huidobro’s long prose poem Temblor de cielo — published in Madrid in 1931 and in Paris, as Tremblement de ciel, in 1932 — is frequently overshadowed by his epic masterpiece Altazor, which Weinberger has translated into English to great acclaim. Because of its dazzling linguistic experimentation, Altazor, as Weinberger notes, “is generally considered to be an ‘untranslatable’ poem.”[5] While this may be true, it shouldn’t obscure the core tenets of creacionismo: Huidobro wrote in a 1917 manifesto that the creacionista poem should be “traducible y universal [translatable and universal].” In this way, Temblor de cielo / Tremblement de ciel is an exemplary demonstration of a creacionista text.

In the introduction to the Cátedra edition of Altazor / Temblor de cielo, René de Costa suggests that Temblor / Tremblement had a bilingual inception, calling the Spanish and French versions “rigurosamente equivalente [rigorously equivalent],” with one not having original priority over the other; in Temblor / Tremblement, composition and translation seem to be inextricably and dynamically linked, like Yeats’s dancer and the dance.[6] Huidobro, himself, placed an enormous amount of importance on Temblor de cielo; writing in 1931, to Miró Quesada, he called it “más maduro, más fuerte, más hecho” [more mature, stronger, and better crafted] than Altazor and notes that his friends ranked it on par with the poetic prose of Lautréamont and Rimbaud.

In analyzing what Antonio de Undurraga calls Huidobro’s “other” long poem, Infante draws on critics such as Jaime Concha, Martin Puchner, and Wai Chee Dimock to make the case that Temblor de cielo attempts to unify Huidobro’s disparate travels between Paris, Madrid, and Santiago into a planetary sensibility — what Infante calls “Huidobro’s nomadic cosmopolitanism.” In Temblor de cielo, nomadism is, in fact, a central trope. Huidobro’s heroic poet-narrator says,

¿Sabes tú que mi destino es andar? ¿Conoces la vanidad del explorador y el fantasma de la aventura?
Es una cuestión de amor de sangre u huesos frente a un imán especial. Es un destino irrevocable de meteoro fabuloso.
No es una cuestión de amor en carne, es una cuestión de vida, una cuestión de espíritu viajante, de pájaro nómada.

[Don’t you know that my destiny is to voyage? Don’t you understand the explorer’s vanity and the ghost of adventure?
It is a matter of blood and bones within the field of a special magnet. It is the irrevocable destiny of a fabulous meteor.
It is not a matter of love in the flesh: it is a matter of life, a matter of a roving spirit, of a nomadic bird.]

Here, Huidobro is articulating, in brilliant metaphorical terms, the itinerant impulse of the avant-garde itself. Similarly, Huidobro’s narrator says in a subsequent passage, “He ahí el destino de la mariposa magnética [It is the destiny of a magnetic butterfly].” And just five sentences later we have, following meteorologist and chaos theorist Edward Lorenz (who famously asked “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”), something of a planetary “Huidobro Effect”: “ya viene el huracán asolando el cementerio de las miradas, ya viene el huracán con la velocidad de los planetas lanzados al destino [the hurricane is coming to destroy the cemetery of gazes, the hurricane is coming with the speed of planets launched at destiny].”

Infante’s third and fourth chapters, on homosocial community in the New American Poetry and on the theoretical foundations of concrete poetry in Brazil, especially illuminate one of his central claims that “translation […] is closely connected to a mode of cultural circulation that generates a tradition”; these chapters show the complex ways in which modern poets draw on and adapt foreign or alien sources to authorize and extend their poetic projects. Chapter 3 focuses on how Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, and Jack Spicer, members of the so-called San Francisco or Berkeley Renaissance, drew inspiration from “two foreign queer literary traditions — embodied respectively in the work of [Stefan] George and [Federico] García Lorca.” Infante sheds new light on how the German historian Ernst Kantorowicz, a disciple of George, influenced these Berkeley Renaissance poets when he was a professor of medieval history at UC-Berkeley. But the centerpiece of the chapter — and perhaps of the book — is Infante’s treatment of Spicer’s After Lorca (1957), an idiosyncratic volume that imitates and ventriloquizes Lorca through both translation and creation. (Haroldo de Campos, whom Infante treats in Chapter 4, might characterize it as “recreación, o creación paralela [re-creation, or parallel creation].”) Eleven of Spicer’s original poems, along with a series of fictitious letters from “Jack” to “Lorca,” are intermixed among the very freely rendered translations. Following Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, Spicer came to prefer the term “dictation” to describe his process of composition, putting him firmly in the transpersonal territory of Pessoa. (The Portuguese poet once wrote, “I’m the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.”) In one of After Lorca’s epistolary sections, Spicer advances his theory of “correspondence” (which we might understand as a “translation” of Baudelaire’s correspondance):

As things decay they bring their equivalents into being […] That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring them across time. Things do not connect; they correspond. That is how we dead men write to each other.

Infante shrewdly connects Spicer’s spectral ideas about representation, translation, and transhistorical dialogue to Walter Benjamin’s influential concept of a translated work’s “afterlife” or “sur-vival” (überleben).[7] Infante argues:

As practiced by Spicer, the after of “after translation” […] entails, first, a temporal expansion of the original into a potentially infinite series of actualizations of itself; second, a serial or sequential continuation of its linguistic form through different languages; and finally, a complex transpersonal amalgamation of the different voices involved in the articulation of the potential for translatability of the original into a transferential tradition that lies beyond the sole authorial control of the author or translator.

In other words, after translation, there is poetry, as Infante suggests throughout the book. But after translation, there can be a newly established or newly reconfigured tradition as well, a fact with tremendous implications for minority writers on the cultural periphery.

This fundamental dynamic is also borne out in Infante’s fourth case study, “Transferring the ‘Luminous Detail’: Sousândrade, Pound, and the Imagist Origins of Brazilian Concrete Poetry,” which explains how Augusto and Haroldo de Campos responded to the belatedness of their neo-avant-garde concretismo by boldly recovering the forgotten work of Brazilian Romantic poet Joaquim de Sousa Andrade (more usually known as Sousândrade) and juxtaposing it with their Portuguese translations of Pound. In their ReVisão de Sousândrade (1964) the de Campos brothers, in fact, posit Sousândrade’s cosmopolitan epic O Guesa (first published in 1874 in New York) as a precursor to Pound’s imagisme and ideogrammic method, thereby, as Infante argues, “constituting a brand-new genealogy based on a truly native Brazilian origin” and destabilizing “European and Anglo-American hegemony in the definition of the origins of the historical avant-garde.” While Pound clearly had a tremendous influence on Brazilian concretismo — Décio Pignatari and the de Campos brothers, for example, named their journal Noigandres after a Provençal word from Canto XX — Infante suggests that Augusto and Haroldo de Campos’s ReVisão de Sousândrade ultimately subverts Pound’s priority and authority.

Implicit in Infante’s treatment of the postwar avant-garde is the belief that far from being merely derivative or nostalgic — Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell about Brazilian concrete poetry calling it “like pre-1914 experiments, with a little ‘transition’ & [Eugene] Jolas, and a dash of [E.E.] Cummings. It’s awfully sad” — neo-avant-garde movements such as concretismo and the San Francisco Renaissance represent important and highly self-reflexive interventions in literary historiography.[8]


Like the de Campos brothers, the Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite also strove to create a counter-tradition that wasn’t specifically beholden to the aesthetics of Anglo-American modernism. At the end of the revised version of his long trilogy Ancestors (2001), a book that New Directions bills as “one of the most important long poems of our hemisphere,” Brathwaite asks:

what is de bess way to seh so
so it doan sounn like brigg


flatts or her. vokitz nor de


-san cantos nor de souf sea bible


With the playful bilingual pun on Pound’s Pisan Cantos (1948) and the reference to Briggflatts (1966) by Pound’s lifelong friend Basil Bunting, Brathwaite explicitly resists the Poundian tradition, and all of its associated ideological baggage, as an influence on his epic project; we can, in fact, understand Brathwaite’s use of the Greek letter π to be an immanent critique of Pound’s montagic multilingualism. Moreover, the emphasis on “sounn” exemplifies Brathwaite’s interest in the “tunes, tones and rhythms” of what he calls “nation language,” a nonstandard, creolized English. In his final chapter, Infante analyzes Brathwaite’s self-described “Sycorax video style,” an experimental approach to typography, graphics, and spacing enabled by composing on a personal computer. According to Brathwaite, this new inscription technology “allow[s] […] [him] to write in light and to make sound visible,” producing what Infante calls a “digital vernacular.” By taking seriously the machinic reader inside Brathwaite’s Mac SE/30, Infante interestingly considers Sycorax video style to be a form of digital poetry and reminds us that Brathwaite’s nation language needs to be translated by his computer into the language of code. While such a process can offer “a new virtual temporality of translation,” Infante ultimately concludes that “Brathwaite’s SycoraxVS […] in its available printed form, constitutes a mere visual record of its original digital form, in fact losing its intrinsic virtual temporality and deterritorialized mode of archival memory.” We are left to ponder what SycoraxVS would look like “if published in various modes of digital media, such as the World Wide Web.” In other words, what if SycoraxVS were not just digital, in Infante’s parlance, but born-digital? (Digital poet Stephanie Strickland succinctly states that for “born-digital” works “computation is required at every stage of their life. If it could possibly be printed out, it isn’t e-lit.”)[9] It is an intriguing question to end with as Infante bids us to think about the complex nexus of translation, poetry, and new media.

Augusto de Campos, Brathwaite’s contemporary, in fact, experimented with “translating” his concrete poetry into a digital medium. For example, he remediated his 1970 one-word poem “REVƎЯ” into what

Leong 2

he calls a clip-poema. The bi-colored disc of the electronic version of “rever” (1999) spins at various speeds, zooms in and out, and changes colors and directions, perhaps indicating the constant semantic movement between the Portuguese rever, “to review,” and the French rêver, “to dream.” The digital piece makes us review it again and again — it makes us “see double” — as we flicker back and forth between translations; we might say that its “poetry in motion” depends upon the notion of translation.

If “in the beginning was translation,” as the Finnish digital poet Leevi Lehto suggests, then Infante’s new study enumerates for us some of the exciting things that come after.[10]


[1] See Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney’s Deformation Zone: On Translation (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012). Göransson and McSweeney’s title seems to “deform” the title of Emily Apter’s The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (2005).

[2] “Introduction: The Birth of a Nation” in Fernando Pessoa’s A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006).

[3] Johnson’s review of Perloff’s entry appeared in the Chicago Review 57:3-4 (Winter 2013). Johnson also lamented the elision of the Peruvian César Vallejo, the Martiniquean Aimé Césaire, and the Japanese Kitasono Katue. In her column “Strange Tongues: Innovative Poetry in Translation,” from the March-April 2014 issue of American Poetry Review, Arielle Greenberg emphasizes the importance of having an international understanding of the historical avant-garde: “since many of the literatures that have most influenced avant-garde American poetry originated on other soil, it behooves us to have a more complex sense of the ways in which ideas and art intersect and develop across cultures and tongues.”


[5] “Introduction” in Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor (Wesleyan UP, 2003).

[6] “Introducción” in Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor / Temblor de cielo (Ediciones Cátedra, 2011).

[7] See Benjamin’s 1923 “The Task of the Translator.”

[8] Despite Bishop’s disparaging remarks about concrete poetry — she has said that it “has only an initial impact — a word game, at times amusing and witty, but useless and impossible to remember” — she nevertheless included in her An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972), which she co-edited with Emanuel Brasil, the neoconcretista Ferreira Gullar, and she wrote excitingly about a second volume of the anthology, which would later be dedicated to her memory and include numerous concrete poems by Augusto de Campos and Decio Pignatari. Her connection, moreover, between the syncretic internationalism of Jolas (and his influential Transition) and the global reach of concrete poetry is apt. Concrete poet Thomas Kopferman wrote in 1974 that “the language-elements [of concrete poetry] are not tied to the author’s mother tongue” and that concrete poetry “allows elements of different languages to be combined in the same text.” Likewise, Jolas, who published a fragment of Huidobro’s Altazor in French in 1930, experimented with a cosmopolitan language called “Atlantica,” formed by the “interracial synthesis that was going on in the United States, Latin America and Canada,” a language which “might bridge the continents and neutralize the curse of Babel.” Yet even if concretismo hearkens back to the polyglot impulse of the historical avant-garde (Huidobro wrote in his preface to Altazor, “Se debe escribir en una lengua que no sea materna [one should write in a language besides one’s mother tongue]”), it also looks forward to the internationalism of digital poetry, especially as it is practiced by multilingual writers such as Caroline Bergvall, Loss Pequeño Glazier, and Eduardo Kac.


[10] Lehto’s essay “In the Beginning was Translation” can be found in Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin’s edited collection The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound (U of Chicago P, 2009).


Michael Leong is the author of two volumes of poetry, e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009) and Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012), as well as a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All (BlazeVOX [books], 2009).

LARB Contributor

Michael Leong is the author of two volumes of poetry, e.s.p. (Silenced Press, 2009) and Cutting Time with a Knife (Black Square Editions, 2012), as well as a translation of the Chilean poet Estela Lamat, I, the Worst of All (BlazeVOX [books], 2009). He currently lives in Durham and teaches in the low res B.F.A. Program at Goddard College. He will join the English Department at the University at Albany, SUNY as an Assistant Professor in August. 


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