Wounded Translations: Christian Hawkey, Aase Berg, Pilot etc

by on Nov.02, 2010

On HTMLGiant, James McGirk writes the following about translation:

“I am quite suspicious of translations. The ones that wash ashore in the U.S. are tend too often to be finger wagging nuggets of exoticism. The last I remember actually enjoying was Michel Houellebecq. And I should have hated this excerpt of Bombardier — it begins with a trickle of semen dribbling down some poor girl’s thigh, then the camera yanks around to see two planes cross in the sky…”

There is a fundamental suspicion about foreign texts. Always this sense that we have to be on guard against these exotic trinkets because they don’t follow the necessary rigor of American writing. How do we know it’s quality, when it doesn’t come with the stamped approval of our hierarchical structure? Translation generates excess – too many authors, too many texts, too many interpretations, too many readers etc.

In a lot of modernism (Adorno, Greenberg, Silliman) true art is the anti-thesis of kitsch. It’s the obsessive need to posit the original, the true, the authentic against the counterfeit, the translated, the international. And at the heart of this argument: the idea that art is not merely “exotic” not merely a trinket, not “soft” or feminine; that it’s rigorous, “hard” (Silliman) and controlled etc. These soft exotic trinkets undermine our hierarchy, our order, our heroic sense of the original and true.

Herman Broch: “Kitsch is lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art.””Kitsch is a foreign body in the total system of art.”

The foreign body is “washed ashore.” Like a corpse. Probably with wounds.

What allows McGirk to like this piece?

“… Gutierrez’s control is so splendid, his craft so clean and precise…”

Not dirty, not squeashy, not mushy, not kitschy, fatty.

It is also notable that the opening of the story, which was supposed to reinforce the convention of translation as exotic trinkets is an image of a “poor girl” with semen on her thigh. This is of course typical of translation in that it is the image of translation from an American perspective: lurid/exotic and feminine a “poor” girl, a poor imitation, a whore.

Translation is a poor girl, kitsch. They are dirty and poor. We need to be suspicious of their covert softness, their trinketry, their impurity.

What does the girl/translation do? The text becomes semen, foregrounding the medium.


From “It’s Not Acceptable to be Fatso” by Aase Berg:

“… I hope for poetic expressions that are aggressive, baroque and esoteric; I prefer ridiculous and embarrassing to perfection. On the literary market, which is dominated by the aesthetic and social ideals of the upper middleclass, it is unacceptable to be excessive in any way – one adjective too many and you’re out. There’s a stubborn cliché that the sober, quiet and elegant, the so-called “simple” is categorically more informative than the noisy. The fleshy, screamy and overdone, the vulgar, desperate and pathetic are so taboo in our culture that there must be dog buried in the phenomenon.”

(In Swedish, “a buried dog” has the same meaning as “a dead rat” in English.)

(My translation)


Maybe we can see in the condemnatory attitude toward translation a fear of “invagination” – through which inside becomes outside, outside becomes inside. Perhaps we can see a protection against the beauty of wounds; or as Joyelle wrote in her piece on Lady Gaga:

“32. To me, the replacement of the nun’s habit with red vinyl is a metonym of this transfer from one material to another. It also calls attention to materialism of the saints—the sense that the saint experiences suffering in the flesh because he or she is a medium for Jesus’s suffering, a go-between for mortal and immortal bodies. The most obvious image of a saint as a medium or channel is the stigmata itself, a spectral (yet literal, that is, actual) wound through which the sacred blood flows.”

From Chelsey Minnis, Poemland:

“This is when I talk and talk boringly into the tape recorder but point to my vagina…”

Or is that Cocteau’s occult radio?

Or as I wrote in a recent talk about translation, Christian Hawkey and Aase Berg:

“I would like to think of translation as wound through which media enters into a textual body. The wound of translation makes impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature. It is these wounds – wounds that foreground the media of language and image – that I am interested in thinking about today.”

Hawkey’s “Ventrakl” is full of wounds – wounds from war, but more importantly, wounds from translation:

“Hole… 1. a : an opening through something: perforation b : an area where something is missing: gap as : a serious discrepancy: FLAW, WEAKNESS (2) : an opening in a defensie formation: esp. : the area or space between the two front teeth suggesting entrance, permissiveness, or deviancy (3) : a defect in a mouth due to the tongue having left its normal positions in one of the crystal bonds and that is equivalent in many respects to a positively charged utterance…. a cavity, depression, or hollowed-out space….”


“The mother addicted to drugs, the sister who was the only person who understood you, who became an alcoholic and shot herself and you, leaning forward as if running – or falling – into the hole, the chloroform hole, the cigarette hole, the opium hole, the morphine hole, the veronal hole, the cocaine hole, the mouth hole, the nose hole, the vein hole, the food hole, the language hole, the mouth hole, the nose hole, the word hole….”

This is a book about an attempted translation of Trakl, which become “Ventrakl,” a word that indeed becomes a “deviancy” in the mouth: how can we pronounce it? How can we make sense of its interlingual pun? How can we even “see” it? It’s afterall a part of the heart, which we can only read by piercing the body.

No wonder then, the book gives rise to such an ambient violence: the accumulation of holes. But the holes are both natural (mouth hole) and the result of violence (“cigarette hole”), or rather the difference is erased, creating a movement through the body, through the texts, which denaturalizes the body.

The wounded translation body cannot be contained, “controlled.”

The translation hole also foreground media: in Hawkey, the translation leads to a consideration of photography, and mediumicity (not the least in the translation by shotgun).


I also love the way the wound do not produce so much a hollow as an accumulation, a secretion. In this regard it remind me of the language of Aase Berg’s Forsla fett (Transfer Fat).

The notion of translation is of course already in the title: it’s a book about translation as the “transfer” of fat, the fat of language, the muck that is brought out of the holes of translation. It’s a book that translates fairytales, sci-fi, string theory, language and even SWEDISH (which becomes a wonderfully ventrakled and strange language through the process, becomes fatty).

And of course the book is full of holes. And “val” – that is to say “whales” (animals with holes in them) or “choices” (hole-acts). That is to say a “hole” word, whose hole-ness is brought out in wounded translation:

Öppna Väljaren

Tandad val
strandad val
öppen val
av gummirum

My translation:

Open the Voter

Toothed whale
beached whale
open whale
of rubber rooms

The insistence on whales in the first three lines leads me to see the “whale” (val) in the common term for “oval” (“oval”): the Swedish becomes “foreign”; Berg goes through the Swedish language; she makes a hole in the Swedish language. The voter (“väljaren”) in the title brings in another valence: the idea of these whales as elections (also “val”). Translation fat pours out.


Translating this book was a big influence on my writing the book Pilot (“Johann the Carousel Horse”). It was a book of translation fat, of leftover energies from the translation process, and builds largely from translation holes, secretions. I translate my own pieces as well as pieces by others (Leslie Scalapino, Emily Dickinson, Ebba Grön, David Cronenberg) and media (film, video, pregnancy booklets etc).

The end of the second “poem”:

begin to soften
come through
softly to suit
the new fit
the out-fit, in-fit

The end of the third “poem”:

har börjat mjukna
kom igenom fittan
utfittan infittan

Those who read Swedish will of course notice the homophonic “mistranslation” of “fit”/”fitta” (cunt). It’s a book shaped like a cunt. A cunt book.

The book is meant to create its own kind of deformed in-between language (the English ruins the Swedish, the Swedish ruins the English). I’m interested in the kind of in-between sphere that Hawkey calls “the between-voice,” which “is a ghost, a host.” Or:
the ghostly is not a spiritual state, but a being between states, a “being terrified,a being beside himself, ek-static.””


It is interesting that many people think when I read from Pilot aloud that I am imitating a backwards tape player or a slow record player or something like that. That is, that the in-between space is a space where medium is foregrounded. I read English with a Swedish mouth is another way to say it. I wanted these poems to make me feel my mouth.


[To Be Continued…]

7 comments for this entry:
  1. Carina Finn

    One of the things I kept thinking while I was reading With Deer and Remainland was, “God, this would be insane to read in the original!” and then I spent a while sitting on a couch lamenting my stupid American monolinguisticness. But then I realized that part of what made the experience of reading Berg’s work so great, for me, what precisely this idea of “translation mak[ing] impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature.” Having the two texts facing each other throughout the books puts them in that “fight-or-fuck” space, where they’re either going to rip each other to pieces or start getting it on or maybe do a little of both 🙂 There two distinct brains that seem to be actively working towards a similar but not always entirely mutual agenda. Berg’s content-brain and Johannes’ sound-brain (that’s how they ended up functioning in my reading-brain) give birth to this fabulous lovechild of pure language that ultimately defies any kind of “bias” about translation, because in my opinion the “translated” text mashed up with the “original” becomes entirely Other, and awesome in its own right.

  2. Deborah

    I think about problems of translation all the time, at first because it seemed like something that I should want to be doing and later because it is something I want to be doing but finding something I really want to translate–and why?–is a labor.

    True that translation creates excess of an excess (writing when there could just be talking! for example). But the idea being there is something “else” we should be reading, if we are going to consider ourselves read. And not just live writers but dead ones to, and the work just keeps piling up.

    The only thing I have to say is that encountering a text in a new language is always exciting at first, if you have a way into it: All these words and sounds are new! precisely because it is occult. But as my understanding (of Spanish, in my case) grows, so does my disappointment: this is not something I want to translate; this is not even something I particularly want to read. This is not it, at all.

  3. Johannes

    I guess I don’t relate to this because I’ve never blindly sought out a text and tried to translate it; I’ve always read it in Swedish first and then tried to translate it, and I haven’t tried to translate texts I wasn’t interested in. As in American poetry, just approaching things at random will seldom work out.


  4. Jeffrey

    I would very much like to read a copy of your talk about translation and wounds. Lots of fertile ground there. Have you posted it somewhere?

  5. Johannes

    Thanks, I can send you a copy. Anna from Ugly Duckling Presse suggested they may turn Joyelle’s and my talks into some kind of booklet, so if that happens, I won’t post it. But I’ll write more posts on the same topic.


  6. Walser & Company

    “So far only one German poet has been reported as killed in the war—Georg Frakl. Frakl belonged to the new school in feeling, if not in form. With the death of Frakl German literature has lost …”

    —Poetry (Chicago), May 1915

  7. The Invisibility of the Translator: Ron Silliman, Henry Parland and Me - Montevidayo

    […] wellwrought urn; rather it shows poetry and art is being something much more dynamic, in flux, moving through various portals, what I have called “translation wounds” (referring to Joyelle’s theories about art and literature). * The conservative insistence on […]