The Invisibility of the Translator: Ron Silliman, Henry Parland and Me

by on Jan.07, 2011

I thought I would write a few brief posts giving some of my responses to the discussion that has been taking place here. I have of course a lot of ideas about translation so I will offer a few briefs posts.

To begin with, I think Lucas is right that there is not that much difference between his and Josef’s positions. They are both concerned with the persistent “invisibility” of the translator in American poetry: In American discussions of foreign work (to the extent that they happen at all!) the translator is mostly overlooked, the foreign text is treated as a domestic text. Ie none of the issues of the process of moving a text from one language to the next is overlooked. As many theorists have noted, this “domestication” of the foreign limits the foreignizing element of the translation, makes everything seem like yet another text in American literature.

It seems to me that both Josef and Lucas agree that the invisibility of the translator does not entirely depend on “the text itself.” So much of the discussion of various takes on translation is still so dependent on the text itself – is the translator invisible in it, is it literal etc. I think what Lucas is getting at when he says that the “foreignizing translator” replaces the traditional “author function” is in part a reference to this emphasis on the text.

The emphasis on the text itself, isolated from context, also strikes me as a very conservative way of approaching not just translation but art in general. To say that the poem is a wholly new text, separate from the original, does to my mind do away with something that is interesting about translation: the way it ruins the new critical wellwrought urn, the idea that there is no noise in art, that poetry cannot be paraphrased etc. In fact it can be paraphrased, re-written. The result is not a “new” 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 talking about “the text itself” strikes me as in many ways similar to the way supposedly experimental people are talking about electronic literature. For example Stephanie Strickland emphasizing that “e-literature” has to be written by people who know programming; or Katherine Hayles’s “electronic literature” which is almost always having to do with some kind of screen interface that only in the clumsiest ways show its difference from supposedly “print media.” While I have argued repeatedly that a more interesting view of “electronic literature” would include discussions of various social formations that have resulted from say email and the web; and the way our very concept of the book/poem/publishing have been changed by changing media. [I’m going to write a post later about media and translation, what media does to prevailing theoretical models of “electronic literature” etc].

In the same way, I think making the translation no longer invisible, means acknowledging not just the way that the translator translated the text, but also situating it in a cross-national, cross-lingual context. Part of the scandal of translation is that it breaks down static model-thinking about literature (for example Ron Silliman’s quietism-vs-past-avant binary, or Steve Burt’s various models, or “American Hybrid”), undoing the illusion of mastery that come with these models and forcing us to wade through the plague grounds (to again steal a metaphor from Joyelle).

I was really pleased that Ron Silliman wrote a review of my translation of Finland-Swedish Dadaist Henry Parland’s 1929 book Idealrealisationn (published by Ugly Duckling a couple of years ago). I was also surprised since he usually only reviews books that are part of his “community” and his vision of poetry (post-avant or quietist).

At first I was thrilled. However, the more I thought about it I found it curious the extent to which he had to erased me – the translator – from the book in order to give it a positive review. He mentions the press (Ugly Duckling) before he mentions my name. He repeatedly reduces my translation to a mere transcription: I have translated the text “ably enough” and in a “workman-like” way. In a pretty short review, Ron takes a whole section to make the following point:

“Because this edition places the Swedish on the facing page, you can test the degree to which Göransson is an interventionist as a translator & thus how much of this modernity is Göransson’s sensibility. The answer, I think, is not much…/…/… To quibble that the original puts the ultimate emphasis on legs not century strikes me as missing the point. Within the constraints of translation, and of the original², this is a faithful, workmanlike job. Which means that the attitude, which is what comes across as so distinct, comes not from Göransson but Parland.”

[In the part I cut out Ron quibbles over a selection of word order that suggest a “wellwrought urn” quality to Parland that suggests Ron’s conservative “good ear”” ideas of literature.]

I think here you have textbook case study of trying to marginalize, render invisible the translator: nothing about Parland has to do with me, it’s all just a faithful transfer. Silliman goes to stunning lengths to get me out of the book. It’s really over-the-top.

Another interesting (though perhaps extraneous) thought here is that Silliman’s idea of writing is completely based on the “fluency,” as I have often noted, a very nationalistic model: good writers have “good ears” (good writing is inborn) and Ron is opposed to translations by immigrants or people whose first language isn’t English (they don’t have good ears). A basically xenophobic idea of literature. I think it’s interesting because Parland’s poetry is entirely opposed to such xenophobic ideas of literature. He was an immigrant and he learned Swedish only after he’d learned Russian, German and Finnish. In order to feel OK with Parland, Sillliman argues that Parland became a “master” of the Swedish language. Even if I believed in “mastery” of language, this is patently not true, as Parland’s language is a bit stilted (Björling complains throughout the correspondences that Parland is not working on his Swedish enough, that it’s too sloppy and slangy and indeed what people have called “translatese”).

Related to this is the fact that Silliman notes how similar Parland seems to a lot of contemporary American poetry (“Parland is somebody whose work wouldn’t seem out of place at Saint Marks, or in the summer program at Naropa, or corresponding with the likes of Joseph Massey, Laura Sims or Graham Foust.”), an analysis which actually has been common since the 1960s in Sweden, where ever since critics seems obligated to observe that Parland seems more contemporary than contemporary poets (more about this some other day). And he also notes a similarity to the objectivists.

(Although I see what Ron is talking about here, I can think of no two more different writers than Oppen, who left poetry to work as a union organizer, and Parland, who left poetry to work at a bank, or as he wrote in a posthuously published poem, “write poetry on money.” No, I can’t think of two more different poets than Joe Massey, with his “sincere” nature poetry, and Parland whose only nature poem compares nature to strip-dancer with excessive makeup dancing to pop music.).

I don’t find anything wrong with comparing foreign writers to American writers – it’s a pretty natural way of making sense of foreign writers, and on some level I think it’s a good kind of “domestication” because – in keeping with my ideas from my last post about distanc/fascination – it allows for fascination, rather than the distancing of a review that would merely position the translated text in its original context (more about this later).

What I do find peculiar is the way Ron seems so anxious to align Parland with these American poets, at the same time as he is so anxious to remove Parland from me (the actual translator); I am afterall also a poet, and in addition to translating a lot of Swedish and Finnish poetry, I have written a lot of poetry myself, and one of my biggest influences has been Henry Parland. Like Parland I am an immigrant/crossnational writer; like Parland I’m not interested in “the good ear” model of poetry; like Parland I am interested in poetry as a portal for all kinds of media. And in difference to all the American poets he mentions, I have actually read Parland!

And I also find it peculiar that Ron doesn’t talk about Parland’s original contexts: Dadaism, Russian literature, Finland-Swedish literature. I mean he wasn’t an objectivists, he saw himself as a Dadaist (or, to refer to Jed Rasula’s recent critical study of Dada, “jazzbandism”). Again, I think these are contexts that not only mess with Ron’s conservative “good ear” aesthetics (Dadaism was famously invested in a “homeless” aesthetic) but also his binary model of literature.

This is an example, a textbook example, of how works in translation breaks up static, nationalistic models of literature like Ron’s Quietist-vs-Langpo system, a model in which I do not exist, in which I am a scandal that needs to be erased. But this isn’t meant as a self-aggrandazing claim; I think in just about every work of translation, you’ll find a portal, a wound which will leak out the kind of excess that folks like Ron Silliman can’t deal with. That’s exactly the kind of plague grounds I am interested in.

Of course there is a paradox in Ron’s review: his aim is to isolate me from the text, but in the process, he makes the translator not invisible at all. In a typical example of a review of a translated book, the translator may at best be mentioned. Here, because Ron seems so anxious about my status as translator, the whole piece is haunted by my negative presence. I am strangely over-visible in my invisibility.

Another problem with the foreignizing model is that it tends to not be foreignizing at all. In fact, I would argue that the many incarnations of the foreignizing model of the translation is in itself domesticating!

Example: I participated in a Henry Parland (a poet I’ve translated) conference in Helsinki a couple of years ago; and at that event one (SUNY Buffalo educated) Finland-Swedish scholar suggested that my translations were too slavish and that I could have used some “abusive fidelity” to the Henry Parland. He gave an example. Parland translated with “abusive fidelity” was a Parland that sounded awfully like American language poet, a poetics far far from Parland’s radical dadaist “transparency” (in fact “ready-made”). IE the abusive fidelity led to a more conventional, domesticated version of Parland.

There is also a theory of translation implicit in Parland’s work. He was not interested in the pristine, auratic, ideal original (whether that would be the “original” or the sufficiently foreignized translation), but in the shabby “ideals clearance,” the clearance pants of modernity with its rapid globalized economy. He was interested in poetry compared to money: poetry and culture set in circulation. He was adamently opposed to the wellwrought urn which is supposed to resist circulation, or to poetry as that which is lost in translation. that is to say, he was interested in the poetry of translation, of loss, of shabbiness and reproduction (thus all the mannequins, records, clothes, shopping windows in his poetry). That is to say, he is perhaps best served by a “workmanlike” translation.

I hope this doesn’t come off as too antagonistic, and I’m certainly happy that Ron paid attention to my translation of Parland’s work; I am trying to apply some of the ideas Josef and Lucas has brought up to my own experiences as a translator.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Lorine Niedecker

    Massey doesn’t write “sincere nature poetry.”

    He went to Iowa, remember?

  2. Johannes

    Totally uninterested in this comment

  3. Michael Peverett

    Google Translate produces interesting results on a lot of poetry, too. It gives another kind of translatese. I wrote a bit about the significance of translatese as a semi-globalized product in a recent review of a book by Jim Goar. Translatese is not limited to translations…

    I’ve heard that Edith Södergran spoke and wrote a funny kind of Russo-French-style Swedish too.

  4. Josef Horáček

    This is another example of the curious distrust of a translator who is also a poet (see my post at and the anxiety over whether the poet is in competition with the translator.

    The logic here is that in order to translate well, the poet-translator must write themselves out of the translation. Reviewers and critics play a tremendous role in this, as they’re the ones who argue for what passes as acceptable translation and who, in order to make a legitimate-sounding argument for a good translation, feel the need to write the translator out. They’re just as instrumental in how translations are read as the translators themselves, if not more.

    Interestingly, historians of translation and literature devote much attention to the mutual influence between translation and new writing (i.e. Pound’s Cathay and Modern American poetry). These connections are widely accepted when we gain some distance, to the point of becoming obvious and commonplace. But what if we try to make similar connections in the immediate present? What does Parland do for Goransson the poet? What does Goransson the translator and poet do for the English-language Parland? What does either do for Silliman the critic and the poet? These questions could easily be part of any translation review.