Wounding American Literature: Henry Parland, Ron Silliman and Robert McRuer

by on Jan.17, 2011

A while back I wrote an entry applying the now-well-documented case of the “translator’s invisibility”, especially as it pertained to Ron Silliman’s review of my translation of Finland-Swedish dadaist Henry Parland, showing how his anxiety about the translator seemed to have caused him to go to such elaborate heights in trying to deny to presence or visibility of the translator that he actually foregrounded me in my invisibility:

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”).

My point with the entry was to show how this anxiety about translation comes out of an anxiety to maintain “mastery” – mastery over language (hierarchical, centripedal) and literature – for example Ron’s reductive model of “Quietism vs Post-Avant,” leading in a fiercely chronological “modernist” path from Pound to Objectivism to Ron himself.

I prefer Joyelle’s “angel of anachronism” and necropastoral; poetries that move around, that open wounds, that embrace the useless and trashed, the costumes and the convulsive.

I prefer Parland’s stance: “It doesn’t matter where I go,” he wrote to his brother after his parent made him move from Helsinki to Lithuania, “I am always a foreigner.” This reminds me of one article which calls Dada an “aesthetics of homelessness.” One might also so, it’s an aesthetics of translation.

My problem with the way Ron reads poetry: he locates it in some kind of stable idea of the text. He can only see translations by comparing two different texts. But translation to me is what potentially creates slippage in this idea of stable text, opens up a wound: it’s not about finding the correct translation, but about opening up the text, opening up literature, creating an unsettled idea of text, writer and reader.

Potential I say of course because translations and discussions about translations tend to be surrounded by critical frames meant to keep it in place, to keep the text, American Literature whole.

In one of Irregular Lucas’ comments, he linked to a review he had written of a panel we’d both been on at ALTA (American Literary Translator’s Association I think), where I had supposedly declared my opposition to “American Literature.”

The context for this statement was the prevailing idea that translation is good for American literature because it “enriches” American literature, it keeps American literature from inbreeding, it gives it a needed boost of foreign influence, to keep it from becoming too homogenous.

This is an incredibly pervasive idea of translation. The negative version of this rhetoric was some time ago when in Poetry Magazine CK Willimas dissed Kevin Prufer and Wayne Miller’s anthology of European poetry for not offering any new piece of exotic trinketry that could boost American poetry – it was too much like American poetry. Then what’s the point? There was no more reason for translation, according to Williams.

(I was a part of that anthology and I generally appreciated it, but the thing I was opposed to was the way it wanted to “represent” European poetry, make it this stable entity based on population and geography etc, thus allowing CK Wiliams to say there’s nothing new in Europe.)

When I said that I was opposed to American Literature, I didn’t mean that I hate American poetry or I oppose American writers. What I meant is that I opposed these stabilizing models of American Literature (such as Silliman’s). Much like I oppose stable models of European poetry.

I don’t translate, don’t read poetry in translation so as to infuse the current system of American Literature with a little booster. I do it because American Literature is totally insufficient; I”m not interested in any of the models. This is of course why Silliman has to eliminate or imperialize translations: they simply do not reinforce his reductive model of American poetry, and they don’t support his anti-foreigner, “good ear” aesthetics. If there is any grander purpose to my translations it’s to create a displacement zone, where we are all foreigners.

The role of enriching American Literature (without causing any wounds in this fragile model) has a strange twin in racism and xenophobia, which mostly claim that the foreign is a virus that ruins the healthy body of the nation. The nation is of course never unified, never wholly harmonious, but the foreigner is a good scapegoat for the not-unified country.

This interests me because both models – the foreign as an enricher and the foreign as a destroyer of healthy body – suggests a whole nation, a whole American literature, that may or may not be able to deal with the infection of the foreign.

I am reminded of Robert McRuer, the disability theorist we often talk about on this blog, who said that the epiphanic narrative arc is able-ist, that it suggests the body, after conflict, after coming apart, must be made whole again. I don’t want American Literature to become Whole after the translation. I want to keep it in a state of translation.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson


    I don’t disagree with what you say.

    Could you talk more specifically about what unsuspected openings you think a foreign translator– one who knows the target language imperfectly, translating from his native tongue into English (or any other language)–could bring to a translation? In what ways, grammatically, lexically, syntactically speaking, might such a translator help “open up” the work?

    It might be an interesting anthology project, thinking of Lucas’s specialization, to have Chinese poets, for example, translate poems of their language into English. What original effects or structures, I wonder, might come through that would otherwise likely be supressed by a native English speaker?

  2. Johannes

    I think translation opens all kinds of possibilities, and it generates all kinds of defenses. I don’t however think that an immigrant knows the language “imperfectly.” I happen to think that the illusion of a perfect english (or any other language) is one of the conservative roles of poetry: but it’s just an illusion. I may be self-serving here, speaking as one of those imperfect immigrants, but I have a lot of interest in the noise of language, awkwardnesses and such. But translation doesn’t need to be that; just “mere” translation can be very powerful. It can be an immigrant like Don Mee Choi translating Kim Hyesoon from Korea, or it can be your garden variety Kent Johnson translating visionary bolivian poetry.


  3. Kent Johnson

    Better said:

    “…suppressed or *unfelt* by a native-English translator?”

  4. Kent Johnson

    By “imperfectly” I meant more like those who are EFL speakers. Didn’t mean the term to be taken as an insult!

    But I’m delighted at being categorized as “garden variety.” That would have to include Forrest Gander, I guess, as he was translator of the Saenz stuff, too.

  5. Johannes

    I know what you meant Kent, I was not insulted. We’re on the same page here.