Counterfeit Translations (letter from John B-R)

by on Jul.13, 2011

[I received this yesterday over at exoskeleton in response to my counterfeit post, so I thought I’d post that here and then respond when I have time:]

Dear Johannes (if I may)–

I have found your posts on the foregrounding of the translator really thoughtful and stimulating, and I have a question for you. I hope you don’t mind my posting it here, but I don’t know another way to reach you.

I was reading brandon Brown’s The Persians yesterday. I happen to be in love with this kind of work, this kind of “othering”, to use a word, that came up Sunday in conversation with Jerry Rothenberg.

Lying in bed after my Persians adventure, I thought: it would be great fun to compile an anthology of this type of thing. I began to run a list …:

Brown’s Aeschylos and Catullus

David Cameron’s Baudelaire

Christian Hawkey’s Trakl

Susan Landers’ Dante

Tim Atkins’ Petrarch and Horace

Bernadette Mayer’s Catullus

Bruce Andrews’ Dante

Steve McCaffery’s Marx

Christopher Logue’s Homer

This is just off the top of my head. I purposely left Zukofsky’s Catullus off the list, and Pound’s Propertius … they’re old news … maybe Logue is old news too?

I don’t know enough about the originals you translate to know whether your translations are also “violently” othered … Now here’s my question: assuming that you can see the *category* I’m proposing, who would *you* include in such a gathering?

6 comments for this entry:
  1. ben

    Jack Spicer’s AFTER LORCA would presumably fit, as well as James Macpherson’s Ossian poems (“translations” without originals)…

  2. ben

    Oh, and Hölderlin’s Sophocles translations, in which Benjamin claims that “meaning plunges from abyss to abyss until it threatens to become lost in the bottomless depths of language.”

  3. Johannes Göransson

    Hi John,

    I wonder what does an “othering” translation consists of? How does it relate to the “original”? Does it “other” the original?

    Both of the primary writers I’ve been translating – Aase Berg and Johan Jönson – work with translations-as-writing in their “original” books. For example, Berg translates a number of texts – sci-fi movies, string theory, Harry Martinsson’s modernist epic Aniara – into her books; Jönson’s Collobert Orbital is a “translation” of Danielle Collobert’s journals (translated into English by Norma Cole) into an extreme, “impoverished” Swedish that focuses it on global capitalism.

    In my own poetry I do a lot of interlingual movements – most obviously in my book Pilot, which moves largely through translations (of newspapers, punk songs from the 70s, the text itself), and which includes both a kind of messed up English and a kind of messed up Swedish (the goal being to use translations to mess with the languages, turn them into a kind of foreignese). But I do this in all my work to a lesser extent, or to a less-foregrounded extent.

    There is an interesting and prominent vein in American thinking about translation that suggests – following perhaps Lawrence Venuti – that the translation should call attention to its own translatedness. Something that echoes the prevailing ideas of the need for “critical distance” in US poetry.

    My feeling is that the opposite is a more radical move: the attempt at total saturation of the foreign text. There is already so much attention called to the text’s foreigness; I want to read the foreign as viscerally direct as possible. (which is of course an impossible idea.) US poetry has done a lot to spread around the world – on the wings of US centrality of 20th century, due to capitalism, military – and very little to engage with foreign literature. I think that’s a bigger issue; I don’t want to “other” the foreign any more than it already is! (And I don’t believe in the idea of agency inherent in the notion of a critical distance.)

    But this saturation won’t be “accurate” – it will be inherently deformative. I don’t believe in a stable language to begin with. I vehemently oppose folks like Ron Silliman who objects to foreigners translating texts into English b/c foreigners foreignize/ruin some kind of pristine English – I’m interested in poetry that messes with such notions of a stable langauge)

    My position might be in part influenced by the fact that I’m largely not working with “classics” as most of the examples you give, but with contemporary works, and contemporary works that are highly “experimental.” Ie works that are already working with “translation” as an MO for writing. Berg for example totally tweaks the Swedish language – fluid with multilingual puns and plays for example. So I’m not under the delusion that I’m capturing a stable original, but rather participating in a volatile movement. Ie, translation has taught me that the “original” is not something set which one can then go about “othering” – it’s a process in which I’m participating, a process which certainly includes all kinds of movements of “othering” and “familiarizing.” So my translations are often pretty strange (English deformed by a Swedish that is already deformed and interlingual to begin with)..

    Swedes always express surprise that anyone could translate Berg’s work, usually saying something like, isn’t translating her poetry “impossible”? But it’s often the “impossible” translations that I’m most interested in.

    Though actually Johan’s texts are extremely translatable because they’re very un-literary – very austere, reduced syntax and vocab. I could probably (should maybe) use google translator for his text.

    How do you see your idea of “othering” translations fitting into this scheme?

    Bruce Andrews’ Lipservice seems like an interesting poem-as-“translation” of the Inferno. Is that the book you mean? Hawkey’s Ventrakl, while acknowledging the great problems of translation, is really a search for a kind of occult connection to the poetry of Trakl, in many ways a work of Aase-Berg-ian “translation” poetics as much as a “translation”.

    Joyelle did a great translation of the Ovid’s Aenid a few years ago; it was set in the US and intertwined the classic text with blogs by US soldiers from the war in Iraq, but at the same time, one classics scholar told me that the excerpts he’d read were the best (ie most “accurate”) translations of the text he’d ever read. So it has an interested dynamic of saturation that includes elements of “othering.” (Only a few excerpts have been published here and there; she didn’t publish the whole book.)

    There’s also Caroline Bergvall’s work, which I’ll write more about later. And in his book on kitsch, Daniel Tiffany traces the idea of kitsch back to various coutnerfeit translations of the Romantic era, which to me suggests why both the idea of translation and the idea of kitsch is so central to modern discussions of poetry.

    Thanks for your letter.


  4. Response to letter about Translation - Montevidayo

    […] Johannes on Jul.14, 2011, under Uncategorized [I wrote this response to John's letter querying about my ideas about "othering" translations below. Please feel free to add suggestions to both the […]

  5. adam strauss

    Anyone here read Nabakov’s Eugeene Onegin? Isn’t it often criticized for having so little distance from the Russian, for trying to act like English can be Russian; I havn’t read it but if this critique is at-all accurate then the dissed sounds absolutely delicious!

  6. apsiegel

    @adam: Nabokov’s Onegin is a trot: VN sacrificed fidelity to form in favor of meaning. As is so often the case, it’s the commentary he prepared (vols. two and three of the four-volume edition) where the real statement lies. If you’re going to make your way through VN’s Onegin, you might as well learn Russian. However, anyone interested in one great artist’s reaction to another can read vols. two and three and profit greatly.