Response to letter about Translation

by on Jul.14, 2011

[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 letter and my response:]

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.


Also: Lorca does seem to be the key figure of this.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    It might be interesting to see the “othering” translations as poems that mess with the idea of the “original” in the same way as “proper translations.”

    Also the Chilean poet Raul Zurita has rewritten and continue to rewrite Dante.


  2. DeWitt Brinson

    Also, anything by Erin Moure.

    She’s dreamy.

  3. adam strauss

    Would Men in Aida (or is it Aeda) qualify?
    Autobiography of Red?
    Chapman’s Homer?
    Due to syntax diffrrences etc couldn’t most translations from Chinese and Japanese fit this?
    IntraEnglish perhaps, a la Paul Hoover’s 56?

  4. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Hi, Johannes, thanks. You ask,”How do you see your idea of “othering” translations fitting into this scheme?”

    First, I should note that this is a hard question, with no simple answer.

    But, or nevertheless: you sort of put Venuti/critical distance at one pole and total saturation/immersion at the other. For me, it’s more a both/and (and yes, it may be for you, too, I’m just trying to get some purchase on a response here, not trying to characterize you or anything.)

    I have no real definition of what I’m after except it’s something that no “reputable scholar” would consider a useful trot, or even a translation, in the sense that Propertian scholars were all up in arms over Pound’s inclusion of a frigidaire in his Propertius. And in the sense that someone said of Pope’s Iliad, very pretty Mr Pope, but it’s not Homer” (or something to that effect – I LOVE Pope’s Iliad, by the way, I think of Pope as a minimalist a la Glass/Adams/Reich, etc, working a million and one variations on the same couplet structure, while keeping the whole thing careening along at high speed …)

    You write in your comment, “It might be interesting to see the “othering” translations as poems that mess with the idea of the “original” in the same way as “proper translations.””

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “in the same way” but I do think that what I’m after does “mess with the idea of the ‘original’, and even with the idea that there is an original. At least not some sort of “sacred text” original.

    At the same time, yes, yes, “the “original” is not something set which one can then go about “othering””. It does have its own status dare I say its own “kitschiness” as in some kind of viralness/foreignness which should not ever be negated/assimilated …

    Adam and DeWitt’s suggestions are right on the money. (Jerry Rothenberg mentioned to me that perhaps Pound’s Cathay is the most othered thing one can imagine, really …)

    Bergvall, certainly, now that I know a little more about Berg and Jönson, certainly, and yes I mean Andrewws’ Lip Service.

    Wheere does Joyelle’s work appear, I mean the bits that she published? Any where I might find it? It sounds exactly exactly exactly what I have in mind.

    I’ll quote a bit from an email Brandon Brown sent me (maybe it’s easier to see what I’m getting at/interested in by piling up examples than by trying to define my position (as Ed Dorn once wrote, “Don’t define yourself, that’s what makes you mortal!”):

    “Stephen Rodefer’s work has been very big for me, especially his triumphant Villon and the very, very hard to access translations he did of Sappho. I would also include Anne Carson’s work, although her sense of “othering” can be a bit scholarly. That Nox book is pretty cool. Also, Caroline Bergvall’s Dante. Maybe Anne Boyer’s Flaubert, which would be an “othering” which is unacknowledged or unconscious. Kasey Mohammad’s Shakespeare!”

    Does that clarify any?

    Thanks again, this blog is great and I always read what’s posted here. And try to think it, too.

  5. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    Johannes, I’ve been mulling this, and perhaps the best way I can describe the kind of translation that interests me in this context is that some translations give one the **illusion** that they have “read the original” – that’s not what I’m interested in here…I’m interested in the kind that make that illusion impossible to sustain.

    Does that make sense?

  6. Johannes


    I’m not really at odds with you. Certainly I”m not advocating invisibilizing the translation process. I’ll talk more about it in a couple of days. I’m not sure where Joyelle’s pieces appeared and she might have lost most of it when her computer crashed the other year (she wrote this maybe 5 years ago), but parts are out there – here and there. C