Ambient Translations: Aase Berg's Transfer Fat

by on Mar.19, 2012

[Hello, this is the “afterwords” to my translation of Aase Berg’s Fosla fett/Transfer Fat just out from Ugly Duckling. Probably nothing here will surprise the regular readers of this blog, but I hope to have some time in the near future to build into more discussions about translations.]

Aase Berg’s Forsla fett is an interlingually dynamic and charged text. It is, as Berg writes in her next book Uppland, a “deformation zone,” an ambient space where the Swedish language goes through all kinds of permutations: words, connotations, meanings, letters are put into flux, combining and recombining continually. Berg “translates” a host of foreign texts—English-language articles about string theory, physics, and science fiction—into her poems, in the process deforming the Swedish language and rendering her own text a permeable, möbius strip of a book. To translate such a book makes impossible the common illusion of bringing over a pristine “original” into a necessarily flawed “translation.” Rather, it forces the translator to be a kind of conductor of interactions between languages, a “transfer-er” of “fat” into the English language, an ambient translator.

It’s hard to speak of a translation of a text like Forsla fett as being faithful or correct. To begin with, there is the problem of the proliferation of puns and near-puns. For example, the word “val” can mean “whale,” “election,” or “choice” depending on the context; it also rhymes with “hal” (“slippery”), which is of course also the name of the deviant computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Hal), one of the main texts referenced in the book. Due to the ambient space of the book (i.e. the language is often driven by puns and lullabye-esque rhythms rather than sentences and narratives), this word, “val,” becomes multivalent. So that in “Mamma val” we get:

Mamma val
Amma val
Ge harmjölk,
alla val är
samma val

One might say that in the blubberiness of the whale, we get a blubbery language that refuses to coalesce: every choice is and isn’t a choice, is and isn’t a whale. To invoke this mutability of “val” I have tended to translate it as both “whale” and “choice”:

Mom Choice
Nurse whale
Give hare-milk
all whales are
the same whale

To make matters more complicated in this poem, there’s also the pun of “Ge harmjölk” which can also mean “give have-milk.” This neologism is not as absurd a translation as it might seem because the books is full of wild neologisms. Compound words and neologisms are an important part of the Swedish language, but Berg takes this feature to the extreme, in say “valyngelskal” (“whalebroodshell,” above) or “fittstela rullbandsfettflod” (“cuntstiff looptrackfatflood”). So that when we get to common words like “späckhuggaren,” the standard term for “killer whale,” I can’t help but read it literally for the two words that make up that compound term, “späck” (“blubber”) and “huggare” (“biter” or “attacker”). The extreme neologisms train the eye to break down the standard compound words. Thus I translated “Späckhuggaren” as “Blubber Biter.”
This dynamic of puns, estrangements, breakdowns and breakups, accumulations of meanings and echoes becomes wildly intertwined in a couplet like:

Vi som däggdjur, äggdjur, valnötsdjur
föder ogärna levande ungar

Here the estrangement of the compound words leads me to read “däggdjur,” the standard term for mammals, as “dägg” (“suckle”) and “djur” (“animal”), “suckle animal.” This is followed by the neologism “äggdjur” (“egg animal”) and then by the extremely complicated neologism “valnötsdjur,” which contains a pun on “val”—here, part of the word “valnöt,” the standard term for walnut—and on “nöt,” which appears elsewhere in the book—in “nöta” (“to fray”) and “nötkött” (“beef ”). Positioned alongside suckle animals and egg animals, I translate “valnötsdjur” as “whalenut animals” to invoke as much of the punning as possible: we get the blubberiness of the whale in the womb-like walnut shape. This is a book about transferring the fat of pregnancy as much as the fat of translation, so it is fitting that the two come together in this weird word play.

In Forsla fett, even the simplest words become slippery and loaded with connotations; in places, the ambience of the book causes me to misread words. For example, the poem title “Vågar” means “Dares,” but the oceanic imagery of the poem causes me misread it as “vågor,” or “waves;” the final translated title is “Darewaves.” In the repeated word “harpoon,” I can’t help but notice the embedded word “har” (“rabbit”): harpoon becomes harepoon. The word “bekräfta,” which means “confirm,” suddenly contains “kräft,” or crayfish (“kräftgång”). The result is a reading process—and thus a translation process—full of stutter and noise, a strange music.

Berg further disorients the reader with archaic Swedish terms and foreign-language words. For example, according to old Swedish folk beliefs, a “myling”—the word derives from “myrding”, or “murdered one”—is the ghost of a child who, when killed at birth by its mother, reveals the crime by singing from the site of its murder (usually a well or a basement). The word “römme” is Norwegian for a kind of dairy cream, but in the ambience of the book (as Berg pointed out to me), it also invokes “rom” (“roe”), “rymma” (“escape”), and “rymd” (“space”). You can see the same set of associations in the made-up word “Tymd,” which contains “tömma” (“empty”) and “rymd” (“space”).

I hope these brief notes go some way to showing my process of translating Forsla fett. Rather than writing a “faithful” translation of a text so unfaithful to its own native language, I hope to bring into English this unfaithful translation ambience, this language fat.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Kyle Minor

    Some of this is familiar to readers of the chapbook. Do you have any plans to expand on some of this stuff at book-length?

  2. Johannes

    i hope to have some time in the coming weeks to theorize these notes toward a more far reaching theory of translation. and ive been meaning to put together a criticism book for a while but havent had time. johannes

  3. adam strauss

    Anyone have thoughts on translating rhymed work as unrhymed in English? It seems translators are continually arguing for privileging rhythm over sound; this strikes me as very weird because prosody from one language to another will not be identical at-all, and since we don’t live in a metrical literary culture (in English) then I wonder why privilege “rhythm”; too, for end-rhymed work, is it just me or is the end-rhyme massively important to seein g the contours of the poem; to take a Petrarchan sonnet for example, how can one get a sense of the poem without those rhyme-contours? I’ve many times read peop0le argue the logic not the sound matters mkost; but isn’t this severing what’s inextricable? And surely end-rhyme has much to do with rhythm, with cadence, with the aural contours.

    Now if the real reason is many people feel uncomfortablpe with rhyme/are not adriot enough to translate in rhyme, then why not just state so!

    Note: I totally don’t mean anyone here–I’m really thinking David Ferry’s P’arch. This is something I love about Wilbur; I have no idea how accurate his translations are, but he’s got the contours! And surely Shelley should be worshipped for his terza rima Dante!

  4. Johannes

    Yes this is true. There’s been some talk about Transtromer since he won the Nobel prize and his early work is in form. I am not particularly interested in the idea of the poem as a mere imitation – that makes it inherently flawed, reproachable etc – because it is an inherently conservative way of approach translation, but certainly it’s the case that sounds are inherently different. Forlsa fett is a mezmerizing lullabyesque book in Swedish, not so much in my translation. But there are quite a few rhyme-keeping translations going back to the first days of Petrarch translations.


  5. adam strauss

    I wonder if, via attending more to sound patterns, there’s lots of room not for immitation but approximation, constellation, proliferation: maybe the rhymes don’t occur exactly in the same stanzas of a poem, but they are, in one way or another, present elsewhere. Maybe the end-words aren’t technically accurate, but they do link to the “original.” I guess I basically am concurring with Cole Swensen when she states that much translation has privileged the strictly semantic over letting in the semantics of accoustics. My root point is I think it’s odd to suggest–not that you are, but rather various statements on translation projects–that the aesthetics of a piece aren’t seminal, that the style of sound is secondary and not potentially integral to a piece. It is very possible tho that I get more sweopt away by accoustics than some readers, and that enclosed rhyme patterns aren’t crucial and really are decoration; but ugh, I can’t help but wince at that; I prefer to assume Dante is not a moron, and that he explored terza rima because he did believe it mattered. And yah that’s sorta unfair of me: totally rhymed Dante in English might be a stupendous disaster!

  6. adam strauss

    I’m guessing, too, that some of my quips relate to an interest in having the translation be in a contemporary idiom; and this is fine, but also funny: why must everything be updated? And why assume what’s old isn’t actually fresh! Or potentially so!
    I’d love to have some sense of what Paradise Lost translations look like!