by Johannes Goransson 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:
alla val är
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”:
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.