Deformation Zone: Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson on translation

by on Mar.09, 2012

Joyelle and I wrote a joint chapbook of translation theory, Deformation Zone, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. You can buy it here.

This is what they say about it on their web site:

Theoretically minded and practice oriented, McSweeney and Göransson’s interests range outside the literary mainstream and even the “experimental” literary mainstream, incorporating cutting-edge media theory, the aesthetics of abjection, and theories of disability as they apply to translation. Deformation Zone: On Translation comprises two essays, one by each author, exploring their ideas.

It’s actually two lectures we gave at a conference a couple of years ago. Both use the work of Aase Berg as a starting point (her poem “Deformation Zone” gives the book its name), though Joyelle also discusses John Waters (her section is called “Translation: The Filthiest Medium Alive”) and Matthew Barney; and mine talks in more detail about Aase’s work as well as Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl.

My piece, which is called “Translation Wounds” begins like this:

As contemporary American critic Daniel Tiffany notes in his recent study of Ezra Pound, discussions surrounding translations seem to rack up corpses. Dryden for example compares a poet in “dull translation” to a “carcass.” Tiffany argues that the accumulation of these corpses comes out of the “impossibility” of translation; we can only imagine such impossibility as death.

According to Tiffany, Pound was obsessed with the attempt to rid his own (and all modern) poetry of “Victorian corpse language.” But he also saw translation as a kind of reanimation of the corpse of the original. About translating Guido Cavalcanti, Pound wrote: “My job was to bring a dead man to life” (189).

To this I add Joyelle’s theory of “the body possessed by media”:

“Can a body be possessed by media? It’s a trick (and tricky) question, since a medium, in the occult sense, is supposed to be possessed by others. If an entity can be possessed by a medium, or, worse, by media, it is then opened to all kinds of possession, penetration, contents it cannot contain, overcrowding, doubling up, debility and damage.”

It strikes me that what Joyelle is describing is not just an aesthetic but also something about the dynamic of translation.

In “Golden Arrow Holy Face Devotion: Thoughts on a Catholic Gaga,” a treatise about Lady Gaga’s video “Alejandro,” McSweeney expands on this idea, theorizing the wound as a site of mediumistic transformation: the wound is caused by a media (bullet, spear, arrow) and can transform a body into media, transform the body into a body possessed by media, a body with holes through which the media come in and out.

And my favorite corpse metaphor, the introduction to Against Forgetting by Carolyn Forche:

The corpse and its wounds play an essential role in Carolyn Forché’s famous anthology Against Forgetting, a collection of poetry from the genocides and wars of the 20th century. Importantly, Forché’s introduction begins with a foundational “corpse” for her “poetry of witness.” She describes the grim fate of Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet who died while a prisoner of Nazi Germany, and the story of how his widow found his last book when his corpse was dug out of an unnamed mass grave. Forché even quotes the gruesome coroner’s report:

“Cause of death: shot in the nape. In the back pocket of the trousers a small notebook was found soaked in the fluids of the boy and blackened by wet earth. This was cleaned and dried in the sun.” (29)

At this point of the introduction, it seems that Forché channels a body possessed by media: the “found text” of the coroner’s report becomes a wound in Forché’s introduction, through which it becomes possessed by media (the report, the text, fluids).

Where do I end up? You’ll have to get the book and read the trilling conclusion…

In some ways it’s a companion piece to the Ugly Ducklings’ publication of my translation of Aase Berg’s Forsla fett (though “Deformation Zone” is actually from her next book, Upland), which you can buy here.

Here’s the catalog copy for that:

Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat (Forsla fett), nominated in 2002 for Sweden’s prestigious Augustpriset for the best poetry book, is a haunting amalgamation of languages and elements—of science, of pregnancy, of whales, of the naturally and unnaturally grotesque—that births things unforeseen and intimately alien. Johannes Göransson’s translation captures the seething instability of Berg’s bizarre compound nouns and linguistic contortions.

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