by Johannes Goransson on Jan.25, 2014
I just wrote this on my facebook update:
Seems like a lot of issues of translation has come up recently: Don Mee Choi’s not that she – the translator – wasn’t mentioned in the review of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage; the Lucas Klein post I linked to below; C. Dale Young discussion about the claim that American writers are insular and don’t read work in translation (judging from the commentary to that link, they’re not only not reading works in translation but also totally unwilling to have a discussion about them not reading things in translation); and Coldfront Magazine’s “top 40 poetry books of 2014” which didn’t include a *single* work in translation (there’s no ethical responsibility to read works in translation, but lets think about what it means that you think all 40 best books of 2013 were by Americans!). I guess I’ll have to write something about this… Just when I thought Lawrence Venuti was outdated…
Where to go from there? I’ve been writing about translation so long now that I don’t even know what to say anymore… To begin with, I don’t think all Americans want to ignore things in translation. America has a really rich history of engaging with works in translation (Pound etc). As I noted in this post I wrote for the Poetry Foundation, there is quite a bit of interest in translation, but it’s mostly in the small-press universe. Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite! (in Don Mee’s translation!) has received an incredibly amount of positive feedback. Overall, the two Kim Hyesoon books have probably received some 20 substantial write-ups and her work is not being translated into a whole bunch of languages. So not all people hate works in translation…
So who does hate translation?
It seems most publishers do—including the small, independent and experimental presses, very few of which publish any translations. And certainly a lot of the print journals, which tend to be more prestigious than web publications. And big-name Critics, especially the scholarly kind. Why? Because venturing into translation means letting go of the illusion of “mastery,” the illusion that poetry is a “field” (with different little squares for different kinds of poetry—here experimental, here slam, etc.) that you can master. This anxiety is infinitely amplified in academia: How do we know that this translation is correct? How do we know that this poet is worth reading? Is this poet famous enough? Did you make this poet up (I’m always accused of that)?
Translation exacerbates the problem of “too much” contemporary poetry: not only are there more poets when you include poetry from the rest of the world, there are also too many poems, too many versions of too many poems, creating too many (hyrid, interbred, inbred) lineages and canons. It is not surprising that it’s exactly the people who have defined themselves as “masters,” as keepers of Taste, would be as anxious about foreign writers, foreign languages infecting the standards, as they are about the aesthetic of “fascination and horror.”
Translation infects their masterable fields with excess they cannot spit out.
Another thing to talk about is of course Lawrence Venuti’s now quite old book “The Invisibility of the Translator” (1995) where he in – among other things – points out the “invisibility” of the translator in Anglo-American literary cultures. Not only is there very little work published in translation (much much lower percentage than in just about any other Western country), but the translator is supposed to be “invisible” within the translation itself (not call attention to him or herself, not call attention to the fact that it is a translation, ie it might be weird).
Venuti importantly draws attention to the connection between this inequal translation balance and the legal issues and financial issues, and perhaps most importantly, to political issues. Or obe issue really: American empire. The sense that the US is the most important culture because it is the most powerful underwrites not just Americans being OK with not reading anything foreign but also foreign literatures feeling the need to keep up with what happens in US poetry (even though US poets often sell much fewer copies of their books, have a lesser profile in US overall culture than foreign poets in their native countries). The cliche has it that “knowledge is power,” but as Eve Sedgwick pointed, sometimes “ignorance is power.”
The comment thread I linked to in my facebook post (or whatever that’s called) showed a very common feature of these translation discussions: Americans writers/readers become incredibly defensive and try to attack the messenger. And/or they start attacking Horace Engdahl of the Swedish academy who dared to point out that Americans have become insular. And often they get xenophobic about Sweden claiming that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that Sweden is ethnically homogenous and he’s a racist for not recognizing the multi-ethnic nature of the US (US has many different cultural groups, therefore it’s OK not to read works from other countries; of course Sweden is actually incredibly multicultural right now, to say it’s not is actually part of a racist rhetoric but that’s another post.).
This defensiveness connects these discussions to other lit discussions. It seems – at least in the poetry world – there is very little disagreement expressed openly. Instead we ignore things we don’t agree with, so as not to call attention to it. I’ll re-post for the millionth time (here for example) this Zizek’s quote:
Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other… In a strict homology with the paradoxical structure of the previous chapter’s chocolate laxative, tolerance coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.
It seems the only time the poetry world will show any disagreement is when these “violent” acts occur: like Seth Oelbaum, “Kill List” etc. Of course translation is a a violence: It’s a violence against “the original text” and the new culture into which it is introduced. No wonder translation has to be continually quarantined.
I noted in my facebook post that the ColdFront Magazine list didn’t include a single work of translation among *40* supposedly top books of 2013. I think the LIST is one of the chief symptoms of this literary culture which is insular and defensive. Instead of making arguments we leave them off the list. Similarly we are just supposed to ignore the list and not call attention to them, but I always mis-perform…
[Note: Instead of Coldfront, you can insert whatever list that claims to be the best of the year.]
(To be continued…)