The Violence and Invisibility of Translations

by 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 I guess I’ll have to write something about this… Just when I thought Lawrence Venuti was outdated…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…)

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    As I wrote on my facebook page, my facebook update perhaps suggested wrongly that CDale Young held these views: he was obviously (if you read the thread) not one of the people protesting against translation. Rather the opposite.

  2. John Deming

    Johannes, to your points…I responded on facebook already with regard to your point about why we omit translations, selected/collected, etc from our list, and told you that we have had separate lists for these in that past and that I am not an ideologue about it and certainly would reconsider going forward.

    But to your points here: “instead of making arguments” — we include substantial arguments in favor of everything we include. “we silence people we don’t agree with: we leave them off the list”…is this what you were attempting to do when you made a list of your favorite books of the year for the poetry foundation? That is not the impression I got…I thought you were trying to connect people to books, which is what we’re trying to do. Also, what do you think I disagree with you about? I’m not sure where all this is coming from. If you care about whether we write about Action Books, please just email us about them or perhaps even send review copies. There is no conspiracy against you or your press. “I’m supposed to just ignore Coldfront…” supposed to? You are free too, of course, but I am wondering where the dictum comes from, and the peculiar animosity.

    Please consider also that “listing” is not objectively, always and forever, about an “insular and defensive” literary culture. And we are neither of these. Every book contest, every major prize, lists and lists until deciding upon a winner or winners. It’s a way of remembering and keeping track. The difference is that you don’t always see the process. But Tarpaulin Sky, for example, who has published you, even has published long lists of manuscripts that they considered finalists for their open reading periods. And I don’t believe they do so to exclude the people that weren’t finalists. It is slightly different, I suppose, to actually number them in the order that they were winnowed down before choosing a favorite, but I see this as transparency.

  3. Johannes

    When I talk about “lists” I talk about the list-iness of our American discourse around poetry. So when I talk about the lists not leading to arguments, I meant that in general, as an inherent aspect of the list. When I say, “I’m supposed to ignore Coldfront” I am using you metonymically: ie we are supposed to ignore these lists, you’re not supposed to be disagreeing with them, not supposed to say: hey this list sucks! or whatever. I think that’s part of our sultifying literary culture. (BUT that’s obviously not your fault; that’s about the prevalence of lists.)

    You should be commended for actually including arguments, even though they are implicit. Since I started this argument, I guess I should go through and analyze what it is you value. I’ll write about that when I get some more time to read through the list. I agree that you guys have a definite aesthetic agenda, which is I think good.

    Of course we disagree: I think a lot of the books on your lists are really mediocre. And the overall effect is one of caution, that negates the more volatile potential of the good books on your list. We disagree because you have no Action Books on your list. That’s a disagreement, right? (Nor for that matter any of the books I put on my poetry foundation list other than Twerk.). I looked back a couple of years and you didn’t even include Joyelle’s Percussion Grenade. I think any list that claims to be the “best of” and doesn’t include that book is wrong. We disagree right?

    But I don’t think it’s wrong to disagree -and that’s mostly my point. What I object to is the way there is not critical discussion about these lists; we’re just supposed to say “yay for xyz”. I feel a little ambivalent about my PF list b/c I’ve never been into lists, but I saw it as an extension of my posts there where I do a pretty thorough job laying out my aesthetics.

    Instead of trying to overlook our differences with administrative issues (we don’t consider translation, you should send us your books etc), I think we should be OK with having different views of poetry. Can we agree to that?


  4. Johannes

    I also wanted to say: independent of my aesthetic preferences, I think it’s important to include works in translation (I don’t obviously like all works in translation), and I think it’s important not to quarantine them in a separate category. This maybe comes form this anxiety that we can’t know the works in translation, and I think that’s an anxiety that I think we need to work with (though perhaps not “through”).


  5. John Deming

    Absolutely. And it is possible that our interests overlap in ways we are not aware of. The Coldfront list is developed by a handful of people, not just me, so perhaps it is not entirely representative of my own personal aesthetic. It’s true that I wrote most of the actual blurbs…next year I’m hoping for a much better ratio, but I was a little preoccupied with our redesign this year, and I didn’t approach writers about doing blurbs in as timely a manner as I would have liked. But we do put an enormous amount of time and thought into everything we publish. That’s not to say we don’t miss things we would have included on our year in review if we had seen it in time. That’s one reason why, at the top of our list this year (on the first page, 40 – 31…I thought it would’ve seemed repetitive to put it on every page), we included the statement that “We know that no list of this nature can be objectively “correct” and that another publication might have an equally apt “top 40” containing none of the same books.” Perhaps this is obvious, but I thought it worth pointing out.

    What I meant with regard to our disagreeing was that it is not as though we have ever had any specific disagreement with each other, or any discourse at all, really (before today). With our redesign, we are looking to link our posts in with facebook so that people can comment, suggest books that were missed and that perhaps they don’t think should be on there…I certainly am interested in dialogue. But of course we ought to agree to have different views…I think this kind of discourse is important…thanks for the conversation.


  6. Lucas Klein

    The post I wrote to which Johannes refers above, “Translation & Translation Studies as a Social Movement,” can be found here:
    It comes out of a discussion on a Chinese-studies listserv about overlooking the translator in book reviews, but I hope it’s more broadly applicable.

    One aspect of my understanding of translation as a social movement is that what we are trying to change is the social context of translation–I see this as having very little to do with prescriptive statements about the text of translation. In other words, I don’t see Venuti’s advocacy of foreignization as having anything necessarily to do with increasing the visibility of translation or the translator in society. In other other words, I don’t see textual strategies as shaping contextual realities.

    irregular Lucas

  7. Johannes

    Yes, that’s certainly true about Venuti. I have a lof of issues with his writing, and this is one. Ill write more about him tomorrow./ J

  8. David

    i have attempted to publish translations before. however, using examples of Daniel Borzutzky & Don Mee Choi, timing was such for the translators own work being more available, and wind up lucky enough to have poetry from Borzutzky online, and a four part newspaper in korean war piece titled “Narration” upcoming. the poems we (will) publish(ed) from writer’s like Don Mee and Dan are not, we feel, inferior to anything we would have otherwise received (& which was originally approached soliciting). While this op probably sounds like pub grabbing, there was a need to note that some try but haven’t yet been able to land translations.

    Also, simply to state as much, American publishing is so insular that I was invited to an old professor’s class to talk about publication, and, after considering it, the facts of what i would present to be truthful, at least of my experience, made me ill, and turned it down.

  9. Lawrence Venuti

    Lucas Klein wrote: “I don’t see Venuti’s advocacy of foreignization as having anything necessarily to do with increasing the visibility of translation or the translator in society. In other other words, I don’t see textual strategies as shaping contextual realities.”

    Sorry, Lucas, but the second sentence suggests some misunderstanding of my work. The second revised edition of “The Translator’s Invisibility” (2008) is clearer in this respect, but foreignization, as I understand it, has been misunderstand in the wake of both editions.

    The tendency to reduce foreignizing translation to a “textual strategy” is a conceptual impoverishment of my effort to deploy it as a way to understand, evaluate, and practice translation. Foreiginizing is an ethical effect of translation. It can be secured with various discursive strategies, depending on the cultural situation and historical moment in which the translator is working. There is, therefore, no necessary connection between a discursive strategy and an ethical effect in translation. Fluency can be construed and practiced in different ways, and it too can be foreignizing in its ethical effect. Foreignizing may include, moreover, the very choice of a source text for translation. These points are clear in the book, stated explicitly and developed through case studies.

    Foreignizing translation, insofar as I conceive it as challenging the current hierarchy of values in the receiving culture, can in fact “shape contextual realities.” For instance, it can change patterns in selecting source texts for translation. It can change the ways in which cultural institutions do their work. It can change the ways in which readers view a foreign literature and culture. In the process, it can also give new visibility to the translator, especially if the translator also comments with sophistication on his or her work. Witness what happened with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in the reception of their Russian translations, starting with “The Brothers Karamazov” and including “Anna Karenina.” There is no doubt that readers must read translations as translations, texts in their own right, to decide on the relevance of concepts like “domesticating” and “foreignizing.” But the idea of reading translations as translations is still under construction, by no means widely accepted or understood.

    Is Venuti “outdated”? Well, shouldn’t we understand what he is saying before judging his applicability or relevance?

  10. Lucas Klein

    Thanks for the response & clarification on the extra-textual ways foreignization can apply! I’m sure there are all sorts of aspects of your work I don’t understand, but I didn’t mean to be reductive–or don’t think it has to be reductive–to refer to something as a textual strategy. Pevear and Volokhonsky are a good example of how foreignization “can change the ways in which readers view a foreign literature and culture” and “can also give new visibility to the translator.” My framing my thoughts as I did was to say two things: while foreignization can contribute to changing how society views translations, it also might not; and I envision a translation-based social movement as being broad enough to accommodate people who both may agree with and disagree with foreignization in the Venutian sense of the word.

    I’m trying to imagine how we move, to use a Venutian phrase, “Towards a Translation Culture.” I was slow in replying here because I re-read that essay, in Translation Changes Everything (, before replying. I think the issues raised there are important–there’s a problem with belletrism and the way workshops in the US teach translation–but I still envision something broader when I talk about a “social movement” of translation. I figure that as long as we have more people talking about translation and taking it seriously, the programs and prescriptions and theories of translation will follow, more or less organically.

    irregular Lucas