Exploded Tranströmer: On Ye Mimi and Translation

by on Feb.25, 2014

The past few months I’ve been reading and re-reading the little chapbook His Days Go By the Way Her Years by the young Taiwanese poet and filmmaker Ye Mimi – and translated beautifully by Steve Bradbury and published beautifully by Anomalous Press.

You can read some of the poems here.

A few months ago, after she came back from the Hong Kong poetry festival, Aase Berg wrote to me that she had come across an amazing poet: Ye Mimi. (Apparently YM appeared with a very impressive guitar player as well.)
That is funny because when I first read Ye Mimi what came to my mind was a somewhat controversial article Aase wrote in Expressen after Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize the other year:

I have already begun to view Tranströmer’s poetry – purely internally, in my brain – as kitsch. That makes it easier for me to communicate with it because I see kitsch as something generative: banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union. The idea of Tranströmer’s images as kitschy allows me to associate to other images, instead of getting stuck in an image mysticism which may seem chokingly water-tight.

Ye Mimi’s poems are wonderful in that way: as “banality and surprising intelligence in unexpected union.” In fact they read a little like Tranströmer poems in which the metaphors flip out, go off in tangents. And a Tranströmer poem in which the tenor of the metaphor is not privileged – not over the vehicle, not over the “banal” everyday stuff (pink hoodies, telephone booths etc).

My favorite Tranströmer poem is “To Friends Behind a Border”

To Friends Behind A Border

I wrote so sparsely to you. But what I couldn’t write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned zeppelin
and drifted at last through the night sky.

Now the letter is with the censor. He turns on his lamp.
In the glow my words fly up like monkeys on grille
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth!

Read between the lines. We are going to meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten
and finally get to sleep, become orthoceras.

Part of what I love about this poem is how lovely and ridiculous his famous metaphors are here: the letters become monkeys (like in a Disney fantasia), the spy-microphones becomes fossils.

This element of goofy-brilliant metaphors are all over Ye Mimi’s work:

but he is bored to pieces and has to have a smoke
a ghost nods off beneath the blackboard tree in a punitive gesture the kittens are made to crouch in tummies
we are mortified at vomiting a layer of sea
the skin of which could not be whiter

(from “And All the Sweat is Left There”)

One big difference is that Ye Mimi’s work is more flippant, following the odd metaphor off in different directions, creating an effect like Exploded Tranströmer.

I’m reading this chapbook when I really should be working on my book about translation, and a few essays about translation that I’ve promised various publications. All of them will be basically dealing with the legacy of Lawrence Venuti in translation studies, detailing some of the things I appreciate about his work and also suggesting some of the ways I absolutely depart from his theories.

And this actually has a lot to do with my post above about Ye Mimi. Venuti’s main idea is the importance of “foreignizing translations” – translations that foreground its own translatedness – primarily through syntactic disjunctions. The reasons to do this is according to Venuti: that the foreigness will remind Americans that there is, well, a world outside of English and the US, and to remind them that we do not have full access to the work in translation.

For Venuti, it seems that this “full access” has increasingly come to mean “context.” Like those “new historicist” papers we wrote for undergrad classes back in the 90s (quoting Foucault and Greenblatt), Venuti seems to increasingly over his career have come to depend on an idea that there is an “original reader” in an “original context” that has “access” to the text in a way a reader of the translation does not.

And this is where I really disagree with him. A lot of his thinking seems aimed at “exposing” or “revealing” the fact of our ignorance, that we cannot access the work in translation. This reminds me of Ranciere’s discussion of a kind of academic pose that depends on mastery and ignorance.

More importantly, it quarantines the work in translation: we never have the work in translation. This allows Americans to keep the work at an arm’s length, we can keep it in a special place for “poems” that we are not really influenced by. Further, by specifying the kind of “work” he wants translation to do (syntactic estrangement) he is in fact overdetermining, instrumentalizing and – paradoxicaly – “domesticating” the foreign. He wants the foreign to do something very specific and that has to do with “language as such”. This is of course an aesthetic and it’s not surprising that Venuti comes out of the 80s/90s when the language poets became the dominant aesthetic in academia. What he wants the foreign to do, is to be language poets so to speak. (Not surprisingly, a lot of language poets compared their own writing to foreign works in translation, or to untranslatable texts. But it also reminds me of when Ron Silliman on his blog castigated Charles Simic for taking stylistic cues from Yugoslavia instead of foreignizing the English language with his native Serbian. The American poet telling the immigrant how to be properly influenced by his ethnic heritage.)

I write more about this in my essays, but for now, I want to move on to say that I am more influenced by translated works than I am by contemporary American poetry. For me, Kim Hyesoon is a more important poet than Lyn Hejinian; Raul Zurita is more important than John Ashbery. Ye Mimi (via Steve Bradbury) is one of my favorite poets that I’ve read recently. This might be a “radical domestication”: of allowing oneself to be utterly fascinated by the work even though it’s in translation (if anything, I am more interested in them b/c of that). But rather than “domestication” it is perhaps a “foreignization” not of the text but of myself, of my literature, of my “authorship.”

Of course my “authorship” identity was troubled to begin with, since it comes out of a foreign literature, Swedish literature, a literature that is extremely international. And here’s another point of contention I have with Venuti: there is still very much a source language and a target language. It is strange but I know very little about South Korea for example, but I love a lot of their poets – from Yi Sang (“the weirdo”, who died in Japan) to Kim Hyesoon (who in a recent interview says she appreciates me writing about her in terms of the “gurlesque” even though this could be seen as “domesticating”) and Kim Yideum (who read with me, Joyelle, Lara, Aase and Leif Holmstrand as part of the gurlesque special of the Stockholm Poetry Festival in December).

However, this does not mean that I want us to ignore the “translated” status. I think Venuti has been very useful in calling attention to the translator’s status, even though I think his thinking here is plagued by a kind of obsession with agency. He wants to give the translator more all-american agency, but in fact part of what is fascinating about translation is that the translator is not in charge: we are possessed.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Michael Peverett

    “The right way to translate” is one of those dinner-party conmversations that never ends. You’re completely right, in my opinion, to point out that Venuti ends up asserting a limiting aesthetic for “foreign” poetry. Ultimately it romantically simplifies, stereotypes and sentimentalizes (fetishizes?) the “nationality” of a poem. Yet Venuti was attacking a particular kind of voice (they used to call it a voice) that many poets dropped into when translating poetry and which, in a different way, was just as limiting – or was it? Two opposed ways of being patronizing, potentially. Google Translate can never be patronizing because it eliminates the translator’s consciousness of the foreign. I do like it for that. But maybe it is right that a translator should have a strong emotive and inevitably wrong-headed relationship with what s/he’s translating? We are not fair to other people, is it honest to pretend to be fair to a poem? so many questions…!