Is the Foreigner Baroque? (Haroldo de Campos and Yoko Tawada)

by on Apr.30, 2014

In response to Steve Burt’s “Nearly Baroque” article, Lucas and Joyelle wrote posts questioning the exclusion of the foreign, and in particular the Latin American engagement with the baroque. Lucas suggested that this “nearly baroque” not only omitted the Latin American poets, but that in fact it was a way of dealing with the threat of the foreign (fully baroque).

For me this is a key issue. One of the volatile aspects of translation is that it asks us to question what might be domestic tastes and conventions. I am fond of stating that translations cause problems because they generate too many versions of too many texts by too many authors. And as we know from the “too much” trope that has become increasingly common in contemporary US poetry discussions, this excess is tightly intertwined with the idea of taste. Taste saves us from the too much, the “plague ground.” It’s in fact because of the too much that we need taste. (See for example my Ranciere post from a while back.)

As I wrote in my last post, “baroque” is a kind of tastelessness, a kind of excess. The tasteless art that is seduced by the artistic, causing it to write too much, to put too much into the writing/art.

In Haroldo de Campos’s famous essay on the baroque “Rule of the Antropophagy,” he argues that the baroque comes out of translation. And in his introduction to the selected de Campos, Sergio Bessa makes a similar observation about de Campos’s turn from concretism to the baroque:

“It is not without irony that de campos, who in the 1950s advocated a concrete, objective writing, came to pursue a luminous kind of writing later in his life. This luminosity – we might call it lucidity – emerged from what the Campos described as the “radiant” practice in translation.”

I just wrote a little essay on the connection of de Campos’s baroque and translation ideas, so I won’t expand on it here much further. One key point I will add is that de Campos brings in Bakhtin into his discussions, and I think that is important for understanding the connection between translations and the baroque, between the foreign and the tasteless. The monoglossic constantly creates the model of a hierarchical language in order to order the disorderly heteroglossic realities of language.

Against the monoglossic ideals, I’d like to end with a quote by Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada (which my students Jesse and Jayme brought into translation class the other day):

“In your mother tongue, in the end, you see only the meaning of a word and you no longer pay much attention to the visual and acoustics, or to the way in which certain words really are funny and make us laugh. You have to repress these childish elements to become or to be an adult in your mother tongue… Also, when you talk in a foreign language, all taboos have suddenly disappeared.”

Foreign languages have a baroque effect on one’s reading – not just of the foreign languages but of one’s own language. In fact, it might be hard to tell which one is one’s “mother tongue” and one’s counterfeit tongue. With its baroque folds, translations upends the natural. And “all taboos have suddenly disappeared.” It is this baroque quality of translation, this carnivalesque quality of the baroque that is “lost” when you have a “nearly baroque” that remains within national boundaries. The full on baroque, the “all the way” baroque is the baroque that reaches out of one’s native language into the “convulsions” of the foreign.

Of course the “foreign” does not always work like this. It can for example be recuperated as the most tasteful. But for me the potential is there in the act of translation. And I think why rhetorics of taste so often become prominent in discussions of translation is indicative of this threat. I also don’t want to reduce the “baroque” to mean only something that comes out of translation, but I do want to suggest some of the affinity of the baroque and translation.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle


    “The gypsies rightly contend that one is never obliged to speak the truth except in one’s own language: in the enemy’s language the lie must reign.”

    (Guy Debord: Panegyric)

    At a shot I’d say Brazil dropped European Neo Concrete models for the autocthonic. Witness moves in Helio Oiticica from paintings titled Untitled # 9 to splash paint busted nightstands called Fiery Meteors (Bolides). Such aint even indigenous tradition but creation from O.

    Apropos of Zero: Forgive my adolescent slurs on Kenny Gobblog’s name.

    See link below also for Oiticica’s incorrigible/incorruptible comrade Lygia Clark. Coming soon to MoMA!

    G C-H