“Awash in Mimicry”: The Excess of Translation

by on Feb.05, 2015

[I don’t think I ever got around to announcing that I had an essay, “Awash in Mimicry: On the Deformation Zone of Translation” in the last issue of the fine translation journal Two Lines (highly recommended). So I’ll paste in the first half here and hope that it will want to make you go and buy the journal. Also, I have written a sequel of a sorts that will be in a special translation issue of the Volta, edited by Rosa Alcala.]


“Poetry is that which is lost in translation”: I am fond of pointing out that the most canonical definition of poetry in American literature depends on translation. This suggests that translation – even if it is through negation – is essential to the American concept of poetry. We know poetry through translation, its opposite. It may seem strange to assert the prominence of translation in an age when we know – thanks to critics and activists like Lawrence Venuti, Chad Post, Don Mee Choi and Lucas Klein – that the translator and her translations are “invisible” in our culture: marginal, infrequent, debased. But somehow the translator and translation is both marginal and central, both invisible and hyper-visible – if only as a threat, a ghost, kitsch.

If we want to find out why translation is such a fundamental threat to poetry, we might ask ourselves: What IS this something that is “lost” in translation?

The short answer: the singular text, the singular author, the single lineage. In other words: the illusion of a perfect wellwrought urn of a text that cannot be paraphrased – or rather that is not paraphrased – written by one original author who expresses his or her views in full control of language. And perhaps even worse further: we lose the illusion of a patriarchal lineage, the objectivity of that lineage: What if we don’t know who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her? Can she really be influenced correctly? Is she misreading it? The threat of translation is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, is lost in a noisy, violent excess.

Over the past two hundred years, western (not just American, if I am perfectly honest) theorists have repeatedly discussed the excess produced by translation in terms of a violence. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” this excess becomes a violent alien-ness within the text itself:

If in the original, content and language constitute a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, a translation surrounds its content, as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation indicates a higher language than its own and thereby remains inadequate, violent, and alien with respect to its content.

In this metaphor: the act of translation transforms the peel of a fruit into clothes, into excess no longer organically in balance with itself. In that case, it seems to be not a lack (what is lost) but an accumulation, an inflation and an infection of the alien. An alien-ness that is violent in part because it is alien, somewhat like an infection or a disease.

The violence of translation is even more central to George Steiner’s canonical study of translation, After Babel. Steiner portrays the translation itself as a violent act: the translator must, in an act of “aggression” and “penetration,” “extract” the meaning (as if it were gold in some colonial enterprise). However, the translator must take care not to lose his sense of self, before incorporating the new text in the target culture. Steiner warns that translating might – like a sexual intercourse – lead to “infection”: “No language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without the risk of being transformed.” And this transformative infection may ruin our sense of self: “we may be mastered and made lame by what we have imported.”

Steiner makes an important addition to this discussion by asserting that the problem posed by translation is one of economics. Not only must the translator be aware not to lose him or herself, but the greater culture has to incorporate the translation into its context and literary lineage in order to avoid “inflation.” If this is not avoided, the literary culture might be “awash in mimicry.” That is to say, Steiner sets up an economic model for translation: “Fidelity,” he argues, “is ethical, but also, in the full sense, economic.” The translator must create “a condition of significant exchange…. ideally, exchange without loss.” It seems the threat of translation is that it might produce an excess that would ruin the economy of meaning.

Our culture has consistently been wary of this “mimicry flood,” this inflation. We have guarded our literature well and we have been able to do so through a political and economical power that has made the US central and the rest of the world peripheral. So deeply entrenched is our opposition to translation that even translators and translation critics seem to believe in the impossibility of translation. Even Lawrence Venuti himself – one of the most influential translation activists and critics of the past 20 years – is fundamentally aligned with the impossibility of translation. Even as he calls for better legal status and more “visibility” for the translator, Venuti keeps repeating that translation is impossible. The most important reason why Venuti sees it as impossible because the “original context” it lost:

… a reader of a translation can never experience it with a response that is equivalent or even comparable to the response with which the source-language reader experiences the source text, that is to say a reader who has read widely in the source language and is immersed in the source culture. Not even a bilingual reader familiar with both the source and the translating cultures will experience the two texts in the same or a similar way. (180)

Throughout his work, Venuti insists on an original “context” with an original reader, an “educated,” native reader who can fully appreciate the text through her mastery of the context. This model is frequently repeated in translation discussions: the translator is a foreigner who has gained mastery of the foreign culture, a mastery often shown by attention to cultural differences (for example, Venuti finds flaw with a Calvino translator for translating “ricotta” as “cream cheese”). Although Venuti introduces Derrida’s idea of “iterability,” he insists on an original text that is stabilized through its original reader and context.

The good translation for Venuti is a translation that reveals that this context is lost, a translation that informs, that does not fool us. A good translation tells us instead that we do not have access to the context, reminds us that there is another world out there that is not ours. This is the idea of the “foreignizing translation,” a translation that through syntactical, linguistic noise calls attention to its status as a translation: “The point is rather to develop a theory and practice of translation that resists dominant target-language cultural values so as to signify the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text.” It doesn’t fool you into thinking it’s poetry; it won’t absorb but distance.

Venuti posits this translation model as opposed to the “domesticating’ practices that tended to make the foreign seem American by smoothing out translation noise, but paradoxically, in so doing he prescribes a way of presenting the foreign text (thus domesticating it) and instrumentalizes our experience of the text. The foreign text is made to serve a definite purpose: to remind Americans that there is a foreign world out there. Venuti writes: “Foreignizing translation signifies the difference of the foreign text, yet only by disrupting the cultural codes that prevail in the target language… deviating enough from the native norms to stage an alien reading experience…” (20). In Venuti’s work, the inflationary threat of translation is dealt with by making it serve a specific purpose: to reveal its own ghostly threat.

Both “domesticating” and “foreignizing” translation models (and virtually every talk or discussion about translation I’ve ever read or witnessed) depend on a stabilizing model of “context.” But what is “context”? In Venuti’s essays, the “original context” is equated with how an “educated reader” in the “original culture” would have originally read the original poem. Lots of originals there and also a lot of presumptions: What is an “educated reader”? Is there only one way to be educated? What if the poet was uneducated? What if the poet was a foreigner? What if the poet’s aesthetics were influenced by a foreign literature? What if the poet – as often is the case – lived in a foreign country? And isn’t it true that we are often foreign to ourselves? Poetry –and in particular poetry in translation – destabilizes notions of a stable context and authorship. We “lose” ourselves, we become “lame” in Steiner’s words. Poetry is inflation. It teems.

For Venuti, the violence of translation comes from removing a poem from its original context, but I agree with Steiner that there is a violence in how we are affected by translations (and even language, communication): We come undone, our selves are corrupted, infected, made un-whole-some and even “shattered” (as Leo Bersani has put it). Just as the translator enacts a kind of violence on the foreign text, the text enacts a violence against the translator. Or I might add: Just as a reader enacts a violence against a poem, so the poem enacts a violence against the reader. The recipient of any artwork is in danger of being infected, or even of having the top of their head taken off, of being made part of the artwork. And when that happens, writers may indeed start channeling foreign writers, overflowing our own literature with a “wash in mimicry.” Hierarchies and lineages will be troubled by writing that is “mimicry,” ie overwhelmed instead of original, having lost its true self.

But I don’t think this violence is something we should seek to balance or stabilize.

To me, George Bataille’s theories of excess provides an important alternative view of the urge for a balanced economy. Bataille argued: there are two economies, the one based on use and the one based on waste, a “restricted” economy and a “general” economy, “represented by so-called unproductive expenditures: luxury, mourning, war, cults, the constructions of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, perverse sexual activity… these represent the activities which, at least in primitive circumstances, have no end beyond themselves.” Bataille sees in the wasteful luxury of the nonproductive economy a rejection of capitalism: Poetry is on the side of loss, inflation, waste, excess.

One of the most important contemporary poets now writing is Korean poet Kim Hyesoon. I know of her work through Korean-born translator, poet and activist Don Mee Choi’s translations….

8 comments for this entry:
  1. Michael Leong

    Nice essay, Johannes. I like how you connect Bataille’s general economy to the idea of translation…very intriguing. I also like Benjamin, whom you quote, because it seems to me that his notion of “pure language” makes us realize that all languages are fragmented and incomplete — or, in other words, all language is mimicry. Pace Brooks and Warren — we only have shattered urns. To approach translation in Benjamin’s terms means that we have to come at the forest of language from the outside, facing, as he says, the wooded ridge, listening for alien echoes — that is, we come to language per se as a foreigner.

    I can see how you are trying to trouble the perhaps too neat binary of domestic and foreign but I had a question about your critique of Venuti’s concept of “foreignizing translation.” I really like what you do in translating Aase Berg in rendering kräldjur as “crawlanimal.” But wouldn’t Venuti consider that a defamiliarizing (“foreignizing”) translation?

  2. Johannes

    It’s a great question. I’ll try to reply tomorrow, Michael.

  3. adam s

    I like “crawanimal” too regardless of what Swedish it’s replacing; wouldn’t it be foreignizing–sort of a weird concept given how often etymologies are “foreign”–regardless being translation? It seems akin Dine–accent mark missing–linguistics, with the noun having great verbness. Which, ML, is supporting not disputing you, oops lol-smiles.

  4. Johannes

    I translated “Kräldjur” (amphibian) as “kräl” (crawl) + “djur” (animal). Swedish is funny that way – just have a few words and then recombine them endlessly…

  5. adam s

    Crawl not craw–oops; craw makes the noun nounier; I wish the crawl could be crawls without making dubious muddle; crawlsanimal reads like a really clipped sentence. OK, I’ve run away with the word: apologies, word!

  6. adam s

    I never would have guessed crawlanimal is amphibian–I guess because of the swimming part (though humans have their “crawlstroke” if I’m remembering vernacular right). I’m not a huge fan of the word amphibian so this is good to the good.

  7. Johannes

    Kent Johnson, who seems to have been banned from our blog somehow, asked me to post the following comment:

    I’d like to offer a little quibble in relation to the Benjamin quote Johannes offers from “The Task of the Translator.”

    The quote (and as a few other famous ones in WB’s essay are) is often taken as endorsement of the kinds of translation “excess” and inflationary “infection” that Johannes defends in his post: that such “alien” draping of the original in array of (well, sort of) “royal” drag is what translation should do, even must do, modally speaking. Johannes, here, seems to take Benjamin’s quote in that very spirit and to use it as a corrective, of sorts, to Venuti’s lament for the entropic energies immanent to the practice.

    But this isn’t quite right, I don’t think–or at least, one could say, the interpretation has some genetic complication to it. Because Benjamin is also a very Schleiermachian/Venutian sort of guy, even if his quasi-mystical and highly tropic framing leaves a lot of space for analogical license and productive cherry picking, some of which has no doubt been propitious for recent poetry. Indeed, in “Task of the Translator,” Benjamin calls for a mode of translation that is emphatically literal– one, even, that should aim to follow the syntactic order of the source language with exact precision (a somewhat ultra-Schleiermachian move to “foreignize” that not even he could quite live up to in his own poetry translations). Benjamin’s reasons for this are very much in line with Schleiermacher’s: Such target faithfulness to difference and strangeness in the “foreign” source expands the target tongue, and thus assists total language towards its purer, higher unfolding.

    Which is to say that the destabilizing folds of translatory excess argued for by Johannes are not necessarily antithetical, at all, to the principles of foreignization and their (albeit always partial and faint) attempts to transfer elements of “context”; in fact, the two can be complexly entwined, as they seem to be in Benjamin. As well, Venuti’s gloom on loss of source “context” might be best addressed, really, through radically free approaches to translation… Translation is full of overlaps and rabbit-duck oscillations between “camps.”

    Not that such complications are some kind of frustrating space we need to fill in… All in all (and I suspect JG would agree), no one’s come near to figuring out the nature of translation, any more than anyone has come close to figuring out the nature of poetry. Which is a good thing, for sure, for both.

  8. Johannes

    Hi thanks for the comments everyone.
    In short, my difference with Venuti is that he is so tied up in an idea of a stable “context” which determines the meaning, and that he then totally instrumentalizes the foreign texts to perform duties for American readers (teach them that there is a foreign world out there). it is as if translation is so impossible that it can only reveal its impossibility.
    All this revealing itself is totally antithetical to art (I think): art conjures illusions and hallucinations.
    More importantly: contexts and artworks are constantly changing and rearranging themselves. Translation opens up new contexts that did not exist before, thus Joyelle and I writing about “deformation zones” of translation that includes contexts and texts but not in such a stable, deterministic ways.
    I don’t think I say I agree with Benjamin, thought I certainly think he comes up with very insightful metaphors about translation (the idea of a pure language is so strange, especially if one reads the essay that is about pure language).
    At the heart, I think this conflict is about the importance of the strange, the weird, the foreign. For Venuti to make something “foreign” means to distance the reader; but in my experience the foreign can seduce, repulse, intrigue etc. It is much more complex.
    As I have written elsewhere, Venuti becomes institutionally important at the same time as the language poets, and i think that connection is important. He advocates an “anti-absorptive” model of translation (Bernstein’s famous essay “The Artifice of Absorption” plays around with these models), just as Silliman, Hejinian and others use the idea of their writing as a foreign language, as an untranslatable text.
    Well, I’m going on for too long. I also got some interesting comments on facebook and email and I hope to respond to those in the not so distant future.
    In short, I agree with Kent J: part of what this essay is about is exactly how translation is “frustrating” all kinds of models – not just of translation, but of art and poetry. I think that’s what draws me to thinking about translation, why I welcome its “lame”-making pathologies.