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Translation and its discontents, part quatre

By Don Share

200px-Hereford_Mappa_Mundi_1300.jpg
“When I was reading an anthology of contemporary European poetry, I was struck by how much its poems tended to sound alike: in most cases, I couldn’t really tell what country or language a poetry had come from until I checked.”


If poetry aspires to the condition of music, then maybe translated poetry aspires to the condition of… world music? C.K. Williams, quoted above from an essay in the March 2009 issue of Poetry, surveys the world of his office and says:
“Here are some of the poets that are with me on my desk or the table next to it as I write this: two different translations of Osip Mandelstam’s poems; a book of translations of Giacomo Leopardi; a collection of Thomas Wyatt; another of Gerard Manley Hopkins; an anthology entitled New European Poets, which includes poems from every possible nook and cranny of Europe; a book of essays of Eugenio Montale, as well as his last book of poetry, It Depends, the astonishing singularity of which I only recently came to appreciate; Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies;’ a collection of Blake; Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire, in French; a book of translations of early Celtic poetry, with those magical strings of modifiers; a translation by Marilyn Hacker of a contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette, whose work I’m not familiar with, but which I plan to read soon; and several anthologies of English and American poetry.”
Doesn’t sound like he’s bragging with that list: my own desk (thanks for asking about it on another Harriet thread, Jason!) sounds suspiciously like Williams’s, and I’m sure yours does too. Greatness, much maligned this past week, has nothing to do with it! Au contraire! Williams finds the same small, still voice in all those books of translations… it’s what often gets called translatorese, a kind of Esperanto for the well-intentioned.
I’ve always thought it curious that during a kind of 16th-century Golden Age of Translation into English, poets would translate works from Latin and Greek for a readership that was far more likely to know the original languages of texts than we are today. And the effect could be dramatic – as Hannibal Hamlin from the Folger Shakespeare Library put it in a recent letter to the TLS, it was
“George Chapman’s Homer that sent Keats into raptures, and it was Arthur Golding’s Ovid that Ezra Pound called (extravagantly) ‘the most beautiful book in the language.’ Virgil was translated by Gavin Douglas and the Earl of Surrey, Plutarch by Thomas North, and the Greek and Roman lyric poets by almost everyone. This was also the age that produced the English Bibles of Tyndale, Coverdale, and the translators of the Geneva and the ‘Authorized’ Version, as well as the Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney (among hundreds of others).”
Today, by contrast (according to Williams),
“there has been what surely has to be called a globalization of art, and a nearly instantaneous awareness, especially in the market-driven visual arts, of what is happening in other aesthetics. Whether this is all for the good, I’m not certain. While I was reading the anthology of contemporary European poetry I mentioned before, I was struck by how much its poems tended to sound alike: in most cases, I couldn’t really tell what country or language a poetry had come from until I checked. I thought at first that perhaps the almost universal commitment to free verse was the reason for this apparent homogenization, which is a rather distressing thought. It may have been instead because all the translators of the poems in the book were working in American English, and hadn’t sufficiently taken into account the subtleties of the original languages.”
Williams says that the current interest in literary translation has its roots in a search for new stylistic tricks “during the the late fifties and early sixties, when much of the poetry being written in America seemed to have become overly formalized, self-referential, stale, and, if I dare use the word, spiritually lifeless.”
The problem is that
“Styles are always striving to perfect themselves, by which I mean that styles have inherent in them the potential for enactments that no longer depend on anything but the demands of the style itself: neither matter, content, nor, in other words, world. Stylistically, art is always moving from the transparent to the opaque, from trying to make encompassing and as comprehensive as possible its relations with reality, to a state in which its formal dexterity comes to be its most essential requirement. When this happens, usually during the late moments of an artistic era, the execution of style becomes an end in itself, the end in itself: art becomes style displaying itself, preening, showing off. This is when an artistic style becomes decadent. Decadence in itself isn’t intrinsically bad, it’s unavoidable, and some of the very greatest art is created at the end of the innovation-decadence cycle. What happens then, though, is that some subtle line is crossed, and the gloriously decadent becomes the offensively empty, sterile, and, with no longer any portion of the quest of the artist’s blundering soul a part of it, produces work that is lifeless, stillborn.”
The first art works were apparently made in caves, where the artists had to illuminate darkness, and reaching out to others had severe limits. That world was at the farthest remove from what we now call the global. So… do we reach inward or outward? Can we do both?
Another thing I read in the TLS (how global of me!) was an essay by Jon Garvie that had this to say:
“Discussions of globalization share one similarity – an inability to decide what the term means. In the absence of definition, commentators rely on description. Globalization reveals its true nature in the credit crunch, or the growth of international civil society, or the Nepalese Maoists who mythologize their rebellions in the language of New York hip hop artists. It could denote American cultural and economic imperialism. Or, for the more hopeful, it is the rise of global values and human rights. These disagreements exist among those who give it credence. Another area of study devotes itself to denying that the term has any worth. However you approach it, globalization is a messy idea for an anxious world.”
In an anxious world – and what world isn’t anxious? – I don’t suppose any qualms will shake the noble resolve of poets to translate other poets, and there will always be readers who need translations. As Williams concludes:
“All over the world, if not every day then in every age, beautiful paintings and poems and pieces of music and buildings are generated: one can almost imagine little flaring lights on the surface of the earth, like those seen in photos from space, though they are much more sparse and scattered than the illuminating devices that bespeckle our globe. And then over time these embodiments of the beautiful are harvested, amassed, collected in books, in museums, in concert halls, to be distributed into the lives of individual human beings, to become crucial elements of their existence. Often, our experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul. For don’t those first stirrings of that eternally uncertain, barely grasped notion of something more than mere mind, mere thought, mere emotion, usually first come to us in the line of a poem, a passage of music, of the unreal yet more-than-real image in a painting? And isn’t it also the case after all that beauty is the one true thing we can count on in a world of insufferable uncertainty, of constant moral conflicts?”
Institutions like museums and magazines, and concepts like “beauty” and “eternity,” are under attack and sound pretty quaint these days – “shit on the curatorial,” as the manifesto says – but if you’re a cautious optimist like Garvie, you can hope for the best:
“Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel – these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible and, above all, let finance be primarily national. Yet, at the same time, those who seek to disembarrass a country of its entanglements should be very slow and wary. It should not be a matter of tearing up roots but of slowly training a plant to grow in a different direction. That practice of national horticulture now looks resurgent. Globalization brings connections, but no convergence towards consensus.”
The best, I was going to say, of both worlds, but we all know there’s only one.

Comments (27)

  • On February 27, 2009 at 6:12 pm Boyd Nielson wrote:

    Don, this is a fine post, and I especially like the way you remind us that translation has a history. Certainly, as your post makes clear, it was also implicated in the Reformation (indeed, the Reformation would be almost inconceivable without it). As such, translation was at times central to disputes about political power and Biblical interpretation and, through the Royal Society, to disputes about science. (Anyone interested in this topic should not fail to read David Norton’s magisterial A History of the Bible as Literature and Jonathan Sheehan’s superb The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture.) Then as now translation was often seen as a double-edged sword, something that could elicit praise and anxiety on both sides of the Atlantic (especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). While it made possible the dissemination of God’s word, for instance, it could be used to undermine the interpretation and, in fact, authenticity of the scriptures. My points here are off topic, no doubt, but I have to mention that I happened to be rereading the other day a passage from Edward Johnson’s Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Savior in which the reader is warned, “and let not Satan delude you by perswading their [i.e. ordained ministers’] learned skill is unnecessary, soone then will the Word of God be slighted as translated by such, and you shall be left wildred with strange Revelations of every phantastic brain.” Even so, we should recall that what is recognized as the first book to be published in British North America was, quite famously, a poetic translation: The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. As you said recently in a different context, that’s progress for ya.

  • On February 28, 2009 at 1:49 am Brian Barker wrote:

    Interesting mention of the global language Esperanto!
    It’s unfortunate that most people still do not know that this comparatively new language has also become a living language.
    Confirmation can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670
    Otherwise http://www.lernu.net ?

  • On February 28, 2009 at 12:45 pm Johannes Goransson wrote:

    Don,
    There are a number of assumptions and arguments I find objectionable in this post. Perhaps I will deal with them in more detail on my own blog later today. But for now, let me make some brief responses:
    -Globalization is not some kind of benevolent “world music” factory, there is real power involved.
    - Poetry is not just a collection of formal tricks.
    - You may treat translation as an influx of new formal tricks to help American Poetry stave off “decadence”, but that suggests foreign literature is just some kind of medicine for American Poetry, that it isn’t literature in its own right.
    - In fact, it is typical of a empire-like power like ours that we can treat the rest of the world as a style mart where we can go and get a little invigoration.
    - When Bly, Rothenberg and others translated European and Latin American poetry in the 1960s it was precisely to get away from the Formalism of New Criticism and the poetry it had led to (Lowell etc, who still appears to be the model for your moribund Poetry Magazine). But these folks had a much more dynamic relationship with the Euros than CK Williams suggests.
    - CKW (and you by implication) suggest that foreign literature no longer offers anything new to American poetry, that we already know it all. This is a strange assertion to make based on one anthology. It suggests a whole bunch of arrogance mixed with even more ignorance.
    - Part of the problem here is the nature of anthologies: By offering little snippets of poets’ careers they tend to create a homogenized effect. But this is true of any anthology of American Poetry as well. Or just Modern Poetry: It all sounds the same.
    - Another problem: is, as my comment above suggests, that if you lack the right framework, everything sounds the same. Thus to some, all modern poetry is the same (it all lacks rhyme or whatever); but to someone else, the difference between Pound and Eliot is enormous.
    - Another problem with anthologies like New European Poets is that you have American poets making selections of foreign poetry. Many of these poets knew very little if anything about the foreign literature in question. Many of them were also older, people nostalgic for the poetry translated by Bly and Co. back in the 60s and bound to pick works that fit that mold stylistically.
    - In defense of NEP, Prufer and Miller frame their anthology as a way to begin an exploration of European poetry, an incitement, and unfinished project. At first I was skeptical, thinking people would probably just read it like CK and Don and say: OK, I’ve got my Euro fix now I can get back to reading American poetry. But since its publication I’ve received correspondence that suggests other people are indeed taking it as an incitement for further reading.
    - Part of the problem with further reading is that not much else is available from these poets. In our translation-phobic American Poetry not much foreign literature is published. Thus many people are actively looking but not finding that deeper engagement with the foreign literature that Prufer and Miller call for.
    - An Anecdote: Recently I was urged to submit some translations for Poetry Magazine’s translation issue. I was hesitant because I find the journal entirely reactionary and lifeless, but I did submit finally some translations by Swedish poet Ann Jaderlund, arguably the most important post 1980s poet in Sweden ( she sells more copies of her poetry in Sweden than the most famous American poets sell here, in a country 30 times the size of Sweden, and her books are debated in the national newspapers etc, she even has a literary historic landmark named after her “The Ann Jaderlund Debates” that raged in the late 1980s, signifying the onset of a younger generation of women poets). While the journal had recently published the work of Hakan Sandell, a completely insignificant figure in Swedish poetry but notably well within the conservative aesthetics of Poetry Magazine, the journal rejected my Jaderlund submission.
    - This to me suggests a couple of things. It shows the importance of the American Filter (in this case Poetry Magazine): The journal does not want things that are different, but want its aesthetics confirmed. No wonder we don’t find out about interesting foreign writers, if our publishers and journals are unwilling to embrace their difference.
    - It is also significant because Jaderlund is in fact included in Miller’s and Prufer’s book. The Swedish section was edited by Rika Lesser, a poet and noted translator who has a very fine understand of the Swedish language but who objects to most Swedish poetry written after 1980. Despite this handicap she put together a very brief selection of Swedish poetry that is unquestionably more varied and dynamic than any issue of Poetry Magazine I’ve read over the past few years. The same is true of a number of those sections. For example, I thought the Ukraine section really good.
    - I finally want to say that there is a fundamental problem with anthologies of this nature in general: They create the illusion that we can “represent” a national literature. That literatures are static etc. Americans can go out and look into a nation’s poetry and take what we want. And by implications: there is an American Poetry. I prefer to read across national boundaries not out of some ethical stance but because it’s the best way for me to find interesting poetry.
    - So while I have some reservations about Miller/Prufer’s anthology I think we should treat it like the beginning not an end. Don and CK treat it like an end, and they’re worse off for it.
    - Finally I want to call attention to your strange statements about “translatese.” This has long, as Lawrence Venuti notes in his books, been the code word for what is wrong about foreign lit in translation: it sounds “off.” Of course it is also to some extent the desired effect according to various German Romantics (and later Benjamin) who called for translation not to move the foreign text to the target language, but to allow the foreign text to deform the target language. However, you suggest that there is a static effect called “translatese,” and that sounds like nothing so much as an attempt to denude the very dynamic process involved in translation. There is no one “translatese” just as there is no one English language. Part of the threat of translation to powerful and conservative institutions such as your own is the way it undoes the illusion of a static English language, a static Literature.
    - The other great importance of translation is of course not at all as formalist as that notion: the ideas of the foreign enters our own literature. For an example of this, see Lara Glenum’s article about Swedish poet Aase Berg in our most recent issue of http://www.actionyes.org. Here is an American poet who takes a foreign writer seriously, not just as a trinket shop. And it’s one of the best essays written about Berg (as Berg told me in an email). Or look at Jen Hofer’s work with Mexican women poets.
    Best,
    Johannes

  • On February 28, 2009 at 4:42 pm Don Share wrote:

    Johannes,
    Please don’t connect Williams’ opinions “by implication” with my own; I was characterizing and quoting from his piece in this post. For what it’s worth: I agree more with you than I ever could with CKW. I’m sorry for the confusing way I wrote this all up. One exception is that I do see lots of static language (translatorese) in translations – notably not in yours – and in my own translations I struggle to avoid it. I don’t want to wash dirty linen, to use a cliched phrase, in public, but since you bring it up: there was a split decision here about your translations, and we wanted to see more. There was actually a lot of enthusiasm about the submission, although it’s true that things didn’t work out in the end; given your low opinion of the magazine, perhaps it was for the best. Also for what it’s worth, one of Rika Lesser’s translations of Sonnevi is forthcoming in the magazine.
    On a happier note, Johannes’ translations of Aase Berg were the hit of AWP: a well-deserved success. Check out With Deer from Black Ocean.
    http://www.blackocean.org/with-deer
    Best,
    Don

  • On February 28, 2009 at 4:46 pm Johannes Goransson wrote:

    Don,
    Sorry, I misread you.
    Johannes

  • On February 28, 2009 at 5:01 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Johannes,
    You said: “Recently I was urged to submit some translations for Poetry Magazine’s translation issue. I was hesitant because I find the journal entirely reactionary and lifeless…”
    What on earth are you talking about? There’s lots in Poetry that’s not my cup of tea, either, but the magazine has been publishing all sorts of non-”reactionary” stuff, from special supplements of VizPo, to Jack Spicer, to poems by people like Ange Mlinko, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, and so on. You sound like you think Poetry is still in the same category as The Sewanee Review or The New Criterion (maybe the only two magazines left, by the way, not open to “post-avant” writing, which is now very much the flip side of the Mainstream coin).
    Just because some of your translations were rejected doesn’t mean there is some kind of ideological cabal in Chicago out to marginalize the “avant-garde.” It’s a different time, because there IS no avant-garde.
    You should submit more translations, which are excellent!
    Kent

  • On February 28, 2009 at 5:05 pm Johannes Goransson wrote:

    Don,
    If you want to remove my letter, I can send you one that does not implicate you.
    Also, I agree with you assesment of “translatese” sometimes being the fetishization of a certain foreign-sounding language; but I think this too fits within my critique of the attempt to control something that is very challenging about translation – solidifying what translated texts should sound like.
    As for washing dirty linens, I don’t think of that as private. For me it’s very instructive how foreign literatures are filtered through our institutions. I don’t have anything personal against you or Fred or whoever for not accepting my translations. I just think it’s revealing.
    Sorry to be harsh about your journal, but that’s how I feel about it. (I also wrote a longer description of what I see as its problems on my blog a while back in case you’re interested.)
    Johannes

  • On February 28, 2009 at 5:13 pm Don Share wrote:

    Not a problem, Johannes. I’m grateful for the dialogue, in fact, as well as for your work. Fair point about being public, etc. – after all, these threads are called “Translation and its discontents”!!

  • On March 1, 2009 at 4:05 am Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl wrote:

    These are interesting thoughts.
    Incidentally there are no Icelandic poets in the collection, from what I can see (I haven’t seen the book, but I found an online table of contents). And Iceland certainly is both a nook and a cranny of Europe, has a rich history of literature, at least compared to it’s size, and even a nobel prize winner to it’s name. Not that I usually feel like defending Icelandic poetry – quite the contrary I usually find myself on the other side of that fence. But I get the feeling that this was more a decision stemming from lack of ambition than a decided stance against the Icelandic poetry on offer. I’d dare say the editors probably just had no (to very little) clue. There’s not been very much poetry translated into English from Icelandic – especially not contemporary poetry – pure and simply because there’s not a lot of people that speak the language. So I guess it gets forgotten. I’d be personally thrilled if it could get rejected on it’s own merits, rather than by the default of noone knowing anything about it (and I’m guessing this goes for Scandinavians as well – Johannes?)
    A few examples I’ve personally done recently can be read here: http://www.norddahl.org/english/tag/trans-series
    I find the ideas of translatese fascinating – and although I might agree that static language needs to be avoided I find the threat of an overly normalized language more imminent. That is to say: language that makes the strange-in-the-foreign familiar-like-the-domestic. One part of reading a literary work in translation, one of the fascinations for me personally in reading foreign (let alone exotic) literature is the thrill of the new, the unfamiliar – I don’t go to Egypt for the McDonalds, heck I don’t even go the US for the McDonalds (while proper diners rule supreme). So when I come to foreign literature I expect the translator not to have squared out the pyramids in his or her attempt to avoid translatese, or foreignese. Some translations end up being a global McDonalds – a diner that looks the same all over the world and has none of the charm of an actual american diner.
    In a recent book of poems from Linh Dinh, Jam Alerts, there is a poem in the form of a book review on the poetry translations of a man named Reggis Tongue – and Reggis deals in unnormalised translations. The poem quotes a prologue by Reggis to his selected translations:
    “Slovenly translators – bums, basically – think they have to choose between music and sense. To pin down meanings, many of them squash the tune. To ape the melody, they ditch or deface the semaphores. They don’t realize that syntax is melody. A translator must ignore the indigineous drumming echoing in his lumpy head and obey the alien word-order, rhythm of what he’s translating. Make it strange – never try to domesticate a foreign poem!”
    I’ve written about this in more detail here, if anyone’s interested: http://www.norddahl.org/english/2007/09/you-are-a-pipe/

  • On March 1, 2009 at 8:05 am thomas brady wrote:

    Johannes,
    I think all CK Williams is saying is that if you want to know Sweden, watching a stand-up comic on youtube with subtitles or reading a National Geographic article will help you more than reading Swedish Expressionist Poetry in English translation.
    “I’m Swedish poetry! Read me!” isn’t going to cut it.
    First, there’s a line; Senegal and Swaziland are ahead of you. They’ve got poets, too.
    Secondly, poets seek poetry; why in the world would they seek Swedish poetry, per se? Poets, and intellectuals in general, are taught to embrace everything that’s different, so Florida, for instance, or Cleveland, or Nebraska, is going to be just as interesting to them as Sweden. New York City will be a little more interesting to them because it’s bigger.
    Thirdly, we do live on a ’global’ globe, so an English translation of a poem written by an educated person from Sweden is not going to be necessarily different than a poem written by an educated person from Nebraska.
    Fourthly, Americans are still impressed when they see the word ‘Europe;’ so even though, intellectually, we understand that just because a poet is from Oslo or Berlin, it does not mean his poetry will be any more interesting than if that poet is from Nebraska, we still have higher expectations when we see ‘Europe,’ gracing the front of a poetry book, since American intellectuals all heart Europe to some extent. This might be a minor point, but these higher expectations don’t help European translations.
    I might just add one more point that is seldom discussed. Even intellectuals love their own country–not in jingoistic fashion, but with genuine love. I’ll be honest with you; I thank my lucky stars I’m American and not Swedish, and I don’t mean this in a gloating way at all; I think it’s just important to realize that even intellectuals have feelings which are connected to accidents of time and place. If I had Swedish friends or family, this chance connection would no doubt add to my sympathy and interest in Sweden. This is natural. But European demands to Americans to ‘Love my poetry!’ have nothing to do with accident, and they must, therefore, pass the most rigorous tests.
    I have nothing against Sweden or its poets or its intellectuals and I support Don‘s friendly overtures and wish you all the best; I just wanted to be honest about some of the obstacles to Swedish poetry appreciation–which I’m sure everyone would agree, whether they are “reactionary” or not, is an abstract good.
    Thomas

  • On March 1, 2009 at 3:06 pm johannes goransson wrote:

    Thomas,
    I have no idea what you’re talking about. I can’t see what on earth you are talking about.
    I used Swedish poetry as an example because that’s what I have experience with. Sure, take Sengalese if you want. I’m sure if that’s what I translated I could come up with similar anecdotes.
    My point is this: we cannot complain that foreign poetry is not very different from our own if we publish only poets who follow our aesthetic, even if those poets are insignificant in their native country. Then foreign poetry will indeed not be different.
    To some extent this will always be true since there is no official literature to represent in English.
    Kent,
    I said nothing about Kabbala. Or Avant-Garde.
    See my blog for further response.
    Johannes

  • On March 1, 2009 at 6:13 pm mearl wrote:

    Don,
    To get back to your original post, I’ll first say that I find linking Williams’s essay in Poetry with Garvie’s in the TLS to be a wonderful juxtaposition. The thread has so far ignored (except for the first comment by Boyd) what you’re doing in the post.
    Garvie writes about the macro issues of culture and economics, the nation state in the globalized context, and Williams, the micro world of poetry and how difficult it is for a poet, especially a well-traveled one like C.K.W. to see reflected all around him (on his desk, for the purposes of his essay) a kind of dumbing down of cultural difference, a Hollywood version of foreign literatures. What he finds difficult to stomach is not translation itself, but the translation of foreign poetries into the American “house style”. His criticism, in essence, is of American facility, American hubris and American marketing procedures, and the fact that many translators have failed to take “into account the subtleties of the original languages.”
    Garvie’s distinction between the globalization of political life (the world of trade, geopolitical cooperation, the swapping of ideas, the concept of international law) and the local life of cheeses and mushrooms and, finally, currencies – since he is a bit of a Euro-sceptic – parallels Williams’s argument about the lack of respect for the idiosyncrasies of world literature. The difference between them is the difference between Europeans and Americans. The Europeans want to preserve their own idiosyncrasies, while the Americans want to preserve everyone else’s.
    I find Williams’s discussion of decadence and the necessities of style brilliant. And its connection to the discontents of translation is obvious. In the end, the translation of one generation will reflect the literary qualities and capacities of that generation. As you say, there is only one world and it is both local and cosmopolitan. Garvie is right about the difficulty of defining globalization. And translation wears that difficulty on its sleeves. The real translators are the ones that have gone over in a certain way. Which means they have given up a part of their own culture, and this is a kind of violence against one’s own psyche. It makes them tougher and more demanding than the others, the ones that Williams finds insipid.
    There is a new generation of translators that rival the masters of the craft and that will prove to be equal to the generation of Fitzgerald, Arrowsmith and Hamburger. Eshelman’s work, Mitchell’s work, form a bridge to the best of the younger linguists, who are doing amazing work, and who are both more gifted poetically and even more scholarly than their predecessors.
    Martin

  • On March 2, 2009 at 6:51 am FREEDOMFREE wrote:

    TRANSLATE
    DRINK , OR ADD MORE INK ,
    IT MAKES YOU WINK , AND MAYBE THINK ,
    IF YOU DID NOT KNOW , I TRY TO OH ,
    WAKE UP THE BEST , I GUESS ,
    WITH GOOD REST , I GUESS ,
    YOU WOULD RYHME FOR LESS , I GUESS ,
    YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN , I GUESS ,
    YOUR NOT A MACHINE , I GUESS ,
    KEEP THE DREAM , I REST ,
    FOR ALL THAT IT SEEMS , A MESS ,
    MIRACLES BRING , BACK THE REST .

  • On March 2, 2009 at 8:00 am johannes goransson wrote:

    Martin,
    Thanks for that bit of clarification. I haven’t read the original essays Don refers to, so I misunderstood him (and Williams) completely.
    Johannes

  • On March 2, 2009 at 3:20 pm Doodle wrote:

    … our world – the world of Globalization – is not a world of language communities [...] any more. Its dominant language is not “learned” by its speakers in the meaning of a mother tongue supposed by the language communities: I am of course thinking of English spoken as a Second or Nth language. Also the traditional language communities that often go together with the Nation States, are loosing their unitary character: instead of one, “proper”, Finnish, English, Portuguese, Chinese, we have an even more rapidly fragmenting nexus of special languages (those of various occupations, disciplines, localities, etc., not to speak of the constantly growing number of immigrant dialects). These special languages, jargons, slang, do in fact evolve within the frames of their respective general languages, but are not reducible to them – the influences over language borders often being of much greater importance. The interesting and crucially important thing about this development (both for the future of poetry and to that of the world) is – and this is my main claim, or hypothesis, in this paper – that it does not seem to lessen the possibilities for human interaction, as is sometimes, short-sightedly, claimed, but instead to increase them. We are, again, dealing with the question of the nature of human communality. As suggested, communality and belonging together, a feeling of togetherness, are often seen as mutually requisite. I want to claim the opposite – or to open an other angle: perhaps communality is better understood as an exposure to the language of the other, one that you will (never) understand completely, never “master”, but that at the same time, precisely for this reason, speaks to you, situates you in a certain place in the world – from where you, for your part, can start speaking – from which you, from the point of view of poetry, only can start speaking, not as an “individual”, as a given “member” of a community (a legal subject of a Social Contract) any more, but – if you please – as a singularity, as one, unique node of an endless multitude. You may be able to start to see what I mean when I speak about the possible social relevancy of the kind of poetry I’m proposing here. Indeed, the very dynamics of this poetry touches upon something that the world in its totality, too, is in desperate need of today. It is interesting, to me, to note that Negri is not far from what I’m after here when he writes: “Perhaps [a new common language] needs to be a new type of communication that functions not on the basis of resemblances but on the basis of differences: a communication of singularities.” I for my part would speak of the need and prospect for a new kind of World Poetry not yet in existence.
    – Leevi Lehto

  • On March 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm clara wrote:

    Congratulations Johannes, you are the post-avant Franz Wright–willing to travel to any url, day or night, to insulk, whine, and lecture even–as in this case–you are unfamiliar with the essays/writers you attack. This come down to hurt feelings (in this you are like Silliman who regularly negatively reviews anthos/journals that don’t include he & his posse pretty much because they don’t include his posse)–POETRY wouldn’t publish your poems so you fling guano. Wah-wah.

  • On March 3, 2009 at 4:39 pm james stotts wrote:

    our tendency to look back has become a disorder–not only has every town canonized its ‘cultural heritage’ for tourist consumption, but there are art museums everywhere, every anthology expects to tap into this ‘eternity,’ honestly, doesn’t it sometimes feel like the whole world is being made into a museum?! and if it isn’t ‘great’ it’s ‘retro’ which is cool…why? i don’t know what i would call all of this exactly, and i definitely wouldn’t argue that it’s something new and unique in our modern world–homer, nietzsche, agamben–they’ve all had their finger on the ‘society of the spectacle.’
    artists though, it would seem to me, are as interested in profaning all of this as celebrating it–that is, anthologies aren’t our favorite things, and we hate almost everything that gets called poetry. it’s not that we ignore the schlock, but that we are opposed to its very order:
    “Really, cultures have no imagination or integrity, and genius always operates at odds with or outside of culture; it is synthesis by means of rejection. Great poetry is always one of our last reserves of courage—acultural, amoral, greater than other kinds of heritage, deeper than language (inside of language). And it is almost always compromised to the verge of insignificance. That is why it should be discovered and translated, as aliment and remedy for the culture, as argument against cowardice.”
    translation is a struggle along these lines, it would seem to me. that is, when it at its best, not at its official academic cowardly worst. sometimes it’s bad just due to lack of imagination, sometimes it’s politically compromised (politics, as i would define it, is the subversion of personal integrity for social image), and sometimes it’s obvious that the translators aren’t passionate about what they’re doing–we should translate the poems we love, that seems the only decent motive to me–so we can learn to love them in the poetic way–read them ad infinitum–or find out their failures–read them ad nauseam.

    another funny thing i’ve noticed, and maybe it’s because i disliked school so much (grade school, undergraduate, postgraduate, you name it) and was so dissatisfied with the methods and egos there, but i never felt that almost instantaneous awareness of foreign aesthetics–russian futurism, symbolism, imaginism, zaum, etc. were all things i learned, painfully slowly, while i struggled with the poems under those banners. trying to cope with a whole language–from its linguistics, to its history, to its poets–is time-intensive and imagination-intensive. there are far too many experts out there, who have far too little feeling for what they do–just over-learned bags of bad habits.
    i know i sound a little angry here, and my spit is pretty carefully aimed on the academy, so i’ll just say that in and out of the university are people who act against it and who reinforce it, and even within single faculties there is enough diversity to throw things out of whack–that is, i know universities aren’t homogeneous, or even functional, and so they make an easy target. the problem, i think, is a basic one, that doesn’t have any solution, that can’t be changed on any social scale–and that is: littleness of imagination. it’s amazing that there’s good poetry or art at all to fascinate us, it happens against all odds, and with a regularity that makes me optimistic.

  • On March 4, 2009 at 8:05 am james stotts wrote:

    and about the problem of overstylized american english, of all foreign poetry sounding like modern poetry, and so being made to sound like a single modernism:
    i have to confess, that when i was working on tsvetaeva (who is almost impossible to translate (completely impossible, according to celan) and looking for solutions and ways of working with her style, her drive, etc., that i decided to start looking back to early 20th century women whose work might give me the right words, the startling prospective, to remind me of ways language can be used that i’m not used to using in my own writing. first of all, i was convinced she had a million things in common with dickinson, and not just all the dashes–but i was reading bogan, h.d., moore, mina loy–and i know it affected my own translations (i meant for it to) even though i can’t say exactly how since i never worked with a systematic approach.
    i know, this is sexist (it would be feminist if a woman translator did it), reductive, unfair to tsvetaeva, unfair to both languages, is counter-intuitive if what i want to express tsvetaeva’s unique voice and argue for her special place in poetry. but i was pretty happy with the results, and it was a very productive move on my part.
    i know some who told me the only solution might be homophonic translation, since she created meaning out of sound (think, zukofsky’s catullus). so i toyed around with that, too, and got a few fortuitous words out of it.
    openness is important. and, in the end, all that matters is if you can write some decent poems, which takes all the resources one has.

  • On March 4, 2009 at 1:41 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Doodle,
    Resemblances and differences always mutually depend on each other. You sound a bit ‘pie-in-the-sky’ for my taste, though I appreciate you disliking the herd. Who doesn’t want to stand out from the herd?
    As for differences, this was my point up thread when I said a (translated) Swedish stand-up comic making fun of Danes and Finns would teach us a great deal more about Sweden than Swedish Expressionist poetry translated into English. Not that I want to make poetry unfairly compete against other genres, but ultimately I don’t think we can escape from this kind of ‘competition.’ If this kind of comparison is not flattering to poetry, that’s too bad. Poets shouldn’t live in some inflated, fantasy world, should they? Won’t they just be worse poets for it, in the end?
    James,
    “Great poetry is always one of our last reserves of courage—acultural, amoral, greater than other kinds of heritage, deeper than language (inside of language).” This sounds ‘pie-in-the-sky’ also. Why is the amoral courageous? In fact, it could be argued that morality and courage are the same.
    Thomas

  • On March 4, 2009 at 4:22 pm james stotts wrote:

    are great poets necessarily good people? if not, then courage and morality aren’t the same thing. the poet who continues to be important is the one who is still complicating his justification of life and logic, which is the opposite of making all the possible arguments–it’s an attempt to formulate the impossible one.
    i hesitated to respond to any of thomas brady’s comments before, for what i think should be obvious reasons, but…
    my two cents.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 8:57 am james stotts wrote:

    as a note about all the babel: in her famous elegy to rainer maria rilke, marina tsvetaeva noted that in the afterlife we become ‘not nil, but all-tongued.’
    that is, it’s only in heaven[s] that languages ever correspond.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 10:12 am thomas brady wrote:

    James,
    Could a great pickpocket ever be a good person because he is a great pickpocket?
    Let us say no person is necessarily good, no matter how great a poet they are.
    So we absolutely sever then, in terms of cause and effect, these two types of good, but in order to do so, we must be cognizant of these two types of good, and one of those is moral, and the other is skill, and by severing them, we say a skill never makes someone moral. and so if we cannot say a great poet is a great poet because they are moral, we also cannot say a great poet is a great poet because they are amoral. And this is what you said.
    And now you say the great poet formulates “impossible” arguments.
    Again, it sounds like you are pounding a square peg into a round hole. It sounds you are like spouting, which God knows, we all do. Look at me. What did I say? “It could be argued that morality and courage are the same.” I think I still might safely say that. If you’re in the mood to respond, I’d be curious as to what you think.
    Thomas

  • On March 5, 2009 at 10:30 am james stotts wrote:

    maybe you’re confusing amoral for immoral; i’m saying morality is beside the point. and that a justification of life is the impossible argument that they (we) are attempting to make possible through a logic of poetics; it’s impossibility is what makes it an endless struggle, and the fact that all the unsatisfactory arguments have to be put behind. this last point i think is an interpretation of faulkner’s imperative to kill our darlings that makes more sense than the cornball one i hear all the time (e.g., faulkner’s telling us that sometimes we have to edit out our prettiest lines in order to streamline our writing).
    the poet doesn’t formulate impossible arguments, in the plural. he is looking for a way to formulate the single argument that will give his life meaning–something harder to come by the more critical he is of himself, the more he sees of the world, the closer he gets to a death that can’t be avoided.
    and i’m out.

  • On March 5, 2009 at 1:12 pm thomas brady wrote:

    James,
    Thanks for responding.
    I’m not confusing amoral and immoral; only an immoral person would do that! Amoral is the last refuge of the immoral.
    However, you did describe “poetry” as amoral, and not the poet, so in that case I will agree with you, but only in the sense that Poe articulated: a tale should have “a moral,” but the moral should be artistically concealed.
    When you say “justification of life,” do you mean in Milton’s phrase “justifying the ways of God to men?” Are we in the realm of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor? How do we reconcile God with evil? Is that what you mean? And how is the “logic of poetics” attempting to do that for you? I’m curious.
    Actually, in the workshop circles I run in, “klil your darlings” is uttered all the time.
    “looking for a way to formulate the single argument that will give his life meaning-” This is very, very ambitious, I think, for poetry, and you’ve got me beat there, but all power to you!
    If you want to explain a little bit more, I’d love to hear, but I understand if you feel this is not the place.
    Thomas

  • On March 7, 2009 at 4:01 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Thought this might be relevant to the topic, just sent under Ron Silliman’s post of Friday,
    March 6.
    Kent
    ***
    Quoting a paragraph entire, as the statement really is quite extraordinary:
    >”Just as glaring an absence I would think is the complete absence of poetry in translation, or in another language. Part of this, of course, may well be that very little literature in translation genuinely qualifies on its own as great literature – The Rubiyat, The King James Bible, that just might be the entire roster.”
    “Of course”? A lot of unpacking to do with that little interjection alone, Ron. There are cake-layers of apparent assumptions about “translation” in your claim. Here are a few quick questions, for starters:
    The unstated but evident premise of your dictum above is that literary “greatness” is a function of “origin” and “authenticity.” This seems ironic, to say the least, coming from you. Are you asserting that an original work in one language is always and necessarily aesthetically superior to any of its possible transmutations within others? How would you defend such logocentrism, if you’ll pardon that term?
    More specifically, do you mean such paucity of “greatness” is characteristic of “literature in translation” *in principle,* as in translation in *all* languages, or do you mean just in English? If the former, general case, and safely assuming you are highly fluent in no more than, say, seven Indo European languages, how do you know?
    Or if the latter (i.e., just English), do you more strictly mean translation in “formal,” “literal” modes? *If you don’t* mean that, and you indeed believe that translation in principle is more or less incapable of achieving literary significance, on what theoretical basis do you argue this? After all, there has long been a range of the possible in translation practice, including (nothing new in saying so) the seeking of deeper fidelities through strategies–sometimes radical–of linguistic and cultural dynamic equivalence. If such creative approaches are legitimate options within the task of translation, which they certainly are, what exactly are the ipso-facto elements that prevent translations in such “freer” modes from ever reaching high literary achievement
    – or as you put it, becoming “great”? (In fact, the two works you mention as constituting the tiny roster of exceptions are examples of creative translation–FitzGerald’s text is significantly invention, actually–so you can perhaps see the corner you’re painting yourself into…)
    Are you saying that no work among the many Renaissance translations of classical literature, for example, rises to the quality of literary greatness? (If you would like me to list you some candidates in English and Spanish, let me know. But so much, I guess, for Keats’s impressions of Chapman’s Homer!)
    More up to date, are you saying that Pound’s Cathay, which changed the whole history of modern English-language poetry, is not a great work of literature? Or if it is, is it because it’s not a *real* work of translation?
    Likewise, are you saying that Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s Catallus is not a great literary work? Or would you argue that it is great but not a work of “translation”? Again, which one is it not, since the logic of your pronouncement fairly prevents it from being both.
    Just kind of scratching the surface here in mild stupefaction…
    But I have always wondered, Ron, why, in your great outpouring, you hardly ever mention poetries outside English, which of course leads directly into matters of translation. After reading your quote above, I’m honestly wondering if the answer is this: that the subject is largely off your poetic radar. That would be a shame, if so. Because there’s no American Tree without the water of the other, brother.
    Kent

  • On March 7, 2009 at 9:37 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Pretty bad timing, I see, on sending that comment above, given the loss in Ron’s family. There is nothing untoward in the comment, but I feel bad about the circumstances of it, since the loss obviously far exceeds in importance any controversy of the moment.
    Kent

  • On May 5, 2009 at 6:15 pm Patrick Cotter wrote:

    Goransson bewrays himself to be deeply unreliable through his remarks concerning Haaken Sandell.


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, February 27th, 2009 by Don Share.