Translation, Conceptualism, Exoticism, Imperialism, & Why Kenneth Goldsmith isn't as Charming as David Larsen

so after all the discussions about translation, i ordered david larsen's names of the lion from atticus finch. i heart atticus finch--the most beautiful chapbooks ever.

i also read larsen's talk "translation as conceptual writing practice," presented at small press traffic in sept 2009. in this talk, larsen discusses names of the lion and various ideas he has about translation & conceptualism. even though much blood has been spilled discussing translation here at harriet, i think larsen's talk brings up some interesting points that we havent yet discussed. i would love to hear your thoughts on larsen's ideas, and i will of course share my own in the comments.


[on translation & exoticism][nb: these categories are my own and do not appear in larsen's talk]:

Again, I could wax poetic & really give you a speech about the beauty of [Arabic lexicographic texts], the rare gems of exotic knowledge they contain and so on. Which is part of the problem – exoticism, I mean, because in case you hadn’t noticed that kind of thing has been done before. I should define what I mean by exoticization: fetishization of otherness, where the appetite that’s being provoked and satisfied is a desire for novelty. It’s possible to put a positive value on exoticization; Gary Sullivan and Nada Gordon did that in a talk they gave here 4 years ago, what was its title. To me, that avenue is closed off, in part because of the academic environment I’m trying to work in. The effect of the exotic depends on lack of knowledge, which is what academic discourse is designed to overcome. [...] Of course I feel [the pull of the exotic] – it’s what got me into Arabic in the first place, if you remember. But it’s not good for scholarship, and scholarship is what I want to continue doing. So as a poet, the question naturally comes up for me: what artistic uses can I put my academic work to?

[on the role of conceptualism in translation]:

The answer for me is in translation. I am planning a series of translations along the lines of Names of the Lion, where the translation of the medieval scholarly text is meant to circulate and be enjoyed as a contemporary poetic text, even though its author had no conception of it as such. In a sense this means changing its genre, from didactic prose to prose poetry. What makes that change possible is the promise of 21st-c. conceptual writing, which specializes in poetic conversions of non-poetic material, in a way I think everyone here understands.

[on translation and imperialism]:

And at this point I have to set myself opposite what I know to be the good side of translation, which is that it fosters communication btw/ the nations, makes individuals less provincial & so on. How often do we hear that Americans are stupid because they don’t read enough translations.

There’s another side to translation though – a bad conscience you might say. Because translation is a major part of the apparatus that keeps subaltern peoples subaltern. This may be counterintuitive: You might think that translation would typically go from the colonizer’s language into the language of the colonized, along the lines of “Voice of America.” And yes a lot of that goes on. It’s one reason the Bible is translated into so many languages. But translation from the language of the colonized to the lang. of the colonizer’s is the more characteristic direction of empire, because it’s empire that has the resources and the need to know about its subject populations. I take this for a universal feature of all literate empires. [...] And the history of translation of Arabic into European languages parallels exactly the European colonial practice in whose service it was carried out. I trust this isn’t an unfamiliar thesis to you – Edward Said’s Orientalism is still the standard text on it. It shows how academic knowledge about the Middle East has always gone hand in hand with imperial power, and that there is no Western approach to Arabo-Islamic culture that’s not engaged in it in some way. Certainly not my own! I’m under no illusions that my work is uncompromised or somehow neutral, because nothing in Middle Eastern scholarship is neutral.

[translation and the colonial enterprise]:

But my translation work is incorrigible, which is to say it’s totally outdated. There’s nothing I’m doing that wasn’t being done in the 19th c. And in that sense it’s a politically compromised way of going about my work.

I used to worry about this to the pt. of paralysis, in the 90’s. What kind of work could I do on Arabic texts that’s not complicit in a colonial enterprise? Then, 9/11 happened, and I hope it’s not too distasteful if I speak of that as my saving moment. Because with the wars that followed, and all the Arabic speakers rushing to work for the state dept. (including people I was in classes with), all of a sudden it seemed that as long as I wasn’t aiding the war effort in any way, I was OK. And so I hit on this paradoxical goal of inapplicability. As long as my work could never be made to assist in any practical way in the dispossession and marginalization of the Arab people, I would be in the clear. And that’s still more or less my stance, and it’s what makes these lexical texts so attractive to me. Their charm lies precisely because they answer no practical need. Who needs to know all the names for the lion? or the sword, or the camel saddle, or the cultivation of the palm tree?

[conceptualism & 'colonial residue']:

My hope is that the reframing work of conceptual writing will remove the colonial residue of the literary model, and cancel out its untimeliness. The translations I am doing are supposed to be outdated, that’s the point. Not only outdated, but inapplicable, i.e. useless – the way an old issue of the NYT might be, or old weather forecasts or sports broadcasts, and I think you see where I’m going with this idea.

The reframed text might still be useful for cultural anthropology – “oh, look what was in the paper that day” – but the point is the concept, which is its gestural force. As for a comparison of my work with Kenny Goldsmith’s, I’ll say there’s no mistaking the gesturality of what he does: it’s right out front, and he keeps it there with his principle of selection. He picks boring stuff that’s not likely to resist reframing. By contrast, in my efforts at translation and reframing the texts in question have enough intrinsic interest that they can be enjoyed on something like their own merits. Is that a conceptual liability? maybe. But I take it for granted that if KG had my training, my research skills, my attn. span and my wit and charm he’d be doing work that’s more like Names of the Lion than like his own.


does anyone know if this essay is online for those who might want to read it in its entirety?


Originally Published: February 15th, 2010

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of three collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008), from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn, 2010),...

  1. February 15, 2010
     John Oliver Simon

    David Larson does not lack for wit and charm. Names of the Lion, I love it. But would he hold that in order to avoid cultural imperialism we should straightly translate no literary work from Arabic? Would Arabic writers appreciate this stance?

  2. February 15, 2010
     Henry Gould

    I find this a subtle & intelligent post, interesting from many angles. & I don't like to typecast myself as the inveterate contrarian & spoiler. But I do believe poets should walk in fear of the free & easy application of "isms".\r

    Why? Well, let's apply a somewhat Borgesian twist to this post's argument out of Edward Said. I would suggest that the abuse of "isms" - generic labels used for polemic & political "shame" strategies - is a form of intellectual imperialism.\r

    No doubt translation has been used as one among a thousand means to an end in political power strategies. But this doesn't taint TRANSLATION per se. Such an argument is what I mean by the application of a generalization to enhance a moral claim : the tactic in turn is an intellectual strategy of moral status-enhancement, in a game of intellectual imperialism. See what I mean? Argument-by-generalization ends in a vicious circle.\r

    This is why lawyers & judges try to balance judgements of precedent by the particulars of each event. "Case-by-case basis." Otherwise you tend to fall into sweeping judgements of praise or condemnation which mis-characterize an actual situation.

  3. February 15, 2010
     Peter Greene

    I think my lack of multiple languages renders me incompetent to render here any verbal incontinence whatsoever. I think Richard Burton may have made up portions of his Arabian Nights wholesale, for what it is or isn't worth.\r

    Actually, if translators never fought and used social networks heavily and secretly, nobody would ever know when they were lying. The POWER that would bring! I shudder and wonder just what kinds of translations are done in this way, ones that don't involve spoken truths but the truth of image and glimpse (whispering) i mean the (shouting)Advertisers, who rule us all praise sales!\r

    And sales to you all this fine spring morning, which hopefully translates into bills paid and stacks of attican finches waiting for that shy sky-pie we writers deride outside.\r


  4. February 15, 2010

    Eep and heh. What Craig has excerpted here are the unproofread notes for my Sept. 19, 2009 talk at Small Press Traffic in San Francisco, sent to him in a friendly, unguarded spirit which I don't altogether regret despite my chagrin at seeing it posted in such a web-unready state. Here's how the talk ended: "You see why I'm in no hurry to publish this. If I don't manage to pull off this project, it'll be like 'ha, Dave Larsen was full of hot air.' Spoken into the air like this and then forgotten, my reputation is much safer." So much for that! I'm guessing this is how Aristotle would have felt about book Λ of his Metaphysics being published as is, i.e. kind of unstoked probably. So with this comment let me clear up a couple things.\r

    The above-mentioned talk by Nada Gordon and Gary Sullivan is entitled "The Autré," and was delivered at SPT on Oct. 14, 2005. That talk is far more deserving of an online afterlife, and happily it has one on Gary's blog Elsewhere. There you will find a more intelligent discussion of the category of “the exotic” than what can be recovered from my notes. Another piece I wish I could link to is the essay "Dragomen and Checkpoints" by Elliott Colla, which was written for a show of contemporary Middle Eastern artists called Tarjama/Translation and used to be viewable online but seems to have been taken down since the catalogue's publication (ArteEast, 2009). If you're looking for a professionally-informed perspective on Arabic literary translation then you really ought to read Colla's essay.\r

    As for the last of my remarks, and Craig's title for this post: When I say that I am prone to bursts of charmlessness and staggering lapses of wit, my friends will all agree. Would that explain my invidious self-comparison to the godfather of conceptual writing, even in the act of aligning myself with his movement? Do I take it back with a gentleman's apology? I'm afraid that can't be done. I've been saying this stuff for too long and to too many people (including his own publisher whom I consider a friend) to reverse myself now. I do apologize for my sententious tone as I type these words: There comes a time when we must scorn the consequences of our convictions, and that time has come to David Larsen on the Harriet blog. Paper is a precious resource. Let’s save it for what really matters.

  5. February 16, 2010

    hey lrsn, great to hear you here in the comments! eep indeed as i thot this talk was archived thru spt somewhere (as they sometimes do)--so my apologies! i posted these excerpts in a friendly way also--being quite compelled by your talk and your willingness in the talk to address difficult issues head on--issues that not many people are willing to confront. i really only hope this will move the conversation forward--and while i know you aren't able to respond to whatever comments may appear here--i hope you are able to poke your head and respond to whatever you feel like if you have a free chance. also, if your talk is being prepared for for publication, please let me know and i can take the excerpts down no problem (i just assumed the essay was already online--completely my fault). but while they are up--i would like to respond to some of the excerpts. \r


  6. February 16, 2010

    [on conceptualism & translation]\r

    interesting to think of conceptualism in terms of "poetic conversions of non-poetic material"--the urinal in the gallery...or the sports pages as poetry book--or in lrsn's case the lexicographic text as prose poem, as list poem, as chant. \r

    this might sound dumb, but i've never really felt that this kind of conceptual conversion is the specialty of conceptual poetry--or of 21st c conceptual poetry. i think the us modernists did it more interestingly (pound, moore, eliot, williams) and already. to me, the specialty of 21st c conceptual poetry is not the conversion itself, but the conceptuality of the concept of conversion. which is to say, the most successful conceptual poetry will foreground that conceptuality so that the text itself disappears within the concept. the ultimate measure of a successful 21st c conceptual poetic text is whether or not the reader will conceptualize buying the text without actually buying it. \r

    thus, THE NAMES OF THE LION is a failed conceptual translation because i actually bought a copy of it a few days ago. the most successful 21st c conceptual text is kent johnson's DAY because i thoroughly conceptualized buying it, but never will.

  7. February 16, 2010

    [on translation and imperialism]:\r

    i like what lrsn writes about 'literate empires'--an interesting phrase. and it's quite true that translation & imperialism have often (and sometimes continue) to go hand in hand--not just in the Middle East, but in the native Americas, Africa, and the Pacific (among other places). \r

    however, i do wonder about the idea that this kind of knowledge production is always already complicit in an imperial project. said's work does read this way theoretically (i.e. once jane austen is complicit then we all are--jk), but since his work is so historically embedded it's hard to tell what happens theoretically as time passes. what happens to the 'residue'.

  8. February 16, 2010

    [translation and the colonial enterprise]:\r

    the 'goal of inapplicability' is interesting as well. imagining lrsn the translator opposed to state dept arabic translators is a fascinating juxtaposition. i think this is a nice way to theorize a kind of non-intrusive, non-imperial translation practice. in some ways, it reminds me of duncan's position on poetry during the vietnam war...but perhaps that's a stretch...but if anyone wants to go there i'd be down to discuss more.

  9. February 16, 2010

    The mere idea of Kent Johnson's DAY is so insanely rebarbative that I almost wish such a book existed. Other than that, no hay pedo, Craig -- I'm glad to be part of the conversation, and grateful to you for keeping it going.

  10. February 16, 2010

    [conceptualism & 'colonial residue']:\r

    i wonder if what i mean by 'conceptuality' is what lrsn means by 'gesturality'. \r

    so conceptual writing removes the colonial residue? i'm not so sure about this...mainly cuz i don't think i entirely understand the idea of 'colonial residue.' \r

    i dont think the fact that the text lrsn translates are interesting themselves (even poetic in my opinion) makes his project a conceptual liability. in terms of conceptual poetry, it barely matters what the text is (a signed bidet is not much different than a signed urinal--yet i do think a bidet is quite poetic, tmi). again, it's the conceptuality of the concept that matters and not the resultant text. \r
    which i why i firmly believe that despite lrsn's research skills, charm, wit & attn span, he will continue to be a failure at conceptual translation because i will continue to buy his books--a sure sign that his work just aint conceptual enough.

  11. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    It actually does "exist." There's even a video of its production. And it's already in the Rare Books collections of a baker's dozen libraries!\r

    I think there's a review of it coming out in Jacket soon.

  12. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    David Larsen offers a very misleading squib on Said's position on translation. Where does Said condemn conventional modes of translation wholesale, as ipso facto "imperialist," as exceptionable *in principle*? \r
    I don't have anything against Larsen's project myself; I've actually engaged in very similar work (albeit from the classical Greek). I find what he's doing interesting, and parts of the work strike me, even, as rather exciting, textually speaking. But I would hope that *somewhere* in his talk he does self-consciously grapple (in context of his general and somewhat smug claims about translation and imperialism!) with the obvious problem that such work as his would be seen by many (and no doubt by many in the Arab world as well) as outrightly appropriative in the most scandalous of ways: Unlicenced, programmatic distortion for purposes of a self-fashioning Western performance. What could be more Orientalist, some would argue? What could be more presumptuous?\r
    Again, not that I would agree it is all that. These issues are very complicated. But I sure hope there is more auto-reflection in Larsen's talk than this!\r
    Well, back to editing my Imperialist anthology of Uruguayan poetry in translation... These naive poets from Uruguay, all of them quite enthusiastic about the project, must be a gaggle of neo-colonial tools, I guess.\r

  13. February 16, 2010

    ¡Así que hay pedo de verdad! Sorry, I had no idea.

  14. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    By the way, FYI, there's a course on Translation going on right now at Brown-- a joint Poetics and Philosophy departments production. Apparently there are close to fifty students in it. I've been told they've been assigned this post to read. So readers beyond the club, I guess...

  15. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    Ningun problema llamarlo pedo... Pero es un pedo mas refinado, te lo aseguro, que el pedo POP de Kenny.

  16. February 16, 2010
     Henry Gould

    Is Uruguay a concept? \r
    Is a refrigerator a concept?\r
    Or is a concept a refrigerator?

  17. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    You know, it has always amazed me that the only major U.S. poet to ever mention Uruguay in a poem is Wallace Stevens.\r

    Or at least he's the only one I can think of right now. Ashbery mentioned Uruguay once, but in reference to the river. How is this possible, when Uruguay is the most beautiful name (you can test this by saying it slowly, five times) attached to any nation in the world ? And that Lautreamont, Laforgue, and Supervielle were all born there?

  18. February 16, 2010
     Don Share

    You probably don't consider her a major U.S. poet, but in consideration of your remarks elsewhere on her politics, you might be interested in a snippet of a political Carnival samba from Rio translated by Elizabeth Bishop in her 1965 essay, "On the Railroad Named Delight":\r

    Kick him out of office!\r
    He's a greedy boy!\r
    I've nothing to investigate,\r
    What I want is joy!\r
    Justice has arrived!\r
    "Pull" won't work again!\r
    Some have fled to Uruguay;\r
    Some have fled to Spain!\r

    Kenneth Koch mentions Uruguay in his Seasons on Earth. And it turns up in Frank O'Hara's Early Writing, too!

  19. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    Love it, Don. And I'm smiling and send a wink your way.\r

    But you know, it's funny-- that almost sounds like something a right-wing Samba troupe might have sung in 1964, following the Brazilian junta's CIA-backed overthrow of the legal and democratic Goulart administration (I think he actually did flee to Uruguay, though could be wrong). The coup was the opening round of a long and dark period of neo-fascist military regimes in post-war South America.\r

    Elizabeth Bishop sang the praises of the dictatorship, which is something not a lot of people here may know.\r

    Koch, that's right! But O'Hara, huh-- can you quote the passage?

  20. February 16, 2010
     Kent Johnson

    Here's the post Don alludes to on Bishop. There's some exchange beneath it, between Don and me.\r

  21. February 16, 2010
     pam lu

    LRSN, does this make you a refusnik?

  22. February 16, 2010
     pam lu

    for multilingual writers, esp. multilingual writers who come from colonial or post-colonial contexts, does the politics of translation affect your choice of which language you write in? if texts from the local/subaltern language are translated into the dominant/imperial language, is that a good thing b/c it means the subaltern perspective is infiltrating institutional discourse? or is it a bad thing b/c it might encourage more local writers to write in the dominant language to begin with and encourage the decline of literature in the local language? or should literature written in the local language remain untranslated, so as to draw a border of protective privilege around endangered cultural territory, and resist colonialist translation practice? i could see the advantages, power-wise, with any of these choices. or maybe the question really is an institutional one: which language is the official language of education, govt., mass media, etc.?

  23. February 16, 2010
     pam lu

    i'm thinking, for example, craig, of places in your own work where you make choices to either translate or not translate certain chamorro words into english. access is power. in my mind i'm comparing these instances of withholding translation to LRSN's conscious decision to withhold his language skills from the u.s. state dept, how both can be seen as acts of political resistance. i shd also note that the instances where you withhold translation stand out for me precisely b/c the majority of chamorro text in your book is translated into english, so that the untranslated words strike me w/a simultaneous feeling of loss (i wish i cd know what this word means, in this language i'm just beginning to get a feel of) and of barrier (the translated text says you can come this far while the untranslated text says you can't go any further than this. translation manages borders.

  24. February 16, 2010
     Henry Gould

    Since poetry is what gets lost in translation anyway, no one needs to worry about the politics of translating it. It's already gone.\r

    & conceptual translators, who want to make sure not to cause any vibrations by not translating anything that might exert an effect on anyone in a politically-tainted manner, are doubly protected. They will be sure to lose what gets lost in translation, and then bury what they lost in what will not be translated anyway.

  25. February 17, 2010

    "Refusenik" does me too much honor, Pam. Mine is not a case of having international policy skills and declining to apply them, but of declining to develop them in the first place. Ask me about petroleum reserves, surface-to-air missiles etc. & you'll get a blank look. Ask me about the rival grammarians of Basra and Kufa and your evening's entertainment is all lined up.\r

    Free as I am in English to call myself an "Arabist," there is no word in Arabic for a westerner who studies the Middle East besides mustashriq, meaning "Orientalist." In some ways it would be more honest and respectful to call myself that. But I'd prefer it if you called me by my real title, which is "job applicant."

  26. February 17, 2010
     Don Share

    Here's the O'Hara, way out of context; it's on p. 140:\r

    Jesus winced. \r
    If the butterfly is the nun's dragon, \r
    then UP URUGUAY!

  27. February 17, 2010

    hey henry,\r

    i do see what you mean--and i do agree that we must take a case by case study. & i also agree that translation, per se, is not tainted...and i also think lrsn points to that by showing there is good translation and bad translation (in terms of imperialist intentions). if i was able to quote the entire essay from lrsn, i think it's clear that he focuses on his own case. \r it true you used to work at brown u library? random, i know.

  28. February 17, 2010

    that's a great question! i'm not sure what lrsn would say. maybe he will say.

  29. February 17, 2010
     Henry Gould

    Hi Craig -\r
    I still work at the Brown Library. I've been working here since 1812.

  30. February 17, 2010

    hey pam--great to hear from you! and such a complex question. i think the politics of translation does affect one's choices (among other things) & i think of the work of ngugi wa thiong'o. moreso, i think many multilingual writers from colonial & post-colonial contexts also have to deal with an "unequal bilinguality"--as in they were educated in the colonial language and thus have more written proficiency in that language (as is my case)--esp in instances when the native language was actively suppressed by colonial powers. \r

    thinking about henry's comment from above, i think it's important to answer the question on whether or not translation is a good or bad thing on a case by case basis. so generally, it can by a good thing because the subaltern perspective is expressed thru translation, but it can also be bad in some cases if that knowledge is negatively appropriated or if the language of such knowledge becomes only valued when in the colonizer's language. \r

    personally, i have nothing against a writer refusing their work to be translated--esp if that work contains material that should remain culturally secret and/or protected. it does express a certain power--and guards against the long history of negative appropriation of (esp) indigenous knowledge. \r

    at the same time, writing work in english, from an indigenous perspective (let's say) or allowing one's work to be translated can also be a kind of power if the message is meant to reverberate thru a larger audience. \r

    as to your point about my own work, i will actually be addressing that in my next post!

  31. February 17, 2010

    cool. i think i couldve been good at working in a library, sigh.

  32. February 17, 2010
     Henry Gould

    It's extremely exciting work. Sometimes books tip over on shelves!

  33. February 17, 2010
     pam lu

    haha, that reminds me of the joke from zabriskie point: a bunch of people have been arrested for protesting on campus and they're lined up at the police station. guy at the front steps up to the receptionist who asks, what's your occupation? i'm a professor of english literature at ucla, guy says. receptionist stares at him blankly, then says, i'll just write down "clerk."\r

    that's fascinating that the only arabic word for your occupation is "orientalist." in some ways we're all orientalists and/or occidentalists in this hybridized world. more of the "and" after pop culture. which goes back to nada & gary's talk, which i wish could be talked about online more at some point. it's an important piece i feel, with lots of connections to related concerns. mutual appropriation, hybridization, misprisions, excesses, & the sublime. \r

    gary & nada, any chance you could post the final two sections from your talk somewhere? CONTORTION/PAROXYSMS and INGENUOUSNESS/"INGENUOUSNESS"? or maybe they're already up and i just can't find them...

  34. February 18, 2010

    I passed over this question because I don't see how any call to abstain from translation could be read into my remarks, least of all when it comes to living writers Arab or otherwise. My talk was about medieval texts that run the risk of satisfying a politically suspect appetite for Oriental novelty, and what a conceptual re-framing of the whole venture might do to make it more palatable, to myself most of all. Believe me, Arabic lexical texts were not a calculated choice on my part. I began working on the Names of the Lion out of sheer obsession. 500 different names, could that be possible? Also I was getting over a break-up and I needed something to do on Friday nights. By the time it was over, I'd become aware of how vast a genre Ibn Khalawayh was working in, and as an artist and a scholar and a recovered man it's only natural that I'd want to continue working to bring attention to these amazing writers -- and, naturally, to myself as well. If I'm self-conscious about the political ramifications, it's because I've read (and learned from) tons of Orientalist scholarship, and I hope to emulate what's valuable in it without perpetuating what's abhorrent. So you see why the question of translator's entitlement comes up so insistently for me -- and with it, the redemptive possibilities of conceptual writing and its procedural spirit. In other words? It's all about LRSN. My problems are very special, and if they you don't apply to you then you're lucky. But you also miss out on my blessings, and those are pretty special too :)

  35. February 19, 2010
     Nada Gordon

    Hi Pam,\r

    You can find parts two and three of the Autré talk here in Gary's archives:\r\r

    It looks like some is still missing, though. I'll check with Gary on that.\r


  36. February 19, 2010
     Nada Gordon

    Kenny and LRSN are both inimitably and incomparably charming. Just sayin'.

  37. February 19, 2010

    Thank you, Nada -- it's about time someone spoke up for him. I've never even met the man (ask me about the time my drive belt snapped out on 580 as I was headed to see him read), but if Nada Gordon says he's cool then I respectfully drop the pissing match. His unresponsiveness to the provocation has shown an awful lot of grace, which is way more important than charm and way rarer. I also declare Kent Johnson winner of the fart contest.