Saturday, January 24, 2009

Translation Trouble (Hejinian)

Contrary to popular belief, I have indeed read an article or two by the language poets... Today I would like to call attention to one that I think pertains to the translation trouble discussion I've been trying to conduct.

In her essay "Barbarism", Lynn Hejinian makes some interesting claims. To begin with she offers a perceptive close-reading of Adorno's famous statement "To write poetry after Auschwitz is an act of barbarism". Lyn suggests that one often overlooked way of reading that statement is to foreground the meaning of Barbarism - as the foreign (see previous discussion on this blog). So to write poetry after Auschwitz one should write like a foreigner, or "it must be foreign to the cultures that produce atrocities." This seems very insightful to me.

She then goes on to show how the "difficulty" of language poetry could fit into this category of barbarian language. She also gives a bit of history of how language poetry was formed as a "scene" in the 1970s and the virtues of writing as a scene of "encounters".

It is strange to me that Lyn, who is one language poet who has done quite a bit of translation (and actually the essay before this one in the book is about translation) does not include translation in this idea of barbarism. That would certainly be what I would expect: to write poetry that is foreign to the US one can actually bring in what is foreign. And that's how I think her analysis of Adorno makes a lot of sense (of course Adorno himself had an often negative view of writing that bring various languages together, making the German "impure" I think he actually says at one point).

To understand the absence of translation, I think we need to look at her emphasis of community and scene. And this brings me back to small press publishing. As I wrote in response to Mark, the scene and community can be really great [and during my little visit to San Francisco I was deeply affected by the communality of various enterprises... I don't know why I'm suddenly writing this in such a strange, high-falutin' voice...]. For one it does away with the repressive social formations of the workshop hierarchies (iowa etc).

But I think community-based aesthetics can often lead to insularity. And I think that goes some way to explaining why so few of these presses publish works in translation. The scene promises the illusory experience of unalienated encounters.

My tentative [because there were a lot of things to avoid in it] model for how to integrate these various tensions is a very different scene, a scene of people of multiple nationalities (even a Swede!) who intermingled in Zurich in the mid 1910s in what Ray Williams has called "cosmopolitan encounters" (ie very alienated encounters), resulting in what one critic (for some reason I'm spacing his name right now) has called an "aesthetics of homelessness." As Dada spread throughout Europe it spread as a form of "barbarism" as a foreigness and as an emblem of a modernity that was wrecking up the map of Europe. But it was never utopia. There are no foreigners in utopia.

Joyelle adds: One thing that makes Dada interesting is that so many people moved "through" that community - people who moved across Europe spreading the "contagion."


Blogger Max said...

I think that insularity, or rather, discrimination, is required to some degree, in the curation of an experience. Like club owners, who curate the experience for their clientele by keeping out men in business suits, I think that small presses would be foolhardy not to curate the experience for their perceived audiences.

Quality of experience is based on discrimination, on using necessarily limited space or resources to let some things in and to keep the rest out. What gets in will vary from experience to experience.

6:15 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

"The scene promises the illusory experience of unalienated encounters."

No! Insularity increases alien encounters. It alienates what might be otherwise normal.

11:11 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Yes. Again: I've obviously never said that one should like all poetry or even a majority of poetry.

Good point. But that doesn't do any good if you don't read the foreign.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

But it has nothing to do, necessarily, with "like" or "dislike." The curation of an experience is not optional. It is mandatory. Unless of course you are in the impossible position of having access to endless space/resources. An experience cannot contain everything.

Discrimination is not something we have a choice in. How we discriminate is the matter at hand, but I think it's foolish to make such broad rulings about "insularity," when it is by definition impossible not to be insular, in some way or another. As though spending resources on the publication of foreign poetry erases insularity, rather than merely transferring discrimination from one vessel into another.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


See my new post. I am not opposed to curation. I've said this all along on this blog. And in fact I've criticized people who claim they do not curate. What I am saying is that I find it noteworthy that the curations in American presses do not reach across national borders.

7:50 AM  

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