Monday, March 02, 2009

Translation/Poetry Magazine (cont.)

Somebody named Martin clarified Williams original article that Don quoted in his post. It seems I totally misunderstood everybody involved, though in part I think my excuse is that I hadn't read the Williams piece in whole. And as readers of this blog know, I am sometimes too punchy.


In other noteworthy developments, Max makes a startling amount of very good, important distinction in the comment field below. In particular, I think an important point out that it seems very touristic (not the right word, but it's the best I can do this early) to read foreign literature only to find something exotic and different than in US poetry. The result is too often that what we find of "difference" is in fact a very conventional idea of alterity.

This reminds me of when I went to the Henry Parland conference in Helsinki last fall. One paper was on my translations, and the speaker (a friend of mine) made a Lawrence Veuti-inspired argument, proposing that I could/should have "foreignized" Parland more than I had. And then he went in and showed his own translation which foreignized Parland. But the result was much like a cliche Language Poem (my friend studied at Buffalo). The irony is of course that such a "foreign" poem is far less foreign in its foreigness than my un-foreignized translations.


A lot of the Problems of Translation comes down to a very static notion of National Literatures. Something about finding the foreign abroad already suggests that we see ourselves as inherently separate from the rest of the world. We only go there to find something exotic.

The idea behind Action Books was indeed to undo this notion by publishing both American poetry and poetry in translation - poets in conversation across national boundaries. But here "cross" is important. I don't pretend that the linguistic boundaries can merely be floated above; they have to be crossed. And in that crossing, interesting stuff happens and languages interact.

In large part we started Action Books not to find something exotically different, but because we found our poetics were in conversation with poets from other countries as much or more than with most of the stuff published in the US. Ie we are in some sense looking for similarity, not difference. But like I said, we are also interested in the dynamics of what happens in linguistic border crossings. And Deleuze and Guattari's concept of "minor literature", which has a lot in common with translation.


Somebody named "Tomas Brady" left a pretty crack-pot answer on the Poetry Magazine website suggesting he was going to read other nations' poetry before he got to Swedish poetry. My main problem with his entry is that I don't give a damn whether or not he reads Swedish poetry (why should I?). But the more relevant issue is this idea that there is a set of Swedish poems, a Swedish poetry, which you can translate, then consume, then be finished with.

This was my issue with New European Poets - that it would enforce that kind of thinking. The truth is that there are a lot of different kinds of poetry written in Sweden (and most other countries) and you cannot ever master/complete any national poetry anymore than you can do so with US poetry. I find deeply problematic this anthological view of World Literature.

I think the Prufer/Miller anthology gets around this by stressing the unfinishedness of their project - that it is a process, and a beginning of the process at that.

But clearly the Tomas Bradys of the world still have this Museum of Nations attitude.


I want to correct a common misconception among commentators to this blog: I don't believe that you should read works in translation because they make you good (though I did in part entertain Hejinian's ethics of Barbarism). You should read it because you're interested in the poetry. However, I have noted that publishers of American Poetry and many "communities" of American Poetry seem oddly uninterested in foreign poetry (thus my controversial list of indie presses and their lack of translation titles - Chax Press 77-0!). I think that can be seen in their concepts of language and the poetic. That is, it shows little influence of that "crossing" of languages that I mentioned above.


Also, let me briefly return to the Jaderlund issue. I don't think Poetry Magazine is under any obligation to publish poetry that I like - their tastes in literature is very different from mine - or the most famous poetry. My irate discussion of their rejection of Jaderlund was based on my misreading of Don's entry, thinking he had argued that foreign literature is all the same. (When in fact that doesn't even appear to be CK William's point).

However, it should be pointed out that Poetry Magazine has as of late adapted a rhetorical stance of "openness" - look we publish works in translation, we publish Bernstein etc. But it's important then to note that the Swedish poet they chose to publish was a very conservative (New Formalist in many ways) poet. I can't help but to feel a little defensive here too; Poetry Magazine reaches a lot more people than my translations, and I hate to have people think that this is all that is going down in Sweden.


Blogger Brian said...

One thing I found strange in CK Williams' piece was the observation that "in most cases, I couldn’t really tell what country or language a poetry had come from until I checked." Unless the poet uses a lot of specific references (to people, places,events), it's not going to be immediately obvious where that poetry comes from, even if it's not in free verse (Williams' initial explanation for this 'sameness'). If the poetry is contemporary, and if the poet is internationally oriented, that further complicates this issue, since the poet is likely to be aware of other languages and cultures and of the poetries in those languages and cultures. It's almost as if Williams wants or expects poets from other countries to be so beholden to their own language that the nationality comes across when the work is translated into English. Which seems quaint and unrealistic, too focused on the purity of the original.

7:58 AM  
Blogger françois said...

I like Max's term "tourist" (since I also used it before). But I don't think it only applies to the exotic, but also to the selfsame, in the sense that in the event of the travel, everything becomes extraordinary. It's also a sociocultural marker ("Look at me, I read foreign poetry, I'm cooler than thou"). The only way to escape from literary tourism is become a permanent part of the economy of this "other" poetry (example: Paul Celan writing in German and translating into German, Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener translating French poetry into English, but also writing books in French).

8:38 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's a good observation, Francois. One thing that particularly galled me about CK Williams is that he seems to have read Rilke and then he checks back in on Euro lit some 100 years later by glancing through an anthology.

Yes, Brian, it seems this again goes back to my point about the illusion of national literatures.


8:58 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Right! I guess that freaks out CKW. This was brought home to me quite forcefully when I was translating Salamun, who not only thrashes Slovenian in his poems but also brings in Croatian, Italian, French, English, German slang, etc. The French and Italian were easy enough to work with, but when he dipped into other non-Romance languages, I had to go sleuthing. Anyway, Salamun is very much in tune to what's going on around the world in poetry. But apparently (according to CKW) he shouldn't be. His poems should be purely, entirely Slovenian. Like Preseren or something.

9:50 AM  
Blogger françois said...

It irritates me to no end when I heard CK Williams declare that French poetry is stagnant.

10:08 AM  
Blogger françois said...

On your last point too (that conservative Swedish poet being picked up by Poetry instead of Jaderlund), I can't help but think about this literary tourism, as a way for conservative poets to justify their practices. I'm thinking about Tranströmer being listed in Williams' note, or Williams' friendship with Claire Malroux. A way of saying, perhaps, "look, I can be quaint, the Swedes and the French do it too." Well, yes, some Swedish and French poets can be quaint, but so is tourism.

Mind you, I also use this tactic.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Max said...

francois -

I guess one point I would make is that we're foolish if we limit the boundaries of "tourism" only to the most conservative sectors of literature. Tourism is more a state of mind than anything else. It has to do with one's intentions, how one conceives of his/her own experiences. As such, it's really hard to pin down, and it's very easy to conceal or misunderstand.

For example, I don't see much of a difference between the family that goes to Disneyland on its trip to southern California and the couple who do a weekend tour of the vineyards on their trip to northern California. "Low" & "high," "conservative" & "liberal," have nothing to say about whether you're engaging in cultural tourism or not.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think Francois's point is that a touristic brief glance of the foreign is conservative in that it doesn't ask you to engage with potentially challenging texts from other countries.

The same could probably be said to be true of tourism within US poetry.


7:14 AM  
Blogger françois said...


I have already admitted being guilty of tourism. Of course, it might not have been clear.

9:25 AM  

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