Translation/New European Poets/CK Williams
[NOTE: as I sometimes do on the Internet, I misread Don's entry and got pissy with him, so I'm reformulating this entry.]
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 Poetry Magazine). But these folks had a much more dynamic relationship with the Euros than CK Williams suggests.
- CKW 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 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 understanding 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 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.