Saturday, February 09, 2008

Q & A

[A person writing about my translations has been asking me questions. Here is one of my longer replies:]

Translating Parland and Berg are indeed somewhat different. The quickest answer is that Parland is easier - it's pretty straightforward. Sometimes it's awkward yet strangely snappy. It's part "translatese" and part advertising speak. The trick to get in Parland is somewhat different than Berg - things like word order, snappiness, quickness become more important. Sometimes the difficult is finding the meaning of words that are not used in Swedish (but Finland Sweden) or words that are archaic. But mostly it's a matter of keeping it snappy.

Perhaps the single most difficult translation choice was in what to call the book. Idealrealization - I've seen it translated as "The Sale of Ideals" elsewhere. But "realization" is more than a sale - it's a sale in which the store has to get rid of the stock. Perhaps a more "literal" translation would be "The Clearance Sale of Ideals," but then you don't have the snappiness of the original. Also, I like "clearance" being slightly ambiguous because because there is a sense of "realization" in the Swedish word as well. A sense that getting rid of Western culture is a kind of "clearing" or understanding.

People always talk about how hard it must be to translate Berg. Her work is of course "untranslatable" in the old paradigm of poetry - the one that holds that there is an original text that is then translated into a new - always inferior, because plagiarized - text. People still follow this idea, despite poststructuralism etc telling us that texts are not "wellwrought urns", not autonomous and isolated.

What makes Berg "easy" (or maybe "fun") is that Berg doesn't write with that concept of poetry; she writes in a translation-based idea of poetry. It's all about permutations and connectivity. My translation is part of a series of processes that begin in her work, which is largely based on translations and permutations of language and texts (sci-fi novels, zombie movies, science texts etc). So in many ways translating her work is very liberating - it's about connecting these permutational processes to the English language. And that is really fun! Translating her really helped me see translation in a new way, much less anxious about "the original" etc. And that has had a big effect not just on my translation practices, but also on my own poetry writing and scholarly attitudes.

Parland and Aase are connected in that they both have their roots in the historical avant-garde. Part of that 1920s-Dada-aesthetic is that it's not supposed to be elegant; they got rid of that Romantic interiority that is often "lost in translation". You see the same thing in Picabia, Huelsenbeck or Srecko Kosovel etc. I agree to a large extent with Raymond Williams who in his books on Modernism noted that the avant-garde of the 10s and 20s comes largely out of "translation" in a broad sense - that is, those writers were all emigrants, exiles and generally displaced, speaking and writing in second and third (and in Parland's case 4th) languages.

Aase first got into poetry as a young member of the notorious Stockholm Surrealist Group. She didn't really write poetry for many years - rather she participated in various kinds of Surrealist experiments. But things soured between her and the group when she started writing poetry that gained quite a bit of acclaims/ridicule/controversy. Plus she grew older and became critical of what she saw as a kind of sexism in Surrealism (Breton's Nadja being a prime example). Nevertheless I think her mentorship with the Surrealists taught her this idea that the poem was not an isolated object but experiments.

Well, that was a very long answer. It also perhaps tells you a bit about the philosophy behind Action Books. My wife Joyelle McSweeney and I started Action Books in 2005. Perhaps the biggest reason was that I couldn't get anybody to publish my Berg-book, we looked around and saw this as part of a bigger problem, unwillingness or inability to engage with literature in translation (most likely both). We are particularly interested in the historical avant-garde, which as I wrote above has a very translation-ish/permutational approach to writing. So we decided to publish books in translation and books by American writers that were engaged with similar ideas.

Many American poets seem to want to be translated and want to be cosmopolitan but they won't do anything to publish or read foreign poetry in translation.

As for the other Parland texts - I've already translated the entire poetic ouevre (most of it was posthumous), but I haven't published a lot beyond Ideals Clearance. Somebody else has translated his novel. I thought briefly I would help that person get it published in the US but then I ran out of time (I'm always behind on everything). So I'm not sure where that project is at. I know the novel has recently been published in several European countries (Russia, Germany, France etc). And scholars in Germany and Italy have written significant books about Parland.


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