Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I had a pretty good trip to Minneapolis.

Thanks to the people who came out to hear me read (for a few minutes) in the big Zephyr Press translation reading. It was an interesting reading. Also, thanks to Thomas Cook for teaching my book. I ended up in a class at the U of M discussing my own book with an undergraduate class.

I have an ambivalent relationship to Alta (American Literary Translators Association). Obviously I translate, publish translations, write about translation, and I'm clearly all around in favor of changing the rhetoric surrounding translation, to change American Literature's relationship to the rest of the world.

Also, the people I meet at Alta are really great. Oddballs who spend their lives translating poets and writers they love. Usually I see these people just this one time per year (though they sometimes reappear at AWP).

But I have some qualms about Alta. The biggest one is that Alta perpetuates the idea that translated literature is a coherent literature ("world literature" or some such notion) that exists outside of American literature. That is of course doubly false - it's in communication with the US by the mere fact that we're in the US doing the translating (and more complexly in other ways). And of course, there are tons of different literatures, even within national borders.

There is also the sense in the way translation is discussed that translated literature is ethical but weak, that America is ignorant and so we must help Americans become more cosmopolitan (really in some ways the Horace Engdahl argument fits in with this worldview) by bringing them as much foreign lit as possible.

I think translation is a very powerful concept/practice in American poetry. Like I repeatedly point out, the most famous definition of poetry in America is Frost's claim that it is what is "lost in translation." Recently I wrote about homosexuality and my experience of being attacked by people who see all foreigness as homosexuality. When I first came to the US and was constantly attacked for my perceived homosexuality, my reaction was: how powerful these gay people are! All these kids and teachers are so scared of them!

Well, I think of translation the same way.

Further, I think it's a detriment to have this idea that we have to like all works in translation and that they are all somehow similar. Rather than strive to give representative overviews of national literatures, I believe in seeking out poetry that interests and challenges me (to put it simply). One problem with the alta view of poetry I find is that it often has an aesthetic basis in the work Bly and Co translated in the 1960s.

These ideas came to a point for me in the discussion of Kevin Prufer's anthology, The New European Poets. Or rather the lack of discussion. I will write more about this book and its premise (and the poems I like, because there are some good ones - Romania) later. But for now I'll just note that I wanted to raise the discussion about the reason for 1) having an anthology of European poetry (why an anthology? Why "European"?) 2) the attempt to be "representative" based on population sizes 3) some editors' selection process. But some of the panelists (notably not Prufer) got very defensive and treated my questions as attacks on translation. We were back to the concept of translated lit as this weak but necessary/healthy thing that needs to be spoonfed to ignorant American readers.

OK, I'll write more about this anthology and the whole conference later today.


Blogger Max said...

The "spoonfeeding" attitude about translation is probably not so strange when you take into account that a good portion of the gatekeeper community feels the same way about poetry in general, that poetry of "good taste" must be fed the larger population of dullards.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

That's true and funny because the translators see the overall poetry-reading crowd the way the poetry crowd sees the rest of the population.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Gatekeeping and smuggling are the issues, yes. Looking forward to your further remarks.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

One of the MFA translation folks here called you a "rabble rouser."

"Damn right he is," I responded.

But thinking back on it, a "rabble rouser" is someone who causes trouble JUST to cause trouble. That doesn't sound like the right definition for you.

In my enthusiastic defense of you, I failed to notice the slight.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Providence said...

"...the translators see the overall poetry-reading crowd the way the poetry crowd sees the rest of the population."

This is really interesting, but could you clarify if it hinges on the previous comment, i.e. "...the way the gatekeeper community sees the rest of the population"? I think that's what you mean, but...if so, could we substitute, say, the Poetry Foundation or "official verse culture" for "gatekeeper community"? Or would we want to include, also, the arbiters of experimentalism in its many stripes? I recognize these questions come, in part, from a legible ignorance of what it means to inhabit the cultural and/or professional space of translation.

Looking forward...

10:51 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think it would be proper to include those gatekeepers of the "experimental" community as well.

Gatekeepers in general tend to have similar views about such things.

I think maybe a lot of "experimental" gatekeepers fancy themselves the arbiters of taste for the overarching poetry community. So while "mainstream" gatekeepers are trying to spoonfeed the public at large, maybe "experimental" gatekeepers are trying to spoonfeed the "mainstream" poetry audience, in order to enact change within that community, to change what is "mainstream," and thereby change that which is spoonfed to the general public.

Anyway, there are lots of gatekeepers in the poetry world, and they all seem to own an array of spoons. Silliman, for example, constantly throws passive-aggressive piss fits when "all SoQ poets" are nominated for a big prize. I think he fancies himself a gatekeeper of sorts, and that perhaps he would like to spoonfeed the gatekeepers of big, mainstream poetry prizes some of the work which appeals to him.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

I understand resenting gatekeepers when they block worthy work from the sun air and water it needs. Fine lines between characterizing, praising and dismissing, though, and I for one need people willing to haul work into English from languages I'm never going to learn not to speak of the ones I try feebly to engage on my own. I'm willing to put up with a lot in gatekeepers, even manichaeism, if it means greater linguistic and emotional variety. End of stump speech.

7:36 AM  
Blogger wayne said...

Hi Johannes,

I’d like to respond, probably not so briefly, to your post:

First of all, not to be nitpicky, but I’d prefer that you not excise me from my own anthology, on which I worked my ass off for the last four years. If you want to present it hierarchically, New European Poets is “Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer’s anthology,” since we were very much equal partners as General Editors. Or, if you want to be more inclusive/democratic in your thinking, you could attribute the book to all twenty-four editors who worked on it—though in the interest of space that might be a less functional choice.

That said, I think your responses to ALTA are interesting. I can’t say I personally heard folks at the conference overtly present “world literature” as a coherent force operating outside of American poetry, but I agree that that’s clearly a pretty absurd idea.

I agree with you, too, that some—though surely not all—translators do seem to present their work as something like reverse missionary work, and there’s a kind of over-the-top self-inflation in that.

I wonder, though, if that self-inflation isn’t basically a defensive posture. Given that translated books by important non-American authors so often sell significantly fewer copies than a first book of poems by McNeese State’s most recent MFA grad (not to pick on McNeese—I just think it’s fun to say the school’s name), and given that many of my students don’t even bother to notice the name of the translator of that Villon or Szymborska or Cavafy poem they read, I can see how career translators feel a certain impulse to claim the credit they deserve—especially over drinks.

As for what you saw as our panel’s somewhat bristly response to your questions, I think you misunderstand us. I can’t speak for the other panel members, but as for myself, I didn’t see your questions as attacking translation at all; I saw them as attacking anthologies.

From my perspective, it’s implicit that all anthologies are imperfect by their very nature—it almost goes without saying (though we should nonetheless say it repeatedly, lest new/younger poetry readers misunderstand). Yet, I also think anthologies serve a valuable and practical purpose—they offer to poetry readers work they might not otherwise come in contact with.

Thus, I worry about the prospect of throwing up our hands at the idea of anthologies (Why “European”? Why poetry? Why Modernist? Why American? Why “experimental”? Why “younger”? Why an anthology at all?). So many of the poets I came to love over the course of my reading I first encountered in anthologies. It was only after getting excited about a poem or two that I went to the library or the bookstore to get the poet’s book. Though this approach is perhaps unsophisticated, I think it’s in line with how many poetry readers find their way around in the labyrinthine poetry world. And anthologies do democratize somewhat the discovery process for younger readers, generally giving them a larger swath of work than, say, the ten or twelve poets chosen for them by their poetry professor.

This is what I meant when I said on the panel that I thought your questions seemed to assume a target audience for the book that, to put it simply, we didn’t. While you personally may have read widely many of the poets writing in Europe these days, there are lots of poetry readers of differing poetic sophistications who simply haven’t. In New European Poets, we’re making what we think are interesting poems available to those readers; as such, we’re offering what we see as the tip of an iceberg. I hardly think that’s “spoon-feeding.”

And while the notion of European-ness is rapidly changing—and is, of course, an arbitrary way of pulling together a bunch of new poets for an American readership—I do, too, think that today’s changing definition of European-ness is as good an occasion as any for an anthology. Though we did in the end organize by nationality—largely because this seemed the most accessible way for our American audience to experience the book—we also tried to undercut a narrow view of European-ness with our inclusion of Turkish writers, poets writing in languages such as Irish, Galician, Romagnolo and Sami, and, frankly, the British Isles as a whole, which often aren’t associated critically with the dominant history and trajectory of “European literature.”

Finally, I understand your frustration with our decision to represent based on population sizes. We made this problematic choice really as a part of our investigative method. It was, in other words, a functional choice. Because interesting poets from smaller European countries are often ignored, we decided up front that every country—and as many languages as possible—would be represented. This forced us not to neglect, say, Abdullah Konushevci, who we might not otherwise have discovered without this choice. It also served to create an imperfect anthology—but then an anthology of work collected under the solitary principle that it “interests and challenges” Johannes Göransson (or any other smart and critical reader, for that matter) would be equally imperfect. And having no anthologies at all would, I’m afraid, limit the poets and poetries with which readers come in contact.


11:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Sorry about not mentioning your name. I wrote this post in great haste and I was/is planning to write an entry about the anthology in itself - my issues, favorites etc - when I get some time. I hurried off the response before going to NYC. But now it's late and I have to go to bed. I'll try to write something tomorrow (though I don't have the anthology here in NY).

And I'll also try to respond to some other issues raised.


9:32 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I agree with Wayne inasmuch as an anthology -- like a map of the earth -- is always going to be skewed in some way. It's how we choose to skew it that makes the difference. I think that the best an anthology editor can do is be aware of the type of distortion he/she is working with, and make sure the aim of the anthology justifies the distortion.

11:47 PM  

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