Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Some basic clarifications

I really don't have time for this discussion since I'm leaving for athens tomorrow to defend my dissertation, but I think I should have thought about that before I started this discussion. Here then are some basic clarifications:

• I don't agree with Engdahl about a host of things. I don't believe in the model of a great literature that moves across borders. Or that if you don't participate in this debate you are provincial. That's a very old Humanist model for Major Literature.

• Interestingly, this model in fact undoes the interesting part about translation by rendering it totally invisible. Things happen to languages in translation; I find those reactions interesting. Essentially this attitude is the Deleuzian idea of minor literature (vs Engdahl's major literature). Kafka uses yiddish to deterritorialize Prague German. The violence becomes key.

• I absolutely abhor Engdahl's comment that the literary center of the universe is Europe, because I am not interested in centers, I'm interesting in more dynamic models of language and literature.

• However, I believe American Literature is driven by a similarly centrist idea. The proof is in the pudding. Not just in the hysteria about Engdahl's comments (he dares to suggest that we're not the center of the universe! He must be stupid!) but even on this blog in Max's statements that Europeans are just jealous of us, or that we don't need translation because our writing is so good (correct me if I'm wrong).

• For me the proof in the pudding above all is Max's claim that I shouldn't be so combative (this coming from Mr Combat!). This would be funny if it didn't echo countless (literally) exchanges I've had since emigrating to the US, in which people basically tell me not to be an uppity immigrant. I should behave. Or: detention.

• Major literature tends to be created out of awards, such as the Nobel, the Pulitzer all the way down to poetry prizes (the Walt Whitman Award, the Bru-ha-ha Prize etc). I'm not interested in that idea of writing.

• I do think translation and reading in foreign languages alter our interaction with language. One effect of the highly monolingual, monoglossic etc American culture has been the persistence of the illusion of poetry as unalienated language, as somehow more true etc... *untranslatable* (as in poetry is what is lost in). Also: so so hierarchical (in every camp this is true).

• Also, I think reading works from foreign cultures teaches us to read more adventurously - to read for possibilities not compliance.

• There is a political dimension to America's lack of interest in translation - the Empire Clause. This is the problem of Empire. American holds a very important, powerful role in today's world and our culture has ridden on the wings of that eagle. Sometimes in very overt ways: as when the US gov't actually sponsored Jackson Pollock exhibitions around the world to stoke the idea that he was the first great American Painter, who had moved the center of art from Europe to the US. Or when they funded a literary journal in Sweden after the war. But mostly it happens in less obvious ways.

• Academia does not necessarily have to distinguish between English and American Lit and other lits. It does because it has a monoglossic idea of literature. Translation is a scandal here as well. It's not accidental.

• I don't think of translation as an act of colonization; if anything I see it as a possibility for counter-colonization.

• While I don't agree with the idyllic notion of Cosmopolitan often put forward (it doesn't acknowledge the violence of hybridity), it is certainly not all wrong. Max, there is a difference between cosmopolitanism and globalism. They're not the same thing. Though related.

• For me a key discussion is: Minor literature vs cosmpolitanism.

• OK I've got to go, but I hope I haven't muddled this more than I used to.


Blogger François Luong said...

Yes on the claim that translation opens the possibility of counter-colonization.

(A note: I was not claiming in your comment field that translation was necessarily colonializing, but rather responding to Chris stating that one would be better at trying to understand a text in its original language)

2:10 PM  
Blogger konrad said...

Just this morning someone on the radio said the saying is supposed to be "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." I always wondered why that saying didn't make sense.

Some other wonderings:

1) the complimentary benefits of reading original language texts, even struggling with them if you don't know the language and reading translations. I almost want to call this the benchmark for exposing oneself to non-habitual thought, as opposed to a more acquisitive relation to experience, which merely reading translations suggests. Even bilingual editions are helpful for the monolingual in this regard.

I think also of my own field (filmmaking) about how people have learned to say "i saw that film" of movies that they've only watched off UbuWeb. That's a translation fer sher.

2) the sense of how an industrial model of density of interaction and production leads to the valorization of geographic "centers" - but with travel and ease of communication, the intellectual labor of literature seems to belie that model in favor of movements, fashions, networks and other forms of "viral" patterns of concentration and change. There is a great article in The Dada Seminars about how dada couldn't have existed as such (across borders) without the mail system remaining intact during WWI.

2:41 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, especially when those movies are as much about the space of the movie theater as about the actual images on the screen (movie or computer).


6:38 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

1) I don't believe that Europeans in general are jealous of us. I believe, due to Engdahl's tone, that his comments come from an embittered place. I believe he's longing for the "days of yore" when Europe had a more deterministic effect on "major" literature. He's pissed because America no longer operates as a creative client to Europe, or even in such a way that its art is a reaction to Europe. Of course not all Europeans feel this way. I just think especially conservative, old school folks who believe in "major literature" and "the great dialogue" are apt to have such feelings.

Of course, I cringe at making these kinds of declarations, because, to use the example I put forth before, you sound like the rich guy who takes any and all criticism of his behavior as just a jealous attack on his wealth and success. But in this case, I think this defense rings true. Engdahl is obviously troubled by America's shift from being part of the "great literary dialogue" into more of a self-interested, insular creative force. I'm not nearly as troubled by this as he seems to be, and moreover, I think the reason he feels this way is because he longs for the time when America looked up to Europe as a big brother in all things literary. You can see this in the way he continues to proclaim Europe's dominance in the world of literature. There's a bitterness to it, like America is choosing, at its own peril, to no longer pay dues at an exclusive club. It's an arrogant and clumsy argument, and I think that's deserving of mention here.

2) I never said that "we don't need translation because our writing is so good." I'm saying that there are historical reasons why translation wouldn't be a high priority in America. We have had a pretty strong, productive, active literature for a long time. We are quite busy reading our own books most of the time. Yes, there is a closed-mindedness about this. I'm not denying that. But the fact that there is such a glut of books already coming out in English would, I think, tend to place translation on a back burner. As opposed to, say, living in Sweden, where yes, Swedish authors publish books, but not nearly as many as are available each year in English countries. The volume of literature Swedish people are exposed to would be quite small without the assistance of translation (disregarding the fact that most Swedish people can read/speak English due to learning it in school ... perhaps Sweden isn't the best example), as opposed to America, which could survive on English language literature for eternity if volume was our only concern.

In short, we have more than enough to read without taking translations into account. Many other countries probably do not.

This isn't to say that we SHOULDN'T translate. I never said that. The only thing I said is that it isn't "necessary." There are two issues here: one is an attempt to understand the historical reasons why the US might not be as interested in translation as other countries; the other is an argument for toning down the speech surrounding literature/literacy. Two different issues that I'm looking at.

3)My argument does not echo those of people telling you not to be an "uppity immigrant," Johannes. My point about toning down the language we use to describe the "urgency" of literature/literacy is a completely tangential point. It just irks me how I constantly see people saying that it's "vital" and "necessary" to do this, that, or the other thing, when it obviously is not "vital" or "necessary" at all. Nothing is "necessary." It's just a pet peeve of mine.

Anyway, perhaps I wouldn't be so combative if I were trying to spread the gospel of translation. Fortunately, I am not, so I can generally afford to be as combative as I want to be.

4) I don't think there's any political dimension to America's lack of interest in translation. I think that America's literary history is, in relation to others, quite short, and so we've been understandably absorbed in our own output. Much of the narrative surrounding our literature, as is the case with many other relatively young literatures, is about developing an "authentic national voice." That America is some particularly selfish exception to the rule seems to me an absurd notion. We look America, this powerful nation, and we act like it's been here forever. This is all relatively new, actually, and I don't see the benefit in creating a double standard, by which America should be expected to be "cosmopolitan" simply because it is a powerful nation, and yet other less powerful nations get away with insular literatures, under the argument that such literatures are "authentic." Nobody expects, for example, Swedish literature to be "cosmopolitan." It should be Swedish, right? Otherwise what makes it interesting? What makes it exceptional? Why else would we pay attention to it, if it were not doing "authentic" things? But it seems to me that there is a double standard by which America needs to be a large mirror, reflecting the ideas and values of everybody else. If an "outsider" can't see him/herself in the literature of America, then America isn't living up to its "melting pot" narrative. America is supposed to be by everybody, for everybody, all the time. And it's just not like that. Not at all. This expectation is just silly.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Also: sorry if that comment is poorly written. I'm sure I'll have to clarify/amend things later.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I think I agree with pretty much everything you wrote here, Johannes, except maybe the Deleuzian bits, which I am not familiar enough with/convinced enough of to comment on. But I'm also American (if abroad-ish) and does this muddy up the pudding?

8:25 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Also, François, how is reading a text in a language you are not a native speaker of (or even nec. all that skilled in) less "deterritorializing" than reading it translated into a language you are native to, esp. in a seemingly monoglot culture (although I am from the part of America known as New York City, where 2-3% of the American population live, and which is perhaps problematic to call monoglot; I'm told there are other such regions with large populations, perhaps in California).

8:29 PM  
Blogger konrad said...

Well, good luck on your defense and with your reading, Johannes!

Yes, on the spatio-theatrical aspect of movies; but also durational & graphic resolution aspects of some films. Durations are different when one dwarfs the image and can stop it; and smiles can come off as grimaces on crap-compressed Flash vids. Also cuts are never so crisp as in the cinema, when the whole ROOM blinks with your senses.

Re: Max's comments on the great expanse of American literature. Is it possible that devaluing translation amounts to a bit of homogenizing of the American literary landscape? What truth would there be in seeing that one might have closer relations to someone writing in another language, than to someone writing in one's own?

Could one consider translating a L=A=N=G poem into a New Narrative text? Rap lyric to Doo-wop? Why not? Is that the limit of "translation? or just the edge of the beginning of it? I want to say something like "pidgin writing" or community idiolects are a kind of canary-in-coalmine for language change.

In other words, once a community gets so big, doesn't it begin to fracture due to extra-literary factors? That's kind of what i saw as one of the poke/jokes about Forgodots "Issue Number One" -- the Big Umbrella joke of being nation-related. And so not to see the value of translations is not to see one's own situation.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Max said...

konrad -

I'm not opposed to any of the things you mention. I think that promoting translation in the US is certainly a beneficial move.

I just disagree with how Johannes wants to chalk it up as the effect of some all-encompassing political mindset, rather than as a result of America's literary history. I had a problem with Johannes appearing to cut Engdahl slack for not being familiar with small press culture in the US, and therefore kind of misreading the overall publishing landscape, yet at the same time wanting to declare that the lack of a lively translation culture in the US is this thing which simply cannot be excused or explained in any rational way. America has a relatively short literary history, especially if you section off the period after which American writers really started becoming "major" (not a term I agree with, but useful here nonetheless), but for it's relatively short length, it has been an extremely prolific literary culture. My argument is that Americans have so many books of their own to read that, if we valued sheer volume alone, we wouldn't need to even touch books written in other languages. It's a combination of the sheer volume of stuff that comes out every year and the fact that our literary narrative has been about "developing a national voice" that can account for, I think, the low value we place on translation. This isn't a good thing. I'm not trying to argue that. But I think it's a more solid explanation than the "Empire Clause."

I think that devaluing translation certainly does homogenize the literary atmosphere in the US. I don't think it would be possible for that not to be the case. But at the same time, I go back to my argument that the US tends to be the only country that is criticized for this homogeneity. Books from far more isolated countries are valued for their insularity and homogeneity, because that's what makes those books essentially "Swedish" or essentially "Japanese." Exactly why America is held to this special standard is beyond me. If we do it, we're selfish; if everybody else does it, they're "authentic."

I think it would be pretty amazing and funny to translate between "schools" of poetry/fiction/whatever. Somebody should do (or has probably already done) this.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Also, I'm willing to admit that perhaps a double standard is fine. America has a pretty unique sort of history, and obviously has a pretty unique demographic makeup. If people want to hold America to the "melting pot" ideal and criticize its "insular," "homogenous" literature as contradictory, I'm fine with that. But it doesn't seem as though most of these critics who make such arguments are even aware that there's a double standard at work, where smaller, more traditionally insular countries are allowed to be insular, and are in fact somewhat valued for being so, but the US is not allowed.

11:54 PM  
Blogger mongibeddu said...

Congratulations on the defense, doc!

5:01 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

An American will win when the war in Iraq is over. Watch and see.

Good luck? Congratulations? or both.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

Watching the most recent presidential debate (a treat indeed) I was mostly bored——or enraptured by CNN’s green and orange lines indicating male and female feedback.

But when either candidate talked about America being The Greatest Nation on Earth (or even, The Greatest Nation in the History of the World) I sprang to attention. Like a teenager opening his first Playboy. Or just a few moments into his first “slow” dance.

What “America” are we talking about? The America here and now? The all-of-it here-and-now America?

I remember Bly saying (in some interview or essay, and this must be 30-plus years ago) that America could like Rome turn into a black dinosaur.

And what does this have to do with American Poetry or Literature in general? Of our view of foreign literature? Of our view of works in translation?... O, it’s been a long morning already and my breakfast’s so soggy.

(note: my attention was also roused by characterizations of the American Worker: the greatest worker on earth, etc, etc, blah, blah. All I’ll say about that is that for 15 years I ran my own business and we had many employees, and they were mostly American.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Yeah, I love it when McCain talks about how the American worker is the best, most productive worker in the world. If this were true, American corporations wouldn't be outsourcing labor at such staggering rates.

If I had to put in my vote for the most productive workforce in the world, it would probably be South Korea. They basically turned the country from a completely war-strewn mess into one of the fastest growing world economies in 35 years. Not that this is an objectively great thing or whatever, but I'm fairly certain that American workers (at least not of the generations that currently comprise the workforce) wouldn't be able to accomplish such a feat. In fact, I think a feat of this magnitude requires one to believe that the future of the country rides on his/her own actions, which many Koreans certainly do. Americans, on the other hand, find this idea repulsive.

That said, I'm not sure our lack of a translation culture in the U.S. has much of anything to do with the rising and falling of our fortunes. Also, I think the comparison of Rome to America is a failing one. At this point, I feel like the general trajectory of world power is going to be one of relative equilibrium. Those countries that have been world powers in recent history won't come crashing down; rather, they will cede some of their power to emerging nations. Obama would be correct regardless in his assertion that we need a more open foreign policy that stresses a willingness to talk, but this policy stance is even more wise, considering the fact that, at some point, the U.S. is not going to have immediate leverage over every nation it talks to. The only way to get what we want in these situations is to have already developed historical friendships, or at least to have listened and given them a seat at the table, whether we liked what they said or not. Our economy certainly can't bear the burden of a "do what we say, or we'll invade" mentality for much longer.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Rauan Klassnik said...

Rome fell not
in a day
or a week
or a month
or a year

many great poems
were written
and discussed

in the long time
it was falling

(whatever the case I'm all with Johannes about reading near and far. like one should do with food.
and i'm not just saying this because he's an immigrant.


5:19 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Amen to that.

I'm excited at the prospect of learning Korean, in part because it would allow me to perhaps do some translation work. Of course, it would be great to be competent at ordering meals as well.

5:24 PM  
Blogger konrad said...


I understand your taking exception to Johannes' argument. My view is that his calling upon imperialism is a kind of equivalence-making, not a causal argument. The equivalence of being the world's only superpower (oh, the squandery of might!) with the narcissism of having so gosh darn much creativity that we just please need some time to digest it all before we can think about y'all's work.

You wrote:

If we do it, we're selfish; if everybody else does it, they're "authentic."

The problem with that is in the inclusive "we" -- the "we" of US. That pronoun hides a fiction, a fable, a commodity, a fetish, a yearning, not a true union.

2:28 AM  
Blogger Max said...

konrad -

1) I would argue that this only plays as narcissism if you think of America's literature as directly and inextricably linked to its status as a "world power." The more I think about it, the more I feel like this isn't narcissism, per se. Rather, it is the sort of selfishness one would perhaps associate with a child who just learned to play "chopsticks" on the piano refusing to go to another kid's recital, because he's too busy replaying "chopsticks" to himself. I think we too easily forget that America's literary culture is relatively young, yet somehow insanely prolific. So the culture is , at once, trying to figure out a "national voice" and slog through the unwieldy mass of work that is produced each year from our own writers.

I'm not excusing this at all. I'm merely pointing out that there are perfectly rational explanations that don't rely on the extreme logical leap of an equivalence between U.S. literary art and the politics of "empire."

2) I think your hanging on my use of "we" is perhaps a little bit of a red herring. I'm using it as a grammatical expedient, not to forward some argument about U.S. literary culture being a well-defined artistic union.

2:43 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

I've been finding this discussion fascinating, Johannes. In fact my own most recent blog post, from 10/12/08 (that's today) takes up some of these issues and runs with them a bit in a few other directions. If you do go over and read it, I'd love to hear your or anybody's response.

10:28 AM  

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