Sunday, January 25, 2009

More Translation Trouble

Obviously I don't think any editors of these presses "hate foreigners" or "are opposed to translation" ((many of whom I know personally, so I know they don't hate foreigners). I never wrote that. I merely noted that they don't publish works in translation. It is interesting to me that several people feel I'm scolding or blaming just by pointing out some basic facts.

And obviously, I'm not blaming small presses for the shape of American Poetry. There are far more important participants in this situation: big presses, poetry programs, conventions of pedagogy etc. In this Bill Knott is right: it's a system issue.

What I wanted to draw attention is that poetry in America has been defined in such a way that translation or writing from the rest of the world is not essential to poetry. We don't hate it, we just don't consider it all that necessary to engage with.

And of course it's quite possible what Jordan cynically says: that american poets don't read anyone, so why should translation be any different.

Obviously I don't say that you must like all things foreign. Max makes this obvious point. Clearly Action Books/Yes has a very specific aesthetic. I don't consider this something bad. I think it's a strength.

Mark makes the point that I only engage with Northern European poetry. Even if this wasn't gruesomely false (as evidenced by my publication of poetry from all over the place), it wouldn't somehow contradict me. I'm not saying everybody has to be super multicultural.

As Mr Knott points out, things have not always been like this (and I think they are becoming less so). In the 1960s, American poetry was incredibly invested in translation.

One more thing: Brian Henry makes an important point about how it's difficult to judge translation. You have to suspend your immediate judgment and consider its context. I think this is hard in a lot of ways but it's also a very useful exercise, not just for reading works in translation but for reading works in English as well (especially considering that English is not a single language but a multiple melee of languages and dialects, something discussions of poetry seem to largely want to cover up).


Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

Yeah, I don't get why Max, et. al. thought you were scolding them. Perhaps just another knee-jerk reaction towards being told that everything wasn't honky dory (no offense personally, Max). No one likes to hear that they are exclusionary or that they've ignored something.

But yes, I think the largest problem is as you've stated: translation just doesn't matter to most folks. Perhaps it's an issue of dominant language? English (and it's inclusive permutations) is something that other parts of the world are forced into reading. But we American kids barely had to study anything else- and that's not generally until middle/high school anyways. There's just no interest in a place where you can walk three thousand miles and hear the same language, if slightly different. Or more correct, if you're in the South of course :).

But that's not the case in pretty much any other part of the world. Where else can you cover an entire continent in one language?

This has made is insular, and made us ignorant because, to an extent, we didn't have to expand beyond our borders. In that sense too we've been physically shut off, so unless you had to do business or war with a foreign country, who needs to know their language, right? This is a 21st century problem and you're dealing with a 1970s mentality here.

The systemic translation problem, unfortunately, is like most systemic problems: there's pretty much no way to solve it easily. You could change the way kids are taught in school, but with each state and/or local government deciding what should be taught, there's no way to have any kind of uniformity to education. While I agree that should not be the case, it is, sadly.

By the way, I believe I've been scolded by Johannes in person and electronically (with good reason, I should add). This isn't it. Not to defend him, but simply pointing out a flaw doesn't mean he's upset at anyone or anything- he's continuing a discourse. Don't fault him for that-

10:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

in many/most cases, the foreign poets who are translated (or who should be / deserve to be) are usually already celebrated/recognized in their own countries as outstanding significant voices——

in other words, those poets from around the world who are (or should be) published here in English translation

are apt to (not always, but probably) be the BEST poets in their own language——

ergo, if you're a USAPO who wants to read and by inspired by the BEST poets,

why wouldn't you seek out and read those poets in translation?——

USAPOs (not all, but too many) are perhaps overly insular and cliquey, barricading themselves in enclaves and schools . . .

it's shameful that University presses in particular don't do more, or that when they do do it (I'm thinking of Fairleigh Dickinson), their books don't get reviewed and noticed . . .

certainly every MFA program should require their poets to take courses in verse translation——

11:04 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I want to say Arkansas is one of the few programs where the translation and genre MFAs are together in one department.

Maybe there are others as well?

11:15 AM  
Blogger François Luong said...

As a note to Bill Knott, Stacy Doris's translation seminar is full with 18 students.

1:23 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I don't believe in "best." Some of the poets I've translated have been major canonical poets (Bjorling, Parland, Sodergran), and others influential contemporary poets (Berg, Johan Jonson), but I've also translated some poets who have a single book (Viktor Johansson) and Sara Tuss Efrik who doesn't have book yet because I think they're fascinating writers.

I tend to involve translation in my classes and teach a lot of poets in translation, but I also am wary to teaching classes that ghettoize translation or foreign poetry.

1:32 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Actually, Johannes, I withdrew the point that you claim I am "making." I am no longer making it. To claim that I am making a point when I have granted that it was a misstatement of fact is disingenuous of you. And to add "grotesque" to it is a little bit grotesque. While you have suggested in the past that sometimes you talk off the top of your head on your blog, you seem to act as if all statements made by others on this blog are set in stone.

Amish's point is a good one: part of the history of the U.S. certainly includes its linguistic isolation. As a high school and college student, I studied the French language for six years but never became particularly proficient at it simply because there was never any situation when I could use it. Those students who were actually able to travel to France, which I was not, were more likely to connect in a deeper way to learning French. As a teenager it seemed to me simply an abstract exercise, sort of like math in being kind of an isolated symbol system. I'm neither defending that I felt that way or chastising myself for it, but it's a condition that many U.S. citizens share. With the obvious exception of Spanish, it's possible to live in the U.S. for years without ever hearing a conversation in any other language. I do think it's an important shaping element of U.S. experience, and one that has caused problems. And it certainly seems to be one that Europeans have difficulty grasping, because they have often lived in much more multi-lingual contexts. Lorraine, for instance, who grew up in various parts of the world, speaks (in various degrees of fluency) four languages.

In an odd way it reminds me a bit of the debate regarding the SAT that once centered around the following question: Racer is to race as (and there several possibilities) yacht is to regatta. The question was eventually removed from the SAT because of its culture and class bias: obviously, rich white students were much more likely to have encountered a yacht and a regatta and so to have those words as a regular part of their vocabulary.

Nonetheless, I'm hardly debating that having more poetry in translation is a good idea. But despite all these blog posts I can't tell whether you think it's a moral failing or a failing of education or what; you seem to go back and forth on the question. And what should be done about it remains a little unclear as well. Should we make multiple language learning more of a requirement for students in the U.S.? How do we get students to care about learning languages? The U.S. has become more multi-lingual than in the past, but only in certain parts of the country.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


The grotesque comment was supposed to be a joke...


4:25 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Amish -

Perhaps I thought he was scolding them because listing a dozen publishers, in hopes of demonstrating the dearth of translations being published among them, seems to imply that there is something wrong with them not having published very many. I don't know. I'm not just reading a simple list of numbers there. I'm reading a comment. Perhaps it doesn't qualify as "scolding." Maybe that's the wrong word. But it's certainly more than a list of numbers. It would be disingenuous to assert otherwise.

I'm not really sure how you're drawing the connection between "insularity" and "ignorance," as if the fact that presses don't focus on translation of poetry leaves us completely unaware of what's going on in other places.

Again, insularity is impossible to avoid. Any endeavor must be curated, since nobody has the endless resources that would be necessary to include everything (not to mention the fact that including everything would just created a big muddled mess). I'm not really sure where this critique that Johannes makes is going, what we're supposed to learn from it. But again, I think we're dealing in a big double standard here, in which there's a "right" kind of insularity, and a "wrong" kind of insularity, and only the wrong kind ever gets called "insularity," because if you include the "right" things, you're on some sort of moral high ground.

It seems that, the longer this discussion goes on, the more clear it becomes that Johannes's main point is that presses need to publish more stuff that's in line with his interests, not that the stuff he wishes they would publish is of objectively higher value than what they already publish, or that the mission of publishing translations is of objectively higher value than publishing poetry originally written in English.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

What's cynical about the observation that most of the time, most American poets hate ALL poems except their own?

In this they have much in common with the rest of Americans, who hate ALL poems, and having no poems of their own, have nothing to reserve from their contempt.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

See my list of favorite books of the year. But then I'm not an American. And a typical Swede loves American poetry.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Jordan said...

When most poets say they love certain books, I've suspected that what they really mean is they are using them to hate certain other books more effectively.

Who are most poets. I am, we are.

8:58 AM  

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