Thursday, January 22, 2009

Translation Troubles (2)

In response to Jordan's comments, I'm not "scolding" anyone. If your press wants to be a press that publishes 0 works of translation, that's totally OK with me.

I've written on this blog before that I think it's wrong not to publish translation; any time people create ethical rules for writing I get uncomfortable.

However, I do think it's important to think about. Do we want to be a national poetry? I don't think so. But then I'm not a national, so I may be biased.

Correction: that's totally the wrong way to put it. I think what perplexes me the most is that people are not more interested in foreign writing. Just on the level of interest. One doesn't even have to bring in the politics of the situation.


Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

You're not American enough, JoGo- get with the program. Make those comp students from UGA proud!

But seriously, I think there is a feeling of wanting to be a national poetry- that somehow we must distinguish ourselves from other parts of the world or something. I think that's why there are so many categories and why these categories are pushed in schools. There's a desire to set yourself apart and make your group somehow better. It's a tool to keep out those you don't like for whatever reason.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

Oh, and that's bad.

Wanted to be clear on that.

5:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, I think it's one thing to merely not have published any translations, just out of happenstance, and completely another to have a distinct policy against publishing translations (which I understand some presses do have).

A lot of small presses, I'm sure, don't have the sorts of connections with the translation community that you do, Johannes. Being that you're a translator who runs a small press, the process is somewhat more automatic for you. Which isn't to say that small presses shouldn't be asked to put in the effort, but then again, they are normally working with fairly limited resources and opportunities.

I guess what I'm saying is that it's unfair to use simple stats about # of translations published as your sole point of criticism here. You're not being terribly generous here.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

It's a blunt assessment category but that's why it's good (as the Gender Troubles debate suggested).

7:10 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Good for whom? And how can this "blunt assessment category" possibly be useful if it ignores perfectly legitimate reasons for translations not being published? I honestly think it's only good for you, and others who are inclined to self-righteous attitudes such as yours.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

If not scolding, what?

2:54 AM  
Blogger Max said...

About your correction:

I think there's a lot of writing, translated or not, that people aren't interested in.

3:34 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I didn't want it to be scolding. I just wanted to present some kind of image of how much was being published. I think it's good in its bluntness because it doesn't advance an argument, it's just meant to get people think about it. I honestly don't understand why this - of all things said on the Internet - is mean or unfair.

Clearly some presses (post-apollo, Burning Deck, ugly d) are doing quite a bit of translation work. And clearly there are reasons you may not want to publish works in translation. But this list doesn't engage with such arguments. It merely states the numbers (some of which were wrong!).

In response to Amish, I maintain that this is absolutely not a conscious decision (to not want to publish works in translation). I think it's just that our poetry situation - including the supposedly "experimental" scene, perhaps more so the experimentals - is just not very international.

Presses, poets, scholars etc have to make a conscious effort to engage with foreign lit. And if your entire literary upbringing has been monolingual then you probably don't even think about it, and - more importantly - when faced with a foreign text in translation you probably just dismiss it when it doesn't suit your taste.

The one thing I don't accept is this notion that it is so hard to publish works in translation. It's not.

It is pretty hard to find works in translation that are the same as the American poetry - because the very fact of it being translated ads a layer to the text that most Americans don't seem to want to deal with, what I call the "messiness", what Silliman for example can't deal with, and also (thank god!) because foreign works are working with different lineages etc.

But it's not hard to find foreign poetry. It's out there. And there are tons of translators - including me - who struggle to get anyone to publish their translations. Ron and Janaka of Black Ocean just asked me and I gave them With Deer. They're not experts on Swedish poetry.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

——and it's a shame that translators are not honored and recognized . . .
and, damn it, collected in publications!

——where's the Collected European Poetry Translations of Cid Corman (all his wonderful versions of Celan, Ungaretti, Benn, Jacottet et al)—

Carcanet in England did
Edwin Morgan's Collected Translations and Christopher Middleton's Selected Translations——Oxford did Charles Tomlinson's Selected Translations, and Faber did a collection of Tom Paulin's verse trans, and a selection of Ted Hughes' also . . .

but books like these are far and few between——

There should be dozens of such books——where's Hiroaki Sato's Selected Translations, and James Kirkup's, and so many others!——

Make your own list: I just grabbed a few off my shelves . . .

8:36 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

To some degree I'm with Max on this one.

Johannes, in your focus on the U.S./international split, you ignore what I think most small presses actually do, which is develop a catalogue based on the concept of proximity: their proximity to certain writers/issues/locations.

Now, I would not say this to you as a criticism that I myself worry about, but someone might: I note that the non U.S. poetries you support tend to be mainly, if not quite exclusively, white and northern European. You don't talk about Latino and South American poetry; you don't talk about Negritude and the history of African poetries. And you don't publish much (any? I don't claim to know) work by writers of those contexts.

The reason you don't, of course, is that you have no proximity to such poetries.

In that sense, your own press and interests are as much defined by proximity (a positive way of looking at it) or provinciality (the negative way) as most presses and people; it's just that your proximity includes a different set that many people's.

This is not to say that I don't believe that more non-English poetry should be translated into English; I do. But until you start publishing writers with whom you have no proximity, asking other presses to do the same isn't really quite fair.

That said, I think the goal for your press and other presses should be to look to develop and grow the variety of things which they are related to; to push the bounds of their identities as presses without publishing a mish-mash of non-related writing. I think you do that pretty well, on the whole, but I don't think you quite give enough credit to others on the same score.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I may be one to shred my sources but here you're fairly wrong.

It's true that I've only ever translated Finnish and Swedish poets but Action Books has published books by a Korean, a Chilean, a Mexican, a Finland-Swede, a Fin, and a (Norwegian-)Swede. Our upcoming books are by one Japanese poet and a French poet. In our AY journal we've had African, Asian and Latin American poets. We're working on a big project with a Congolese artist.

So you're wrong about that.

However, I don't want this to devolve into who is the most multicultural. What I am interested in is seeing to what American poetry is. If indeed small presses is about the valorization of "community" then why should this community be marked off by national boundaries?

I agree with you last statement, and that's what we do.

I don't expect people to publish works they don't feel any connection to - but why does it seem that American presses don't seem to see any connection to *any* foreign literature?

And that's why I'm deeply suspicious of all the talk about "community" in the poetry world.


8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i've enjoyed following your recent posts, johannes! scantily clad press has published tomaz salamun and danish poet martin johs. moller...i myself am definitely interested in seeing and publishing more works by writers abroad...

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:42 AM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Thanks for correcting me on that information regarding what you publish, Johannes. That's helpful and I appreciate it. And indeed I had even forgotten that I have in fact read a book you published by a Korean writer.

As for whose work any given press feels connected to or not, it's certainly worth investigating particular cases.

9:47 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, particular cases are good, but i also think it's important to look at the overall picture.

And many small presses are based as you say on a sense of community. On one hand I believe in that concept to the extent that it's the opposite of the totally bankrupt academic/contest/star system.

But the downside of the valorisation of community is that it can easily become ultra insular and reactionary.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I don't think anybody here is attempting to defend these "communities" per se, Johannes, but rather to point out that there are plenty of valid reasons for somebody not to publish a translation other than "I hate foreign literature," or "foreign literature is so weird," or "foreign literature is so hard." Sometimes people are simply more interested in promoting what's going on closest to them. This, believe it or not, does not necessarily imply any comment against foreign literatures.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I'm not saying people hate foreign literature (well some do, but they are few). What I am saying is that these structures and practices are implicitly - not intentionally - xenophobic.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

Xenophobia? That's just jargon for hating foreigners, isn't it?

I think it's quite funny that a practice common among, say, small independent record labels (putting out music from one's "scene" or "community") is perfectly fine to simplify as "xenophobia" when we're talking about writing.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I can always count on you to reduce a complicated argument to "hate foreigners" etc.

I used the word xenophobia above to mean repel foreigness. Not hate foreigness.

And for the 3 millionth time - I'm not scolding or attacking, I merely want to present a portrayal of indie american poetry publishing and have an argument about it. Max, can you *please* engage with the argument rather than reduce it to the most basic pro- vs anti-?

I do think a lot of indie music scenes are similar to indie poetry publishing. But my experience of say the Athens indie scene was that people were actually quite international and wide-listened in their music.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

it is zenophobia, systemic in the culture . .. library sales for one:

presumably Iowa after the '70s looked at the debits all those books of trans. verse brought in and said No more——

or maybe in the Eighties when what's her name arrived she decreed that Iowa

would no longer publish first-rate poets from around the world in translation,

and would instead put out crappy third rate USAPOs——

WHO decided that?!

USA libraries will buy (assumption) the latter but not the former——

don't these U. presses rely on library sales to break even??


1:12 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I am engaging with the argument. I've already pointed out why I think that your argument isn't all that fair or even useful, other than to the maintenance of a self-righteous attitude, and you've replied by saying that it's useful just as a measure. Fair enough. But don't say I'm not engaging you, unless by engaging you mean in a way that doesn't challenge you.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

American poets hate ALL poetry (aside from their own poems and a few by their teachers and maybe one poem by each frienemy). Why should foreign poetry be an exception.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


What I get irritated about is your tendency to mis-state my argument. Which I guess is one way of engaging with the argument.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

What I have a problem with is when I say you're accusing small publishers of hating foreigners, and then you come back with "no, I'm saying that this is xenophobic." Well, I mean, what is the big difference here? Okay, hatred is too strong a term ... but maybe "aversion" works slightly better? It would seem to me that the difference between hatred and aversion isn't really very significant at the end of the day. The disingenuousness is what bothers me, how you always appear to be saying one thing, but when somebody calls you on it, you simply reword it and assert that it is completely different now. You can pretty up your assertions, but I don't think the basic point changes.

5:55 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...

I don't think publishers hate foreigners, but rather, do not allow them any (public) space.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Max said...

There are any number of domestic poets who don't get any space, either.

11:28 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...

Well, Max, those domestic poets probably have a greater chance of getting published in the US than a major living French/Swedish/German/etc. poet.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I misused the word "xenophobic" so I corrected what I meant. That is: this whole discussion I have tried to make the argument that it has nothing to do with outright, intentional hate of the foreign, but rather a definition of literature which doesn't include the foreign. How is that disingenious? That's called clarifying. My whole initial post was absolutely about not ascribing motives but to point this out as a way to start a discussion (which it is obvious most people do not seem to want to engage in). That is why I disagreed with Amish about this.

What I want to know is why are you on my blog? You're not interested in having a discussion - you would rather interrupt the discussion. You never agree with my ideas in the slightest (to the point that you've had to do some unearthly flipflops to maintain your oppositionality). Most of the time you don't seem to want to bother to even try to understand the arguments, prefrring to reduce them to sophmoric us vs them style arguments. Why go on someone's blog if all you do is oppose? If there's someone I find no common ground with on the Internet I certainly don't spend all my time on that blog. In fact I might never spend time on it (I do occasionally visit Mayhew's blog, but I don't on the whole bother to criticize his views because we're worlds apart). I enjoy having arguments with Mark not because we agree but because there is discussion not knee-jerk opposition. Some may like that but me it just feels like a waste of time. Like I have now wasted five minutes dealing with you.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Francois -

And the foreign poet probably has an even better chance of getting published in his/her own language.

Johannes -

It's disingenuous because all you ever seem to do is inflect the language differently when you're called on something. So now we're "not including" the foreign. Well, why aren't we including the foreign? What is the implication of that? That we "don't care"? That we are "averse"? That we "hate"? My problem is that you never localize the problem, but when I speculate on what you might mean (because you never even come close to creating meaning yourself) you're like "oh no, that's not what I meant!" Well, then what the hell DID you mean? You're very good at saying, but not so good at explaining. That's what I'm trying to get you to do, because I ACTUALLY DO CARE ABOUT THE DISCUSSION, but the discussion can't really go forward, for me, until I know exactly what you're saying.

7:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Not true. American poets are fairly well translated in Sweden, Germany, France ... Much translation is published in countries not the US.

12:38 AM  
Blogger François Luong said...


Which goes on to say, you are talking out of your arse.

(I was posting as 'blowfish')

12:40 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Francois -

You said that US poets have a better chance of being published in the US than foreign poets. Then I noted that foreign poets probably have a much better chance of being published in their native countries than a US poet. I never said that foreign press don't publish translations, but rather that the standard you're holding up on one end (foreign poets have a harder time being published in the US than do US poets) probably holds up in foreign countries as well (with foreign poets having more access to publication than Americans, if not by the same margin, then one that is still significant).

3:47 AM  
Blogger Max said...

So, in other words, you're the one talking out of his ass.

3:48 AM  

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