Saturday, February 28, 2009

Translation/New European Poets/CK Williams

[I left this entry on the Harriet Blog just now. It also responds to an earlier comment on this blog, where someone asked me what I thought of The New European Poets edited by Prufer and Miller. The more I come in contact with people who have read this book, not just glanced at it (like CK Williams), the better I think of it.]

[NOTE: as I sometimes do on the Internet, I misread Don's entry and got pissy with him, so I'm reformulating this entry.]

There are a number of assumptions and arguments I find objectionable in this post. Perhaps I will deal with them in more detail on my own blog later today. But for now, let me make some brief responses:

-Globalization is not some kind of benevolent "world music" factory, there is real power involved.

- Poetry is not just a collection of formal tricks.

- You may treat translation as an influx of new formal tricks to help American Poetry stave off "decadence", but that suggests foreign literature is just some kind of medicine for American Poetry, that it isn't literature in its own right.

- In fact, it is typical of a empire-like power like ours that we can treat the rest of the world as a style mart where we can go and get a little invigoration.

- When Bly, Rothenberg and others translated European and Latin American poetry in the 1960s it was precisely to get away from the Formalism of New Criticism and the poetry it had led to (Lowell etc, who still appears to be the model for Poetry Magazine). But these folks had a much more dynamic relationship with the Euros than CK Williams suggests.

- CKW suggest that foreign literature no longer offers anything new to American poetry, that we already know it all. This is a strange assertion to make based on one anthology. It suggests a whole bunch of arrogance mixed with even more ignorance.

- Part of the problem here is the nature of anthologies: By offering little snippets of poets' careers they tend to create a homogenized effect. But this is true of any anthology of American Poetry as well. Or just Modern Poetry: It all sounds the same.

- Another problem: is, as my comment above suggests, that if you lack the right framework, everything sounds the same. Thus to some, all modern poetry is the same (it all lacks rhyme or whatever); but to someone else, the difference between Pound and Eliot is enormous.

- Another problem with anthologies like New European Poets is that you have American poets making selections of foreign poetry. Many of these poets knew very little if anything about the foreign literature in question. Many of them were also older, people nostalgic for the poetry translated by Bly and Co. back in the 60s and bound to pick works that fit that mold stylistically.

- In defense of NEP, Prufer and Miller frame their anthology as a way to begin an exploration of European poetry, an incitement, and unfinished project. At first I was skeptical, thinking people would probably just read it like CK and say: OK, I've got my Euro fix now I can get back to reading American poetry. But since its publication I've received correspondence that suggests other people are indeed taking it as an incitement for further reading.

- Part of the problem with further reading is that not much else is available from these poets. In our translation-phobic American Poetry not much foreign literature is published. Thus many people are actively looking but not finding that deeper engagement with the foreign literature that Prufer and Miller call for.

- An Anecdote: Recently I was urged to submit some translations for Poetry Magazine's translation issue. I was hesitant because I find the journal entirely reactionary and lifeless, but I did submit finally some translations by Swedish poet Ann Jaderlund, arguably the most important post 1980s poet in Sweden ( she sells more copies of her poetry in Sweden than the most famous American poets sell here, in a country 30 times the size of Sweden, and her books are debated in the national newspapers etc, she even has a literary historic landmark named after her "The Ann Jaderlund Debates" that raged in the late 1980s, signifying the onset of a younger generation of women poets). While the journal had recently published the work of Hakan Sandell, a completely insignificant figure in Swedish poetry but notably well within the conservative aesthetics of Poetry Magazine, the journal rejected my Jaderlund submission.

- This to me suggests a couple of things. It shows the importance of the American Filter (in this case Poetry Magazine): The journal does not want things that are different, but want its aesthetics confirmed. No wonder we don't find out about interesting foreign writers, if our publishers and journals are unwilling to embrace their difference.

- It is also significant because Jaderlund is in fact included in Miller's and Prufer's book. The Swedish section was edited by Rika Lesser, a poet and noted translator who has a very fine understanding of the Swedish language but who objects to most Swedish poetry written after 1980. Despite this handicap she put together a very brief selection of Swedish poetry that is unquestionably more varied and dynamic than any issue of Poetry Magazine I've read over the past few years. The same is true of a number of those sections. For example, I thought the Ukraine section really good.

- I finally want to say that there is a fundamental problem with anthologies of this nature in general: They create the illusion that we can "represent" a national literature. That literatures are static etc. Americans can go out and look into a nation's poetry and take what we want. And by implications: there is an American Poetry. I prefer to read across national boundaries not out of some ethical stance but because it's the best way for me to find interesting poetry.

- So while I have some reservations about Miller/Prufer's anthology I think we should treat it like the beginning not an end. Don and CK treat it like an end, and they're worse off for it.

- Finally I want to call attention to your strange statements about "translatese." This has long, as Lawrence Venuti notes in his books, been the code word for what is wrong about foreign lit in translation: it sounds "off." Of course it is also to some extent the desired effect according to various German Romantics (and later Benjamin) who called for translation not to move the foreign text to the target language, but to allow the foreign text to deform the target language. However, you suggest that there is a static effect called "translatese," and that sounds like nothing so much as an attempt to denude the very dynamic process involved in translation. There is no one "translatese" just as there is no one English language. Part of the threat of translation to powerful and conservative institutions such as your own is the way it undoes the illusion of a static English language, a static Literature.

- The other great importance of translation is of course not at all as formalist as that notion: the ideas of the foreign enters our own literature. For an example of this, see Lara Glenum's article about Swedish poet Aase Berg in our most recent issue of Here is an American poet who takes a foreign writer seriously, not just as a trinket shop. And it's one of the best essays written about Berg (as Berg told me in an email). Or look at Jen Hofer's work with Mexican women poets.



Blogger Verse said...

And there's also the problem of "translation" that is actually editing (when the poet translates the work into 'rough' English and then an American finesses it into 'better' English without looking at the original at all). I wish publishers and critics would distinguish this somehow, since it's absurd to say a poem or book is 'translated' by someone who never saw the work in the original. While this is probably my own pet peeve, it speaks to your larger concerns with 'foreign' literature in the U.S., I think.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Don Share said...

Anyone interested can see my response over on Harriet.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Max said...

It seems like the problem with translation--whether we're talking about anthologies or not--is having to "pick and choose" what to translate. One example from your post is how Poetry wouldn't publish your Jaderlund translations, even though she's a poet of much greater renown in Sweden than the "conservative," "insignificant" Sandell that they did publish.

It seems as though Poetry doesn't get any credit for this, primarily because their choice was in bad taste by the standards of a relative insider. So the standard isn't really to foster publication, per se, but to foster tasteful, significant publication that directly reflects the values of the culture from which the original comes.

I'm not sure I can get on board with this idea that what we find significant in the material should be held of no value in the determination of whether to publish or not. Because if we publish only the material which we find to be "significant," we're just engaging in imperialism or something like that.

And your standards of "significance" (that Jaderlund sells a lot of copies, is discussed in the newspapers, has a statue erected in her honor) are the same standards many would find wholly immaterial to the quality of a person's writing. Or is your point that she sells a lot of books and she has artistic credibility?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, at some point in the production of these translations, somebody in the English-speaking world is going to have find some level of personal value in the text, in order for it to be published. If this is imperialism, then I don't see how it's possible to avoid being imperialistic in the process.

6:44 PM  
Blogger François Luong said...

Ah, CK Williams. The guy lives half of the year in France and doesn't know anything about contemporary French poetry. Or conflates it with the cliché critique of language poetry.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Brian -

I agree - poets who rework verbatims would do better to call their products "versions."

Translatese or translatorese, though, is a bigger problem than good intentions - if evaluation is going to enter into our reading of translations, and I think it's unavoidable that it will, then we have to be clear with ourselves that when we say a poem is *good,* and when we say a translation is a *good poem,* part of what we are saying is that the poem fulfills our expectations, that it looks sufficiently like what we already recognize to be a poem.

God that was wordy.

I just mean, if we require a translation to be a *good poem,* we're going to have to make sure our feet are either both on the boat or on the dock.

The Miller/Prufer book is really quite good. The Hoover/Do Vietnamese book is better. And I'm pretty sure the gold standard for international anthologies at the moment is Murat Nemet-Nejat's Eda. But I say more about this in an essay that I better get off my ass and finish or the editor will never speak to me again.


7:31 AM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...

Johannes, I also put this comment under yours at Harriet, so thought I'd repost it here:


You said: "Recently I was urged to submit some translations for Poetry Magazine's translation issue. I was hesitant because I find the journal entirely reactionary and lifeless..."

What on earth are you talking about? There's lots in Poetry that's not my cup of tea, either, but the magazine has been publishing all sorts of non-"reactionary" stuff, from special supplements of VizPo, to Jack Spicer, to poems by people like Ange Mlinko, Charles Bernstein, Rae Armantrout, and so on. You sound like you think Poetry is still in the same category as The Sewanee Review or The New Criterion (maybe the only two magazines left, by the way, not open to "post-avant" writing, which is now very much the flip side of the Mainstream coin).

Just because some of your translations were rejected doesn't mean there is some kind of ideological cabal in Chicago out to marginalize the "avant-garde." It's a different time, because there IS no avant-garde.

You should submit more translations, which are excellent!


9:43 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


My comment was somewhat misguidedly taking Don as being in support of CK Williams. In that case, it seemed to me he was complaining that foreign poets were not writing anything different from American Poets.

My Jaderlund point was this: They didn't publish one of the most influential Swedish poet but published a much less poet, someone who was much less challenging to the Poetry Magazine Aesthetic (of the moment). That is how the foreign becomes not very different - ie if we don't value their difference but rather publish only what reaffirms our own positions.

This is at times the problem in the New European Poets, but often not as it seems to me that in difference to CK Williams' view, a lot of them are quite interesting.


12:48 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


See my post on the journal from a while back.

Of course they publish your occasional "vispo" special or occasional famous Language poet. However, these poets never seem to enter into the bulk of the magazine, which I think promotes a very Lowell-ish/Bishop-y aesthetic.

This is entirely their right; however I think the publishing of "vispo" special is disingenious if they mean it solely as a way to say "Hey look, we publish vispo - there is not avant-garde!" (Ie, they convinced you rather easily).

I never said there was a kabbala or that I was some kind of frozen-out Avant-Garde superstar. All I noted was that one of the most prominent Swedish poets was too far out for at least a section of their editorial staff. This I said as a way to defend the charge that European poets are no different from American poets (or each other).


12:52 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


yes, Murat's anthology is pretty good and he's a very strange, funny guy. Probably the weirdest ideas about translation I've heard anywhere. He's also in the Prufer/Miller anthology.


2:58 PM  
Blogger Kent Johnson said...


How does that song go, "You say kabbala, I say cabal"?

No seriously, I just think you are being too doctrinaire in your characterization of the magazine. I know Poetry is not Abraham Lincoln magazine, or whatever, but to call it "reactionary," when there's most definitely been a more-than-token opening there towards "newer" poetics, seems a bit wrongheaded and unproductive.


4:32 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

But I think there's also something a little less than ideal about perpetuating the notion that it is only valuable to publish the foreign literature that is most "foreign" to us. It seems like what you're arguing is that if the translation doesn't adequately "deform" English, then it is of less value to the English speaking world. But isn't this just another way of pointing out how foreign literatures can best serve us? I don't see how this escapes being an imperialist notion.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think you're largely right about this. In fact, this is what I think Don is also right about: that a certain "translatese" becomes its own stable style of foreign.

Often the most foreign is in fact what is easiest for us to deal with - because it's so foreign we can deal with it as an exotic trinket.


5:23 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Well, I think a lot of times we focus unduly on how the language looks and sounds, and too little on the uniqueness of the ideas it communicates. When it comes to foreign literature, I'm far more interested in those things which are directly untranslatable (i.e. there is no word-for-word way of expressing the idea, because it is a specific idea which, for all intents and purposes, does not exist in the language being translated into) than in how translation from one language to another can "deform" the new language.

This is a form of imperialism, too, if you want to look at it that way (i.e. the fact that it is useful because it can tell me something "new"), but I think that calling this imperialism is kind of an unfair metonymy, in that it ignores the existence of positive value altogether.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I think you don't quite understand what I mean by "deform" because your description of what interests you is an example of the kind of thing that interest me too, and which cause many interesting "deformations". I use the term "deformation", not "translatese", because these deformations do not have to be purely formal (in fact that is why I noted in my entry that I didn't think poetry was just a series of tricks).

But I also want to note, that I go to poetry - not just in translation - for new ideas and sensations. So it's no wonder I go to translation for these.


6:10 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes -

I guess what I'm referring to is the possibility that a "foreign" concept (one that doesn't have any clear, direct way of being communicated in English) could be translated, metaphorically, in a way that doesn't buck the formal traditions of English poetry, and still be quite revolutionary in that it constitutes the transmission of a heretofore neglected, misunderstood, or absent concept.

But also, I don't think it's inherently of lesser value to translate poetry that already basically gels with English-language traditions. As an end in itself, yeah, it's stupid. But I think that learning of cultural similarity can be as enlightening as learning of cultural difference, in theory. Perhaps not always equally "interesting," but what's interesting is always subjective anyway.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am thoroughly disappointed in this new, almost congenial tone Johannes and Max have adopted in this thread.

6:43 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

And what does the "real power" involved in "globalization" have to do with poetry?

6:45 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


No, that's not a stupid activity. I think people should translate stuff that interests them.


6:51 PM  
Blogger Henry Gould said...

Some of the perfectionist demands being made here seem oddly at variance with the vast imperfect world of languages & cultures themselves. Let's not forget that languages are shifting & changing as we speak, & that much as we may think imperialism, or chauvinism, or some such, shackles literature, ultimately art & literature are the after-echoes of changing peoples & populations, which are all shifting quite rapidly under our feet, led by social & political processes which are much more blunt & powerful (ie., "natural", "necessary") than those of art. As soon as the avant-garde finally gets the ear of the public at large & becomes part of the common culture, it will already be out of date. It's better to be permanent than new.

7:51 PM  
Blogger Max said...

What I mean is that translating a book of poetry only because it gels with the Anglo poetry tradition, based on the notion that this is good and everything else is bad, is a stupid idea. I'm trying to differentiate this kind of activity from the act of translating a book in a way that happens to (or seems to) gel with the Anglo tradition, but which doesn't constitute a statement of absolute values, but merely happens to highlight a cross-cultural similarity. In other words, I would question the idea that the foreign must always be or appear "foreign" to us, in order to be of any value. There is a difference between a translation that asserts normalcy because it assumes normalcy to be of higher value (regardless of how much the text must be twisted in order to "prove" this out), and one that asserts normalcy because there really is a relative representational similarity between the two traditions in question.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Certainly Globalism is more than a mere mashing up of cultures in one happy cosmopolitan zone of interaction. Understanding the dynamics of globalism is beyond my pay grade (which is admittedly very low). Ask Hardt and Negti or someone.

And yes, I am bit unsettled by the fact that I now agree with everything Max writes.


5:53 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Henry -

Why is it better to be "permanent" than to be "new"? And if everything is always changing, as you argue, then how can "permanent" and "new" even be possible?

10:24 PM  

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