Friday, February 06, 2009

Zizek on translation (1)

"Today's liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other... In a strict homology with the paradoxical structure of the previous chapter's chocolate laxative, tolerance coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant toward the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space, In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed which is the right to remain at a safe distance from others."

This seems me to be the general attitude towards foreign lit these days. Nobody would say: I hate works in translation. But the moment someone like Engdahl harasses American literature for what he sees as its insularity, people act like he has committed some kind of terrible crime. The Other that actually starts to interact is hard to deal with.


Blogger Chris said...

Nobody would say: I hate works in translation.

I say this all the time! Quite often in this very space.

Translation is a way of dealing with the Other that starts to interact: It's a way of neutering it, of rendering it into familiar clothes. It's a necessary evil, but still noxious: It's a rendering plant, translating cows into soap.

Which is nothing against foreign lit; just that, I'm going to make an effort to translate myself to read (some of) it, and try to minimize the need to translate the lit (and pretend that by reading the translation I have any real sense of what is going on in the original: after all.)

6:49 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


First up I don't think anybody has some kind of foolproof 100% knowledge of the original no matter how much language you know.

Secondly, I think you are partially right: but it has to do with a certain attitude towards translation. The idea that we keep it at arm's length, we don't actually have to bring it into our discussions etc.

This was my perhaps unfair suspicion about The New European Poets: that people would read it and say, voila now I know what Eurpoean poetry is, now I can go back to reading Jorie Graham or Lyn Hejinian.

Judging from various emails I've received, several people did *not* approach it this way.

I also think that there is nothing inherent about translation that leaves it like that. People can engage very deeply with foreign poetry in translation. For example, I know that my translations of Aase Berg have influenced Lara Glenum and in the next issue of Action, yes she has an essay that gives a more profound reading of Berg's work than most things written in Sweden. This to me suggests that one can engage quite profoundly through translation.

Also, in the 1960s there was quite a bit of this stuff going on. People like Bly and Rothenberg for example worked out of a tradition that was quite translated.

But I agree, this is perhaps not the norm.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Also, in context of "hybridity" above I think it is important to talk about the violence or "loss" or change that happens in translation, not to cover it up in a happy hybrid.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A poet and translator named James Stotts has been working on translations of Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva. He has some interesting observations here and here (scroll down after landing) concerning the process.

My question is: How can one "do violence" to a text that remains pristine in its original language after you've done the deed?

9:06 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

J., to your first point: Of course.

There is something strange (or maybe not at all strange) when a critic writes criticism about a translator translations of a poet poetry, and then the translator finds the criticism more cogent than what has been written in the original language. Well, of course the translator would, since the critic is responding to that very translator's sense of what the poet's poetry is!

But I wonder what sorts of things she talks about, and if they are the sorts of things that most interest me in poetry ("qua poetry"?)?

"Now I can go back to Lyn Hejinian" -- my understanding was that much of her work is wrapped up in less obvious modes of translation (from Russian). Wasn't OXOTA written around various loci of translation (but more the kind that I keep arguing for, rather than the kind you keep arguing for)? I dunno, she seems like a bad example of something non-translation-y to return to.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...


In some sense both Jorie and Lyn are bad examples as Jorie grew up in Italy.

I meant: the most famous American poets around.

And no, I don't think Lyn's own work is the same as translation. And I don' think most of her work is "wrapped up" in translation. I'm not an expert, but on the whole I don't think so.

An interesting side-note is that Lyn was my teacher when I started translating Aase Berg and she was the only person in my MFA experience who encouraged me to do so. At that time I didn't know anything about publishing and such and I remember she gave me a list of journals for me to send the translations to.

As for Lara, since I don't believe that poetry is what is lost in translation, I don't have trouble with people working on translations. In fact, Berg's work is to begin with language in a state of flux, fulling Englishisms for example, so her work breaks down that entire devotion to the original to begin with.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Ah, I suppose I think about 80%-90% of what I think works "poetically" in a text is stuff that gets "lost in translation". This is probably why we're talking at cross purposes; the stuffs you recognize as being "the bits of poetic interest in a text" might be sufficiently different from what I recognize.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


Much of what I have written on the blog is indeed about the need to change our notions of what is poetic. Right now I think it's still incredibly tied up with a monoglossic ideal of the organic, the fluent etc.

And this is needed to control *excess*. That is poetry's job in our language - to control excess. Translation is an excess. Engaging with foreign literature by translating it etc is about generating an "excess" to American Poetry. The experience of reading works in translation is always characterized by the lack/excess axis: it's too much or not enough.

What is just right is the illusory idyll of monoglossia.

Also about excess: so much of our poetry discussion is about excess and lack. The idea of the hybrid in this new anthology is about controlling excess. Quietism is about controlling excess. Language poetry is about controlling excess. Poetry magazine is about controlling excess.

Poetry is what is lost in translation so we have to lose and lose and lose.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Well, I'll ride this merry-go-round one more time: Poetry in translation is functionally indistinguishable from poetry in one's native language, in terms of how it ruptures the idyll of monoglossia. Because the foreign language is gone, rendered -- if at times not "organic and fluent", nevertheless certainly far far more "organic and fluent" than an interaction with the foreign text would be.

Translating a text, though, yes, that's a completely different story.

(The translation that I have spent the most time with lately is Melnick's "Men in Aida", if that gives you any sense where I'm coming from.)

7:59 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Exactly. And this is where translation studies gets interesting. America wants translations that are "finished", "literal", "faithful" to the original - that replaces the original in some way. We do not want a translation that seems to be on-going, that leaves the text incomplete, that shows traces of itself as a translation.

But you know Chris just the word "translation" fundamentally alters our expectations of the text.

You don't like translation because they are lacking poetry. But now you say they are no different from poetry? Then how are they lacking? Seems like you can't have it both ways.

8:07 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Oh: Because they have the translator's poetry, not the original author's poetry. And yet presumably the whole point of the exercise is that there's something worthwhile in the author's poetry. But instead you're reading the translator's poetry.

Of course, if you find the translator's poetry interesting, then that is a different thing. I would pick up your Berg translations out of an interest in your work. I would also pick it up out of an interest in Berg's work, but that would be a much more frustrating exercise (or rather, I would feel like I only got the faintest outlines of Berg's work). But, to put it another way, I think your name should be much bigger on the cover.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think again you're trying to stabilize/control something that makes translation interesting. If we can make it "my" book then it becomes stable again.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Maybe; I don't know how much influence Berg had over the choices you made in your translation (which, I admit, I haven't read). If you had been translating a deceased author, then you'd have complete control over how much influence and what sort of influence she had over your translation, or even that she is being translated at all -- all the agency points to you you you you you.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I think you're making the translation relationship too simple. Even if some author is dead (as several have been that i have translated), I'm certainly not *writing* their books. And one of the most interesting things as a translator is to see how bringing poetry from one language (or langauges) into English one can sense that foreign text deranging the English, pushing the translator to do things to the English. You can clearly see that working in Joris's Celan translations. And the results have been pretty profound.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hating translation, I would propose, is as much as hating poetry: all poetry, all language acts are in fact, translation. So hating translation proposes a belief in some absolute orginal, untranslated & untranslatable language act. Which could only come from an absolutely original individual speakinf/writing in an absolutely original language — an impossible human and an impossible language, cause language is always already shared & repeated & interpenetrated by itself & its creations over time & space

6:18 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Oh, now words are being put in my mouth by Pierre Joris. I feel like Paul Celan!

OK, a silly and low joke, sorry.

I've spent way to long deleting replies (where I've mostly felt like I was repeating myself).

But it seems like I think JG's model of how translation (and authorship) works is oversimplified, and he thinks mine is. We're probably both right.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

No, it's not oversimplified. This is a blog.

Also, I acknowledge your anxieties, but those anxieties are part of what makes translation interesting. It troubles static notions of authorship etc. I believe in anxiety.

6:55 PM  

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