In my last post about translation and Ali Taheri Araghi’s anthology of contemporary, underground poetry from Iran, I pointed out that a big reason for the anxiety about translation comes form our literary establishment’s anxiety about excess: Translation produces too many versions of too many texts, from too many lineages and too many languages.
Just as the reaction against the threat of the plague ground is to constantly make canons and lists of the truly good, truly “legit” poetry (prestige is the opium of the poets), I see the same thing going on in translation: we make hierarchies. We want there to be a foreign canon which will be as stable as the US canon – though there’s always a struggle to erect and maintain these canons since different people have different aesthetics and views.
Beneath this model and its anxieties we can sense what scholar-poet Susan Stewart has, in her wonderful book “On Longing” described like this: “… in the contextualist’s privileging of context of situation we see a Romanticism directed toward a lost point of origin, a point where being-in-context supposedly allowed for a complete and totalized understanding.” There is no origin where we can have “totalized understanding,” no matter how much such writers wish to demonstrate mastery. In the plague ground of poetry, poets and translations infect each other, deform each other. We lose the sense of the true original, the gold standard of interpretation, the master taste. READ MORE >
In my last post, I wrote that I see a lot of anxiety about translations in US literary discussions: “… the threat of translation is the threat of a kind of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages.” Once you add the writing form another country, the illusion of objectivity of a single “tradition” is put in doubt (of course this dynamic is often at play in smaller, non-major countries).
One way this anxiety is manifested is in the skepticism about foreign texts. Whenever there’s a translation, people wonder: Is this really a major writer? Does this writer really deserve to be translated into our language? Is this translation really correct or is it corrupting the truly great poet? Or, as I noted in the essay I linked to last post, are the “young American poets” being “improperly influenced” by foreign writers without having mastered their tradition.
In his anthology “I Am A Face Sympathizing With Your Grief,” Alireza Taheri Araghi shows no intention of creating an illusory alternative canon of great works of Iran. Instead he has searched out underground poets – or more correctly, Internet poets – who have not been deemed publishable by the Iranian government. In a sense Araghi has done the opposite of the typical canonical anthology; he has chosen “young” poets who excite him, many who have little or none of the official recognition that translation discourse tends to demand.
Hi, I thought I would write a few posts about recent translation titles. But before I do that, I thought I would post a link to an essay I wrote about translation which was just published in the Australian journal, Cordite Review. Hopefully it provides some kind of framework for the kinds of issues I will talk about in future posts.
Here’s an excerpt:
At the AWP writers’ conference in Minneapolis a couple of years ago, I attended a panel on Paul Celan’s poetry. In the Q & A that followed the panel, the first question was ‘How can we make sure that young American poets are not improperly influenced by Celan’s poetry without truly understanding it?’ The panel responded by offering a variety of possible solutions, such as reading the extensive literature about the poet or reading his letters and journal entries that have been published as well. However, none of them asked why it should be that this ‘improper influence’ should be the audience member’s biggest concern. I begin with this anecdote because it immediately struck me that the seemingly innocent question went to the heart of the marginalisation of translation in U.S. literature. In U.S. literary discussions, translations are – time after time – marginalised or dismissed in rhetoric that portrays translations as false, improper, counterfeit or of shallow ‘influence.’ The foreign poet is seen as a threat because he or she will ‘influence’ the young American poets who are vulnerable to such foreign forces, incapable of seeing the foreign writer in the proper ‘context’ (that is to say, one that is different from their own). These discussions about the dangers of the ‘foreign influence’ of translated texts betrays a fundamental anxiety about the ‘transgressive circulation’ of texts: an anxiety about the way they move from one context to another, about the way foreign entities may trouble our sense of agency and interiority.1
In the question at the panel, the danger of foreign influence was posited as the dangers of foreign texts seducing the young. The question comes out of a worldview in which the ignorant enthusiasm of the ‘young American poets’ for the foreign texts threaten to make a hoax out of the foreign – make a counterfeit Celan. In their permeability, these hypothetical ‘young American poets’ become purveyors of kitsch, reverse alchemists who turn gold into trash by bringing the foreign into U.S. literature without the proper knowledge or mastery of the foreign. These young American poets insist on a close contact with the foreign, where such communication should be impossible. They are readers who may confuse the boundaries – between U.S. and foreign poetry, between greatness and counterfeitness. They have not yet learned the important distinctions of what belongs and what doesn’t – and most importantly, how to read poetry correctly. Their shallowness – their lack of learning – may cause them to imitate a bad model, or imitate good models for the wrong reasons (I imagine that the questioner at the Celan panel was concerned about Celan’s use of neologisms, for example.). In the terms of Mary Douglas’s argument about ‘pollution symbolism’ – later used by Julia Kristeva in her formation of the idea of abjection – the young poets are the sites of possible contamination, sites where the U.S. literary landscape becomes vulnerable to foreign influence. The question may at first have appeared to be about the learning of Celan, but ultimately it’s a question about keeping the foreign away from U.S. poetry, or keeping it at a safe distance.