Some Notes on Deformation Zone: On Translation, a Chapbook by Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney
Deformation Zone: On Translation is the latest installment in Ugly Duckling Presse’s Dossier Series, which is edited by Anna Moschovakis, and which has already distinguished itself as one of the more adventuresome and aesthetically exciting projects in American publishing. (Other titles in the series include Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, Jon Cotner’s and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks/Two Talks, and Laura Nash’s Brownfields.)
Deformation Zone might also be considered the latest installment in the intertwined multi-platform and multi-genre project that the careers of Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson have become. Both writers seem to have long ago eschewed any of the preexisting boxes into which literary artists typically confine themselves. Their work routinely crosses the borders that perhaps artificially have separated the practice of poetry, fiction, the personal essay, the scholarly essay, the Internet post, the stage play, the translation of the work of others into English, literary mentorship and collaboration, and publishing. (For an introduction to some of the tentacles extending from what is beginning to look like a single monstrous conceptual work — ground we’ve already covered a little, here and elsewhere — I’ll point you four places: 1. “A Few Notes on The Necropastoral by Joyelle McSweeney;” 2. “An Expansive Review of Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate. by Johannes Goransson;” 3. Montevidayo, the collaborative literary blog whose contributors include McSweeney, Goransson, Kate Bernheimer, John Dermot Woods, and others; and 4. Action Books, the publishing house whose books are edited by McSweeney and Goransson, and whose authors include Hiromi Ito, Tao Lin, Abraham Smith, Lara Glenum, and Kim Hyesoon.)
The chapbook is bound in a trifold cover of a heavy paper stock. The outer folds are the two fronts of the book, each of which announces the title and the author. The middle fold, which separates the two hand-sewn paper inserts, is printed with Aase Berg’s poem “Deformationszon”in Swedish on one side, and Johannes Goransson’s English translation on the other side. The pages bound to the Swedish side contain Goransson’s essay “Translation Wounds,” and the pages bound to the English side contain McSweeney’s essay “Translation, the Slavish Mould, the Filthiest Medium Alive: With Special Reference to Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, and Devine.”
It might be worth quoting Berg’s poem and Goransson’s translation of it here. First, the Swedish:
Viltstängslet har upphört
fladdermusar fittar sig
Vårt pösmunkfetto slaggar
i sin goda ro,
Here’s Goransson’s version, in English:
The wilderness fence has ceased
around the grub
Our doughnut-fatso slops
in peace and quiet,
as if shock-muffled
in the plump.
Neither McSweeney’s essay nor Goransson’s makes explicit reference to Berg’s poem, although the poem’s title in English, “Deformation Zone,” provides the central metaphor and the unifying idea that is coupled to McSweeney’s and Goransson’s essays. Before reading the essays, the reader reads the title and thinks: “They must be saying that translation is in some way a deformation zone.” And then, that thought is expanded by the second thing the reader encounters, which is the Berg poem and its translation. The reader encounters, in the act of reading first in Swedish and then in English, the deformation of the Swedish and the reformation in the English. Whether or not the reader understands Swedish, the reader can see the effects of the de-forming and re-forming. Already, the usual questions about translation of poetry have been invited: Do these words have the same literal meanings across the two languages? Do they have the same figurative attachments across the languages? Do they interact with the other words in the same ways, meaning-wise? Has the Swedish trafficked in idiom that must somehow be accommodated or not accommodated in the English? What do we do about the sounds of things? Does the translator attempt or not attempt a refashioning of whatever is happening, sound-wise, into the new language? Is the poem the same poem in English that it was in Swedish? Who is the author of this new thing? How many liberties is the translator willing to take? If the translator doesn’t embrace certain liberties, is the poem more or less like the other poem, as an experience of reading?
The next thing the reader might do is read the English version of the poem. Here we see a lot of talk of permeated or permeable boundaries: “The wilderness fence” which “has ceased” or which “has ceased / flutterbats” or which “has ceased / flutterbats cunt / around the grub.” Fence, cunt, the implied mouth of “our doughnut-fatso” who “slops / in peace and quiet, / as if shock-muffled / by ripples / in the plump.” And, of course, the ripples, and the plump, and the peace and quiet which have not but could have been pierced, and the plump, which itself spills over the border of whatever shapeliness preceded it or is ideal.
All of this will be familiar territory to readers of McSweeney and Goransson, who have likewise been long taken with the idea of permeability, of the transgress across borders including bodily borders, of wound imagery (herein, the wound in the wilderness fence and the corresponding wound in the wilderness, the word “cunt” and the implied mouth of the “doughnut-fatso.”) So the surprise is not that Goransson’s essay, which is the next likely thing the reader will encounter in the book, is titled “Translation Wounds.” The surprise is the thing that is always the surprise: How will Goransson turn this idea around so we see it in a way we haven’t seen it before?
“Translation Wounds” begins with a discussion of Daniel Tiffany’s study of Ezra Pound, in which “discussions surrounding translations seem to rack up corpses.” (Dryden’s comparing of a dully translated poet to a “carcass,” Pound’s obsession with ridding poetry of “Victorian corpse language,” Pound’s idea that in translating Guido Cavalcanti, his “job was to bring a dead man to life.”) Goransson writes:
Pound sought to reanimate this “corpse” by abusing the “meaning” of the original through extreme literalism. Pound used radically materialistic forms of translation such as homophonic translations or the use of deliberately exotic or archaic words. The “meaning” may have been “lost” but the materiality of the text is brought to life.
Goransson puts in conversation with Pound’s “corpses of translation” McSweeney’s notion of “the body possessed by media” and her “aesthetic of possesion”:
“Can a body be possessed by media? It’s a trick (and tricky) question, since a medium, in the occult sense, is supposed to be possessed by others. If an entity can be possessed by a medium, or, worse, by media, it is then opened to all kinds of possession, penetration, contents it cannot contain, overcrowding, doubling up, debility, and damage.”
Goransson suggests that McSweeney here describes “not just an aesthetic but also something about the dynamic of translation: “I would like to think of translation as a wound through which media enters a textual body,” he writes. “The wound of translation makes impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature.” He spends the rest of the essay thinking about “these wounds,” using Carolyn Forche’s atrocity anthology Against Forgetting, Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, and Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat as objects for the study of these wounds, and their accompanying “holes,” “excretions,” and, notably, the “fat of translation” which rises from a discussion of how “Berg’s wound body is the pregnant body.” Especially interesting and edifying is Goransson’s discussion of Berg’s use of Swedish compound nouns to generate neologisms that are already highly unstable in the original language, and which, necessarily, become even more unstable in the hands of the English-language translator who aspires to enter what Hawkey calls a “ghostly realm”:
an “in-between” sphere where it is no longer clear what the separate languages are–the book creates a “language” in which a series of languages and discourses are “interpenetrated.” As fluids flow in and out of the wounded body, languages flow in and out of the book.
McSweeney’s essay, “Translation, the Slavish Mould, the Filthiest Medium Alive: With Special Reference to Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, and Divine,” begins with the questions:
What regime does a work of art appeal to? Does the work of art appeal to a sensory, generic, or interpretive regime? Is that appeal “abject”? “slavish”?
She takes as a starting place “translation as an example of a work of art,” which “works on extant materials and transforms them–conforms them–into new, sculptural, legible shapes” and speaks of how “rhetorics of etiquette and behavior–rhetoric itself–the terms of the appeal–are constantly being applied, in a disciplinary manner, to the medium of translation.”
She uses the word medium in two senses–medium as “the material of art” and medium as “the conveyance, the technology.” (Immediately, the reader also thinks of the word “clairvoyance,” although McSweeney doesn’t use it. The reader wants McSweeney to dig a little into the French roots of the word she doesn’t use, and its association with “clear vision,” which opens up another interesting line of inquiry. Of course, it’s not McSweeney’s job to see the future and anticipate the reader’s desire to add this one more thread to the discussion, but it is to McSweeney’s credit that her essay so fires the neurons of the reader that the reader desires to enter into the authorship of the essay. This desire for an additional transgression of borders, of course, is not a response tremendously outside the lines of inquiry that McSweeney and Goransson have already established.)
As the essay continues, McSweeney discusses competing ideas about translation that are implicit in popular reviews of contemporary translations, the idea of translation as a presiding metaphor in discussions of multimedia art, of the phenomenon of Matthew Barney, Cremaster 3, the use of the metaphor of the “phase” to speak of the different stages of Barney’s art, Barney’s metacommentary on his own work, and how, in Barney’s words, “My own language becomes a guest in this host body and passes to the other side.” McSweeney writes:
Like a parasite, “his own language,” his mastery, becomes shit, a shitty slave, and is shitted out of the host organism of art.”
From here, she invokes Andy Warhol and Divine in a profitable digression meant to amplify her argument about Barney, which was meant to amplify her argument about the idea of translation as a presiding metaphor in discussions of multimedia art, which was meant, the reader supposes, to amplify her complaint against the implicit desire for propernesses manifest in popular reviews of works in translation, which, in the context of this chapbook, does amplify the conversation Goransson is having with Aase Berg about the nature of translation as “Deformation Zone.” McSweeney concludes like so:
Translation: the migrant of a very special nature. The filthiest medium alive.