November 2nd, 2016 / 11:16 am

Transgressive Circulation: Translation, foreign threats, and counterfeit teenagers

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.


  1. Ethan Ashley

      Was Pierre Joris on the panel? I read an interview where he expressed concern about parts of an essay book he had translated being co-opted by a right wing group here. The Malady of Islam by Abdelwahab Meddeb. Suppose that is a bit different than poetry in terms of context though.

  2. deadgod

      It seems there are two concerns with ‘communication failure’—apparently, in the economy of transgressive circulation, insuperably difficult to discern from communication success—with respect to “young American poets” and foreign literature (particularly translated from non-English languages, though English, Irish, Australian, South African, and other English-language non-USA literatures are of course ‘foreign’ to Americans): the first is the problem of “young American poets” being somehow contaminated by (I guess) values alien and destructive to them. —infected, as it were, and destroyed at some cellular level, or in the manner of organ failure, by those values, priorities, agendas, world views, and so on.

      This seems to me a ridiculous thing to fear (by those who are actually ‘afraid’ that “young American poets” will be destroyed, or converted into agents of national destruction, by foreign poetry in translation). What is this value foreign to some notionally undifferentiated American society and its notionally undifferentiated poets?

      But what I’d thought at first was referred to by ‘improper influence without true understanding’ wasn’t the “young American poet’s” peril, but rather the danger of “young American poets” exercising hegemony by misappropriating little-understood cultures and histories that seem superficially to be easily knowable (because the poems constituted by them appear to those poets in English—the American English belonging (?) to those “young American poets”).

      This second issue would be this: Celan, say, would emerge among “young American poets”—who’d only read him in English and without much knowledge of the circumstances that press into and out from his poetry—, to the extent that his poetry was any good, as an American poet who happened to write in German from the perspective of a Romanian-Jewish survivor of the Shoah (and refugee from a Russified-Soviet satellite).

      You see the two senses of danger from foreign influences: either weird stuff (translated into English) translates “young American poets” into weirdos themselves, or “young American poets” translate weird stuff (translated into English) into untruthfully manageably American stuff. —the former, dangerous to “young American poets”, the latter, I guess, to whomever would be influenced by “young American poets” and their misappropriated poetry.

      I think I’d have asked, at that conference, for examples: young American poets broken, say, by the threat to coherence of Celan’s poetry, or, in turn, instances of Celan’s reputation, his historical-effective body, distorted beyond reasonable recognition by young American poets’ handling of his Englished poems. In other words, what is actually dangerous, and to whom, about Celan being translated into English??