December 9th, 2016 / 12:31 pm

Volatile Translations: On Paul Cunningham and Sara Tuss Efrik’s Manias


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.



What interests me the most in the translation world are poets like Ali or Paul Cunningham, translators who break the mold of canonical translators (or poets) translating (and re-translating) canonical poetry. Unlike Ali, who breaks the typical translation mold by actually being an Iranian writer (who hasn’t been legitimized by US literary establishments, but whose knowledge of Iranian non-canonical, underground writing makes him a volatile translator), Cunningham is not a Swede or a scholar of Swedish culture (Disclosure: he was my MFA student a few years ago); he only has rudimentary knowledge of Sweden or Swedish, but uses his artistic instincts and dictionaries, to translate the work of young Swedish poet-novelist, performance artist and video artist Sara Tuss Efrik. His work evidences that rather than demanding of some kind of scholarly mastery, sometimes translation demands fascination, interest, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to get it done without having legitimized status as Master.

Crucially, such a “master” would likely choose a less volatile writer, more “legitimate” writer than Efrik. Efrik is not a prominent writer in Sweden. She has published a lot of her “automanias” in various journals (including the very prestigious journal 10tal) and she has published an amazing novel, Mumieland (a title which trans-lingually puns on mummies and mommys) with the great feminist indie press Rosenlarv, but she has devoted a lot of her output to performance work (for example together with Theater Mutation she produced John Ford’s farcical Elizabethan incest “tragedy” as full on farce with figure skaters and sex dolls) and videos (made with her husband Mark):

Part of what makes Paul capable of translating Efrik is that they share this interest in videos and poetry as a multi- or inter-medial art. He himself has made a lot of interesting videos, including work that Efrik has published on her transgressive webzine (The Castration). Between the two of them, we can see how translation may work through contamination and co-morbidity rather than through mastery and official exchange.



Two presses has now published Paul’s translations of Sara’s work: Toad Press has published The Night’s Belly (first published as part of 10tal’s special issue on “the gurlesque” a few years ago) and Good Morning Menagerie has published a selection of her “automanias.”

The automanias – a flipped-out version of the surrealist “automatic writing” I think – rewrites work by other artists and poets in Efrik’s maniacal style. She takes this other artwork but completely remodels it after her own vision.

So for example, when rewriting Lars von Trier’s Anti-Christ as “Von Trier’s Bitches,” she re-reads the film through her own interest in witchcraft as well as her knowledge of the Danish director’s famous sadism:

She pulls off her floral dress goes without underwear the lively tailed one is an assemblage inhaling dust

and limbs

The Deer is called Fiona The Raven is called Bonifac The two crows are: Blue and No-Name animal control beggars signs of heaven

This contamination brings me back to myself Head in moss Limbs in knots fuses itself leaves me here Bloodshot white restricted pulse ejaculate cascades soft suckling insects hands inflicted Expiration

Unlike a good scholar who masters and achieves distance, Efrik suffers from “contamination” in her writing, she is overcome by insects that “suckle” – or is it she who suckles von Trier?

A similar contamination and wrestling through a text can be seen in the way Efrik rewrites or rather writes while contaminated by Aase Berg’s Uppland, a mania which ends:

And the next day marks the beginning of September, no? Then there is only death, adorned by dreams, sickly algal blooms and ugly internet art. Come into our world now.

Here Efrik seems to read Berg’s work as through a séance: she becomes a medium for the strange inhabitants of Uppland (nutty children, mostly, who commune with dragonflies), who like ghosts asks her to “come into” their “world now.” This might be an ars poetica of sorts.

Throughout her work, Efrik is fascinated by texts: she’s drawn into them and they contaminate her. We might say that Efrik’s poetics is driven by the kind of “fascination” that Steven Shaviro writes about in his book The Cinematic Body (here writing about the movie Blue Steel):

“Visual fascination is a passive, irresistible compulsion, and not an assertion of the active mastery of the gaze. And it is linked with the delegitimation of violence, its dissocation either from the demands of social order or from the assertion of virile (stereotypically male) power and control, for Eugene “catches” violence as one catches an infection, more than he inflicts it as a willful expression of a warped self. His Phallic, aggressive fantasies are decentered and unhinged in the very movement by which they are intensified. he is less an independent character than a hysterical figuration of the destabilizing excessiveness of Turner’s own desire. And Blue Steel as a whole celebrates this excess…. Blue Steel is a blatantly fetishistic and voyeuristic film: it unabashedly revels in visual fascination.”


The importance of fascination is especially overt in “Night’s Belly,” which is more narrative than the shorter automanias. This pregnancy madness tale invokes Ünica Zürn, early Aase Berg and Hilda Hilst in its complex but maniacal layering of voice and imagery, and the way the text convulses forward (rather than following a narrative push). Following Shaviro’s description of Blue Steel, we might say that it “displays a logic of contamination and repetition, rather than one of linear, psychological causality.”


It fells the story of a woman stuck at home in a state of pregnancy while her husband appears to engage in an artwork that resembles sex tourism. She can’t help but be fascinated and fantasize about her husband and the “sluts” he’s fucking:

I search for them on the internet, dream about them, imagine them getting off on me, exploiting my aggression for lubricant. The whole room is full of detectives. Cucumber juice flows from their mouths. It is my job to invent reality. I have no place to hide anymore. I torture-fuck them. Can’t think of anything else to do. My body is oily and combative.

Unlike “the romanticism of the contextualist,” Efrik’s speaker’s relationship with language is not made natural seeming through pregnancy, it’s made even stranger. This troubled, spasmatic relationship to language grows even more extreme as the book continues:

i am tired of being oversimplified
the words spill
a mantra of decorative language somersaults
girls who twirl (D O W N T H E R E)
recurrent colors
i vomit onto my own face
bury myself in female physics
i am a decorative surface
solid, stuck here
a brutally pink house foundation
i look at myself laughing
because I BELONG HERE!


naked drunk girl
straddled, legs birched
dungeon’s hot coals
lips painted with hot

“Belonging” is not natural, doesn’t create a sense of totalizing origins. Rather it leads to “glossolalia.” Unlike the commonly portrayed experience of feeling more like a “natural woman” or maternal when pregnant, the speaker becomes stranger to herself, at one point even becoming man-like – “My cock is pink and very similar to a dog’s cock. Creature burning mother curling. Wearing angry red mother’s beads around my broken neck is better than the creature’s flapping wings on my mind.” – before coming around to a vision of herself not as a natural woman but “a witch, a synthetic female… a woman in disguise. I am an expectant mother. My hair is dry. My face looks fried, my joints loosen around my sore hip wreath.”

This book has immense, convulsive momentum. Hope everyone picks up a copy.

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  1. deadgod

      a) ‘Volatility’ is an interesting way of picturing what’s outside canons as dangerous to the guardians of canons. But if the poems—either in their original or target languages or both—set aloft, do they then enter the ‘canon’ of the flock or swarm? One idea of a canon is the set of work that’s inexhaustibly volatile.

      b) Does ‘volatility’ of translation admit of a distinction between good and bad translation? The criteria of, say, verbal and tonal fidelity are themselves linguistically regulatory: satisfying them would indicate that the translator understands the original poem in a pretty ‘canonical’ way. What are the criteria for effectiveness of ‘volatile translation’? Is that an anti-canonical category, or a differently canonical category?

  2. Johannes Goransson

      Thanks for your feedback.
      a) That sounds like a good version of canonicity – the “inexhaustibly volatile”- but perhaps it would be better to think not of individual works as inexhaustibly volatile but to think of a literary culture that is more volatile in its canons – less centralized.
      b) I would certainly welcome discussions about the value of translation, but one thing I hope to move away from is the constant bickering about “fidelity.” As if the only thing a translation can be is a – neccessarily failed – recreation of an original. I see such an approach (the fidelity obsession) as part of a canonical/unvolatile way of thinking about literature: an obsession with making sure there will be an equal “exchange” – rather than to see literature as more volatile, more in-motion.
      I wrote an essay for the journal Two Lines a while back about George Steiner and this kind of rhetoric. I posted part of it on Montevidayo back in the day:


  3. deadgod

      a) In your idea of translation as disclosive of (I think you’re indicating) irresistible and universal volatility, that’s the generic distinction: between individual works’ volatility in a single canon (which would absorb and reject individual works in an osmotic historicity) and canons themselves—the sense of a canon—being volatile.

      My question, then, would be a specific case of the general question for any perspective of radical destabilization: in the case of ‘canon’, can a reader not have a personal list of the most effective or successful (or whatever descriptor) poems and poets? which list would be influenced by that reader’s culture’s aggregation of ‘mosts’, which consensus would in dialectical turn be shaped—even if only tinily—by that reader’s preferences?

      I understand that you might want to resist a thoroughly marketing-coopted vocabulary like a ‘best-of list’, but don’t readers actually have such personal (culturally mediated) hierarchies? It seems to me that a reader who doesn’t prefer, reads (only ostensibly?) different poems as a smear or blur of particular words in particular lineated orders… in what sense is that reader ‘reading’ at all?

      b) Likewise concerning resistance to the term “fidelity”: how else, in your term at that montevidayo blogicle, to paraphrase? If there’s no concern for lexical and tonal “fidelity”, what’s being translated into what? Why use the term ‘translation’? It’s not a matter of “bickering” or “obsession”: what would one mean by translation if these criteria (and others, sure) are irrelevant to the translator’s process of ‘moving the poem from one language to another’.

      Yes, neither a poem nor a language are perfectly static, stable things: hermeneutic volatility is endemic where there’s hermeneutic anything. But consider the French phrase le chat: if the translator translates that into English as ‘the feline animal’, a reader might question what’s gained by avoiding the translation ‘the cat’… but if for that phrase, the translator renders ‘throwing gelatin’, what’s lost, it seems to me, is le chat.

      I’d put your (and Bataille’s) “excess” this way: reading is already excessive—always. Translation into another language is a kind of reading, not a violation of it. But, while one can never get a poem perfectly right, one can get it less rather than more wrong.

      That’s my question for the translator, as it were, of as well as in volatility: are there less accurate, and not accurate, translations? or does anything go?