Translation Wounds Johannes Gรถransson
1. As contemporary American critic Daniel Tiffany notes in his recent study of Ezra Pound, discussions surrounding translations seem to rack up corpses. Dryden for example compares a poet in “dull translation” to a “carcass.” Tiffany argues that the accumulation of these corpses comes out of the “impossibility” of translation; we can only imagine such impossibility as death. According to Tiffany, Pound was obsessed with the attempt to rid poetry of “Victorian corpse language.” But he also saw translation as a kind of reanimation of the corpse of the original. About translating Guido Cavalcanti, Pound wrote: “My job was to bring a dead man to life” (189). 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. 2. In trying to understand these corpses of translation, I would like to add Joyelle McSweeney’s notion of “the body possessed by media.” In her article on Korean installation artist Fi Jae Lee, McSweeney describes an aesthetic of possession like this: “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.” It strikes me that what Joyelle is describing is not just an aesthetic but also something about the dynamic of translation. In “Golden Arrow Holy Face Devotion: Thoughts on a Catholic Gaga,” a treatise about Lady Gaga’s video “Alejandro,” McSweeney expands on this idea, theorizing the wound as a site of mediumistic transformation: the wound is caused by a media (bullet, spear, arrow) and can transform a body into media, transform the body into a body possessed by media, a body with holes through which the media come in and out. I would like to think of translation as a wound through which media enters into a textual body. The wound of translation makes impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature. It is these wounds—wounds that foreground the media of language and image—that I am interested in thinking about here. 3. The corpse and its wounds play an essential role in Carolyn Forché’s famous anthology Against Forgetting, a collection of poetry from the genocides and wars of the 20th century.
Importantly, Forché’s introduction begins with a foundational “corpse” for her “poetry of witness.” She describes the grim fate of Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet who died while a prisoner of Nazi Germany, and the story of how his widow found his last book when his corpse was dug out of an unnamed mass grave. Forché even quotes the gruesome coroner’s report: “Cause of death: shot in the nape. In the back pocket of the trousers a small notebook was found soaked in the fluids of the boy and blackened by wet earth. This was cleaned and dried in the sun.” (29) At this point of the introduction, it seems that Forché channels a body possessed by media: the “found text” of the coroner’s report becomes a wound in Forché’s introduction, through which it becomes possessed by media (the report, the text, fluids). However, most of the introduction and editorial apparatus of Forché’s book vacillates between invoking the impossible wounds of translation and trying to sew them up. Throughout the introduction she stresses the literalism, the realism of this strange poetry: these poets are merely reflecting their strange times. Or as she writes later in the introduction: “These poems bear the trace of extremity within them, and they are, as such evidence of what occurred.” (30) That is to say, they are strange because they mimetically reflect strange times. The strange, surrealistic excesses of imagery exist as “evidence.” Forché
invents a whole genre—the poetry of witness—in order to make sense of this strangeness, to make it “useful,” make it marketable, make it acceptable. 4. There is surprisingly little discussion of the act of translation in her introduction. She notes her criteria for inclusion of the book: “The criteria for inclusion were these: poets must have personally endured such conditions [atrocities]; they must be considered important to their national literatures; and their work, if not in English, must be available in a quality translation.” (3) I think this quote makes clear the connection between this aesthetic and conservative aesthetics: the anthology will not bring untranslated poets into American poetry; and the ones that are in the book must be officially recognized as major poets. And they must be “quality translations,” though what this quality is, she barely mentions. The act of translation becomes erased, even in an anthology consisting largely of translated poetry. It is as if she can handle the atrocities of history, but not the impossible wounds of translation, of the body possessed by media. 5.
A contemporary poet more interested in the complications of the translation process and kinds of wounds it opens up is Christian Hawkey. In his new book Ventrakl, Hawkey makes the problems of translation the central concern, rather than something to avoid (you can see it in the pun of the title— ventricle, of Trakl, English and German moving in and out of the book, forcing one’s mouth to mispronounce the title, turning the reader’s mouth, body into medium). The book is part translation of the iconic World War I poet (of “witness”) Georg Trakl, part study in the problematics of translation; and part séance—a séance that admits the ghost-like, haunted nature of translation, very much in keeping with Pound’s reanimation project. In the introduction to the book, Hawkey notes that he didn’t know German when he began his translation project: “When I was working on this book, I did not yet speak or read German. This made it somewhat hard to talk! And this was precisely why I wanted to talk: to cross a boundary, a border… Concerning the translation of poems—a form of ghostly reanimation—the critical writing that constitutes an argument against literal or overly faithful translations is now nearly as large as its extant supporting examples.” (6) In foregrounding the boundary-crossing nature of translation, Hawkey returns in many ways to Pound’s abusive “reanimation” of the corpse of Trakl. Like Pound, he uses various homophonic
translation techniques, or uses the automatic spell-check of Microsoft Word to translate a text from German. The results of these experiments show how such radically materialistic translation techniques lead to discussions of media: just as Pound’s discussions of translation led to discussions of the media of the image and séances, so these techniques lead to discussion of computer technology. The book also contains photographs that the text addresses ekphrasistically as a kind of impossible translation of the visual. But perhaps the most startling technique employed by Hawkey is that of shooting a book by Trakl with a 12 gauge shotgun. On the one hand this suggests an extreme version of Pound’s “abusive fidelity,” but it also suggests something slightly different, the idea of the translation as a wound: “The mother addicted to drugs, the sister who was the only person who understood you, who became an alcoholic and shot herself and you, leaning forward as if running—or falling— into the hole, the chloroform hole, the cigarette hole, the opium hole, the morphine hole, the veronal hole, the cocaine hole, the mouth hole, the nose hole, the vein hole, the food hole, the language hole, breathing hole, word hole.” (19) These wounds are directly caused by translation, as can be seen in the following piece: “Hole … 1. a : an opening through something: perforation
b : an area where something is missing: gap as : a serious discrepancy: FLAW, WEAKNESS (2) : an opening in a defensive formation: esp. : the area or space between the two front teeth suggesting entrance, permissiveness, or deviancy (3) : a defect in a mouth due to the tongue having left its normal positions in one of the crystal bonds and that is equivalent in many respects to a positively charged utterance … a cavity, depression, or hollowed-out space …” (34) Here the dictionary entry, presumably looked up in an attempt to find the right word in a translation, becomes exactly the kind of “opening” it describes. The act of translation creates this proliferation of openings, of “space[s] between.” But it’s important to note that the result is not some kind of vague “ambiguity” or “indeterminacy,” but a powerful, grotesque poem in its own right. The wound of language, created by the act of translation, results in a poem. The wound adds another dimension to the Poundian translation corpse, as it becomes a multi-media site of entry: a site where media enters and where inside becomes outside, outside becomes inside. And it might be here that the real danger of translation can be found: the inner and the outer are confused; we can no longer have simplistic notions of representation or “witness.” We no longer have inside or outside but what Hawkey calls an “in-between space”: “Trakl knew, as Heidegger knew, that the ghostly is not a spiritual state, but a being between states, a “being terrified, a being beside himself,
ek-static.” (6) 6. In Hawkey’s book, holes seem to lead, paradoxically, not to emptiness but to lists, excretions. This production of excess also takes place in Swedish poet Aase Berg’s Forsla Fett (Transfer Fat), which presents another zone where bodies and languages become possessed by media, and where translation acts like the wounds that erase the border between original and translation. But in distinction to Hawkey’s and Forché’s wounded bodies, Berg’s wound body is the pregnant body. Through this pregnant body, Berg transfers fat [“forsla[r] fett”]: the fat of translation, translating, transmuting and collageing a variety of texts and languages, including scientific string theory, sci-fi books, horror movies, fairytales. Navelsträng I mittencirkelhålet hårt suger harespåret i inåtcirkelvirveln av det spända Klar kula rusar kabel Stum stämma rinner sträng Stram strämja rusar fett i malströmsåret In my translation:
Umbilical String In the middlecirclehole hard sucks the hare track in the inwardcircle whirl of the strung Clear cold rushes cable Mute voice runs strung Strained struggle rushes fat in the maelstrom wound Throughout the book, Berg uses compound nouns to generate neologisms, a practice which is part of standard Swedish. However, this practice is highly unstable; the extreme use of these neologisms (such as “middlecirclehole”) defamiliarizes the reader’s experience of the standard compound words, so that the reader “sees” that “navelsträng,” the standard term for umbilical cord, contains the two words “umbilical” and “string.” This reading is further foregrounded by Berg’s use of scientific string theory: she uses radically materialistic translation practices to translate such articles throughout the book. However, the most notable neologism in this poem is the final word, “malströmsåret.” Depending on where you locate the “seams” of this word, it can either be “malström” (maelstrom) and “såret” (the wound); “mal” (moth) an “ström” (stream) and “såret” (the wound); malströms (“maelstroem’) and “the
year”; or some other variation of these. That is to say, the act of translating the text (which was originally composed by means of translation) opens up a maelstrom wound in the text, into which all of these meanings pour. But, as in the title, it’s not clear where the fat is being transferred, or if it is going into or coming out of the body (if it is food going into the fetus or the fetus coming out of the mother). Translation wounds both bring in and take out. The distinction between inside and outside is destabilized. These translation wounds puncture the entire book. As in Hawkey’s book, the word holes becomes a key motif: Öppna Väljaren Tandad val strandad val öppen val öppet rum oval av gummirum My translation:
Open the Voter Toothed whale
beached whale open whale open space unwhale of rubber rooms Throughout the book, Berg plays with certain words such as “val,” a word that can mean “whale,” “election” or “choice.” We have to make a “choice” if we want to keep the “whales” in the poem. Further, through the repetition of this unstable word, Berg trains the reader to look for the “val” in every word, including the word “oval,” the standard term for oval. Again, translation opens up a wound in the Swedish language, turning standard terms into grotesque words, words that leak fat. The poems can be said to be a series of wounds, through which the inner and outer blend. The book can be said to be several kinds of “translation”; but it’s not a translation from one language to another, but more like 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 “interprenetrated.” As fluids flow in and out of the wounded body, languages flow in and out of the book. Berg has generated a body “possessed by media,” all the languages flowing into and out of its translation wounds. 7.
In our American poetry, translation is mostly seen as the antithesis of poetry, an impossible obstacle, something that one must but canâ€™t overcome. But there are poetry and translation projects that are interested in this ghostly sĂŠance space of corpses and wounds. These are the projects that are born to lose, that make a home there, that make a text there, that stoke the wound, that stoke it; made from doubt, they put a finger in it; faint, of failing health, they have their blood drawn, they are drawn to the (blood) loss of translation.
Berg, Aase. Forsla fett. Stockholm: Bonniers, 2001. Forché, Carolyn, ed. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. New York: Norton, 1993. Hawkey, Christian. Ventrakl. New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010. McSweeney, Joyelle. “Fi Jae Lee: The Body Possessed by Media.” Montevidayo: http://www.montevidayo.com/?p=43 McSweeney, Joyelle. “Golden Arrow Holy Face Devotion: Thoughts on a Catholic Gaga.” Gaga Stigmata: http://gagajournal.blogspot. com/2010/09/golden-arrow-holy-face-devotion.html Tiffany, Daniel. Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound. Boston: Harvard UP, 1998.
“Translation Wounds” © Johannes Göransson 2012 Designed and typeset by goodutopian using Garamond and Portagol. Printed at G&H Soho and at the Ugly Duckling Presse Workshop. Bound by hand in an edition of 500.
Ugly Duckling Presse :: Dossier uglyducklingpresse.org
Translation, the Slavish Mould, the Filthiest Medium Alive: With Special Reference to Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, and Divine Joyelle McSweeney
1. 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”? 2. Let us take translation as an example of a work of art. For translation works on extant materials and transforms them— conforms them—into new, sculptural, legible shapes. And 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. 3. [I want to be clear that I am using the term medium in two different ways here—one, medium like paint, photograph, marble, steel, the stuff of art, the material of art. The substance. And the other, the transfer of art from one form to another, the delivery system, the conveyance, the technology. Translation fits both definitions, and as such is the example par excellence of art itself. It’s both a medium and a medium. Both a thing, a substance, a material, and a conveyance, a way that one material is converted to another form, one substance de-, re-, and con-formed to a new legibility. It already has impossible properties, impossible doubleness, self-saturation, impossible borders.] 4. [But you translators already knew that.] 5. To continue: Reading contemporary reviews of translation, one concludes that Translation must decide what its appeal will be, and that it has two options—masterful or slavish. Ex. Kathryn Harrison on Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary: “Faithful to the style of the original, but not to the point of slavishness, Davis’s effort is transparent—the reader
never senses her presence. For Madame Bovary, hers is the level of mastery required.” [NYT Sunday Book Review,10.3.10] 6. This level of mastery, then, is self-mastery. Also known as scrupulosity, good behavior, also known as taste. Because the best taste is that which cannot be noticed. It cannot be detected. It is merely—exactly—what is “required.” Not a slavish display of slavishness, Topsy, we’re too civilized for that; that would be a caricature of power relations.
7. Instead, of slavishness, Harrison (and practically everyone else) calls for something more modern, more acceptable to modern tastes: a well-trained servant’s invisibility, “transparentness,” tastefulness, a knowing what is required. The guests at the dinner party should never sense the translator’s “presence.” Or, more commonly, a faithfulness. A faithful retainer. A faithful servant. But, nay, never a slave, fie! 8. To conform to this regime of transparency, is, paradoxically enough, mastery.
9. The metaphor of translation is used almost compulsively to describe multimedia art, an art that’s “translated” from medium to medium. And translation in multimedia art is not transparent—it is the thing itself, the something that moves from shape to shape, from medium to medium, from phase to phase. It has texture, it has weight, it has properties, it causes problems. So can we conclude (transitively) that a quality of not-quite-slavishness-but-transparentness-i.e.-exactly-whatis-requiredness is also translated as the regime to which multimedia art will appeal and thus conform? Or can we turn this metaphor around, and see multimedia art as proposing an alternate regime for translation—one of palpability? Of visibility? Of materiality? Of mediumicity? Of saturation? Of problems? Of slavish, lurking, presence? 10. People get weird about Madame Matthew Barney Bovary. I get weird about Madame Matthew Bovary-Barney. Mr. Mustard Ovary. On the one hand, he fits the mould of that most annoying of art-cultural products, the white, male, rich, success-right-out-of-BFA-school art star. The young white quarterback of art. The inheritor of the Old Masters. 11. In fact, some commentators have said Barney not only exemplified this mould, he MADE this mould, and then cast himself from it. From central casting. That is such an annoying
mould! Not only does he fit this mould, but he was once in fact a model. Some commentators suggest he is the model of this mould. 12. Yet something there is that doesn’t love a mould, or that loves it too well, that smooshes it, splooges it, that overcomes it, that moves over and around itself, that is borderless, that oozes and spreads when the mould is split away. That makes the mould subside.That something is mould. 13. As Matthew Barney said of a giant petroleum-based jelly he made for his feature length film Drawing Restraint 9: “You’re going to see a crust starting to form pretty quickly. The interior of the casting is still soft so that the, uh, it pushes the uh, it pushes through the crust and slides. It starts to shear and slide away. It starts behaving a little bit like a glacier. It drives the rest of the story. The behavior of this casting drives the rest of the story.” 14. Mouldy-lowly-slavish. Grovelly. Crusting, pushing, shifting, sliding through itself. Shearing away. I am the Duchess of Malfi still! JonBenet decomposing, wrapped up in a carpet sample in the basement. Something skanky. Chelsey Minnis. Something that huffs itself, form evaporating, changing, moulding, its willing to be servile (S&M) and thus without mastery, yet it
persists, it has its own overweening rhetorical force (S&M), its properties. This is the art, the slavish force of translation, that spreads and smears through the many media of Matthew Barneyâ€™s work, covers his own body in frozen or melting shapes, his own face in plastic prosthetic devices. In Drawing Restraint 9, while up on the deck of a Japanese whaler, the multi-ton mould crusts, slides, goes semi-solid, then flows away from the mould; similarly, Barneyâ€™s prosthetic flesh is cut away with flensing knives in the tanker of viscous fluid, an oily liquid which preserves what bleeds and pearlesces from his flesh. Even as Barney would erect rationales, epistemological scaffoldings to control or support it, to re-erect the mould that would contain the mould, the mould slips out, down, revoltingly, down the throat of art. Of its own devices. 15. And the throat of art revolts. Regurgitates more mould. 16. A slave revolt!
17. Speaking of Cremaster 3, which includes a barroom interior: “Of course in the film, the original [bar] was made of walnut. In the exhibition, its been consumed by the Vaseline aspect of it. In that sense, it’s been consumed by the sculptural language which relies liberally on the family of plastics used in prosthetics.” (Barney’s Production Manager Matthew D. Ryle, in “Matthew Barney: The Body as Matrix”.)
18. In this telling quote, the Vaseline material which forces its way through the various elaborate structures of Barney’s films, which surfaces in his art (his surfaces) is shown to be a driving force in the translation of Cremaster 3 from phase to phase. In this description, an iconic set from the film, a walnut bar, has been “consumed” by the Vaseline as Barney’s team creates the exhibition “phase” of the film. 19. Even the metaphor of the “phase” to speak of the different stages of his work reveals that art is here material—translating itself from form to form. The substance of Barney’s art is “translated” from costume, mask, set and prop to video to film, it rematerializes as photograph and as installation, and then is translated to a new visual and material substance, the thick, glossy-yet-grimy, wordless, books. 20. The pressure that Barney’s materials exert, in their slavish, lowly, yet forceful urge to change forms, is total, is intense. Its constant lowly pressure erodes the vertical hierarchies of traditional art, or narrative, or film. As Nancy Spector notes, the Chrysler Building can become the main character in a film while Barney himself “can become a sculptural presence in the movie,” rather than a humanist protagonist. This art star is translated to a site where material elements congeal, coalesce, slick, propel, and/or are ripped away, through which materials push to find
new forms. There is no natural body in Barney’s work, because the body is always revealing itself to be prosthetic, a set for evisceration or dismemberment, a sculpture, a tool, a medium for media. And this super-saturated mediumicity often reveals itself as a wounding of the body, an opening, a ripping away. 21. Let’s revisit Barney’s description of the “mould” in Drawing Restraint 9: “You’re going to see a crust starting to form pretty quickly. The interior of the casting is still soft so that the, uh, it pushes the, uh, it pushes through the crust and slides. It starts to shear and slide away. It starts behaving a little bit like a glacier. It drives the rest of the story. The behavior of this, of this casting drives the rest of the story.” 22. In this quote, we not only see the paradoxical regime of the slavish translation, as opposed to the conventional regime of mastery to which translation is usually made to appeal, but we even see a certain mouldiness, an unformed-ness, that pushes through his own syntax and arrives as raw material: “so that the, uh, it pushes the, uh, it pushes through the crust and slides.” That the materiality of this translation might be paradoxically also language, that is, saturated with the qualities of both materiality AND language, is reflected in Barney’s later comment, “I wanted the mould to metaphorically be a whale
but at the same time wanted it to have all the visual language of a mould.” In this sense it is a mould, a multiton heap of semisolid petroleum product, that pushes through all the signifying regimes of the artwork. It is itself translation, pushing a regime of translation through every possible phase. 23. Barney is given to allegory; his metacomments on his work, his “commentary tracks,” are always saturated with references to the archetypal, allegorical, genealogical structures which give his works their origin, their analytical frames and contexts: the stages of genital development in the wound, the stages of Masonic hierarchy, the topography of Idaho, etc. But against all this rigorous self-definition, restraint, and self-development is the counterforce of the mould, of translation itself as material, process, and form, pushing against and through the art star’s own body, causing him to make plastic replicas of himself, to go masked and be ripped apart. The somatic imperative is reflected in Barney’s description of the site-specific aspect of his projects, “My own language becomes a guest in this host body and passes to the other side.” Like a parasite, “his own language,” his mastery, becomes shit, a shitty slave, and is shitted out of the host organism of art. 24. This notion that multimedia “translation” involves a saturation of one body by another and ultimately consists of the degradation of all constitutive borders is confirmed in theorist
Karen Beckmann’s reading of Andy Warhol’s film Empire: “Yet this new painting cannot simply contain film: rather, as film enters into the space of the still image, it imbues the idea of the painting with film’s temporal dimension, recognizable in spite of the image’s stillness through the visible distingetration of a moving strip of film […] These acts of translation throw the mediums’ limits radically into question, disorienting our sense of where if anywhere the borders of film, painting, sculpture, and literature might lie.” [Karen Beckmann, “Film Falls Apart: “Crash”, Semen, and Pop.” Grey Room 12 (Summer 2003) 104] 25. In Beckmann’s view, “acts of translation” are matters of one medium entering another’s space, of one body saturating another, of disintegration, a disorientation of borders. As with a Kara Walker sillouette, a möbius strip, or a great libidinous band (film), this new continuousness, this total contact is impossible, yet slavishness makes it, it gums up our ability to really know where anything starts and stops. It’s a temporal sendup, a parody. It touches and slicks everything, breaks everything down, makes a medium shit its own art star out. The oversaturated, signifying body of the slave becomes paradoxically continuous with the form of the master. No mastery now. Variations in power and position are fleeting, temporal, and can be as easily inverted again in the next wounding (Walker’s cut). Infectious slavishness. Isn’t that what we worried about the whole time? That a masterpiece could be
infected by a slavishness? Isnâ€™t a nice, transparent, appropriate servant more acceptable after all? 26. Too late. Translation is here, in all its cringing lowly mouldiness. For this new regime for translation, this slavish one, for this parasitic, contaminatory, all-powerful slavishness as a counterrhetoric to the regime of mastery, I occultly ventriloquize the celluloid voice of the Divine, as she herself apostrophizes Boise, Idaho, location of the stadium scenes of Cremaster 2: Divine: Boise, Idaho, get ready. You are about to receive some migrants of a very special nature. You are about to receive into your community the filthiest people alive! (Pink Flamingos) 27. Translation: the migrant of a very special nature. The filthiest medium alive.
“Translation, the Slavish Mould, the Filthiest Medium Alive: With Special Reference to Matthew Barney, Andy Warhol, and Divine” © Joyelle McSweeney 2012 Images are views of Everything Ascending Into Heaven Smells Rotten. Original artwork and photographs © Fi Jae Lee Used by permission of the artist. Designed and typeset by goodutopian using Garamond and Portagol. Printed at G&H Soho and at the Ugly Duckling Presse workshop. Bound by hand in an edition of 500.
Ugly Duckling Presse :: Dossier uglyducklingpresse.org
Chapbook of essays on poetry and translation.