illuminating and awkward conversation
with Johannes Göransson.
In this interview: Closeness and Distance in Translation | Dada and Capitalism | Everyone Forgets Lawrence Venuti’s Critical Terminology | Translations Ghettoized as the Foreign | Pilot and Bilingualism | Get Rid of the Native Speaker | Future of Poetry Translation in America | The Internet as a Myth of a Neutral Space | Homophonic Translations: America Looks at the Foreign through a Mirror? | Foreignization Is a Kind of Domestication
eXchanges: As a translator, you might be best known for translating the Swedish surrealist poet Aase Berg. You started off by doing a book of Berg’s poetry called Remainland in which you selected poems from several of her collections. Can we talk a little about what that experience was like—why you decided to do a selection rather than a complete book, why you chose the poems you did?
Johannes Göransson: I have translated a couple of her full books too. One was published by Black Ocean in 2009, With Deer, and I have translated all of her third book, Transfer Fat, but nobody has published it yet.
But certainly, since I was both translator and publisher for Remainland, I was thinking about the best thing to do—whether to publish a selection, because something is lost with just a selection, since all her books are very much books with sequences that develop and accumulate over the entire work. So, part of me, I thought I should just publish one of her books. But I also thought it was important to give an overview, and then I was thinking I would go back and do other books perhaps…to fill in the gaps. The way I chose the poems for that book was just… the poems I liked the best. I guess my defense is not that good. (Laughter)
But some of the poems, especially in her third and fourth books it seemed to me, were pieces that really taught the reader how to read her work. And so I included those. They might have first appeared to be bagatelles, or like little two-line poems about farts or whatever, but they seemed important to the spirit of the thing. They seemed to teach you how to read the entire piece. All those considerations kind of came together, but it was very intuitive too I think…. I think both translating and selecting taught me an incredible amount about her work. Probably more than is healthy, you know…after a while you start developing whole ideas and patterns of seeing…patterns and rhythms perhaps that nobody else would think of unless they had spent a significant chunk of their life reading those poems over and over. You know that story of Saussure—when he started finding in those old Latin texts, all kinds of secret messages…and it’s kind of like that. Not that it’s that bad…I didn’t get that crazy.
eX: Do you ever think that the closeness that you’re talking about, the closeness that a translator gets with a text, do you ever think that actually hinders the process at all?
JG: What kind of closeness do you mean?
eX: Well, I guess the closeness where you’re looking at a work in a way that most readers would never look at it because you’re translating.
JG: Well, to me, that’s almost more like a distance.
I started noticing that generally what’s considered “closeness” to a text is when you’re almost looking through the language…you’re so close to it. But I think by translating it, you pay so much attention to the surface of the words, it’s actually a kind of distance. At some level you become more distant and what happens then is that perhaps you pay attention to things like patterns, surface patterns.
Maybe this might also be that kind of poetry—Aase’s poetry—where it defamiliarizes the Swedish. To get close to that kind of poetry is to actually become very distant from the Swedish language in a weird way…in one way. But then it’s also very, very visceral poetry so in some ways it’s close and in some ways it’s distant. As far as that helping or hurting, either…I think both of those are helpful. Just reading it is helpful. (laughter). I mean, I can certainly be accused of being a reckless translator at some points, but I think, in general, I would accuse myself of not having been reckless enough.
For Aase, she has none of this romantic ideal that the author just kind of pours the work out; and that romantic kind of idea makes writing totally untranslatable because every word of the original is true and transcendent—it’s kind of a caricature of romantic genius. But for her, she has more the attitude that she’s putting the words out there and then what happens happens. So for example, I would sometimes mistranslate things and she would say, well this is not really what that word means but I really like it, let’s keep it. So, that’s another idea of how she works; her attitude towards composition as a kind of translation, that is, the words aren’t set in stone.
There’s an excess, I mean, she’s kind of interested in that excess and the noise that happens when…by saying you have a translation, you’re saying there isn’t just that one organic piece of poem. You’re saying that there are fluxes in possible words and meanings and so on.
I’ve translated other people who are freaked out about translation and who want to…who’ll say, well, this word in Swedish has four syllables, can you find a four-syllable word in English? And maybe also a consonant –preferably a “k” in the middle? (laughter). And I’m like that word doesn’t exist, no, there’s no such word in English. But with Aase, her kind of writing encourages a distancing or a recklessness with language.
eX: Do you feel like when you set out translating, that the work points you in a direction as far as how it should be translated? Or do you think you approach things more or less consistently?
JG: No, no…I totally approach things based on the way the work is. Like I said, in Aase’s case the writing encourages you to move toward excess and sort of deforming the language, but I also did the book Ideals Clearance by Henry Parland. That’s also about translation but a different kind of translation. The book—it’s a Dadaist collection and it has this idea that everything is already translatable—that everything is very translatable— it’s so simple. And so it seems like it has something to do with capitalism, mass culture, and the general equivalences between words.
So, they’re two models of translation. In Parland’s work, I absolutely was not going for noise or anything like that. They’re very, very simple translations. I was actually at a conference about his work where a person talked about my translations—which was really weird to have somebody give a paper and a 45-minute talk about my translations. He had read Lawrence Venuti—he was a Finnish scholar—and he thought I could have translated it, there’s a way…what is Lawrence Venuti’s term for what translation does? Estranging?
eX: Oh gosh…I should know this. Domesticizing?
JG: Yeah, the opposite of domesticizing.
[Blank silence on our part. Can’t believe we didn’t remember this. –ed.]
JG: Well, whatever…
eX: We can put it in, we can write it in later.
[The word is “foreignizing.” –ed.]
JG: Let’s call it estranging. Well, the Finnish scholar said you could have estranged it, you know, like Lawrence Venuti says, and then he showed an example of how it could look in English. And it was a very strange poem. But it was a strange poem that, one, really seemed to me to have nothing to do with Parland’s work. And, second of all, it was a very strange poem in a way that was very domesticated. To an American it would have been a translatese text, and the reader would be like, oh wow, this is a really foreign text. So actually to me, it seemed like the weirder move was to do this very simple language. Parland was weirder to a contemporary American obviously than contemporary American poetry—which was what the “Venutian” translation made it into.
So, I would say I take very different attitudes. But, you know, I have reading habits that influence all my translations. It’s not like I erase myself. I can’t do it.
eX: In your translator’s note to the Remainland collection, you were talking about some of the clashing references to literature and folk and popular culture, and how they might be unfamiliar to an American audience, and you wrote, “We are forced to accept the possibility that all the words could mean more than we will ever find out or they could all be sheer nonsense.” Could we talk a little more about that idea?
JG: Your question is about, what do we do with the form “culture”?…. On the one hand, why I resist that kind of thing [footnotes, introductions, glossaries –ed.] is that, I see that it’s important and it helps people make sense of the texts and gives them the cultural framework, but I do also like the idea that there are these reminders, that there’s foreignnesses in the text to perhaps remind the reader that they are reading something from a foreign culture—and maybe to get them to draw them in or fool them into wanting to find out more about the culture…maybe.
Part of the problem with a lot of translation is that the way they are packaged has sort of ghettoized them as the foreign text. And we go to them out of some kind of ethical duty to engage with the foreign and widen our horizons and learn more about foreign cultures. I didn’t want Remainland to be that kind of book at all. I wanted that book to be a book of poetry that was from a foreign country that would interest Americans, people I knew in America, as a book of poems—that would not be bracketed as the foreign text. To me, Aase is a great poet and in some ways, a major European poet. I didn’t want to bracket it off too much so that this European poet would be read when we wanted to take some medicine or something like that.
Sometimes I do get on ethical kicks and I start protesting that people don’t read enough of foreign literatures, but ultimately why I read foreign literature is not to find out about foreign cultures or because I think it’s ethical or good. It’s because I like that writing. I don’t feel any moral obligation to be representative of some kind of Swedish poetry.
eX: In terms of your original work, we were looking at Pilot (Johann the Carousel Horse), which has both English and Swedish poems, often on facing pages. I think what struck us there was…when you open it up, for a person who only knows enough Swedish to recognize the cognates, at first it looks like there’s some translation going on. And then you quickly realize that the correspondence between the English and the Swedish isn’t necessarily there. Were you playing with translation at all in that work?
JG: Many of the poems there are translation of some sort… translations of different methods. Some of them are found text from strange booklets you get when your wife’s pregnant, they’re in this weird language which strikes me almost like a foreign language. Sometimes I wrote an English translation of the Swedish text, sometime there was an English translation of another English text, or of the previous English text. The movement through various vocabularies and languages, yeah, that’s a lot of what that book is about. Much of it comes from spending a lot of time translating.
As a translator you become very much aware of these kind of excesses that form through the process of translation—excess of meaning, excess of language. Some of that goes into my Aase translations, but a lot of the time…I’ll be like, I want to keep going. I want to do my translation of my translation and go even further with that….Some of that would be in the translation of Aase for example, but at some point it would be rude. “Here’s your book, I translated your one poem 75 different times.” (laughter)
So, I made my own book like that. It’s definitely about a bilingual experience I guess. A lot of is based on translation of things I feel nostalgic about, which is usually 80’s Swedish punk music. There’s lots of quotations, and the characters that appear again like a carousel. There’s also stuff that’s based on Swedish translations of English texts or a lot of Mayakovski translations, the Gunnar Harding translation of Mayakovski, that I leave as sort of the English translations of the Swedish translations. So yeah, the interest in the excesses of language, the excesses of movements and meanings, probably comes straight out of spending a lot of time translating.
eX: We were talking about whether or not we should try and find somebody who knew Swedish to help us get a better grip on Pilot or whether it was better to approach it as we are, as readers who don’t know Swedish. So I’m wondering if as you write or translate you even think about an ideal reader or even an intended reader. That is, do you prefer that somebody comes to that work knowing both languages, to appreciate the excesses you’re talking about? Or do you feel there is also something there for the person who doesn’t know both?
JG: I don’t have an ideal reader. I think that there will hopefully be many different kinds of readers for Pilot, maybe even four of them: two of you from eXchanges and my wife and possibly somebody else who would get misinformed enough to read the book. (laughter)
No, I don’t have an ideal reader. They should just be different. There are different ways of approaching it. I’m really interested in, I like the textures of languages, but I’m also really interested in secrets and acrostics and strange messages you might find in there, so... There seem to be two parallel readings – one person might have this insight into things way beyond me, who can find messages in the relationships. But also I think there is something to be said for a sensual, textural reading. And part of what I wanted to do with including all the Swedish in Pilot is that, if you don’t know the Swedish, you could read the Swedish and it might change your English.
Yeah. I think that there was another line that we really liked from A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, where you wrote, “the first thing that we do is get rid of the native speaker.” I don’t know if that is necessarily related to what we are talking about right now, but it seems like we could spin it off in that direction. Do you think that there is just a different way that you end up approaching language, since as an immigrant you’re kind of stuck between two languages?
JG: Obviously there are millions of different approaches to languages. But certainly speaking two languages you can really sense a lot in American poetry, that a lot of American poets barely know a foreign language, have not really ventured in there. They seem to still believe in a certain kind of setness of language, that certain things mean certain things… I like Deleuze and Guattari, I like to think about major versus minor language. It is somewhat more of a European trope. But, it also ties to America and I think that in some ways Americans who are interested in poetry tend to have this very majoritarian idea of poetry or the authority of language. I think if you are an immigrant it is really hard to have that kind of faith in the authority of language.
Take the way I came to the language. I came through a lot of noise. I learned English partially in class, fourth and fifth grade, sixth grade, in Sweden. But also largely through being part of the mass culture empire. So, we got a lot of American music and shows and English music and shows and there are all sorts of interesting noises that appear as you try to make sense of things that are in a foreign language. You have learned some words in school and can recognize some words. Or, you can read the subtitles but you hear this other voice. You get a kind of avant-garde education by reading sub-titles, the weird disjunction between images and sound and letters.
I don’t speak any language perfectly. I am from the south of Sweden, which means I speak this terrible, southern dialect, which most Swedes cannot even understand. I am not even like a native speaker in Sweden.
eX: That seems to be true of most countries. The south for some reason always gets the language wrong.
JG: I know, I know. They can't get it right.
eX: Well, let's see if I… I want to try and think here, just a little bit…
[Frantic flipping though a legal pad –ed.]
eX: As an editor, do you ever think about what the future of translation might look like? Can you imagine translation evolving from its present place in the U.S. to some other place—and what might that place look like?
JG: Well, I think at some level translation is becoming more prominent again, after a couple of decades. In the 60’s it played an important role in changing American poetry. And it seems like through the 70’s, the 80’s, perhaps less so. And then in the 90’s perhaps Pierre Joris’ translations of Paul Celan might have started to change things or Eshleman’s Vallejo….On some level I should say that it’d be really great if in American writing, literature, if people were more interested in foreign languages and foreign literatures—or if America overall, cared a little bit more about foreign cultures except as some sort of exotic place to send people… on those eating shows, to eat Thai rats or whatever…(laughter)
But I’m not—I think ultimately I’m not that interested in prescribing things for American culture.
So, I say, OK, they should be more interested in foreign literature. Well, perhaps most literary-oriented people can find something in translation that’s translated in such a way that it just sort of maintains their prevailing ideas. Take the example of the translation issue of Poetry. They have a totally different aesthetic, idea of poetry than I do. They’re trying to maintain a very conservative—what I consider a very conservative idea of poetry, and just saying they’re doing a translation issue is not going to change that. So, Poetry is still a really conservative, boring journal. And it’s also bracketed off: “This is our translation issue,” but not really publishing much in translation at other times.
And I might be interested in seeing American poetry become more international, or it might be some kind of cosmopolitan, kind of naïve idea. There would still be people who had power, there would still be people whose art I didn’t like, whose poetry I didn’t like…. American literature is really interested in international matters, but it’s usually to promote their own ideas. Or American poets will go abroad to find somebody who will translate them, or who likes their poetry, or who writes like them and then they can bring that back of course. Of course I could be accused of doing the same thing. This is partially the way literature works.
My future for American poetry is just that remain interested in poetry or writing that comes from foreign countries. I’d like to think that there were things that would challenge me, and challenge my aesthetics, and sort of push me to new ideas and so. But on one level I’m just going to be looking for things that I like doing. I’m not going to suddenly embrace some kind of poetry that has nothing to do with me. So, maybe it’s best that American poetry just remains hopelessly insular. A lot of American poetry seems invested in sort of “local community.” And that’s completely xenophobic to me, but on the other hand it’s also a rejection of the larger poetry establishment and also, you know, all kinds of globalizing forces, so…
So that’s their thing, that’s the thing that they’ll do. Perhaps xenophobia is a kind of tool against global culture, so let me just state that they do what they do, and I do what I do, so…. You know, I complain a lot about American literature, but in the end, I’m just going to do what I do, and I’m trying to create as interesting work as I can create, and be interested in interesting work, and hopefully bring together people who have interesting ideas, reading habits, and writing habits. So, I guess I’m punting on that question…
eX: That’s OK, that was, that’s a tough question…
JG: What do you think?
eX: Oh, gosh, um, no. I think that that’s probably a question I would punt on too. Probably shouldn’t even ask it… (laughter). Well, I think what you said about the naïveté of cosmopolitanism… [Desperately trying to come up with something smart. – ed.] Um, the internet…
JG: Well, the internet totally changes the whole power structure—well, not totally, but changes the dynamics a lot and internationalism starts happening. I have this function on my blog where I can look and see who last visited my blog and where they’re from, it’s really interesting. I have some people from Hungary, or Taiwan, or wherever, so already there’s a kind of internationalism I think going around the internet.
But the thing about the internet as a model of rhizomatic subversion—it’s also the problem with cosmopolitanism— it’s this ideal that there’s this neutral space where we all appreciate each other’s otherness. Aside from being naïve, it’s also—well no, it’s just naïve. There’s always a power structure, and America is still a central empire. As a result, for example, people of Sweden feel this need to know what’s going on in the US—why? Because they’re a military, commercial superpower. The Swedes see themselves as very peripheral. Even though Aase sells more books in Sweden than the most famous American poet selling in America, where there’s thirty times as many people. They feel a need to keep up on what we’re doing but, Americans don’t feel the need to… to do that.
So that has to do with military and economic and political power, and so the idea of a cosmopolitan space seems like a real 19th century idea. It seems like a European idea too—and also a very privileged idea. People who can move very easily across borders. And when you move across borders, if you are very wealthy and well-connected you can tread a very smooth space. But it’s a very rough space for most people to move between languages and it’s a physically violent space a lot of times. As you can say for any, for example, Mexican immigrant. The one who was beaten to death in Pennsylvania last year….
So the cosmopolitan model doesn’t appeal to me, nor does the insular hierarchical “American” model…
I’m just trying to find my way through different language borders, and I’m not interested in skipping over that part, the roughness of going through languages, and that’s why I’m interested in what actually happens in the translation. Both in terms of what happens to the language but also how the dynamics of the text are changing. I don’t want to create a smooth, idyllic space where we’re all just… ships floating along.
eX: I wanted to ask I about…it feels like we’ve been looking at this third thing, that’s not quite translation as we know it, not creative writing, but somewhere in between. I’m thinking about these projects where people are piggybacking on another author’s work and end up doing something totally different with it.
JG: Like what?
eX: I’m thinking some of Joyelle [McSweeney] and her translation of the Aeneid...
JG: Oh, yeah.
eX: I’m thinking of David Cameron’s translation of Baudelaire, Flowers of Bad…
eX: Or even like—
JG: Homophonic translations?
eX: Homophonic translations, or even—like I think there’s a new book of erasures of Emily Dickinson by Janet Holmes—people taking other people’s work and messing around with it.
JG : Yeah, I mean all of those things are connected. I don’t know where translation historically fits into all this, but it does the same thing, it creates these excesses or these lacks in the text…it’s not just what’s here, but there’s a prior text that people are interested in, in some ways they seem to be interested in a code…there’s a secret to the text. I think those are totally, absolutely related to translation.
But even within those there are a lot of differences between them. Something like erasure I think is really popular because it actually fits in very well with the lyric idea of poetry. I mean, after all, the Sappho fragments were really big to modernists. I like a lot of erasures, but they also seem to be almost more poetic than the original poetry, more breathless….
I like a lot of the homophonic translations but I’m a little bit—not concerned— I’m a little bit hesitant about some of these things. Basically you end up having a kind of poetry that’s like…very strange in a very contemporary American way. And a lot of the homophonic translations, it seems that with them you have translation without actually having to go to the other place….sometimes it just ends up like America looking at the foreign through a mirror.
In fact if you’re not actually going into that language, you’re not crossing over those languages, what are you doing? You have a certain kind of a reified idea of what is “foreign.”
But yeah, it’s interesting, a lot of those movements, those appropriations, they’re all very interesting and they’re all very much involved in translation, and they have a lot of the same problems as translation does, ethical dilemmas, what do you do with the foreign, what do you do with the other. I don’t know, what have you been doing, what have you been thinking about?
eX: I don’t know. Just that it’s hard sometimes to figure out where translation ends.
And, of course, I also understand what you were talking about with the Parland. You want to bring somebody else into literature, and try and actually understand this voice, and make it, make it come into something else, without, you know, completely...
JG: Yeah. I think that foreignization is a kind of domestication anyway. It comes out still being obsessed with… is this the plagiarized version, or the copy, or the debased copy. Instead of saying, “There really is no original, let’s see what happens when these things move across language, and see how they change.” The thing about Parland too, and why he’s really fascinating, is that he wasn’t a native Swedish speaker. It was his fourth language. When I was at this conference, somebody said, “Well Finland Swedish is its own language, and you’re just a Swede—how do you know that you get all the nuances of this very peculiar language?” And I thought, Henry Parland probably didn’t get your nuances either, you know, it’s his fourth language and he only spoke it for a short while. His poetry already has this feel of being a kind of translatese anyway. And in fact a lot of his own favorite poets were Americans. So it’s possible that he already wrote it in English in some way and this is a detour through Swedish because of various circumstances, like the fall of Czarist Russia. And his woman he was engaged to—he lived in Lithuania and got engaged to this Jewish ballet dancer who had just left Russia as well. He died when he was very young and she moved on and actually moved to Chicago, and she lived there until 1973 when she died. [Joking] So he was just an American poet waiting to become an American.
eX: [Not getting the joke] Um.
JG: I don’t know. Well, in some ways. He loved Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters and whatever, I think he must have read Stephen Crane’s poems because they’re so incredibly similar.
Johannes Göransson was born in Sweden, but has lived around the US for several years. He is the translator of: Collobert Orbital by Johan Jonsson, Gingerbread Monuments by Victor Johansson & Klara Kallstrom, Remainland: Selected Poems by Aase Berg, With Deer by Aase Berg, and Ideals Clearance by Henry Parland. He is the author of: Dear Ra (Starcherone, 2008), Pilot (Fairy Tale Review Press, 2008) and A New Quarantine Will Take My Place (Apostrophe Books, 2007)—and the chapbook Majakovskij en tragedy (Dos Press, 2008). He is the co-editor of Action Books and the online journal Action, Yes.