Translation as Deformation in American Poetry
Translation continues to hold a marginal position in American poetry: segregated into separate anthologies, seldom taught in English classes, and regarded as inherently flawed. Translations are seldom published (except for the classics) and are kept at apart from the canonizing machinery of poetry. I would like to suggest that that is because translation suggest the anarchic potential of literature, a force that the literary establishment has to suppress in order to maintain the stable, hierarchical views of literature and language. The practice of translation is problematic to the prevalent view of the poem as an autonomous, organic work of literature, because translation suggests noise and connectivity. Articles and essays on translation tend to fall back into the old clichés: free versus faithful, literal versus poetic translations. Although these articles tend to take on a pragmatic tone of the practicing translator’s objective observations, they have little to do with actual act of translation; they are arguing for a certain definition not just of translation but also of poetry. By assuming that the translated poem is a distorted imitation of the original, these critics are asserting that the original poem was stable to begin with, that anybody with the correct fluency would have the same experience of reading it. To evoke Frost’s famous words, “poetry is what is lost in translation” only if we assume that there was an autonomous, original poem to begin with.
The discourse surrounding translation has long been used to maintain the idea of the poem as an isolated object – a “well-wrought urn” as Cleanth Brooks put it – and, by implication, the idea that language and culture are stable. In this paper I will argue we should change the discourse surrounding translation. We should embrace the problems and foreignness of translations, in order to think of translation – and by implication, poetry – as activities that interact with culture, capable of denaturalizing and deterritorializing rather than upholding the hierarchies of language and culture. In the infamous words of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, I want to think of translation in terms of the “rhizome,” an activity that continually destabilizes. I will argue that translation should be valued for the precise reason it has been marginalized: because it points out the inherent noise present in both language and poetry. Instead of looking at texts and translations as two discrete entities, I want to view them as two parts of a relationship that continually de- and reterritorialize each other; they connect different languages and cultures in similarly unstable relationship. Translations show that poems are not separate texts, but activities that affect language and culture; they show that language and culture are not organic, stable or hierarchical, but in flux.
To explain the persistent concept of poetry in American I would like to invoke Mikhail Bakhtin’s term “monoglossia.” In the essays “Discourse in the Novel,” Bakhtin argues that the purpose of poetry has become “creating within a heteroglossic natural language, the firm, stable linguistic nucleus of an officially recognized literary language” (667). Although language is in a constant state of flux of various languages and usages, poetry establishes the illusion that there is a constant center, a correct use of the language. While I disagree that this concept defines all of poetry, I think it provides an important insight into the way American poetry works, why it must render translations marginal, and why this is a politically reactionary stance. Bakthin points out that in reality there is no unified, organic language, no correct usages, but rather a myriad of mingling languages. To assert a correct fluency in this intermingling of languages is to establish a center, and thus a political hierarchy privileging that center. Deleuze and Guattari make a similar point with “major” versus “minor” language: “The unity of language is fundamentally political. There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language” (Plateaus 101). In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that the idea of a central language comes out of the development of nationalism and print capitalism, creating the necessary illusion of a coherent culture, rather than a heteroglossia of various groups and languages.
In order to create this centripedal ideal of poetry, it has been necessary to divorce poetry from the heteroglossic context of culture with all of its centrifugal languages, dialects and forms of interpretation. The standardization creates a paradigm of poetry as an isolated artifact, disconnected from the rest of the world. In “Discourse and the Novel,” Bakhtin describes it like this:
Stylistics locks every stylistic phenomenon into the monologic context of a given self-sufficient and hermetic utterance, imprisoning it, as it were, in the dungeon of a single context; it is not able to exchange messages with other utterances; it is not able to realize its own stylistic implications in a relationship with them; it is obliged to exhaust itself in its own single hermetic context (668).
This is the literary system that Jed Rasula has compared to a “wax museum,” a place in which the poems have no agency, isolated from the world and impotent:
However much Ransom himself complained about the fetishism implicit in Brooks’s well-wrought urn, the outcome was to quarantine The Poem in an artificial environment in which it was celebrated for triumphs that were meaningless because nothing was contested except the internal order of the poetic object itself (87).
Isolated from other languages and discourses, the poem can become a wholly self-sufficient organism.
One implication of the organism metaphor is that every part of the poem has to function for the benefit of the ultimate effect. “There is no noise in art,” as the New Critics liked to point out. Every line of the poem is the result of the poet’s artistic masterplan. Bakthin writes: “No matter what “agonies of the word” the poet endured in the process of creation, in the finished work language is an obedient organ, fully adequate to the author’s intentions.” (674). Only because every part can be said to support a stable meaning projected through the mastery of the author, can I.A. Richard argue that close readings, if done correctly, would all end up with a correct “close reading” of a poem.
According to this organic idea of poetry, a translation will necessarily be a devaluation of the pristine original. It cannot be the exact imitation of the original, rendering the translator’s task necessarily doomed: to try to recreate the poem the way a native – or “fluent,” privileged – reader would have read it in its original language. The translator must cover up the fact that the translation was in fact not written by a member of this privileged elite in the target culture but a person from a different culture entirely. As Lawrence Venuti has shown, translations are largely valued by how well the translator is able to perpetuate the illusion that the text is in fact translated. The highest praise for a translation is to say that it sounds as if it were an original work written in English. If the translation suggests foreignness, the translation is considered bad, or “translatese” (2).
One way to explain the difference between original and translation to is to say that the translation is necessarily flawed – the poem is “lost” when it’s let out of it New Critical display case. Another method, which became particularly popular during Modernism, is to say that that the poem is its own autonomous art object to be judged in its own right. This may appeal to people who enjoy translations because it gets the translations out of the “flawed” category. In an article in The American Poetry Review, Sharod Santos echoes this Modernist idea. He note that translations necessarily “alter[s] the effect we refer to as “poetry”,” but suggest that there is a way out of this scandal:
Which is not to say that one can’t have a poem, another poem, which attempts to carry across – through figuring-forth of images, rhetorical levels, schematic, and associative uses of sound – something like that original effect… it opens itself to the same aesthetic criteria, the same independent evaluation, that any original poem would (9).
Santos defends the monoglossic idea of poetry against the challenge of translation by suggesting that the translation should be treated as an “independent” “original” poem; that is, it is not a translation at all.
Translations have to be either disregarded as flawed, or turned into “original” poems because translations undermine the notion of a “perfect, organic meaning.” The process of reading works in translation makes the poem less transparent, or “absorptive.” In the verse essay “Artifice and Absorption” Charles Bernstein writes: ”Artifice” is a measure of a poem’s / intractability to being read as the sum of its / devices & subject matters” (9). Translation calls attention to language as artifice, loaded with possible lines of flight and signifying-excesses. In his book Culture and Society, Raymond Williams argues that the radical formal innovations of the early 20th century avant-garde comes as a result of people being displaced or emigrating and having to interact with literature written in foreign languages (83-84). Such “metropolitan encounters,” in which poets were “distanced” from their native languages, Williams argues, changed the way they read. Reading language without perfect fluency forced them to notice the artificiality, the instability of language, and lead them to conduct radical experiments like visual poetry and sound poetry. The poetry was no longer “natural” or “organic.”
Deleuze and Guattari make a similar claim about the early-twentieth-century avant-garde in their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. writing: “The breakdown and fall of the empire increases the crisis, accentuates everywhere movements of deterritorialization, and invites all sorts of complex reterritorializations – archaic, mythic, or symbolist” (24). Through such reterritorializations, the concept of the poem is changed from an organism to something closer to what Deleuze and Guattari calls a “body without organs” – instead of an organism where every part works for the final whole, we get a body that is “constantly dismantling the organism, causing asignifying particles or pure intensities to pass or circulate…” (4). This is the opposite of the New Critical notion of a poem as an organic unit, in which every part fulfills a definite function.
As Cary Nelson has shown in his book Repression and Recovery, the New Critics devoted much effort to repress the aesthetic experiments of the avant-garde of the 1920s. In order to maintain the illusion of poetry as an organic entity, the avant-garde poets, who were not fluent but “distanced” from their language, had to be suppressed. One example Nelson discusses is Baronesse Else von Freytag-Loringhoven, a German-born poet displaced by World War I. Nelson points out that a central aspect to the innovations of Freytag-Loringhoven is her minorizing use of language: “Her frequent archaisms effect a kind of inner violence on ordinary language” (Nelson 72). This “violence” is the disruptions of the foreign opening up the striations of language to multiplicities and flows.
The New Critics succeeded in repressing these Dada poets so thoroughly that in her book The Dark End of the Street, Maria Damon argues America never had an avant-garde. However, her book picks up on Williams’ idea of the innovative poet as ‘distanced” from the language, arguing that innovation in American poetry has largely come from “the margins”:
the American literary avant-garde comes out of the work of the socially marginalized. In the hands of deterritorialized writers, poetry, itself “antidiscursive” in the modern situation, cannot help but produce a level of vanguard experimentation, a shock of defamiliarization, a resonant disorientation that permits new consciousness. (vii)
Borrowing the concept of “deterritorialization” from Deleuze and Guattari, she sees experimentation in American poetry as resulting of people with un-organic relationships to Standard English. The minor language-user is in the same position as the translator: they both have the opportunity to commit “violence” on standardized English. It is this kind of deterritorialization that the translator should strive for; not to cover up the difference, but to engage with it.
In “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin argues that translators should commit similar acts of “violence” on the target language. Benjamin believes that it is the translator’s “task” not to make the foreign poem sound native, but should make the native language sound foreign in order to unleash the inherent anarchic qualities of language. This model of translation destabilizes the monoglossic notion of organic meaning by exposing the inherent noise of language. As Benjamin elaborately puts it:
While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds. For it signifies a more exalted language than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien.
In this analogy, the “fruit and its skin” may follow the New Critical model of the poem as an organism. Benjamin sees translation as “a more exalted language” precisely because it breaks this illusion, freeing up the signifiers of text to become “pure language” instead of a mere means of communication.
It’s important to point out that the organic notion of the text is never true; it is always an illusion. The poem was never a fruit with skin. The organic idea of poetry enforces a monoglossic idea of language. The translation reveals the scandalous idea that every language is in a state of flux. Such translations are not based on an ideal fluency, but on a deformative, decentering ideal. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, the translation opens up “lines of flight,” calls attention to the noise of texts. Or, as Antoine Berman writes in his study of the translation theories of German Romanticism, the translator should strive to “radically denaturalize the mother tongue,” undoing the concept of a stable, organic language, and opening up the language up variation (8).
Rather than trying to solve the scandal of translation, we should let it animate our idea of texts. Instead of worrying about the differences between the poem and the translation, let the translation remain a problem, let it remain a translation. The most radical aspect of translation is that way it is radically not-there, always in flux, always becoming, always between different texts, never captured in a stable text, constantly migrating between languages. Perhaps the best explanation of this phenomenon is Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome. I would like to call attention to what seems to me a very relevant analogy of the relationship of a bee and an orchid from Thousand Plateaus:
The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritrializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome… Each of these becomings bring about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becoming interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further.
If we transfer this situation to the translation, we can say that the translation deterritorializes the original poem, which is then reterritorialized by the receiving language, which is deterritorialized by the translated text/bee. The illusory ideal of a center, a better language skill is undone, democratizing the reading process. Translation, like poetry, should not be used to breathe life into the hierarchical structure of the national culture. The goal of translation should be, as Deleuze and Guattari writes: “To hate all languages of masters… be a stranger within one’s own language.” (Kafka 26). This is not poetry as isolated displays in a wax museum, but poetry as an assemblage interacting with languages and cultures.
 “The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged “competence.”” (Thousand Plateaus 13)
 Venuti quotes Basil Bunting arguing for “translations meant to stand by themselves, works in their own language, equivalent to their original but not compelled to lean on its authority, claiming the independence and accepting the responsibility inseparable from a life of their own.” (188)
 Though elsewhere in the article he makes the argument that “we might think of translation, not as a thing unto itself, not as a product of some literary activity, but as a process that begins well before the act itself.” (9). This is more in line with my own line of reasoning.
 She writes: “The most commonly used specific historical meaning of “avant-garde” refers to European developments of the early twentieth century, particularly Dadaism, Surrealism, Fauvism. This specificity with regard to Europe’s literary history, however is absent from the modern American scene…” (vii-viii)
 quote from Benjamin