As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
The poet, translator, and Action Books publisher on his collection of essays about US literary culture, foreign influence, and the illusion of mastery.
If translation is, as Lawrence Venuti has put it, a “scandal,” then Transgressive Circulation (Noemi Press) solidifies Johannes Göransson’s place as one of the translation world’s great enfants terribles. In his introduction to this Molotov cocktail of a book, Göransson writes that he wants to “find out what rat is buried in this scandal and [ … ] see how digging it up might change the way we read poetry.”
Across six essays on topics that include the threat of foreign influence and the “hoax” of translation, Göransson challenges not only the aesthetic ideals of the translation establishment, but those of US literary culture at large. The result is a necessary and timely comment on mastery, local hegemony, and the poetic possibilities of merging with the foreign.
—Katrine Øgaard Jensen
Katrine Øgaard Jensen Before reading Transgressive Circulation, I had already encountered some earlier versions of these essays in literary publications and conferences where you presented. I have to say that reading them as a cohesive collection—complete with your manifestoesque introduction—blew me away. What drove you to assemble your writings and thoughts on poetry in translation and publish them in the more deliberate format of a book?
Johannes Göransson I think the impulse was largely how you describe it. I had given so many talks, published so many essays and blog posts that I felt I should try to put it all together. I wanted to generate more discussion about the position of translation in US literature—particularly in the poetry scene. Some of my scholar-friends thought I should have written a more scholarly book and published it with a more scholarly press, but I wanted to publish it with a poetry press because it’s a book for the poetry scene.
KØJ The essays in Transgressive Circulation reminded me of the deformation and language shaping that attracted me to your poetic work and scholarship when I first started out as a translator, but also my initial interest in Action Books and the kind of literature that you and Joyelle McSweeney promote as publishers. Which discipline came first for you, and how did the others follow?
JG They have always been closely intertwined in my thinking. I was always watching movies, listening to music that was in English. My mom played Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen records for me every day when I was a baby. When I started writing poetry, I was basically translating and deforming the lyrics of the songs I was listening to (the Swedish band Imperiet and English bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure, etc.). Translation was part of what I was “reading” and also what I was writing.
I also started writing right around the time I immigrated to the US. That experience was very intense for me, a lot of this intensity had to do with language—what I understood, what I misunderstood, what the results of these misunderstandings were. As a result, I could never be satisfied with believing in some notion of “accessible” poetry. Language is more complicated than that. And sometimes you get punched in the face because of those complications.
Perhaps more fundamentally, I have always read mostly works in translation. When I started out, I read a lot of US literature, but it was in Swedish (På Drift av, which is On the Road by Jack Kerouac for example). And I read a lot of Swedish and Danish poetry (Bruno K. Öijer, Michael Strunge, etc.). Most of all I read French literature in Swedish translation.
This is an astute question to begin with because I didn’t want Transgressive Circulation to be just about translation. I wanted to show how translation is connected to aesthetics. In particular, why the US rejection and abjection of translation has to do with maintaining certain aesthetics ideals.
KØJ Was this also part of why you and Joyelle started Action Books? To connect translation with US aesthetics?
JG Yes, absolutely. We never wanted Action Books to be a neutral “translation press” that publishes “quality literature” in translation. We have always aimed to present an international, volatile, poetic conversation that includes both foreign and US poets. The US poetry we are interested in—and that we feel is in conversation with our own writing—tends to be poetry that has points of convergence with international poetries. And now that we have been around for almost fifteen years, the press has had its own influence on writers (both US-born and foreign), helping to generate and expand this poetic dialogue.
The US literary establishment has tended to be overtly or unconsciously xenophobic in order to maintain its hierarchy, but the poets I love most are interacting with foreigner writers. In so doing, they reveal the provinciality of that illusion (a provinciality that is particularly dangerous as it is held from such a hegemonic position). That’s why it’s so much more generative to read a US writer like Olivia Cronk in an international context of non-US poets like Aase Berg or Kim Hyesoon than the kind of US-centric poetics we see espoused in the New York Times or Writers Chronicle, or in most US English Departments and Creative Writing Programs.
KØJ Your book returns a few times to the ideal of the poem as non-paraphrasable, the idea that any (translated) version of a poem is inherently a degradation because every word is in the right place in the original poem. How have you encountered this in the past, and why do you think it’s still “one of the most pervasive rules in modern discussions of US poetry”?
JG On an informal level, I always run into people who say things like, I wish I could read this in the original because I want to know what the poet really wants to say (and because I can’t, I won’t read the work in translation either). Or more fundamentally, it’s in the rules of academic study of poetry: you have to study it in the original. In the New Critical ideal, the poem cannot be paraphrased.
Behind this idealization of the non-paraphrasable lies an idealization of the non-mediated. US poetry has tended to see itself as an ideal communicative act that is able to express interiority with the minimum amount of mediation. This is of course BS and translation constantly foregrounds the falseness of this rhetoric.
I like your use of the word “degrade” here as well. It makes me think of Bakhtin, who makes some guest appearances in the book and whose writing shaped a lot of my critical views. In his book about Rabelais, Bakhtin argues—in the English translation by Helen Iswolsky—that one of the key features of the grotesque is that it “degrades.” So perhaps there is something grotesque about translation (and the other way around): it degrades, it “parodies,” it imagines counter-hierarchies.
KØJ Being both a poet and a translator yourself, what do you consider to be most problematic about this idea of the poet as an “infallible master” whose work should not be tampered with?
JG I think this is one of the central arguments of the book and also, I fear, one of the hardest for people to understand. Many people seem to think that I encourage people to be ignorant, or that I don’t think there are better or worse translations.
In poetry the master model is a problem because masterful poems tend to be boring. The best poems ignore the rules for how to write a masterful poem. The master model comes with a lot of other baggage, the most important being perhaps: that poetry is something we should master. We should be in control. I don’t feel in control when I write a poem; I feel drugged, entranced.
In translation we run into similar problems. The emphasis on mastery creates the sense that not only should poems be mastered, but foreign cultures and languages should also be mastered. This tends to make us think that there is a (homogenous, hierarchical) culture which we can grasp when poems and culture are incredibly heterogenous and changeable, constantly transforming and permutating.
But there’s also a practical issue concerning translation. People fear they have not “mastered” the foreign literature and culture and therefore don’t feel they can translate the poems. The result: few poems get translated. Or people are scared of reviewing foreign texts because they have not mastered the foreign literatures. One threat of translation is that it reveals that nobody masters poetry, not even US poetry.
A key counterargument in my book is that you often will have strong connections to foreign poets, connections that compel you to translate their work. If you’re thus compelled, you will find ways of making the translation happen. Whether that involves collaborators or alternative methods or using the Internet or calling your grandma to ask about a weird archaic word. These collaborative and alternative approaches challenge the masterful translation model.
KØJ How does translation inform your work as a poet, and how does your “original” poetry inform your translation work?
JG Sometimes the connection is very overt. Right now, I’m involved in a huge and unwieldy collaboration with Swedish poet Sara Tuss Efrik, translating and deforming my first book, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place back and forth between Swedish and English (as well as via various occult and dubious translation practices). There the translation is very overt. Similarly, in my book Pilot I translate back and forth between English and Swedish—poorly!—to deform and denaturalize both languages. To make it feel like reading the poems is putting foreign objects in your mouth. In both cases, it’s the noise or failure of translation that proves most generative.
Perhaps a less overt and more fundamental influence might just be that a lot of the books I read are in translation. I have always found the US establishment style—so constantly reinforced, as well as spread on the wings of US imperialism—with its almost moral sense of the importance of moderation and restraint is fundamentally opposed to true poetry. I have found stronger connections with foreign writers or US writers existing on the margins, writers who, not accidentally, are also more open to foreign influences.
KØJ Do you consider your translations and originals as part of the same poetic body of work, or do you distinguish between the two?
JG Translation reconceives the poem and the poet, so that they are no longer stand-alone “masters” and masterful objects, but connected in strange and interesting ways to all kinds of other authors (some of them even foreign!) and texts and cultural forces. This is what Joyelle McSweeney and I call “deformation zones” in our pamphlet with that name. Translation opens up the poems as deformation zones.
KØJ Speaking of collaboration, it seems to me that the translation community here in the US is generally good at supporting and promoting literature in translation, but it’s also a tiny community—I once heard a US editor refer to it as “the translation ghetto”—a term that implies the works are restricted and segregated from the rest. How can an anglophone literary citizen with no second-language skills get involved in supporting and promoting international literature in translation? Do you have any practical advice?
JG I think this is a crucial question. It’s true that translations often don’t leave the community of translators—and that’s definitely something we’ve tried hard to avoid with Action Books—and that’s often sad because a lot of those books are amazing. Any US writer can of course fix this by merely reading foreign books. But it’s absolutely essential that US writers and readers review foreign books—not from the position of mastery of the foreign, but simply as US writers interested in a foreign book. I am particularly in favor of reviews and essays that bring US poets in conversation with foreign writers. This is an important act, undoing the divide between US poetry and the so-called “translation ghetto.” It’s often incredibly generative.
But you can always participate in translations too. If you don’t know the foreign language, team up with someone who does. Learn the foreign language. Ask your mom to help you (if she speaks the foreign language). One key aspect of translation is the way it foregrounds and opens literature up to collaborative models of authorship, away from the old-fashioned singular genius model, toward a model of teeming multiplicities in deformation zones.
KØJ I noticed recently that a highly respected fellow translator praised your book on social media, calling it “an excellent provocation.” I was interested in this word choice: provocation. Why do you think that your approach to the topic of translation is considered provoking, perhaps even radical, to some?
JG I think it’s just how my brain functions. But it may reflect the style the book is written in. I wanted to foreground questions about translation as much as answers. I wanted to write a book that would provoke people to think about the role of translation in contemporary US literature. I wanted to generate new conversations, conversations that—unlike the old tired talk about “faithful” and “free”—would be capable of engaging with the most vital work currently being written and translated.
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is a founding editor of EuropeNow Journal at Columbia University and the recipient of several awards, most recently the 2018 National Translation Award in Poetry for her translation of Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen (Action Books / Broken Dimanche Press, 2017). She teaches in the School of the Arts MFA Writing Program at Columbia University.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.