My writing was always translingual, always on some level nonsense. When people ask me when I started writing poetry, I often say when I moved to the US – I began to translate song lyrics back and forth from languages. I have no idea why. And at some point, I started to change the lyrics. But I also often say in 4th grade when, riding in a big school bus through the fields of Skåne, I listened to a Depeche Mode song which I thought went “Everything counts to Roger Moore.” It was so evocative, I had to think and think about what the James Bond actor could have to do with this gothic English synth band. Turns out “large amounts” was the “correct” answer. But I like my hearing better. Or, I don’t have to decide. My hearing made an excess of the singular voice. My hearing glitched the translation.
As Paul showed in his post quoting Dominic Pettman – sound has the potential to glitch the communication model: the voice becomes exterior, multiple, no longer caught in the economic model of interiority and communication.
In Transgressive Circulation I talk about George Steiner’s book After Babel, and especially the essay called “The Hermeneutic Turn.” This is one of those texts that I find myself so opposed to in so many ways, and which I also think reveals a lot of the ideologies and problems with dominant models, discourses about both translation and poetry itself. The anxiety about proliferation – which is always involved in discussion about translation and writing – is front and center. Unless properly integrated into our literary establishment and its tastes, Steiner warns that translations have the potential to make us sick. Translation is like an STD. It can spread disease unless properly brought into our institutions (remember also that translations are faithful or unfaithful, the marriage institution is never far away).
Fidelity, Steiner argues, is “economic.” Without the proper integration of the foreign text into the domestic culture, there’s a danger that the translation will lead to “a wash of mimicry” – i.e. inflation, proliferation, the loss of the singular “voice” form within. Literature has to be protected against a contagion of the foreign in order to maintain its gold standard. Steiner argues that the translator can be “betrayed” by “nonsense” and “non-communicative” forms of writing because they have no value. Ie no “great voice from within.” Lacking fidelity to this stable interiority, nonsense makes language worthless, inflationary, excessive.
Going back to last week’s post, Catherine Clément writes in Syncope:
“Poetic excess is incompatible with the city’s stability: wailing and lamentation are just as dangerous as the depiction of irrepressible laughter. Do poets love to describe the “inextinguishable laughter” of the gods? Well, then they must be kept out. Danger. If the poet is allowed into the city, he will be under surveillance. The list of topics he will not be allowed to treat is, in essence, a catalogue of excessive syncopes.”
Against the obsession with maintaining the singular voice from within, we might look at Aase Berg’s essay “Language and Madness,” where she imagines that the language doesn’t come from within humans, but that it’s a parasite that precedes humans, a parasite that has been hovering around the world for ages waiting for the proper host-species to evolve. The voice is from outside, from before. Berg imagines that there was a time when language was “paradisical babbling” – a kind of beautiful nonsense, a kind of “pleasure” to go back to LaTasha N. Diggs’ statement from last week – which patriarchy and capitalism then had to instrumentalize.
As Berg’s translator, I can attest of the “madness” of her “babbling.” Translating her book Forsla fett really shaped my mode of translation, as well as generated a lot of my thinking about translation. For example I realized that “valnötsdjur” wasn’t just a “walnut-animal” but maybe even a “whale-nut-animal. The neologisms break down the Swedish language, permutate it. So “däggdjur” might be correctly translated as “mammal” but that correct translation would be incorrect; to translate it correctly the poems asked me to translate it as “suckle animal.” The strange nonsense language makes the standard language strange, nonsensical. The different versions of the words make what Joyelle McSweeney and I called – after a Berg poem – a “deformation zone.”[i]
In Money, Language and Thought, Marc Shell writes “in the institution of paper money, sign and substance – paper and gold – are clearly disassociated, much as word is disassociated from meaning in punning” (19). Puns asks us to pay attention to the way words sound in our mouths: the exterior becomes of the essence rather than a mere pathway to an interior. No longer held in check by the gold standard of meaning, the language proliferates. Punning, word play, nonsense: these are terms for the kind of “excessive syncopes” that have to be, if not cast out of the city, at least restrained, controlled, so that it won’t make a deformation zone of the great voice from within.
Puns and nonsense ask us to read paranoidly: What does this really mean? The best example of this perhaps: how young people in the 1960s interpreted Bob Dylan’s poetic nonsense as prophesy, or as personal messages for them. The gold standard of the folkie truthteller became the jester, the conman Dylan (who could only be played by multiple characters in that movie about him, I’m Not There). Is this why US establishment rhetoric always has to decry both riddles and nonsense? Either way, the obscurity of each ruins the elitist ideal of sincerity.
When I teach Poetry Writing classes, I often assign this poem by Joyelle (and video by Paul):
It was based on a reimagining of the poem “Then Why Don’t You Marry It” by Sampson Starkweather:
I ask the class to make a list of words – sometimes based on a found document, sometimes not – based merely on the lure of the words, then I ask them to write a poem using as many sonic devices as often as possible. Most semester it has the most profound impact on the students’ writing – because it shows them how to be drunk on language.
Afterward the class reads poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins – and they can see the word-drunkenness of his poems. They can get a sense for writing as an ecstatic technology. Ecstasy from the Greek “ekstasis” – or “standing outside of oneself.” Ecstatic writing does not come from the tasteful voice from within; it takes you outside of this model of selfhood.
I’m translating Eva Kristina Olsson’s The Angelgreen Sacrament, an ecstatic account of the experience of interacting with angels. Although it’s the depicting of an experience, it doesn’t subscribe to the gold-standard ideology of so much US poetry that depicts experiences. Instead of “simple” and “accessible” writing, Olsson writes an incredibly visceral and viscerally punning language that makes the reading accessible to it, to the angel of poetry:
light so light is the light
light is nothing
nothing in light
the upturn in light
the inflight in light
fly in light
from the cold and nothing
Words like light, nothing, angel are repeated and deformed, proliferates and mutates.
With such an intensive, slippery, volatile soundscape of puns and permutations, it’s no wonder the poet has to repeat as a kind of mantra throughout the book:
You are afraid
don’t be afraid
don’t be afraid
Truly ecstatic writing can be frightening. It takes us outside of ourselves, and we can no longer rely on language to be simple, dependable. It betrays our economics. It pulls us into the angel’s angelgreen nothingwing.
Johannes Göransson is the author of four books with Tarpaulin Sky Press — Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate (2011), Haute Surveillance (2013), The Sugar Book (2015), and Poetry Against All (2020) — in addition to three previous collections of poems: A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, Dear Ra, Pilot (“Johann the Carousel Horse”) He has also translated several books, including Aase Berg’s Hackers, Dark Matter, Transfer Fat, and With Deer as well as Ideals Clearance by Henry Parland and Collobert Orbital by Johan Jönson. @JohannesGoranss