Two Lines Issue 21
This is to announce that we’ve just published Issue 21 of our twice-yearly journal of translation, Two Lines. You’ll find the full table of contents here, plus all 11 of the online-only offerings.
Instead of summarizing some of the work in this new issue (if you want to know about that, just click over to the TOC), I’m going to post the first few paragraphs of a really interesting essay we’re publishing by Johannes Goranssön called “‘Awash in Mimicry': On the Deformation Zone of Translation.”
If you’re familiar with Johannes at all, you know that he has a very particular approach to translation. I don’t want to try and summarize it here, since I won’t really do justice to the nuances of his stance, but suffice to say it’s a very playful approach that would probably scandalize a lot of people in the translation community. (I don’t mean to judge either side—I’m just stating a fact.)
Anyway, Johannes’s essay deals pretty frankly with his—and others’—ideas about translation, and I think it’s a very compelling part of a great issue. Have a look at its first two sections, and if you’re intrigued, for the low low price of just $10 (plus shipping) you can read the whole thing.
Poetry is what gets lost in translation.
I’m fond of pointing out that one of the most canonical definitions of poetry in America relies on translation. This suggests that translation—even if through negation—is essential to the American concept of poetry. We define poetry through translation, its opposite.
It might be strange to assert the prominence of translation in an age when we know—thanks to the work of critics and activists like Lawrence Venuti, Chad Post, Don Mee Choi, and Lucas Klein—that the translator and her translations are “invisible”: marginal, debased. But somehow the translator and translation are simultaneously marginal and central, both invisible and hyper-visible—if only as a threat, a ghost, kitsch.
If we want to find out why translation is in such fundamental opposition to poetry, we might ask ourselves: What is this something that’s “lost” in translation?
The short answer: the singular poem, the singular author writing within a single, patriarchal lineage. In other words: the illusion of a perfect, well-wrought urn of a text that can’t be paraphrased—or rather that isn’t paraphrased—written by one original author who expresses his or her views with absolute control of language.
But in translation we lose the illusion of a single lineage, and the supposed objectivity of that lineage. What if we don’t actually know who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her—can she really be influenced “correctly”? Is she misreading? The threat of translation to poetry is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry, it appears, gets lost in a noisy, violent excess.
Over the past two hundred years, many Western (not just American, if I’m perfectly honest) theorists have discussed the excess produced by translation in terms of a violence. In Walter Benjamin’s classic essay “The Task of the Translator,” this excess becomes a violent alienness within the text itself:
If in the original, content and language constitute a certain unity, like that between a fruit and its skin, a translation surrounds its content, as if with the broad folds of a royal mantle. For translation indicates a higher language than its own and thereby remains inadequate, violent, and alien with respect to its content.
In this metaphor the act of translation surrounds the skin with foreign clothes—an excess that makes the text no longer organic or in balance with itself. Translation seems not to be a lack (what is lost) but an accumulation—an infection by the alien. An alienness that is violent in part because it is alien, like a disease.