“THE POEM DROWNS ME AND I RESURFACE WITH A TRANSLATION”: SEBASTIAN MAZZA IN CONVERSATION WITH JOHANNES GÖRANSSON
UDP intern Sebastian Mazza interviewed poet and translator Johannes Göransson in early 2018 on the occasion of the release of his guest-edited Swedish poetry edition of Interim. Among Göransson’s numerous works are translations of Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat (UDP, 2012), With Deer, andHackers(Black Ocean, 2009 and 2017), and his volume of poetry The Sugar Book (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2015). His memoir Poetry Against All is forthcoming. Mazza and Göransson discussed translation as drowning, the ingestion of foreign texts, the underworld of poetry, dense grief, “blubber biters,” and the translation of translations.
Hackers seems to take a bit of a middle ground between the prose poetry blocks of With Deer and the sharp taps of Transfer Fat. I wanted to begin by asking you about shape: how does this visual aspect of the poetry affect translation? This seems especially fraught when regarding some of the skeletal short lines in this book: a word in English might require a few in Swedish or vice versa. Does this require of the translator a visual language thinking that departs to some extent from syntax? How does the choice of line length over semantic content, or vice versa, happen?
I think this is a very perceptive question. But also difficult to answer! I am sure that it does affect my translation just as it affects the reading: the shorter poems put a different kind of pressure on individual words. But I’m not sure exactly how I was affected by the form. It’s often hard for me to talk about my method. People often ask me: What’s your method? How do you make your choices? What do you give priority to? I think it’s hard to answer those kinds of questions. One of the reasons why it’s hard for me is that I don’t see myself as a “chooser.” I translate in a more intuitive way. I also don’t see myself as being “in control” in this way: I feel like the poem asks me to translate it in certain ways. It’s a collaboration of sorts, though I don’t like to use exactly that word because it feels practical – it’s more like the poem drowns me and I resurface with a translation. No, I don’t resurface. We both drown. The poem is the underworld because the underworld is where translations can happen.
Maybe related: Do you have any reservations about the original-facing-translation format of the book? I personally like it, as I can check the rhythms and shapes of the original language whenever I’m curious, and even look up a word. But it also means that I’ll probably never forget that I’m reading in translation. Does that kind of forgetfulness have any merit? It seems like a translation is always trying at the same time to be not- just-another-text-in-translation, and also, unavoidably, a translation.
I think there’s something to be said for reminding people that they are reading a translation, and there’s something to be said for what you so beautifully call “forgetfulness.”
I think it’s great to have the foreign text in the original because it does remind the reader that it’s not a US text, thus undermining simplistic ideas of “accessibility” and “simplicity.” Not everything exists without noise in English. There is a world “out there” that may run counter to established norms. Perhaps more importantly, the presence of the original may allow the reader to explore the inter-lingual energies of the poems. And some people may actually read the foreign language—so then it’s nice for them to be able to read the original as well as the translation.
But there is definitely a point to “forgetfulness.” It may allow us to read a foreign text the way you would read an American text: with the same kind of intensity. I feel like people often read translated texts in brackets: as if they don’t really read the text. They want a national “context” so that they can read the foreign text separately from their own US poetry. As a result, they are not as deeply affected by it. There’s a political problem in appropriating a foreign poem and taking it as American, but the choice to distance one’s reading and not to let the foreign into one’s brain, one’s idea of poetry, that is perhaps even more politically conservative. There is a risk that including the original will quarantine the foreign; create the idea that the translation is a counterfeit, not “the real thing.” Of course it isn’t the real thing, but neither is the “original.”
I want my poems to have a powerful effect on their readers. We have been told that the politics of reading works in translation can be found in distance, and recognizing something as other, but I think there’s a profound politics in having a foreign text enter us—to be put under foreign influence. This is especially true for US readers, who have been brought up in a hegemonic position of power.
The breaking of this division between US (central) and foreign (marginal) is what I call “transgressive circulation” in many of my essays. I took the phrase from John Durham Peters who uses that phrase to talk about Socrates’s fears of writing—how it will take words out of their original context. Peters analyzes how Socrates uses these erotic metaphors to describe his fears of transgressive circulation: if you take a foreign text into your mouth, your body, it is like being fucked by a stranger. I think that’s an important part of poetry: to open oneself up to that transgressive circulation. To put a foreigner’s words in one’s body.
It seems that before you approached Aase Berg’s work as an object of translation, you discovered it as a reader of the Stockholm Surrealist Group. I wonder, as she comes out with new books, and as you translate more of them, do you see your roles as her reader and as her translator separating or growing closer? In other words, do you separate your role as audience/reader and as translator? Or are these things intimately connected for you?
That’s a very interesting question. Our artistic projects are inextricably intertwined in many ways. A lot of her work plays around with translation and the English language—it was always there, but has grown stronger in response to my translation and to traveling in the US. When I read her new work, I do think about issues of translation, but then I think that’s part of her poetics—a kind of translation poetics that asks the reader to think of it in terms of translations and deformations.
As far as my own writing, you can probably most clearly see the result in Pilot, the book of mine that is most overtly multilingual. It came in large part out of translating Aase’s work; it came out of the slag, the wrong turns, the leftovers of translations of those early books. In a sense, Aase’s work asks me to mistranslate it, to not make a translation that replicates a stable original, but to enter into a deformation zone where things happen to my languages. I took the centrifugal energy of translating her poems and applied it to texts associated with home, births, origins. I applied it to the Swedish language and the English language: each deformed the other. I wanted to write in an English that felt like pebbles in my mouth. I wanted to write in a Swedish that sounded like a backwards tape recording. I used each to undo the other. It’s a translation-infected book.
Berg is a friend and a contemporary. There must be challenges specific to translating a living author. Do you two collaborate at all, or has translation always involved a sort of solitariness (even if this solitariness is with the text)? What’s it like to have Aase Berg as your reader (the reader of your translation)?
Having a living author makes for a messy translation relationship! You can have discussions about the work; it’s not stable, complete the way a dead author’s might be viewed. Perhaps this is why US poetry does not like its foreign authors to be alive. You can see this inclination in all the metaphors that refer to the translation as the animation of a corpse (for example, in Pound’s writings). Perhaps the living author is too dangerous: if they cannot be contained in a nice spot of literary history, they may prove too unruly, too threatening: they may speak back (to US poetry, to the translations, etc.). My translations are always collaborative to a high degree. We go back and forth. She is also a great reader of poetry. A few years ago, we worked together on translating the Korean poet Kim Yi-deum into Swedish for a Swedish journal. That was a very inspiring, generative collaboration that taught me much about Kim’s work, and which helped me translate her into English (in the book Cheer Up Femme Fatale). But yes, she’s also a good reader of my translations (and my poems).
Although you do provide notes on a case-by-case basis at the end of the book, there is no translator’s note or preface to Hackers. Was this intentional? What is the role of the translator’s voice/opinion in a book like this? When, if ever, should they speak, and how must they? I’m thinking not just about the language but also about the book’s obsession with Natascha Kampusch, who may not be familiar to many English speakers. Is the translator also translating into/out of a culture’s familiar references (this also makes me think of your piece at HTML Giant early last year about the place of the Swede in the American imaginary)?
I think it’s useful to have a translator talk about their process. That’s why I have written a lot of essays and introductions; and why, at Action Books, we encourage our translators to think about and articulate their views on translation. But—as with the “forgetfulness” question—it’s possible that this can lead to an overt stabilizing of the text. Yes, with Hackers, I included some information that might be helpful in reading the text. But a lot of Aase’s references might not be known by a Swedish reader either.
Translation discussions often fall back on illusory and reductive notions of context: that we must master the “context” a poem was written in before we can properly read it the way a person from that foreign nation would read the book. It’s implied that if you are a member of that culture everything will become “accessible” to you, and if you’re not, you can never understand the text (especially if it is in translation). But obviously cultures are not stable or monolithic, and poets often are members of subcultures, or are simply weirdos, or write with very personal references. Not to mention that cultures are shot through with all kinds of boundary-corrupting foreign cultural material. Some of these “foreign” materials may indeed provide better—or more exciting, generative—contexts for reading a text than some stabilized idea of national context.
Perhaps more importantly, poems do cross boundaries, creating new texts, new experiences, new interpretations, new contexts. One thing that translation does—and what makes it such a threat to gatekeepers and the type who try to maintain hierarchies of taste and decorum—is challenge the idea that there is a single way of writing well, a single way of interpreting a poem, a single canon, a way to “master” the poem. Translation generates excess. This is why it has to be constantly quarantined. Translation reminds us that we cannot master poems even if they are written in English to begin with. Poems aren’t meant to be mastered.
I was struck by how, at the end of your essay, “To Vibrebrate,” we’re left with a strange ancestry of poets (“Jäderlund, Hopkins, Zurita, Lynch, Jefferson”). Writing often engages with or disengages from this sort of constellation or ancestry-making practice. I was wondering how these sorts of ancestries inform your own poetry. Do other writers appear as you work? Do they follow you up to the point of writing and then get lost? To what extent does the writer become an aggregator of other voices, other artists (and can translation be a hyper-example of this)?
My first poems were actually translations: I would translate the lyrics of the post-punk music I was listening to (both English and Swedish) as a 13-year-old in between languages, while changing the lyrics. I came across Bruno K Öijer’s poetry because the band Imperiet made a song out of his poetry (and in retrospect their lyrics were almost fan-fictions of his work). Last summer I started translating some poems by one of my biggest idols, Eva Kristina Olsson, and it was a very intense experience. Afterwards, my poetry was absolutely changed. Not that it was an imitation of EKO; it was a poem written by a brain that had been shaped by the process of translating Olsson. Discussions about poetry—particularly the kind that emphasize “accessibility"—set up a model of writing in which the poem is an expression of an original, stable interiority of the poet, which is then "translated” with greater or lesser “clarity” into writing; and in this model, the poet has to be the originator of the poem (and the translator becomes by necessity a fake, a counterfeit, a purveyor of kitsch). But I don’t believe in that kind of stable interiority: what we think and what thinks us is more dynamic, multivalent. It’s not just translation but poetry, too, happens in the underworld.
But of course there are poets who influence me, such as the ones I mention in the “Vibrebrate” essay. There are others that I return to—Artaud, García Lorca, Genet. But not just writers. I think I’ve been deeply influenced by artists like Basquiat and Kara Walker, and filmmakers like Tarkovsky, David Lynch, and Godard. And I’m constantly being influenced, not just by canonical artists, but often by younger artists and writers. I recently wrote an essay called “Bad Plath” for Spoon River Review; it’s largely about younger poets who are inspiring me by calling attention to the “bad Plath"—i.e. not the cleaned-up, establishment Plath that Vendler and others are trying to create, but the daring Plath who breaks the rules. So influence and lineage aren’t linear. It, too, is a deformation zone. My wife Joyelle wrote probably the best thing I’ve ever read about the workings of influence.
It seems that part of what you get impatient with Matthew Zapruder for are all the false dichotomies, so I want to be careful about posing “mysterious” as value opposed to “clear.” I was wondering what kind of role the mystery plays in your writing and reading practice. Do you see mystery as primarily a function of the inexplicable, or does mystery in poetry also have something to do with the whodunit: a poem as a murder and the reader as a detective or explicator? How do you think writers end up choosing their values (like clarity or mystery)—is it their teachers? Their inherent sensibilities? Their reading lists?
Yes, I picked the word "mysterious” as an antidote to the model where clarity is opposed to the obscure, and clarity is good, obscurity bad. I might here mention Daniel Tiffany’s work on “lyric obscurity” as fundamental to poetry’s fascinating pull. I don’t like the model of the reader “accessing” some kind of interior of the poem, as if the writing was something to get through to that interior. I am accessed by the poem, not the other way around. I’m not in control.
I am interested in mysteries, but I also don’t believe that “clarity” or “accessibility” is possible. As I noted in my reply, something that being immersed in a foreign language taught me was the way language “vibrebrates"—it is never simple. This is true both in the sense that I experience it, but there’s also a politics to this. There isn’t one English. Not everybody can or wants to (or feels safe!) writing "accessible” poetry. Mostly it feels like a way to control poetry: don’t be too interesting, be restrained, be tasteful.
I like your murder analogy. It’s one I often think about: in murder mysteries, the crime scenes are often so mysterious (a flock of swans set on fire, a group of teenagers in clothing from the 18th century, etc., to draw on a few memorable Wallander crime scenes): they are a montage of disparate, strange clues. The role of the detective in these stories is to create a narrative which makes sense of this mysterious montage. Often an important part of this is getting to know the killer, creating an interiority of the killer (usually based on some childhood trauma). By creating an interiority for the killer, the detective lessens the killer’s power and is able to overtake him or her. But this also ends the mystery. This is why the first 50 pages are always the best pages of any murder mystery. The ending is always disappointing. I think the poem should be more like a detective who is able to dwell in the murderous atmosphere of the crime scene without there being a corpse. Or maybe like a detective in the underworld.
As for how we come to these aesthetic values—as I wrote in my response to Zapruder, I think a key component of my aesthetics has to do with being an immigrant, but that’s just one part of it. There are many more factors. Things we read, things we experience, things we listen to. The key is that what’s accessible to some is not to all; some things cannot be accessed. Right now I’m dealing with intensive grief for my daughter Arachne who died in the fall. I kind of resent all these grief poems I see circulating. Here “accessibility” means that the speaker of the poem overcomes the grief, conquers it. It’s a very US approach to grief. My grief is dense and it both surrounds me and moves through me and tears apart my life, my poems. I’m not going to defeat it, overcome it, and neither will my poem. I won’t have some epiphany and make everything good, in part because I don’t want to. My daughter lives in my grief. She’s my biggest influence.
It seems that since The Sugar Book you’ve been involved more frequently with essaying and translating. And you’re also a teacher. So my question is: are you currently working on any poetry? And do these three kinds of writing and teaching generate each other in your practice, or do they remain pretty separate?
I’m currently writing a poem that happens in the grief I was talking about. I want to make it pretty because Arachne deserves a pretty poem, but it’s a murderous prettiness.
I’m also working on a translation project with the Swedish writer Sara Tuss Efrik. She uses a method she calls “automanias"—it’s a kind of "writing through” other texts, but it’s far messier and more chaotic than we might associate with that term (as in John Cage, etc.). Now Sara has performed an automania on my whole first book, A New Quarantine Will Take My Place (which has been out of print for years), and I’m translating it “back” into English, but my translation process is a bit of an automania as well. We go back and forth; we have even become characters.
I love this project—it unsettles all kinds of ideas about originality, translation, gender, and power, without ever becoming a “thesis” project. It’s a kind of struggle, a kind of comorbid medium-izing.
I’m also teaching, which mostly I love. My students right now are daring, strong, and passionate, and that really helps me.
How did the guest-edited issue of Interim come about? Have you had the idea to collect others’ work for a while?
Derek Pollard, editor of Interim, suggested I edit the issue after he had seen me complain about the state of things on Facebook. I believe I had complained about the fact that AWP had rejected my proposal to bring several Scandinavian poets to read at the conference. So he wanted to bring them for an offsite reading and couple that with an edition of the journal. We were putting together the funding etc. for the reading but then my daughter died and I couldn’t quite deal with that. But I still wanted to keep going with the issue. So I did. Someone told me it was a “grief work” and I guess that is true.
I have thought about it for some time because I do get irritated when US critics, poets, and publishers keep bringing out Tomas Tranströmer as a way of avoiding having to deal with any contemporary Swedish poetry, which challenges a lot of ideals and norms of US poetry. I have nothing against Tranströmer, but to repeatedly bring out new versions of his poems, with hardly any change, and to praise each new edition as a revelation, strikes me as conservative and disingenuous. The truth is that poets like Bruno K Öijer and Ann Jäderlund are far more influential in contemporary Swedish poetry than Tranströmer, but these poets have seldom been translated into English.
Every collection has its logic, be it by the author’s name, the artistic movement, the generation, etc. What do you think is required of us as readers coming to these poets qua Swedish poets?
To return to the discussion about Socratic fears before, I hope readers bring a willingness to take the poems into your mouths, your bodies.
If you become interested in a poet, I hope you seek out more writing by that poet. I hope you might even translate more of their work. Write a review. Participate in the transgressive circulation of these works.
How have you read these artists together? When assembling the issue, did certain aspects of these poets become more salient as they resonated with each other? These categories are all slippery, but did you find that reading as a guest editor put you in a different position than reading as a translator or writer?
These are all poets I think are great writers. It doesn’t include every poet who’s been important to me. (For example, for some reason I couldn’t get myself into gear to translate Eva Kristina Olsson, I just couldn’t do it.). I wanted to include some different styles, ages, and demographics that would challenge general ideas about what constitutes “Swedish culture” or “Swedish poetry.” I also wanted to challenge my own ideas about Swedish poetry (for example, I had never read Iman Mohammed before this project). I didn’t want to replicate some kind of static model of Swedish poetry, even as it exists in my own brain.
Although every artist in this collection is linked to Sweden in some way, one lives in Finland (Eva-Stina Byggmästar), one was born in Baghdad (Iman Mohammed), a couple in Iran (Athena Farrokhzad, Azita Ghahreman), and one is a Syrian-born Palestinian (Ghayath Almadhoun— whose totally uncompromising poetics on the atrocities in Syria are some of my favorite moments here). And these translations are not just from Swedish but from Arabic and Finnish. What was the thinking behind including non-Swedish language poets? This seems especially relevant given the Nordic ideal the American President keeps referring to.
There are a lot of fantasies circulating about Scandinavia and its people: having to do with race, gender, bodies, sexuality. In his racist comments, Trump did mention Norway as a kind of ideal source of immigrants. This is disturbing and foolish in many ways, including the fact that such rhetoric turns Scandinavians into symbols (something I have dealt with my whole adult life; it’s seldom pleasant even when it’s meant in a “complimentary” way like this).
I was a little surprised about this, because over the past few years, it has been far more common among US right-wingers to posit Scandinavia as a deterring example of a feminist country. If you google “Sweden” or “Malmö,” you will soon come up on droves and droves of right-wing propaganda articles that follow the same basic narrative: feminism has made Swedish men weak, which has caused them to allow immigrants into their countries, immigrants who then rape their women. The US right-wing seems to be obsessed with Sweden for reasons related to symbolic narratives about gender and race, and to left-wing politics. At the heart of this rhetoric seems to be the demonization of empathy (portrayed as weak, emasculated) and the valorization of xenophobia (portrayed as masculine, strong).
This propaganda narrative did enter into my mind and it did inspire me to try to make a really great selection of Swedish poetry. I don’t want to instrumentalize the poems in the collection as a defense against US rightwing-ism, but it was part of my inspiration, my thinking.
As part of that inspiration, I was conscious of including immigrants. On one level, I think it’s only correct to include immigrants and refugees—they play an important part in Swedish culture right now. But I did also think about undermining the reductive, widely held US view that not only turns Sweden into a symbol, but flattens out its culture.
Even before the more recent immigration waves, Sweden has dealt with cultural differences. Finnish immigrants and Finland-Swedes have always held a dubious position in Swedish culture. Finland- Swedes don’t write in Finnish—they are part of an ethnic group whose language is Swedish, though they live in Finland. They do have an amazing tradition of modern poetry, including some of the greatest Swedish-language (or any language) modernists: Edith Södergran, Gunnar Björling, Henry Parland, Elmer Diktonius. I wanted to include more Finland-Swedes than I did—for example, Matilda Södergran, whose work is super—but I ran out of space and time, so I ended up only including Byggmästar, who’s someone I have loved for many years.
There are a lot of different immigrant experiences involved in the issue. Farrokhzad was born in Sweden (to Iranian parents) and has a very prominent role in Swedish culture, but Ghahreman is an Iranian poet who came to Sweden in her forties (I met her when I gave a reading with her in Malmö a few years ago). Johannes Anyuru’s dad is from Uganda, but he was born in Sweden. Iman Mohammed was born in Baghdad. Ghayath Almadhoun is the most recent arrival, coming as a refugee from the war in Syria in 2009. I thought it was important to give a more complex representation of Swedishness than is common in the US, but again, I have to admit, ultimately I included them because I like the poetry.
All of these poets are relatively recent, but the last few are especially young. Reading them, I felt a subtle change in tenor and a spin to sense of humor. I’m thinking of great moments in Anna Axfors, like:
I don’t like skincare“constantly moisturize the skin" I don’t like that adviceOh GodI can’t do itI lie on the ground and close my eyes, slowly dyingeven though I’m pressing my ear to the ground—I hear nothing, it seems like earthdoesn’t have a heartha ha, I’ve always known that
How do you see the youngest poets in this group relating to the older? Are people like Jäderlund still vital precursors? Does this collection draw any lineages?
Jäderlund and Öijer are still hugely influential. You can see Jäderlund’s wide influence even within this issue—Boberg, Mohammed, Berg, Warg, and Farrokhzad are all on varying levels influenced by her, though they are very different poets. So maybe this collection is a very Jäderlund-ish vision of Swedish poetry. Öijer is phenomenally popular (sells out theaters for his reading tours), though his influence might not be as apparent in this issue.
As you mention, Axfors and Burrau are part of a different lineage, a very Internet-generated aesthetic, somewhat like “alt-lit” in the US (in fact, they have given readings with Tao Lin and Mira Gonzalez, etc.). That’s definitely correct.
You wrote on Twitter that in translating Aase Berg’s work in LOSS for the collection (something you’ve been doing for 20 years), “we finally went over the edge.” What did you mean by that? What’s involved in translating such radically small units (usually a couple words surrounded by an ocean of white space)? How did you modify your translating practice for these pieces?
Aase’s language is very inter-lingual. This inter-lingualism helps create a sense that the language makes sense in a different way. I would say on a sonic level, but that makes it sound like sound poetry, and too simple. If language is traditionally seen as a vessel for meaning, this poetry breaks the vessel open but does not disregard it. It’s just that it’s hard to tell what is sound and what is sense. I got the word “vibrebrate” from translating Aase, and it’s also the best description for how her language moves (it “vibrebrates”!).
This vibrebration is what makes the translation so hard and also so much fun. I have to invent/deform the English language the same way she does with the Swedish language. Translation becomes more like doing something to the language—an act that troubles or even destroys the illusory idea of stable languages—rather than bringing across “meanings.” A killer whale becomes a “blubber biter.”
LOSS is arguably Aase’s most “American” book. The title itself is a bilingual pun (it can mean both the English word and the Swedish word for “release;” it’s what you yell at a dog to let go of something). She wrote it after my first translations started appearing and after she’d given readings here. The book includes a lot of references to the US, such as when a woman in Alabama drowned her kids. And one poem (“Limbido”) was written for a US soldier who had served in Iraq and there somehow become obsessed with her poetry. You can read that here.
The poems contain a lot of straight-up English language. Translating Swedish poems that are “in English” is a strange task. It’s both a liberating and a horrifying moment for the translator. A kind of Duchamp moment: it’s already a fountain, it’s already a translation.
I also felt like the English texts détourned the Swedish texts—really asked us to read the Swedish at least in part, as if we were “English speakers"—and, maybe, English speakers who couldn’t speak Swedish. It really foregrounded her use of the sonic qualities of Swedish. Therefore, I not only included English "in English” but I also included Swedish “in Swedish” (like “dön” which is an archaic word used for its sound but also suggests “death”). Suddenly I was translating English into English and Swedish into Swedish in the very same poem.
In the underworld of translation, we may channel different tongues and that’s poetry.