Harriet, the popular poetry website managed by the mighty Poetry Foundation, recently featured a "Craft Work" posting by Brandon Brown. Brandon fashions his essay in reply to some comments I had posted to a previous Harriet feature, way back in February, 2010 (which was a dialogue on the art of translation between Brown and David Larsen). So I'd like to respond briefly to this recent article.
(As an aside, it seems slightly ironic to me that the editors of Harriet, after closing down their "comments" function and no longer allowing online discussion, would feature an article whose entire argument is a response to some comments posted there over two years ago.)
First, I apologize to Brandon Brown for giving him the impression that I was tarring him personally as "effete, decadent." For despite his claims to the contrary, his essay is in fact a light-hearted parody of his own "decadent" lifestyle. He seems to have taken my comments to heart indeed. My criticisms of Brown & Larsen's positions were most definitely not meant to be "about" Brown & Larsen : they reflect differing views on the craft of translation, & nothing more. Again, I'm sorry if my oftimes grouchy-old-guy manner hurt anyone's feelings.
As for the substance of these debates, though, my own view remains the same. Brown & Larsen's take on translation seems to participate in trendy recent currents in the American poetry scene. They involve different kinds of procedural interventions, meant to detach art from perceived outdated modes of originality, uniqueness, personality, and willed craft. "Conceptual poetry", "uncreative writing", chance operations based on appropriation of prior texts, parodies and pop-cult travesties of "traditional" works - this is the mode in which Brown & Larsen participate. They represent a generation following in the footsteps of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein & the "Language" school, who sought to replace the conventional "creative writing" styles of the 1970s with methods modeled on postmodern theory (abstraction, displacement, non-referentiality, simulacra, etc. etc.).
Both generations piggyback on the 20th-century zeitgeist of Western science, in which "objective" technical knowledge is rooted in abstraction, de-personalization, and a detachment of language from direct representation of things. Western science deals in aggregates, probabilities and statistics, rather than distinct entities or individualities. (This reigning zeitgeist, however, is not actually congruent with the most advanced thinking in 20th century physics and mathematics. See a little-known work by Marie von Franz, Number and Time, for a terrific comparative exploration of Western & Chinese science/philosophy.)
Works of poetry and art, like ancient China's oracles and modes of divination, are rooted in distinction : an irreducible uniqueness and singularity. Art is an expression of wholeness, or a vision of the whole, by way of the particular : the unique moment : the incomparable person, place or thing. Art is a conjunction of opposites : the one with the many, the specific with the general. These may sound like commonplaces, conventional cliches : but the attitude one takes toward the unique and incomparable has implications for the art of translation.
There is no doubt that chance and creative spontaneity play a huge role in both art and science. But translation and the making of original poetry are two different activities. Original poetry subsists in a particular milieu : a distinct language, culture, landscape and historical time. Poetry emerges and speaks from that distinct milieu. It is from that irreducible field that poetry addresses our own particular place and time.
The only real conversation involves a recognition of the other : an acknowledgement of a personhood distinct and different from our own. The only real learning that takes place involves an encounter with something different, something unknown.
The principles I'm trying to sketch out here seem to be rejected by the trends in poetry and translation represented by Brown & Larsen. When Brown (half in jest, I suppose) proclaims an art of translation based in a "revolt" against the quasi-political or ideological "sovereignty" of the original work, I read this as an admission of cultural solipsism. We are not going to encounter the original, by way of an effort to understand a foreign language or a different culture. We are going to forgo any attempt (however limited & imperfect) to transmit the values of a foreign literary text into our own language. Instead we are simply going to appropriate chunks of already pre-translated versions, or untranslated originals, and absorb them into our own creative projects - leaving the original and its distinct milieu lying in the dust. We are not really interested in the other writing, the other culture, or interested in trying to share it by way of an equivalence : we don't actually believe in the substance of translation, which is that literary values can be shared (in a limited, imperfect way) across different languages.
Paradoxically, the capacity to transmit and exchange poetry and literature depends on an a recognition of the irreducible singularity and otherness of the works we are trying to share. It seems ironic to me that American poets would, even in jest, dispute the ideological "sovereignty" of a work in another language, from another land. Here we are, in the great & powerful United States, pathetically unwilling and unable to master diverse foreign languages, incurious about history, geography, and just about anything outside our own sophomoric pop-cult narcissism. How sad.