Faithful, Lossy, Radical: Talking Translation With 최 Lindsay & Erik Isberg
Sarah Clark: You recently released a joint bilingual issue of the Berkeley Poetry Review and Ordkonst together, that you describe as “poems, translations, and experiments in collaboration.” I’d love to know more about your thoughts on the collaborative nature of translation, and what some of your goals were.
최 Lindsay: We began our editors’ note by writing about “compromise” as a guiding concept in our project — so compromise seems a good place to begin our conversation.
Our journal begins with an excerpt from Anna Moschovakis’s poem, “Flat White (20/20): A compromised translation with, and for, Samira Negrouche”:
I have read that language / leaves \ that it leaves a trace //
OK \ ‘I draw a /\ line’ Samira the security system of this
translation has been compromised.”
In this passage, “compromise” could mean both:
“A coming to terms, or arrangement of a dispute, by concessions on both sides; partial surrender of one’s position, for the sake of coming to terms”
“A putting in peril or hazard, endangering, exposure to risk or suspicion.”
(These are the definitions I found in the Oxford English Dictionary).
Looking towards the etymology of the word, we find, also: comprōmittĕre (Latin) — to promise together; a mutual promise.
And the journal “begins” with this poem in another sense, as well — our call for submissions included a specific call for “compromised translations,” citing Moschovakis’s work as an example, as well as Athena Farrokhzad and Svetlana Cârstean’s collaborative work in Trado. And this strikes me as important, as the concept of “compromise” in context of translation marks a departure from “faithfulness.” In Asclepias: The Milkweeds, Nathanaël writes of translation as a matter of non-reciprocity, obliquity — “It is this misunderstanding, this inability to reciprocate, which enflames desire’s hold.”
Nathanaël also writes that translation “can only present itself in catastrophic echo to what might otherwise be. Which is to say that translation is nothing other than the matter of death itself.” And, earlier in the text: “To say what a world is would require recourse to vocabularies that escape me; perhaps it is enough to say that it is nothing more or less than what disappears from it.”
When we talk about compromise, I want to also talk about desire, and disappearance, non-emergence, latency — I’m hoping that talking about this with you might help me understand the relationship I sense between these terms. Here’s an initial suggestion: compromise’s two definitions, together, imply something corrosive that’s also constitutive; a mode of being that’s both felicitously and corrosively with another.
I’m still working through a lot of thoughts, and I don’t feel at all like I’ve landed on a finality or a stable claim, in thinking of translation. But I’m more interested in the process than a sense of stability. The big hope for this conversation, on my part, isn’t to land on a decisive position, so much as it’s to isolate some themes, and to see what comes of talking about them together. I’m in this to learn — so I’m really looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Erik.
Erik Isberg: I’m so glad you bring up “compromise” as the starting point of this conversation, since it has been a concept that has followed us through the work with the journal.
Lindsay: After releasing the issue, I looked back at our call for submissions, and it feels as though “compromise” didn’t just follow us through the work of putting together the journal — it was the generative desire behind the journal:
“For this inaugural collaborative issue between BPR and Ordkonst, we’re looking for:
— Translations — we’re equally interested in complete works and fragments, or works-in-progress.
— Bilingual/multilingual poems or statements of poetics
— Project proposals. The goal of this issue is to encourage collaborations between poets and translators in either language, and as such, we’d love above all to receive submissions that highlight the process of translation, collaboration, or correspondence. We’re also interested in letters, notebook pages, and other documentations of process.”
Erik: I find it interesting how there were additional themes — the interest in fragments and works-in-progress — that never made it into the issue.
Lindsay: At least not in a readily apparent way — what comes to mind for me is the process of working with Sheri Hellberg’s translations of Olga Ravn. I remember that we received an initial draft, and some months later, a revision that we ended up publishing. Sheri wrote to us that, considering the collaborative theme of the issue, she reached out to Olga, and the two of them made revisions to the translation together. So you and I got to see the work in progress — and it’s fun to think that even some of the pieces in our journal that look like “straight” translations are collaborative.
Sarah: That’s especially interesting, given it’s traditionally something of a taboo for writers to be involved with their own translations. I’m curious, if you have thoughts about developments in the future of translation?
Lindsay: That’s really interesting! I wasn’t actually aware of this taboo — the process I just spoke about felt so natural, I think Erik and I were both glad to hear that Olga and Sheri were collaborating. So much didn’t make it into the issue, and the process has hidden parts and desires that gradually moved out of view. It feels really fitting, for a call for submissions that asks for lossy or compromised objects. Erik, why did we want these things?
It seems like the dual-sidedness of compromise as a concept informing thought on translation is exciting because it suggests a possibility of complicating the negativity of loss, or appraising its expansiveness.
Erik: This made me think of your definition of compromise, how it simultaneously “impl[ies] something corrosive that’s also constitutive; being that’s both felicitously and corrosively with another.” To me, this might be a good way to address the question of why we were asking for compromised and lossy objects, rather than translations in a traditional sense.
I think of how useful the notion of corrosiveness seems in this context, as a force that threatens the integrity of a physical body, slowly causing its dissolvement. Working with compromised translations as a practice of not seeing translation as the process of the movement between two separate entities — the original and the translation — with the goal to keep the original as intact as possible, but instead, to search for the poetics of what’s lost on the way, of the possibility that lies in the compromise of the original.
The desire to step away from the “faithful” translation is to step away from the idea of translation as the transition from one unit to another, and acknowledging, in the words of Swedish philosopher Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback, the multiplicity of voices, relationships and motions of every translation. I think of this multiplicity in relation to what the two definitions of compromise might mean together: the dissolvement of one possible translation into a multitude, the possibility that lies in the corrosive approach.
(Adding on to that note — another trope that keeps returning when translation is discussed is the “can you really translate poetry?” which seems to imply that the loss is indeed irredeemable, that the compromise — in the second meaning of the word — is impossible to cover up for. This seems to be a consequence of considering the poem as pure, as a self-sufficient text existing outside the material world that surrounds it, rather than as relational, in transit, as closed rather than open.)
Lindsay: Yes! There’s something really satisfying about the turn of phrase you use — the “poetics of what’s lost on the way.” I want to pick up on this again later — but first, I’m excited by what you said, on the idea of a direct relationship between multiplicity and corrosion in translation. It seems so clear now. Doesn’t this describe Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s collaboration — their Third Millenium mistranslations — in our journal? It makes me happy that talking to you about this has made it easier for me to see what’s already been in front of us. Ursula and Katrine’s mistranslations, as they shuttle the same poem from Third Millenium Heart between the two of them through increasingly “unfaithful” processes of translation — their process generates excess, multiplicity — it has a kind of choral effect — even as the translation corrodes, so to speak, in its faithfulness to the original.
I wrote to Katrine earlier, and again in our editors’ note, that their project was exciting to us as a mode of translation that highlights its own relational qualities and internal processes of revision — that it draws out the common root (vertere, “to turn”) between “version” and “verse.” So I’m pleased by the way this introduces a kind of motion, or choreography — like you say, a transit! — to the poetics of “what’s lost on the way.” And by the way that this begins to suggest a kind of physicality — the embodied presence of the translator.
Erik: I’m glad you bring up Ursula Andkjær Olsen and Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s collaboration, since it really, when you connected it with the notion of corroding the original poem, captures what I think compromise can mean in the context of literary translation. Particularly, the way they introduce the multiplicity by creating boundaries for their “mistranslations,” formalizing them after sets of rules — one rule being, for example, “rhyme all words with the words in the previous poem” — this seems to highlight the element of contingency of their final versions. Their mistranslations are not the only possible outcome, but one of many. I love how you used the word “choral” to describe it and it made me think of how the openness of their process not only creates a multitude of voices within their work, but also how there are additional voices that hides in the background as possibilities, as not realized but still present.
I think you helped me connect the dots with the insertion of the common roots of the words “verse” and “version” (vertere, “to turn”) as it, as you point out, implies a motion, and, I think, suggests how translation, rather than being the transformation of one stable entity that becomes another stable entity, can also function to highlight how languages are always mobile, a motion among motions.
Sarah: It does seem like the political is missing from a lot of conversations about translation. I love the ideas of “openness” and “additional voices” as destabilizing compulsory Anglocentrism in translation, as well as the idea of languages being “mobile” in an era of increasingly stigmatized migration. I’m wondering whether there’s a link between “faithful” translations, the recognition of the human beings behind their texts, and where you see the field, politically.
Erik: The notion of an embodied presence of the translator makes me think about what Johannes Göransson and Sara Tuss Efrik write in their collaborative entry for Ordkonst x BPR: “The translator is not invisible / the translator has a body in the underworld.” The compromise being the embodied presence of the translator, lurking around in the text, contaminating the perceived purity of the translation. Abandoning the notion of faithfulness is also to renegotiate the place of the translator in the translation process, as it means leaving the inverse relationship between the translator’s presence and the idea that everything is kept intact.
Lindsay: I love this line! “The translator has a body in the underworld.” It brings together excess (does the line imply to you as well that the translator has multiple bodies?) and death. Or, to ease back to a less bold claim (is it bold to associate the underworld with death?) — excess and the non-emergent, the subterranean. I think of Persephone — who, according to Ovid, spends half the year in the underworld, and whose passage between that world and ours causes the seasons. You probably know this better than I do — and can correct me if this is misguided — but globalization, time-rendering technologies, and the conditions of the Anthropocene — all of these factors seem to come together to confound the seasonality that underpins this myth. Where is Persephone’s body now? I think I’m thinking of translation and asynchrony — and (maybe tangentially?) thinking of the politics of the Anthropocene in translation. If these things can be brought together sensibly.
It seems like when we talk about the politics of translation, ecology rarely enters the picture. But it feels important for me — for reasons I hope you can help me clarify. My first thought is that discussing the politics of the Anthropocene necessarily involve discussing capital, national and colonial histories, and being attentive to strange material-semiotic nodes — which I’m filtering into the way in which we’ve been attempting to volumize loss, in this conversation. I wonder if it’s possible to transpose the logics of ecology to a discussion of translation; ecology’s relationality and circulation. Ecological relation, also, voids centrality and stable entity — so, in a way, the politics of ecocriticism seems like a setting where a discourse on translation can take place.
As you’re writing this in English, Erik, do you have a body in the underworld?
I’m thinking of transits, again, and reminded of ephemerides — an ephemeris records the motion of an astronomical body by points of incidence — specific locations at points in time. So what isn’t recorded is what’s live — the omission is a swath of motion. Ephemeris comes from the Greek ephēmeros — daily, or lasting only a day — it also means “diary.” In this way, the ephemeris strikes me as a literary form where it’s clear how the inclusion of loss is a kind of maximalism — the “poetics of what’s lost on the way.”
I wonder if you saw — a portion of Johannes and Sara’s collaboration is published in a new issue of seedings, as well. This one has a line I also love: “The singular is what’s lost in translation.”
Erik: I really love the connection between Persephone and the line about the translator having a body in the underworld. Especially considering, as you mention, the increasingly ambiguous position of this body in the underworld, of Persephone, of what is above ground and what is below it. Does it seem too farfetched to talk about the underworld as an actual physical place, as part of the strata, a geological phenomenon in a time in which the underworld is seeping into our existence and we into the underworld? I think of a line further down in the same poem by Göransson and Tuss Efrik: “This is the quarantine that fails / Language leaks in and out.” In relation to what you said about material-semiotic nodes, and the attempt to volumize loss, the materiality of language in Göransson and Tuss Efrik’s poem seems, to me, to point in the direction of collapsing the difference between the material and the discursive. Bringing the politics of ecocriticism into the politics of translation is very intriguing to me as it opens up for a decentralization of the place of translation and suggests a possibility to rethink the liminal space between texts and between languages.
Haha, I can’t help feeling dramatic stating that, yes, I’m pretty certain I have a body in the underworld. A weird Swedish presence, even as I am writing in English. You mentioned to me that you have been home visiting your parents and therefore mostly been speaking Korean. Do you feel like you have a body in the underworld, too?
To be honest, I had never heard about an ephemeris before, but thinking about how it maps the presence of an absence, as you put it, the “inclusion of loss as a kind of maximalism” seems to tie into Øgaard Jensen and Andkjær Olsen’s practice of mistranslation. In their work in the issue, the dissolvement of the original poem leads to a kind of maximalism as the new renditions both break down the original and expands into new meanings.
Lindsay: Oh wow — when is my body not in the underworld? Hahaha. It’s a continuous descent. I have been at home, and living in a kind of flux of languages; it’s kind of a comfort to think that Hermes, the Greek god of communication, is also the god responsible for ushering the souls of the dead to the underworld.
On that note — have you read Donna Haraway’s essay in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet? There’s a section where she describes Crochet Coral Reef, a collaborative art project involving about 8,000 participants across 27 countries. She associates their coordination across vast temporal and spatial difference, as well as the project’s attempt to forge a kind of intimate connection with endangered coral reefs through mimetic art practices, with the phrase “intimacy without proximity.”
This is a phrase I get a lot of pleasure from, as it seems to generate some confusion — it was coined in an article by Jacob Metcalf, about grizzly bears as a companion species. But I’ve found that more often than not, when people first hear it, they think of long-distance relationships. I think Metcalf is describing a kind of ecological relationship between two parties that collaborate, or depend upon one another, despite the fact that these parties may be better off if they never actually encounter — it’s their separate, but ecologically-intertwined rhythms of life and modes of existence that forge this sense of intimacy.
And this phrase, with its flexibility, is what comes to mind when I think about your impression of translation as a liminality between texts; it helps me, at least, model what we’ve been discussing: relationships of non-encounter, or near-misses, that manage anyway to be choral.
And I started thinking about The Princess of Cleves — of relationships of non-encounter, the erotics of non-incidence — deferral, mediation, indirection. I think I’m trying to collapse two things. The erotic and the ecological interpretations of “intimacy without proximity” — desire and non-incidence as the kind of necessary distance that actually allows for collaboration (this also collapses several senses of “compromise” into one).
Erik: I have read that essay — and I love the fact that you bring it up in this context! I read it a year ago in a completely different setting, but thinking about the implications of the Crochet Coral Reef in relation to what we’ve been discussing here seems, to me, somehow almost obvious. Particularly, I think about the notion of an “intimacy without proximity,” and how it suggests a new set of embodied relationships in the Anthropocene. Perhaps could it be thought of as an invoking of topology, of how relational rather than strictly topographical distances becomes more prominent with the dissolvement of the sense of being in a physical place as well as the physical place’s interconnectedness with its surroundings. I think of Kathryn Yusoff’s concept “geosociality” and how the geological and the social are enmeshed in new configurations as the distance between them are breaking down. In relation to the matter of distance, of liminality, the example of the grizzly bears to me emphasizes how the notion of long-distance can be reconceptualized in the context of the emergence of a sociality of the strata.
Going back to the definition of compromise and, as you point out, how the ecocritical approach opens for a collapse of its possible meanings into one. As the issue has, since the beginning, been preoccupied with questions of compromise, and how it can be both generative and corrosive, I think the collapse of this duality can be a good way to describe what we have tried to do with this issue — and how that, hopefully, can be part of a discussion on the politics and aesthetics of translation.
Sarah: These are exciting ideas about the evolution of translation. Whereas, translation has been thought of as serving to “bring” non-English work into English, and to export English-language publications — do you have any more thoughts about translation as an avenue for reclamation or resistance, rather than imperial entitlement, and whether there are nuances to Erik’s and your personal nuances and philosophies surrounding translation that might play into this.
Erik: Another trope that keeps returning when translation is discussed is “can you really translate poetry?” Which seems to imply that loss is indeed irredeemable, that the compromise — in the second meaning of the word — is impossible to cover up for. This seems to be a consequence of considering the poem as pure, as a self-sufficient text existing outside the material world that surrounds it, rather than as relational, in transit, as closed rather than open.
Lindsay: I agree with Sarah’s sense of political urgency in disrupting the centrality of Anglophonic literature. I think that for me, the stakes of thinking of translation through these strange modes of relation, which we’ve been discussing, and through multiplicity, corrosion, obliquity, and ecology, are precisely that these conceptualizations seem to leave little room for the notion of “centrality” in discourses of translation. I suspect it’s the notion of centrality that generates translation’s associations with “unfaithfulness,” as well as the carnivorous, colonial, Anglo-centric attitude which Sarah mentions.
Jørn H.Sværen writes in his book, Queen of England, “[…t]ranslation is politics, what gets translated and how.” We talked about how the real generative desire in the whole process of building this issue was the call for submissions for “compromised” or lossy work — I think, on my part, it was precisely for the politics of this aesthetic. And from there, the potential of thinking about lossiness as a vital and politically potent quality of translation.
Sarah: Complicating this notion of “lossy” translation — I’ve always loved how you refuse to translate your family name, Lindsay, especially as it’s a name that American tongues never get quite right. In your work, as well, I like that there’s an element of responsibility — a slight correcting of power imbalance — where a reader who doesn’t read Korean has to either sit with the discomfort of some words not being for them, or else to look it up, disrupting Anglocentrism (and I’m always interested in disrupting Anglocentrism). Meanwhile, in Erik’s case, Swedish is a language that’s less frequently prioritized by American translators, and sometimes erased, altogether (besides Strindberg). I feel there’s an increased agency and autonomy among younger writers, translators, and editors, and I’d be interested if any of this intersected with your practices as translators.
Lindsay: I think Sarah is right to point towards my name when they mention the influence of personal methods of translation, or experiences of it, on my politics and desires regarding translation. I have some complicated feelings about the journal we edited together. Swedish and English, as far as I know, don’t have a colonial relationship, insofar as Sweden has never been colonized by America. The colonial relationship between English and Korean motivates my choice not to Romanize my name — I dislike the assimilatory gesture and its colonial valances, and want to resist it. But I am still coming to this project as an American citizen, and as someone born and raised in America.
Johannes says in a recent interview that readers from the U.S. have been brought up in a hegemonic position of power — I’m still thinking about this (I agree with him, mostly), and how it relates to my experience of being an American citizen from a background fraught by American imperialism. My urge is to say that readers from the U.S. are often brought up in a setting where America’s position of hegemonic power in international contexts is naturalized — which is slightly different, and I’m open to being corrected.
But I agree that — and this is probably understating it — American exceptionalism and Americentricism doesn’t stop short at poetry. I think that through the process of making this journal, I spent a lot of time thinking about the positionality of being an American citizen, an American poet, studying English literature at an American university, as a child of immigrants — and the positionality of being American by way of diaspora, as a consequence of American imperialism and U.S. military presence in Korea. My relationship to English, as well as translation, is complicated. What are the qualities of loss in translation (in the glitchy sense of it — as in a lossy compression)?
It feels important to me, as an editor, to publish translation and multilingual poetry in America. As a counterpoint to the centrality of English as the language of literature, as it’s taught in America, and as a counterpoint to any urge to think of America as the site where literature happens. I’m hoping in the future to work with translation between Korean and other languages, as well.
Thinking of translation as an avenue for reclamation or resistance — I like not translating the Korean in my name and my poetry, for exactly the qualities Sarah notices: “a reader who doesn’t read Korean has to either sit with the discomfort of some words not being for them, or else to look it up.” This gap, the nature of it, is what I think I’ve been spending much of our conversation here talking about: the nuances of lossiness, or compromise, in translation — I hope it’s beginning to cohere, or at least constellate.
What are your thoughts, Erik? I’m curious about your end.
Erik: I agree that much of the political qualities in the issue lies in its — and our — interest in thinking about how to transcend the tropes about “lost in translation” and the notion of translation as practice that aims to not be visible.
In relation to Sværen’s definition of the politics of translation, I think we have paid a great deal of attention, in this conversation, to the politics of “how” something gets translated. But as you point out, there is also the “what”: relationships of power, colonial history, and economic conditions that sets the framework for what can get translated and what can not. Swedish and English doesn’t, as you point out, have a colonial relationship, and they are two, globally speaking, privileged languages.
However, the role of English in Swedish literature, and culture more generally, has still been a subject of debate in Sweden and coming into this project I was definitely mindful of these discussions going on. I would agree with Johannes Göransson that there is an American cultural hegemony in Swedish poetry — some estimations show that two-thirds of all translated poetry comes from English — and this is often at the expense of smaller, marginalized languages.
Working on this issue, from a Swedish context, it felt important to be attentive to this broader cultural landscape, and I think both the general theme of “compromise,” and the attention given to the Bay Area poetry scene (I think particularly of Amy Berkowitz, who is introduced in Swedish for the first time in our issue), and how these have been ways to offer alternate ways of how translation can be produced and understood in a Swedish-American setting. To me, the American dominance in what gets translated into Swedish is intimately connected with the power of large publishing houses and their commercial interest in popular American contemporary literature. I hope that the issue we made together can, both by invoking compromised translation as a starting point, as well as highlighting voices that wouldn’t reach Sweden otherwise, avoid the most common traps of introducing American authors in Swedish.
Lastly, I feel like I should also add that two of the poets in the issue, Olga Ravn and Ursula Andkjær Olsen, are Danish, and not Swedish. Thereby, the issue consists of three languages rather than two, which perhaps could be seen as part of the politics of the issue in turning away from dichotomies, invoking plurality rather than unity.
Lindsay: Yes! We do have Danish in the issue, as well. And I think you’ve just said the most interesting things in this conversation — to me, at least. I want to ask you to speak a little more about the relationship between contemporary Danish and Swedish poetry, but it looks like we’re running out of time. This feels a little awful and ironic, since we were just talking about wanting a conversation about poetry that doesn’t center America! I’m counting on our conversation continuing.
Erik: That is something I’m counting on, too! I’m glad we got this opportunity to talk about the issue and the work we’ve been doing. I think you helped me better understand what we’ve been trying to do all along.
Based in Berkeley, CA, 최 Lindsay (b. 1996) is the author of TRANSVERSE (Futurepoem, 2020) and a chapbook, MATRICES (speCt! Books, 2017). More of their work can be found in Omniverse, Apogee, The Felt, and elsewhere, including the Berkeley Art Museum’s recent exhibit, Way Bay. They are a Kundiman fellow and an incoming Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley. They are currently working on a manuscript of research and variations on translation, based on modernist Korean poetry. Visit them at lindsaychoi.com.
Erik Isberg (b. 1994) lives in Malmö, Sweden, where he works as an editor of Ordkonst. He holds an MA in the History of Ideas and Sciences from Lund University and is a former visiting student at CSTMS at UC Berkeley.