Tuesday, September 25, 2007

You are a pipe


One’s understanding of one’s own language is limited, one’s understanding of other languages is even more limited, and a perfect transferal of a text from one language to another is impossible simply because the languages are two different ones. “Boat” is not the same as “bátur,” which is not the same as “Boot” or “båt”, let alone “bateau”. So much is obvious.

To translate poetry is to write poetry by procedure, inasmuch as such an act is possible. One is made to choose which characteristics get to remain the same, inasmuch as they can remain the same – form, appearance, alliteration and other similar phonetic characteristics, rhyme, ideas and association of ideas, wordplay, continuity, story, allusions, semantics, semiotics, etc. – and then one is made to choose what gets to enter the work that wasn’t there previously. It is inevitable that many things will, since any kind of transferal of text adds layers to what was written, while peeling others off. If we take for example Borges’ famous story about Pierre Menard, who takes it upon himself to rewrite Don Quixote word for word in the 20th century, then that book, as Borges ironically points out, is another phenomenon than the one Cervantes wrote in the 17th century: Menard writes in a style which is unnatural to him, whereas Cervantes merely wrote in the colloquial of his time. The two works are different because they are written by different men in different times, even though the letters, words, sentences and paragraphs are the same and in the same order. The American poet Kenneth Goldsmith performs similar acts; he writes down previously existing language – including an entire issue of The New York Times (Day), everything he said for a week (Soliloquy), the weather report (The Weather). This has been called a N+0 translation, named after the Oulipo method N+7, where the words in a text (e.g. all nouns) are replaced with the seventh following noun in a certain dictionary. Translation as fair copy, the recreation of the same is an impossible feat, the translation is always new.

A large portion of foreign experimental poetry today (avant-garde, post-avant, radical, language, digital, flarf, post-langpo, post-prairie, etc.) deals with a presentation, interpretation and a representation which to some extent strives for some sort of transformation, or even destruction, of language itself. Language is treated as any other raw material – its meaning is split and stretched, and its physical attributes (sound and picture) are split and stretched.

A text is a collection of meanings, phonemes and morphemes used to express something about “reality” through “reality”. Metaphorical “reality” is used to convey something which the reader can relate to in his own “reality”. Language is an independent reality within reality. The task of poetry is then to punch holes in the language of either, or both, of these realities – to seek a way out of the predominant social pact of text as reality and life as reality. Through the holes it might be possible to see something new, and language will heal in a different shape.

Many of the poems in this book are translated from English, a language which is diffferent from Icelandic mostly for not being a single language, but many. The poems in English are written by people of many nationalities who have English as a native language while others are written by people who have other native languages (Caroline Bergvall is French/Norwegian, Gherardo Bortolotti is Italian for example) As the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto has pointed out, this language – english-as-a-second-language – is the real lingua franca of the world, being spoken by considerable more people than english-as-a-first-language.

There is no way of translating Australian English into Australian Icelandic, or American English into American Icelandic. You can’t even localise by using homegrown dialects, since the little that remains of such things in this nation of the linguistic holocaust, quite simply won’t suffice (not that it would produce a more accurate “translation”). In this aspect Icelandic and English belong to different worlds.

Experimental poetry as represented in this book has been produced in the English speaking world for several decades by dozens of thousands of individuals, each of whom has done their bit to widen (or tighten, blast, transform, deform) the idea of English as a language – while Icelandic has enjoyed a rather limited amount of similar experiments in its literary history, and has, it seems, had to deal with a serious nutritional deficiency in the last years, there not being very much that escapes from under the petticoats of Icelandic proof-readers. Maybe the poets like it there.


Just as you can not translate anything between two languages, nothing is untranslatable once you realize that nothing is translatable. A translation of literary work is never the same work, but a new work related to the former – the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1763-1834) said that an artist could view a translation of his works by imagining what his child would look like, had his wife had it with another man (the gender roles of this example are from Schleiermacher – they can be reversed without getting sand in one’s vagina).

Since nothing (and yet everything) can be translated between two languages, it must be just as (im)possible to translate between more than two languages. That is to say to translate someone else’s translation of a poem from a third party. This used to be common practice in Iceland, but this transit has since been deemed shoddy according to the classical theory of translation, or so I’ve been told. But seeing as the final outcome – the translation – is only a relative of the original work, it should not really matter whether it’s a first or second cousin. It is only fair that the relations are mentioned – who begat whom with whom where and whatfor.

Most of the poems in this book are translated from the original language, although a few have been borrowed from other translators. Details can be found in the commentary section at the end of the book.


Even the greatest prudes in Finland would regularly say “voi vittu” without flinching, and this goes for everyone from winterwargrandmothers to pillowfightinghomosexuals to lollipopgirls. The words can be literally translated in at least two fashions – either as “oh, cunt!” or “butter cunt”. Most probably most Finns believe themselves to be saying “oh, cunt!”. But the weight and meaning of these words are not necessarily “the same” from one language to another – he or she who shouts “smörfitta” at the dinner table in Sweden, is not performing the same act as one saying “voi vittu” on the other side of the Baltic, and it is to be expected that Swedish housewives would shake their fists vigorously at such language.

In traditional translation the phrase would be “damn it”, or similar. But the words are of course not “damn it”, they are “butter cunt”. Or, I mean, in a matter of saying.

The Swedish profanity linguist Magnus Ljung divides profanities into several different categories, including theological (“damn”), expletives (“oh!”), fecal (“shit”), sex-related (“cunt”), and many others. The different categories are used differently in different languages. The most powerful of profanities seek to break taboos, go further than others have gone before, even though most of those used on an everyday basis stay far within those limits. But when we wish to go further, we employ the unusual, or original, and seek new ways to express our dissatisfaction. So it happens that something which is completely mundane in one language, like “voi vitto” in Finnish, becomes excruciatingly vulgar in another.

There is somewhat of a tradition for normalisation in the translation of literary work. An idiom in the language being translated is changed into another idiom in the target language, the names of places and characters are even changed, word-plays are twisted to be understood etc. Anything exotic is normalised.

Naturally people disagree on whether it is more important, in the consumption of art, to understand or to sense, but most (perhaps too many) seem to avoid that which they don’t understand, or even reject it completely.

Were I to paint a picture of Kallio (my neighborhood in Helsinki) for the Icelandic market in the same method as many translations are done, I would normalise it – I would change the supermarket chain Alepa into the supermarket chain Bónus, a tram would become a bus, brothels would be solariums, and the flowers grass. Because for an Icelandic person bus means the same as a tram does for a Finnish one (except the trams are on time and used by many – but then translations are merely approximations).

When you come to a new place one of the most enjoyable things to see are those that are different from those places one is used to. Here in Kallio I become amazed seeing three brothels side-by-side, with a sex-shop on one side and a strip-joint on the other. I look into the bottomless misery of the winos in my neighborhood like a well that no one knows where ends, or whether it does at all, and I learn something new about man, where he can get (out of sight).
In a recent book of poems from Linh Dinh (whose poetry can be found in this very collection), Jam Alerts, there is a poem in the form of a book review on the poetry translations of a man named Reggis Tongue – and Reggis deals in unnormalised translations. The poem quotes a prologue by Reggis to his selected translations:

Slovenly translators - bums, basically - think they have to choose between music and sense. To pin down meanings, many of them squash the tune. To ape the melody, they ditch or deface the semaphores. They don't realize that syntax is melody. A translator must ignore the indigineous drumming echoing in his lumpy head and obey the alien word-order, rhythm of what he's translating. Make it strange - never try to domesticate a foreign poem!

In most cases in this book no attempt was made to normalise text, and that which sounded strange was simply allowed to sound strange. In the light of the work being translated, i.e. work that deals with language and stretches it, it is very possible that in some places the poems are more strange, more incomprehensible, than were they to be read in the original language, although I still hope that they will allow access to some of the thought originally bestowed on them.

As well as being capable of producing weirdness, unnormalised translations can cause misunderstandings which can even be dangerous, particularly when the reader is not aware of the fact that other paradigms govern other languages. In this way I suspect that when the media proclaims that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that the American movie mogul Oliver Stone is “a part of the devil”, it is only proper to wonder what meaning that translation, which I expect is literal, has. Do they mean that Ahmadinejad literally believes that Stone is possessed – that the devil lives within him – or was his point quite simply one I suppose we can all agree on, that Oliver Stone is a part of the machinery of American capitalism?
It has also been claimed repeatedly that Ahmadinejad wanted to “wipe Israel of the map”. This has been chewed, back and forth, as the God’s honest truth. However, the British newspaper The Guardian printed the following correction on the 22nd of February, 2007:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, has not “called for Israel to be wiped off the map”. The Farsi phrase he employed is correctly translated as “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”. He was quoting a statement by Iran's first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Then of course we might wonder where Ahmadinejad is going with this.

It should be duly noted that the author of this text is no specialist in Iranian politics, and does not take a stance on whether or not Ahmadinejad is “evil” or “good”, but is mostly skeptical of both the media and politicians.


The poems in this book were chosen quite simply because they interested me. It really isn’t more complicated than that. It would have been enjoyable to add many other poets, as well as many other interesting (enjoyable and important) poems by the poets that are included in this book, but for reasons of time it was impossible. If all goes well another volume will be produced in the next one or two years.

Lastly, it is right to thank those who put their shoulder to the wheel. Firstly the poets, of course. A list of the poets can be found in the table of contents, but it is also right to mention Ellie Nichol who gave permission to include the texts of bpNichol.

The following people read either single poems, the whole manuscript and/or gave useful tips: Arngrímur Vídalín, Ingólfur Gíslason, Haukur Már Helgason, Haukur Ingvarsson, Derek Beaulieu, Nadja Widell and Hildur Lilliendahl. Many of the poets also helped with translations and answered quickly and surely the various questions that popped into the translator’s mind. Last but not least Finnish poetry-activist Leevi Lehto gets heaps of thanks; without him this book would never have become reality.


This text is an english translation of my prologue to my new icelandic poetry translation anthology, 131.839 slög með bilum, which features poetry by the following poets:

Charles Bernstein , Jon Paul Fiorentino, Susana Gardner, Oscar Rossi, Kirby Olson, Leevi Lehto, Sharon Mesmer, Jan Hjort, Jesse Ball, Markku Paasonen, Jack Kerouac, Derek Beaulieu, Katie Degentesh, Paul Dutton, Nada Gordon, Paal Bjelke Andersen, , Gherardo Bortolotti, Daniel Scott Tysdal, Iain Bamforth, Michael Lentz, Anne Waldman, Teemu Manninen, Mike Topp, Ida Börjel, Amiri Baraka, S. Baldrick, bp Nichol, Charles Bukowski, Mairead Byrne, Mark Truscott, John Tranter, Sylvia Legris, Maya Angelou, Bruce Andrews, Haukur Már Helgason, Craig Dworkin, Shanna Compton, Lars Mikael Raattamaa, Vito Acconci, K. Silem Mohammad, , Frank Bidart, Rita Dahl, damian lopes, , Jelaluddin Rumi, Rachel Levitsky, Tom Leonard, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson, Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, e. e. cummings, Saul Williams, a. rawlings, Stephen Cain, Jeff Derksen, Linh Dinh, , Nico Vassilakis, Martin Glaz Serup, Malte Persson, Anna Hallberg.

The book can be ordered by clicking here.

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