‘Transgressive Circulation’: Translation and the Threat of Foreign Influence

By | 1 November 2016


The anxiety of foreign influence is pervasive in U.S. literary discussions about translation because translation threatens both the discipline-based, nation-centered ‘contexts’ that are the status quo of studying poetry in U.S. academies, and the monoglossic ideals of poetry as a thing complete in itself, something that can be read and mastered.

As Rita Felski has argued in ‘Context Stinks!’, U.S. academic study of poetry tends to reduce poetry to a symptom of a reductive idea of a national context. Every poem can be explained as a reflection of its context. Felski describes this now-ubiquitous model of scholarship as: ‘the individual text, as microunit encased within a large whole, can only react or respond to these preestablished conditions’ (i.e. of context).1 Felski correctly points out that the problem with context is that it stabilises and disempowers the text while stabilising and empowering a reductive idea of context:

Historicism serves as the functional equivalent of cultural relativism, quarantining difference, denying relatedness, and suspending – or less kindly, evading – the question of why past texts still matter and how they speak to us now.’

Felski argues that the way New Historicist use reductive ‘contexts’ to make sense artworks turns history into a ‘box,’ a self-contained unit. Not only are the literary texts reduced to symptoms of a context, that context itself is turned into a mere box.

Translation is obviously a scandal in the New Historicist dogma of ‘context,’ moving texts out of and into national ‘contexts,’ and generating a proliferation of non-national contexts that crosses language-boundaries. The New Historicist model is highly stabilising: context determines the reading of the text. Translation becomes an inherent threat to this stability since its engagement is in an act of transgressive circulation: not only moving texts out of the ‘original context’ but also revealing how reductive such ‘contexts’ usually are: nation-based, insular, over-determining.


However, even when studies of poetry rejects a nation-based model of context, as in many discussions of the “transnational,” the act of translation remains a corruption that has to be avoided. For example, in his highly acclaimed (and in many ways foundational) book Transnational Poetics (University of Chicago Press), Jahan Ramazani raises many of the same issues as this essay (the need to read poetry transnationally, heteroglossically), and makes many important arguments about transcultural interactions (such as pointing out the reductiveness of the appropriative model of transnationalism), but he explicitly excludes any works in translation:

… a primary reason for drawing a somewhat artificial boundary around poems in English is that, simply put, in poetry, more than perhaps any other literary genre, the specifications of language matter… poetry, especially in its lyric mode, cannot be adequately studied in translation in the same way that drama, epic and the novel can be studied within their generic frameworks even when translated into another language. The heuristic corollary of this observation is that poems are best taught in the original, and in an English department in a predominantly English-speaking country, the teacher devising a poetry syllabus cannot usually presume student competence in multiple languages. Moreover, although poetic influences continually cross linguistic lines, the language specificity of poetry often grants the inheritances in a poet’s working language(s) special weight. Usually, the language field out of which a poem is carved, and upon which it exerts the greatest pressure, is the language in which it is written. (19-20)

The length of Ramazani’s argument suggests that he is aware that there is an obvious paradox in a book about transnationalism that doesn’t include works in translation. But the explanation is also strangely under-argued: Why can’t poetry – as opposed to prose – be ‘adequately studied’ in translation? What does it mean to be ‘adequately studied’? is “adequately studied” the most important test for poetry? Although Ramazani discusses Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of heteroglossia at great length, Ramazani’s discussion of poetry is based on monoglossic assumptions: he will only discuss poems written in English originally, and he focuses on the importance of mastering texts, of there being one ‘original,’ of there being a language-based ‘inheritances’ (lineages). While Ramazani displays a variety of ways of reading a text transnationally, he cannot bring himself to consider works in translation.

For Ramazani, the original language of the poem is a context that cannot be traversed. As a result, the poetry he discusses tends to be the kind of well-wrought, ‘unified’ poetry that lends itself to academic close readings – even when it includes foreign languages or cultural references. Translations asks us to break with the monoglossic models we use to discuss poetry.

  1. Felski, Rita. ‘Context Stinks!’ 577.
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