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

By | 1 November 2016


As in Bakhtin’s writing about monoglossia, Ramazani’s rejection of translation has profound political implications. Writing about this book, Lawrence Venuti writes that Ramazani does not give ‘any serious consideration to interlingual translation, effectively emptying terms like transnationalism and translation of much of their significance while reaffirming the global hegemony of English.’1 So, while Ramazani welcomes the way these poets move across national boundaries, he is unable to handle the way translation challenges his monoglossic ideals of completedness and mastery, as well as the context of ‘the global hegemony of English.’

This ‘global hegemony’ is a context that moves beyond national boundaries, but which tends to lead to a U.S.-centered view of culture, a context that U.S. poetry’s antagonism and marginalisation of translation backs up. By opposing the transgressive circulation of poetry, scholars, poets and critics not only support a monglossic vision of how to read poetry, they also support a global hegemony. Venuti has done much work describing this dynamic: How the marginalisation of translation – through U.S. criticism, publishing laws etc – reinforces the sense of US centrality in the world. Venuti argues that English-language titles have gained prominence in foreign countries due to ‘the global drift toward American political and economic hegemony in the postwar period,’ and describes how this has led to ‘the international expansion of Anglo-American culture’ (15). One context, then, for the widespread anxiety of foreign influence in U.S. literature is the context of a hegemony that does not want to admit to foreign influence, that wants to remain in charge.


The pervasive idea that translating poetry is ‘impossible’ is also part of this cultural maintenance of hegemony and tradition. It is a peculiar idea, since we know that poetry is translated all the time. It is particularly true of smaller, marginal countries, but it is also true of the U.S. The most obvious example may be Ezra Pound using his translations (however dubious) of Chinese poetry to create a U.S. modernism, and to rid modern poetry of the decorativeness of Victorian poetry. Another example, perhaps as obvious, perhaps as influential, are the translations of poets like Thomas Tranströmer, Frederico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda in the 1950s and 1960s (by poets like Robert Bly and Clayton Eshleman), challenging the aesthetics and reading strategies of the New Critical establishment and, thus, transforming U.S. poetry. But even outside of these moments of huge attention and influence, translators have been translating poetry throughout the twentieth century. How can their act be seen as impossible when it so clearly happens all the time? And what purpose does such a declaration serve? What model of poetry that it help establish? What models of reading poetry that is perpetuate? What is the purpose of such a limited and limiting definition?

What exactly is ‘lost in translation’?

To begin to answer this question, we might consider what is – on a very obvious level – ‘lost’ in translation. The short answer is the paradigm of the unparaphraseable text, written by a single author (Ramazani’s ideal, which keeps him from engaging with poems in translation). One of the keys for this model of the poem – an important rule for the New Critics (seen in the title of Cleanth Brooks’s The Wellwrought Urn), but persisting to this day – is that it cannot be paraphrased; any version of it is inherently a degradation. Another key is that the poet – whether writing about a personal memory or ‘appropriating’ what someone else has written – is in control of his or her project. This sense of mastery assures that the poem is not accidental, not noise (or if it is noise, it must be conceptualised as such). The translation removes the poem from the originator, the master, introducing the possibility of noise in the versioning of the translation.

In these dismissals of translation, the translator and the translation – and the author and reader for that matter – enter into a murky zone of infection (as the counterfeit infects both the original, the original ‘context’, the target language and the target culture. In this murky zone, we lose the illusion of a linear, patriarchal lineage, and with it, the objectivity of that lineage: Who is good? Who is influencing who? What if a writer is influenced by a text that is alien to her? Can she really be influenced correctly? Is she misreading it? The reader loses the assurance – or currency – of mastery. In Ramazani’s words, the text can no longer be ‘adequately studied’ because there is a loss of ‘pressure’ – the pressure of the illusion of a complete original.

In other words, the threat of translation is the threat of a kind of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Perhaps most importantly, this statement (almost tautologically) denies an important fact about poetry: it travels. It crosses boundaries. It can exist in many places at once, even many places in the same place.

Poetry, it appears, is ‘lost’ in a noisy, infectious excess. Poetry is lost in a ‘transgressive circulation.’

  1. Hijacking Translation: How Comp Lit Continues to Supress Translated Texts.’ Boundary 2, 2016.
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