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

By | 1 November 2016


To counter the pervasive idea that poetry is what is lost in the excess of ‘transgressive circulation,’ I want to rethink not just translation, but poetry itself: so that it is not ‘lost’ in translation. One such model of poetry might be Swedish poet Aase Berg, whose book Forsla fett (Transfer fat) is based on deliberate mistranslations of hyper-theoretical English-language articles about string theory – mashed up with grotesque bodily images – in a deformed and deforming version of Swedish. In her essay ‘Language and Madness,’ Berg imagines that language itself precedes humans, hovering in space until humans evolved, providing a suitable host for language to inhabit. In both of these instances, poetry is precisely the ‘foreign influence’ that so many U.S. critics and writes warn against.

Joyelle McSweeney and I used the title of one of Berg’s poems when we wrote a pamphlet about ‘the deformation zone’ of translation. This model of the text is as a ‘zone’: the versioning and contagions of the foreign are part of the poem, not something that must be abjected in order to keep the poem whole. While the academy and the publishing establishments have tried to contain the excess of translation, and have tried to quarantine, abject and kitsch translation, my interest is not to defend translation from these charges, but, instead, to engage with translation exactly in this zone of abjection. While there is a desire to maintain boundaries, there is also a great pleasure in flooding the borders, troubling the boundaries, contaminating the system. Drawing on Georges Bataille’s writing, Daniel Tiffany notes, that ‘(t)he ‘accursed share’ produces pleasure, though it is founded on a logic of prohibition by swallowing the other, by contaminating itself and traversing its own boundaries.’1

When U.S. critics insist on a model of poetry that excludes the foreign influence of translation, they are also insisting on a reductive model of the correct kind of influence: linear, patriarchal, controlled. But influence is, as we have seen, potentially transgressive in itself. A few years ago, McSweeney gave a talk at East Anglica University about influence in which she wrote:

It seems to me that a discussion of literary influence would benefit from an effort to think outside these structures and strictures. I’m for thinking of influence in terms of the dead metaphors of flow, flux, fluidity, and fluctuation, saturation and suppuration, inherent in the term ‘influence’ itself, influence as total inundation with Art, inundation with a fluctuating, oscillating, unbearable, sublime, inconsistent and forceful fluid.

There is in poetry (and art) the power of ‘inundation,’ of saturation. Poetry can overwhelm us, enthrall our senses. It can excite. It can put us under its influence like a drug. This is the danger that Socrates warns against: the danger that a foreign text may take over us. It is exactly this overtaking of the foreign that ‘the deformation zone’ advocates.

The politics of this foreign influence can be seen clearly in the context of what Venuti calls ‘the global hegemony’ of English and U.S. culture: if U.S. finance and politics have aimed to maintain a sense of global centrality (and superiority) of U.S. poetry and the English language, there is something profoundly political about engaging with a foreign text in the way Socrates warned against – to let it take us over. In such an act of transgressive circulation, the reader who is overtaken by the foreign, influenced by the foreign, counteracts this centripetal enforcement of monoglossic standards of reading and writing. Further, when we read foreign texts in such an intensive way, we have to let go of reductive ideas of tradition and ‘context,’ even of reading and poetry itself (and the sense of communication). By reading foreign texts we do not just open ourselves up to ‘foreign influence,’ we change the nature of U.S. literature, including the demand for tasteful ‘distance’ so critical to a monoglossic ideal of literature.2


Art is continually making and remaking itself, infecting and begin infected by recipients and artists and writers and translators that may or may not have ‘access’ to the foreign language text. The translation is not a separate, autonomous text. But this is the scandal of not just translation, but art itself. Art creates ‘deformation zones.’ Art brings its (multiple, shifting, volatile) contexts into the deformation zone, but it cannot be fully determined by illusorily stable contexts, and as a translator and reader, I have to venture into the zone as well. I have to catch its disease, its infection.

Part of what makes a translation fascinating is the way it harkens back to another text: it is not wholly original, it’s a version, a part of a movement. As Elaine Scarry has pointed out, beauty proliferates, makes copies of itself, invites versions.3 And these versions cross boundaries. If a literary text is part of a deformation zone, it is inherently volatile, potentially a part of a movement, a motion, rather than a stabile entity that can be frozen into place. It can generate versions, and these versions need not be put into place, need not be separated. Unlike many critics who try to defend translations, we do not claim that the translation is an autonomous artwork, not a new text that should be read ‘on its own.’ This is the scandal of poetry, and the scandal of translation is that it opens up this deformation zone of art.

  1. Tiffany, Daniel. Radio Corpse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 161.
  2. This ‘distance’ is something Bakhtin considers an essential feature of the monoglossic model of literature.
  3. On Beauty and Being Just
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