Rethinking the notion of invention

I would like to respond to the posts of Lawrence Venuti and Charles Bernstein on the "foreign" in the "office of the translator", as a poet, translator and foreigner in any English-language office. And also as one of the co-founders of this blog.

The word "exchange" in the title of this blog should be interpreted, in my opinion, as referring to "a place where poetry and poetics are exchanged", i.e. "offered, given, or received". The vehicle used for the offering is, for practical reasons, the English language. The very word "international" indicates that the activities are "reaching beyond national boundaries".

The aim of this initiative is not being an "Anglocentric" or "US" site. On the contrary. It searches as much "for modernist and postmodernist poetries" in the English language as it does in other languages.

The contributions to this blog are, up to now, for a not inconsiderable part from non-native English speakers. Only a third of the visitors is from the US.

Personally, when I'm reading this blog - or for that matter looking for interesting material to translate - I'm not after "resemblance, sameness, in poetic traditions and situations", the opposite is true, I'm searching for "poetic traditions and situations" that differ from those in The Netherlands. Out of curiosity, inquisitiveness? I don't know, but the desire is there.

And of course, foreign poetry is often unfamiliar, and "invention", in this context, only a relative notion, depending on the readers background - i.e. on his or her knowledge of foreign and native poetry - and the readers point of view. Poetry that is "inventive" within the framework of its own "poetic tradition" might be "out of date" within the scope of another, foreign "poetic tradition". Or the other way round.

"Invention" here is not necessarily pointing to a contrivance originated after experiment, but also to a, often personally, discovery of differences between familiar and foreign poetry and poetics. My own poetry is unmistakable influenced by the translations I've done.

On the other hand, a blog like this, also reveals, as Charles indicates, similarities between "homegrown" and foreign poetry and poetics, sometimes even totally unexpected.

Openness to foreignness, free from prejudices, is, to me, crucial in the concept of "invention as a voyage of discovery", that, above all, is a very personal trip.


Linh Dinh said...

I agree with Charles completely when he wrote "perhaps this "we" -- this emergent local -- needs a place of its own." This blog, a forum like this, is absolutely necessary, and I thank Ton and Charles for having the initiative to set it up. The fact that it's in English, the lingua franca and language of empire du jour, is unavoidable, although it does favor, unfortunately, native-speakers or those who have spent considerable time in English-speaking countries.

On January 8th, the New Yorker published a piece by Milan Kundera in which he observed:

"There are two basic contexts in which a work of art may be placed: either in the history of its nation (we can call this the small context) or else in the supranational history of its art (the large context) [...] because a novel is bound up with its language, nearly every university in the world it is studied almost exclusively in the small--national--context. [...] I continue to insist that this is an irreparable intellectual lost. Because, if we consider only the history of the novel, it was to Rabelais that Laurence Sterne was reacting, it was Sterne who set off Diderot, it was from Cervantes that Fielding drew constant inspiration, it was against Fielding that Stendhal measured himself, it was Flaubert's tradition living on in Joyce, it was through his reflection on Joyce that Hermann Broch developed his own poetics of the novel, and it was Kafka who showed Garcia Marquez the possibility of departing from tradition to 'write another way.'

What I just said Goethe was the first to say: 'National literature no longer means much these days, we are entering the era of Weltliteratur'--world literature--'and it's up to each of us to hasten this development.' This is, so to speak, Goethe's testament. Another testament betrayed."

Kundera also pointed out that "to judge a novel one can do without a knowledge of its original language," since "Gide [who was influenced by Dostoyevsky] did not know Russian, Shaw [influenced by Ibsen] did not know Norwegian, Sartre did not read Dos Passos in the original."

So fuck those who malign and ridicule translators and translations. The Lawrence Venutis and Murat Nemet-Nejats of this world should be saluted! Long live this blog!

Linh Dinh said...

I want to add that I do not mean that individual translators are beyond criticisms... The best way to criticize an imperfect translator is to do a better translation. By doing this, you'll make the imperfect, offensive translation, which you've sucked on and tweaked only slightly, disappear forever from the face of this earth.

Anonymous said...

I've read the responses to Lawrence Venuti's post, and I'm a bit bemused, since they don't seem to respond to his major point, i.e., that innovative, "post-avant," experimental, etc. poet/translators today seem, in their translation practices, to be almost wholly drawn to contemporary or 20th century poetries, to the near exclusion of far past sources--arguably often more radical in their "foreigness" than what can be found in an increasingly internationalized, mono-cultured post-avant. At least that's what I understood as his major point, maybe I'm wrong...

Not that there is anything wrong with an attentiveness to the actual... Obviously, though (and as Venuti points out), such a focus on the contemporary--in absence of serious, widespread investigation of the classical past of other cultures and languages--constitutes a sharp departure from the "make it new" spirit of Modernism (and not just Anglo-American modernism and not just poetry), whose very experiment and formal innovation was crucially fueled by poetic materials of older models. What's especially ironic about this, one might say, is that our present (and so presently-focused) avant poetic tradition would never even have come into existence without such prior engagement with the cross-cultural deep past.

In fact, this turn away from the ancient, so to speak, is really quite recent among the avant-garde: Ethnopoetics, for example, was importantly guided by the old spirit (think of Schwerner's translucination work with the Sumerian, Rothenberg and others' sustained engagement with indigenous traditions, etc).

It's interesting how this has happened.

Kent Johnson

Samuel Vriezen said...

I'm sympathetic with Ton's search for the foreign, or shall we say the other in poetry. But Ton also writes

On the other hand, a blog like this, also reveals, as Charles indicates, similarities between "homegrown" and foreign poetry and poetics, sometimes even totally unexpected.

on which I'd like to elaborate a little. One thing I find at least as inspiring as finding some unexpected symmetry is what happens if you "map" poetries or poetics from one field or language to another. Having read bits of NY School and Language poetry in the past couple of years, I've developed a different eye for what happens in Dutch poetry. It's less a question of unexpected correspondence as of having better tools for understanding my own context. It would make good sense to read the work of Marc Kregting in a Language type of context, though Marc doesn't know american poetry very well I think. A term like "language poetry" for the kind of work Marc does doesn't really exist in Dutch. So reading Andrews and Silliman and Bernstein might help me read Kregting - and I can even see how he's *not* like those langpo types... writing in Dutch, for one...

(and the ones missing out here, of course, are not the ones who can choose to read everything the Imperial Anglophones write - no writer in English can be safe for my sneaky Dutch eyes! Little Brother is watching you! - but those who are among the unwashed masses who don't read Dutch... :-P)

gherardo bortolotti said...

I do agree with Linh Dinh when he quotes Weltliteratur and Bernstein's "emergent local". IMHO, this is what we're talking about here: a new kind of Weltliteratur, relying on avant-garde techniques as a kind of lingua franca and in which national language is just a dependent variable.
English, in this sense, is neither a national nor an international language but what we can call a transnational one. Moreover, a language that is perceived (by most of the readers of this transnational post-post-modernist literature) as just a written one: the perfect interface to Internet environment that is the place where the same literature emerges and that is essentially made by written data.