Over the course of this week, we will be highlighting all 6 BTBA Poetry Finalists one by one, building up to next Friday’s announcement of the winners. All of these are written by the BTBA poetry judges under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win.” You can find the whole series by clicking here. Stay tuned for more information about the May 3rd ceremony.
Transfer Fat by Aase Berg, translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson, and published by Ugly Duckling Presse.
Jennifer Kronovet is the author of the poetry collection Awayward, which was selected by Jean Valentine for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. She is the co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation.
Why this book should win: It amazingly makes English feel like a new language with visceral power.
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that almost everyone reading this review here is interested in foreign languages. Although some books in translation may try to hide the very fact that they are translated, many of us turn to books in translation because they are that—a twisty relationship, a multi-dimensional trip, a dynamically charged confluence, language within language within language. Part of the engaging pleasure of reading contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat, translated by Johannes Göransson, is that one feels as though one is reading in a foreign language, and yet, has access to understanding the words as themselves.
Transfer Fat makes a world and puts us inside it to hear its language, to be subject to its laws and materiality, to be a citizen called upon to act and be acted upon. Articles are removed, new compounds words are made, and commands are given, and so this language feels like a paradigmatic example of itself, essential and new as it subverts expected idioms and means multi-directionally. This language is both highly prepositional and highly visceral; we are in relation and on top of relations and at relationships. With what? Whale fat, breast-gristle, hare-milk, glasswater, a fatcatatonic election promise, Hal, the hare Cosmos, and more nouns that seem pure thing and pure metaphor, Swedish and of my Midwestern backyard, political and inborn. These contrasts are productively disorienting. One learns to see this new language (am I beginning to think in it?) as one capable of bringing the body and the body politic together, and the body and the mind that charges it.
The first poem begins:
Cut the keel
in harebrood pool
cut fin in fat
Right away the speaker asks us to perform a violence (as translators are often accused of doing) and in that violence, a new word is made, fishtailborn, and perhaps this new word is us, now composed of parts, of language severed and re-glued. After a large space on the page the poem continues:
let fat wait
let time go
let time rock calmly in hare
let fat build core in hare
in the hare Cosmos
time is shell
If we follow the speaker’s suggestions, follow the new language happening, we end up with a new feeling for how time works, a new metaphysics. The manipulations of language in the book never feel coy or like play for playing’s sake. Rather, through the thick scrim of foreigness, language is amplified as being viscerally of the body and of time, capable of leading us to bold ideas if we follow its permutations.
In the translator’s note, Göransson, a poet in English and native speaker of Swedish, writes that Forsla fett is “an ambient space where the Swedish language goes through all kinds of permutations: words, connotations, meanings letters are put into flux, combining and recombining continually.” Göransson notes that Berg brings parts of English-language texts into her poems which further “deforms the Swedish language.” Thus, the book is its materiality, is the way it moves in language, or rather, moves languages out of themselves. How does one translate such a text, when carrying over only the “meaning” of the words would be to lose almost everything? Göransson takes risks. He challenges and deforms English. He moves into the world of Forsla fett and practices the processes it demands on English, cutting and recreating, melting together and splicing, transferring and fattening and thinning, and we are left with the fat and the muscle of meaning, new language we can work with, that works on us.
Although I can’t say that I love the edgy capitalization in the journal’s name, I can say that I am a big fan of eXchanges and all of the super-brilliant people who work on this. For those not familiar, eXchanges (OK, last time I’m typing that) is the online journal of literary translation that comes out of the University of Iowa. Iowa’s program and all who are in it are fantastic (tomorrow I promise to get back to the Making the Translator Visible posts, starting with Erica Mena, who is at Iowa . . .), and it’s exciting to see what happens when you give people like this a space to create.
Anyway, the winter issue (“Exocity” or “eXocity”) just went online last week and is worth checking out. There’s a very playful and interesting set of letters to and from the editors, some interesting poetry selections (including Ewa Chruscial & Elzbieta Kotkowska’s translations from the Polish of six poems by Agniewszka Kuciak), and a great interview with translator/poet/publisher Johannes Goransson. Here’s a fun clip from the interview:
eX: Do you feel like when you set out translating, that the work points you in a direction as far as how it should be translated? Or do you think you approach things more or less consistently?
JG: No, no . . . I totally approach things based on the way the work is. Like I said, in Aase’s case the writing encourages you to move toward excess and sort of deforming the language, but I also did the book Ideals Clearance by Henry Parland. That’s also about translation but a different kind of translation. The book—it’s a Dadaist collection and it has this idea that everything is already translatable—that everything is very translatable— it’s so simple. And so it seems like it has something to do with capitalism, mass culture, and the general equivalences between words.
So, they’re two models of translation. In Parland’s work, I absolutely was not going for noise or anything like that. They’re very, very simple translations. I was actually at a conference about his work where a person talked about my translations—which was really weird to have somebody give a paper and a 45-minute talk about my translations. He had read Lawrence Venuti—he was a Finnish scholar—and he thought I could have translated it, there’s a way…what is Lawrence Venuti’s term for what translation does? Estranging?
eX: Oh gosh . . . I should know this. Domesticizing?
JG: Yeah, the opposite of domesticizing.
[Blank silence on our part. Can’t believe we didn’t remember this. –ed.]
JG: Well, whatever . . .
eX: We can put it in, we can write it in later.
[The word is “foreignizing.” –ed.]
JG: Let’s call it estranging. Well, the Finnish scholar said you could have estranged it, you know, like Lawrence Venuti says, and then he showed an example of how it could look in English. And it was a very strange poem. But it was a strange poem that, one, really seemed to me to have nothing to do with Parland’s work. And, second of all, it was a very strange poem in a way that was very domesticated. To an American it would have been a translatese text, and the reader would be like, oh wow, this is a really foreign text. So actually to me, it seemed like the weirder move was to do this very simple language. Parland was weirder to a contemporary American obviously than contemporary American poetry—which was what the “Venutian” translation made it into.
So, I would say I take very different attitudes. But, you know, I have reading habits that influence all my translations. It’s not like I erase myself. I can’t do it.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .