Presented in the “Presidential Forum” of the Annual Congress of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Philadelphia, USA, December 2006. To  be published, along with other contributions to the Forum, in a book edited by Marjorie Perloff (Chicago University Press 2008).

Let me start by quoting my ”official statement”[1] concerning my translation of Charles Bernstein’s ”Besotted Desquamation”[2], a poem that can be seen as consisting of 27 sections, with all the words in each individual section sharing the same initial letter.

When I sat down to translate the poem into Finnish, I was disappointed, confused even, to find that the words my dictionary suggested for replacement seemed to begin with just about any letter. (…) I began (…) to have doubts as to the very fundaments of the profession of translation. I mean, how can we imagine to translate anything, when we cannot even get the first letters right? Eventually, I think I did find a problem to the solution. What I did was to put the original away – for good, I never looked at it again. (…) I then proceeded, not to translate, not even to rewrite, but to write the poem, exactly the way Charles had done before me…

We are evidently dealing with poetic sound in translation here. For most of us, I believe, it wouldn’t even make sense to speak about translating poetry without accounting for the sound. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly make sense to speak about ”translating sound” either. Perhaps more meaningfully we could speak of transferring the sound – but then, should we succeed in this, we would be back to the original.

I’ll make two observations:

First, I want to refer with sound to a certain material dimension of language[3] – and that in more than one way. I’ve always liked M. A. Abrams’ remark that the sound in Keats’ poetry is partly determined by the physical pleasure of reciting it.[4] The specific sound of a poem, or a poet, usually represents a new material dimension inside a natural language.

Two. The differences between languages are, ”in the last instance”, material ones. Think of Walter Benjamin’s well-known essay on ”The Task Of the Translator”[5] where he distinguishes between ”intention” (common to all languages) and ”the mode of intention” (where they differ). In my view, Benjamin’s example – the difference between the German word ”Brot” and the French word ”pain”, for ”bread” – is to be seen to refer, in the last instance, to their material dissimilarity. His central argument would hold even if the words’ ”semantic” connotations in each of their languages would be exactly the ”same” (which they – because not stable – can never be).

In his essay, Benjamin makes the case for the translator’s task being to effect ”an echo” of the foreign (or source) language in the target one – as part of creating what he calls ”the pure language”. On this latter, difficult concept I will content myself to noting that if anything, ”pure language”, for Benjamin, represents the greatest confidence in proliferating the impure. If the original poem, already, effects a new material dimension in its own language, translation, in turn, will unfold yet another one which is not, strictly speaking, situated in either of the languages. This way, Benjamin’s solution to the ”problem” of Babelization is – more Babelization.

In fact, in the history of translating poetry, Benjamin’s method has been in wider use than is usually recognized. Here, I like to cite the example of transferring English, German, and French metrical patterns into Finnish poetry during its so called traditional period (1880-1950). Blank verse, for instance, is ill suited to Finnish where the stress always falls on the first syllable of the word; however, instead of the impossible task of showing ”how Shakespeare would have written should his native language have been Finnish,” the Finnish translators went into great pains to invent new prosodies, foreign to the ”natural language”, to enable the Finns to grasp, as an echo, the dynamics of Shakespeare’s poetical thinking. Quite Benjaminian, in fact.

Another, somewhat contrary, example. In Finland, it is customary to think that translating Eliot, in the wake of his winning the Nobel price, triggered what is known as the Modernist period of Finnish poetry – a 1950’s phenomenon. In fact, those early translations very much ignored Eliot’s prosody – making him into a strongly textual poet writing almost exclusively in free verse. Furthermore, the Finnish Modernists can been seen as having reacted against the poetics of these translations, rather than simply been influenced by them. A double process of misprision, that again seems to fall nicely in the frame of the Benjaminian model.

As these examples suggest, I tend to see translation – and the translation of poetic sound in particular – as part of a larger dynamics of cultural development and interaction. In a sense, I don’t think of translation as having anything to do with interlingual communication, and I’m all for inverting the currently dominant paradigm where the languages are seen as something primary, translation as a secondary, ensuing ”problem”. To me, ”in the beginning was translation”.[6] Translation, not languages per se, forms the basis of cultures – meaning, among other things, that translation is always also (already) political.

Let me illustrate this point by means of a historical contrast. In his classical essay on ”the methods of translation”, Friedrich Schleiermacher, another German theoretician of translation, writing a hundred years before Benjamin, is markedly conscious of precisely this cultural dimension.[7] (For him, translating the Greek and Roman classics was closely connected to the task of elevating the German language to the level of its ”historical task”. In our present global language situation, dominated as it is by the rise of national states and corresponding national languages, this sound Schleiermachian intuition has come to be replaced by a naive conception of a ”democratic” ”equality” of languages. Translation has come to be seen as ”transferring contents” between languages – something that in turn necessarily affects what comes to be written in the first place (though, of course, there’s no such thing as ”writing in the first place”).

Inspired by Schleiermacher, but rejecting (or inverting) the cultural hegemonism inherent in his position, my alternative view on the politics of poetic sound in translation would encompass itself along the linguistic reality of a world that, under this surface of unproblematically transferred cultural contents, is more and more characterized by a (in my view) positive Babelization and, as its most dynamic element, an increasing Cacophony of Sounds. Instead of a simplified schema of transferred cultural content, it would concentrate on the factual overlapping of languages with their peculiar dynamics and power structures – admitting some linguistic formations to be more ”important” than others, but also ready to react to the structures of suppression and dominance between them. It would emphasize misunderstandigs and misprisions, and as such, be against all language-communities and language-based models of identification – models that, incidentally, tend to rely on sound, as epitomized by the example of the middle-aged, educated couple from Boulder, Colorado, who once told my wife how there was nothing special about their place of domicile, except that it seemed to be the only place in the whole world where English was spoken without any noticeable accent…

Let me conclude by three programmatic recommendations, all related to sound in translation.

Stressing the primacy of translation does not rule out the possibilities of ”original works” to contribute to the realization of the pure (read impure) language. I’m interested in these in the frame of what I see as the real, dominant lingua franca of our world, yet one that, surprisingly, seems still to lack its literature – English spoken as Second – or Nth – language. My first recommendation is for creating and expanding this literature, a new poetry of Barbaric English[8] – sure to contribute to the prolification of sound in English.

Secondly, regarding the conventional view of translation as an attempt to show how a ”language A poet” would have written in language B, I like Schleiermacher’s joke about this being equal to producing an image of what the author would have looked like should his/her mother have conceived her with a different father.[9] Not uninteresting as such, but the question is: to whom? In 1994, I published John Ashbery’s Flow Chart in my Finnish. While I do not regret this, I perhaps wouldn’t do it again – the young Finnish poets of today are sufficiently versed in English to misunderstand Ashbery in the original. Instead, I would think that my version of Ashbery with a different father (like those by others) would be of interest to his native English readers. Actually, one can only wonder why Ashbery, a poet so widely translated, is still waiting to be translated into his native tongue. A volume of such translations, as an addition to the soundscape of the New York School tradition of poetry, could be on my list of future editing projects.

Thirdly, though I don’t believe in ”untranslatability” as such, I would not deny the importance of works attemping to create it. A work like Eunoia by Christian Bök – a radical lipogram where, in each chapter, only one vowel is allowed at a time – is important, among other things, because of its challenge to translatability (it too would be best translated without even glancing at the original). I recently started working on a related project, a book of 300 pages where I’d use the vowels of the first Finnish novel, Seitsemän veljestä (The Seven Brothers), by Aleksis Kivi – all of them, in the order they appear in Kivi’s work, and nothing but them. In a sense, this would be a work for the Finns only. But even this text would not be untranslatable – being, among other things, itself a translation of the work by Kivi – and, well, one where I’d finally got at least a half of the letters right.

1 See Charles Bernstein, Runouden puolustus. Esseitä ja runoja kahdelta vuosituhannelta, ed. Leevi Lehto. (Helsinki: PoEsia 2006), 252-253.

2 Published in original in Charles Bernstein, With Strings, Chicago: Chicago University Press 2001.

3 For a useful discussion of the questions of “materiality” in translation, see Fredrik Hertzberg, Moving Materialities. On Poetic Materiality and Translation, with Special Reference to Gunnar Björling’s Poetry (Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press, 2002).

4 See Abrams, M. H. “Keats’s Poems: The Material Dimensions.” In The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats, ed. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp (Amherst: University of Massachusetts P, 1998), 36-53.

5 Published, in Harry Zorn’s 1968 translation, for instance in The Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (London: Routledge, 2000).

6 Here I’m partially inspired by Andrew Benjamin’s discussion, in his Translation And the Nature Of Philosophy (London and New York: Routledge 1989) on the relation of translation to the concept of tradition: “Existing at a particular point in historical time [the conflicts of interpretation] enact the plurality of tradition. Tradition in this sense is both plural and conflictual. Its unfolding is the unfolding of the conflicts that constitute it. [...] There is no outside of tradition. [...] Tradition becomes therefore the generalized site of interpretative differential plurality.” (163-164).

7 Friedrich Schleiermacher, “Ueber die verschiedenen Methoden des Uebersezens”, 1813. Friedrich Schleiermachers sämmtliche Werke, Dritte Abteilung: Zur Philosophie, Zweiter Band. (Berlin: Reimer, 1838), 207–245.

8 See my essay, “Plurifying the Languages Of the Trite”, for a seminar on “Poetry In Time Of War And Banality”, in Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil, April-June 2006, published at and, and in Portuguese in Sibila #10, 2006, in Norwegian at, in Dutch at, and in Finnish at Also see the Icelandic poet Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s fundamental online essay, “On the importance of destroying a language (of one’s own)”, at his blog at For examples of experimentation in “Barbaric English”, see Aki Salmela, Word in Progress (ntamo 2007), as well as my own Lake Onega and Other Poems, Salt Publishing 2006.

9 Schleiermacher, op. cit.

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