Julia Guez explores the nuances of ambient translation at work in Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat.
In the current issue of Pleiades, Rachel Zucker writes,
Now that I have given birth three times and been present at friends’ and clients’ births, I know what none of the poems or stories made clear (were they lying? not listening?). Birth is beautiful and spiritual and mundane and shitty (literally). It is hard work—the lowest and highest—and that’s what I’m interested in writing. Not birth per se but the realness of experience. I want to write with shame and honesty and humor and ambivalence about and out of experience.
As a mother, doula, and activist, Zucker knows “what none of the poems or stories made clear” about motherhood. As a writer and editor, she is in a position to directly and indirectly address the lack or void in the literature. This impulse is central to Swedish poet Aase Berg’s work as well. In an essay on “Language and Madness” translated by Johannes Göransson, Berg observes,
Motherhood is one of the most overlooked subjects of 20th-century literature: the cute, paradisical madness. The mother’s relationship to the baby is the root of language, madness and complexity. None of the great serious works would have seen the light of day without the tracks that were inscribed in the early mother-and-child relationships. Life is based on the irrational and noisy language of this little crazy symbiosis.
By creating an entirely new language to more accurately enact the “madness” and “complexity” stemming from the “symbiosis” between mother and child, Berg finds daring, odd, beautiful, and altogether innovative ways to represent the reality of motherhood for a twenty-first century literature.
To this end, the ideology of sentences and narratives is overhauled in Forsla Fett, or Transfer Fat (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), translated and with an introduction by Johannes Göransson. According to Göransson’s note on the translation, Berg’s “language is often driven by puns and lullabye-esque rhythms rather than sentences and narratives.” For one example of the “lullabye-esque”—which, in the original and the translation, seems to be more fundamental to the layout of each line than the demand of any prosaic narrative or sentence structure—see the last stanza of “Estonia: The Fat Stone’s Transparent Catatonia”:
Small countries so fat damn not
A fatcatatonic election promise
a heave, a drunk, a drift
But Deep Hare Grave strictly “undead”
In creating a new approach to what Berg considers “one of the most overlooked subjects of 20th-century literature,” words are also overhauled. Word-parts are separated then re-joined in odd and interesting ways that radically defamiliarize the meaning of the word-parts that form the resulting compound.
“Bodywarm,” “deathtired,” and “nondisappearing” inhabit one end of this spectrum while the compounds “balloonchinamen” and “deepseachasms” inhabit the other. In the afterword, Göransson observes that,
Compound words are an important part of the Swedish language, but Berg takes this feature to the extreme, in say valyngelskal (“whalebroodshell,” above) or fittstela rullbandsfettflod (“cuntstiff looptrack fatflood”). So that when we get to common words like späckhuggaren, the standard term for “killer whale,” I can’t help but read it literally for the two words that make up that compound term, späck (“blubber”) and huggare (“biter” or “attacker”). The extreme neologisms train the eye to break down the standard compound words. Thus I translated “Späckhuggaren” as “Blubber Biter.”
Archaisms, imports, and neologisms also help renovate and overhaul the language (with significant implications for how to translate or re-translate the text into English). Words like “stalagstomite,” “quillering,” “uneons,” “vibribrates,” and “strame” induce feelings of ever so slight disorientation, foreignness, and defamiliarization. They remind the reader that words from every register will be deployed, and still new words will need to be invented in order to adequately render certain experiences that, like birth and breastfeeding and motherhood, seem to defy typical modes of representation and defy the possibility of organizing certain kinds of consciousness in language at all. Göransson’s goes on to write,
Berg further disorients the reader with archaic Swedish terms and foreign-language words. For example, according to old Swedish folk beliefs, a myling—the word derives from myrding, or “murdered one”—is the ghost of a child who, when killed at birth by its mother, reveals the crime by singing from the site of its murder (usually a well or a basement). The word römme is Norwegian for a kind of dairy cream, but in the ambience of the book (as Berg pointed out to me), it also invokes rom (“roe”), rymma (“escape”), and rymd (“space”). You can see the same set of associations in the made-up word Tymd, which contains tömma (“empty”) and rymd (“space”).
There is a kind of violence towards any of the ordinary modes of representing the experience of motherhood evident throughout the collection, violence that Göransson invokes in an interview about his own poetry with HTMLGiant’s Blake Butler
My feeling is that I want the text to function like a conduit of violence . . . I am interested in art that is invested in its own Art-ness—with all of its crass devices and costumes, all of its kitschy metaphors and pageantry, all of its infected toys. On the other hand I’m not interested in creating a kind of refined space of contemplative art either, I don’t want art as an escape. I suppose in all of these what I object to is a kind of stability, a kind of space that art depicts or documents or provides. I’m more interested in art as violence, art as a haunting, as a spirit photograph, as what Aase Berg calls a “deformation zone . . .”
Violence towards ordinary modes of representing the reality of motherhood does not, however, keep Berg from treating features of the “mother-and-child” relationship with remarkable tenderness. From the epigraph—”I- am- afraid”—to the past-tense reference to what is, presumably, the same fear in, “I was scared and I carried you across the fear, child,” there are several bridges and “the meaningless underside of bridges.” And the collection ends with “Singula,”
The further in they flow
they disappear. The hare’s
time-space disappears into
the fetusfat’s All, the
tight conclusive One,
the little finally,
Göransson’s translation of the subject and the style is masterful. That said, some translators may take issue with what Kate Durbin has called his “radical theories of translation, as satanic addition and glorious mutation.”
He certainly intervenes with the text by inserting words and ideas born of a very particular reading or gloss that aren’t necessarily in the original in order to point-up features of the text that are there. In the afterword, he explains the logic behind the modification of one title in particular: “the poem title ‘Vågar’ means ‘Dares,’ but the oceanic imagery of the poem causes me [to] misread it as vågor, or ‘waves’; the final translated title is ‘Darewaves.’”
In one draft of “Umbilical String,” the word malströmsåret is translated as “the maelstrom wound.” In the draft Göransson ultimately includes in the manuscript, malströmsåret is rendered as “the maelstrom sore.” Online, Göransson notes that “depending on where you spot the ‘cut’ in it—[malströmsåret] could mean ‘maelstrom wound’ or ‘maelstrom year’ or even (if you’re a translator and you’ve really had your Swedish foreignized by translating Berg) ‘moth-stream-wound.’”
According to Göransson’s calculus, the inevitable slippage, loss, or casualty on the level of any word-to-word translation enables Transfer Fat to gain on two fronts. The first macroscopically attends to the overall energy, sound, and ambience of the work, and the second microscopically attends to the letters, morphemes, or word-parts that comprise so many of the neologisms occurring with such frequency in the collection as a whole.
This tendency, at times, is taken to the extreme as in the impulse to use the phrase “Blubber Biter” (in place of the more straightforward “Killer Whale,” inserting a kind of oddity where there is none in the original “Späckhuggaren“).
Whether or not one agrees with the process outlined in “Ambient Translations: Transferring Aase Berg’s Fat,” it is difficult not to admire the result of the process. And it is difficult to ignore the real value of an even more detailed and far-reaching theory to inform future attempts at the “ambient” practice in the field of literary translation.
Julia Guez is a Fulbright Fellow with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University. Poetry and prose have previously appeared or will soon be forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Court Green, DIAGRAM and Washington Square.