My cousin was disappointed that he didn’t like the taste of the sheep’s head. We were sitting in my dining room last night having a farewell dinner of sorts because my partner and I are heading off to Austin until May. We were talking about all the places we want to go. Iceland came up and my cousin said his Icelandic friend sent him sheep’s head, which is a traditional specialty. “He sent you the whole smoked head?” I asked. “No, it wasn’t the whole head. It was pre-packaged.” My other cousin said when she was last back home in Italy she went to friend’s farm and they served a whole sheep. The head was placed at the head of the table. Then she thought for a moment and said, “Wait. No. It was a goat.”
This month at The Rumpus Poetry Book Club we’re going to talk about translation, hard work and why we love the sheep’s head. We’ll be looking at the work of Aase Berg, specifically her book, Transfer Fat, which has just been translated into English by Johannes Göransson and is being published by Ugly Duckling Presse. We’ve been wanting to talk about translation for a long time in the club but it’s a tricky business. If we were going to talk about translation we needed to be able to talk about the whole difficult, magical, risky process. It’s easier to end up disappointed in a translation: a can of something that sounds and sort of feels like a poem instead of the real, fallible, made thing. For my part, I didn’t want to pick a translation until I could feel all the hands and voices involved. Everyone uses the words artisanal and sustainable these days but I’m not sure what they mean in a lot of those cases.
A great translation is an artisanal act in the deepest sense. First, you’re given the gift of Aase Berg and her poems that take the Swedish language and, as she says, create a “deformation zone” of sampled texts on everything from science fiction to string theory. Then you take this experiment, this charged imagining and place it in the hands of Johannes Göransson, himself a highly respected poet, essayist, translator and magician. I imagine him listening to the letters and the nights growing longer. I imagine him sitting in the distant light of the barn and carrying the milk pail home before first light. In his notes on the translation, which are almost as beautiful as the poems themselves, he says:
To translate such a book makes impossible the common illusion of bringing over a pristine “original” into a necessarily flawed “translation.” Rather, it forces the translator to be a kind of conductor of interactions between languages, a “transfer-er” of “fat” into the English language.
Within the discussion of his own translation process he is sampling Berg. They are in concert:
Here “val” can mean both “whale” and “choice.” One might say that in the blubberiness of the whale, we get a blubbery language that refuses to coalesce. To invoke this mutability of “val” I have tended to translate it in a number of ways:
all whales are
the same whale
I didn’t want to pick a translation until I could hear the effort and the pleasure involved in the collaboration. And then Ugly Duckling Presse came through. They’re the third part of this triptych. Since 1993 when they were a zine, Ugly Duckling has been fostering, publishing and fighting for the work of (in their words) emerging, international and “forgotten” writers. They are a volunteer collective that’s managed to become one of the most important poetry publishers in America. And this month’s choice almost didn’t work out because, no matter how successful Ugly Duckling is, the fact remains they are a true small press who works right up to the deadline to get their books into the world. When I first wrote, their Managing Editor thanked me and then sadly said he just didn’t think it could work out because being such a small press meant not printing galleys and always running right up against the publication deadline. But then the editors and I put our heads together and got to work. “Could you send us a PDF and then get the book to the club by the end of the month? …Maybe we could have Aase and Johannes AND an editor from UDP join us so we can make this about translation and how small presses bring books into the world.” We plotted. We kept faith. We figured it out.
I don’t want a canned sheep’s head. And I don’t want to hear about Jacob wrestling with the angel if I have the option of being in the room with all that sweat and those wings. We talk about artisanal cheese and pickles and bags, but what about poems and the people who wrestle with them and bring them to us in another language and the men and women in cities like Brooklyn and Minneapolis and Detroit who get off work and make their way to a warehouse and stay up all night so those poems can come into the world? I was reading Berg’s poems in Swedish even though I don’t know Swedish and I saw the word Stradivarius and I knew what that meant. That was a thing someone made that’s priceless and has a history and may have gotten stolen or lost and searched for and fought for just to hear it again.
Ugly Duckling can’t get us the books by early January so you’ll get a PDF instead. And then at the end of January you’ll get the book in book form. You’ll get it right around the time Aase Berg joins us from Sweden and Johannes Göransson joins us from America and the book’s editor, Garth Graeper joins us from the kingdom of Ugly Duckling so we can all chat online. That’s a first for us, too.
We’re in this together. We are making something beautiful and real and I hope you’ll join us in the barn.