'devising of depe renewall'

Caroline Bergvall’s transhistorical translation

Caroline Bergvall at her Kelly Writers House Fellows reading, March 28, 2022. Photo by Kelly Writers House staff.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers eighteen senses for defining translation. Primarily, it is “the action […] of translating […] from one language into another.”[1] Yet translation is also “the expression or rendering of a thing in another medium or form,” “ascending to […] the afterlife” and the “transformation, alteration, or change of the nature, appearance or condition of a person or thing.”[2] Translation is not simply the movement of text between languages: translation is how texts live their afterlives, an act of reexpression and transformation, permitting radical refashioning.

Caroline Bergvall’s works suggest a multilingual model of translation, viewing all language as part of a network. Her writings realize the creative possibilities of translation which is not mere reiteration, but extension and transformation: rather than tracing a straight line from source text to translation, source language (SL) to target language (TL), the translator forges a new path through the linguistic network between them. Translation theorist Clive Scott has proposed a model of translation that allows exploration of these networks. He shifts from “transmissional translation,” “interested in communicating the source text (ST) just as it is, […] pursuing a policy of fidelity,” towards “survival” translation, “interested in transforming the ST, in an effort to capture its changing states, and to project it forward.” “The survival translation,” Scott continues, is “all to do with possibility, with giving the ST new options of being.”[3] This possibility is opened by “constructivist” translation; that is, translation as reading. 

Constructivist translation is “the fullest realisation” of the translator’s individual reading experience of the ST,[4] incorporating intertexts, memories, emotional connections, and “contingencies of linguistic association and of vocal realisation” which arise in reading.[5] Scott envisions writing and translating as forms of reading. He fails to engage, however, with what effect constructivist translations will have on their readers, writing only that they “tend to multiply obstructions to a fluent, linear, recapitulative kind of reading, and pass on [their] own constructivist persuasions to [their] readers.”[6] As works entering into “creative and self-reflexive relation” with their writers’ reading,[7] constructivist translations should encourage similarly diverse, self-conscious readerly engagement. The question I want to ask is: how? Readings of Caroline Bergvall’s transhistorical translations suggest some answers. 

Caroline Bergvall’s translational practice is constructivist in that, as an immigrant and second-language speaker (Bergvall is Franco-Norwegian, writing exophonically in English), she encounters English outside of “native norms.”[8] She weaves this experience into her translations, working across multiple languages to uncover links between historical and modern English, and between English and other languages. She describes her language as not “the best English […] but the most flexible,”[9] wide-open to diverse linguistic influences. Her translations aim to “make and irritate English at its epiderm, and at [her] own,”[10] approaching it from marginal perspectives. Bergvall views “all language [as] migrant,”[11] and her consequent engagement with “translative traffic” opens texts to intertextual, interlingual connections:[12] there is “no fine line” between source and translation, “but a network.”[13] Bergvall’s connective approach reflects her conception of English not as an insular, cut-off language, but as part of a global linguistic web. Her writing opposes what she calls “middling English,” “a smoothing over” of language into a standardized, flattened English which contributes to “the radical disappearance of […] linguistic diversity,” by presenting itself as a homogenous, disconnected language.[14] Bergvall resists middling with her own radical practice, taking an archaeological approach to English, excavating its linguistic roots through etymologies and interlingual word association, in translations of foundational medieval texts (namely Chaucer and the Anglo-Saxon “The Seafarer”).

This preoccupation is not new: etymology and English’s history have consistently interested poets, beginning with Romantic poetic interest in philological reevaluations of English’s Anglo-Saxon roots, through Victorian medieval revivalism and modernist interest in language history, towards the imaginative etymologies of poets like Geoffrey Hill,and widespread current interest in archival and historical poetic practices.[15] Even the geological metaphor Bergvall uses (language as earth with historical strata) stems from nineteenth-century philology.[16] However, her approach uses a different frame of reference to these historical counterparts. Poets of the nineteenth and twentieth century working etymologically are typically inner émigrés,[17] belonging in English; tracing its roots is tracing their own. Bergvall is not an inner émigré, but external immigrant: exploring English’s history, she is drawn to places where English meets other languages, entry points into a larger interlingual model of connected language. She also differs in her engagement with experimental translation practices: where other poet-translators of Old English texts (William Morris and Seamus Heaney translating Beowulf, Ezra Pound “The Seafarer”) sought to recreate original sound patterns, Bergvall reaches for constructivist translation, weaving her own linguistic intertexts, her history of reading, into the fabric of the language she employs. Reading her transhistorical works permits me to both reimagine English, and address the reading experiences offered by constructivist translation.

Bergvall’s new publication Alisoun Sings and her “Shorter Chaucer Tales” take Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as source texts, while her 2014 book Drift remixes “The Seafarer.” The texts are written in a macaronic language Bergvall calls “transhistoric English,”[18] mixing elements of various modern and historical languages. Transhistoric English stems from Bergvall’s experience with premodern English. In “Middling English,” an accompaniment to the “Shorter Chaucer Tales,” she describes Chaucerian Middle English as “a mashup on the rise,” a language whose attractiveness lies in its lack of fixity, its polylingual richness, the visibility of its multiple roots (Anglo-Saxon Germanic, Anglo-Norman French, continental Italian, scholarly and religious Latin, Viking Norse, etc.). She crystalizes this in the character thorn (þ), shared by many medieval European languages, including Old Norse and Old and Middle English. Thorn slowly dropped out of use in most languages with the advent of printing (though it remains in modern Icelandic). In Drift, Bergvall includes pages of hand-drawn thorns, and a text entitled “Þ” in which she describes thorn as a “tantalising marker of the completely buried inscriptive and syntactical realities at the root of the English that we live within.”[19] Bergvall’s transhistoric practice seeks to draw out this “buried” complexity, not pulling texts in straight lines from historical to modern English, but revealing the webs connecting these languages.

Bergvall's hand drawn thorns
Figure 1. Thorn pages from Drift, reproduced with permission of Nightboat Books.

Reading transhistoric English requires each reader to trace her own webs. The language is constructed from etymologies and interlingual connections, so is replete with words unknown to standard modern English. As such, each reader’s understanding is necessarily contingent on the languages she knows, which dictate her associations to and interpretation of the words. This produces a diversity of individual reading experiences: for example, my readings, knowing modern and Middle English and French, differ greatly to those of a friend who reads German and Old English. As literary critic and translation theorist Matthew Reynolds points out, such divergent reading experiences produce multiple effects from a single text. Writing on multilingualism in Ciaran Carson’s translation of Dante, Reynolds focuses on a point where Carson uses an Italian word, presto, in his English; while Carson is apparently capturing a moment of congruity between SL and TL, it transpires that presto does not appear in Dante’s text here. “The lip-synch is being faked,” writes Reynolds, “and indeed there would have been an element of fakery even if Dante had used the word, for ‘presto’ in English […] is not the same as presto in Italian.”[20] Bergvall, describing the process of creating Drift, writes: “I pretend to one-to-one sound-to-sound assimilations, indulge in false friends and fake slippages.”[21] Such lip syncs exploit linguistic affinities to create a rich sonic and conceptual landscape. These landscapes remain individual to their readers; a purely Anglophone reading of Carson’s “presto” differs from a bilingual one, or the reading of someone familiar with Dante. Interlingual sampling takes a citational dynamic to a foundational linguistic level, working languages in as intertexts, reconfiguring the reader’s model of language.

Bergvall’s early forays into meddled-with English, the “Shorter Chaucer Tales,” work with citation at a larger level, translating several Canterbury Tales using words from modern intertexts, including BBC news articles (“The Summer Tale”), a papal letter, John Ashbery, and Francis Bacon (“The Franker Tale”). Readers’ experience of these texts will differ hugely depending on their level of knowledge of Chaucer, and recognition of the citations (or lack thereof). For instance, the critiques of Catholicism in “The Summer Tale” and “The Franker Tale,” in which Bergvall cites contemporary texts about the Pope, have particular resonance if the reader knows about Chaucer’s summoner and franklin, and the anticlericalism which pervades The Canterbury Tales. Similarly in “The Summer Tale,” a Chaucerian spin on a prohibition on advertising alcohol during a papal visit, the pun in the line “‘Deus hic!’ quod he, God is here” only works fully for Anglophone readers with rudimentary knowledge of Latin, for whom the Latin phrase summons Catholicism, and “hic” onomatopoeically replicates drunkenness. 

Bergvall’s later transhistoric works, Drift and Alisoun Sings, employ fewer explicit modern intertexts, but as translations remain intertextual (translations inescapably point to texts outside themselves). Bergvall continues to work using singular words which draw variable readings depending on individual readers’ intertexts and linguistic associations. She draws attention to reading’s contingency and instability; because the experience of reading these texts relies on ambiguity and linguistic multiplicity, readers become aware that their personal path through the text is just one route among many by which the book may be traversed. Bergvall’s texts often deny or disrupt possibilities for what Jerome McGann calls “linear reading,” easy absorption and synthesis of the text on the page.[22] Instead, her readers’ experience relates to what McGann terms “radial reading,” intertextual reading which sends the reader away from the text, to other texts which exist within its radius, including works of reference and other literary works.[23] Bergvall shifts this from a textual dynamic to a linguistic one; her translational practice represents a radial reading of English, infusing it with surrounding languages. In turn, it encourages a reading which is radial, dispersed, or drifted; the language Bergvall employs denies the possibility of a singular “correct” meaning, such that individual perceptions of intertextual or interlingual connections become paramount to reading her texts.

Bergvall’s awareness of English’s multilingualism allows her to treat potential interlingual slippages as opportunities. Take the opening lines of “Song 1,” the first piece of writing in Drift

tell Hu ic how ache wracked from
travel gedayswindled oft thrownabout bitterly[24

The modern English “ache” is initially a slip from “ic,” an Anglo-Saxon form of I, but it becomes ache in the familiar modern sense, which is also apparent in Old English.[25] Ache slips into the sound of “wracked,” creating a rhythmic repetition of stresses which reinforces the sensation of being battered. Ache offers a sense of the physical pain “ic,” I, feels, being “thrownabout bitterly.” In “Log” (process notes for the Drift project, included in the book), Bergvall shows the workings behind this, demonstrating how words might be bounced between languages, offering potential translations by association which might simply be discounted as “wrong” in transmissional translation, but offer productive connections which can be mined in constructivist translation. She traces the slippages. For instance, foldan, a word from her medieval sources meaning “earth/ground/surface – land” prompts “OE folde / ON fold / surface of the earth, the ground / the fold, leave, fold, / fold out across the iscaldne weg way.”[26] By indulging linguistic affinities, the earthen fold becomes the page’s folding, the leaf taken from “leave” (leaf and page being synonymous in English and identical in French: feuille). These links to departure or bridging, and notions of narrative unfolding, show a “way” to leaf through the book, by interleaving languages. The word, moved between languages by sonic semblance, opens up a multiplicity of meaning which enriches it and the very act of reading. 

Bergvall’s lip syncs are sometimes “true,” pulling words across from her sources, but there are degrees to this. In Alisoun Sings, she plays with Canterbury Tales’ prologue, loosely translating its sense but shifting words around: “Band,” the sentence of the book’s “Pilgrimming” section where she does this most clearly, begins “It is during the wilde months of Summer” and ends “that May’s luscious soote blooming calls & folks long to go on pilgrimming.”[27] The equivalent passage in Chaucer begins, “whan that Aprill with his shoures soote” and ends “thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”[28] Bergvall replicates the whan/thanne (when/then) construction, but replaces April with May, and detaches “soote,” meaning sweet or fragrant,[29] from the rain (“shoures”), instead attaching it to the “blooming” which in Chaucer constitutes the effect of the “shoures soote.” For readers familiar with Chaucer, the word “soote” produces recognition, the text becoming recognizably a translation of the Tales’ prologue, but on closer inspection this lip sync engenders confusion as the word is almost reproduced in its correct place, but not quite. It creates a moment of insecurity, as an apparent straight line from translation to source is discovered to be illusory; the connecting lines are demonstrably tangled.

In Drift, Bergvall retains source words to different effect: “Nightwacko,”[30] for instance, is taken from the word “nihtwaco” in “The Seafarer.”[31] Bergvall adds a g, clarifying the first part of the compound word as “night,” but leaves “waco” ambiguous (as it is in Anglo-Saxon; it may mean watch or wake, and is a reason for considering “Seafarer” as a potential dream poem).[32] In Pound’s “The Seafarer” translation “nihtwaco” becomes drearily “night-watch”;[33] though a faithful translation of the sense, “night-watch” loses the sonic sensation and contingent affinities produced by the original Anglo-Saxon. Bergvall’s lip sync does not preserve the word’s meaning, but retains its suggestiveness. “Nightwacko” conjures nightmare, madness, waves whacking against the shore — the sound and sensation of a violent storm at night. This is what Pound’s night-watch were watching for; Bergvall’s approach is distinct in allowing readers to see for themselves, constructing their own view rather than being told what they’re looking at. The lip syncs, building understandings based on connections formed across languages, bring the text alive, giving readers sensory understanding. They also offer potentially false purchase, making the text unstable, ripe for overturning. “By juxtaposing languages,” Bergvall claims, “you […] question the stability of a language.”[34]

In Drift, a book about being lost at sea, this linguistic destabilization creates a reading experience which is mimetic and consequently identificatory (though we might question the extent to which most readers can identify with the traumatic experiences of the migrants who feature in the book’s “Report” section). Bergvall describes historical language as “the red thread of the entire project,” a metaphor which, given the maritime context, recalls Goethe’s description of British naval ropes, “so twisted that a red thread runs through them from end to end, which cannot be extracted without undoing the whole.”[35] More than historical language, I contend, it is the sense of lostness and instability that forms this thread, the consistent element sewing Drift’s parts together into a conceptual as well as physical whole. Lostness is present in all Drift’s texts: for the medieval seafarers lost at sea in the “Seafarer” section (comprising the first three texts, “Song,” “North” and “Hafville,” which work from “The Seafarer” and Icelandic Vinland Sagas); in “Report,” the following text, containing a UN report on the “Left To Die Boat” of stricken, drifting migrants; in the shuddering and confusion of the smaller later texts, “Shake,” “Noþing,” and “Þ”; and in “Log,” the process notes where Bergvall describes her own sense of lostness, uprooting herself and moving countries, falling in love and becoming unmoored by it. 

The transhistoric language of Drift plays a crucial role in recreating this lostness for the reader. Journeys into the past lives of words can be approached as a way to stabilize language, semiscientific quests for a singular philological truth.[36] Bergvall detaches herself from this stance, advanced by Richard Chenevix Trench and other proponents of nineteenth-century philology; her exploration of English’s history emphasizes ambiguity, opening the language up to contingency, to the operations of imagination, sonic association, and chance. Bergvall’s use of language surrenders control; she allows herself to drift on the sea of language, “in which you feel language shift in time even as you use it and find something other than your own intentions moving in and through what you thought were your words.”[37] The refrain of the “songs” in Drift’s “Seafarer” section, “Blow wind blow, anon am I,” describes Bergvall’s response to language; she abandons herself to the flux of its currents, to the unexpected coincidences and unintentional resonances it throws up.[38] Instead of reaching to the root, she reaches instead across linguistic and geographical boundaries, refusing the straight lines of definitive meanings. This welcoming of linguistic diversity and ambiguity produces a text which offers readers a multiplicity of potential paths through it. Reading texts written in transhistoric English is a fundamentally destabilizing experience, lostness emerging as you find that “what you thought were your words” are not yours, but belong also to the past, to speakers of other languages, to the strangers in the pages of Drift, and to those who, like Bergvall herself, encounter English from the outside, meet it at the margins.

Drift represents the apex of strangeness in Bergvall’s transhistoric writing. The Chaucerian source texts of the “Shorter Chaucer Tales” and Alisoun Sings date from the late fourteenth century; Drift reaches back farther, beyond Middle English, into Old English. The source language is more distant, and Drift’s variant of transhistoric English is correspondingly stranger, more attached to other historical language forms and Nordic languages, where the Chaucerian texts tend towards relatively familiar French and Romance language links. This strangeness is most visible in “Hafville,” a text in Drift’s “Seafarer” section. “Hafville” begins by presenting an apparently coherent description of an unknown drifting “they” who have “completely lost their reckoning,” in syntactically correct sentences.[39] Yet, while its constituent sentences make sense, repetition stops the text being easily construed. Phrases and words appear repeatedly in different configurations, each new context and associated understanding of a word half-displacing the last, so the words’ actual meanings become impossible to grasp. To trace one set: “The fair wind failed. The wind dropped. Winds were unfavourable straightaway. The favourable wind dropped […] Then the wind dropped […] The fair wind failed and they wholly lost their reckoning.”[40] The dropping wind and “[un]favourable” circumstances recur, as do mentions of fog and loss of reckoning, so the reader loses her own reckoning in the morass of repetition.[41] In Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai describes the peculiar effect of the accumulation of repeated words on readers: it is, she writes, “as if the loss of strong links in the text paradoxically strengthens an affective link between text and reader, transferring the text’s ‘stupor’ to him or her.”[42] Something similar occurs in Drift, the seafarers’ torpor affectively transferred to readers as the words lose meaning and confusion sets in.

text reads: The fair wind failed. The wind dropped. Winds were unfavourable straightaway. The favourable wind dropped and they were beset by storms so that they made little progress. Then the wind dropped and they were beset by winds from the north and fog; for many days they did not know where they were sailing. The fair wind failed and they wholly lost their reckoning. They did not know from what direction. Driven here and there. The fog was so dense that they lost all sense of direction and lost their course at sea. There was much fog and the winds were light and unfavourable. They drifted far and wide on the high sea. Most of those on board completely lost their reckoning. The crew had no idea in which direction they were steering. A thick fog which did not lift for dats. The ship was driven off course to land. They were tossed about at sea for a long time and failed to reach their destination. We embarked and sailed but a fog so thick covered us that we could scarcely see the poop or the prow of the boatPages from Caroline Bergvall's DriftFigure 2: “Hafville” 1–4, from Drift, reproduced with permission of Nightboat Books.

This rubbing down of words’ meaning by repetition becomes literal wearing away of letter forms as “Hafville” progresses. From “Hafville” 1 through “Hafville” 5, the pages seemingly repeat one text, but on each successive page the disintegration worsens until it becomes complete, “Hafville” 5 offering only the letter t repeated across the page, an extended stuttering, a failure of language. The text resists hermeneutic reading; it cannot be parsed for lyric or narrative sense. Readers are left wondering whether to construe it textually, as broken parts of words, verbally as stuttering speech, or graphically as pattern. There is confusion between what Scott terms “visual and verbal paralanguages,”[43] between graphism and voicing, neither of which can be understood by conventional linguistic hermeneutics. This represents a coincidence with the experience of reading medieval texts in manuscripts. Manuscripts’ variable spacings, unrecognizable letter-forms and strange punctuation marks are difficult for the modern eye to parse, or to know whether to read as graphic, text, or diacritic. Drift’s second text-page contains a passage which seems to describe this: “a hungor innan mind stole me to more / weird comas let me let me let me freeze.”[44] The mental desire to comprehend throws the reader of manuscripts towards “weird comas,” or commas, or rather the ugly medieval ancestors of modern punctuation marks, like punctus versus or punctus elevatus, apparently implying pauses but often unintelligible:[45] Bergvall as translator is left pleading to read in (“let me let me let me”), but is left suspended in stupor, as the reader is by “Hafville”’s repetition. 

page from the "Hafville" section of Bergvall's Drift
Figure 3. “Hafville” 5 from Drift, reproduced with permission of Nightboat Books

As the language disintegrates, the text becomes readable only by a constructivist approach: in Scott’s words, this is “language, not as a vehicle for meaning, but as a material performing its
own body and expressive resourcefulness, encouraging us to savour its generative diversity.”[46]

Bergvall tears her language into fragments, strewing it across the page: the letter form, ceasing to be part of a word, a signifier in a hermeneutic system, is released to exist on its own terms. Language here is a body that stutters and stumbles and falls apart. The language acts upon the reader’s body too, the eye forced to work outside its normal reading mode in order to figure out how to take in these repeated t’s, the internal ear straining to hear the fragmenting words. Reading experience becomes central, and the reading experience imposed is constructivist: the embodiment of reading asserts itself in its difficulty, so the reader is made to question the process of reading. Reading experience is how the text achieves understanding: as the reader becomes lost in the text, misunderstanding words, misattributing meanings, identificatory lines are drawn between this reading experience and the experiences of the people within Drift.

This reading is made possible by Bergvall’s manipulation of the material form of the codex (a codex being “a pile of pages bound together, the current form of what we generally call a book”).[47] The page-span is set up such that the facing-page double-spread of t’s stands alone: separated by the codex’s folds from the source text which Bergvall has crumbled to make them, the t-pages become incomprehensible. “Hafville” is also separated from the explanation of its title, found in “Log”: here, we learn the word comes from Norse sagas, “hafville, [meaning] sea wilderness, sea wildering.”[48] Viewing “Hafville” in contingency with ‘Log,’ readers become directly cognizant that their experience of reading “Hafville” acts as a dramatization of being lost at sea. Yet, by the separation of the codex (assuming we read linearly), this knowledge is forbidden to us on first reading. Unlike the “Shorter Chaucer Tales” which are preceded in Meddle English by “Middling English,” which prepares their way, or Alisoun Sings which begins with Alison’s introduction, Drift begins in medias res: explanations come after the transhistoric texts. On first reading Drift, readers experience loss of reckoning similar to the ST’s seafarers: Bergvall translates her sources’ sensation rather than their sense, “linguistic experience” favored over “textual meaning.”[49]

“Log” is a pivotal point in the reading experience of Drift. It appears near the back of the book, and in it Bergvall lays bare the process of Drift’s project, offering demystifications of earlier texts. Etymologically, log is a nautical term for a piece of wood used to measure the “rate of a ship’s motion,” and one might “sail or calculate one’s way by the log.”[50Log is also a shortening of logbook, the record of measurements. “Log” acts as log and logbook, a text by which readers might orient themselves by in (re)reading Drift, and a record of Bergvall’s movement through the process of its writing. Dana Levin, reviewing Drift for the Boston Review, writes: “To fathom Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, you must voyage through the book twice, along two profitable paths: the lost way and the lit way.”[51] For Levin, the “lost way” is reading linearly through the codex, not properly comprehending, a path of prevailing hafville. The “lit way” is tracing back, rereading in light of “Log,” with the tools to grasp the preceding texts. (Reading the lit way, you know hafville means sea-wildering, so wouldn’t imagine it, as I did, as home-lack, a meaning I invented from splitting the word into ville, French for town, and approximating “haf” to half.) Despite recognizing the attention it calls to the multiplicity of potential reading experiences, Levin finds “Log” disappointing:

Readers may regret that “Log” breaks the book’s spell. Some will have liked being a lost seafarer, having to wander and wonder — isn’t that the point? Others, not as willing as I to drift with Bergvall without expository rescue, will be grateful for her insight into how to absorb Drift.[52]

Levin, I believe, misconstrues “Log.” While it appears to offer “expository rescue,” explaining preceding texts, “Log” is treacherous. Reading Drift, even the “lost way,” readers must decide what they think is happening in the book. As Antoine Compagnon puts it, “a book that offered me no foothold (point d’accommodation) […] would be unreadable and I would reject it”: to continue reading, you must find purchase, shelter, accommodation.[53] “Log” effects not an exposition but a capsizing, overturning the reader’s decisions about what Drift is. Levin found accommodation in Drift in understanding her reading self as “a lost seafarer,” comprehending her reading experience of Drift as a reproduction of the seafarer’s lostness. So, when that lostness was overturned in “Log,” she felt the spell was broken. On first reading, I too read “Log” and discovered my footing was on false ground: it was a disorientating experience; I became more lost. “Perhaps it is great on paper to find oneself after a long period of loss,” writes Bergvall. “In reality, of course, it’s just dark and dirty. Being lost while holding on is simply getting stuck. Being stuck is the most lost.”[54] I was mired in the text as I held onto my previous reading, while it was made unknowable, lost, to me. If “Log” came earlier in the codex, as explanatory introduction or prefatory essay, the reading experience could not express such overwhelming lostness. “Log” foregrounds reading’s contingency, showing readers the potential multiplicity and diversity of reading routes through DriftDrift’s codex, with its interleaved texts, replicates the networked model of language. The source texts remain external, allowing the internal texts (and individuals’ readings) to interrelate to one another as different ways of translating one source experience (the red thread of hafville), capturing its “changing states” and projecting it through time, from the tenth to the twenty-first century, a perfect enactment of Scott’s survival translation model.[55] If translation, according to Scott, is reading, reading is also an enactment of translation, each reader tracing a route through the book as the translator does through language.

The way Bergvall’s transhistoric texts force readers to act as translators draws another identificatory line between writer and reader: encountering transhistoric English, first language anglophone readers find the language they thought was theirs made barely comprehensible. Experientially, we become foreigners to English, encountering it from outside, as Bergvall, writing exophonically in English, must: readers are made to identify with marginal experiences of English. This has several implications. First, the multiple potential identifications of transhistoric English, the lines drawn between readers and other people, whether Chaucer’s Alison, or Drift’s migrants and seafarers, suggest a different way of thinking about subjectivity, one which relates to the interconnected linguistic model proposed by transhistoric English. In Alisoun Sings, Bergvall quotes a source named “Marina,” who imagines a model of subjectivity, “where the person is not a singleton, but a node in a web of connections.”[56] The foregrounding of reading experience allows readers to explore their own subjectivity, as their subjective experience determines their understanding of the texts. Reading like this, the reader finds she is a “node in a web of connections,” part of a larger network of people and languages, implicated in the lives of others, unable to stand apart. The lives readers are implicated in, the identificatory threads Bergvall chooses to pull on, draw her readers towards the margins, towards a section of humanity that encompasses those often maligned or forgotten, “foreigners,” outsiders, speakers of nonstandard English. 

By working this out through translations of Chaucer and “The Seafarer,” Bergvall emphasizes her political stance. In tampering with these medieval works, foundational texts on which contemporary insular English builds itself, she radically challenges standardized English. By “standardized” or “insular” English I mean that form of English which views itself as belonging to the British Isles, disconnected both from global Englishes imposed upon or adopted by other countries and cultures, and from other European and worldwide languages, intra- and interlingually isolated: standardized insular English is, as Bergvall notes, an “obstacle to flux and larger access,” a gatekeeping language which locks out marginal, variant and nonstandard Englishes.[57] Transhistoric English, with its tracing of English’s historical interlingual webbing, its reaching for nonstandard variants of English, its conviction that “all language is migrant,”[58] reveals standard insular English to be a superficial “middling,” a thin smooth covering hiding English’s deeper mess, the mud of what Bergvall calls the linguistic “midden,” the chaotic, polysemic linguistic space beneath English’s surface. It is this midden that Bergvall excavates in her archaeological practice, in her unearthing of word-fossils, her pursual of errant strands in English’s linguistic web. Her approach is, however, not quite that of the linguistic archaeologist, as nineteenth-century philologists styled themselves.[59] She makes word-roots visible, yet does this not by bringing them to the surface as artifacts. Instead, she churns the language up, ruining its striation so eras and places comingle, and pulls the reader alongside her into the midden. In Bergvall’s work, English’s historical multilingualism connects to its present globalization, its adoption across cultural and geographical divides, whether by choice (as for Bergvall herself) or by force, as a consequence of colonialism, the economic and social prioritization of English over native languages, or hardship-induced migration. The language which Bergvall creates from her excavations of English, uncovering its history and foregrounding its linguistic and experiential diversity, requires from its readers a reconsideration of the language, an opening of its borders, a shift in our conception from middling to midden, from the red thread as a sign of English ownership, of the Imperial Navy and its enslavements, to a red thread of shared lostness. Alison, in Bergvall’s Chaucerian ventriloquism, describes the ideological aims and imagined implications of Bergvall’s process best: “in the maginaries in the geologies of langages whats where we go, shapeshiftynge many grotesqueries, partaking mythmaking devising of depe renewall depe structural change.”[60]

1. Oxford English Dictionary (OED), s.v. translation (n.), 1.

2. OED, s.v. translation (n.), 3, 10, 17a.

3. Clive Scott, Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 101–02.

4. Scott, 15.

5. Scott, 3.

6. Scott, 15.

7. Juliana Spahr, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001), 10.

8. From Lawrence Venuti’s description of “foreignizing translation,” which is translation “deviating enough from native norms to stage an alien reading experience.” Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, 2nd ed. (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2008), 15.
(In this article’s previous life as an undergraduate mini-dissertation, it opened with an extensive critique of Venuti’s concepts of foreignizing and domesticating translation practices.)

9. Caroline Bergvall, “Middling English,” in Meddle English (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2011), 5–19, 18.

10. Bergvall, “Middling English,” 18.

11. Caroline Bergvall, Alisoun Sings (New York: Nightboat Books, 2019), 38.

12. Caroline Bergvall, interview by Charles Bernstein, Close Listening, PennSound, June 11, 2005.

13. Bergvall, Alisoun Sings, 69.

14. Bergvall, “Middling English,” 9; Bergvall, Alisoun Sings, 51.

15. For an overview of contemporary intertextual poetics, see Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

16. See Matthew Sperling, Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 58; Richard Chenevix Trench, On the Study of Words, 4th ed. (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1853), 61–62; Charlotte Brewer, “‘When I feel inclined to read poetry I take down my Dictionary’: Poets and Dictionaries, Dictionaries and Poets,” in Poetry & the Dictionary, ed. Andrew Blades and Piers Pennington (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 26–56; and Deborah Bowman, “not even invented,” in Poetry & the Dictionary, 127–50.

17. Chris Jones, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8.

18. Nightboat Books, press release for Alisoun Sings by Caroline Bergvall, November 19, 2019.

19. Caroline Bergvall, Drift (Callicoon, NY: Nightboat Books, 2014), 180.

20. Matthew Reynolds, Likenesses: Translation, Illustration, Interpretation (London: Legenda, 2013), 99.

21. Bergvall, Drift, 144.

22. Jerome McGann, “How to Read a Book,” in The Textual Condition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 101–28.

23. McGann, 116.

24. Bergvall, Drift, 25.

25. See OED.

26. Bergvall, Drift, 151.

27. Bergvall, Alisoun Sings, 94.

28. Geoffrey Chaucer, “General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales,” in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, repr. 2008), 23–36, lines 1–12.

29. Middle English Dictionary (MED), s.v. sọ̄t(eadj.

30. Bergvall, Drift, 25.

31. “The Seafarer,” in A Guide to Old English, ed. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, 8th ed. (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 285–90, line 7.

32. This suggestion made by Dr. Richard Dance in an Old English translation class, supported by examples cited in Bosworth-Toller entry for “wacu.”

33. Ezra Pound, “The Seafarer,” in New Selected Poems and Translations, ed. Richarad Sieburth (New York: New Directions, 2010), 24–26, line 7.

34. Caroline Bergvall, “Seeing Through Languages,” interview by Alexander Vesterlund, Louisiana Channel.

35. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. D. W. Niles (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1872), 163.

36. Bowman, 134–36.

37. Bowman, 132.

38. Bergvall, Drift, 25–27.

39. Bergvall, Drift, 36.

40. Bergvall, Drift, 36.

41. For a fuller exploration of repetition in Bergvall’s work, see Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 116–50.

42. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 256–57.

43. Scott, 46.

44. Bergvall, Drift, 26.

45. For a fuller account of medieval punctuation practices, see Malcolm Parkes, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2016).

46. Scott, 15. From his description of the characteristics of constructivist translation.

47. Jacques Derrida, Paper Machine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 9.

48. Bergvall, Drift, 153.

49. Scott, 11.

50. OED, s.v. log, n.

51. Dana Levin, “Get Lost,” review of Drift by Caroline Bergvall, Boston Review, February 3, 2015.

52. Levin, n.p.

53. “un livre qui ne m’offrirait aucun point d’accommodation […] serait proprement inaccessible et je le rejetterais. Antoine Compagnon, La Seconde Main (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1979), 23.

54. Bergvall, Drift, 139.

55. See Scott, 102.

56. Bergvall, Alisoun Sings, 93.

57. Bergvall, “Middling English,” 13.

58. Bergvall, Alisoun Sings, 38

59. See Trench.

60. Bergvall, Alisoun Sings, 41.