A short interview with Mark Goldstein

Mark Goldstein is the author of three books of poetry published by the award-winning BookThug: Form of Forms (2012); Tracelanguage (2010); and After Rilke (2008). His poetry and criticism have appeared in periodicals including The Capilano Review, Open Letter, Matrix Magazine and Jacket2. He divides his time between Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.

Q: I’ve always been curious at your interest in what Erín Moure has termed “transelation,” specifically your ongoing explorations of the work of Paul Celan, from your second trade collection, Tracelanguage (BookThug, 2010) to the more recent chapbook, Paul Celan’s Schwarzmaut / Blacktoll (Beautiful Outlaw, 2013). What is it about Celan’s work that appeals so deeply, and what have you learned about his work (and, possibly, your own) through the process of multiple “creative translations”?

A: Although deeply indebted to Eirin Moure’s transelation of Pessoa in Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (2001) we’ll need to look further back in our literature to discover the roots of modern so-called “creative” translation. Broadly, Ezra Pound’s thought on translation as expressed through Fenollosa: the Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1918) and, specifically, in Cathay (1915) has proved to be hugely influential where our work is concerned. Moreover, poet Louis Zukofsky’s fearless development and deployment of aspects of Pound’s methodology propelled him to create one of the most important and challenging works in translation of the back half of the twentieth century: Catullus (1969).

As Paul Celan was both poet and translator, his work, too, proves doubly interesting. His translations of Rimbaud, Mandelstam, and Jean Daive are challenging examples of what’s possible in the modern tradition. Like Rimbaud, Celan is actively purifying the language of the tribe – in a tongue castrated by the Nazi terror. Hence, it is Celan’s post World War II poetry, especially his poetry post-Wende (Atemwende, Fadensonnen Lichtzwang, Schneepart, etc.) that is extremely important to my own writing.

Certain pressures brought to bear on this later work are, hopefully, echoed in my own: namely, what is means to be a Jew living in the shadow of the Shoah, and how this may be expressed formally, syntactically, and rhythmically in one’s poetry. Equally, there is something deeply challenging to be found in the language of Celan’s later poetry: its density, opaqueness, vital ambiguity, sexual energy, and its rightful paranoia and prognostication of a coming neo-fascism, speak to a poetics I find fascinating. Encouragingly, any new reader to this work will discover that storytelling, in any conventional sense, has little to do with Celan’s Poétique. Broadly, it is the very mechanics of his work, its strange music, lexical depth, use of neologism, alchemical and geologic terminology – which are grounded in a rigorous poetics as expressed in Der Meridian – and, ultimately, its un/translatability that draws us most deeply to his expression.

Tracelanguage is, as its subtitle states, A Shared Breath and so it is a collaborative work in a similar sense to that of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca (1957) or bpNichol’s Catullus poems as they appear in Zygal (1985). As Nichol says of his translations, “They turned into conversations with the dead – quite strange because I ended up writing pieces that weren’t really me and seemed much more like Catullus […] and it became a very strange kind of experience of transcription.” I feel similarly when working with Celan. It is a kind of conversation with the dead. I approach Celan’s writing with a deep sense of humility and gratitude that it exists at all. Jack Spicer famously said that “translation is like cheating at poker,” and yet anyone who has read After Lorca knows full well that it too is a collaboration (and translation) of the highest order. Both Nichol and Spicer are critical translators. Nichol authored two texts that are key works in our canon of postmodern translation theory: Translating Translating Apollinaire (1979) and Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine (1973–82) with Steve McCaffery.

Blacktoll is an extension of my own translational work formalized in Tracelanguage, but of a different order. As stated in the work itself, it is “a continuation of my transtranslational experiments first begun in After Rilke (BookThug, 2008) and continued in Tracelanguage (BookThug, 2010). Where Tracelanguage exemplifies a shared breath that seeks to break with tired translational orthodoxies, Blacktoll attempts to embrace both old and new methodologies as singular. Whether one approach is wider or deeper than the other, I’ll leave to the reader to decide in full knowledge that there’s no poem there. By this I mean that words are encampments around an absence – a field of energy beyond description.” I’m not being glib here. I’ve often quoted Maurice Blanchot who wrote that translating is madness (« avec cette conviction que traduire est, en fin de compte, folie » Lamitié, 1971). And yet, Spicer shows us a way in, Nichol, too. However, at some point in the work, one begins to realize the invention of it all. Shelley said that translation is boiling a tulip, and in some sense, he is correct. It’s also been stated that poetry is what is lost in translation. This too seems true. If this is the case, then what is our work? Again, Pound, Zukofsky, Spicer, Nichol and Moure embody practices that are useful to us as readers, writers, and translators.

Unfortunately, terms such as “creative translation,” or “belletristic approach,” (Lawrence Venuti: Towards a Translation Culture, Temple University, 2014) do a disservice to those working in translation. All serious translation is creative. Neo-conceptualism, Uncreative Writing, Appropriative Writing, Intertextuality are practices that must be accounted for by scholars when questioning the so-called “belletristic approach.” If not, then any theory that comes out of such a challenge is merely propounding, as poet Lyn Hejinian states, “models of poetry as objects of aesthetic reverie.” There’s been a polarizing effect between those working from a so-called theoretically based methodology and those working in a creative one, as if a poem could be usefully translated solely by theory, alone; conversely, as if one could simply summon the will to translate a poem, complete. As if one’s methodology could ever be usefully explained then reapplied. As poet Phil Hall has said, “We sent you to get fire, not to draw us a map of how you got there.”

Of course, we can discuss our process and our poetics and we can expound on them, but our mantra when translating must be “no one way.” The poem on hand has its own dictates and we, as translators, must yield to them. Translation by rote creates informational verse. The old argument seems to suggest that there is an ideal translation. That there could be a prize for the best most “accurate” translation of Rimbaud, or any poetry, is impossible, for as Hejinian again reminds us, “language itself is never in a state of rest.” If one’s aim is to read Rimbaud then one must learn to read French. Rimbaud, or Celan for that matter, in any tongue other than their first language is mere approximation.

Q: I like what you say, via Hejinian, about refusing to remain in a state of rest. Is then, the process of translation, for you, as much an entry point for you as a reader as it is for you as a writer and potential collaborator?

A: Absolutely. My whole approach to literature is active and is, first and foremost, as a reader. At a certain point, if one is reading widely and deeply enough, a response becomes inevitable, especially when reading translations of a poet’s work with whom you acutely identify. Early on in my experience of Celan’s oeuvre, I began a careful analysis of his works post-Wende. I sought as many translations of his poetry as I could find (including translations into French, Italian, as well as in English.) Also, I got hold of recordings and video of Celan reading the poems in his Muttersprache (mother tongue). With Celan, I found myself reading translations by Corman, Fairley, Felstiner, Hamburger, Joris, Neugroschel, Waldrop, Washburn and others. When reading closely, you’re bound to want to make adjustments to a text, whether in mind, aloud, or on the page. As I began to fathom the poetry’s Melos, I altered translations where they stood – rewriting them, initially, and later – with the help of a number of German-English dictionaries, a book on German grammar and various on-line translators – I created translations from scratch.

Q: I can imagine that reading that many different translations of the same text, one wouldn’t be able to help but notice the personalities and preferences of each translator seeping through their individual interpretations. What did your reading tell you about the process of translation itself? Is all translation, in fact, “creative”?

A: In May of 2010, I attended a conference on translation at EHESS in Paris, France, along with Pierre Joris, Oana Avasilichioaei and others. I presented a paper entitled “On Transtranslating Paul Celan,” and in it I discuss my transtranslational methodologies, which were primarily “creative,” albeit, post-modern, and their employment when working with Celan’s German while translating his Atemwende. The focus of the paper is process. Along with carefully annotating the development of trans-translating Celan’s poem “Fadensonnen,” and critical quotations from other poets, I also provided a chronological variorum (from 1969 through 2001) of the poem in English translation. It’s here that the im/possibility of translation becomes readily apparent. Specifically, to use Celan’s term, the Sprachgitter (Speech-Grille) that overlies the energies of the poem are laid bare. Strikingly, over 30-plus years, the word-stuff between translations shows very little development. The poem becomes a hall of mirrors. Perhaps, this is due to what appears to be a reverential orthodoxy to some idea of the poem’s “meaning” in English. And yet, the soundsense of the work is entirely lost to all except perhaps Cid Corman, and later, Pierre Joris. But neither translator goes far enough, especially taking into account Zukofsky’s work in Catullus, which was contemporary to Celan’s poetry post-Wende. So, yes, to speak to the question above, and to touch on what I’ve already affirmed in this brief interview, all translation is creative. But I think this assertion misses the point. The key question is: what are we doing when translating and why? Exactly, what is gained by having countless literal translations of a particular poet’s work? Is it a kind of egotism on the part of the translator? Or does each translation further suggest the inevitability of untranslatability? Perhaps the Anglicization of Celan’s German poetry brings about a similar obfuscation as Greek when “carried-over” into Latin: the names of the gods and goddesses are changed but their fundamental powers remain the same.