The Dérive of Derivativeness

Ron Burgundy: Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of
course in German means “a whale’s vagina.”
Veronica Corningstone: No, there’s no way that’s correct.
RB: I’m sorry, I was trying to impress you. I don’t know what it means. I’ll be honest, I don’t
think anyone knows what it means anymore. Scholars maintain that the translation was lost
hundreds of years ago.
VC: Doesn’t it mean Saint Diego?
RB: No. No.
VC: No, that’s — that’s what it means. Really.
RB: Agree to disagree.

Over the last few years, Toronto’s BookThug has published a series of poetry books best described as deviant (or ludic) translations. Deviant translations are unshackled from the strictures of literalism. The poet-translators do not wish to demonstrate mastery of the original author or work. In fact, they are suspicious of mastery as an aesthetic, moral, or linguistic stance. Instead, by adopting a series of formal and conceptual strategies, including reflexive meditations on the process of translation (as recommended by Benjamin), the authors purposely celebrate and exacerbate semantic infidelity, so that — to borrow from Ron Burgundy — San Diego may, in fact, felicitously mean “a whale’s vagina.”

Books composed in this mode include, for example, Erin Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei’s Expeditions of a Chimaera, Clint Burnham’s The Benjamin Sonnets, Steve McCaffery’s The Basho Variations and Every Way Oakly (reissued; originally published in 1976), as well as Stephen Cain’s Stanzas (2010) and Mark Goldstein’s After Rilke: To Forget You Sang (2008). Cain and Goldstein are the focus of my discussion, their books examples of a snowy Canadian “afterlife” afforded texts by way of translation.

Stephen Cain’s Stanzas is a fourteen-page “allusive referential” reduction of Gertrude Stein’s “Rooms” (from Tender Buttons). “Allusive referential” refers to a homolinguistic translation technique developed in the late 70s by Dick Higgins and Steve McCaffery. (See McCaffery’s Every Way Oakly and Intimate Distortions for excellent examples.) In his essay “Towards an Allusive Referential,” Higgins proposes that the poet should treat words as “radicals with great polyvalence, capable of entering into a vast variety of identities”:

1) I think a. Let us call a my “object.” 2) As an artist, I observe that though I try to think a simply, I find that my mind moves on to b. I could fight this and insist upon mentioning a only…. However, instead I accept the displacement. B now becomes the new object, which I will call the “referential.” 3) But when I find that I refer to b in my original context, that the sense of a, if the intuition has been a close one, remains. B is justified by its heightening of the experience of a– though a displacement, the allusion (or movement from a to b) has created a vivid effect in my mind.

The poet subjects words or phrases to a series of paradigmatic substitutions (Higgins’s displacements) based on “word association, resonance, and subjective interpretation.” “Intuitive leaps” adduce, from the original source, “some additional and relevant element which might otherwise be unevocable.” Thus, “allusive referential” translation is part language-game, part heuristic counter-method of translation, and part parody of Romantic definitions of metaphor.

The best way to appreciate all this is to see the technique in action. Below, I have provided three excerpts from Cain’s Stanzas; in italics, beneath each excerpt, is the corresponding passage from Stein’s “Rooms”:


Perform without a spotlight.
A mix for the masters.
Starve the saccharine smiths.
Apparent apartheid.

Act so that there is no use in a centre. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to
the ones preparing. They do not eat who mention silver and sweet. There was an occupation.


Burnt and behind and lifting a temporary stone and lifting more than a drawer.

Cigarettes arise from rocks and sail above sketches.


Building boners entropic engorgement.
Distracted dogma, dinner.

Something that is an erection is that which stands and feeds and silences a tin which is
swelling. This makes no diversion that is to say what can please exaltation, that which is

Cain’s displacements display varying degrees of invention, as when he extracts the verb to draw from “drawer” (furniture), thus producing “sketches” or when substituting the boyish slang of “boners” for the more abstract “that which stands”— not “erection,” which is, instead, for Cain, a “building.” To Stein’s aphoristic “act so that there is no use in a centre,” Cain responds by advising poets to “perform without a spotlight.” Other correspondences are less “vivid” (especially when compared to McCaffery’s allusive referential work) and even downright superficial: for example, “that which is cooking” is “dinner” and “burnt” is “cigarettes”).

Cain adds other features to his translative process. First, his poems are “reductions.” Thus, they have semantic as well as temporal ramifications: specifically, the duration or measure of Stein’s prose is significantly clipped. Second, in Italian, stanza means “room,” and a stanza is also a lineated unit: Cain visually reorients Stein’s prose work by way of irregular stanzas. Each stanza corresponds with a single paragraph from Stein’s “Rooms”; and each line corresponds with a single sentence from Stein’s “Rooms.” Cain maintains Stein’s punctuation marks: for example, her “A little lingering lion and a Chinese chair, all the handsome cheese which is stone, all of it and a choice, a choice of a blotter” becomes “Loitering leonine, Asian armoires, lovely lapidary lactose, complete questionnaire, infinite ink.” Third, Cain’s translation involves alliterative sound-patterning, thus delimiting the repository of potential word substitutions, associations, resonances, and interpretations. The results are wonderfully absurd (“Martini stability”) and sometimes even wise (“Eventually an anniversary”).

By contrast, Mark Goldstein’s After Rilke: To Forget You Sang presents homophonic translations of Rilke’s nine-poem sequence The Voices. In homophonic translation, the sound-structure and sound-sense of a foreign language, but not necessarily the meaning, is translated into the English language. The most stunning example of this technique is Celia and Louis Zukofsky’s groundbreaking Catullus. Their translation “follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin.” Homophonic translation “permits anybody… to listen and get something out of the poetry… to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among the sounds of natural things, thus escape the confines of time and space….” My mentioning of Zukofsky is not accidental. He serves as one of Goldstein’s central Muses. In “A Note on the Text,” Goldstein writes, “It was Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus that asked me to put pen to paper.” Notice the agency: Zukofsky calls; Goldstein listens (“tune in”) and responds. Such is the collaborative, ontological spirit of translation — not fidelity to intention.

Let me offer an example from After Rilke. Goldstein’s “Title That” is a translation of Rilke’s “Titelblatt,” with a fantastically roughnecked first line:

The rotten and fuck-liking gotta have violence —
demand will widen among these sins.
Paper the dirt, again — I mustn’t be silenced
mustn’t be saged. I’ve been blind.
Order: it embarrasses the wording.
Order: it nightmares in the gut.
Order: it happens in one’s mind…
Order: where we’ve each been deemed to be tough.

And violate this, this is garnished enough.

And wield all sons with a heart-on.
And in him forbidden, mustn’t she sing it.

And the horde may not gut the song.

Forget the men sing salt songs; she whores
her castration in knowing chores

after that silver comes, and leaves long
when in these bedridden end-stories.

[Die Reichen und Glücklichen haben gut schweigen,
niemand will wissen, was sie sind.
Aber die Dürftigen müßen sich zeigen,
müßen sagen: ich bin blind,
oder: ich bin im Begriff es zu werden
oder: es geht mir nicht gut auf Erden,
oder: ich habe ein krankes Kind,
oder: da bin ich zusammengefügt…

Und vielleicht, daß das gar nicht genügt.

Und weil alle sonst, wie an Dingen,
an ihen vorbeigehen, müßen sie singen.

Und da hört man noch guten Gesang.

Freilich die Menchen sind seltsam; sie hören
lieber Kastraten in Knabenchören.

Aber Gott selber kommt und bleibt lang,
wenn ihn diese Beschnittenen stören.]

But homophonic translation is one part of Goldstein’s book. Interspersed among the translations are five personal letters from Goldstein to his other guiding Muse: Jack Spicer. After Rilke‘s mix of poetry and epistles riffs on Spicer’s After Lorca, in which the American poet produced deviant translations of, and letters to, the dead Spanish poet. (Lorca even writes the faux-introduction to Spicer’s book — from his grave!) Goldstein uses the epistolary structure to informally discuss his translation poetics. But as Spicer recognized, the epistle also provides an apt metaphor for translation: it is an exchange between the dead and the living, and as words travel from the other- world across to this world, truth, intention, and reliability are confused and rendered immaterial.

After Rilke‘s “Introduction” is penned by the long-dead Spicer. He offers some pithy meta- commentary: “Mr. Goldstein seems to get off on substituting most, if not all, of the words in any given poem… But the poems come from a kind of dictation that seems to say just the opposite of what Rilke wanted them to say.” He refers to the poems as acts of “disordered devotion,” which elide the difference between “what is meant and what is accident.” (Goldstein, in a later letter, refers to this as the “hell of possible meanings.”) Goldstein does well to approximate Spicer’s (in)famously disgruntled tone (e.g. “Honestly, I couldn’t care less that Mr. Goldstein asked me to write an introduction to this book”). But his letters to Spicer are the real prize: they capture the force that propels translation. There is homosocial struggle and pleasure derived from Goldstein’s imagined colloquy with Spicer; and it appears repeatedly, sometimes slipping into desire, too: “the hunt, we men prefer it.”

Ultimately, Cain and Goldstein both perform a dérive of derivativeness. Cain uses Higgins / McCaffery in order to translate Stein; Goldstein uses Zukofsky / Spicer in order to translate Rilke. Each collection is an event that documents how Cain and Goldstein listen and respond to voices from the past. Furthermore, Cain’s and Goldstein’s translations are not mimetic; they are methexic. Methexis is an Aristotelian term that refers to an experiential mode of art based on “participation, contagion (contact), contamination, metonymic contiguity” (Nancy, Listening). It requires “the totality of perceptible registers” working together. That “totality” informs and compels the intuitive leaps upon which Cain’s and Goldstein’s particular linguistic displacements depend. Finally, as noted earlier, these deviant translators are not interested in mastery. The poets want to remove the question of power from the translative / interpretive process: as Goldstein writes, “So forget those who want to crack the poem, they can rest in groundlessness with the rest of us where the unknown may come to inhabit their lives.” Thus, the strategies discussed are means of accessing the unknown and moving beyond a conception of the poem as a “safe” that opens up to stacks of cold hard authority and semantic certainty.

Alessandro Porco is the author of two books of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (ECW, 2008)and The Jill Kelly Poems (ECW, 2005). He is also the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey (Palimpsest, 2010). His latest publication is a chapbook from BookThug titled The Minutes: I-X (2011), the first installment of an on-going serial poem.