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Translating Aase Berg: A conversation with Johannes Göransson

By James Pate.

Aase Berg

I first encountered Johannes Göransson’s translations of Aase Berg’s poetry in the late nineties, and was immediately fascinated by her work. Berg’s writing seemed remarkably different from the poetry being written in the U.S. at that time; unapologetically baroque and bracingly anti-humanist, Berg’s work was neither lyrical (in the usual sense of that word) nor did it have much in common with Language writing, the dominant form of experimental poetry in those years. Here, nature was less Wordsworthian than Lovecraftian, and the “human” was only one aspect of a much larger cosmic vision. Berg appeared to have more in common with poets like Poe and Plath than with more canonical poets like Whitman. I recently spoke with Göransson about his translation of Berg’s new book, Hackers (Black Ocean, 2017).

3:AM Magazine: By my count, Hackers is the fifth book of poetry you’ve translated by Aase Berg. What was your first exposure to Berg’s writing, and why did you decide to translate her poetry? Her poetry seems, to me at least, very different than a great deal of contemporary U.S. poetry – especially in its portrayal of nature as an utterly non-human substance. In the context of Swedish poetry, is Berg’s work unusual in its vision, or are there other poets writing in this mode?

Johannes Göransson: I came across her poems before her first book (Hos Rådjur) was published in the journal Res Publica. This might have been her first publication outside of the publications of the Stockholm Surrealists, where she got her start. I was taken by the visceral, over-the-top poetry, and I felt an immediate kinship to her. At that time, I was having trouble feeling any connection to US poetry, which seemed so strict in its decorum-rules (whether quietist or experimental). The “mainstream” especially felt so invested in a sense of moderation and temperance, associated with a self-righteous moralism (we are temperate in our aesthetics therefore we are good). As I don’t write or read to feel “good”, I had real trouble finding any connection to that poetry — this might be exasperated by the fact that I’m an immigrant and thus have a troubled relationship to belonging to begin with. While there was nothing like her in contemporary US poetry, she did come out of a certain lineage: Surrealism and the Gothic. The part where she might seem both particularly Swedish and anti-Swedish is in this perverse depiction of nature. While this runs counter to a lot of national romanticism (nature is super important to Swedish culture), it does perhaps fit in with the treatment of nature in a lot of old folklore (which Aase frequenly invokes in her poetry) where the woods are evil. There is a certain Swedish lineage behind Aase’s work as well: Agneta Klingspor’s bawdy grotesqueries, Ann Jäderlund’s necropastoral montages (Black Square Editions is publishing my translation of her seminal book Which once had been meadow later this year) and, perhaps most of all, Eva Kristina Olsson’s flipped out, visionary poems. Those are all Swedish poets that started publishing in the eighties. There are many more recent poets that share some of her sensibility. For example, Helena Boberg’s Sense Violence, which I’ve translated (Black Ocean is publishing it). 

3:AM: What was the response when you first started to translate Berg’s poetry? Was there an automatic audience in the States for this aesthetic, or did it take a while to find a reading public? You’ve spoken before about how poetry that tends to be translated in the U.S. often seems to be poetry that aligns with poetics familiar to U.S. audiences. Berg’s work is so different from most poetry written in the States — and this was especially true in the late nineties, early aughts. What was the initial reaction to your translations?

JG: I had a tough time getting the book published — in large part because US presses don’t publish works in translation. So that’s a large reason why Joyelle McSweeney and I started Action Books: we realised how few works in translation were being published. However, it did not take me all that long to get the translations published in journals like Conduit, jubilat and Double Room. And once the books came out, there was a pretty quick, powerful response. Again, this response did not come from academia or experimental verse culture, but from a very grassroots-level readership. The books have been reviewed/discussed on blogs and internet journals and have sold quite a few copies. A startling amount of US poets have told me that reading her work “transformed” their idea of what poetry could be. So I would say in short that the people who want to maintain US poetic rules of decorum have not been open to her poetry, but a lot of younger, less established poets have been incredibly enthusiastic. And I would also say that my translations of Berg have participated in a big shift in US poetry since the early two-thousands — a shift in large part due to the proliferation of small presses and alternative venues for poetry. 

3:AM: One of the aspects of Berg that I’ve always found remarkable is how stylistically diverse her work is, ranging from poems that are almost cinematic in their imagery to poems that are densely language-based. And that lack of consistent style seems to go echo with the way the “human” in her work frequently morphs into the “animal” and the “machine”. In Hackers, she writes, “My name — / Deep down / a hacker is never named / the same thing / twice.” How difficult is it to translate Berg compared to other poets you’ve translated? Does the manner in which she appears to deliberately work against what is often called “voice” create challenges in the translation process?

JG: My first reaction is to say that, yes, translating Aase Berg’s poetry is very difficult — it deforms the Swedish language with puns and radical ambiguities, archaic words, contorted syntax, translations and mistranslations and dystranslations. But “difficulty” suggests to me that there could be a right answer, there could be a right translation if I studied hard enough. To me there’s much more movement in the “original” — it parasites, mimics, corrupts language and source texts. In Hackers, there’s all those poems about “hyperparasites” and Trojan horses: her “original” in many cases are perhaps a parasite on another text, or a host for another text. But I am really interested in translating her work — it demands a kind of intensity that I love in poetry. So, perhaps it’s not difficult at all, so much as intensive and immersive.

Hackers by Aase Berg

When Joyelle and I wrote “the deformation zone,” about the way that translation foregrounds the way poems function like zones (circulating, deforming, morphing), we took the term from one of Aase’s poems because her aesthetics are so obviously an aesthetics of deformation. This aesthetic could be seen as “difficult” to translate, but to me it’s poetry that undoes the traditional division between a definite, complete, wellwrought original that is then necessarily corrupted by the translation. Berg’s original is already in circulation, already corrupting and corrupted. In this sense, translating her work is more like participating in a deformation process. I want to think of all translation (and writing) like that, but perhaps her work really foregrounds it.

So many discussions about translation fall back on a reductive idea of “the original reader.” That the role of the translator is to re-create some kind of ideal reader who would have read the poem “first.” But who this original reader is is very unstable – Is it a friend of the poet? The poet herself? Mostly the default “original reader” is imagined as a highly educated reader. That is to say, we assume that poetry is written for the native speaker, the well-to-do who can afford the proper education etc. We assume that there is a “correct” reading of the text. With all her puns and deformations, I think Aase’s “ideal reader” may not be even a native speaker — maybe it’s someone who doesn’t even really speak Swedish, someone who cobbles it together from the sound of the words and faulty internet dictionaries. Many Americans have shown me their own versions of Forsla fett (Transfer fat) for example and often they’re better than mine in many ways. I often tell people that my translations are myopic. As you know, I’m also not a native English speaker, so maybe I’m a parasite. 

Having said that, I have translated poets that write very simply, using standard grammar etc. Translating such works is a less involved process. It has its own charms. But I try to remember that there is no definite original in this case either. 

It seems you are also asking me about the role of the “human” in translation. Anglo-American literature (particularly the New Critics and their followers) tend to equate “human” with the “voice”. I’m thinking about that program-era favourite anthology from the seventies — “the voice that is great within us”. This line of poetry imagines that writing is actually a voice (spoken, not written) that comes from “within”. The poetry is a mediation of the poet’s interiority, i.e. something that corrupts the interiority. As a result, this line of thinking has led to a distrust of poetry with more foregrounded styles (like Aase’s) as “inhuman” in its artificiality (as if the “plain style” or “accessible” poetry wasn’t also a style), and a distrust of translation as a corruption of that inner voice. So her non-compliance with this “inner voice” aesthetics may make her “inhuman” in some people’s eyes, but it also makes it more interesting to translate. 

3:AM: Another aspect of Berg’s poetry that I find intriguing is how film appears to influence her work. In Hackers, the movie Fatal Attraction is implicitly referenced, and in her past work she has referenced Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And yet, she doesn’t employ film in an ironic or condescending way – instead, she seems to hold movies up to some philosophic light, examining them. As someone who knows her work incredibly well, how would you describe Berg’s use of film in her writing?

JG: You’re definitely right. There’s a lot of reference to film in her work and she uses a kind of montage technique in a lot of her work. Often the books will have one or two movies as source texts: for example Solaris in Transfer Fat, The Others in Loss, or Fatal Attraction in Hackers.

I’m in Stockholm right now so I asked Aase. She said she doesn’t really like movies but when she does like movies, she likes to watch them many times. She said she likes movies because we can project all kinds of stuff on them. They can mean what we want them to mean. I would say the early books are incredibly cinematic, especially Dark Matter, which uses cinematic montage more cinematically than any book I can think of (maybe The Prose of the Trans-Siberian by Blaise Cendrars is its uncle-text). In Forsla fett, her third book (which I translated as Transfer fat), the montage changes to be more about sonic play and puns. In Hackers, I think she does both (visual and sonic montage). 


Johannes Göransson

Johannes Göransson is the author of six books, including most recently The Sugar Book, and the translator of several more, including books by Swedish poets Aase Berg and Ann Jäderlund, and Korean poet Kim Yideum. His critical book on translation, Transgressive Circulation, and his diaries from the fall of 2013, Poetry Against All, are forthcoming. He publishes Action Books with Joyelle McSweeney, and teaches at the University of Notre Dame. 


James Pate

James Pate is a poet and fiction writer. His work has appeared in La Petite Zine, Black Warrior Review, Cream City Review, storySouth, Blue Mesa Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Harpur Palate, Juked, and Pembroke Magazine, among other places. He is the author of The Fassbinder Diaries (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Flowers Among the Carrion (Action Books). He teaches creative writing and philosophy at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, WV.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 10th, 2017.