Winter 2018: In Conversation with Translator Paul Cunningham

"I don’t want my translations to come across as definitive."

Much of our Winter 2018 issue, from the poetry to the microfiction, shows a strongly surrealist bent; writers like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Nina Iskrenko have an almost limitless capacity to juxtapose discordant words that come off like explosive charges. Against this backdrop, Paul Cunningham’s translations of Helena Österlund appear somewhat sparser, though no less jarring. Ôsterlund’s Words and Colors features a pared-down, repetitive voice, a movement through snowy woods, and a terrifying encounter with a sharp-toothed creature. For me, Words and Colors is reminiscent of Beckett’s How It Is, another work where the contours of individual identity seem to dissolve into a blind, frantic momentum through past, present and future.

Paul Cunningham’s work has been on my radar for some time: not only his translations but also his original writing and video art. In his translations, Cunningham tends to avoid domesticating the poems into a “natural-sounding” English, instead directly transferring the Swedish language’s natural use of compound words. Imagine if we spoke of the German Schadenfreude as “damagejoy” or Poltergeist as “crashghost,” and you might have an idea of the strange effects this can produce in English.

I am always interested in the origin stories of my fellow Scandinavian translators: how they became interested in the languages and their general translation philosophy. I was thrilled to be able to ask Paul a few questions about his previous translations of Sara Tuss Efrik, his video art, and his translation of Österlund’s Words and Colors in the Winter 2018 issue.

David Smith (DS): Your former MFA teacher, Johannes Göransson, has written of your translation approach: “Cunningham is not a Swede or a scholar of Swedish culture . . . he only has rudimentary knowledge of Sweden or Swedish, but uses his artistic instincts and dictionaries . . . His work evidences that rather than demanding some kind of scholarly mastery, sometimes translation demands fascination, interest, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to get it done without having legitimized status as Master.” This is beautifully put and intriguing on multiple levels. But I thought I’d start just by asking you to fill in your story a little. What was it that brought you to learn Swedish, specifically? And what was the “fascination and interest” that led you to literary translation?

Paul Cunningham (PC): Johannes is right. I am not Swedish and I have no Swedish ancestry (that I know of). My relationship to Swedish was quite unplanned. My introduction to the language? A high school poetry instructor gifted me a copy of Aase Berg’s With Deer when I was a teenager. Black Ocean just so happened to distribute With Deer as a bilingual edition. I could read a poem like “In the Horrifying Land of Clay” and, on the adjacent page, I could read the Swedish: “I Lerans Hemska Land.” I could read a Swedish word like “Under” and see it translated to “Beneath.” I could read “muscles” and then see it translated to “musklerna”; “dynamic” and then “dynamisk”; “egg-face” and then “äggansikte.” I noted phonetic similarities between English and Swedish. I became extremely interested in Swedish neologisms and the language itself. And I especially love when words have no literal equivalent in English. (Whatever literal might mean.) I began teaching myself Swedish as a sort of hobby. But translation—translating poetry—was never something I thought I could actually do. Or would do. And it turns out that it’s something I really love!

I guess my “fascination and interest” in translation is a reaction to a sort of American malaise when it comes to poetry in translation. And I think that has something to do with our expectations regarding mastery, authority, expertise, etc. All of those words. To me, it appears that there’s always someone who only wants to engage with a translation if they’re reading the best possible translation of a foreign text. And what does “best” mean as far as translation is concerned? I think about that a lot. Does it mean that the foreign text was domesticated in a way that best appeals to the target audience? Does it have something to do with accuracy? Should a translator tame the strangeness of a foreign text? I’m often perplexed by questions of accuracy when it comes to translation. Johannes taught me that it’s okay to fail. I think a translator will go mad if they’re not willing to fail.

DS: I’m curious about how you, as a non-native Swedish speaker, happened upon the specific poets you work with. Let’s take Sara Tuss Efrik, who (again, in Göransson’s words) writes “volatile” poetry and is “not a prominent writer in Sweden.” What then led you to Efrik and what was your initial encounter with her work like? And how did you deal with the questions you posed above about domestication versus strangeness in your translations of Efrik?

PC: The first time I encountered Sara Tuss Efrik’s work was definitely on the Montevidayo blog. I believe I came across it some time after Johannes and Joyelle McSweeney published Deformation Zone with Ugly Duckling Presse. That particular Montevidayo post led to my discovery of more of Sara’s video-based work. In 2013, Johannes returned from Stockholm’s International Poetry Festival and gifted me a copy of the very special Gurlesque Issue of Swedish literary magazine, 10TAL. And that issue featured Sara’s three-part poem, Nattens Mage (complete with photographs by Mark Efrik Hammarberg), which I would go on to translate as the chapbook, The Night’s Belly (Toad Press, 2016). Long before receiving permission to translate Nattens Mage, I was translating Swedish works, but with no real long-term goal in mind. Again, still more of a hobby at that point. Johannes had seen some of my rough translations of Johan Jonson’s MONOMTRL. I had also spent some time translating previously untranslated fiction by Swedish playwright and grotesque humorist Hjalmar Bergman. But it was Johannes who encouraged me to contact Sara and ask to translate her work. And I did. And I’ve really enjoyed working with her! She’s even featured two of my poem-films in her online magazine, Kastrated.

As far as how I dealt with domestication versus strangeness in my own translations of Efrik, this is very interesting to think about as a non-native. Sara’s wordplay can be very fun, but also quite challenging. For example, she has a poem—one of her automanias—called “Divination.” It’s a response to visual artist Marina Ciglar’s Tail Dress. Like a dress with a tail, Sara often uses compounding and punning to produce new language hybrids. Or neologisms. An example of such a hybrid would be the word “korallrev(a).” In Swedish, the word “korall” means “coral” and a “korallrev” is a “coral reef.” However, she also adds a parenthetical to the formation: “(a).” In Swedish, a “reva” could be many things: a tendril, a rip, a tear, a wound, etc. Knowing Sara had obviously added the parenthetical for a reason, it then becomes up to me to preserve this multiplicity. That’s when it starts to feel like the person you’re translating has taken you over. Possessed you. When you spend so much time in their head that you begin to believe that their logic is greatly affecting your logic. That’s not at all to say that I know what it’s like to be Sara Tuss Efrik. But I want to do justice to her original language—her original strangeness. So you start thinking about the poem long-term and revisiting what you’ve already translated. For example, here I am mid-translation:

dance roll still ongoing
white and pale pink
your wallcrack
coral rev(a) ???

The “wallcrack” is very telling in this moment. Something organic is splitting, breaking apart. We cut to the limbs of a coral reef. Maybe it’s polluted. Wounded. Bleached. Coral reef bleachings. One moment I’m googling coral reef bleachings, the next moment I’m revisiting the pale color of Ciglar’s dress. Multiple tabs that I visit and revisit in my browser. That is how I think of translation. That is how I translate. I try to think of a way to preserve all that is going on—all while preserving the strangeness of Sara’s original pun. I think about my options for days: coral reef tear? Coral reef wound? Splitting coral reef? It all sounds too simplified to me. I can think of no way to preserve the parenthetical, but I eventually think of a way that I can preserve the meanings—the multiplicity behind the pun. “Fissure” is the best I can come up with:   

dance roll still ongoing
white and pale pink
your wallcrack
coral reefissure

And clearly “reefissure” is not a word in the English language, but I feel like I preserved the pun to the best of my ability. And I feel like it’s way more exciting than “coral reef wound.” It feels less definitive. I don’t want my translations to come across as definitive.

DS: I have just been viewing some of the videos you produced for your translations of Efrik. In one of them we hear the Swedish and see the English text on the screen, in another it’s the other way around; but in each of them you’ve created the these wonderful little Lynchian visual poems, a steady flow of images that are unsettling and beautiful all at once. How has translation informed your video art, and vice versa?


PC: There are three poem-films I made surrounding Sara’s work. The one you mention—where we hear Swedish and see English text on the screen—is the teaser I made for The Night’s Belly. As far as what’s happening to the languages visually, I was aiming for simultaneity. I wanted the languages to appear as though they were wrestling with one another. This is similar to what’s happening / being invoked in the imagery of The Night’s Belly. I wanted blood to commingle with lava. Then there’s Rorschach patterns blending with images of children. I wore a Rorschach pattern on my face in a sort of Little Red Riding Hood drag performance. Translation, for me, often feels like drag. During these moments, when I’m trying to match my performance to the pacing of Sara’s spoken Swedish, I begin to feel like I’m performing Sara. And this is true when I spend a day with Sara’s writing. When I spend a day translating. I’m not a disciplined, hour-a-day type of writer. Or translator. I do things in long swaths of time. I would put aside an entire day and spend 8-10 hours in Sara’s head. Which, given her content, can sometimes be quite distressing. But it has to feel immersive for me. I have to feel like I understand how Sara is thinking when I am translating her. So I think making the films helps solidify those things for me. This is why I manipulated my voice in the teaser for Automanias. Because it’s not entirely my voice. It’s helpful for me to self-distort. To remind myself that it is me and also not me.

And Sara did not ask me to make these films. They happened organically. Someone online (Facebook, my favorite cesspool) saw the teaser for The Night’s Belly and said, “The quality of The Shining clips is so bad. It looks so bad.” But that was precisely the point. I just wanted that movie to look like a movie. An image on a screen. That’s why you see it—rectangular and so far away. It’s about distance. Even the collision of the layers of music happening. One of those layers is a distorted rendering of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty score. When Sara saw the same teaser, she said, “It’s really funny. Nice and trashy!” This response was important to me. If someone had watched the same teaser and said, “Oh wow. This is really pristine. Carefully thought out. Your use of Kubrick’s images made so much sense to me,” then I would have failed Sara in a way. It’s not about references to Kubrick. It’s not about the isolation of one image; it’s about the whole that emerges. Again, this is why I think there’s a performative aspect regarding translation. Of trying to inhabit a person’s train of thought. Translator Molly Weigel once said: “I try to capture an English version of the rhythm without a slavish adherence to reproducing a precise meter or rhyme. For me rhythm is connected with voice—that is, with how I hear a poem in my head: where it rushes, where it pauses, what it sounds like when it talks. That is what I aim to get across.” I think this is very accurate, very similar to how I approach translation.

DS: Turning to the excerpt from Words and Colors, I feel like the uncanniness of Helena Österlund is of a different sort than in Efrik. Where you mentioned the multiplicities inherent to Efrik’s neologisms, Österlund tends towards a sparseness of expression that borders on the tautological (The word was the word / But it was not light / The word was not light / The word was the word). Would you agree with that assessment, and were the challenges in rendering Österlund similar or different to what you described with Efrik?

PC: I absolutely agree with that assessment. Regarding uncanniness and the tautological unfolding of Helena’s long, sprawling poems, a reader of Words and Colors might often feel like they’re shifting out of modes of sleep and into modes of awakening. One might feel that the speaker of her poems is half-asleep or half-conscious. Or even comatose at times. For example, the collection is divided into two major poems: “Words” and “Colors.” And “Words” is divided into three sections: “Was,” “Is,” and “Will.” (A sort of poem-triptych of past, present, and future tenses.) So when one finds themselves within “Is,” they’ll most likely feel uncanny feelings of inhabiting what once “Was.” What might be helpful is the variety of recurring markers within the poems: snow, water, trees, a dark figure, and a consistently disturbing blurring between rain and blood. There are times when we see what the poem’s speaker sees. There are times when we see what the poem’s speaker saw. There are times when we learn of what the speaker will see. But sometimes the future feels reminiscent of the past.

As you can imagine, Helena’s poems can be maddeningly fun to translate. At first glance, there’s a deceivingly barebones sparseness to the poems. They seem simple. The language appears simple. But the poems are actually quite complex. Like John Cage’s compositions of meticulously arranged patterns, blank measures, and rests, Words and Colors is its own nervous system of complexities. You have to bury yourself in her music before understanding how it works.

As far as my experience translating Österlund compared to Efrik, all I can say is that, yes, Österlund’s words and language is often simpler and more controlled, but her work is still somehow just as strange and disorienting as Efrik’s. Just as haunting. Efrik’s work is excessively grotesque, whereas Österlund’s language builds and builds before she wallops us with the book’s second poem, “Colors.” “Colors” begins with a section called “Red,” and as you might imagine, it’s not exactly light reading:

I have strong arms
I don’t know how strong my arms are
But I have my arms over the throat of the wolf
The wolf no longer has its teeth in my neck
But I see that I have my arms over the throat of the wolf
I do not want to have my arms over the throat of the wolf
But I have my arms over the throat of the wolf
There is blood coming out of the wolf’s throat
There is a lot of blood coming out of the wolf’s throat
I don’t want all of this blood coming out of the wolf’s throat
But there is a lot of blood

Both Österlund and Efrik will haunt readers, but in different ways. When translating Österlund, I feel as if I’m translating a piece of violently beautiful music. When translating Efrik, I feel as if I’m translating something untamable. A sort of force that cannot be contained. A multiplicity of identities. As a translator, both authors have challenged me in equally exciting ways.

Paul Cunningham was born in 1989 and lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the translator of two chapbooks by Swedish author, playwright, and video-artist, Sara Tuss Efrik: Automanias: Selected Poems (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2016) and The Night’s Belly (Toad Press, 2016). He is a contributing editor to Fanzine and his other writing has appeared in Yalobusha Review, Gigantic Sequins, DIAGRAM, Fireflies, Bat City Review, LIT, Spork, and others. His translations have most recently appeared in Witch Craft Magazine, the OOMPH! Contemporary Translation Anthology, and Sink Review. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia and he holds a M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame. His most recent poem-film, It Is Announced (a collaboration with Valerie Mejer Caso and Barry Shapiro), premiered in the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

David Smith is an Assistant Blog Editor at Asymptote. A Norwegian-to-English translator, his work has appeared in Drunken Boat and Cappelen Damm’s Into the Woods magazine. He was a 2017 Travel Fellow at the American Literary Translators’ Association Conference in Minneapolis.


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