How Should We Review Translations? Part III

Reviewing poetry in translation means writing about the power of art. It means writing about something the market doesn’t want us to write about.

In this third and final installment, we hear from Johannes Göransson and Katherine Hedeen, both of whom direct our attention to what we should consider when engaging with poetry in translation.  Göransson details the idea of a deformation zone that disorients our conventional understanding of the relationship between the original and the translation. Calling on us to care about poetry in translation precisely because the market does not care about it, Hedeen envisions the practice of reviewing these translations as an act of subversion and as a gesture of solidarity. Be sure to check out parts I and II if you missed them. And if you’re interested in reading even more, at the end of today’s installment, Criticism Editor Ellen Jones has offered a list of other contributions to this ongoing and important conversation on what it means to review translations. 



Viltstängslet har upphört
fladdermusar fittar sig
kring krubbet
Vårt pösmunkfetto slaggar
I sin goda roa,
som stötdämpad
av svallningar
I knubbet

— Aase Berg 

Deformation Zone

The wilderness fence has ceased
flutterbats cunt
around the grub
Our doughnutfatso slops
in peace and quiet,
as if shockmuffled
by ripples
in the plump.

— Translated by Johannes Göransson



Anybody who is willing to engage deeply with a foreign text in translation can write a review of such a work. And it’s important that you do. You don’t need specialist knowledge of the foreign culture, nor do you need to be able to read the original. All you need to do is to open yourself up to poetry—even poetry that may come out of traditions different from those you are used to. 


Poetry is constantly crossing boundaries (linguistic, cultural, aesthetic) and when it does, it’s refracted by the readers, taking on different dimensions as it encounters each new terrain. This is in the nature of what Joyelle McSweeney and I—using a phrase from meteorology via an Aase Berg poem I translated—called the Deformation Zone. In the deformation zone of poetry, the “original” and the translation are involved in an atmospheric dance: their relationship is not the conventional one of original-versus-debased-copy but something more dynamic, something like forces and patterns that rewrite each other. The American Meteorological Society tells us that a deformation zone is “a region of the atmosphere where the stretching or shearing deformation is large.” I would add that the deformation zone is where the most exciting writing and translating is taking place. To open up such zones, we need translations. But we also need critics to write about the translations, to bring them into contact with US writing.


In the discourses around translation, such as “World Literature,” there’s a great anxiety about being a “tourist.” The very word props up in about half of all essays published on “World Lit,” always appearing as a figure of anxiety. And it is an anxiety that is almost always countered with the knowledge of specialists who need to prove that they speak the language, that they know details about the culture, that they are—in short—masters.


In her essay “I Do WomanAnimalAsia” (translated by Anton Hur), Kim Hyesoon writes: “Travel made me realize that ‘I’ am not static but yet another process and movement. Travel is a movement of ‘me’ separating from ‘myself’, dispersing and spreading.” In a sense, Kim associates poetry with being a tourist. And isn’t it this feeling of “dispersing” the self that is really behind all the fears of being a tourist?


Poetry is not, on the whole, written for “masters.” (New Critics and their still prominent descendants will disagree but they are wrong.) Poetry cannot be mastered. Nor can foreign cultures. Nor can US cultures. Cultures and poetry are both in a state of flux. People invested in mastery want to cover this up in order to create hierarchies (or they create hierarchies in order to cover it up). Hierarchies demand stability but poetry—and especially poetry that crosses boundaries—is volatile. Poetry doesn’t like hierarchies, doesn’t want masters. Poetry demands that we “travel” and have our selves, our texts enter into deformation zones.


Some of the best writing about translated poetry I’ve read has been by poets who can’t read “the original.” I think of Michael Snediker’s 2008 review of Gunnar Björling’s You go the words in the journal Pleiades. Snediker acknowledges that he does not have a lot of knowledge of Finland-Swedish culture, but he goes on to perform a fantastically thoughtful review that is based on queer theory and comparisons to Gertrude Stein and John Ashbery, and supported throughout by a profound use of close reading. Snediker’s piece confirms that there are other contexts than national or cultural—in this case, queerness and the experimentalism of international modernism.

This contradicts a nostrum about poetry in translation: that it is best understood in its “original,” which is to say national, context. In this case, the poets’ sense of their work is continually being modified by conversations that resist the restrictions of national borders. 


Of course, it is helpful in preparing a review to read up on various cultural or political contexts of the country the poet is living in. But a poem is not just a specimen of reified national “contexts,” and multiple poets from a given national culture will of course produce poetry across a current of styles, fed by various domestic and international, occult, and mainstream tributaries.


However, it might be at least as useful to read other works that have influenced them—including, inevitably, works from other countries. It might be more useful to read Sylvia Plath or Julia Kristeva in order to understand Kim Hyesoon than it would be to read Ko Un. It might also be more useful to consider horror movies—Korean movies sure, but Kim loves horror movies from other countries as well. (The first time we met we spent a lot of time talking about David Lynch and the Swedish movie Låt den rätte komma in, which she called Let Me In, but which was of course an intercultural, interlingual reference to the Morrissey song “Let the Right One Slip In”.) And it might be even more useful to read Plath as well as Seungja Choi and Kim Yideum if you’re going to review Kim’s poems.


It might be almost as important to read the foreign poet alongside current US poets they are aesthetically linked to—whether they have read each other or not. Snediker reads Björling next to Gertrude Stein and John Ashbery. Similarly, one might read Kim Hyesoon next to Danielle Pafunda or Berg. The purpose of this would not be to normalize the foreign poet’s work but to show connections and differences and thus to bring it into conversation with US poetry. The key: not to isolate the foreign poets in a neat little canon of “World Lit” that doesn’t have anything to do with our literature. To do so enforces an ideated border between the US and the rest of the world that is both a xenophobic fantasy and incongruent with the capitalist-imperialist reach of US culture, capital, and politics.


Maybe just as importantly, one could compare the foreign poet to US poets who are very different from the foreign poets. For example, comparing Kim’s playful, politically-charged, gothic Surrealism to the kind of “wellmade” poems championed by US poetry institutions reveals that the “neutral” style of mainstream American poetry is in fact a “style.” The foreign may challenge the domestic establishment and open lines of occult conversation with marginalized literary forms outside the mainstream, outside what is considered “important” poetry. Snediker, for instance, acknowledges that Björling’s poetry “jars.” Poetry in translation asks you to appreciate differences that jar, asks you to take your part inside a deformation zone to become a self-dispersing “tourist.” But not just in translated texts. In US poetry as well. 


We live in an age when leading critics focus only on poetry that they deem acceptable, ignoring poetry that challenges them rather than engaging it. The result is a loss of difference. The reason so few works in translation are translated and reviewed is simple: they are different. In this regard, the rhetoric that suggests one does a disservice to a translation by reviewing it without the proper credentials begins to feel pernicious.

At the same time, I have found that poets engaged with the world of small presses are frequently reviewing works in translation. And over the past ten years, in both online journals and blogs, I’ve read amazing engagements with poets like Berg and Kim. It might just be that translation will grow in the dark.

— Johannes Göransson


As I write this, the longlist for the National Book Award in translation has just been announced. It’s a big deal. It’s only in its second year. (It’s exciting. It’s also telling—if not disturbing—but hopeful, too.) The award is for “translated literature,” which—for those of you who don’t know that language—translates to prose. Where’s poetry in translation? I’m supposed to be writing about reviewing poetry in translation. Where is poetry in translation? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t exist here. Most poetry in English is hard to commodify (which, in our consumer culture, means that it barely exists). This all only gets worse (or better) when we add foreignness to the mix (the concept of English-only does indeed exist in the US literary community). And this is where the connection to reviewing lies. The purpose of reviews, in very crude terms, is “to help” the consumers in their decision to consume a commodity. Poetry in translation doesn’t sell, so why review it?

If poetry in translation eludes commodification, reviews are surplus. We can’t think about them in the same way. We can’t think about practicalities or purposes or profit-margins. There has to be something else we’re trying to do with them. The market doesn’t really care about poetry in translation, so we have to care. We have to make reviewing it mean something greater, something beyond and against the market.

Reviewing poetry in translation is an act of dissent. It’s a gesture of solidarity. It’s about recognizing translators as authors and destabilizing narrow, profit-driven definitions of originality, authenticity, and authorship. It’s about making visible the artistry of translation, and, thus, the inherent collaborative, translational dialogues of all creative work. It’s about showing that poetry is not just poetry written in English, that no art neatly adheres to socially-constructed borders. It’s about bringing the “foreign” into an aggressively monolingual space and disrupting the coherencies of that space. It’s decidedly not about celebrating poetry and translation for its “foreignness” (whatever that means), nor about allowing it to be neatly cut-off from the local, the national, whatever “ours” is. It’s about bypassing the perverse ideology of the center. Reviewing poetry in translation means writing about the power of art. It means writing about something the market doesn’t want us to write about. It’s an act of defiance, disobedience, subversion.

This thinking is what led me to adapt the Kenyon Review’s poetry microreview series to poetry in translation. Twice a year, in September and in March, we publish a set of reviews written by translators and translation-readers that go far beyond the ever-so-low bar of “naming the translator” to envision the work of translation and the work of reviewing as precisely that something greater. This is what I consider when I curate the series.

  • No one is banned from reviewing poetry in translation.
  • Reviewers don’t need to know the source language. After all, the intended reader of a translation is someone who doesn’t know it.
  • Reviewers don’t need to be translators.
  • Reviewers don’t need to critique translators for how they approach the foreign.
  • Reviewers don’t need to critique translators in order to showcase their own knowledge.
  • Reviewers don’t need to critique translators in order to have their review be taken seriously.
  • Reviewers don’t need to critique translators. Period.
  • Reviewers should be in solidarity with translators.
  • Reviewers who write negative reviews should consider what important conversation they are trying to start.
  • Reviewers don’t need to explain the poetry’s “worth.”
  • Reviewers don’t need to tell readers how to approach the foreign.
  • Reviewers don’t need to evaluate otherness.
  • Reviewers don’t need to make the foreign legible.
  • Poetry (in translation or not) doesn’t monolithically represent (a) culture.
  • Poetry (in translation or not) rejects uniformity. This is precisely one of the beauties of poetry.
  • Reviewers should be in solidarity with the art.

Reviews of poetry in translation mean solidarity. We should write ones that embody that solidarity, however we conceive it. Poetry (in translation or not) doesn’t get along with capitalism. Its force hasn’t been co-opted by the market. It isn’t explainable by the market either. Its force is why we translate, read in translation, and review works in translation. The decision of how we talk about it is ours.

— Katherine M. Hedeen


In addition to the reflections published here, a series of excellent opinion pieces on reviewing translations have appeared over recent years in a range of publications. As we come to the end of this series I want to share some of those resources. They present a range of perspectives, and sometimes disagree with one another. I hope that readers will use this forum in combination with these other resources to continue to think and talk about the ethics and politics of reviewing translations.

— Ellen Jones

Johannes Göransson has written six books of poetry, including most recently The Sugar Book, and two books of criticism, including Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation and the forthcoming POETRY AGAINST ALL. He has translated eleven books of poetry, including works by Aase Berg, Helena Boberg, Ann Jäderlund, and Kim Yideum. Together with Joyelle McSweeney and Katherine Hedeen, he runs Action Books. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

Katherine M. Hedeen is a specialist in Latin American poetry and has both written extensively on and translated contemporary authors from the region. Her translations include book-length collections by Juan Bañuelos, Juan Calzadilla, Juan Gelman, Fayad Jamís, Hugo Mujica, José Emilio Pacheco, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, and Ida Vitale, among many others; and most recently, PrePoems in PostSpanish, a chapbook by Jorgenrique Adoum, as well as In the Drying Shed of Souls, an anthology of new Cuban poetry. Her work has received a PEN Translates Award in addition to being longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and shortlisted for a National Translation Award. She is the Poetry in Translation Editor for the Kenyon Review, the Associate Editor of Action Books, and a two-time recipient of an NEA Translation Project Grant. She resides in Ohio where she is Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College.


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