TO TRUTHS TRANSLATED: On Shakespeare and Flarf

Permissions thanks to Nightboat Books (2013)

The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare, edited by Sharmilla Cohen and Paul Legault (Telephone Books, 2012)

by Calum Gardner

The first full-length offering from Telephone Books, an imprint of Brooklyn publisher Nightboat, showcases its ambitious and innovative approach to translation. Rewriting the great English sonnet-sequence is nothing less than what the book’s cover copy calls “rewriting history,” because Shakespeare embodies the history of English literature and indeed the English language itself. This collection also, however, serves as a map of contemporary innovative poetry and practice, largely but not entirely North American. Some of these writers are well-known as translators from other languages – such as Canadian poet Erín Moure – while others, like Rae Armantrout and Sharon Mesmer, are known for their work in English. One sonnet is translated by Jerome Rothenberg, whose anthology-ethnography Shaking the Pumpkin (1972) collects poetry of native America, while other contributors, such as Juliana Spahr, might be better known for their critical work. Indeed, while the position of the poet within the academy, as poet-scholar, is a mark of many contemporary avant-garde movements, which colours their attitude to literary history, no writer here lacks awareness of the crushing weight of the history of the sonnets’ readership and interpretation, which only fuels their ability either to push back or to get out from under it.

Shakespeare is almost a prototypical member of the canon of Dead White Men that recent decades have seen challenged as the sole fit subjects for literary study, and some of the greatest successes of the this collection are those which see him translated from other cultural positions. June Jordan’s “Shakespeare’s 116th Sonnet in Black English Translation,” reprinted from her 2005 Collected Poems (Copper Canyon Press), is one of the “translations” which most closely represents the range of conceits and ideas that go to making up the original. However, it is often hard to extract the exact correspondences of a single Shakespeare line, because each idea is threaded throughout Jordan’s spare, economical text. For instance, the last stanza of the poem runs:

Storm come. Storm go
but love stay
(if you ready or
you not!)
True love stay
True love stay

“Storm come. Storm go / away” corresponds fairly directly to “That looks on tempests and is never shaken,” but the famous line “O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark” is rendered by the phrase “love stay / steady”, which occurs on either side of the parenthesis at the middle of the stanza. It thus brackets another notion, “if you ready or / you not!” which puts a new twist on the idea that “Love’s not Time’s fool.” Jordan takes the two central ideas of the poem, the metaphor that compares love to a fixed point in space and the insistence that it is also immune to the passage of time, and seeing their similarity places one inside the other instead of in quick succession. The original also rather pompously ends with: “If this be error, and upon me proved / I never writ, nor no man ever loved,” but Jordan feels no need to stamp such a claim at the end of her poem. Rather, the equivalent insistence is sown throughout the poem in the form of exclamation marks, and the cry of “Hey” in line 11. Arguably these innovations are made possible by Jordan’s use of the target language’s resources. Lacking a literary presence for much of their history, dialects of Black English have been confined to use as “everyday” language, in which structure is smaller in scale and more repetitive than the ornamented rhetorical speech of a Shakespeare sonnet. Jordan is able to use this language with a poetic sensibility, and yet to retain the economy of the “everyday.” That is, the language is not intrinsically “everyday,” but drawing on the historical condition of its use is an element of Jordan’s craft, as is the rhyme scheme. Her difficult task is to keep the poem poetic without importing into the language a register it does not have, which this translation achieves.

Jordan’s poem is one of only a handful not specifically commissioned for this collection; other writers, who were asked to contribute to a book subtitled “Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare,” seem understandably self-conscious about its status. Is it translation, commentary, poetry, or can it claim to belong to all or none of these categories? The awareness that some readers of this volume might ask themselves whether these pieces deserve to call themselves “translations” bubbles up in various ways: Kate Degentesh’s version of Sonnet 142 is followed by a hand-drawn diagram of her translation process, a part-aleatory practice involving web searches, rather like a flarf poem (see below). Elsewhere, the idea that part of its task is commentary is present in half-digested form – even in the chaotic “sonic fig juice,” Rusty Morrison’s version of Sonnet 52, which refers to its own “groaning words, thought-hearses” and says of all sonnets that “infatuation is the poem’s best incendiary lie.” That task is fully absorbed by poems like Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Sonnet 55, which is a double sonnet discussing its own nature: “the form / Survives its features by outpacing them / Inside itself.”

What “translation” is, represents only one half of this volume’s problem of definition: it must also be decided what constitutes “poetry.” This question continually vexes poets, especially those working in the avant-garde; innovative writers seem to live with a fear that their work will be derided as not really being poetry, because we know what poetry looks like. Although free verse is now common even outwith the avant-garde, we retain the notion that poetry rhymes, and corresponds to a regular metre. It may have a certain vocabulary, carrying with it the cache to elevate it to poetic status (which is why a piece like Mark Leidner’s Sonnet 67, “well this guy who doesn’t suck is about to die,” is surprising in this context, and part of what makes the poem as a whole funny and effective). It has a certain thematics – it addresses big, insoluble questions about the human condition, of love and death. If poetic works fail to live up to any of these standards they may be thought of as trivial or else pretentious, that poisonous marker in artistic opinion-forming that, contradictorily, means a piece has been judged both excessive and insufficient: like the bourgeoisie for whom the term prétentieux was first coined in the late eighteenth century, it wears clothing to which it is believed to have no right. It is seen as pretending to be Art, filled with hidden significance, when really it is Modern and thus meagre.

This anthology might be considered an answer to this feeling, not directed at any one faction of detractors but as a way of saying that the big tent of contemporary practices that calls itself “poetry” might have a similar range of things to offer a reader as do the Sonnets themselves. Given this collection’s wide sampling of present poetic movements and styles, it features many pieces which belong to two perhaps rival movements, “flarf” poetry and conceptual writing – movements that trouble and frustrate all of their readers, even those who appreciate and support them, quite by design. Both rely on making new texts out of pre-existing ones, the only action of the author being to select the text and re-frame it as poetry. Perhaps the most famous example of contemporary conceptual writing is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003), the entire text of a single day’s edition of the New York Times printed and published as a book of poems, but an entire movement exists around these practices and various of its practitioners can be found here. Often discussed alongside conceptual writing is flarf, a poetic practice which uses web searches to produce semi-random texts and organising them into poems. Flarf involves much more selection work than conceptual writing, and the poet is far more present; moreover, and this may be the root of the differences between the two “schools,” as of the two flarf has the more easily defined unifying aesthetic.

In a manifesto piece on flarf (which can today be found as part of the Flarf Files), Gary Sullivan defines one of its principal characteristics as “A kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying awfulness.” This is explored in Sullivan’s version of Sonnet 105, a comic strip created through flarf-like methods. Sullivan tells us in the note to the piece: “I Googled successive lines of the poem, restricting Google Image’s returns to high-resolution line-art […]. The text was generated by searching for different spellings of Shakespeare in Yahoo Answers.” But, and here is what separates flarf from conceptual writing, “Words and images were chosen based on what felt like to me some meaningful correlation with the rest of the poem.” What these correlations are we are left to puzzle out for ourselves, but taken together the panels form a visual vocabulary of distorted human forms and anthropomorphic animals – “corrosive,” “cute,” and “cloying” figures. So the eighth panel depicts a reptilian but humanoid creature standing over a woman laid out on a slab; he has his hand clapped over his eyes in a gesture of overdramatic anguish, and his speech bubble reads, “How do I turn modern words into Shakespeare words?” Lines 7 and 8 of the original run:

Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference. (My emphasis.)

Sullivan’s part-human characters are generally unhappy and troubled, each having its own borrowed question to ask, but this is one who asks the question most like the question of this anthology (although these poets want to know how to do it the other way around). The problem recognised by the figure in this panel is that to use any given word in a translation, which can correspond to what it is intended to represent in the original, becomes “confined” to a single meaning, “one thing expressing.” The woman he stands over, strapped to the table, might even stand in for the text: the lizard’s anguish, like that of the prospective “translator” of one of these sonnets, is over the questionable intervention he is required to perform.

Flarf and conceptual writers are not the only ones pushed to the limits of verbal or literary expression by the task they have been given to do. Aside from Sullivan’s drawings, there are pieces like Derek Beaulieu’s version of Sonnet 65, which is a drawing made out of text-like shapes, with what seem to be “o” and “u” forms streaming like bubbles to a “surface” made up of a line of full stops along the top of the image. The original says that neither “brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea / But sad mortality” overpowers beauty, and yet, “in black ink my love may still shine bright.” Beaulieu’s text-image shows bubbles of air – but printed in “black ink” – escaping the “boundless sea” at its surface of full stops, prompting us to consider, perhaps, where text ends, the limits of the “miracle” of poetry that have seemed to grant the poem to “hold a plea” against Time. The original sonnet could hardly be re-translated from the cues this provides, but we have to conclude that this is not the mission of the anthology. Translation usually aims to make it possible to experience a text in another language, some trying to produce equivalent conceptual content and others, especially in poetry, to create an equivalent feeling or experience. What may be more important, however, is the sense that were we to re-encounter a text in the original, we would feel it were familiar, and the poems in this anthology certainly have this relationship to the originals. All the other resemblances they bear vary wildly, but to read one of these poems feels like meeting its model again, and vice versa. That it is possible to lift a text wholesale from one language into another is a fantasy, one of which this book aims to disabuse us.

The absence of a clear conviction about the efficacy and usefulness of translation becomes one of the most productive and interesting features of the anthology’s self-design. Donna Stonecipher’s translation of Sonnet 148, one of the standout pieces in an already impressive volume, is preceded by a brief description of the circumstances of its composition. She tells us of how she was discussing the project with a friend who was at the time working on a play which incorporated a sonnet by Giacomo da Lentini, the inventor of the original (Italian) verse-form, and the discovery they made that the two sonnets were very alike – “both are about how love transforms vision.” The process of translation thus became a hybrid of the two sonnets: Stonecipher says, “The result is perhaps something of how Shakespeare’s English might have looked had an Italian rather than a Norman Frenchman have won the Battle of Hastings in 1066.” “O me! what occhis hath amor put in my head,” the sonnet begins, and continues with a controlled style that is never too etymological, and does not underestimate the befuddling power of mediaeval Italian for the modern English eye. The substitution of “meraviglia” for “marvel” requires a moment’s pause, and “furbo” for “cunning” is hard to translate if one has no Italian and is not looking on at Shakespeare’s English, but somehow its visual and phonological (not etymological) relationship to “fervent” or “furtive” suggests something close to the meaning. The intelligence of Stonecipher’s crafting means that the sonnet can be read without a translation, the distorting effect of the Italian re-gifting to us some of the enjoyment, that of the distortion and the curio, that is to be had from reading older forms of English, but which is sometimes taken away from Shakespeare simply because he is famous and thus familiar.

Although it is not necessary here, at many points in the book a reader could be forgiven for taking out the Arden edition of the Sonnets and attempting to decode some of the more baffling “translations.” This might prompt us to ask why the book is not presented in parallel text, but in general this can be explained by imagining what some of those pages might look like. On a practical level, many poems are written over several pages: some see multiple variations on the same sonnet tried (as with Marcella Durand and Betsy Fagin’s transcriptions of Sonnet 47 read aloud in a busy train station, which vary widely), or the new version is simply longer. Others, such as Daniel Tiffany’s version of Sonnet 43 (”When most I blink, then do my eyes best see”), which simply prints the text of the original sonnet white on black, are so close to the original text that this would be redundant, and would only detract from the striking visual effect they are trying to create. Part of what we experience when reading Dara Wier’s “version” of Sonnet 106, “CVI / CVI,” which simply prints each line twice in a row, is a kind of queasy or troubled feeling. There are two ways to read this poem: absorb the method at the beginning and read each line once, taking in the sonnet and acknowledging Wier’s conceptual move, or reading each line twice and allowing additional meanings this might suggest to sink in. For instance, the line of ten monosyllables, “Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,” in the original is a blazon, an authoritative “record of virtues or excellences” (OED). In Weir’s version, repeating the blazon deprives it of some of its authority and makes it a more contemplative recitation, lingering over each element more than the single iteration. The poet says in the original that an ancient writer’s works were prophecies of their lover, insufficient because seen only from a distance, “but with divining eyes”; the twist, in the final couplet, is that in his present, “we […] Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.” The poem is about verbal insufficiency and its relationship to history. What Wier’s re-inscription of the sonnet says is that as it was then, so it is now. A more straightforward translation of the sonnet might have tried to make the point that the notion of a great former age which we now imitate was present even in that former age, but this version is able to do it with a single gesture. Wier, like many of the poets included here, especially those with more conceptual approaches, explores the idea that translation itself is a re-inscription, an act of simple reiteration which is nevertheless also an act of new creation.

It is for this reason that I have been discussing here those poems which seem to say the most about the task of translation, but there are poems scattered throughout this anthology which work in less self-reflexive ways, often the most effective as poems in their own right. Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s “sonnet 13 redux / the fair youth’s response to the argument that he should breed” wittily replies to Shakespeare à la Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply” to Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd,” protesting, “Has not my cup been overwhelmed with will? / & still your lust for increase will not slake?” This somewhat follows the style of Brolaski’s recent collection Advice for Lovers (City Lights, 2012), which re-imagines the Elizabethan sonnet-sequence with unmatched wit and verbal dexterity. Sonnet 70 is rewritten as Cyrus Console’s “Sonnet XXL” [sic], which turns “That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect” into “Whispers do not make you less beautiful.” “A crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air” becomes “one crow’s foot says chill; the face is mortal” – the unornamented everydayness of “chill” is perhaps a little blunt, but by design, as the matter-of-fact framing makes it all the more reassuring and caring in a different way than the original’s hyperbolic “heaven’s sweetest air.” The ease this transition of register aims to cultivate bridges the gap between literary monolith and contemporary feeling.

Thousands upon thousands of words have been written on Shakespeare’s sonnets, from attempts to gloss or paraphrase them to grand unifying theories of their significance for Shakespeare’s life and for our lives in general. What Cohen and Legault present here, however, is far more educative than No Fear Shakespeare or the average scholarly monograph. The variety of styles, approaches, and aesthetic agendas sampled ensures that the whole of the volume will not be to the precise taste of any one particular reader, but that does not seem to be its purpose. What it does accomplish is to act as a prism refracting the Sonnets into the full spectrum of things that poetry means to us today, and it shows the capability of translation not simply to move meaning around, but really to expand the original text.