Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Translation Issue—Issue 51, March 2015)

Johannes Göransson
Toward a Sensationalistic Theory of Translation


Mia You recently reviewed Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (trans. Don Mee Choi), a book I published with Action Books, on the Bookforum website.1 In the review, You makes many insightful readings of the work, noting its language play and grotesque imagery, but I was particularly interested in the way she frames her readings. At the very beginning of the review, she makes clear that Kim’s poetry cannot be read as “representative” of Korean literature, bemoaning the fact that it fits in with what she sees as a misrepresentation of South Korean culture in the proliferation of horror movies coming out of the country. She sees this horror element as the feature of Kim’s poetry that has attracted so many American readers, warning that these readers not only misread South Korean culture but also Kim’s own poetry:

... this gross-out sensationalism undoubtedly plays a role in her work’s traction with English-language readers, especially those looking to be edgy and current. Decades of shock art have taught us that there’s nothing more radical than effusive body fluids, and nothing more bourgeois than being squeamish about them.

In this essay I’d like to think about Kim Hyesoon’s “gross-out sensationalism” – what makes it gross, what it has to do with the body and the politics of the body, as well as what it might have to do with translation and the perversion of boundaries.


In her review, You shows how the violence in Kim’s poems “effectively shifts poetry’s perspective away from what is observed to what is felt, while it also forces us to recognize bodies in conflict and, subsequently, bodies in resistance”; and she shows how Choi’s translation participates in this ambient violence, attacking the conventions of the English language. What is this “violence” You talks about? Her first example is “the description of fetuses as ‘chunks of freshly grilled flesh inside a vagina’.” Her second example is an excerpt from Kim’s poem “All The Garbage of the World, Unite!”: “Love that is about a hole, a hole for the benefit of a hole, according to a hole. I use the hole as I pretend to talk about love...” You also describes this “violence” as “Rotting, as well as bleeding, vomiting...” In all of these instances, You is focusing on a violence that makes the boundaries of the body porous and that defamiliarizes the body (when Kim describes the fetus into a “grilled flesh inside a vagina,” she not only makes the fetus strange, but penetrates the body with her metaphor). We might in short call this violence, the violence of what Julia Kristeva has called “the abject,” that which we have to expel from ourselves in order to seem whole, but which nevertheless fascinates us (“bleeding, vomiting”). One thing that defines it above all else is “that of being opposed to I.” Another important feature is that it creates a place “where meaning collapses.” It is this quality that You notices in Choi’s translation: “she allows the language to perplex us; she is unafraid of sacrificing the coherence of English grammar.” If the abject is “opposed to I,” then perhaps Choi’s translation is opposed to the “fluency” or “coherence” of English. We can sum these points up as: Kim’s books (in Korean and translation) trouble boundaries, and they trouble the model of a coherent speaker, coherent language. They trouble wholeness.

The problem, according to You, is that Kim’s dubious “English-language readers” who are fascinated by her poetry as “gross-out sensationalism” may not perceive Kim’s poetry as a critique:

To be fair, for Kim, who began publishing her poetry in the late 1970s and is one of just a few women ever included in anthologies of Korean literature, the politics of this aesthetic are clear: It’s a provocative reaction against the precise and hygienic male verse that long dominated Korean poetry—a disembodied lyric that projects its pathos onto the landscape or an overlooked creature (snails are popular), and then neatly concludes with an aphorism. Here, to be the object of the male gaze is not just to be the object of his desire, but also his vehicle, his avatar. Kim wrests her poetry away from this unilateral mode of perception, which keeps its objects contained and controlled at an arm’s distance, and instead performs the collision and collaging of fully felt bodies, particularly the speaker’s own. This isn’t to say Kim doesn’t have her own array of familiars (pigs, rats, garbage, even manholes), but she proffers her body for their use as well. And above all, she makes us keenly aware of how they resist.

That is to say the American reader misreads Kim’s poetry by reading it shallowly, bodily – in the senses. Or one might say: they read it in “fully felt bodies,” without the hygienic distance of the critique. Yet another way to say this is: translation seems sensationalistic when we don’t recognize the original context, when we don’t call attention to the cultural difference. In discussions about translation, context is almost always something over “there”; to collapse this distance is sensationalistic. It is this link between the foreign and violence, the translated and the sensationalistic that I want to explore in this essay.


When she questions whether Kim’s American readers can understand Kim’s poetry, You is invoking a very common argument in recent translation theory: If at one point translation discussions tended to focus on the way that translations caused a “loss” of the author’s original intention, it now seems that the anxiety has moved from the author to the way that a translation moves a text from one “context” to another context. At a time when (not so) New Historicism and related methods of understanding texts primarily as symptoms of a culture and its ideology, translations scandalize by moving texts from one context to another. This anxiety of what happens to the text when it is removed from one context and inserted in another can be found even (or perhaps more often) in critics that are supposedly in favor of translation. For the past couple of decades, Lawrence Venuti has been the most prominent translation critic in the U.S. Yet in his writing he consistently returns to the impossibility of moving one text from one context to another. In his recent book Translation Changes Everything, he writes:

... a reader of a translation can never experience it with a response that is equivalent or even comparable to the response with which the source-language reader experiences the source text, that is to say a reader who has read widely in the source language and is immersed in the source culture. Not even a bilingual reader familiar with both the source and the translating cultures will experience the two texts in the same or a similar way.2

In his work (and in the works of many writers on translation), Venuti posits an ideal reader – a well-read, educated person inhabiting a kind of cultural center of the original context – whose fluency in that culture allows him or her to get the correct meaning. In fact the central point of Venuti’s criticism – the call for a “foreignizing,” rather than “domesticating” translation method – is based on the impossibility of translation. It is so impossible to broach the divide between cultures that the only thing a translation can really do is to reveal that impossibility; to make clear to its readers, in other words, that they are not getting the “real thing,” but rather a shadow-copy, kitsch, imitation. In this way, Venuti quarantines the foreign text in an instrumentalizing role in order to prevent readers and translators from domesticating, or doing away with the foreign.

Several things are lost in this domestication-vs-foreignizing binary. To begin with, not only are the monoglossic ideals of a central reader and a correct (complete, whole) interpretation of the text hierarchical illusions, but they are often patently false. What is the “context” for Paul Celan – a post-Holocaust Romanian Jew writing in German while living in Paris? What is the context for Aase Berg who wrote Dark Matter – a book written largely in foreign languages (literally, taken from English Science articles and books and half-translated back into Swedish) she used exactly to attack the illusion of a central Swedish, an attempt to make the domestic language foreign – while living in Amsterdam? Writers may not inhabit a central or stable position in their “context,” they may not be writing for somebody pretending to inhabit such an illusory place. In fact, writing often points out the problems of reading any text in a stable, context-based way.

On another level, writers such as Celan, Berg or Kim reverse the model of the “foreign” and how it relates to art. In the Venutian paradigm, to foreignize means to unmask, reveal, edify, inform – and thus quarantine – the foreign, revealing an affinity to a lot of contemporary thinking about poetry and art, a thinking that tends to emphasize the importance of distancing. Here you might pick any paper in a recent poetry conference that is about a poet “critiquing” society or “subverting” norms. The paradox here is that the “foreign” in the “foreignizing” rhetoric tends to be involved in distancing.


But what if the foreign doesn’t have to necessarily distance the reader? What if instead we follow the example of Berg’s “Dark Matter” where the foreign makes the Swedish more intensive precisely because of the foreign usage? What if the foreign can be directed into our “fully-felt bodies” as Kim advocates in her poetry and criticism? What would a translation model of radical domestication look like? Perhaps we can approach translation as a domestication that is both seduced by the foreign and is incapable of making it wholly domestic?

I am reminded of a recent essay I read about the experience of reading the work of George Bataille by John Lechte. In his “Introduction to George Bataille: the impossible (as a practice of writing),” John Lechte writes:

To read Bataille is to be confronted by an excess, by an experience of limits, by an experience of difference, by a horror that seems to derive as much from an interior experience which has no object, as much as the text deemed exterior to the reading self. Does Bataille evoke things in us that we should prefer to deny, to keep under wraps, to repress? Or is it that Bataille is ‘outside’ – so profoundly outside, and foreign, and apparently beyond objectification – that a threatened self must work to domesticate him, render him acceptable, comprehensible, and worthy of being spoken/written about? I must say that although every introduction qua instrument of illumination has to follow the course of ‘domestication,’ I write about, or on, Bataille with anguish and uncertainty.3

In the experience of reading Bataille, Lechte discovers that “domestication” – so long justly vilified by translation theorists for its denial of difference – might in fact be a necessarily radical act of inviting “anguish,” of being overcome by an “excess” of something “foreign.” The “foreign” – which in Venuti stands for something distanced, pedagogical4 – here seduces, troubles, overwhelms precisely in the act of being “domesticated” by the reading experience. One might say that Bataille’s writing enacts a violence against Lechte’s sense of self. One might say that Kim’s senationalist readers are doing the same thing as Lechte when he is reading Bataille: they are domesticating a text of radical alterity, they may be overcome by it, troubled by it. It is a violence against them and their English language.

You and Venuti are right to warn against easy “domestication” – the model of consuming foreign poetry as if it were domestic poetry, of making the foreign poetry “accessible” (and some English-language reader may indeed approach the work in this way). But the reason they are right does not just apply to translation, it applies to poetry and art in general: a work of art may in fact often be “opposed to I,” might fascinate but be inassimilable and strange, might inflict a kind of violence against the reader.


One of the poems You mentions to show the ignorance of Kim’s American readers, the masterpiece “I’m OK, I’m Pig,” is not just an example of the intensive experience of the foreign, but can also be said to be read as being about this experience. To read this sequence of poems is to be “confronted by an excess, by an experience of limits” but it is also about such a confrontation.

The position of the “speaker” in these poems is constantly “at risk,” constantly – often violently – changing, often addressing itself, attacking itself, auto-mutilating. At the beginning of the sequence, the speaker of the poem enters into an abject zone of pigs that are constantly devouring and being devoured. Aided by the beatings of a Zen master and the emptiness of her meditation room, the speaker starts to assume the body and mind of a pig. This is a particular take on Zen Buddhism—an abject “Pig-zen” that “stares all day at the shit I’ve shat as it keeps shitting drip-drip.” In this “pig zen” the speaker doesn’t write about pigs but becomes a pig – or many pigs – as she enters into the deformation zone of pigs and the slaughter: “I’m confession right now, I’m actually Pig.”

This pig world is a zone of violence and body: violence against body, body as violence, body is contamination and dirty: “I’m filthy, really filthy.” Everybody attacks everybody else; it is not clear who is who or who is killing whom. This zone is a zone of what Joyelle McSweeney has called “ambient violence.”5 As in McSweeney’s description, there is no transcendence in this world, no escape from this world: “Anyway to nail Pig on a cross would be too natural, meaningless.” The poems starts out by announcing that symbolism won’t work in this world.

That is to say, by “confronting” the reader with an “excess,” Kim “performs the collision and collaging of fully felt bodies, particularly the speaker’s own.” In the process she perverts and violates the boundaries – between speaker and pig, pig and human, speaker and addressee.


But what happens to “context” in a gross-out translation theory of intensity? Against the model that privileges the critique over sensation, the context over the translated text, the original over the cheap imitation, McSweeney and I have proposed the “deformation zone” (a phrase we took from my translation of a poem by Aase Berg). A translation – like a poem – is not a whole, complete item, as the monoglossic illusion would have us believe, but a zone into which we enter when we read and when we write. This zone contains boundaries but it also traverses boundaries; it contains contexts but the contexts might extend beyond the national boundaries; they may for example suggest that the U.S. and South Korea are intimately connected through wars and global capitalism. Translations are constantly taking place. Rather than try to quarantine them, or instrumentalize them for pedagogical purposes, we want to be overcome by them, possessed by them, changed by them. Just like we would with a work in English. That doesn’t mean that we forget about “context”: we forget about context as a field of mastery, as a way of accessing the “true meaning” of the poem, as an “over there.” It brings here and there into the same zone; the context becomes part of the deformation zone. We become gross sensationalists.


1You, Mia. “Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon.” Bookforum 29 Sept 2014.
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2Lawrence Venuti, Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2013), 180.
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3Textual Practice, Vol 7, issue 2 (173-194): pg 173
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4It may be useful to think of Venuti’s work in [the] context of American Language Poetry and “experimental poetry.” Venuti’s work gained institutional prominence at the same time as Language Poetry (Venuti teaches at the same school as Charles Bernstein and Bob Perlman, two prominent language poets. And Bernstein wrote the seminal essay “Artifice of Absorption,” arguing in favor of artifice and estranging techniques over absorption of the personal narrative style of the period, a binary that in many ways functions like Venuti’s binary between domesticating and foreignizing translations.
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5McSweeney, Joyelle. “A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, Or Ambient Violence, Or Bringing It All Back Home.” Montevideayo 11 Oct 2010.
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