Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of responses to Daniel Tiffany's "Cheap Signaling." Read the rest

In his article “Cheap Signaling” and his recent books My Silver Planet and In the Poisonous Candy Factory, Daniel Tiffany makes a fascinating and important discovery: the origin of the notion of a kitsch art—indulgent, counterfeit, sentimental, empty—can be found not in the mass production of the late nineteenth century, but in eighteenth century discussions of the ballad revival, Gothic hoaxes and, more generally, “poetic diction.” Since then, kitsch has become increasingly common and increasingly threatening (as Tiffany writes in My Silver Planet, “It is said to be at once parasitic, mechanical, and pornographic,” associated with homosexuality and moral decay). Modernists like Clement Greenberg defined themselves in heroic opposition to kitsch. The German writer Herman Broch compared the relationship between true art and kitsch to that between “Christ” and “Anti-Christ,” and argued that kitsch is “lodged like a foreign body in the overall system of art." I’d like to pick up on a thread in Tiffany’s work that he doesn’t pursue: the connection between kitsch and the foreign, and how this pertains to the way we discuss translated texts, those foreign bodies lodged in our literature.

One of Tiffany’s most striking examples of anti-kitsch rhetoric is William Wordsworth’s famous rejection of Thomas Gray and the Graveyard poets in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth rejects their “gaudy and inane phraseology,” in large part because their poetic diction is influenced by Latin and Greek in translation. He argues that this influence leads them to write in a poetic way that interferes with his ideal of the poet as “a man speaking to men” in “the language really used by men.” Anti-kitsch rhetoric is thus not just intertwined with poetic diction, but also with translation and foreign literature. When Robert Frost quipped that poetry is what is “lost in translation,” he was intensifying Wordsworth’s argument, defining poetry as antithetical to translation, and defining translation as a process of making poetry counterfeit, much like the Gothic hoaxes Tiffany describes.

Poetry is what is lost in translation if poetry is bound up in notions of authenticity and tradition.

In modern and contemporary discussions of literature in the United States, translation itself is often treated with dubiousness that suggests fear of a hoax. (And indeed there are still translation hoaxes, such as the kitsch atrocity the “Yasusada hoax,” in which Kent Johnson faked poems he said were written by a Japanese survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.) Translators who work on foreign writers who are not already canonical face questions about the authenticity of their projects: How do I know that this foreign author is good enough to be translated? How can I tell if your translation is faithful? How do I know that this poet is not just someone you invented? To be a translator is to assume to role of a hoaxer, someone who might be undermining the quality and trustworthiness of literature (and taste).

Wordsworth’s rejection of “gaudy” language influenced by foreign works reminds me of contemporary American literature’s frequent criticism of “translatese.” These translations sound foreign because the translator has, either intentionally or unintentionally, deployed awkward syntax or odd word choices, thus foregrounding the foreignness of the translated text. Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has argued that this tendency in American literary culture is part of an imperialistic attempt to deny the “visibility” of the translator, and thus of the foreign.

Wordsworth had to reject the Graveyard poets because they were very popular—as is, importantly, a lot of translated poetry. The reason so many tastemakers have to attack translatese is that it is seductive. Poets read in translation—such as Pablo Neruda and Vasko Popa, and more recently Tomaz Salamun (father of the much-maligned “soft surrealism”) and Kim Hyesoon—have proven popular among American poets and readers. “Soft surrealist” is itself a term from anti-kitsch rhetoric, akin to “candy surrealist,” and kitsch surrealist. (See Stephen Burt’s essay “The New Thing” for more on the kitsch rhetoric surrounding “soft surrealism.”) Poets like Heather Christle and Nathalie Lyalin blend the texture of Eastern European poetry in translation with American slang. Here is the crux: the threat of the foreign is that it will actually seduce Americans, and thus ruin their taste and render everything kitsch. 

When Venuti – and many other writers on translation – praise translatese and other “foreignizing” translations, however, they stabilize the hoax-like uncertainty translations generate. They want to know that the foreign text is translated; they don’t want to be fooled. Poetry is what is lost in translation if poetry is bound up in notions of authenticity and tradition. By marking the translated text as authentically foreign, the foreignizing translation removes the doubt and the threat of hoax-like uncertainty.

Venuti might appreciate the translation that is obviously foreign, but what about a translation that is harder to deem either “translated” or “native”? What if US poets started to treat foreign texts not as quarantined in translatese or instrumentalized as “foreignizing” but as a hoax we cannot figure out? What will that uncertainty do to the way we read US poets? Such a contamination of our critical faculties would perhaps threaten most of the hierarchical evaluative systems in place in our culture. Broch writes that “the enemy from within . . . is more dangerous than these attacks from outside” because it makes it impossible to tell the difference between “Christ” and “Anti-Christ.” Translation becomes a challenge to mimesis—it is impossible to tell the true from the fake, and the fake is inherently immoral, even satanic.

Discussions about translation are overwhelmingly determined by a sense of impossibility, of inevitable failure. It is a commonplace to say that not only is poetry lost in translation, but also that translation is impossible. Translations fail to be poems, and instead become counterfeit versions. Here my own thoughts about translation tie in with Tiffany’s thoughts about “cheap signaling”: translations are nearly always “aesthetic failures,” dangerous counterfeits in the eyes of literature’s establishment. Translations are “knockoffs,” imitations of the true English-language poems and akin to “verbal relics.” Instead of upholding rules of taste, translation asks us to read for “discounted, vulgar, imitation,” or “cheap signals.”