Greatest Women in Translation: Cole Swensen

Image created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee this month is Cole Swensen, nominated by Marcella Durand.

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1. Let’s start by briefly introducing yourself and what you do, with special focus on translation.

First, thank you so much for inviting me! And thank you for establishing this blog and for doing all the work to maintain it—it’s an amazing and useful document. And thank you, Marcella Durand, for nominating me. 

Also, initial note—I’ll be using they/them as the universal pronoun system throughout the following text. I’ll also be grappling, as we all do, with some specific translation terminology. I tend to use “language of departure” and “language of arrival” when discussing the two poles inevitable in any translation, but I acknowledge that it’s an open question and that any answer to it is at best provisional and at worst a chute into yet another rabbit hole. 

I’m both a poet and a translator—for many years, most of my poetry has been engaged with the visual arts and with the relationship between people and land; these two interests often converge, for instance, in pieces that address land art, landscape art, landscape architecture, land and technology, and the politics of formal gardens and of public parks. My translations, on the other hand, are not at all thematically determined; rather, they’re engaged with certain formal, ideological, and historical questions, particularly questions of materiality, rooted in the fusion of Modernism and Wittgensteinian philosophy around the notion of the word as action/actor. I began translating as a mode of deep reading—there really is no deeper way to read a text, and it’s unique way of reading in that it not only requires that you dive down into it and take apart every little piece, but also that you stand back from the text, that you step outside it in a way that someone considering it in their own language can never do. 

Those comments apply to my poetry and cross-genre translations. I have a very different practice that entrances me just as much, and that’s translating art texts. I work for a couple of galleries in France and Belgium, and from time to time, I translate essays and other materials for art catalogues. Its pleasures and fascinations are completely different from those of literary texts in that, in a certain way, it’s nothing but language. Ironically, because it’s entirely a matter of conveying content, I can, and in fact I need to, put all my attention on phrasing. In other words, though it seems that the content of such documents “goes without saying”; in fact, the saying is the only thing that’s going on. It’s the opposite of poetry, and I love that range and that contrast.

I find myself often thinking of translation of all sorts as a 3-D crossword puzzle—or a 4-D (because time so definitely comes into it), a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle like a Rubik’s cube that has grown extra faces.

2. You are founding editor of La Presse Poetry, a nano-press that publishes books of contemporary experimental French writing translated by English language writers. Could you tell us a bit more about it

La Presse began in 2006, funded by a generous grant from the Tamaas Foundation, a Franco-Maghrebian-American arts-based not-for-profit organization that works in poetry, film, performance, and multi-media to support a wide range of community projects—I urge everyone to check them out.

That said, La Presse is now closed down. I ran it as a single-person operation; I did 20 books, almost all of them by writers who are or had been principal participants in an effort to reassert language as an artistic raw material, to liberate it from its status as a sheerly or even predominantly referential vehicle, and to, instead, foreground its formal and material properties. The books range in genre from poetry to prose, but many of them fall somewhere on the continuum between, in some sort of hybrid form. They were all translated by English-language poets or poet-critics, and they’re all available through

3. In a book of essays you have written, you approached the relationship between translating and writing: “[T]ranslating is in itself writing, and the translator must, therefore, also be a writer.” Could you please kindly elaborate a bit more on this idea?

Yes—I don’t mean that translators must be people who sees themselves as writers and have writing practices outside of their translation practice—though I respectfully acknowledge that there are those who do—but no, I want to underscore that translating is, in itself, writing—to translate well, you also have to write well. It might be considered a genre of writing, in a sense, and if we want to think of it in that light, we might briefly and artificially break it down into two stages: one has to translate out of the language of departure and write into the language of arrival. The second gesture, even though it may feel one with the first is essentially different in that the writing into must be writing not translating if the text is truly going to arrive in the welcoming language. And I think that music plays a large role here. It’s at the level of music that the element of writer overtakes the element of translator. (And here I’m using the terms musicality and materiality somewhat interchangeably—wanting to underscore the inevitable sonority of language, underscore that the principal material quality of language is sound, and that that quality is never not foregrounded in the reader’s experience, whether they realize it or not.) And I’m not just talking about poetry, but about the element of musicality that must hover under and over even the most prosaic text if it is to hold together. 

And so, one must translate with the ear as much as with the mind to avoid allowing the semantic to override all other dimensions of signification, and particularly that of sound. And not only does the translator have to engage the element of music, they have to grasp the music specific to that text, grasp the particularities of that music, which, as it’s necessarily based on the physical attributes of the departure language, may pose great problems in the language of arrival. It’s the grappling at this level that is crucial—the translator must not only also be a writer, but they must also be a musician. As all writers must be.

4. In another essay, you praise error: “[W]henever a message is transferred from one side to another, […] there’s always the chance that […] [it] will become altered in the transmission. We tend to think of such alterations as damage, but […] [they] are not necessarily bad.”Could you also elaborate a bit more on this idea?

The underlying paradigm here is that of self-organization from noise, which is a principle that has informed both information sciences and evolutionary biology. In the latter case (and no doubt grossly, but perhaps useably, oversimplified), information transferred from point X to point Z through channel Y may arrive 100% intact, 0% intact, or any percentage between. While in the transmission of a message or in the copying of a gene sequence, less than 100% accuracy can have unfortunate to disastrous results (the message is indecipherable; the embryo is not viable), it can also have positive effects. In translation, such errors can result in a text that is different but perhaps not degraded if the differences add something positive. This is true with genetic errors as well—it is only such errors in the copying of DNA across generations that have enabled evolution. It was an error in the copying of DNA that first got us started on the opposable thumb. But to return to translation, perhaps it’s a matter of attending to the spirit of a departing text, of listening very deeply, so that when one makes the inevitable errors—as in errant—when one cannot keep to the right path—when one cannot convey a nuance, when one cannot express a fine and essential shade, the offset, the mis-take, though a loss, might also bring something new along with it that might be wholly in line with the overall movement of the piece. And though errors are inevitable and can result in enrichments, I am thinking above all of the errant, as in the deviant routes the translator must at times take and of the wonderful places those deviations might take us through—an openness to the detour, the digression, the deviation seems essential if translation is to be recognized as something more than an attempt at perfect servitude, an attempt that will always fail. If we don’t embrace that failure and see it as also an invitation to err in the most explorative and inventive of ways, we risk producing a cardboard cut-out of the departure text. 

5. In your opinion, “[t]ranslation, in a sense, is always emergent, in that once it has fully emerged, it’s no longer translation; it’s a text.” Could you elaborate a bit more on that beautiful idea? 

It does seem that a translation is a transition; it’s a being in the process of metamorphosis, shifting out of one form and coming into another. As soon as it begins to shift out of the departure language, it begins to emerge into the arrival language. Perhaps the most excellent translations never lose that sense of emergence; they seem to continue in a condition of becoming even as we’re reading them printed on a page. But another way to look at it is to think of the process as having an end, to think of the translation as finally arriving, but once arrived, it is now truly elsewhere—it’s no longer part of the departure language; it’s now a text embedded in and belonging to the arrival language. Looking at the issue in that way stresses the translated text as independent, self-sufficient (as much as it’s possible for any text to be), rather than as a stand-in, crib, or place-holder for something that’s really happening somewhere else, back in that other language. A poem translated into English must become an English-language poem, now entirely free and having no remaining relation to a poem in any other language.

6. Also according to your well-put words, “[a] translation is a ghost: it goes out into another world in all its perfect viability, it causes disbelief, while on the other hand, it sets up an echo, very faint, in the original, so that the original is now haunted by a separate voice that continues to separate.” Care to elaborate more on the idea of translation as a ghost?

One thing that’s always interested me is how a translation effects the translated. While it would be impossible to trace, I’ve always sensed that a translation reverberates backward and establishes a kind of presence in the version in the departure language—it doesn’t do anything—it just sort of hovers over it, emanating its differences, and therefore emanating the potential of difference in general. It unleashes differentiation as a principle and as action, re-activating the surface; the ghost of translation crazes the surface of the departure text with all the innumerable other things and ways and phrases that that text could have been or could be. But below and beyond that, it operates as an occupation; the translation, while careening always forward, also whips backward to occupy the original in an almost colonizing sense. And I do think that we have to be very aware of and careful with that colonizing potential. Both haunting and colonizing are ways of occupying; the former marked by always insufficient evidence, the latter marked by always too much. Can a good translation strike a balance that rests more like a guest, gracious, grateful, and temporary? While I think most can manage the gracious and grateful, I have my doubts about the temporary—I think the ghost remains, and reciprocally—the ghost of arrival constantly haunting the ghost of departure, but also vice-versa, creating a network of hauntings as a work gets translated into more and more languages. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Rosmarie Waldrop!

One thought on “Greatest Women in Translation: Cole Swensen

  1. Pingback: Greatest Women in Translation: Marcella Durand | Carol's Adventures in Translation

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