The Parasite of Translation


by Johannes Göransson

The noise is not a useless interference with the true message. The interference makes things happen – allows for transformations and changes in the order. It is precisely through the deformations of these parasites – not the Great Author or Creator as in so much of our narratives about literature – that new systems are created.

In my book Transgressive Circulation (Noemi Press, 2019), I discuss anxieties about translation that have contributed to not just the exclusion and marginalization of translation in US poetry discussions. To begin with there’s the ideal of poetry as something noiseless, something the author is in control of. Translations are rarely discussed, and when they are, the discussions tend to be focused on the idea that the translation should replicate an “original” with as little distortion as possible. Translation interferes with this illusory perfection by making versions, and, worse yet, versions that diverge from each other. If poems are noiseless, translations make the poems noisy. Translations make well wrought urns hum and vibrate (and, at times, break).

Along with the desire to exclude these deformations of “the original” – the fear of what may happen to a text when brought into the wrong translator’s zone of influence – there’s the fear of what may happen to the reader if brought under the influence of the foreign text. As I suggest in Transgressive Circulation, there’s a pervasive anxiety – which I think may go back as far as Plato and Socrates – that the foreign text may distort us, infiltrate us, ruin our sense of a stable self. As George Steiner puts it so memorably in his classic essay “The Hermeneutic Motion,” a translation can infect the target culture.

These fears and anxieties about translation are real. There’s something about translation that fundamentally challenges the way we think about poetry (and authors, translators, readers). Rather than ignore or overcome these anxieties, I would like to look at the way translation challenges the dominant paradigm of the poem (by which I think I mean “the lyric”). If translating a poem is impossible according to the current definition of the poem – even though translations happen all the time – then perhaps the problem is not with translation, but with our idea of poetry. Perhaps we need a new way of thinking about the poem.

In his book The Parasite (trans. Lawrence Schehr), Michel Serres invokes a pun on the word “parasite”: a word that (in French) means both a biological creature that lives off another creature, and a noise or interference with the original message in an act of communication. Serres argues that there is no communication – no system even – that does not also include this noise or deformation. There are always parasites involved. But unlike so much thinking about both noise and parasites, these two figures are not negative in his conception. For Serres, “[t]he introduction of a parasite in a system is equivalent to the introduction of a noise,” and through this introduction, the message is

changed by mutation, by absence, substitution, or difference of elements. It is not entirely a metaphoric expression when we claim that it has to do with the intervention of a noise in the message. Noise in the sense of disorder, and thus chance, but noise also in the sense of interception, an interception that changes the order and thus the meaning, if we can speak of meaning. But that changes the order above all. The interception is a parasite; we could have guessed as much. The new order appears by the parasite troubling the message. It disconcerts the ancient series, order, and message; and then composes [concerte] new ones. (184)

The noise is not a useless interference with the true message. The interference makes things happen – allows for transformations and changes in the order. It is precisely through the deformations of these parasites – not the Great Author or Creator as in so much of our narratives about literature – that new systems are created. Serres writes: “The parasite intervenes, enters the system as an element of fluctuation. It excites it or incites it; it puts it in motion…” (191).

The result of this is that “the parasite invents something new” (35).

It is ONLY through the parasites that “something new” can be generated.

Serres’s idea of the parasites reminds me of translation. The translation inherently introduces noise into the poem – it mutates, deforms, distorts. As Steiner puts it, translations can cause “infections”: “No language, no traditional symbolic set or cultural ensemble imports without the risk of being transformed.”[1] Serres would likely agree, but he might be less concerned by such an outcome than Steiner.

I would argue that Serres shows us a way to view translation and all of its noise, not as an impediment to poetry but as a way that translation generates “something new” (a term very different from the “originality” associated with the Great Author) – with intensity and mutation. Rather than seeing the poem as a well wrought urn that must be protected from the noise of translation, Serres’s book suggests that we might use this translational dynamic to change our view of the poem. Translation tells us that the poem is not an urn but something far more elastic, mobile and noisy. As Joyelle McSweeney and I wrote in our pamphlet, The Deformation Zone (UDP, 2011): we might see the poem itself as a zone where deformations happen. And that to read it is to enter that zone, to affect that zone.

In addition to thinking about the inevitability of noise and to think of its innovative effects, Serres points out that the parasite creates relations. He brings in the idea of the “quasi-object” – an object that sets subjects in motion, creates social movement: “This quasi-object is not an object, but it is one nevertheless, since it is not a subject, since it is in the world; it is also a quasi-subject, since it marks or designates a subject who, without it, would not be a subject.”


A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish [personnels]. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there for the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. (225-226)

We can see how translation very obviously – in its collaborative nature between authors and translator or translators – foregrounds the sociality of literature, foregrounds its movement. What would happen to our models of literature and literary greatness if we saw the poem not as an object but as a “quasi-object”? Perhaps “the great author” has a tendency to inhibit movement, to suggest that the ball works for the player, not the other way around. So therefore, perhaps instead of a game of “Great Authors,” we could start to think about poetry like rugby: suppose we look at poets and translators who move with the quasi-objects, move in deformation zones?

Perhaps the best poem is not the poem that resists deformation, but that allows – or even encourages – it. Perhaps what we mean by “translatability” does not mean (as it so commonly is used) a poem that can be translated without noise, but a poem that, like a parasite, excites the poetry of the target language and culture with its noise.

Perhaps translations are parasites.

Perhaps poems are.

Perhaps we all are. 

[1] George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1975), 315.

Johannes Göransson (b. 1973, Lund, Sweden) is the author of ten books of poetry (including the forthcoming titles Summer and The New Quarantine), POETRY AGAINST ALL (a book of diary entries) and Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation. He is the translator of several more, including work by Helena Boberg Ann Jäderlund, and Aase Berg, as well as the forthcoming The Angelgreen Sacrament by Eva Kristina Olsson. He teaches at the University of Notre Dame and, together with Joyelle McSweeney, Kate Hedeen and Paul Cunningham, he edits Action Books. 

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, June 29, 2021

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