Signal Loss: Translation and Creative Perplexity in Caroline Bergvall’s Drift

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Still from a performance of Drift

Artist and writer Caroline Bergvall’s diverse body of work explores the many ways something can be “lost in translation” or transmission: what happens when the signal is lost; when the materials fail (as when Sappho’s papyruses are riddled with lacunae); when the translation is imperfect (and all translations are imperfect).

In fact, to Bergvall, all language is mistranslation, a buildup of miscommunications, a garble in itself: she observes that when one looks into the “geology of language,” cutting a cross-section of its layers, “one discovers surprising varietals of soil, ancient yet compilable language bones, pressed word-fossils, collapsed layers, mineral toil, friable clays, dried pigments, decomposed fabric stretches, discontinuous tracings, and much unrecoverable matter… . Letters, sounds, words are discarded from a language during accidental breaks. Or dispensed with, like outmoded cooking utensils. Or pulled out, like teeth. Entire jawlines of these… . Writing records these fundamental ruptures, discontinuities, far more than it delivers stabilities” (Meddle 6).

Her work VIA, for example, consists of 48 translations of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno (from translations available at the British Library), arranged alphabetically by their first lines. It begins:

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continues http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/245738

VIA has been variously interpreted, but I’m less interested in what it means than in the effect it has on its reader. Confronted with multiple translations of a work, the reader shifts to a strange double focus, with one eye, so to speak, on the the original, and the other on the surface, comparing the different translations’ word choices, word order/syntax, tone, diction, lineation, etc., compelling the reader to hesitate at each line and word. This sort of word-to-word skepticism may sound familiar: it’s not unlike the writing process itself. The reader of VIA becomes a kind of writer, or at least involved in a process that’s much like writing, engaging the text by considering each choice against a spectrum of possibility. Like Bergvall when she “wrote” VIA, the reader is involved in a process where reading and writing become almost synonymous.

The subject of these lines is not accidental: reading these 48 translations, the reader feels lost, bewildered, unsure of what the true way (via) might be. And that’s the point: Bergvall allows the reader to experience translation and losing one’s way as generative devices. Call it creative perplexity. To Bergvall, loss is the origin of the work of art. Sappho’s riddled papyruses become “a punched score for mechanical piano” (Meddle 131).

Translation and bewilderment and their creative possibilities are likewise central to Drift, Bergvall’s most recent project. A translation of/extension of/response to the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Seafarer,” Drift itself has been “translated” by Bergvall into various media: a multimedia performance; an exhibition; and a book. The subject of the original poem is being lost at sea, and again, this reflects Bergvall’s concern with the creative value of loss.

My interest is in the second section of the book, “Hafville,” which was published separately in Poetry Magazine. The term hafvilla itself comes from Viking sagas, where it means “bewildered,” specifically with regard to a ship being lost at sea and without direction, often due to bad weather or fog. The text of this section starts as fairly straightforward description of being lost at sea, windless and in a fog. This description is reiterated several times, each with more redacted from the text, until it is almost illegible:

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In her working notes for the project— included with the book as a sort of appendix—Bergvall points out that this section takes us “towards the heart of the fog” (153).  Fog becomes the emblem of creative bewilderment. After citing the definition and a conjectured etymology of “fog” (PIE pu-, “to rot”) she observes, “Eventually one comes to a point where being lost can signal a starting point and can become its own type of activity.” She adds:

The OED mentions the origin of “fog” as uncertain. Points to the long grass and does not mention the weather system. Fog memory loss identity loss. SIGNAL LOSS. Damaged documents. Fog out of the voice the words. Formally as much as existentially. Phenomenologically and perceptually: create a landscape of signals. (Drift 156)

The “Hafville” section culminates in what could be construed as a hymn to love, which concludes “Heigh Ho and up she rises! Heigh Ho and up she goes! / Beat bells! Blow foghorns! Loud metal gebangbang for rumbly love!” While it might be tempting to read this as a conventional narrative—lost then found; new clarity emerging from the fog of confusion—Bergvall’s notes on this section suggest otherwise. Love, whatever she may mean by it, is its own kind of fecund confusion:

Love as the motivation and driver of art… Art as a process of shared life. As a process of love acquisition. Genealogies of love and lovers. Voices that rise from the drop, that come through the fog of my skin. (164, my emphasis)

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