An Interview with Johannes Göransson, Translator of Lonespeech

Lonespeech is a writing through (or into, around, against) the correspondence between poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann, the two of whom had an infamously fraught relationship to language. Jäderlund takes this correspondence and turns it into something else altogether; she finds in the letters a strange, sparse, pastoral lyric that challenges our assumptions about what it means to come into contact with another person. 

Below is a conversation with Jäderlund’s translator, Johannes Göransson, wherein we discuss the language of Bachmann, Celan, and Jäderlund; its failures, its historical undercurrents, its discontents. Look to Lonespeech—out today from Nightboat—for more of language’s “heightened strangeness.”

—Dante Silva

Dante Silva: The collection centers on the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, and the communication (or lack thereof) between the two. How do you find that the poems—strange, sparse, somewhat fragmented in form—speak to this correspondence, and its discontents?

Johannes Göransson: Jäderlund announces that the correspondence is the source of her poems on the cover, which contains one quote each by Bachmann and Celan. Ann was very insistent that these quotes be on the cover, though this is a bit unusual (they are more than epigraphs one might say). We are meant to know from the start that she is “writing through”–or perhaps “into”–their correspondence. Mostly, the poems have removed the words from their voices, though sometimes I feel like when I’m reading, I “catch” a moment of Celan’s voice, Bachmann’s voice. Those moments feel strangely chilling.

Dante Silva: Do you find that the title, Lonespeech (Ensamtal), speaks to these affects—the way that language can be inflected by isolation, or that language can fail? How did you craft the translated title, Lonespeech

Johannes Göransson: Yes, I think this is in many ways a book about language failure. But the failure is not an end; it’s the beginning of the poem, it’s how the language of the poem begins to generate an alternative mode. It’s not about communicating an inner truth, but rather to bring attention to other aspects of language. The poem teaches me to look for the way lines crook, the way a word sounds, the way a line breaks, a phrase surprises. The result is an intensively atmospheric book, but also a very precise book. It’s non-normative but precise in its non-normativeness.

In translation discussions, it’s common to argue that puns and nonsense poetry are untranslatablethey “betray” the translator as George Steiner wrote. Why? Because their aim is not a simple model of communication; they both have too much sense and not enough. It becomes impossible to establish “equivalence” when “the original” is not one, but many; the economics go Bataillean, inflational. The equal signs don’t work. This book is all puns, all nonsense, all out-of-whack translation.

The title is very punny, nonsensical as well as multisensical. “Ensam” means alone, “tal” means speech; but “samtal” means conversation, “en” means one. So I could also I suppose have called it “Oneversation” or something like that. The title vibrates.

Dante Silva: Could you speak to Jäderlund’s place—as outlier, detractor, proponent of, etc.—in Swedish poetry? How does Lonespeech continue (or complicate) Jäderlund’s larger project? 

Johannes Göransson: Jäderlund has been a very central poet in Swedish poetry since the late 80s, when her work gave rise to the infamous “Ann Jäderlund Debates” in Swedish newspapers, journals and other media. The initial review that ignited this debate attacked herin sexist termsfor writing private, hermetic poetry, poetry that didn’t mean enough, that flirted with meaning but did not in the end say much. I think this debate had a huge influence on the generation of Swedish poetsespecially women poetswho started publishing in the 90s; Aase Berg, Helena Eriksson, Helena Boberg, Marie Silkeberg and others. Jäderlund’s work marked a turning point in Swedish poetrya return to the lyrical, but also an exploration of the limits of language.

From the very beginning, her work has been in dialogue with the work of Celan, someone who also has been frequently vilified for being “inaccessible” (or some version of that criticism). So it makes sense that Jäderlund should find in Celan’s letters the source of her book. One key thing Celan and Jäderlund have in common is that while they have been attacked for being private or hermetic, they both have legions of readers who are incredibly affected by their work.

Dante Silva: The conditions of life in the mid-twentieth century shaped Bachmann and Celan’s relationship. Do we see these undercurrents of historical and political projects in Lonespeech? Where should we look?

Johannes Göransson: When I first started reading this book, I for some reason didn’t think that much about the political and historical undercurrents. I don’t know why. I think I was just drawn in to the Jäderlund-ian syntax, rhythms, movements. But the Holocaust is very present in the words of the poem; for example, “ister” (“lard” in my translation) or the phrase “crowded against the others.” Although the overall setting of these poems is pastoral (lots of woods, sun, sky etc), words like this are glitches in the pastoral; if you pay attention to them, the whole pastoral thing unravels, I begin to read for the atrocity. The result is, at least for me, subtly horrifying. I feel like the book got a new meaning for me after the attacks on Gaza. The poem for me became strangely about this new atrocity.

Dante Silva: I love the suggestion that everything is “equally strange,” as Jäderlund writes. The statement almost reads as an argument—throughout the collection Jäderlund takes a language and makes it strange, as did Bachmann and Celan. What do you take away from this strangeness?

Johannes Göransson: Great observation. The way I read this “equally strange” is as a description of the poem. There are not these great moments of heightened strangeness, but rather everything is staying on a level of equal strangeness. And it’s not some kind of fantastic, extreme strangeness, but a kind of small off-ness, dailiness itself as a strangeness.

I think of a poem like this one:

Snow lard


all the time

I am


It’s so normal in many ways, but because of the (syntactic, historical, intertextual) context, “snow” and “lard” become strange. Does “all the time” belong to the first two lines or the last two lines? The sentences vibrate. “I am wrong” is one of those moments where the voice begins to feel like a voice, a human voice, like the poem catches Celan, his voice suddenly coming into focus, becoming legible as a human voice. But then the poem is over.