We all know the fairy tales of Perrault and Grimm, but few readers would recognise the name of Catulle Mendès, one of the great turn-of-the-century creators of fairies. His fairy tales in Les Oiseaux bleus (“The Bluebirds”) were first published in 1888, but were largely forgotten until 1993, when the collection was reissued in French. I discovered Catulle Mendès while researching his contemporary, Jean Lorrain, whose fairy tales I have also translated. I was tickled by the outrageous princess in “La Belle du Monde” (“The Only Beautiful Woman”) and was soon reading it to children and adults in French or in my translation.
In Les Oiseaux bleus, Mendès foresaw the extinction of fairies as interveners in human life. But here at the beginning of the collection, enchantment can still change the course of things for the better: a princess prefers riches and power to a good prince, but with the help of a little magic and a lot of muscle, the prince who has tried to win her love receives a far better reward.
Readers will recognise Perrault’s inspiration and a style reminiscent of Grimm, but Mendès’ storytelling breaks with their tradition of toning down the comedy; he explores the incurable selfishness of humans by invoking laughter at the princess’s trifling and time-wasting. Mendès often takes pleasure in surprising his readers with an unexpected turn near the end of a story, as he does here, giving us, and the prince, the last laugh.
– Patricia Worth
Chronic Heart (Cœur chronique, Le Castor Astral, 2013) by Eric Sarner, winner of the Prix Max Jacob 2014, is a poetry collection composed of three parts, three melodies. Sarner tells us that Chronic Heart “recounts events, names of places, people, works, and words that, at any given moment” resonated emotionally with him. He adds that, “from beginning to end, what grabs us are our emotions and what often accompanies them, our questions. The work of the poet is to give voice to all that.”
I chose three poems from the collection’s third part, Almost a Wandering Song. This is the heart, the chronic heart rhythmically beating, punctuating us, marking time. The titles of the poems in Almost a Wandering Song are eighty Ladino words brought back from trips by the poet. While the poems are written in French, some lines are also in Ladino. The poems are stories, testimonies, time revisited through language.
– Hélène Cardona
Sébastien Rongier’s enigmatic novel 78 brings us into a provincial French brasserie in 1978, where a disparate collection of characters grow tipsy, argue, break up, smoke cigarettes, read, watch each other, and listen to the rasp of Johnny Cash’s voice wafting from the jukebox. Their stories unfold through chains of Georges Perec-like vignettes, which are gradually braided together as the characters interact.
In 1978, France was still haunted by the bitter and bloody Algerian War, which had ended sixteen years previously. Millions of pieds-noirs (European Christians and Jews living in French Algeria) and harkis (Muslim Algerians who had fought in the French army) had fled Algeria for France after Algeria gained its independence. The nostalgia for a French Algeria played a significant role in the development of the National Front political party in 1972, a far-right, nationalist, anti-immigration party led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The National Front is still alive and thriving today, and Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, has taken the helm; the last two years’ regional elections in France have seen historic successes for the party, and connections have been drawn between its right-wing populism and that of Donald Trump.
We see these tensions reflected in 78. Max, the owner of the brasserie, had fought in Algeria, where he met Mohamed, an Algerian who is now the brasserie’s chef. Although the two had been on opposing sides, they struck up an odd friendship. Max eventually saved Mohamed’s life: after Mohamed was nearly killed in the bloody Paris massacre of FLN (pro-liberation) Algerians in 1961, he came to Max for help. Max has been hiding and employing him illegally ever since. Meanwhile, four of the brasserie’s customers are National Front disciples, who discuss politics loudly. They are hoping to convert Max to their party, unaware of his pro-Algerian sympathies.
Rongier relies heavily on the French pronoun on, which can mean you, he, we, or they, depending on the context. While this works well in French, rendering the text all the more mysterious and giving it a lilting rhythm, it makes translation into a language without such a catch-all pronoun particularly difficult. I sacrificed some strict faithfulness to the text and to its spirit of mystery in the name of clarity, often replacing the pronoun with “the man” or “the boy.”
– Gretchen Schmid
Isadora Duncan, who haunts our car-mares with her scarf entangled, has cut a wide swath through literary, art, and film history. It was an exciting project to translate from the French her story, so wonderfully told by Anne Reynes-Delobel, in our joint project, Glorieuses Modernistes, published just now by the Presses Universitaires de Liège. A story that, along with Anne’s chapter on Kay Boyle, completed the essays I had written on seven artist women in my Glorious Eccentrics; Modernist Women Writing and Painting, each essay so expertly translated by Anne. So it has turned out to be an equilibrating project, the most delightful balancing act I can possibly imagine.
– Mary Ann Caws
Pierre Senges’s Geometry in the Dust is a book about city life. On a visit to a foreign city, the book’s narrator is trying to write a description of the city that will furnish instructions for his king to build a city in his home land. Never having seen a city before, his approach is to try to apprehend and set down on paper the principles of the city that he observes in action around him.
In this third chapter, the narrator reflects on one of the city’s many paradoxes: in order to truly know the city, we have to get lost in it. There are cultural resonances here with certain of the psychogeographers’ and Situationists’ experiments (namely la dérive: the urban walker’s surrender to unconscious impulses, useful for discovering hitherto unknown aspects of the city), but if Senges had them in mind when he was writing this chapter, they go nameless–or nearly so.
Whatever may be said of these wanderers, the greater focus is on the orientateur, or wayfinder: the person one stops on the sidewalk to ask for directions. Luckily, their instructions do not interfere with our ability to get lost: instead of useful directions, the wayfinders provide the traveler with “a Menippean satire for their little corner of the city, a macaronic, a description expressed in the local creole.” Along with the street preachers, buskers, graffitists, bustling crowds, romantic couples, and insomniacs of the city that Geometry in the Dust describes, these wayfinders are the book’s comic heroes, and probably not too different, if we only look hard enough, from ourselves.
This is the second excerpt of Geometry in the Dust to be published here at InTranslation. The first chapter was published in the May 2015 edition. The original book, published in 2004 by Éditions Verticales, includes twenty-six illustrations by the artist Killoffer.
– Jacob Siefring
Max Jacob’s writing gives a glimpse of debauchery, the kind that might lie at the collapse of linguistic functioning or on the other side of cliché and metaphor. In taking on washed-up subject matter like the story of Don Juan, Jacob gives new life to staid texts— literary history is used against itself as the means to imagine an otherwise. Yet Jacob’s work poses a problem to translation. As is true of translating most surrealists, the task of the translator becomes more about capturing sound than meaning, more about the feeling of a word than its definition; speech over language.
Some liberties were admittedly taken in translating this text. To keep meter and rhythm, some French words were exchanged for ones with entirely different meanings in English. The sounds and connotations of English words, I hope, evoke the playfulness and tone of the original. I also kept the Chapter sub-headings in French (or semi-French) since, again, the materiality of language is definitively prioritized over the meaning of the words.
This text, neither poem nor drama nor prose but something veritably non-disciplinary, was found in an archival collection of Pierre Reverdy’s short-lived journal Nord-Sud. Though a good portion of Jacob’s work has been translated into English, his writings from this journal have mostly been overlooked. This might be because the orthography is difficult; the words seem somehow unedited and difficult to parse out. Yet I kept the punctuation, spacing, and capitalization exactly as they appear in the original in order to leave a remainder or reminder of the historical context within the text—to keep the rules out, so to speak.
– Mimi Howard
Jean-Baptiste Para, the author of four volumes of poetry, does not receive the kind of attention that some other contemporary French language poets or French poets receive. But then regimes and canons of visibility are always imperfect in their constitution and more than ever in the present epoch. I would stipulate that if there were but one contemporary French poet whom one could have the opportunity to read, then it should be Para, although I would immediately add that one should also read the late and lamented poet, Alain Suied (1951-2008). Para is a poetic and literary intelligence of the first order and the possessor of a sparkling and profound literary erudition, but the truly admirable wonder is that this intelligence and erudition resonate without remainder or constraint or imposition, resonate in seamless lacing with the diction and dynamism of his poetic vibratos and crescendos. Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “For Eli Jacobson,” a poem greatly esteemed by Para, is as good a poem as Rexroth ever wrote, a perfect poem in its union of existential intelligence, socio-historical wisdom, and poetic reciprocity and tragico-existential magnanimity. But so many of Para’s poems have this shimmering and sentience of poetico-existential encompassment where life in its tragedies and celebrations emerges in a music which remains within us in ever the more sustained duration. Poems of existential and political immediacy are the most difficult of all poems to write, but Para’s tribute poem to Rosa Luxembourg, “Ghazal pour Rosa L,” greatest intelligence of her politico-historical epoch, whose terrible and tragic assassination was the gravest historico-political loss, is one of these rare poems where a subject finds its perfect election, its perfect music and duration. But so many of Para’s poems have this sustained and sustaining quality. There are poetries of richness and there are poetries of riches, but rarely a poetry in which we find both, find poem after poem as gift and reward in both breadth and depth. Para is a different poet than is Cavafy or Mandelstam, and yet in all three we find a poetic sounding and historico-existential savor and fancy that all at once are the only ones that a subject at hand could possibly have or beckon or instantiate in all actuality, attention, and affection.
– Steve Light
The underlying concept for the book Geometry in the Dust concerns the idea of the city, and its extensive, facetious description. In the book’s first chapter, excerpted here, we learn that an Eastern, desert-dwelling king has dispatched his right-hand man–the book’s narrator–to a distant, nameless city. The aide’s job is to meticulously observe and notate the city, so that these descriptions might furnish instructions to build a city of their own, in the middle of their desert kingdom.
The book’s absurd conceit becomes then, how to describe a city to a person who has no concept of one? Very slowly and carefully, perhaps. The city takes on uncanny, conspiratorial hues: every trash can, every busker, and every alley cat appears, through a paranoid sort of logic, to be the result of a monumental effort of planning and coordination. Metaphysical ramifications and urban myths lurk in every manhole. The city’s jagged, broken geometries, its sewers and subways, doves and streetlamps, cul-de-sacs and dumpsters–all must be accounted for.
As with almost all of Pierre Senges’s texts, the narration unfolds with numerous erudite allusions. These can be overwhelming at times, but mostly they function as an invitation to explore the vast universal library from which Senges often gleans his material. Fortunately, no prior knowledge of Ibn Sahl, the mad caliph Hakem, or the Book of Rare Things in the Art of Calculation by Abū Kāmil–all mentioned here in passing–is required to enjoy this Borgesian tale’s wit.
Twenty-six large black-and-white drawings by the illustrator Killoffer complement the narrator’s anatomy of the city. Above all, they suggest visions of a frenzy: objects cluttered together, the violent pace of city life, and crowds overflowing with gruesome, terror-struck faces. As such, they afford a striking counterpoint to the narrator’s calm, collected, rational elaboration of the city’s aspects.
The book is available in a large, horizontal-format edition, with glossy pages and a cutaway cover, making this book a virtually one-of-a-kind collaboration. It was published in 2004 by Éditions Verticales as the first (and only, it turns out) title in a series entitled one wonders how such books find their way into readers’ hands. A very good question, indeed.
– Jacob Siefring
Born Liliane Cohen to a family originally from Salonica (whose Jewish community was essentially wiped out by the Nazis), Liliane Atlan attended the Gilbert Bloch d’Orsay school founded in Paris for youths traumatized by the Shoah, where she studied Talmud, Torah, mystical texts, and Jewish history. Her writing is steeped in this body of literature, and her French language is inflected with Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish. While living in Israel after the 1967 war, Atlan was a founder of a Jewish-Arab theatre company and was, until she died (in Kfar Saba), active in Jewish-Palestinian peace and cultural initiatives. Her literary, and especially theatrical forms are experimental, constructed at the limits of narrative, representation, temporal and spatial continuity. Her poems are her most accessible texts, and her final poems—represented here—are her most beautiful, at least to my mind.
– Marguerite Feitlowitz
Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone,” one of the outstanding works of early literary modernism, has been translated into English by many prominent poets and critics, among them Samuel Beckett, William Meredith, W.S. Merwin, Donald Revell, and Roger Shattuck. In creating my own translation, I can’t claim their expertise, only my affection. I first encountered “Zone” in college and have been moved and delighted by it ever since. First published in 1913 in Apollinaire’s groundbreaking collection Alcools, it is a collagistic and phantasmagorical rendition of a single day in Paris, with excursions, via memory and fantasy, to many other locations and scenes.
The mixture of high and low registers, of praise for secular new technology and nostalgia for the religious and Classical past, creates a terrific energy in “Zone,” as does Apollinaire’s rejection of punctuation and use of fragments of varying lengths. The poem veers between the lyrical, the playful, and the nakedly self-revelatory.
As the poet David Lehman notes, in the introduction to his own, interesting, translation of “Zone,” most translators avoid attempting to replicate the poem’s many end rhymes. But to me these rhymes give the poem much of its buoyancy, humor, and emotional impact, and I have worked to replicate their effect. Where there seemed to me to be a conflict between literal transcription and a looser word or phrase that better captured the rhythm or spirit of the original, I chose the latter.
Perhaps my greatest deviation is in the very first line. “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien” translates straightforwardly as “In the end you are tired of this ancient world.” Lehman rightly points out Apollinaire’s “audacity” in starting a poem with the words “in the end.” But my ear kept snagging on those few words, whether I tried “You’re weary in the end of this ancient world” or “In the end you’re tired of this ancient world,” or any other like translation. I ask Apollinaire’s forgiveness for the decision to enter swiftly into the hectic pace of his poem with the more frictionless “You’ve grown weary of this ancient world.”
“Zone” seems capable of being endlessly and compellingly translated, and no “right” translation will ever conquer all the others.
– Pamela Erens
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).