“Some confuse the poem with a
vague rumor of their own Ego,
others see in it only a social function
(or fiction)–but the poem always
escapes our conditioned and aleatory conceptions.
The poem is an already-future…”
The French poet, essayist, and translator Alain Suied passed away in 2008, alas, well before his time. His poetic voice was exceptional, perhaps the most distinctive and moving poetic voice in our present epoch. His was at once a lyrical and a philosophical poetry, a poetry of exemplary generosity, resonant and abundant always with an intelligence which brought forth the most beautiful kind of existential and intersubjective magnanimity. His was a poetry of enchantment, of an ever sustained and sustaining openness to and celebration of the vivacities of life and of living and a poetry also and always–and necessarily–acutely sensitive and sensible to the anguish of existence, of being itself. The poem for him was always a No to violence and a Yes to conviviality, knowing always that poetic language, if it is to be able to avoid renunciation and despair, must nevertheless always place itself–it is the sole possibility of its truly being, of its truly rendering, of its truly imparting the most important–at the heart of its own fragility, and, in this sense, of our own.
– Steve Light
A Hunting Party tells the story of Tristan, a sensitive young man who has been persuaded by his wife to go on a hunting trip in order to “fit in” with the men of their town. In the beginning of the book, Tristan accidentally shoots a rabbit, but when he discovers that the animal is still alive, he hides it in his gamebag with the intention of letting it free when no one is looking. This proves difficult, however, in the atmosphere of guns, blood, and aggressive masculinity. But when the leader of the group has a serious accident, Tristan is left alone with him while the others go for help–just as ominous storm clouds appear overhead. The intimidating situation leads him to reflect on his struggles with his mother’s death, his experience abroad as a teenager, and his disintegrating marriage. These flashbacks are interspersed with his present difficulties of battling a storm, keeping his companion occupied, and debating philosophical notions with the rabbit in his gamebag.
– Christiana Hills
In Jean Lorrain’s small book, Contes pour lire à la chandelle (1897), the stories about Madame Gorgibus appear under the subheading “Tales for sick children.” But these grotesque narratives about an eccentric loner also amuse us as adults—until our laughter is stifled by a cruel prank. Madame Gorgibus is a marginal character, a victim of public condemnation for her odd life and gaudy fashions, much as Lorrain himself had been. We are chided for our preconceptions when, despite accusations of misogyny, Lorrain sympathizes with the sad closed lives of old women who have suffered reversals of fortune.
The stories charm a reader with their rhythm and rhyme as well as the visual appeal of Madame Gorgibus’s outdated fashions and furnishings, and her raven’s behavior as both threatener and victim. Online image libraries were invaluable while translating; it was easy to find photos of the Dresden china statuettes popular in the mid-eighteenth century, or to learn that Madame Gorgibus’s preference for puce began with a trend set by Marie Antoinette. Images of ramparts and ravens, quincunxes, capes and capuches helped me translate the past in which Madame Gorgibus was still living.
– Patricia Worth
A young couple, adrift in life, roams the streets of Paris on a snowy winter night. They enter a café but are forced to leave after a dispute with the owner. They continue their stroll, joined, though, by a seedy gentleman of a certain age they had met at the café. He accompanies them and tells them the story of how he reached his current state. He was once a highly regarded figure, successful in private and professional life, and a candidate for office. Returning from an electoral rally one evening, he found his wife leaving the company of another man. He confronted her and killed her. Though never arrested for the crime, his life collapsed. The young couple continue their stroll, and the young man is arrested by passing police for murder. He tries to explain that he had intended to turn himself in for an unnamed crime, and is questioned about the murder of a shopkeeper. A witness to the murder recounts the event and, when confronted with the novel’s protagonist, says the young man is not the culprit. The young couple is released from custody and continues their walk, their lives as hopeless as at the beginning.
The excerpt featured here is the opening of the novel.
– Mitch Abidor
Holy Mother of God! tells the warm, wise, and witty story of the politically incorrect life of Marie, a French housewife in search of happiness. Marie seems to have everything in her life she needs to be happy; a husband, Cornelius, who loves her, a newly purchased home, the news of her first pregnancy–and even though she is new to her small town, she has already become friends with a group of mothers. But Marie is naïve, and her perfect life becomes a little less than that. Astrid Éliard dares to shake the foundations of the maternity through a narrator who explains how this Marie–the French name for the Virgin Mary–struggles with her own life, “holy and full of grace.”
– Allison M. Charette
André Chenier is universally acknowledged to be the most gifted poet of eighteenth-century France. His masterpiece is The Bucolics, impersonal but moving and dramatic treatments of classical themes. The best known poem of this collection is “The Tarentine Bride,” featured here. Like most of the Bucolics, it is composed in the Alexandrine couplets of rhyming hexameters perfected by Racine, but given a new flexibility by Chenier. I have translated them into their English equivalent, the pentameter heroic couplets that dominated English eighteenth-century verse. The French text can be found on line at Wikisource, le bibliothéque libre, Bucoliques, or Les grands poémes classiques.
– John Anson
Paol Keineg is a Breton poet and playwright. Though he lived in America for many years, he has now returned to Brittany, where he is recognized for both his earlier political work and for the lyric beauty of his poems. One reviewer wrote of his 2005 book Là, et pas là: “A world rich with diverse identities, feats and defeats, from savagery to civilization and back, a poetry of secrets as much as cries. And if the whole point is to stay in the world without getting angry? The strength of his work doesn’t ask us to obey” (Claude Lalande, Le Nouveau Recueil, translation my own). The title of his 2012 book Abalamour is a microcosm of these qualities–abalamour in the Breton language means “because,” the beginning of a reasoned argument, but in French abalamour sounds like “à bas l’amour”–down with love.
Like Pessoa, he uses heteronyms to create, in his words, “a liberating effect under certain circumstances.” Poems in Abalamour are written under the names “Chann Lagatu” and “Yves Dennielou,” suggesting lineages and family histories in addition to the author’s own.
In the title poem, Keineg draws on Breton, French, and American allusions. Instead of footnoting, I have included a few glosses here. Part of this poem takes place in North Carolina (where Keineg was a professor at Duke for many years). The poem refers to a Breton story about the figure of Death who drives from town to town at night in his carriage. The wheels of the carriage make a squeaking noise (“wik-ha-wak”) as he passes through to collect the dead. The other Breton reference in the poem is to al leur nevez–a party where neighbors dance on a new threshing floor to tamp down the dirt and make a good surface for the grain. Kiez ar bed means “bitch of the world” in Breton.
– Laura Marris
Sébastien Smirou’s eight-part poem “Le chamois” comprises Chapter 3 of his eight-chapter volume Beau voir (Paris: P.O.L., 2008). Subtitled “bestiaire,” with a pencil sketch by François Matton of an unfinished beast on its cover, Beau voir features chapters that each address a different animal: lion, giraffe, chamois, cow, cat, turtle, glowworm, dodo. One may hear the title as an echo of mirabile visu, “wonderful to behold,” with the reading experience figured like a day spent wandering an unusual zoo: the animals are hardly in captivity, few zoos feature glowworms (or, for that matter, cats), and the dodo is extinct. On the other hand, “beau voir” is also a set expression, indicating doubt: “Oh yeah? I’d like to see that,” or, more cynically, “Uh-huh, we’ll see about that.” Poised between exhibition and exhibitionism, between inventory and invention, Beau voir is a kids’ book for grownups, those featherless bipeds who live behind figurative bars but are sometimes freed by rhyme, or nonsense, a run-on sentence, a pun or sing-along. One might keep in mind that bête is not only a noun for “creature”; it’s also an adjective meaning “silly,” even “stupid.” Similarly, “La vache,” the book’s fourth chapter, refers to cows–but “vache,” the adjective, means “nasty,” while “La vache!” is an exclamation of surprise: Holy cow! Like its predecessor Mon Laurent, Smirou’s Beau voir is divided into eight chapters, each containing as many poems, with each poem comprising an octave of lines. Moreover, the last line, or a portion of it, is repeated in every poem within a section, verbatim or with variegated reiterations. All eight octets of “The giraffe,” for instance, conclude, “si tu vois ce que je veux dire” (“if you see what I mean”), a phrase that highlights Smirou’s impish wish to marry seeing and saying. That the title Beau voir contains eight letters is no contingent detail–I am calling the translation See About. Previous translated excerpts from the book have appeared in Asymptote, Aufgabe, and Paperbag.
– Andrew Zawacki
Paul Valéry occupies a key place in French poetry, summing up much of nineteenth-century lyric practice while anticipating the preoccupations of the twentieth. His reputation was made by a small amount of highly polished verse, but he also published numerous essays, dialogues and other occasional work, and left behind the 28,000 pages of his early-morning notebooks filled with notes, aphorisms, and prose poems.
A closer reading of Charms (1922), the collection that in many ways defined Valéry as a poet, belies the accepted image of him as all charm and no substance: the polished surface of his deceptively classical poems ripple with barely contained tensions. Any translator of these poems is therefore faced with the challenge of preserving their measured sense of form and precision of language, while losing none of their underlying force.
– Nathaniel Rudavksy-Brody
Note on “Bret Easton Ellis: It’s Actually Shakespeare”:
Laurent Binet, whose novel HHhH was translated into twenty languages, is cultishly devoted to the author of American Psycho. His tribute to the author he calls BEE is both sexy and precise, with the added bonus of a few literary scoops on his greatest books. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair (France).
Note on “Glossary of Literary Received Ideas”:
This article appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur in 2011. There are no entries under the letters “E” or “T” in the English translation.
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Published since 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).