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
War is more than a political conflict–in late capitalism, it’s a way of life. From Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Rivière-du-Loup, Québec, this war is constellated by concrete acts of terrorism, such as 9/11, and also by a state of near-constant alert, or traumatic consciousness. “History doesn’t exist, it collapses,” the speaker says, moving between mediated images of war and the violence–some symbolic, much of it physical–we encounter every day. It’s tempting to return, in mind, to a time in modernity free from war, but other than a brief gasp between WWII and Vietnam, that time is a phantasm. The speaker of The War Years counsels the reader to continue to move forward, from an age where “we have buried God,” and no longer have a need for poetry, epic or otherwise: “don’t forget but don’t think/ go straight ahead/ carried by what was.” “What was,” is history; “what is,” includes, in this worldview, a confusion between worlds, languages, and us/them binaries wherein the enemy is identified with the path of waged destruction, and “us,” by adherence to “the way of champions.” The champions “eat prize-winning cows/ and all the biggest swordfish,” and “defend the highways/ where our blood flows.” As for the “enemy,” the semantic coordinates are blurred in translation, as they would be in any process of transposition or examination of the language and pronouns used to demarcate, identify, and possess: “you don’t know what they’re capable of/ they will insert themselves into your silence/ until you can no longer tell/ how many we are.” Within this maelstrom, there remains our inheritance of beauty, as preserved in the gaze of another: “and in your eyes…/ I see it already, smoking and beautiful/ Kandahar under the bombs.”
– Virginia Konchan
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
A special feature on Québécoise poet and novelist Rachel Leclerc in Lettres québécoises (No. 146, 2012) states: “Few bodies of work are as coherent, singular and constant. Rachel Leclerc is one of the great voices of Québec literature. Not one that proclaims loud and clear, but one that whispers, like the voices we hear in church or in libraries. And what she sings is sacred.” (my translation)
This excerpt of six poems is drawn from her 1992 book Les vies frontalières (“Borderlives”). In awarding the Prix Émile-Nelligan to this work, the jury’s president said it was chosen for “its purity of language, variation of rhythm, the strength and evocative character of its images, and the economy of its presentation.” These poems recount Leclerc’s return to her native Gaspésie, which she left as a young woman some fifteen years prior. She returns with her lover, in a quest to reconcile with a past marked by loss and turmoil. It is a passionate, deep exploration of the estrangement she feels–broken ties with family, a land, and a heritage–and the struggle to find a new way of being, what she refers to symbolically as “living at borders,” or borderlives.
There are many reasons why I translate Leclerc’s poetry: the luminous beauty of her language, the striking images, the juxtaposition of the prosaic and cosmic, the search for the essential, the ability to be enchanted. I particularly like its musicality. When I read her poems aloud, I hear the sounds of the Gaspésie: waves rolling onto pebble-covered beaches, wind blowing through pine trees on mountain paths. Sometimes the words are a slow interior recitation, other times they are an incantation, even an imperious cry. I work hard to capture and reproduce such effects in my translation. It requires careful word choice and a judicious handling of enjambments and ellipses, two techniques that Leclerc uses with great mastery. Sometimes it requires breaking with Leclerc’s complete eschewing of all punctuation and using (sparsely) an exclamation or question mark (see poems #3 and #5). This is necessary because in French the stress naturally falls at the end of a word, fragment, or clause, whereas English blank verse is built on groupings of stressed and unstressed syllables.
– CS Lemprière
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
Andrée Chedid’s Textes pour la terre aimée (Texts for the beloved earth) was originally published in 1955 by les éditions Guy Lévis Mano (GLM). Lévis Mano was a French typographer, editor, translator, and poet who spent five years imprisoned during World War II. Upon Lévis’ return to Paris in 1945, GLM published such luminaries as René Char, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, and Jacques Prévert. In 1987, Textes pour la terre aimée was republished by Flammarion as part of a collection titled Textes pour un poème: 1949-1970. Chedid dedicated the volume to Lévis Mano, “mains et voix de la poésie” (hands and voice of poetry).
Writing about the process of bringing “ces textes lointains” (these distant texts) to new life in the latter half of the twentieth century, Chedid posed a series of questions in the introduction to the Flammarion collection: “Pourquoi tous ces textes, forgés à prix d’anxiété et de plaisirs? Ces textes qui charrient peines et joies, ruines et clartés, qui apaisent parfois, interrogent le plus souvent….Pourquoi toute cette chasse aux mots, ce besoin de rapprocher le poème—à travers défrichements, confrontations, emboîtements inattendus, alliances qui surprennent—d’une émotion, d’un bouleversement intime, d’un cri du dedans, d’un chant indicible? Et pourquoi s’acheminer vers un espace qui n’aura jamais lieu?” (Why all these texts, forged at the price of anxiety and pleasure? These texts that carry pain and joy, ruins and clarity, that sometimes soothe, more often ask questions….Why all this hunting after words, the need to bring the poem closer—through clearings, confrontations, unexpected articulations, alliances that surprise—towards an emotion, an intimate dislocation, a cry from within, an unutterable song? And why move toward a place that never had location?)
Never one to leave her reader in the dark without a companion, Chedid also offered a response that, almost thirty years later, continues to reach out a hand: “En réalité, je ne cherche pas d’épilogue, ni de jardin perdu; seule la poursuite me mène….Ainsi, chaque poème achevé continue de m’apparaître comme un caillou dans la forêt insondable, comme un anneau dans la chaîne qui me relie à tous les vivants.” (In truth, I don’t seek an epilogue, nor a lost garden; only the pursuit leads me….Such does each completed poem continue to appear for me as a pebble in an unfathomable forest, as a link in the chain that connects me to all the living.)
– Marci Vogel
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 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).