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
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
Elsa Cross is a Mexican writer and philosopher, widely recognized as one of the most important voices of her generation. She has produced a considerable body of work that consists of over 20 collections of poetry, books of essays, and translations. Octavio Paz wrote that Cross “is one of the most personal voices in recent Latin American poetry. Her work, already extensive, brings together some of the most perfect poems among those written by recent generations of Mexican authors. I say ‘voice’ and not poetic writing; although it is written, above all it is spoken. Two opposed aspects are united in Elsa Cross: complexity of thought, and diaphanous diction.”
Bomarzo (from which these poems are taken) is a book-length sequence examining a relationship through the lens of the Italian garden of grotesques built in the mid-16th century by the Italian architect Pirro Ligorio that gives the book its title. Both the imagery and the language used in these poems are ornate and dreamlike, reflecting the phantasmagorical nature of the sculptures of orcs and other creatures which inhabit what is called the “Villa of Monsters,” designed to shock and express grief rather than to delight or amuse. And this poetic trip through Bomarzo is metaphoric, not literal, resulting in a nostalgia as much for things that never were as for those that never could be.
For the translation, I’ve tried to preserve Cross’ heavy utilization of Greco-Latinate terminology, to reflect both the location and a certain linguistic extravagance that echoes the Park’s eerie beauty.
Relatively little of Cross’ work is available in English, although Shearsman Press in the UK has been striving valiantly to redress this. They published a volume of Cross’ Selected Poems in 2009, and have just brought out two more of Cross’ shorter Greece-inspired collections in a single volume entitled Beyond the Sea, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. A bilingual edition of Bomarzo is forthcoming from Mexican publisher Vaso Roto in 2017.
– Lawrence Schimel
The exact arrangement of poems in Meleager’s Garland, usually dated to 100 BCE, is unknown, but the evidence is strong that while some of its texts collected later in the 10th-century Palatine Anthology (AP) retain the same sequence as in the Garland, others do not. The two poems translated here most likely retain their original order. In the Garland, where the organizing principle seems to have been thematic and verbal resemblance, the first of these poems, 5.136 (its number in the AP), almost certainly followed and was a variation on a poem by Callimachus, a thematically similar amatory epigram with a nearly identical first line that includes the same first four words. In the AP, with its somewhat different organizing principles, the epigram by Callimachus, because addressed to Diocles, a boy, has been displaced to its book of same-sex amatory epigrams (Book 12; its number is 12.51). The second of the two poems translated here is essentially a variation on the variation. Its closeness thematically and verbally to 5.136 is such that only some as-yet-unidentified factor in the organization of the Garland could account for it not immediately following 5.136. Even if the largely discredited theory that the Garland’s poems were arranged alphabetically should turn out to be accurate—a theory based on a scholiast’s note to the AP—the order of these two poems would likely still stand, as their first words in the original are enkhei kai and enkhei tas, respectively.
– Fortunato Salazar
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
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).