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 complex process of writing my documentary play She He Me included the translation of its multilingual source material. One of my characters is Algerian (Randa), one is Lebanese-American (Rok), and one is Jordanian (Omar). So I was working from interviews in Lebanese Arabic and Jordanian Arabic (which are somehow similar), French, and English. Take Randa, for example. Algeria, like Lebanon, was colonized by the French, so Randa often spoke French during our interviews, especially when reading from her prison diaries. French is the language Randa favors for reading literature and expressing herself in writing, and she’d written her prison diaries in French with the additional intent of keeping less educated prison guards from understanding them. Randa had also traded in her Algerian dialect for a flawless Lebanese one because she felt more empowered by her experience in Beirut and her Lebanese femininity.
Not only were there different languages to contend with. Each character’s words were operating on a different emotional register, and there were also micro-nuances within that. Rok speaks a highly Americanized English with some “bro”-like phrasing, yet when he speaks Arabic, it’s very much a southern Lebanese cadence. I kept a few sentences from his mother in Arabic so we can trace the southern Lebanese village roots of her socio-political background, and we can understand their impact on Rok. Omar comes from Jordan, which was a British Mandate. Not only is he fluent in English, but he also studied in London, so he sometimes would throw the Queen’s English in the middle of a hardcore Transjordanian accent. That accent is very much associated with a kind of Transjordanian male bravado, which becomes an interesting and powerful reclaiming when a gender radical like Omar speaks it.
For the purposes of the hotINK readings, I wrote the script in English. We’re hoping to have a production in Beirut soon, and for that I’ll have to translate the script back into Arabic, hopefully with support from the actors. It’s true that people in Lebanon speak French and English as well, but I would really like to see this piece performed in Arabic, as a political statement.
– Amahl Khouri
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
“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
After four decades of writing in her adopted tongue, Argentine poet Silvia Baron Supervielle’s themes in Around the Void seem little changed, even if tinged more recently with a sense of impending mortality: always she finds herself at an existential precipice, with her mixed allegiances to her two languages as to her sense of place and belonging.
About her change of language, she explained in a 1997 interview with the translator: “It seemed to me that I would never be able to find the thread, to achieve some kind of wholeness, if I kept writing in Spanish. But something very strange happened to me. Suddenly I found a terrain where I recognized myself and which was mine, where it was so difficult finding the word and the language that I wrote very short poems, very pared down. That’s how I started to write these poems that are of such little means, I understood that this is exactly what I am, this sort of poverty of words, this fear of the language. I realized I had found something, a place that was mine. That poverty was like a mirror that was imposed on me. It wasn’t due to French, from which I also wanted to remain apart, but to that distance between the language and me, which resembled the distance I wanted to exist around me, on both sides, a distance that obliged me to pare things down. That’s how I became a writer in French. For me it was a discovery that has nothing to do with the idea of the past or the French language tradition.”
Though she has visited her native Buenos Aires with some regularity over the years, it wasn’t until 1997 that she returned as a writer–invited by the French embassy as a French writer who also spoke Spanish. And only in subsequent years has her work begun to appear in Spanish translation.
The following poems are the first two sections of Autour du vide (“Around the Void”), her eleventh book of poetry, made up of seven sections with ten poems each.
– Jason Weiss
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
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).