Greatest Women in Translation: Sawako Nakayasu

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Sawako Nakayasy was nominated by Rosmarie Waldrop.

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1. Let me start by saying that I absolutely loved this interview you gave to Lindsey Webb on Asymptote Journal, so most of the first three questions will be based on parts of it. I’d like to start with a comparison Forrest Gander made at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference of you and Rosmarie Waldrop, our previous interviewee, in which he described you as “the Rosmarie Waldrop of Japan.” Just like Waldrop, you are a poet-translator “explicitly invested in disrupting a largely male avant-garde” (Webb). Could you tell us a little more about this?

Thank you so much, Caroline! (Or is it Carol?) It’s of course a great honor to be called the “Rosmarie Waldrop of Japan,” but it’s also quite a bit to live up to – I continue to admire Rosmarie endlessly for the range, depth, and breadth of her work. And Forrest Gander has always been incredibly supportive of my work, and of women writers in general (in every country, I might add). Regarding feminism: it’s not that I only translate women, but my own sensibility affects the decisions that I make. And if that happens to loosen the grip of the male avant-garde, all the better. There’s still plenty more work to do on many fronts.

The excellent Japanese women poets I’ve translated include Kawata Ayane, Kyongmi Park (who is zainichi – Korean in Japan), Hirata Toshiko, Ito Hiromi, Minashita Kiriu – and also the modernist poet Sagawa Chika, who was basically unknown at the time I found her work. A “minor poet,” or “everybody’s favorite unknown poet,” depending on who you asked. I think that latter description, “everybody’s favorite unknown poet,” says so much about the mismatch between fame (the state of being known) and the quality of the work. 

Often we work with the assumption that we are supposed to translate the “best” – from any given language or culture. And in that sense, I’m not so different. I simply found Sagawa’s poetry astounding, and wanted to share it with others. My esteem of her work did not correspond with that of the Japanese literary establishment, but I was young, brash, and utterly convinced that I had found a truly wonderful poet – it never bothered me to be questioned on why I was translating such a “minor” poet. For this, I want to thank Keith Waldrop for imparting an “art for art’s sake” ethos, early on. He simply was not the careerist type, and didn’t care a lick about “professionalizing” his students. And so I arrived at translation with the mindset of making art. “Make it better in the translation,” Keith said – which is an empowering message for emerging translators. 

My translation of Sagawa Chika received a good amount of recognition, got acquired and republished by Modern Library, a Penguin/Random House imprint, alongside major canonical writers. Now her work is widely distributed in English and some of it has been translated from English into other languages like Chilean Spanish, Galician, and Arabic. Sagawa’s poems, written in the 1920s and 1930s, are avant-garde and ahead of her time, and quite singular – almost like the Emily Dickinson of Japan, though Sagawa was less isolated. And now she will be the subject of a scholarly, digital publication project that focuses exclusively on her work, so her reach continues to grow.

2. Yes, Carol is perfectly fine. When talking about your experimental translation project Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals, Webb says you give “the reader privileged access to the mind of the translator as it crosses languages, cultures, and (in Sagawa Chika’s case) time.” How is that so?

If you sit down and try to capture what moves through a translator’s mind as they translate a poem… it’s possible that a “true” transcription of such a thing could be quite fascinating or banal or hilarious, depending. In the case of Mouth: Eats Color, I might say that this is the case, but taking place over a long span of time. I spent about ten years translating Sagawa’s Collected, and I wrote Mouth: Eats Color during a summer within that time period. I was feeling constrained about certain conventions of translation (basic ones, like making the translation as similar as possible to the text one is translating, or of creating one translation per poem) – but there were aspects of Sagawa’s poetry that made me question the basic principles and customs of translation altogether. Her work really comes out of Japanese modernity – the major shifts in culture, society, technology, philosophy, and exposure to new modes of art – as well as an aesthetic Modernism that is fused with her very unique style and sensibility. And then, when you start considering the poems of James Joyce, Harry Crosby, and Mina Loy that she herself had translated into Japanese, alongside the poems of hers which were clearly influenced by the various poems she had been translating, there is a fascinating web of influence and innovation. 

So it’s natural, in a way, that she has influenced my thinking about translation. I knew that there was more to explore beyond whatever I was doing in the conventional translation of her work, even though I was absolutely still also committed to translating her Collected in the conventional mode. As a translation, Mouth: Eats Color is more performative – I was trying to enter the space and context and energy of what it must have been like to be Sagawa Chika in the 1920s and 1930s, having moved from Hokkaido to Tokyo, into an interdisciplinary artistic and literary milieu that was abuzz with new ideas and translations and poetics, with the language itself evolving and changing rapidly, with new printing technologies suddenly available and accessible, and with her having such a singular mind, a distinct personal style that came through with such clarity. Lately I’ve been working on finishing the 20th century Japanese experimental poetry anthology (co-edited with Eric Selland), so I’ve enjoyed spending more time thinking about the context in which she wrote. And then I think: why might happen if Sagawa Chika was alive today?

3. I absolutely loved this quote of yours: “Translating is such a different task from writing in your own language—it involves a lot of patience to be willing to work it and work it and work it until the tunnel opens up. There are all these issues that you’re trying to satisfy all at once. It’s very painful. My own writing is contingent on circumstances surrounding my physical space and mind. I’m not an athlete about writing. So to translate I have to build up a lot of muscles. If I haven’t been translating a lot, I feel the weakness—it really feels muscular.” Do you believe a translation is ever finished?

“Never finished, only abandoned” – it’s a well-worn quote, but personally I think “abandoned” is a bit harsh. I prefer to think of it as “handed over” – to the reader, for example, who completes the work by reading, interpreting, or receiving it. That said, whenever you hand something over for production into publication, it’s an implicit statement that it is “finished” to some degree at least, so it’s a little disingenuous to claim otherwise. Might as well admit we participate in the capitalist commodity culture that this is – or rather, I think it’s important to acknowledge it as one choice among many, and that there are other choices to be made. I self-published Mouth: Eats Color because I did not want to subject it to external approval, as well as external conditions and parameters – the only way I could have full control of it was to produce it myself, and that turned out to be wonderfully empowering. Print-on-demand technology allowed me to self-publish it with very little money. I remember doing a class visit once, and a student asked, “how did you get a book like this published?” – and I was happy to say that I didn’t.

But your question referred to work, labor, and muscle. I can add that part of what let me feel free to engage Sagawa’s work so intimately (and differently) was because I was also doing the normal, “respectable” thing in translating her Collected in a conventional manner, and that Mouth: Eats Color wasn’t some lazy, irresponsible copout – it was faster, and there is certainly a sense of infinite possibility in it, but I was not averse to doing the more constrained work of a regular translation. Both projects come from a place of deepest respect. In fact, I hope that people read the two books together. Then you would have a much fuller picture of “Sawako Nakayasu translating Sagawa Chika.”

Also, my computer is littered with translations that literally never got finished – false starts, weak attempts, abandoning in the sense of giving up. Multiple times in my life I have tried to translate my own poems into Japanese, which I was completely unable to do – and so I embraced the notion of the unfinished, failed-attempt translation and included some of them in my new book, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, which opened up new doors along that translation-writing continuum. That in turn has led me to Pink Waves, which lands on a very different spot on that same continuum.  

Some of these explorations come from my background in music and dance improvisation, which involves a very different process. You practice, rehearse, train. Like an athlete. Or, you walk on the wall, like Trisha Brown. The work is time-bound and restricted to that moment, which leaves no room for the kind of revising and editing that I would do for a conventional translation. Mouth: Eats Color is also performative in that I wrote during a particular moment of my life – I had a very specific, Cinderella-like amount of time to “be a writer/translator” (one month), after which point I had to return to being an overworked mom of a newborn baby teaching eight classes a week. As someone once said to me: you can do it all, but you can’t do it all at the same time.

4. As a Japanese translator who lives abroad, how do you keep in touch with your culture and language, and polish your language and translation skills?

I spent a lot of time moving back and forth between Japan and the US. But for me it’s more about the books than about speaking and being in the place. When you’re first learning a language, immersion seems critical, but I can be “immersed” in a Japanese book no matter where I am.

5. How did you get into translation

Power of suggestion, and circumstance. Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop and Forrest Gander, were tremendous role models. I also happened to move to Japan upon completing my MFA in poetry, and translation was a way for me to learn more about Japanese poetry.

6. What have you been working on during this pandemic and how has it changed your life, both in the personal and professional levels?

I’ve had a challenging pandemic, and am hoping to come out of it wiser and kinder. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Aditi Machado

Greatest Women in Translation: Rosmarie Waldrop

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Rosmarie Waldrop was nominated by Cole Swensen.

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1. When you were 10 years old, you spent half a year acting with a traveling theater. That is quite interesting! Could you tell us a bit more about that experience?

It was the summer and fall of 1945. In Germany. My hometown, Kitzingen am Main, had been severely bombed. There was no school. The adults were busy finding food, which for my family meant bicycling to the farms in the vicinity and bartering what possessions we had. We kids were running wild. When a local theater group announced an audition for children, my mother took me there immediately. The theater had managed to get an American army truck (we were in the American Occupation Zone) in which we traveled from village to village, from stages in town halls to improvised spaces in restaurants. In the afternoons we played Snow-White and the 7 Dwarves; evenings, The Love Potion, where I played the son of a Russian nobleman. (I thought the farce was by Chekhov, but have not been able to find it among his works.) It was exciting to be away from my always fighting parents, with adults very different from them and a pack of other kids (dwarves!). I was thrilled to be paid the same (very small) Gage as the adults, a kind of validation I had not expected. But I also got bored with doing the same thing every day. I remember catching hell and a lecture that, no matter how often you’ve done it, each time you perform you give it your all. A big lesson in discipline. Nevertheless, I was relieved when school reopened in January 1946, with its more varied challenges.

2. In 1961, you and your husband, also a poet and translator, launched Burning Deck Magazine, which later evolved into Burning Deck Press, one of the most influential publishers for innovative poetry in the United States. Could you tell us a bit more about the story behind the magazine and the press? Why did you decide to create them?

The press was Keith Waldrop’s initiative. He wanted a poetry magazine and, as we were penniless graduate students, decided the only way was to print it ourselves. The early 1960s happened to be the moment when print shops all over the country dumped their letterpresses. We were able to acquire one with all the accessories for a mere $100. It took a little while to learn to print, but we did. Burning Deck Magazine was slated to come out 5 times a year. Instead it came out only 4 times in 5 years! Keeping a fixed publication schedule was clearly too much, so we shifted to printing chapbooks of poetry, which would appear whenever we could manage. Full books came later. And finally our branching out into publishing translations from French and German.

So much for the material side. The impulse behind the magazine was “the war of the anthologies.” In 1961 there appeared two anthologies of American poetry 1945-1960: Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry and what was known by its editors’ names as “the Hall-Pack-Simpson.” They represented the opposing camps labeled ‘beats’ and ‘academics.’ Not a single poet appeared in both. Burning Deck magazine disregarded this split, so that on occasion an author complained of being published in the company of such-and-such! For the press, however, we soon realized that with our limited means it made more sense to narrow our focus to exploratory, experimental poetry which was our chief interest. The impulse to throw bridges survived in the two translation series (French and German).

My initial skepticism quickly gave way to taking pleasure in the “material practice” of printing which I found a good counterweight to the more abstract work of writing and reading. More than that, the extremely slow process of setting type by hand brought home poetry as “slow language.” I haven’t read any poems as thoroughly as those I set by hand. Hand-setting also made me very aware of any “fat,” any unnecessary word, and made for concision in my own writing. The labor was enormous, but the pleasure of holding in my hands a book I had physically made was ample compensation. Another pleasure of having a press or magazine: it creates community, puts you in touch with other writers. Perhaps more important for poets who live, as we did, in Ann Arbor, Michigan than for those in New York, but in any case a good balance to the essentially lonely work of writing.

3. How did you get into translation?

It came out of my personal situation as an immigrant to the U.S. I had started to write poems in Germany, but once I was in Ann Arbor, immersed in English, thinking and dreaming in English, I found it impossible to write in German. I turned to translating poems by Creeley, Stevens, etc. into German. Then, when I gradually mustered the courage to try writing poems in English I also turned to translating into English.

4. In this article on Poetry Foundation, you say translation was one of the ways you found to improve your poetry. How is that?

Writing and translating are much the same process, with translation just having an extra constraint in the original text. They definitely cross-fertilize each other. But the space between two languages is a space open to potential/possibility. It taught me to navigate without fixed course, to trust the (seeming) boundlessness.

Or, let’s say: when we write we tend to be focused within ourselves whereas translating is always conversation–with a text, an author, a culture, a society. So the habit of translating has helped my writing process to stay open, stay in conversation with what is outside my little self even while concentrating on what seems most personal. Collage has also done this for me.

In practical terms, translating has added perspective. Translation kills the illusion that a relation of word to “thing”/signified is “natural” and therefore the only one. Knowing it could always be some other way makes me test more possibilities, work harder. This ends up stretching, transforming, improving what I started out with. 

5. In 1970, you spent a year in Paris, a turning point in your career, right? Why

There wasn’t any career yet! But it was certainly a break-through in my writing. For one thing It was the first time that I had a long space just to concentrate on writing, without also being a student or teacher. I worked on the sequence “As if we didn’t have to talk,” which has a double set of analogies: “you” is to crowd as line is to open space and as utterance is to code. But the analogies are never stated. They are pushed into the background as structure and matrix for the poems. I also started pushing at the boundaries of the sentence by letting the object of a phrase serve also the subject of the next one.

Then came crucial encounters. First, the poets Claude Royet-Journoud and Anne-Marie Albiach. Smack in the middle of Claude’s first book is a manifesto, on a page by itself: “Shall we escape analogy.” Without question mark. I was electrified: here was a clear statement of what I’d been groping toward in an intuitive way! There followed many all-night discussions, translations, a clearer direction for my writing, and a deep friendship.

When Claude learned that I had begun translating Jabès’s The Book of Questions he ran to the phone to arrange our meeting. I had sent a 50-page sample with description and review excerpts to many US publishers, most of whom replied: no thanks, we have always lost money on translations. On reading these pages Edmond Jabès said, he recognized himself in the rhythm. Then I of course dropped everything to continue translating while I had the chance to ask him questions. I eventually translated 14 volumes of his work. Jabès was overwhelming through the power of his work and his presence, the way he lived The Book, lived the constant questioning of his writing. He was also funny, which I hadn’t expected. Our friendship remains a treasure for me.

6. In this article on Foundation for Contemporary Arts, you say “The linguistic displacement from German to English has not only made me into a translator, but gave me a sense of writing as exploration of what happens between. Between words, sentences, people, cultures.” How is that so?

I have a strong affinity with the word “between.” It is the title of my earliest poem in English, when I felt still very much between my native Germany and my newly adopted country, between “not all here/ or there/ a creature with gills and lungs.” But it isn’t just my personal situation. Our whole reality is no longer substances, but relation between things, quanta, words, etc. The space between two languages provides an incomparable experience of the between as the essential locus of relation, encounter, communication. I would call it a model for living.

But let’s not get too solemn. I recently ended a poem:

“The space between two languages is not between mirrors, but curves along the great wall of error, a refined form of adventure.”

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Sawako Nakayasu

Greatest Women in Translation: Cole Swensen

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee this month is Cole Swensen, nominated by Marcella Durand.

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1. Let’s start by briefly introducing yourself and what you do, with special focus on translation.

First, thank you so much for inviting me! And thank you for establishing this blog and for doing all the work to maintain it—it’s an amazing and useful document. And thank you, Marcella Durand, for nominating me. 

Also, initial note—I’ll be using they/them as the universal pronoun system throughout the following text. I’ll also be grappling, as we all do, with some specific translation terminology. I tend to use “language of departure” and “language of arrival” when discussing the two poles inevitable in any translation, but I acknowledge that it’s an open question and that any answer to it is at best provisional and at worst a chute into yet another rabbit hole. 

I’m both a poet and a translator—for many years, most of my poetry has been engaged with the visual arts and with the relationship between people and land; these two interests often converge, for instance, in pieces that address land art, landscape art, landscape architecture, land and technology, and the politics of formal gardens and of public parks. My translations, on the other hand, are not at all thematically determined; rather, they’re engaged with certain formal, ideological, and historical questions, particularly questions of materiality, rooted in the fusion of Modernism and Wittgensteinian philosophy around the notion of the word as action/actor. I began translating as a mode of deep reading—there really is no deeper way to read a text, and it’s unique way of reading in that it not only requires that you dive down into it and take apart every little piece, but also that you stand back from the text, that you step outside it in a way that someone considering it in their own language can never do. 

Those comments apply to my poetry and cross-genre translations. I have a very different practice that entrances me just as much, and that’s translating art texts. I work for a couple of galleries in France and Belgium, and from time to time, I translate essays and other materials for art catalogues. Its pleasures and fascinations are completely different from those of literary texts in that, in a certain way, it’s nothing but language. Ironically, because it’s entirely a matter of conveying content, I can, and in fact I need to, put all my attention on phrasing. In other words, though it seems that the content of such documents “goes without saying”; in fact, the saying is the only thing that’s going on. It’s the opposite of poetry, and I love that range and that contrast.

I find myself often thinking of translation of all sorts as a 3-D crossword puzzle—or a 4-D (because time so definitely comes into it), a multi-dimensional crossword puzzle like a Rubik’s cube that has grown extra faces.

2. You are founding editor of La Presse Poetry, a nano-press that publishes books of contemporary experimental French writing translated by English language writers. Could you tell us a bit more about it

La Presse began in 2006, funded by a generous grant from the Tamaas Foundation, a Franco-Maghrebian-American arts-based not-for-profit organization that works in poetry, film, performance, and multi-media to support a wide range of community projects—I urge everyone to check them out.

That said, La Presse is now closed down. I ran it as a single-person operation; I did 20 books, almost all of them by writers who are or had been principal participants in an effort to reassert language as an artistic raw material, to liberate it from its status as a sheerly or even predominantly referential vehicle, and to, instead, foreground its formal and material properties. The books range in genre from poetry to prose, but many of them fall somewhere on the continuum between, in some sort of hybrid form. They were all translated by English-language poets or poet-critics, and they’re all available through

3. In a book of essays you have written, you approached the relationship between translating and writing: “[T]ranslating is in itself writing, and the translator must, therefore, also be a writer.” Could you please kindly elaborate a bit more on this idea?

Yes—I don’t mean that translators must be people who sees themselves as writers and have writing practices outside of their translation practice—though I respectfully acknowledge that there are those who do—but no, I want to underscore that translating is, in itself, writing—to translate well, you also have to write well. It might be considered a genre of writing, in a sense, and if we want to think of it in that light, we might briefly and artificially break it down into two stages: one has to translate out of the language of departure and write into the language of arrival. The second gesture, even though it may feel one with the first is essentially different in that the writing into must be writing not translating if the text is truly going to arrive in the welcoming language. And I think that music plays a large role here. It’s at the level of music that the element of writer overtakes the element of translator. (And here I’m using the terms musicality and materiality somewhat interchangeably—wanting to underscore the inevitable sonority of language, underscore that the principal material quality of language is sound, and that that quality is never not foregrounded in the reader’s experience, whether they realize it or not.) And I’m not just talking about poetry, but about the element of musicality that must hover under and over even the most prosaic text if it is to hold together. 

And so, one must translate with the ear as much as with the mind to avoid allowing the semantic to override all other dimensions of signification, and particularly that of sound. And not only does the translator have to engage the element of music, they have to grasp the music specific to that text, grasp the particularities of that music, which, as it’s necessarily based on the physical attributes of the departure language, may pose great problems in the language of arrival. It’s the grappling at this level that is crucial—the translator must not only also be a writer, but they must also be a musician. As all writers must be.

4. In another essay, you praise error: “[W]henever a message is transferred from one side to another, […] there’s always the chance that […] [it] will become altered in the transmission. We tend to think of such alterations as damage, but […] [they] are not necessarily bad.”Could you also elaborate a bit more on this idea?

The underlying paradigm here is that of self-organization from noise, which is a principle that has informed both information sciences and evolutionary biology. In the latter case (and no doubt grossly, but perhaps useably, oversimplified), information transferred from point X to point Z through channel Y may arrive 100% intact, 0% intact, or any percentage between. While in the transmission of a message or in the copying of a gene sequence, less than 100% accuracy can have unfortunate to disastrous results (the message is indecipherable; the embryo is not viable), it can also have positive effects. In translation, such errors can result in a text that is different but perhaps not degraded if the differences add something positive. This is true with genetic errors as well—it is only such errors in the copying of DNA across generations that have enabled evolution. It was an error in the copying of DNA that first got us started on the opposable thumb. But to return to translation, perhaps it’s a matter of attending to the spirit of a departing text, of listening very deeply, so that when one makes the inevitable errors—as in errant—when one cannot keep to the right path—when one cannot convey a nuance, when one cannot express a fine and essential shade, the offset, the mis-take, though a loss, might also bring something new along with it that might be wholly in line with the overall movement of the piece. And though errors are inevitable and can result in enrichments, I am thinking above all of the errant, as in the deviant routes the translator must at times take and of the wonderful places those deviations might take us through—an openness to the detour, the digression, the deviation seems essential if translation is to be recognized as something more than an attempt at perfect servitude, an attempt that will always fail. If we don’t embrace that failure and see it as also an invitation to err in the most explorative and inventive of ways, we risk producing a cardboard cut-out of the departure text. 

5. In your opinion, “[t]ranslation, in a sense, is always emergent, in that once it has fully emerged, it’s no longer translation; it’s a text.” Could you elaborate a bit more on that beautiful idea? 

It does seem that a translation is a transition; it’s a being in the process of metamorphosis, shifting out of one form and coming into another. As soon as it begins to shift out of the departure language, it begins to emerge into the arrival language. Perhaps the most excellent translations never lose that sense of emergence; they seem to continue in a condition of becoming even as we’re reading them printed on a page. But another way to look at it is to think of the process as having an end, to think of the translation as finally arriving, but once arrived, it is now truly elsewhere—it’s no longer part of the departure language; it’s now a text embedded in and belonging to the arrival language. Looking at the issue in that way stresses the translated text as independent, self-sufficient (as much as it’s possible for any text to be), rather than as a stand-in, crib, or place-holder for something that’s really happening somewhere else, back in that other language. A poem translated into English must become an English-language poem, now entirely free and having no remaining relation to a poem in any other language.

6. Also according to your well-put words, “[a] translation is a ghost: it goes out into another world in all its perfect viability, it causes disbelief, while on the other hand, it sets up an echo, very faint, in the original, so that the original is now haunted by a separate voice that continues to separate.” Care to elaborate more on the idea of translation as a ghost?

One thing that’s always interested me is how a translation effects the translated. While it would be impossible to trace, I’ve always sensed that a translation reverberates backward and establishes a kind of presence in the version in the departure language—it doesn’t do anything—it just sort of hovers over it, emanating its differences, and therefore emanating the potential of difference in general. It unleashes differentiation as a principle and as action, re-activating the surface; the ghost of translation crazes the surface of the departure text with all the innumerable other things and ways and phrases that that text could have been or could be. But below and beyond that, it operates as an occupation; the translation, while careening always forward, also whips backward to occupy the original in an almost colonizing sense. And I do think that we have to be very aware of and careful with that colonizing potential. Both haunting and colonizing are ways of occupying; the former marked by always insufficient evidence, the latter marked by always too much. Can a good translation strike a balance that rests more like a guest, gracious, grateful, and temporary? While I think most can manage the gracious and grateful, I have my doubts about the temporary—I think the ghost remains, and reciprocally—the ghost of arrival constantly haunting the ghost of departure, but also vice-versa, creating a network of hauntings as a work gets translated into more and more languages. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Rosmarie Waldrop

Greatest Women in Translation: Marcella Durand

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month, I talked to Marcella Durand, nominated by Nina Parish and Emma Wagstaff.

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1. You translated a book by one of our previous interviewees, Michèle Métail, Earth’s Horizon. Could you share your translation experience with us?

I first encountered Métail’s work, including Les Horizons du Sol (CiPM, 1999), when doing research for an anthology project. The anthology project didn’t work out, but Métail’s work stayed with me. I was caught by the geological content of Les Horizons du Sol—not many writers delve so deeply or so experimentally into geology. Les Horizons du Sol was written in a precise form developed by Métail during a residency she held in Marseille, and the poem progresses through deep geological time into the human histories of Marseille, one of the oldest cities in Europe. Its language is incredibly complex, with a wealth of allusions to geological events and formations specific to the area, Provencal history, and poets such as Guillevic and Mallarmé. There was a lot in it to understand, so, in order to understand it better, I decided I needed to try translating it. At first, I didn’t follow the constraint that Métail had developed for the poem—48 characters per line, 24 lines per page—as I was primarily interested in the content, but after contacting her and discussing it with her, I learned how integral form is to content in her work—that to convey Les Horizons du Sol in its entirety, I needed to respect her intentions and carry the form into English as well. There is also no punctuation: the poem is one long continuous sentence, which relates to the geological/historical time of the book. The history of Marseille is at the end realized as the “perpetuity of an immemorial south.” This might describe the human histories of all our places—that our history has evolved continuously from a deep geology that we can barely comprehend within our limited human perception of physical time. Translation is also part of that continuous past-present: I will forever be translating Les Horizons; I never “understood” in the way I thought I might understand it. It is a truly experimental text that will challenge me forever.

2. You are also an author, and your latest book is The Prospect. How do you think that being an author helps you as a translator?

For me, translation is a form of reading, so I like to stay as close to the original text as possible. So I am probably not as creative or even original as some other poets might be when translating texts. However, that said, I rely utterly on poetic “tools” to shape the translation—poetry is how I select one word vs. another, how I pay attention to the “sound” of the poem while also conveying its sense (one of the most basic difficulties of translation—how to balance the original form with content), how I adjust the syntax to carry a sense of another language and culture while yet being comprehensible in American English, how I can carry the aesthetic interest of the original to the translation, and to comprehend the poetic purpose of the original. When I read translations, I am first attracted to those done by poets, even if sometimes their interpretations verge on outrageous. I prefer a translation that puts the creative and aesthetic intentions of the original first, which I think poets do.

3. In this interview, you say, “I am a white woman of indeterminate class, and there are many subtle (and not so subtle) ways my writing—and the reception of my writing—is affected by this.” Could you elaborate a bit more on this thought?

In the U.S., in order to maintain white supremacy, white people are taught that whiteness is the norm, and it is difficult (intentionally) as such to learn to “see” our own position of privilege and power. Poet Evelyn Reilly has written, riffing off an artwork by Anne Tardos, “having been brainwashed as children we must suspect ourselves always.” And so much has been elided—for instance, Suzanne Cesaire’s work. Author and translator John Keene wrote an essay in 2016, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” on the systemic racism inherent in what is translated and what is published, which has helped me think about my own choices in terms of what I read, what I write about, what I can write about, of course, whom I translate. I’m very uncomfortable with the fact that I am a white woman primarily translating another white woman. So, to educate myself, I have been reading a lot of contemporary translated African fiction, such as Doomi Golo, the first novel to be translated into English from Wolof. With this self-education (because it’s certainly not available for the most part in school!), I hope to progress enough to envision how I can expand my own translation horizons and develop another translation relationship that is more equitable and that will bring, ethically and non-extractively or exploitatively, much-needed voices and perspectives here to my very troubled country. I had hoped to recommend a Black woman poet translator for this series, but with by-now familiar horror, realized I don’t know enough. I need to educate myself more—again, what am I reading? Who do I “know” and why? What circles of comfort am I staying in? What are the privileges behind translating that are also barriers?

4. In your introduction to your translation of Michèle’s work, you say, “I don’t mind the slightly awkward tone of some translations—I liked having that sense of the original texture, rather than the sense of forcing something into (questionable) American vernacular.” In your opinion, what are the challenges when translating from French into English?

With Métail’s work in particular, the largest challenge is reconciling the lucidity and precision of French with the connotative and vague qualities of English. English is a more concise (some may say brutal) language with a lot of syntactical shortcuts, so in order to maintain Métail’s numerical constraints, I have to take “the long way” round, so to speak, and keep sentences a little more ornate than they would ordinarily be in American English. However, happily, I have discovered that many lovely, long, seemingly obscure words in French are similar or the same in English—for instance, I spent a long time trying to figure out how to translate “septentrional” when at last I realized it existed in English! (This was before I subscribed to the online OED.) As I mentioned earlier, another challenge is balancing the exquisite sound and form of French with its sense—so many French poets have never been satisfactorily translated into English because their form was so highly developed and translators couldn’t reconcile that form with content. The sonic structures of say, Apollinaire or Mallarmé, are so complex and rigorous, but when translated into English, they sound like simple old-fashioned rhyme, which clashes too much with the avant-garde content of a poem like “Zone.” I actually tried writing a long alexandrine of my own (Rays of the Shadow published by Tent Editions in 2017), in part to figure out why the alexandrine rarely “works” in English. There was something important in how this form is so important to French speakers and undergirds all French writing in some ways, and yet is close to unworkable in English—I wanted to get into that fissure. I’m not sure I found a definitive answer, but I think I will be returning to that space for a very long time in my own poetic explorations.

5. Later, you also say, “While I will never fully finish translating Les Horizons du sol, its essential incompletion leaves it open and evolving, I hope for all who read it too.” Do you think that we, as translators (and authors alike), are ever able to be fully satisfied with our translations to the point of considering it a “finished work”?

For me, the translation is never done. And I think that’s an important reason why translation is so important to keeping poetry alive—it is necessary to translate and retranslate texts as our culture changes around (and because of) them. The poet Caroline Bergvall created an amazing piece (VIA: 48 Dante Variations) in which she collected translations of Dante’s opening lines of The Inferno: each translation is so indelibly marked by its culture and era, and reveals how shifting and mobile and expressive our language is through time. I also love the spectrum of translation of supposedly “classic” texts, and I love translations that are very playful and maybe not so respectful—if you compare Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey with Alexander Pope’s, it’s mindblowingly exciting to see the differences, and inspiring.

6. This is a question I usually like asking: How did you get into translation?

I was raised by a French father who did not speak any English when he first arrived in the U.S. for my birth. I like to say we learned English together, but that also meant I did not speak French at home. Instead, I learned it very late in high school and college, so I am nowhere near fluent. It was often painful (and still is) when visiting relatives in France not to be able to fully understand them and to feel there is a kind of veil between us. So translation became a way for me to pull that veil away—translating helps me piece together the realities (which are, of course, shifting realities) of French and France. I also love French poetry so deeply—it is more of an influence on me as a poet than English poetry. And it seems that the American poets I love the most also found their first inspirations in French poetry. Rimbaud’s Vowels first grabbed me as a college freshwoman and turned me toward becoming a poet, followed by so many incredible French and Francophone poets, classic and contemporary.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I would like to nominate poet Cole Swensen because of her amazing work translating French writers such as Suzanne Doppelt, Jean Frémon, Olivier Cadiot and Pascale Monnier. She’s been an enormous inspiration both as poet and translator.

Greatest Women in Translation: Nina Parish & Emma Wagstaff

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

This month we have two interviewees who work together and, therefore, were also interviewed together, Nina Parish and Emma Wagstaff, both nominated by Valentina Gosetti.

Welcome, Nina and Emma!

1. Why don’t you both start by telling us how you got into translation?

Nina: As an academic in French Studies, translation has been an important part of my training. I was taught translation as an undergraduate at Royal Holloway; I wrote one of my dissertations for a Masters in Aix-en-Provence on a translation of a poem by Blaise Cendrars by Dos Passos and now I have been teaching translation for a number of years at undergraduate and postgraduate level at the University of Bath and more recently the University of Stirling. It’s one of my favourite areas to teach – it’s such a good way of understanding and working really closely with texts and language. At Bath, I was Director of Studies for the Masters in Interpreting and Translating and this role taught me so much about the workings of this professional world ranging from the exhilarations of interpreting at the UN to the vital task of careful proof-reading.

Emma: I don’t have as much of a background in translation as Nina does, though I was thrown into the deep end on arriving in my current job where I had to teach translation theory, sometimes only being one week ahead of the students in the textbook! I also enjoy teaching translation: it’s popular with students for its practical side, and it’s an opportunity to discuss interesting and challenging texts. I have increasingly found myself thinking and writing about translation, because the French poets I have studied, including André du Bouchet and Philippe Jaccottet, were themselves translators and wrote fascinating reflections on translation and on the interrelationship between poetry and translation.

2. You run a poetry network together. Could you tell us a bit about it?

We ran a poetry network together – Contemporary poetic practice in French: an interdisciplinary approach – from 2012 to 2015. The website for this network is still up and running but we don’t update it as much as we’d like anymore. Thanks to funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, we were able to organize a series of six workshops on poetry, politics and philosophy at the University of Oxford, poetry and translation at the Centre international de poésie Marseille (CipM), poetry and new technologies at the University of Bath, poetry and visual arts at the University of Cambridge, poetry, music and performance at the University of Birmingham, and in conjunction with the Birkbeck Centre for Research in the Aesthetics of Kinship and Community, ‘Les Nouvelles écritures politiques: le poète dans la communauté’ at the University of London. We welcomed university academics and artistic practitioners from Great Britain, The Republic of Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, and North America to these workshops which were also accompanied by poetry readings and performances, a translation workshop, an exhibition, and the composition of a new musical work for which we hosted the premiere (and at which Emma and I had our first terrifying experience of live interpreting at a public event!). We wanted to find out who was working on poetic practice in French and how they were going about it and it was a really rich experience. Translation was a common thread throughout these workshops – between different languages, but also different disciplines and forms – and the practical translation workshop that we organised at the CipM, led by Stephen Romer and Jennie Feldman, was a real highlight underlining the intellectual challenges of translating poetry but also the very human challenges of working collaboratively on this type of task.

3. You both have also co-edited an anthology, Writing the Real: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry. Could you also tell us a bit about it, including how you worked together in writing it?

This anthology was an unplanned but very welcome result of our network. The volume was commissioned by Enitharmon Press and it was the writer and academic Jérôme Game (whose work features in the anthology) who put us in touch with Stephen Stuart-Smith at Enitharmon. Our brief was to include a few pages of text from each of 15-20 French poets who, if not young, were at least ‘young at heart’ and considered their work political. The texts included are not all overtly political in terms of content, but the poets would be clear that their writing is a political act.

We came to decisions about what to include through reading the poets’ work, in discussion with one another, and by asking the advice of people we know with extensive knowledge of the comptemporary scene. Eric Giraud, who was then working at the CipM, was particularly helpful. Some of the translations had previously been published in the US or the UK. We didn’t quite achieve our aim of parity between men and women poets, though the translators are predominantly female; there is work to be done on that disparity. With nearly half of the poets being women, our anthology stands out from recently anthologised poetry in France: there are fewer published female poets, and those women tend to resist attention being drawn to their gender.

The contemporary dimension of the anthology not only affected the choice of texts but also the process of translating and editing them, because we were able to consult the poets themselves (in all but one case) on the particular pieces to be included and follow up their suggestions for translators. The translators could then discuss their approach with the poets.

We took the decison to each translate the work of one poet: Emma translated Philippe Beck and Nina translated Anne-James Chaton. We also co-wrote the introduction which provides some context about the contemporary French poetry scene and introduces the various tendencies within it.

The anthology is currently sold out but it will be available electronically in the next months via the Enitharmon website.

4. Nina, I was particularly interested in your “work on representations of difficult history, the migrant experience and multilingualism in the museum space,” as stated on your page. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Questions around representation in museums in terms of both form and content has become a strong focus of the research that I now do. I’ve been fortunate to be part of some really interesting projects exploring these areas in the last few years.

I collaborated on the Horizon 2020-funded Unsettling Remembering and Social Cohesion in Transnational Europe (UNREST) project. With colleagues from the UK, Germany, Spain, Denmark and Poland, we tested a new mode of remembering – agonistic memory – through empirical fieldwork in war museums and sites of mass exhumations. Throughout the three years of this project (it finished at the end of March 2019), we visited a lot of war museums and spent a lot of time thinking about how to represent difficult history within the museum space. We even developed our own exhibition, Krieg. Macht. Sinn., which opened at the Ruhr Museum in Germany on 11 November 2018.

I’ve also spent time in Australia working with Dr Chiara O’Reilly from the University of Sydney firstly on a project to do with telling migrant stories in the museum where we compared how a range of different Australian museums, from federally-funded to volunteer-run, approached this kind of task. More recently we have been working on questions of memory and place particularly in relation to the centenary commemorations of World War One in Australia.

The modern museum, more often than not, is associated with sight, with the (male, heterosexual, European) gaze. But experiential new museology and innovative soundscapes as a key part of exhibition space mean that our relationship to sound and language within the museum space has changed. Our accoustic experiences of the world can be included, and when it comes to representations of language these will inevitably be multilingual. As a modern languages researcher, I am keen to find out how this multilingual experience has been and can be better represented in the museum.

5. Emma, you “teach on a range of courses in French Studies, with a particular focus on translation, modern texts and visual art,” as stated on your page. Could you tell us a bit more about how you combine all of them?

I’m not necessarily expected to combine them, but in fact I find that there are lots of overlaps. For instance, I have taught a specialist option for a number of years on the links between writers and artists in the modern period. Students engage very well with the notion of ekphrasis and sometimes suggest it is a kind of translation between media. I have also taught sessions on Pierre Reverdy in a cross-language course on European Modernism. This is delivered in English because students do not necessarily study French. I find that they are interested in discussing the implications of studying poetry in translation.

The research I have been working on recently – a book on André du Bouchet – considers his response to art by his contemporaries and artists from earlier periods, including engravings by Miklos Bokor, Nicolas de Staël, and the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Hercules Seghers. I devote a chapter to his translation practice, including in particular his translation of poetry by Paul Celan and his ‘Notes on Translation’ inspired by Ossip Mandelstam. Poets who edited or contibuted to the literary and cultural review L’Éphémère (1967-72), including Du Bouchet, Jacques Dupin, Yves Bonnefoy, Michel Leiris, and Louis-René des Forêts, created a review in which poetic texts in French sat alongside translated pieces and were interleaved with drawings and engravings.

In our poetry network, to which, as Nina says, translation became integral, we found that when crossing boundaries of genre and media, poetry quite naturally also moves between languages.

6. Valentina Gosetti, our previous interviewee, who nominated you both, told us your “collaborative work is brilliant” and you are “a constant source of inspiration.” Could you tell us a bit more about how you work together and why you think this collaboration works so well?

Nina: Valentina is too kind! Nearly all the work I do now is collaborative – I really enjoy working with people. But the collaboration with Emma is very special to me. We’ve known each other for many years – Emma is a friend too – we met as PhD students working on modern poetry in 1999 or 2000 – and have kept in touch ever since. We have quite different personalities which complement each other and that is very helpful when you’re working on projects which require a vast range of skills. We are able to divide tasks fairly and I never feel hard done by or under pressure when I work with Emma – that may well be because she is quietly doing most of the work! Emma is a brilliant, extremely erudite, very modest woman. She also has a good sense of humour which is crucial.

Emma: Nina, in turn, is too kind – and I certainly don’t do most of the work! One of the reasons it’s so easy and enjoyable to work with Nina is that we seem to understand each other, and are therefore able to divide up tasks between us while being aware that sometimes one of us will have other urgent priorities. Our friendship and partnership over the last twenty years have been enormously important to me: spending time with Nina is one of the main reasons I enjoy academic research, and she is a role model for women – and everyone – in academia for the energy and acumen she brings to any event or project. Our generation has seen a shift from the ‘lone scholar’ model in Arts and Humanities research to the requirement to work in new, collaborative ways, and it can sometimes feel hard to adapt to that way of envisioning research. I’ve found that working with Nina, and observing from outside how she has been involved in successful, innovative team-led projects, have helped me see the potential and benefits of collaborative research.

We should add that we also find Valentina inspirational in her enthusiastic promotion of poetry and translation!

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Marcella Durand. We came across Marcella’s brilliant translations of Michèle Métail when we were working on a chapter about translating poetry and constraints. She was so generous and attentive to our questions that we look forward to working with her again.

Greatest Women in Translation: Valentina Gosetti

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Welcome back to our interview series!

I hope this post finds you and your loved ones well and safe, considering.

Please welcome our interviewee this month, Italian translator Valentina Gosetti, nominated by Michèle Métail.

Welcome, Valentina!

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1. Originally from Collio di Vobarno, a small Italian town in the province of Brescia, you are a native speaker of Bresciano. Could you explain what Bresciano is for us, non-Italians?

Bresciano is my first language, my mother tongue (for those who still believe in this concept…), or rather, as I like to call it, my “grandmother tongue”. It is the language my grandmother spoke to me while I was growing up and the language I still often speak with my mum when we videocall from the two ends of the world. Bresciano is often merely considered the “dialetto” of the northern Italian province of Brescia, in Lombardy, one of the most hit by this dreadful Covid-19 virus at the moment. Being a so-called “Gallo-Italic” language, it shares some sounds and words with French. It is one of the many lesser-spoken languages of Europe. Being able to speak it is a great richness. I consider it my nonna’s gift. These fast-disappearing languages are an invaluable cultural (and human!) heritage and it is our duty to preserve them and to hand them down to the next generations. I speak both Italian and Bresciano to my newborn son Roberto. I hope he’ll be carrying this heritage with him into the future.

2. You decided to revive your mother tongue by combining some of your passions: poetry and translation. How do you do that?

Some years ago, I was challenged by an Italian friend (Manuel) to translate a poem by the French poet Baudelaire into Bresciano. This seemed like an impossible task. Bresciano, being the spoken vernacular of a traditionally modest, hardworking, population, is a very down-to-earth language, which lacks abstraction. But with a little bit of creativity and poetic licence I managed to “transplant” one of the well-known Spleen poems into my native language. Unexpectedly, the splenetic soundscape worked remarkably well in Bresciano. This adventure encouraged me to keep translating more poems into Bresciano as a way of reviving this language and enriching it even further through poetic creation for the next generations of speakers. This is what led to the creation of my blog Transferre, which is an unapologetically multilingual blog hosting translations of poetry in verse or prose, from any language into any language, standard or not, with a particular focus on endangered local languages.

3. Speaking of which, could you tell us a bit more about your blog?

Although Transferre was originally created to host my translations into Bresciano, it has soon become a shared creative space to encourage poetry in translation for the preservation and the promotion of minority languages. It soon started to welcome submissions from all around the world. It now features a range of “guest translations” into languages ranging from Estremeñu to West Frisian, from Béarnais to Romanesco, from Galician to Romagnolo. Particularly dear to me are translations sent by high-school students who, hearing about Transferre, started to rediscover their grandparents’ languages through the means of poetry. Transferre is always open to new submissions from all around the world. For example, some years ago I had the great pleasure to receive a translation of Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ into Guarani from a group of students based in Paraguay. This encouraging story of language preservation was even featured in the national press in Paraguay.

4. How was translation introduced in your life?

Growing up in a non-English speaking country like Italy, reading has often meant reading in translation. My first encounter with the great international literary authors has often been mediated and facilitated by brilliant Italian translators. There are some books that stand out in my memory. One of the absolute highlights of my readerly youth was Leone Ginzburg’s translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I tried to read it in English once, many years later, but to my ears it was not as authentic. My Anna Karenina will always be Ginzburg’s. Translation is also an integral part of TV watching in Italy. Everything is dubbed in a country where dubbing is a real art and career path. I remember being quite disappointed to hear Leonardo DiCaprio’s real voice for the first time as a young adolescent. I thought the Italian DiCaprio sounded more charming… 

5. What do you do as a translator

As a poetry translator I mainly read, re-read, and listen. I try and fail a lot. I go back on my steps in search of a mot juste that can be glimpsed, but seems to be just ever so slightly out of reach. Or that does come, but only fleetingly, before the next change of heart. What completes the translation of a poem for me is often an unnegotiable deadline. What I mean is that when I translate poetry, I could potentially re-write the same verse for ever, in a constant quest, which is the endless present of inhabiting another voice. I think that every translation is a sort of “selfie” in time, a selfie of our reading at a given moment of our readerly Bildungsroman. But this is a kind of selfie which is not at all individualistic or self-centred, it is a selfie where the self explodes and dissolves among all sort of otherness, all the voices, the encounters, the conversations, the mentoring that have informed our reading, thinking, editing throughout this process of (self)discovery. In a recent chapter, inspired by Loiterature,[1] Ross Chambers’s brilliant essay, I termed this process as “transloiterature”.[2]

The most enriching experience in my translation journey so far has been the prolonged work on the collaborative poetry anthology of French-speaking women poets from Romanticism to the Present Day I coordinated (Donne: Poeti di Francia e oltre. Dal Romanticismo a Oggi, Ladolfi Editore, 2017). As I wrote elsewhere, reading, selecting, and translating texts by so many different women poets has been a sort of ‘ventriloquist’ activity, to say it with Ross Chambers, it is an activity ‘that takes the time to know the other’, even to inhabit it, ‘a practice that calls into question the hard-and-fast distinctions – between sameness and otherness, between familiar and distanced otherness, and between the trivial and the significant’ (Ross Chambers, Loiterature, 35). Within this anthology, I selected and translated poems by contemporary, mainly living, poets. This has given me the unique chance to meet many of them either virtually or in person. I have since undertaken new translation projects with some of them, notably Michèle Métail and Katy Rémy. Every single encounter has greatly enriched my poetry translation practice as well as my personal journey on this planet.

6. You teach Translation and Translation Theory at the University of New England, in Australia, having won the School of Arts Teaching Awards for Teaching Excellence in the Languages in 2017. What does your experience as a translation teacher teaches your translator self?

The conversations with my students are an integral part of this journey. They are embedded in that explosion of the self which forms and informs my reading, listening, writing, and translation practice. Every translation workshop I have had the fortune to host has led me to discover new, hidden treasures, which were often invisible to me. In these workshops, students are peers. They are a collective conversation during which everything is up for discussion. When we are dissecting a text together all sorts of perspectives are potentially plausible and inexhaustibly enriching. Everyone comes to the text with their own “baggage”. The text acts as a crossroad where we all meet, mingle, sometimes change direction. The result is something new that creates its new exciting pathways for others. I often have the feeling that during a translation workshop I am learning much more from my students than they are from me. I am just another student. The real host is the text. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate the great Nina Parish & Emma Wagstaff! Their collaborative work is brilliant and they’ve been a constant source of inspiration especially when I was working on my poetry anthology.

[1] Chambers, Ross. Loiterature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
[2] Gosetti, Valentina. “Ross Chambers, Beyond Baudelaire: In Defence of (‘Transloitering’) Poetry” Still Loitering: Australian Essays in Honour of Ross Chambers, edited by Valentina Gosetti and Alistair Rolls, Oxford Peter Lang, 2020, pp. 145-168.

Greatest Women in Translation: Michèle Métail


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Dearest readers,

I’m alive! Tough times, huh? I hope you are all doing fine, at least considering our circumstances.

Bear with me while I try to get back on track with posts this month. But at least now I hope I manage to update the blog as I should. Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, please welcome our next Greatest Women in Translation interviewee, French poet and translator Michèle Métail, nominated by Jody Gladding back in March.

Michèle Métail-2

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1. You were the first female member of Oulipo, “an extremely divergent group of writers, all of whom adhered to the same basic literary principle in that they observed self-imposed writing constraints,” as described by this Poetry International Archives article. Could you tell us a bit more about Oulipo?

The main purpose of Oulipo, as planned by its founders (Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais in 1960), was to create new writing rules (based on mathematics), that other writers could also use and let evolve. A historical example was the sonnet. After my cooptation in the group in 1975, I developed another kind of relationship between text and form, where form is also part of meaning, so that a new form appears only in one work and is never used a second time. This relationship between text and form was the reason why I left the group in 1998. However, I am always working with rules, constraints. Among the new rules promoted by Oulipo, several of them concern translation extending the concept to the homophonic or lipogram translation (see Georges Perec translating Rimbaud, for example), or the Multitranslation invented by Outranspo.

2. Together with Bernard Heidsieck, you founded Dixit, “a movement that sets out to merge the different artistic expressive forms rather than to emphasize the differences between them,” according to the same article above. Could you also tell us a bit more about Dixit?

Bernard Heidsieck was a French sound and visual poet who was connected to other poets of the same movement, all over the world, like John Giorno, Bob Cobbing, Haroldo da Campos, the Wiener Gruppe and so on, at a time festivals were organized in some countries but France was looking like a desert in the matter. So we founded this association and decided, in 1980, to organize a big festival, Poésie sonore internationale, in three towns: Le Havre, Rennes and Paris (Centre Pompidou). In collaboration with institutes we invited poets from several European countries: Germany, Austria, England, Italy, Sweden, Yugoslavia, as well as eight French poets. When we perform together, we question translation and the meaning of words, sometimes being possible to understand without speaking the language. This festival was successful but at the same time Jean-Jacques Lebel was stating the same fact and founded Polyphonix, a great nomad festival. After a long period without possibilities to promote this non-academic form of poetry, both associations were developing the same purpose. So we joined Lebel and Polyphonix, and broke up our association. Later in 1995 I founded, with composer Louis Roquin, another association: Les Arts contigus, a project to connect different artistic expressive forms. We organized great exhibitions with readings, concerts. The concept of contiguity emphasizes the borderline between two expressive forms, such as visual poetry = the text as an image, and visual scores for music = when the composer doesn’t write notes as usual but creates new signs to express new sonorities. We also invited artists from other countries. The question of creation in another language and translation was acute.

3. In some of your poems you use formats taken from other media, such as a series consisting of 10 lines with 15 letters each, derived from the standard measurements of photographs. Could you tell us a bit more about your poetry creation process?

I often work with photos. As I arrived in Berlin as a DAAD guest for one year, I began to take pictures of the town through reflections on windows. It was an unreal town, inversed, with broken lines that I saw. I wanted to write about my discovery, my experience in the town, and decided to write poetry in the form of my photo prints: 10 x 15 cm, that is, poems of 10 verses and 15 letters each. With these few letters, the syntax was also broken, like the reflections. It’s what I call photo format in the work Cadastre (in Toponyme: Berlin), grouped in a series of 24 photos and 36 poems (format of the negative). In another work about Japan, I used as text pattern the Genkô Yôshi, a scholar’s paper with 400 squares to fill. In this series, each text contains 400 letters. I’m always looking for measures related to my subject and, as I said, I only use them once.

4. How was translation introduced in your life?

I studied German for the first time at the university. I learned about contemporary poetry through the Wiener Gruppe, when I lived in Vienna (1972-73), but this kind of text is impossible to translate faithfully, because they work on several levels (sound, visual), not only meaning. Later, when I lived in Berlin (2000-2001), the literaturWERKSTATT (today Haus für Poesie) organized a meeting with French and German poets. My partner was Thomas Kling. He was also skeptical about poetry translation but it was indeed a fantastic experience. We both adopted one another’s work and re-built it in our own language. We found a real complicity, and our exchanges were intense. We had long discussions about the use of some words. At the end of the workshop there was a reading, it was a great moment. Thomas Kling found the same rhythm in his translation as in my poems. Other workshops followed, in Berlin and other places. It’s always an opportunity not only to know the work of other poets, but also to increase our own poetic world.

In several other projects I use patterns, constraints used by translators to create a version in their own language. For example, Marcella Durand translated my book about Marseille (a panorama of the town in 14 views), each view in 48 lines of 24 letters, without punctuation. Marcella transposed this constraint into English (The Earth’s Horizons, Black Square Editions). She explains she needed to create her own language, as I did. It’s not a translation word for word but keeping the spirit of the text, sometimes in other words. In the same way I worked with the German poet Ulrike Draesner on a translation in 5 syllables of a long poem about China. Working with the German language was particularly difficult because words are longer and syntax more complicated but the original poem has 2,870 verses, and she translated it in the same length. I’m also working with the Austrian poet Christian Steinbacher. I translated his text, and without speaking French he re-built some of my texts in German, for example, Portraits Robots (Phantome, Phantome, soon by Korrespondenzen). In all these cases the publication is bilingual. Both poems evolve in parallel. That’s my experience as a poet translator and a translated poet.

5. Could you tell us a bit more about your life as a translator?

I talked about translating from the German, but the most I do is from the Chinese, a few texts from contemporary poets and more from old Chinese. The starting point was Georges Perec’s death. After his funeral, I came back home and was so sad, I couldn’t do anything. Suddenly, I saw a book on my desk, that I had recently bought: Chinese Poetic Writing by François Cheng (available in English by Calligrams). I opened the book aimlessly and read a sentence about the possibility to write palindromes in Chinese. Georges Perec wrote the longest palindromic text in French. I interpreted this coincidence as a sign of my diseased friend and decided to study Chinese in order to learn more about this type of poetry, for myself. It was in 1983 and I was 33 years old. In 1994 I wrote a doctoral thesis about Chinese reversible poems with François Cheng. I never thought I could become a bookworm and write about a very old tradition. I was a poet and didn’t want to teach at the university, I was also too old, but I tried another way, a creative way, to pass on old Chinese texts. My translations are part of a larger project that focus on China today, that is, reading about the past and better understanding the present. For example, I travelled for three months throughout China (from East to West) on the same path as a Song dynasty poet (12th century), Lu You, who was the first to write a travel diary in China. I took it as a guide and went to the same places, collecting landscape poetry. The book (Voyage au pays de Shu) mix extracts of Lu You’s diary and mine. It’s the first part, Journal 1170 – 1998, but the book is reversible and the second part is an anthology of collected poems, 140 in total, illustrating all the 26 chapters of the diaries. The reader can read the diary and the anthology separately or move from one to the other. In 2011 I took another trip on the same path as a Tang dynasty poet, Wang Wei (8th century), a great landscape poet and painter. The book (Le paysage après Wang Wei) also consists of two parts: 20 views on current China with references to the past in places where Wang Wei had been and a new translation of his famous work Le recueil de la rivière Wang, that contains 20 poems on his own estate. This place was the goal of my trip and it was very instructive about modern China!

6. How was your experience of being translated by Jody Gladding, our previous interviewee, in Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems?

It was a great deal for Jody Gladding because she doesn’t speak Chinese and translated from the French, but she was fascinated by this masterpiece written by a woman in the middle of the 4th century. My translation from the Chinese was already particular because the diagram poem contains 841 characters that give over 3,000 poems. For a group of 36 characters inscribed in a square for example, you find 64 different ways to read a poem, and in a translation you need to write the 64 poems or some of them. They cannot be restricted to one square, like in Chinese. We must develop, unfold the original diagram. The translation cannot be a picture like the original but it has to be informative. We had a lot of exchanges about references that Su Hui recalled, about the meaning of some words in connection with the way of life of the time, of history. It was also for me a great opportunity to improve my translation. Translating is always a dynamic process, that’s why it is exciting.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

The Italian translator Valentina Gosetti. She published, in collaboration with Andrea Bedeschi and Adriano Marchetti, an important anthology about French women poetry from Romanticism to modern times: Poeti di Francia e Oltre. Dal Romanticismo a oggi. I discovered a lot of poets I had never read.

Greatest Women in Translation: Jody Gladding


Created by Erick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation series!

This month, after a one-month break (my bad), we return with the series with Jody Gladding, nominated by Linda Coverdale.

Jody Gladding

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1. What came first, the poet or the translator? How?

Poetry came first. Translation followed as a way to earn my living. But its real appeal is that it lets me work with language in the same close way—and I don’t have to come up with content.

2. You wrote Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions, 2014), a book of poems that, according to this paper, helps “students get the profundity of the Latin of translate, which points toward a carrying across.” Could you tell us more about the book?

The title comes from a series of poems that are, literally, translations of bark beetle engravings, with the original “text” as the facing page. I include notes on bark beetle grammar and invent a new pronoun form. I’m playing, of course—for me, play often precedes discovery. If insect marks can be a text, then the realm of linguistic beings expands enormously. Imagine the possibilities for translators!

3. Besides being a poet and translator you are also an artist. Do you combine poetry and translation into your works of art? If so, how?

The art I make extends from the poetry, and translation plays a part as well. My latest project, for instance, is a collection of nests in which text—strips of it cut from a nineteenth-century French phrase book—is included as one more nesting material ( I’m interested in how poems operate as physical acts, in three-dimensional space, in the world at large. Artists like Cecilia Vicuña, Ann Hamilton, and Roni Horn also explore these questions, although they’ve come to them through visual art and I’ve gotten there through writing.

4. You translated two meditation-related books by François Cheng. Did your experience translating the books inspire you to start meditating? I ask as someone who has tried meditation a couple of times but hasn’t given up just yet.

Keep trying! François Cheng is a remarkable figure. He’s written extensively on Chinese art and poetry as well as being something of a zen master.  I’m married to a Chinese translator, David Hinton, so I was already familiar with Cheng’s work when I translated his meditions on beauty and on death. I’ve meditated from time to time, but don’t have a regular practice, though I do practice yoga. 

5. François Cheng is also a translator. Is it a different experience to translate for an author who is also a translator?

I’ve translated three authors who are also translators, all of whom translate Chinese: François Cheng, François Julien, and Michèle Métail. I’ve also translated a French translation of The Tao Te Ching into English. In all these cases, the main difference about the experience was dealing with three languages, not just two. Though in the company of Chinese, French and English hardly seem like different languages.

6. Are there any particularities in translating French into English that you like and/or dislike?

Well, as Linda Coverdale points out in your last blog, the on is a great and versatile French pronoun that we don’t have a good equivalent for in English. And going the opposite way, a particularity that keeps striking me, especially this winter as I’m spending it in France, is that there’s no word in French for home. 

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Thanks for this opportunity to bring women translators into the limelight. I’d like to nominate Michèle Métail, a wonderful French poet who translates from both German and Chinese. She has translated into French the remarkable “reversible poem” by the 4th century woman poet Su Hui. A grid of 840 characters (originally embroidered on silk as a gift to her husband), it can be read as many as 12,000 different ways.

Greatest Women in Translation: Linda Coverdale


Created by Érick Tonin

Happy New Year, dear readers! I hope you have had a great holiday season and are ready to rock 2020.

Let’s start by welcoming our first interviewee of 2020, Linda Coverdale, nominated by Ros Schwartz.

Linda Coverdale

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1. You told me that once you wandered into translation, you “took to it like a hermit in a cave, Saint Jerome in flip-flops.” How did you wander into translation?

By accident, at long last. Both sides of my family loved books and languages, and my parents even moved to France for a year so their young children could soak up French. Back home again, I studied Latin, Spanish, some German, kept reading, wrote stories, but worried that writing was too vague and risky to bank on for a profession. Good at biology, dreaming of oceanography, I picked my university early for its bio department, then barely survived bio-chemistry. Once at Brown, I listed French as my major, just to tread water for a while. Fascinated by ancient Egypt ever since I fell spellbound forever as a child, in my one and only experience of religious awe, before seven massive statues of the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet in a dim and deserted hall at the Met, I eagerly took courses in Egyptology, and felt grounded again. Then I learned that the department chairman had mastered fourteen languages, plus the three types of hieroglyphics. So: another misfire.

Then French literature became a wonderland, and the junior year abroad was an adventure in all directions. Discovering the critical and literary works of writers like Blanchot, Richard, Poulet, and Bachelard led me to graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University, where Derrida, De Man, Deleuze et al were holding court before Yale lured them away. The doctoral program’s year in Paris brought courses at the École normale supérieure, the École pratique des hautes études, the Sorbonne—and playing hooky at the Cinémathèques of Chaillot and the rue d’Ulm. My French dissertation was a labor of true love: Les romans d’Albertine, all because I’d sneaked the Scott Moncrieff Remembrance of Things Past from my parents’ bookshelves when I was about twelve, and God only knows what I made of it, but that die was cast. Offered a good teaching job, however, I balked. I’d had teaching fellowships, was a good teacher, revered the profession, but it deserved a passion I definitely did not feel. Another chilling impasse.

Writing my dissertation, I’d begun drawing at night when the brain had stopped Prousting but was still ticking over, and someone suggested that I’d gotten things backwards, because my drawings were good. Naturally, I went to art school, the Parsons School of Design. Those were marvelous years, but I have never pulled as many all-nighters as I did there, because with art, you see at a glance if something works or not, and it doesn’t matter how long you worked, if it doesn’t. But no one will hire you until your portfolio proves that someone else already has.

Now I had four degrees, but no job. I worked renovating houses, painting murals, and as production manager first on an indie movie, then in a small publishing company, where the accountant told me one day that Richard Howard, French translator extraordinaire, had two Roland Barthes books on deck but time for only one, and so, my friend Keith continued, he had volunteered my services. Oh no, I said, I know nothing about translation. Too late, replied Keith, I told him you can write, know French—and studied with Roland Barthes. Trapped. So, why not, I did my greenhorn best with The Grain of the Voice. The publisher called with another book, by a Cambodian girl who’d seen her family murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Adopted out of a Thai refugee camp by two Czech exiles in Paris, she’d spent a year weeping and raving in Khmer, dancing out her story while her adoptive mother tamed her gently, taught her French, and helped her write everything down. Again, I did my best, and have done so ever since, because the books kept coming. And they have taken me around the world, through the best and worst of humanity.

As for Saint Jerome, patron of translators, he keeps a skull for company, and ducking into that cave is how we translate. I pop in earplugs to enter the zone, where you feel at one with the “reeling and writhing” of French and English, words sluicing around among thoughts, on the page, shifting this way? That way? And you always, always, listen to what’s in your head: what does it mean? How does it read?

For example, I saw that my first Echenoz novel, Ravel, was less comic, more serious than the earlier books, with a “real” protagonist, yet still playful, with an elegance suited to the mannered but ultimately tragic figure of Maurice Ravel. And the novel opens . . . in his bathtub! “On s’en veut quelquefois de sortir de son bain.” En vouloir à, a convoluted expression of long history, means to reproach, be angry at, bear a grudge toward, resent, blame; s’en vouloir de doubles down: I regret, I’m irritated/furious/pissed off at myself, could have kicked myself. That’s trouble right there: “One is sometimes angry with oneself for getting out of one’s bath.” Stodge! French relies on “one”; British English finds it useful; American English uses it sparingly. That all-important introductory sentence went through kaleidoscopic changes, because the rest of the paragraph is a precise, slightly disdainful description of fussing over getting out of the tub while avoiding a possibly embarrassing injury, folderol that often required readjusting the whole paragraph to rebalance it. Finally, the first sentence wound up, simply, “Leaving the bathtub is sometimes quite annoying.” That fit the mood, sense, rhythm, and tone of the paragraph, even though the French sentence had three elements of a “self” now absent from the English. Reading later in an interview that Echenoz had had real trouble with his opening sentence, I felt relief, but learning that he’d settled happily on an alexandrine, I quickly checked my English: twelve syllables! Close enough. Sometimes you know more than you think you do.

I can now see how all my wandering was useful, even necessary, for my translations. Voracious reading stocked my mental reference library: I remember—in Technicolor—daring to pull The Brothers Karamazov from a school library shelf for a book report when I was eleven. Madness! But that book and all the others shoved new words and challenging syntax into me as if force-feeding a goose. The years in France provided vital firsthand knowledge of French life as it is lived, saving me from many a pitfall. My approach to translating has always been to make the English text reflect not simply what the French says, but also what it means to French readers. Languages and music helped me with the varied rhythms of an English text. Art school and museums taught me to decipher and compose images, while the study of literature and criticism let me make increasingly complicated sense of what I read, the vital requirement for correctly inflecting a translation in the subtlest ways.

In the end, I achieved my childhood ambition to become a writer, since fidelity in translation isn’t slavish faithfulness to words and syntax, but the result of skilled critical interpretation. Translators have different ways of remaining true to the French originals, and just as painters interpret what they see, so do we each see a French text through our own eyes, and tell readers what we saw, and for our reports to be moving, we mustn’t “copy” the original, but give our words a full-bodied life of their own. That life is our art, a re-creation, from melting down the French in our minds and recasting it in English.

Helped immensely by family and friends, teachers, publishers, editors, authors, and other translators, I finally and gratefully settled into my true vocation.

2. You were in the French-American Foundation (FAF) Translation Prize jury for 17 years and describe the experience as priceless. Why? What have you learned in those 17 years reviewing fiction and non-fiction book samples and helping provide finalists in each category?

The cast of characters on that jury shifts over the years, but a tableful of translators, university professors, and the odd literary figure guarantees passionate discussion and even some melodramatic extravagance. When I once questioned a new juror’s support of a shoddy translation, he proudly announced that he hadn’t checked any French texts, but simply bestowed his “discerning eye” upon some select English samples. Appalled, I asked him, nicely, just why he was on a translation prize jury, whereupon this emeritus professor remembered an urgent appointment and vanished, trailing his scarf. Silence. “Well,” remarked the FAF chairman with a smile, “that was interesting!” He always said sitting in on our jury was the most fun he had all year.

And it was fun, but I also discovered how bad a translation can be, even from a respected publishing house. British publishers seem to have more in-house French expertise, and their quality control is more reliable than ours. That’s the depressing aspect of the jury: slowly (or immediately!) realizing that a translator is overmatched, and sometimes vastly so. Things can become surreal: I remember a sample by the head of an American university French department who had translated classics of French literature, but whose English at times went berserk, to the point of changing farm boys sliding down a haystack into a child locked in a crowded broom closet. Another well-known translator produced a text so insanely muddled that I suspected senile dementia. How had these travesties made it into print? Of course the major problem is not knowing enough French, but more insidious is sloppiness, inattention to the original text, especially if it only seems simply written. Paying insightful attention to details is crucial, so when the translator is an insensitive reader, the English may be grammatically correct, even easily readable, but the full French text has faded, and this holds true for both fiction and non-fiction. Over the years I saw several versions of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, and the variations in quality among those texts was remarkable.

I think my major accomplishment on the FAF Jury was eventually persuading them to drop their shocking rule allowing translators on the jury to vote for themselves. And the chief lesson I learned was: how to wheel and deal! It’s literary horse trading. We all arrive at the voting luncheons knowing what we want, but as we wrangle and reflect, titles rise and fall in favor, points are conceded, loyalties swayed, darlings abandoned. A proper prize jury with sixty or seventy bilingual submissions to review (with three samples each in French and English) is a vast amount of work, but the drudgery and disappointments are forgotten in the end, when all vote on the finalists, and the winners emerge. So the Prize Luncheon was always a joy. Serving on that jury was a master class in the good, the bad, and the ugly, but the best submissions were a restorative delight.

3. You say you only translate works you can do justice to and feel a bond with. What book have you felt the greatest bond with and has touched you the most?

There are so many truly special ones! I’ll say Slave Old Man by the Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose first novel my friend Keith (intervening fatefully again) asked me to review in 1986. Chronique des sept misères was an absolute stunner, but when Carcanet offered to buy it for me, I knew it was too difficult. That hurt. In 1995 André Schiffrin of New Press provided what became Creole Folktales, Chamoiseau’s English debut and my first venture into his world. I was exploring French Caribbean literature, legends, plants, proverbs, history, vaudou, Creole culture in all its forms, amassing books, Xeroxes, glossaries, scribbled notes, prowling tiny NYC libraries, seeking Martinican contacts, especially during visits to the French Caribbean.

My next step was his School Days in 1996, and when my first love returned years later, I was ready: the magical-comical saga of the Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows appeared in 1999. L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse had come out in 1997 and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity! But it had already been bought over here, so I was crushed. When I later learned from a casual remark that L’Esclave was back in play after almost twenty years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!), I pounced. And then the battle began.

The molosser, a huge dog of an ancient breed, became a “mastiff” in English and vanished altogether from the title due to sales rep feedback, but in all else, New Press supported me magnificently in my translation, which was daunting. A few books have driven me to nervous exhaustion, deep despair, and this one did. A simple tale: pursued by the ferocious dog and its master, a mute slave bolts from a long-ago Martinican plantation into an ancient rain forest, where this ordeal will transform them all in extraordinary ways, for they enter an overwhelming physical reality, a wild, lush jungle of life and decay into which the reader plunges as well, as the novel’s powerfully intricate language entangles us in an evocation of nature beyond all human control. Space and time meld in this living maze, where, revived in his lost identity and freedom, the old man reclaims his voice, and is whole again.

The book is as dense as some exotic new element, sinister but beautiful and embodied in a language that belongs in a way to itself alone. It bristles with Creole words, phrasings, and plenty of Chamoiseau-speak. French syntax is artfully tweaked until it becomes a kind of pepper pot, that perpetual stew kept going by Caribs and Arawaks who continually tossed whatever they had at hand into the communal caldron. I have had to reshape English in other books, notably in the Rwandan reportage of Jean Hatzfeld, matching the peculiarities of Belgian- and Kinyarwanda-inflected French to individual witnesses, and here I can only say that you must let your mind go, trust your instincts and your homework, and hope they deliver the goods. One of the three Hatzfelds won the Scott Moncrieff, another was a finalist, and I was ecstatic with relief.

Histoire means both “story” and “history” in French, and in Chamoiseau’s story of a slave’s flight into the unknown, he offers a cryptic history of the Caribbean, where plantation owners used their own languages as a weapon of control over their traumatized slaves, who then turned that weapon against the oppressor: plantation storytellers said more in their homemade Creoles than their listening masters could ever understand, taking care, as Chamoiseau says in his Creole Folktales, to speak in a way “that is opaque, devious—its significance broken up into a thousand sibylline fragments.” Which, if you think about it, is a fine definition of poetry. The mystique of the plantation slave Storyteller, sustaining the spirits of his flock with a lifeline to their vanished homelands, is the Creole soul of Chamoiseau’s writing, so willfully opaque, ludic, cruel, the voice of multitudes, a theme that empowers all his fiction and essays.

In this novel are words and references from the history, culture, and natural world of Martinique, as well as both creolized and arcane French, because Chamoiseau is a free-range writer. “My use of French,” he writes to his translators, “is all-encompassing.” French readers are more familiar with this background material than are English-speakers, however, so while the author does not want any Creole dimension of his work spoiled by the reductive ideal of “transparency,” some light must shine on these sibylline fragments for them to signify at all for the Anglophone audience. I tried to make any explanatory material unobtrusive, while moving this text into English with the least possible distortion.

The majority of the Martinican Creole and creolized French words remain intact in the translation, either easily understood in context, or clarified by me with a descriptive word or two, or paired with an English meaning: “djok-strong,” for example. For more complicated words or a short phrase, the English appears immediately next to the italicized original text. Some words, as well as almost all the deeper background references (customs, places, etc.), are marked with an asterisk and explained in my endnotes, all listed by the number of the page on which they appear, in case any readers prefer to check batches of endnotes in advance.

Here is a look at the creolized French in the novel’s opening sentence: “In slavery times in the sugar isles, once there was an old black man, a vieux-nègre, without misbehaves or gros-saut orneriness or showy ways.” In Martinican Creole, neg means both “man” and “people.” It is the default term for any Creole person of color. It also means: a black man, any mixed-blood person, a servant, a friend, and has many compound forms, such as neg-lakanpay, a country fellow, and gran-neg, a pretentious man or uppity youngster. The Creole vié-neg is not necessarily derogatory—vié means “old,” as well as “ugly,” “horrible,” “shoddy,” even “diabolical”but here simply means an “old man, who is black.” Gros-saut looks like “big-jump” in French, but the Creole gwo-so breaks down as follows: gwo means big (among other things), and so can mean a bucket, a hard tumble, a waterfall, and the kicking of a harnessed horse. The expression fè gwo so refers to that last meaning, and its figurative sense is thus “to kick, lash out at, be ornery.” So: the context suggests the interpretation.

Writing with both studied care and fond disrespect for words, Chamoiseau is not only free-range, but free-form. His syntax, lexicon, and punctuation (or lack thereof) can even be technically incorrect in French, but must be respected—in this disrespect—by the English. In this novel, language not only tells the story, it is the story, an enactment of the subversive action it describes, and as the slave old man moves into a disorienting but exhilarating new dimension, Chamoiseau’s parlance does too. As with poetry, the reader makes sense of the text, as an active audience for this storyteller. In the end, as Chamoiseau has said, créolisation is a matter of expressing a vision of the world, and my aim was to make that vision accessible to the English-speaking reader in its moving and mysterious glory. Regarding the prickly counterpoint of sound and sense, and in homage to the orality of the Creole he champions, Chamoiseau sums up his instructions to his translators with triumphant glee: “I sacrifice everything to the music of the words.”

In the service of Chamoiseau’s short tale, I felt like a spider endlessly prowling the Web. Dozens of books were read. Months of research and headaches produced the end notes and afterword essay on the author and his enigmatic mentor, Édouard Glissant. The challenge of translating this novel I could not face again, but living, lively language like this is rare and lovely, and it is irresistible. Any translator who has experienced real discouragement and travail will understand my happiness in saying that the translation went up for four prizes, and won three. I love this book.

4. You say the FAF takes its prize very seriously—and that you may even nominate someone from amongst those you have met over the years. Besides your nomination, why don’t you recommend for us a great (fiction or non-fiction) book you have reviewed or that has already won the FAF?

For non-fiction, here are two superb biographies that won the prize, huge books about two extraordinarily different men who crammed more into their lives than seems humanly possible:

Bonaparte: 1769-1802 by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall (Harvard University Press)

Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, translated by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell (Yale University Press)

And for history, anything translated by Arthur Goldhammer, five times winner of the FAF prize, the only translator I know whose publishers permit his editing (when sorely needed) and whose grateful contemporary authors welcome it.

In fiction, Lydia Davis’s translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Viking/Penguin Group) and Proust’s Swann’s Way (Viking Press) both won the prize. Of course.

5. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I nominate the poet and translator Jody Gladding, a finalist for the 2004 prize in fiction for Jean Giono’s The Serpent of Stars (Archipelago), and who won the prize in 2009, along with the author, translator, teacher, and horticulturist Elizabeth Deshays, for their translation of Pierre Michon’s Small Lives (Archipelago). Both books explore the deep bonds between the human soul and la France profonde, and the juries were unanimous in celebrating the extraordinary match between the French and the translations, so sensitively attuned to the rich yet delicate beauty of the authors’ impassioned voices.

Greatest Women in Translation: Ros Schwartz


Created by Érick Tonin

Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our nominee today is Ros Schwartz, nominated by Lucinda Byatt.

Welcome, Ros!

Ros Schwartz

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1. You were a consultant on the revised Robert and Collins French-English/English-French Dictionary! That is so cool! I’ve never met anyone who has worked on a dictionary before – and I’m guessing most of my readers haven’t either. So, could you tell us a bit more about this experience?

That was so long ago that I’d forgotten about it! It was in the pre-fax, pre-Internet era. The publishers had assembled a pool of ‘experts’ – I have no idea how they got hold of my name or why they thought I was qualified. Every so often, they’d mail out a list of ‘problem’ terms, by snail mail. We were told to ignore the ones we didn’t know and to provide any information we could on words we did know. I think my most memorable contribution was “front-loading washing machine”.

2. You translated the 2010 edition of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and your translation was even shortlisted for the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, in 2013! Again, so cool! Could you also tell us a bit more about this experience of translating such a world-famous children’s book?

At first, I felt thrilled and honoured, and then I was overcome with awe and trepidation. Knowing that this work is a childhood favourite, frequently described as ‘one of the greatest books of all time’, that readers would be familiar with Katherine Woods’ 1943 translation or Irene Testot-Ferry’s translation in the Wordsworth Classics edition of 1995, I had to decide whether or not to look at the existing translations. I chose not to. I knew that if I did, they would lodge in my mind, and everything I wrote would be either be a reaction against my predecessors’ strategies, or it might seem that they had found the best solution and whatever I did would not measure up. So my first key decision was to treat this as a completely new translation and to ignore what had gone before. A peek at readers’ hostile reviews on Amazon of a third translation by Richard Howard, published in 2000 and which offered a streamlined, modern take, eliminating the quaintness of the 1940s language, set my alarm bells ringing. People retain a fondness for books they loved as children, no matter how weird or wooden the translation.

The next question was register. Did I want to keep the 1940s feel, modernise, or try and find a more neutral, timeless tone? I opted for the last. I decided to avoid using contractions other than in dialogue, so as not to sound too contemporary, and also to use them sparingly as a device to distinguish the author’s narrative voice from speech and from the author’s voice when addressing the reader.

My first step was to read the French text aloud, which helped me decide on my overall approach. What emerged from this reading was that the French sounds deceptively simple. The lightness and seemingly effortless poetry of the language can turn into plodding prose if translated solely for meaning. For example, after the narrator crashes his plane in the desert, he falls asleep on the ground, ‘à mille milles de toute terre habitée’. Translated literally, this becomes ‘a thousand miles from any inhabited land’ – which is a thousand miles from the airiness and alliterative music of the French. So here, as in many other places, my choice was governed by rhythm and poetry rather than literal meaning, and I plumped for ‘miles and miles from any living soul’. Because music is such a crucial aspect of the French text, I invited my then 19-year-old daughter Chloe to work with me. She’s very musical and has an unerring ear for notes that jar. And yes, she’s credited in the book.

The little prince’s signature phrase ‘S’il vous plaîtdessine-moi un mouton’, again so light and airy in French, risked sounding clunky in English: ‘Please… draw me a sheep’. Not something I could imagine coming out of a child’s mouth. The book’s illustrations show not a sheep, but a lamb. Of course. Children talk about little lambs. Mary had a little lamb. Little lamb alliterates. I checked with a French native-speaker colleague who concurred with my gut feeling that the little prince meant a lamb, which is further evidenced by the author’s own illustrations.

Occasionally English offers an opportunity for wordplay in the vein of Saint-Exupéry where the French doesn’t. Describing the businessman, the little prince says ‘ce n’est pas un homme, c’est un champignon!’. The word ‘champignon’ is a little baffling – the phrase  could translate as ‘he’s not a man, he’s a mushroom/toadstool/fungus’. I felt justified in using a word that works both visually and verbally: ‘And all day long, he repeats just like you: “I have serious matters to attend to! Worthwhile matters!” and that makes him puff up with pride. “But he’s not a man, he’s a puffball!”’

Translating The Little Prince was both hugely challenging and hugely rewarding, and I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit a book I’d loved as a child and to gain a far deeper appreciation of Saint-Exupéry’s genius.

3. The first book you translated was a book you had read that you felt you had to translate. In this interview, you say you “had no idea how publishing worked, no ‘strategy’,” and that you learned on the job. What did you “learn on the job” with this first-time, hand-on experience?

I learned how translation rights are sold, and that the first thing a translator needs to do is approach the rights-holder for permission to champion the book. I also discovered how to pitch an idea to potential publishers and that you need to make the business case for them to consider a title. And the experience taught me that it takes a lot of energy, commitment and time to find a publisher ­– in this case five years.

4. In this same interview, you say “Translators have an important role to play in bringing works of interest to publishers’ attention. […] Publishers are too busy to keep up with everything that’s being published all over the world, and we can act as a valuable filter.” Based on your experience, how do you think translators, particularly beginners, can approach publishers with a book translation offer?

By acquainting themselves with the publishing landscape and approaching publishers whose interests are suited to the book in question. And then writing a compelling proposal (identifying the market) and producing a sample translation that really sings. I have written detailed guidelines on pitching which are available here.

5. You translated Translation as Transhumance, by Mireille Gansel. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Traduire comme Transhumer was sent to me by Gansel’s friend, former publisher Nicholas Jacobs, who was determined to see the book translated into English and was seeking a translator to champion it.

I devoured the book in one sitting, experiencing that visceral sensation of falling in love. This short, exquisitely written volume – an intricate blend of memoir, reflections on the act of translation and a celebration of the power, beauty and music of language – had a profound resonance for me, both personally and professionally. Like Mireille Gansel I come from a multilingual Jewish background and have been fascinated with languages from a young age. Like her, I have been a translator for many years. For me, her succinct observations express the essence of what translation should be.

The child of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution, Gansel grew up in France imbibing Hungarian, Yiddish and the German of Mitteleuropa from her family. As a translator from German into French, Gansel gave voice to East Germany’s persecuted and exiled writers. She tracked down the poet Reiner Kunze and the playwright Bertolt Brecht, knocking at their doors and smuggling their words across the Berlin Wall and into the West.

When America declared war on Vietnam, Gansel wondered what she as a poet and translator could do in the face of Curtis E. LeMay’s declaration that the US would “bomb ’em back to the stone age”. The answer for her was to learn Vietnamese and take herself to war-torn Vietnam to seek out the poets so as to translate their words. For her, translation is a profoundly political engagement, and she commits herself body and soul to every act of translation. There is no boundary between her life and her work.

Translation as Transhumance encapsulates Gansel’s conception of the translator’s role as being akin to that of the shepherds practising the centuries-old Mediterranean tradition of transhumance. The long, slow journey as the shepherds make their way from one village to the next is rich in cultural and linguistic exchanges. Translators too are pastors, open to different cultures, reaching out to the other and transmitting literature across borders.

Gansel’s writing is imbued with her humanity, her humility and her boundless curiosity – an inquisitiveness she displays in person too. When I first met her she showered me with questions, so strong is her impulse to reach out to the other. She has a deep connection to the land and those who work on it, and is equally at home among her shepherd friends, whose way of life she campaigns to preserve, as she is among poets and writers.

There is something about this book that has touched a chord in so many people, creating an entire ecosystem of interest and support, and leading to true friendships between all those involved in its publication.

6. From all the books you have translated so far, what’s your favorite as a reader?

That’s like asking a mother which of her children is her favourite!

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

Linda Coverdale, translator from French.