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.

Marcella DurandCreated with Canva

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.