I am not a translator and my language skills aren’t perfect, but I am in love with building bridges from language to language and breaking myopias in twain. It’s also … fun. From an artistic standpoint – by giving yourself more than one ‘instrument’ – you can enjoy sliding your fingers from one end of the ivories to the other for a little bit longer, too. (For instance – with two languages – I could say ‘a floating glow of lavender’ or ‘luisant lavande,’ and neither are particularly terrible turns of phrase.) As a writer, I’m not claiming, wanting, or seeking Ezra Pound or Eugene Jolas-like territory by beginning like this, but attempts at or achieving outright multilingualism really can be a tremendous amount of fun: if you already like the bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden talks about feeling like he’s already friends with the writer, then there’s a chance that seeing the same author described in Italian as a ‘fosse un tuo amico per la pelle’ – that is, a friend of yours to the skin, a friend down to the level of the skin and the hairs that bristle (or ‘bristlehairs,’ if we want to hackishly imitate Joyce) – can delight in equal measure.
There’s another reason why I’m doing this, though, and it’s a notion that extends slightly beyond the concept of ‘fun’: languages (and slangs, dialects, and stories) that form a national narrative landscape become one of several interconnecting pieces on the level of an international narrative landscape. I think it’s important to have a sense of all of that – to – you know – try and pull some sort of global Walt Whitman or Studs Terkel out of the figurative magician’s hat. And there is no ‘one’ language that can do it all, so you have to get there piece by piece and language by language. It’s hard, it’s crazy idealistic, but – well, it might be worth it. (I hope.) There are things that exist at the level of language that don’t quite ‘rise’ to the level of ‘news,’ but building a bridge of empathy/understanding is nevertheless still very, very important. If war is what happens when language fails, then translation is one way to make peace.
War isn’t imminent if I go to Paris and bungle the language to and fro – a Buster Keaton with a verbal 2x4 slung over my shoulder, cluelessly turning this way and that – but I am going to Paris, and if there is a language outside of my own to begin toiling in, it might as well be this one, and – insofar as translation goes – we might as well begin with something everyone knows: Shakespeare.
Though I’m currently of the opinion that Nicannor Parra’s translation of King Lear into Spanish is one of the better ‘translated’ Shakespeares out there, I wanted to revisit the work of Yves Bonnefoy, as I think there’s something there worth poking. Even Bill Knott – the curmudgeon with whom I once shared a classroom – spoke highly of Bonnefoy more than once, and Knott was the kind of guy who would have said, “Three days to rise? Three? What did you do? Forget to set the alarm clock? Take one too many selfies and get lost in your own gaze? ‘Oh, look at me and my … Jeeeesus eyes?’” Praise from him was to be taken seriously. (Oh, and: he would have hated that joke as well.)
So even though there are a myriad of places we can start when it comes to Bonnefoy’s work – you can see traces of his translations of the sonnets scattered here and there, and he’s a poet in his own right – let’s start with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” or, rather –
Etre ou n’être pas. C’est la question.
Est-il plus noble pour une âme de souffir
Les flèches et les coups d’un sort atroce
Ou de s’armer contre le flot qui monte
Et de lui faire front, et de l’arrêter ? Mourir, dormir,
Rien de plus; terminer, par du sommeil,
Note that “in the mind” has been replaced by “âme” – that is, soul. Note, too, “Mourir, dormir, Rien de plus,” which – actually – is quite nice. I like “Mourir, dormir, Rien de plus.” To my ear, its speed and assonance-like compression (“To die, to sleep, no more”) almost threatens to turn the clause casual and flippant – like a piece of soap hopping out of your hands – partly because I’m thinking of the beginning of Godot, no doubt (“Mourir, dormir, Rien a faire,” which definitely makes the line a little bit grin-inducing), and – once the joke passes – I love the crestfallen way the line hangs. (Think of Macduff’s reaction to his wife’s murder and child’s murder in Macbeth as a comparative barometer, i.e, “All my pretty ones? Did you say all?”)
… terminer, par du sommeil,
La souffrance du cœur et les mille blessures
Qui sont le lot de la chair: c’est bien le dénouement
Qu’on voudrait, et de quelle ardeur! … Mourir, dormir
- Dormir, rêver peut-être. Ah, c’est l’obstacle !
Car l’anxiété des rêves quiviendront
Dans ce sommeil des morts, quand nous aurons
Chassé de nous le tumulte de vivre,
Est là pour retenir, c’est la pensée
Qui fait que le malheur a si longue vie.
I like “le lot de la chair” – as in, the lot of the flesh/flesh’s lot – but … is “Ah, c’est l’obstacle” all that it can be here? It’s the roadblock in Hamlet’s soliloquy, sure, the moment where he changes his mind for some, but if you’re allowed to crack the text open a little bit, why not something like, “C’est l’obstacle, la derniere bâtiment où les lumieres scintillement avant le noir de la terre inconnu et le vent sou-sou-souffle?” And could you deliver ‘C’est la question’ and ‘C’est l’obstacle’ in a mutually complementary way? Sure. But why would you?
I mean – the obvious answer here is of seeking as direct and unobtrusive a translation as possible, but there’s a line Gregory Rabassa uttered in his interview with The Rumpus that’s been sticking with me, and it’s this –
Rumpus: When you say acting, is translating like that?
Rabassa: Oh yes, I think it’s like acting. Much closer than to writing. You’ll get the old classical translation and of course they were freer, but sometimes you read one version and you wonder if it’s the same poem because they don’t do the same thing. I think it’s acting because … well, particularly with dialogue, but then when you’re doing the book, you are García Márquez — you are playing him and someone else might play it a little differently, but it’s still Hamlet.
– and it’s why I get so exercised: the line is alive. The iamb is alive. The paragraph is alive. The book is alive. “While language is a system,” Bonnefoy says in one interview, “the speech of poetry is a presence.” And it’s a feeling I get just as much as when I’m looking at something that’s migrating from my language – walking out onto that other language’s stage – as when I’m looking at something entering it.
Here’s what I mean by that: Jules Maigret was a French police commissioner/detective created by Georges Simenon, and he first appeared in Pietr-Le-Letton in 1931. He is a Morse, a Holmes, a Luther – he has a pipe, he solves things, and it’s great. I have three Maigret books in my possession – The Bar On The Seine (in English), Maigret and The Wine Merchant (in English), and Maigret (in French) – and I started noticing things in the French text that I hadn’t seen in the translations, like –
Mme Maigret regardait toujours dehors et ses cheveux enroulés autour des epingles lui faisait une etrange aureole.
– or –
Le saxophoniste promenait gravement son instrument entre les tables.
And how does a translator miss stuff like this? How could they miss the crackling potential? “The saxophonist gravely, dourly, and frowningly wound his instrument through the tables.” “As if following a silent funeral march of which he was both the lead musician and the casket, the saxophonist made his way between the tables.” “Without playing a note, the saxophonist gravely carried his instrument with him amongst the tables.”
Compare that with any sentence from the two English translations I have and you encounter two things. The first is that you’ll see a paragraph like this –
Maigret felt weighed down, discouraged, a little sad. This was a commonplace thing, a sordid crime such as happened almost every week, a lonely old woman robbed and murdered by a boy who was not yet twenty. The only difference was that, in this case, Theo Stiernet had killed his own grandmother.”
– and I wish I could send the thing offstage, hand it a script, and say, “Again! Again!” Because there are moments that come over one again and again when you want a paragraph to be either rhythmically watertight, trembling and glowing with a thousand different kinds and colors of electricity, or – frankly – both. You can’t get it every time, and – sometimes – that’s okay, like when Simenon writes in this almost clipped, Raymond Chandler-like style –
Maigret was brought another pile of bowlers. The first one he tried on fitted. But he dallied, and made sure he left the shop just before the man with the opera hat. He hailed a taxi, just in case he needed it.
He did. The man came out of the shop, got into a car parked next to the pavement and drove off in the direction of the Rue Vieille-du-Temple.
– and the translation reads fine.
Perhaps I should ‘blame’ Marie Richeux for making me feel this way. Perhaps I should ‘blame’ her radio program, “Pas La Peine De Crier,” or – perhaps – her book, Polaroïds, where – after a page or two – a clause of Simenon’s like “et ses cheveux enroulés autour des epingles lui faisait une etrange aureole” – that is, ‘and her hair [Madame Maigret’s, who is looking out the window at night] – wrapped around the hairpins – made a strange aurora’ – begins to take on a different dimension.
Because in Polaroïds, a collection of prose poem-like pieces, you read about a woman whose “yeux de biche prise dans un phare” – that is, ‘doe eyes take in a lighthouse,’ and you can almost see the accompanying Ed Gorey-like cartoon; how watching sand pass through an hourglass is like “d’avoir onze ans deux fois” – that is, turning eleven twice; how there are “deux filles qui dansent en rase campagne, en soutien-gorge noir dans la lumiere facile des phares, qui sont comme des papillons ces filles,” and you’re not sure whether or not the bra (and ‘throat support?’ Really?) or the highlights are supposed to be the butterflies for these two dancing girls, and then become lost in the image of dyed hair being nothing but congregating papillons; and it’s a lovely thing and a fascinating thing, and it’s a rhythm that’s alive, a rhythm I ‘get,’ and anyone who says otherwise can go (and I say this politely) get stuffed.
Or perhaps the answer lies somewhere else – in another language and in another place.