Monday, February 23, 2009

Worlds within Words

I have been struggling with the very first line of LA ROUTE DE CINQ PIEDS: vallée-peupliers. I first translated it as “valley poplars.” However, “valley poplars” is only four syllables; it needed to be five. So I began researching “valley poplar” to see if there was a way to render it into five syllables without simply resorting to adding “the” (cop-out!). Was it a particular species of poplar? Or was Métail referring to poplars that happened to be in a valley? This particular verse is drawn from a trip to Tibet, so I thought perhaps valley poplar might be a tree species unique to that region with a five-syllable name that I could use. Google: poplar Tibet. And this came up. Apparently the poplars were planted by Jamyang Losong Kyanco the 13th incarnation of Dama Rergin as the Living Buddha of the Rabu Monastery, inspired by the poplars of Beijing. The poplars were, and are, lovingly tended. According to this site, at night the caravan carrying the poplar saplings would plant them in ditches to preserve moisture. Each one was named after a sage, and Jamyang Losong Kyanco told townspeople to protect them with clay walls. Jiegu Town, home of the poplars, is a subject of study by urban planners for its “perfect” zoning and, yes, the trees.

So, how’d the line turn out?

“Valley of poplars.”

Five syllables!

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

taken away again

So I was still puzzling over any hidden constraints in Michèle Métail's text, when I noticed a legal pad sitting on the window sill in the bedroom. I've used these legal pads over the years for everything from phone numbers to grocery lists to whatever. I didn't know why this particular one was sitting on the window sill: in our household, either my husband, or the kid, or the cat likes to drag things out 'n' about, so there's always an element of surprise in how things are arranged at any particular moment.

Well, this particular notebook happened to contain notes on Métail's text. I think I must have jotted them down during a conversation with Harry Mathews, who knows Métail and her work, although there's nothing else at all about that conversation. Anyway, I rushed the notebook to my desk, to later transcribe my handwriting, and wrote my dad (really my co-translator) about this serendipidous discovery.

Now I look at it this morning, ready to delve into the mysteries of Le Cinq Pieds, and what do I see? Half of that one particular page has been torn off. A dim memory from a few days ago comes back: my husband saying "Ismael, leave mommy's notebook alone." Scream.

Anyway, here's what I have left:

endless succession of genetives
'70s already begun work
every day inspired by an

UPDATE: I found the other half crumpled up behind my computer!

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Of Guinea Pigs and Furniture Stores

A few interesting events/links:

The Festival of New French Writing is taking place February 26-28. Always on the lookout for French-Senegalese writers, I was interested to discover Marie N’Diaye on the list. Unfortunately, only one of her books, Among Family, seems to be extant in English translation, and it may be out of print. Abdourahman Waberi also looks interesting, particularly his book Aux Etats-Unis d’Afrique.

A hot discussion of translation topics at Harriet, specifically, Martin Earl’s discussion of what “literary merit” means when it comes to translations. How do we judge poems in translation versus those written in “our” native language? He seems to feel we have to/should judge, while I think we have to shift our paradigm (to use his terminology) when reading translation, because we are losing the original language—its sound, its culture-specific nuances, its connotations, its multiple words for different kinds of snow—even as we gain in trying to understand the poetry’s larger history/origin/context. With translation, I often value process over product, particularly in that even the effort of translating alters the receiving language.

Plus I just hate judging anything “good.” It seems totally fallacious and a pretense that the ongoing sea-change in writing, reading, perception into wider, more experimental, communal activities is simply not happening. "Good" narrows your possibilities; "good" throws up barriers; "good" is an expired passport and you're stuck at the airport.

On another topic, I just returned from the AWP conference in Chicago. I shamefacedly admit that I only attended 1 panel and 2 readings, but it’s not often I get time alone in a hotel room to write, so I seized the day. BUT, one of the two readings I went to was a reading of translations. It was an interesting mix—from Rimbaud to Swedish poet Aase Berg. I enjoyed it all, but I particularly enjoyed Johannes Göransson’s translations of Berg. He prefaced his reading by saying that as a “southern hick” (from Sweden) he wasn’t fully able to capture Berg’s rough urban accent, an interesting reminder of the range of variation that exists within languages. He also dissed Cal Bedient’s notion, expressed at the American Hybrid panel (which I, duh, missed), that poetry should be about “compromise and moderation”—ha, ha! Right on. Anyway, I really, really loved the guinea pig poem, particularly as I just bought Ismael a stuffed guinea pig from Ikea. A coincidence, or is there something about guinea pigs and Sweden that I don't know about? Check out Göransson’s blog describing his book sales.

I was way too restrained with book buying—I was trying to be financially cautious, and make a circuit of the book fair to triage what I was going to buy, only to later realize that one does not complete a full tour at the AWP, due to the incredible amount of stopping and talking (i.e., schmoozing) one does. You got to grab the books while you can. Therefore, I missed the anthology of Western African women’s writings. Bah! However, I did get the long-coveted Sleep’s Powers, Jacqueline Risset translated by Jennifer Moxley.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Five steps of translation

I've been handed another translating assignment--an excerpt from Michèle Métail's LA ROUTE DE CINQ PIEDS (The Road of Five Steps), which I'm to complete by June for a translation festival that will take place either in a) Connecticut or b) France.

On the surface, the Oulipian constraint is relatively straightforward, five "steps" per line, and Métail has made it even easier for me with a note to the translator calling my attention to the form and that the "silent e" of French may throw off the syllable count in English.

However, one does not write a 16,000-verse and counting poem without some other constraint pulling it along. She says in her introduction that the poem was "conceived as a continuous chain of pictures," but I just know there's something else lurking in here. So far there doesn't seem to be a repetition of words between verses (in fact, I think it's just the opposite--that no repetition is allowed), nor a repetition of sound. Perhaps a clue can be found in her introduction, when she says that the poem is based on 8 trips to Asia (with a 6:1:1 ratio of China, Taiwan, Japan). Perhaps this is the additional constraint? Eight characters perhaps with five syllables? 16,000 divided by 8 is 2,000...

On another subject, Pierre Joris included Jean Sénac’s Oeuvres poétiques (Actes Sud 1999) on his 10 best reads of 2008. I’m very happy to see Joris draw some public attention to Jean Sénac. He was one of my major finds during research for the anthology, and it does pain my heart a bit that we probably won't be the ones to bring his poetry into English, after all.

But Joris has reminded me I should reread Sénac. With Ismael now in my life and reading Senegalese writers such as Ousmane Sembene, I'm even more interested in the struggle shared by so many Francophone writers, such as Sénac, between an interest in and passion for French culture and language, and a hatred for French colonialism. Here’s a quote from Justin Vicari’s article at APR, which also includes some translations of Sénac’s poetry.

Sénac entered the French language as a deliberate outsider, from the beginning
mixing in polyglot words pell-mell from Spanish, Arabic, and English, while
inventing many bold neologisms of his own. Later, Sénac actively joined the
resistance against French colonialism in Algeria, fighting as a soldier for that
cause: yet, one feels that Sénac was fighting only against the France who
conquered with armies, not the same nation who conquered with images.

France was where his books were published and what he wrote in. And if I translated his work into English, would I compound the colonialism? How can one reconcile culture with colonialism?

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