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Translator's Note: Someone, and no matter

Claude Esteban was raised speaking both French and Spanish; he spoke of this life between two languages as provoking a “dédoublement de la conscience,” or a splitting of consciousness. His poems convey a profound sense of longing, and they’re also much involved with a life in letters—the poems, even as they luxuriate in the materials of language, yearn for what (if anything) is beyond words. One of Esteban’s signature figures is anaphora, and it sounds in his poems like a sad echo, as if the poems were spoken in large empty rooms. I first came upon Esteban’s work in the usual way—I found a poem in an anthology and then went looking for more. He writes with extreme variety—not only did he translate and write essays in addition to writing poems, but his poems vary from prose poems to spare lyrics to rhymed sequences. To try to capture in English what “Someone, and no matter” conveys to my ear, I thought about the opening of Frost’s “Directive,” which to me conveys perhaps the most resonantly melancholy sound in English. “Directive” achieves this via its monosyllabic words arranged in a pentameter line, creating a line as even and austere as the ticking of a clock—and this is the measured austerity of “someone.” And of course the natural rhythm of the French language is syllabic, and not accentual-syllabic, like English—English is a language of mellow undulations and syncopations; French is, in comparison, straitened. In “Someone,” I altered some phrasing to approach an iambic rhythm and opted for monosyllabic words when I could (for instance, I’ve conveyed “j’assiste à,” which translates as “I witness,” as “I put up with”). Also, for “recouvre de poussière,” I opted for “return” rather than cover or recover, to reach toward an echo with “ashes to ashes.” “Around the bend of a phrase” is an ebullient line for Esteban—there’s a leaping excitement: the words are almost breaking through to something or someone palpable beyond them. But of course this breakthrough is revoked by the end of the poem. In this one, I opted to translate “papillion,” which normally is a butterfly, as a moth, mainly because butterfly is (I think) a goofy sounding word. —jm


This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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