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On translating Apollinaire: Pilgrims of Perdition

For almost a year I’ve been working on a co-translation of Apollinaire’s Alcoolswith Jennifer Pap, a close friend and a scholar of twentieth-century French poetry. Our motivations for this project are manifold. First, we simply wanted to work together on something exciting and difficult. Second, we had noticed that only one full translation of the book remains in print, Donald Revell’s, which Wesleyan brought out in 1995. This translation offers many pleasures—its verve and lyricism, its energetic use of colloquial phrases—but as Revell writes in his opening “Note” to his translation of Rimbaud, “Translation is departure,” and Revell’s departures are, of course, other than ours. It seemed it would be useful to readers, and if not, then to us, to have more than one full take on this book available. As we work, a third motivation presents itself: the desire to meet the poems with a respect for their difference, from us, from our moment, our language. And yet, our hope is to render the poems with as much proximity to their original meanings as we can. The five other translators, whose versions we consult only after we are done with our own, do not all cling tightly to this goal. Those who do not seem more motivated (or at least as motivated) by a desire to reveal the poetics at work, the jauntiness and collage-like quality, or the rhyme patterns and rhythms. Of course, these claims presume a difference between “meaning” and “poetics,” and there is none. But when translating, choices often fall into an either/or category: either we chose a word or phrase that seems closest to the French meaning, or we chose a word or phrase that brings us closest to the music. The hope is always to do both. The reality is that one can’t always. My sense is that most translators tend to lean in one direction or the other.

In this partnership, I am the novice, for Jennifer is fluent not only in the language, but also in the subject.  While I can say things like, “the rhythm feels off,” “that repetition is jarring,” or “does that syntax also sound archaic in French?” she has years of scholarship behind her, and years of reading these poems in their original language.

Of course, to embark upon any translation is an act of hubris. To claim one will be “faithful” is folly. But much has been written about the difficulties or impossibility of translation; much has been written too about the need for it. Here I’d like to talk about its profits, not to the world of readers, which is obvious, but to the writer, to me as a writer. For as we’ve been working at a certain café every Friday from 9-12, Jennifer has been working at home writing a book on Apollinaire, Reverdy, Char, Ponge, and Fourcade, and their attempts to respond to war and violence, and I have been working at home on poems for a new manuscript I am calling, half jokingly, Alcohol. Over the months, the translating process has found its way into my writing process in more and more noticeable ways. What follows is a description of that bleed.

Here is a draft of the poem “Marriage of Andre Salmon” with our notes left in. Alternate words are in brackets to the right, alternate translations of line three are presented in color:

When I saw the flags this morning I didn’t say to myself

There’s the rich clothing of the poor

Or democracy’s modesty longs to veil its pain   [from me]

Or democracy modestly veils its pain

Or democracy modestly hides from me its pain

Or democracy is bashful and covers its pain

Or modestly democracy veils its pain

Or bashfully democracy conceals from me her pain

Or democracy modestly conceals her sorrow from me

Or liberty is honored now with ersatz                    [imitation/ false]

Leaves O vegetal liberty O the one liberty on earth

There is pleasure in the suspension of choice. Eventually, we will have to decide on just one version of the line and we will have to erase our optional words. But for now, I like reading this poem with all its waverings and uncertainties. I like how all the alternate lines becoming a chorus of possibility. Looking back through the writing I’ve been doing these past six months or so, I see a similar “optioning” occurring. Here’s a bit from a poem called “Labor”:

Labor is dark in the morning cold in the morning is it?

The man insists on his right to a “life”

approached frontally as a body does a stage

A “life” with intricate pen marks

The doors in this house

and they, the two lamps shining—

also a bit of labor hard won but for what

Labor lies darkly in the morning cold now does it?

Barrel with its halo of green

Blue lines in the garden dirt

Dark in the morning in the cold now is it?

And here are lines from “Distillation”

That we were drinking at the table

the blue walls receding

My worry was for the women

who lived alone now without children

Dog in the cold belly to the ground

By nine the walls had darkened

By nine the walls were darkening

Heavy clouds staying put without rain

Car doors slamming on headlights

Dog’s belly cold to the ground

My worry was for the woman

made to seem industrial under fluorescence

At nine the walls darkening

And she was a tired wasp bumping the window

between her top lip and her bottom

no landline no link no account

Drivers considered their destinations

and so I recalled her fear

in the passivity of belonging to an order

she was the first disappearing term

And drivers considered their destinations

considered their destinations to be worthy

Finally: a couple of paragraphs lifted from a draft of a long prose piece:

At the present time, a city opens itself to rain and to the farm workers in their trucks, but not to the man who lit himself on fire in the greenhouse, his son down the road playing. Smoking a cigarette in an elevator, she was carrying her groceries home. My friend on his porch watches the cars park below, backing into their spots with such confidence it astounds him. Good breeze arrives and what are we to do with that, that news and that, that photograph of fire? Living along the borders of roads. At dinner she says, “I figure business as usual is the best approach.” She means, to dying. The kids won’t eat, not one of them, instead, faces flushed from running, riding bikes around the block, or putting on their death costumes with a cowboy hat, their ghost costumes with a blanket. And if scissors and pencils mean I’ve got myself ready, ready for making and destroying, ready for marking and scoring, what not sleeping portends is a kind of edge to the day, a folded edge so that something is always hidden in that fold. A city resembles a forest, resembles a factory, resembles a body. Of a dog. Where that head on that lap is a kind of talisman against the burning of a father, of a husband. One spies in the grocery store an old man stalled at the meats, an old woman with efficient methods for carrying. And if I beg here. A cry pens itself to wreck and truck, to tile and fir. This prying sun on the door makes a target, a target we elevated to face. Her groceries home.

A city opens itself to rain and to the farm workers in their trucks. Smoking a cigarette in an elevator the woman lets her grocery bag lean against her leg. Present tense owns such pure confidence on the porch. And what are we to do with that fire? The best or better approach to dying is business and rest, or face flushed and running? Dressing in your death costume with your blanket warming the earth in early spring both marks and scores the edge of the day. A city resembles a resting dog, its head on the lap of that father or husband. A city is an efficient way of carrying, and if I beg here, a cry pens itself toward the prying sun. A target. A wretch. The cars parked each morning like lines from a poem always the same and always misremembered. Each night the cars renew themselves like sleeping children.


It’s not new for me to make use of repetition, but what I seem to be gathering from translating is an increased willingness to see the lines as fluid, to re-syntax, re-organize, re-order, and to allow those remade lines to write back, through the poem, to their sources.

The liberty to rethink the link, to allow their multiple versions to coexists is, in the end, just an extension of the freedom that writing gives me in the first place—that release that arrives when language reveals itself to be other than myself, belonging first outside of me, but available to me as an other body. That strange joining of intimacy and distance is one way to describe the pleasure of writing, the reason to write.

Matthew Arnold, speaking through his antihero, Empedocles, describes the self as a “wind-borne, mirroring soul,” which (and this is a complaint of his) “A thousand glimpses wins, / And never sees a whole.” To me, though not to Empedocles or Arnold, this version of the self is stimulating. Language’s kaleidoscopic possibilities keep me moving, “wind borne.” Anne Carson writes that she “came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch.” It seems that the more multiple a line is, the more I can feel it as a flexible, malleable, living thing, the more it, the line, the language, reveals itself to me. The more “lit” it becomes.

At once intimate and distant, or, the more distant the more intimate: the “mother tongue.”

Originally Published: March 30th, 2011

In March 2011, Carr was a featured writer on Harriet.