Wow: Lydia Davis on John Ashbery's Translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations

By Harriet Staff


Lucky us! Lydia Davis reviews Rimbaud's Illuminations, newly translated by John Ashbery and in a lovely edition published by W.W. Norton, for the New York Times' Sunday Book Review. In a brief introduction to the young poet, who quit writing at 21 and lived on, adventuring, for only 16 more years: "[H]e is one of those exceptional meteoric individuals whose very eruption and subsequent accomplishments remain dazzling and difficult to explain away." Davis continues to describe Rimbaud:

He was immediately a colorful figure: the filthy, lice-infested, intermittently bewitching young rebel with large hands and feet, whose mission required scandalizing the conventional-minded and defying moral codes not only through his verse but through his rude, self-destructive and anarchical behavior; the brilliantly skillful and versatile poet not only of the occasional sentimental subject (orphans receiving gifts on New Year’s Day) but also of lovely scatological verse; the child-faced young innovator whose literary development evolved from poem to poem at lightning speed.

It is Davis's clear esteem for fellow French translator John Ashbery that punctures here (she even mentions the fantastic Other Traditions!). Never more apropos, it takes one to know one--Davis being of course a heralded translator of Proust and, most recently, Flaubert's Madame Bovary. After crediting Ashbery with knowledge of his subjects ("Ashbery brings to this translation a long and deep familiarity with French life, language and culture, particularly artistic and literary culture, and the experience of having translated many other French works over the years — by Pierre Reverdy, Raymond Roussel, Max Jacob, Pierre Martory ..."), she looks closely at his translation work.

In a meticulously faithful yet nimbly inventive translation, Ashbery’s approach has been to stay close to the original, following the line of the sentence, retaining the order of ideas and images, reproducing even eccentric or inconsistent punctuation. He shifts away from the closest translation only where necessary, and there is plenty of room within this close adherence for vibrant and less obvious English word choices. One of the pleasures of the translation, for instance, is the concise, mildly archaic Anglo-Saxon vocabulary he occasionally deploys — “hued” for teinte and “clad” for revêtus, “chattels” for possessions — or a more particular or flavorful English for a more general or blander French: “lush” for riches, “hum of summer” for rumeur de l’été, “trembling” for mouvantes.

Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.

It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.

The rest of Lydia Davis's review can be read here.

Originally Published: June 10th, 2011