My translation of Jean Daive’s A Woman With Several Lives (Une Femme de quelques vies, Flammarion 2009) has just come out from La Presse. Recently, an old friend and an editor in Canada asked who Jean Daive is, and why I translate poetry. “I mean,” she said, “you can’t work on your own poems if you’re working on someone else.” Because we were at a social event and it was a fleeting question, I responded provisionally, cursorily, with the intention to think more about this question or idea at another time.

But first, who is Jean Daive and how did I come to translate his book? You may have seen his name in relation to Paul Celan, with Daive’s Sous la coupole, in English Under the Dome: Walks With Paul Celan, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, published by Burning Deck Press in 2009 as Serie d’Ecriture No. 22. You may have read the book, or read about the book in a piece by Gail Scott at Jacket2, “The longing, in language, for a connection” or here at Harriet.

Like the donkey that Daive watches while writing the chronicle in a Greek Island café two decades later, Celan augments distance by remaining a static image that “does not let anything encroach …” Though he [the donkey!] “cries, he weeps, he brays,” what the chronicler Daive hears, in the untranslatable braying, is the anguish of the “still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.”

—Gail Scott

This braying donkey also comes up in the interview between Jean Daive and Michèle Cohen-Halimi, “Cette écriture est une livre de chair” (“This writing is a pound of flesh”) that appeared in the Dossier Jean Daive, from the cipM (centre international de poésie Marseille). Daive says, “In spite of it all, La Condition d’infini [as yet untranslated—but it could be translated as The Infinite Condition, or The Condition of the Infinite] was impossible to write. It was a time when I went very regularly, every summer, to Antiparos. An island in the Aegean. I had a room at the end of the island, a field of burnt grass, a donkey and farther away the sea. For five weeks, he was a privileged interlocutor. I observed that he would walk backwards…. I wondered why I didn’t write La Condition d’infini backwards. Because I had all the elements.”

It must have been around the time when I was translating Danielle Collobert’s It Then (Il donc, which Charles Bernstein jokingly referred to as The Donkey. It’s a reference I kept and used the lines “money // monkey / donkey” in a book that has yet to appear*). It Then was published by O Books in 1989, went out of print quickly, then was reprinted by Leslie Scalapino shortly before her death.

La Condition d’infini is comprised of 7 books, number 5 being Sous la coupole (Under the Dome). But going back to the beginning, or almost, in this interview Michèle Cohen-Halimi asks him about his being aphasic as a child. Daive enthusiastically tells her about just coming back from Basel, about seeing a huge exhibition of Robert Gober’s work at the Schaulager [ from German: Schau=show, display, exhibition; Lager=warehouse]. Gober sculpts, among many things, sinks—white kitchen sinks, with siphons on and around the faucets, sinks fastened to walls, and in at least one place, on the ceiling; sinks in rooms or parts of rooms sometimes covered with wallpaper—all of which he has fabricated himself.

Speaking about the conditions of language, Daive says “1) I couldn’t speak and I had lost all speech, 2) always, close in me, there were forms of concrete art…. A cube, a cylinder, a crib, a white telephone, a butterfly in your right hand. These forms simply brought me to other forms which were those of words.” This interview becomes more and more fascinating as it goes on. [Gosh, I am thinking, perhaps I will need to translate the entire piece. This is where it sometimes starts—the translating, I mean. Reading=translating].

Daive talks about moving from where he was born, in Belgium, in 1958, to Paris, his real home, and home of his poetry family, beginning with the patience and generosity of the eminent poet Bernard Noël. [Noël’s first book in English, The Rest of the Voyage, translated by Eléna Rivera, is just out from Graywolf Press.]

Daive worked for the S.E.D.E. (Société d’Edition de Dictionnaires et d’Encyclopédias), then became a radio journalist and producer at France Culture, and has edited three magazines, fragment, fig. and Fin. And there are his many books of poetry, most of which are yet untranslated. Translated are Rosmarie Waldrop’s Under the Dome, my translation of A Woman With Several Lives and Julie Kalendek’s translation of A Lesson in Music, book 7 of his 9-part Narration d’équilibre.

The first page of A Lesson in Music:

A woman measures.

A woman opens her arms
to determine lengths or

She values
the sleep of this man who
will never sleep again.

You must know
everything begins
with the enlargement
of a

makes a sound.

And a page from A Woman With Several Lives:

The mosses all around
intervene and interfere
choke the sounds.

The drop of water

the step
the pump.

And sense
is a hole
in the analogy.

There is nothing
to see
but an abstraction
of green light.

And some names:
blue chicory
sweet cicely
water flag.

Jean Daive, Paris, June 2011

How I had occasion to translate Daive’s A Woman With Several Lives is written in the book itself, in the “Afterward.”

*Win These Posters and Other Unrelated Prizes Inside will appear from Omnidawn Press in Fall 2012.

Originally Published: March 14th, 2012

Norma Cole is a poet, painter, and translator. She was born in Toronto, Canada, and attended the University of Toronto for her BA in Modern Languages and MA in French. Her translation works include Danielle Collobert’s Journals (1989), Anne Portugal’s Nude (2001), and Fouad Gabriel Naffah’s The Spirit God and...