Poetry News

Must-Read at PSA: New Translations of Stéphane Mallarmé

By Harriet Staff


At Poetry Society of America, Robert Fernandez and Blake Bronson-Bartlett write in depth about their very new Stéphane Mallarmé translations--the poems themselves are also up. "[A]s all that has been left out of previous translations has increasingly appeared to us to be all that we feel is most important about Mallarmé's work and perhaps even art in general." More from the series "In their own words" on "Sea Breeze" and "The Afternoon of a Faun":

We undertook this translation because we feel that interest in Mallarmé, among younger poets in particular, is dead. Our primary aim was to create translations that sound like his poems—that bring his music into harmony with the 21st century. That most bourgeois of poets in life, Mallarmé is—like Hölderlin, like Rimbaud—a poet of the caesura: of the withdrawal of the gods. He registers and transmits their absence and, with that absence, calls into the foreground the fact of human limits (historical, linguistic, material) and human potential.

Mallarmé is, therefore, also a poet of revolution, even though his poems are hermetic, bejeweled, and resistant. In a word, his poems are "French," in all the derogatory senses attributed to the proper name by, for the most part, Americans. We subscribe to none of the nationalist hypocrisies that would inhibit our admiration for Mallarmé or our translations of his largely untranslatable poems. American readers are entangled in their own historical drama, and we have attempted to confront to this formative dissonance as we prepared our translations.

Mallarmé is not only a poet of a different time and place—a different world and sensibility—his poetry is imbued with a profound historicity that is nevertheless specific to late nineteenth-century France as it prepared itself to make the leap into Modernity. These conditions are evinced in the fact that Mallarmé's poetry is, to interpretation, seemingly inexhaustible. That magic of form and diction, mastered by few, made him difficult and deeply frustrating in his time and place, as it does in our own. Where better than the United States, so reviled by revolutionary intellectuals in contemporary France, to resurrect him?

We do not respond to this question without the usual reservations. How to make these poems live again, in English, without betraying Mallarmé? How to make American readers want to read Mallarmé without betraying Mallarmé? How to make the poems live and stand on their own? How to give voice to his revolutionary poetics?

As translators, we feel that our work with Mallarmé both brings the poems into our history and retains the original gambit made by the poems. We may even go so far as to say that his poems emerged from a transitional moment in late 19th-century France that is structurally analogous to America's in the early 21st, and that we have brought that analog to light.

We feel, thus, that we've done the work of translation. But we've also taken liberties; we've tried to see and to know his poetry; we've invoked its genericity; and we've affirmed its ludicrous demands with great irreverence and faith—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, meaning, and feeling. We have believed in the impossibility that a foreign, distant poetry could be brought over into new life, a new time, and a new language.

To highlight our specific contribution to the legacy of Mallarmé, we offer below a comparison of two well-known and respected translations of his verse—Henry Weinfield's (University of California Press, 1994) and E.H. and A.M. Blackmore's (Oxford, 2006).

Read more about the necessity of adding to previous translations of Mallarmé at PSA.