Poetry News

Doubly Ideal: First French Edition True to Mallarmé's Intentions for Un coup des dés Accompanies First Arabic Translation

By Harriet Staff


Pierre Joris has done it again, writing for the Paris-based publisher Ypsilon Éditeur about the first Arabic translation of Stéphane Mallarmé's Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, 1914), "masterfully done by the Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis," and published last month. "Remember that Arabic is read from right to left, both in terms of the text on a given page and in terms of the book as a whole," he writes.

It is pure poetic justice (or maybe hasard aboli or hasard objectif?) that the first French edition of Un Coup de Dés true to the poet's exact and exacting intentions should accompany the publication of its first Arabic translation, at this historical juncture so often and so falsely described, or rather descried, by conservatives of all stripes, as the clash of civilizations between the Islamo-Arabic world and the Christian/modern West. But Mallarmé's connections to the world of the Orient are multiple, from the fact that much of his life coincided with the historical period of the French colonization of North Africa, to one of his dying words which was an Arab word. Indeed, connections between Mallarmé's poetry and the structure of Arabic were brought to light by Louis Massignon in his monumental biography of the mystic poet Mansur Al-Hallaj.

When Mallarmé died nearly 110 years ago, he had been working for months on the definitive edition of the Coup de dés to be published by Ambroise Vollard. The project was well advanced at his death, as the surviving sets of proofs show in their precise annotations concerning format, font (Mallarmé insisted on Didot), size & proportions, and the inclusion of lithographs by his friend Odilon Redon. That edition was never published.

This means that despite Mallarmé's precise indications there is no original edition of the poem that corresponds to the poet's vision [our bold!] – a vision in which the poem's textual meaning is closely related to the exact layout proposed by the poet. The first edition of the poem, by Gallimard in 1914, does not correspond to Mallarmé's instruction: the page size is wrong and the font used is Elzevir, a font Mallarmé loathed. But it is this version that has become standard and that is also the basis for most translated versions, such as the available English ones.

Read all about it at Ypsilon Éditeur.