Poetry News

On French: John Ashbery at Le Mot Juste en Anglais

By Harriet Staff

John Ashbery

At Le Mot Juste en Anglais, noted literary translator, actor, and poet Hélène Cardona interviews John Ashbery about the influence of French on his literary preferences and poetic works.

HC: May I preface the interview by saying how thrilled I am with the two stunning translations from the French, masterfully edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie: Collected French Translations: Poetry and Collected French Translations: Prose. [1] That was a titanic endeavor.

I'm fascinated by your childhood and upbringing. Can you share with us how French came to play such a pivotal role in your life? In particular your early introduction to the tales of Charles Perrault and Madame d'Aulnoy. What is it about French you liked, what was the attraction?

JA: It's a beautiful language, which I was attracted to since I was a child. Everybody loves French.

I had a younger brother who died of leukemia at the age of nine and when he was ill some friend of my parents sent him a volume of Madame d'Aulnoy's Fairy Tales which I read. I fell in love with them and perhaps associated them too with my little brother and years later translated La Chatte Blanche. It seems to me I was asked to translate that particular one, possibly by Marina Warner, who writes a great deal about folklore in England. I also read the Perrault Fairy Tales and others of course too, Grimm, Oz... I grew up on a farm. It was rather rough. I was always trying to escape into fairy tale worlds. I also had a children's Encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge, which among other things featured French lessons and other topics of knowledge for children. These were particularly charming because they featured many Edwardian drawings of French children, and the conversations were always about things like having tea or walking in the park, things I didn't get to do in my particular situation.

In the local high school I took Latin the first year and ended up doing that for four years, enjoying studying a foreign language. Then I took French the next year and studied it for three years. Later at Harvard as a freshman we got to read old French classics such as L'Arlésienne by Daudet, which I'm sure nobody reads any more.

More at Le Mot Juste en Anglais.

Originally Published: January 5th, 2016