When did you first become aware of Translation? How did that realization impact your understanding of literature?
My keenest awareness of translation dates back to my lycée days, when we had to translate roughly a page a day of Latin (Caesar, Ovid, etc., the standard French regimen of yore) with the trustworthy Gaffiot dictionary as our only help; true, you could buy crib sheets down the street in a small bookstore, but even then I was beyond such cheap shortcuts. The truth is I enjoyed the intense corps à corps, that mental clash, word for word, source and target language tussling through the maddening maze of the Latin syntax, which yielded its nature with mind-boggling resistance, really, obstinacy of the worst kind. I’d emerge from these bouts astonished by the strangeness of my text, secretly doubting I’d transferred the goods—was Ovid speaking of a caryatid’s arms lifted high as in a plea or malediction—and yet somehow pleased with myself; the pleasure of that con/version, a pale omen of things to come, having to do with words.
Another image that jumps up has to do with my discovery of Ginsberg’s Kaddish, the elegiac poem written in memory of his mother, interned at the insane asylum of Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, where she died. I remember feverishly reading a few lines to my mother as she stood in front of the sink and then as feverishly doing an impromptu paraphrase in French, all the while protesting that I wasn’t even coming close to the emotional force of the Beat poem. Again we find that sense of an écart, a gap, a drift—the essential characteristics of écriture as one will later learn from Derrida—already in place and pointing to that irreducible shard of untranslatability, which undergirds any such operation.
Finally, Paris the City of Lights should be dubbed the city of polyglots, since it is not uncommon to hear the sons and daughters of immigrants juggling two, three, four languages, passing from one to the other as if skipping rope, their rhetorical and linguistic fluency somehow taken for granted, like knowing one’s multiplication tables. What I’m trying to say is that born and raised in such a transcultural and multilingual metropolis has been the ground, the sine qua non condition of my awareness of translation. I know you’re speaking of literary translation here and that’s the reason you give the word an uppercase letter, to specify its unique status, not to be confused with simple instructions written in foreign tongues—es peligroso no asomarse al ventana—but awareness of translation, any translation, one’s ability to hear the tongue of the other, begins with that street din of foreigners, their accented French, the polyphonic tumult of voices in the city.
Translation impacted my experience of literature quite early as I began to read Russian novels in my teens. I think I understood, though, in a dim and vague manner, that translation was the key that opened up the vast arsenal of world literature, but also was what prevented national languages from being monolingual, hegemonic, self-sufficient, sitting like garlanded belles at a dance. That translation is relationality and globalization—in its best sense—I was to learn much later with Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of altermodenity. The fact that Anna Karenina could be read in Portuguese or Czech and printed in Korean or Hebrew was simply amazing. I remember visiting Paul Auster once at his Brooklyn home and looking in awe at the bookcase, which held all of his foreign versions.
How does one become aware of translation, you want to know. How does one notice the mosaic of faces, the great étalages of alphabets in the daily newspapers? How does one translate the universe’s multi-layered flesh, its heterogeneous breath and sound? To travel from one tongue to the other without a transfer, a correspondence, as in bus or train, is a fantasy or folly. I’m saying that such a transmission, such a relocation, always involves an inscription of otherness, a new border we scrawl at the crossroads.
I think it’s best articulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s work on Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature: “A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (16). It is D & G’s “high coefficient of deterritorrialization” that I always retain here. Writers, translators, all manner of border crossers, slip in this absolute strangeness that slashes the site of origins. “How to become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one’s language? Kafka answers: steal the baby from its crib, walk the tightrope” (19). In other words, other worlds, all we have is this tissue of differences to make meaning with, to make music like a blind blues man.
Who or what inspired you to translate?
I believe I started with Ginsberg. While my husband and I briefly lived in Warsaw, we decided to translate some of the New York School poets we were fond of then (and still are): Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, Frank O’Hara, etc… We thought it was a riot to render “Ave Maria”—with its camp humor and irreverent tone about letting children walk off witha total stranger— into the highly formal structures of written Polish. The cultural discrepancy just about killed us. We also collaborated on a translation of the erotic verse of Guillaume Apollinaire, Julie, or the Rose, published by Transgravity Press in Kent, England. I translated Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman and Stephen Rodefer’s Plane Debris without bothering to secure a contract first. (Note to future translators: don’t workon spec, unless you’re just practicing your skill). Recently, I was invited to collaborate with Auxeméry on the translation into French of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts, published by Editions Corti, Paris, 2013.
Do you have a guiding principle (a mantra) when you translate?
As I am mostly drawn to translating poetry, my first consideration is to be respectful of the formal arrangement in terms of stanza pattern, lineation, spacing, caesuras, and especially the musicality of the language, and that is always the highest challenge. I’m tempted to sacrifice—if sacrifice I must—the level of the signified rather than that of the signifier. I love finding solutions to impossible puns. In DuPlessis’ “Draft 82: Hinge,” there is a line which reads: “Its interplays of hole and hold, of dead and dread,” which I translate as “Ses interfaces du trou au tour, de mort à émoi,” to echo the alliterative play of slippage and dissemination, while my collaborator opted for semantic clarity with “Le jeu entre brèche et d’ébrouille, entre morts et marasme.”
I recently taught Albertine Sarrazin’s famous novel, L’Astragale, put out by New Directions in 2013 and translated by Patsy Southgate, and was chagrined to see a number of Gallicisms translated literally, such as “needle heels” for spike heels (talons aiguilles).
Translation is not the garb that perfectly espouses the contours of the native body but one that traces its lines, allowing a space which brings language to a disjunction, to a recasting, a re-sounding against the mouth and tongue of the other. It is precisely at that very moment of loss and exile that writing makes its deterritorialized home.
My translative mantra, if I had one, would be to produce a materiality of the signifier which has the density and ability to propel the signifying chain without foreclosing meaning, without being univocal and arrived at. It is still moving, in traffic, detouring.
What is the translator’s relationship to the authorship of a translated text?
This is undoubtedly a complex issue which involves juridical and copyright questions, which are place and time-sensitive. If I’m dealing with an author who is my contemporary, and whom I happen to know and be friends with, the whole relation becomes freer and allows the best of worlds. I’m contributing to the expansion of the text, ultimately providing a new readership.
Translation entails an incredibly intimate relation with the original, and this fact alone dictates that I know as much as I possibly can about its cultural codes. I query the writer about all the references—direct or indirect—that I might not be familiar with. I need to know every shade and nuance of the meanings expressed or inferred. I’m reminded of Lydia Davis’ quasi-fanatical thirst to get it right: she wrote about traveling to a provincial French town and its open market to see in situ what Flaubert meant by “poteau.” I think the issue has to do with the notion of firstness, as in First Nations. The point is to recognize and respect this precedence. If this seems a somewhat flagrant contradiction with the avowed knowledge that translation is always already marked by a certain untranslatability, it only points to the poles of the dialectic. We are forever straining between these two shores.
It is essential to acknowledge the opening of the field in literary translation by Objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky’s remarkable homophonic rendering of the Latin verse of Catullus, wherein he adheres to the level of the signifier first, and that of the signified subsequently. Here’s an example:
Multus home es, Naso, neque tecum multus homost qui
descendit: Naso, multus es et pathicus.
Mool ’tis homos,’ Naso, ’n’ queer take ’im mool ’tis ho most he
descended: Naso, mool ’tis—is it pathic, cuss.
This is an exercise I sometimes assign to my creative students to train them to attend to the sounds and rhythms of language, and to forsake the exigencies of “meaning.” Such an extremely ludic, anti-absorbtive approach prepares them for decoding writing not anchored in mimesis and transparency.
Needless to say, the New York School’s legendary mistranslations of Rimbaud, Reverdy, Michaux and other French poets constitute another lineage which foregrounds the defamiliarizing aspect of translation, restoring the necessary foreignness of the process, to say nothing about its deliberate parti pris for a position of unmastery and irreverent humor. A short excerpt from Ron Padgett’s mistranslation of Pierre Reverdy reads:
Les mots qui passent font du bruit
Moats which go by fount brutes
That noisy words become moats and noise turns to brutes attests to language’s inexhaustible power of renewal, a zone of linguistic malleability and infinite exchange. Translation, as practiced by Ashbery, Berrigan, Padgett and their confrères, points to a compositional strategy that demonstrates that there is no greater reservoir for poetic experimentation than the very morphemes and phonemes facing us. Language engenders more language.
Your most recent work, Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic (Les Figues, 2013), is a transcreation and versification of Jean Genet’s Notre Dame des Fleurs into English, and is the second of the three-volume project, Hotel des Archives, in which you transcreate and versify a novel by each, Beckett, Genet, and Duras. What is it about these three novels that makes them prime for this project and in what ways have the different volumes challenged you?
I had just finished a play (Night Scales, A Fable for Klara K, United Artists, 2012) which focused on the events of WWII as experienced by my mother and was looking for a project that took me as far away as possible from self-expression and truth functions, even though, admittedly, the work was not strictly autobiographical nor linear, as I included muted quotations from Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Still, I felt most profoundly the need to abjure what the French call the “vomissures du moi,” or Olson calls the interference of the ego. Quickly, Hotel des Archives, a triptych based on three French novels, presented itself as my next writing adventure. The three texts’ fascination had to do with their outsider status. For someone born and educated in France, these books are quintessential elements of one’s culture and as such are foundational, my own abbreviated archive—granted, one could offer a number of others in its place.
Molloy, the Flip Side transcreates the first half of Beckett’s 1951 French novel narrated by its eponymous anti-hero who is slowly going nowhere. Beckett’s existential masterpiece about the unendurable abyss of being, allowed me to invent a contemporary American vernacular through which the hapless narrator speaks. My three-line stanza formation compresses Beckett’s diegetic universe, sparse as it is, and links the two texts through a new speaking subject—a funny, witty, old and disabled bum: “Going to check out soon/Be done with dying.” I must say that I had the most fun writing this book as I gave myself permission to go wild into American slang territory. Speaking of transcreating, I confess that I thought I was inventing a terminology proper to my current writing, until Charles Bernstein hipped me to Haroldo de Campos (1929-2003), the Brazilian poet who used the very same neologism for his practice of translation.
Everyone has a story to tell about first reading Notre Dames des Fleurs, Jean Genet’s transgressive novel about the saintly pimps and drag queens of the Parisian underworld—Divine, Mimosa, Mignon-Dainty-Feet, and the titular Our Lady of the Flowers—that the author wrote in a French prison to cheat his solitude. It’s sort of a rite of passage. I think the equivalent in the US might be Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. The sublime marginalization of these con men, snake oil charmers and butchers in bloody aprons, young hoods at the zinc bar waiting for a john, was for me a book of seductions which binds desire ever so tightly to its absent object. Except it’s all a poem, seven lines per move, where Divine switches gender and names without bothering to explain why. The challenge here was to keep the narrative aspect in check and yet to figure the hagiography of D.—the legend of a saint—in all of its splendor and intricacy. Also to render the specificity of French exclusion, really the nine yards of bigotry and prejudice vis-à-vis social alterity, the whole shebang of gender inequity that Genet always understood to an uncanny degree.
Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein,the 1964 novel of Marguerite Duras—whose centennial is being celebrated—will be the closing section of my triptych. This extraordinary work about female voyeurism and trauma is written with a textual economy which resembles verse. And that is the ultimate test for Ravished since I’m reloading, to use a Nicolas Bourriaud concept, from quasi the same literary genre, as opposed to the obvious prose of the first two books in the Hotel des Archives. I attempt therefore to create a most denuded yet musical language, which nevertheless carries its libidinal current along its lines.
Poet and playwright, Chris Tysh is the author of several collections of poetry and drama. Her latest publications are Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic (Les Figues, 2013); Molloy: The Flip Side (BlazeVox, 2012); and Night Scales: A Fable for Klara K (United Artists, 2010).
She is on the creative writing faculty at Wayne State University. Her play, Night Scales, a Fable for Klara K, was produced at the Studio Theatre in Detroit under the direction of Aku Kadogo in 2010. She holds fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Kresge Foundation.