When a translator and author are well-paired, we have what Joy Williams has called John Ashbery’s new translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations, “a marriage divine.” Ashbery, now eighty-four, holds a laundry list of literary awards and honors—Pulitzer, National Book Award, MacArthur “Genius” Grant—while Rimbaud, the unusually talented nineteenth-century French teenager who quit writing by the age of twenty-one, received attention for his work only after his death. But aesthetically, Ashbery and Rimbaud are perfectly aligned. As I read this bilingual edition, the original text and Ashbery’s translation felt like the work of peers. Both authors have been able to push (or ignore altogether) contemporary literary standards, producing work that ranges from the mildly obscure to the nearly incomprehensible. They each managed to destroy poetry while simultaneously redefining it. Ashbery’s task in translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations must have been no less daunting, and the results are certainly no less impressive. He succeeded in being both intuitive and faithful to Rimbaud’s masterpiece.
Illuminations is sometimes prose, sometimes poetry, usually something in between. Rimbaud’s famous A Season in Hell follows a relatively linear storyline, while Illuminations, written before, during, and after A Season in Hell, is more circular—twisting and turning and not-quite landing on a singular point. It is a search through a collage of strange juxtapositions: “jackals cheeping in thyme deserts”; “a cathedral that sinks and a lake that rises”; “the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun”; “sweetly unhappy people.” Something may be found, but not what we sought. I find that most of these prose poems demand to be read instinctually rather than logically. Or as Ashbery said of Rimbaud’s work in an interview for Rain Taxi with Claude Peck, “What the hell is he talking about? And yet he said it, and it couldn’t be said any other way.” Illuminations draws from imaginary worlds, the pieces of this puzzle are dreamlike and continue to influence contemporary art and writing. They also have the wonderful quality of being utterly unparaphrasable, which, says Ashbery, “is something that I and many other poets are trying to achieve—something that can be said in no other way, at which point it becomes poetry.”
If this work is unparaphrasable, is it also untranslatable? I think translation is entirely possible, but it should feel as unique as its original. Clive Scott argues in his book, Translating Rimbaud’s Illuminations, that “translation must see itself principally as experimental writing. . . . Translation must be prepared to share with avant-gardism its struggle against a certain marginality, a certain shady lack of credibility.” Ashbery’s translation is successfully experimental in its process. In an interview with Adam Fitzgerald for Boston Review, Ashbery emphasized that his translation is intuitive, that the way to translate one passage is not necessarily the way to translate another—even within the same prose poem. “I’m very much against canonic rules,” he said. In another interview he noted that though he has critical commentary on the shelf, he used only language dictionaries when translating. Ashbery allowed himself to translate these Illuminations the way Rimbaud probably wrote them—on impulse, feeling his way through rather than letting rules dictate style.
This approach to translation comes through in the readerly ease of lines like, “Blood flowed in Bluebeard’s house,—in the slaughterhouses,—in the amphitheaters, where God’s seal turned the windows livid. Blood and milk flowed.” Repeating “in the” creates a comfortable pattern while building intensity, and the whole line has an acute attention to sound, as in the repeated consonant and vowels of, “windows livid. Blood and milk flowed.” Word choices that create rhythm and a certain smoothness allow readers to feel comfortably carried along in an otherwise uncomfortable imaginative space. If Rimbaud was a seer, a mystic, then Ashbery miraculously preserves the incantatory quality of his Illuminations without over-explaining or detracting from their mystery.
One area where Ashbery’s translation does not push boundaries is accuracy. Often translators let the original punctuation and sentence structure take a backseat to musicality and clarity in the target language. Ashbery’s translation is more or less faithful to Rimbaud’s structure and punctuation. Some could even argue that the careful preservation of every dash and the frequent use of cognates make the translation too literal.
« Génie »
Il est l’affection et le présent puisqu’il a fait la maison ouverte à l’hiver écumeux et à la rumeur de l’été, lui qui a purifié les boissons et les aliments, lui qui est le charme des lieux fuyants et le délice surhumain des stations.
– Arthur Rimbaud
Because he has opened the house to foaming winter and to noisy summer, he is affection, he is now, he who purified what we drink, what we eat, he who is the charm of brief visits and the unearthly delight of destinations.
-Translated by Wyatt Mason
He is affection and the present since he opened the house to foaming winter and the hum of summer, he who purified drink and food, he who is the charm of fleeting places and the superhuman deliciousness of staying still.
-Translated by John Ashbery
But I think the strict accuracy works well for this translation. It provides a strong foundation for Ashbery to shape literal meaning into English poetry. The cognates preserve a semblance of the French and make landmarks for readers to follow in the bilingual edition. Ashbery’s literal approach also keeps Illuminations away from unintended ambiguities, a constant potential pitfall for translations of difficult writers like Rimbaud. If the body of a poem is in its sounds, then in Ashbery’s translation, “our bones are clad with a new loving body,” perhaps even a rebirth of Rimbaud and his French to twenty-first-century English ears.
Just as Rimbaud’s work brought new life, or at least a new look and feel, to French literature, translations of groundbreaking books like Illuminations do similar work for literature in English. My appreciation of Rimbaud is enriched by reading translations because each translation gives a new perspective on the original. Ashbery admits, “I didn’t feel I was going to be coming up with a definitive translation. I was doing it really for the enjoyment of it, and for the possible after-effects it might have on my writing, which I can’t really judge and I’m not sure whether they’ve happened.” Experimental writing is tied to translation in this sense of risk, a sense of creating poetry with an undetermined outcome, and being not quite sure where we will end. But the enjoyment is in the unexpected, perhaps in how, as Ashbery translates “Les Ponts” (The Bridges), “Minor chords meet and leave each other, ropes climb up from the banks.”