WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
For January’s installment, Simon Brown passed the baton to Samuel Rochery.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
I try to write in a French that suits me. This has given me an acute sense of misadaptation, rather than one of connection with the texts I translate. Reading American/Canadian/English poetry (which I do mostly through online magazines, due to its scarcity in France) never leads me to the question, “How am I going to translate this poem into a mother tongue called French?” But rather: “What can reading this poem written in English do to my own tongue?” For me, answering this question is what translation is. Discovering a poem in its own language is sometimes a sort of “syntaxical love at first sight.” This love is not based on what I can or cannot translate. Like any love, it’s based on imagination and on the fact that I might mistake one word for another—at first sight. I imagine the “foreign” poem has something new for me (for my way of speaking, thinking), and I can’t imagine (or think, or write) anything if it’s already perfectly understood. To my mind, understood/understandable things are written for no one. Or: they steal the reader’s “job.” Translating (or trying to translate) is mostly learning about what “reading” means. Translating is just as hard as trying to develop a certain enthusiasm in syntax, in French or whatever your language happens to be—and trying to maintain its balance. It’s often harder than I had initially imagined, but I prefer a difficult “syntaxical love” to a fresh, boring, readable smile of two hundred pages written in easy-reading French, in literature (or poetry). The point is: if you give your time and energy to literature, it’s not just to sun yourself on a beach that you already know by heart.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English/French?
I’ve heard that “no poetry is truly translatable into another language” (this is what poets usually say). Sure. But I don’t think it’s a reason to shut up. I mean: the French paraphrasis of an English phrase will always be impossible, if you take translation to mean faithful paraphrasis. But I tend to think that every sentence, in the original version of a poem, is the periphrasis of another sentence that doesn’t exist (hence versification?). My hypothesis is that the original poem is periphrastic in and of itself—unless you believe your language is the only one, the best one, the purest, etc. If you do believe the “perfect translation” can exist, it often means you have too much confidence in your own tongue as a major language. Yet, I don’t think either French or English are major languages—no more so than all the others. The French translation of an English poem can only consist in its periphrasis. That is, its French twin can only have the same periphrastic spirit. For all these reasons, I’m perhaps not a translator at all. I try to practice my French, reading and translating poems that sound good to me or sometimes echo my own published work.
Here is an example of how I “practice my French” in translation:
The following poem by Cecilia Vicuña is the transcription of a text she performed at SUNY Buffalo in 1992. At several moments she pauses, because of microphone problems, and says:
i will not repeat the kinds of things
that i was saying
because they are better
but i will pick up with the pistasho
the BPII’schtaKo myth
because i don’t think you want to miss that one
How to translate “BPIII’schtako”? As you can see, it’s the transcription of a voice, with its own duration, emphasis and play. It sounds like “pistacho” (spanish) or “pistachio” (English), but with much more distortion, creating what Vicuña calls “industrial noise.” In French, the word for “pistach (i) o” is pistachier. But she’s shouting the word, imitating the sound of some metallic creature. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate a sound recording of this performance, besides the transcription I found on the web. I chose to translate this sequence (BPIII’schtako, BPII’schtaKo) using an expression that, in French, both sounds like “pistachier” and hints at the meaning of the myth that inspired the word (more on this later). I came up with: vie à chier (which translates to “shitty life”).
In French :
je ne reprendrai pas les choses
que je disais
parce qu’elles sont bien mieux
mais je reviens au mythe du pistachier
pistachier ? non
le mythe de la ViiiiiieàChier
parce que je suis sûre que vous ne voulez pas le louper celui-là
Later in the piece, we learn that “BPIII’schtako” is the name of a mythological creature that Europeans brought to the city of Lima to make life difficult for the indigenous population. The industrial noise you hear in the city is the lament of all the indigenous Peruvians that have been devoured by the monster. I thought this industrial noise could be perfectly rendered as “Viiiiiiiiiiiiiieàchier” in French. What’s more, it becomes the name of the creature. Instead of simply distorting (“industrializing”) the word “pistachier,” I tried to create an “industrial noise” that uses the sonic possibilities of the word “pistachier.” I agree this element is not found in the English version. Nowhere does Vicuña explicitly talk about a “shitty life,” une vie à chier. But it can be legitimized by this logic of the sound (as applied to French) that she uses in her performance, and by the fact that her poem is a lament in which an industrial European monster murders the indigenous Peruvians.
Do you have any translating rituals?
Steve Savage wrote, “If a ritual is a set of sacred rules, with a defined practice, I think I deal in malpractice!.” I think my case is even more dramatic, when it comes to the job of translator. I only have one goal: to translate online poetry, short pieces of poetry, and to present these translations as definitive drafts (unpublished) on a blog called Poésie: face B. It’s a sort of diary, only made up of American, Canadian, and other English-language poetry. Some of the pieces that you can read in French on Poésie face B are no longer available in their original version on the web. So, I tend to think of this blog as serving a certain purpose, as an internet archive!
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
It’s not a metaphor, but an imagined scene from a film: you are at the optometrist’s, where you try out different glasses as you might different grammars (let’s say: English and French), in order to better see the world you live in. You’re both unable to choose, and unable to leave the shop—you always need to see more. So you just spend time trying out different words in different languages, in order to eventually be able to say, wearing an improbable mix of glasses, “these impossible glasses suit me, because they make our world wider.”
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.
One day, I will write a book in everyone’s pidgin.
(Simon’s question for you:) My question is twofold. Samuel, you’ve translated quite a wide-ranging variety of poetry over the years. How have these different windows into other linguistic/poetic dimensions affected your own writing process(es)? Or, to put it (more or less) in your terms, could you give an example of how these “syntaxical infatuations” have affected/disfigured/deformed your own tongue? Secondly (and relatedly, I think), without necessarily explaining it, I’m very curious to know what you think “everyone’s pidgin” might look/sound like.
One of my first translations was for georges, a review of poetry that lasted just one year, in 2006. It was a poem by Laura Moriarty titled 6 rondeaux. In retrospect, it was kind of an awful translation. The poem comes out weird, not because the poem itself is weird (well, perhaps a little), but because my translation is written in a kind of ideological French: “any time you can contaminate the French while translating, do it!” It was absurdly like being a “fake American” with French syntax, while pretending to “write” in a “new French” (sort of). But I do think I learned from this mistake. I discovered that the important thing was to just translate, that is: to sound French while listening to the way a foreign syntax could magically disturb my own one—in the end, you can allow yourself to just sound French! Not Englishy French!
This being said, for me, “sounding French” cannot mean “proper French.” That’s the point. I believe there is a sort of gap in language. The idea of sounding French without pretending to write “good French” is something I learned from my experiences in translation. And yes, it’s perhaps related to the idea of a “pidgin” at the heart of the French language. Pidgin as an embodiment of the desire to be personally connected to a tongue that has never easily been yours: French is just a language we learn, with difficulty, just as we learn English, or Spanish, or any other language: there is nothing “natural” about it. It is first and foremost a question of social rules. I confess that I use the term “pidgin” in an abstract, theoretical way, and must acknowledge that “pidgin” can also refer to violent, colonial contexts. For me, this word means (among other things): taking responsibility for the fact that the “mother tongue is not a biological mother” (just as the idea of “good French” is meaningless in literature). You could say that I’m talking about a “pidgin principle” rather than an actual spoken pidgin. “Pidgin principle” = No tongue is biologically your mother. The fact is that at the end of the day, every writer must act as if his or her writing was organic. That’s the affective deal, the ancestral literary pact. Ah, Simon, I began this interview saying that I’m perhaps not a translator, now I’m forced to say I’m not a writer! However, on the other hand, “everyone’s pidgin” might sound like the poetical deal in literature: “don’t even dream of a universal language, but do pay attention to what you really are seeking: that thing inside you that would be as dialectal (and ‘motherly’ artificial) as a shared, borderless way of feeling language.” Yet, a pidgin does not function as if it was a mother tongue, rather, it represents a linguistic response to a full awareness of our own technical skills—such as the desire to be “organic.” Eventually, it can, of course, lead to creolization and creole. But this “pidgin principle” shouldn’t be hidden in an easy dream of simply being “natural.” You must show this principle while you create. The goal is to show a story of the language itself (well, the story of its gap) while talking about humans, rather than “writing a story about men and women.” (This was my goal in writing Mattel [le Quartanier, 2013].)
Back to the first part of your question: I would say that translating has led me to write a non-fluent French. By non-fluent, I mean that translating slows down your own writing in a way that makes you pay much more attention to the fact you are not a linear spirit. Translating is spending more time in a garage than on a straight road! I’m always driving off the road when I write; I love digressions. However, I’ve never been able to accept “automatic writing,” “primitive lyricism,” etc. I always felt it was bad faith. It’s just daydreaming in a car. Instead of dreaming, I try to pidgin it, in hopes of driving somewhere worth going to!
Born in Angers, France, in 1976, Samuel Rochery is a French poet, writer, and translator. Most of his works are published in Québec, and remain relatively unknown in his home country. His latest book is Label Ventriloquie (Le Quartanier, Montréal, 2018). He is the founder of Watts, an online review of poetry where you can read some of his French translations of Kenyan poet Sanya Noel; young American poets, such as Charles Theonia and Dan Chelotti; and Canadian poets Simon Brown and Steve Savage, among others. He also writes a “translation diary” called Poésie: face B.