02 July 2007

Translating Translating Broqua

Two and a half weeks ago in Paris I was finishing the translation of an 8-page poem by Vincent Broqua, de quoi j'ai l'air. I can not reprint it or the translation here as they will be in another publication brought out by TAMAAS, the sponsor of the translation atelier that 8 poets in addition to Vincent and me. Vincent was translating several poems from my "Pushing Water" as well as a few from "Cardinal."

de quoi j'ai l'air is a multi-part poem that seems in some ways like a journal, where days and sometimes, even sometimes temperatures, are noted. Yet the noting self is absent, and in fact there is much in the poem that questions the singular and plural first person, second person, and third person, in a lively and constantly shifting verbal landscape that also includes a sputtering computer in the process of breaking down, and a marketplace scene that is at once hilarious and a serious critique of the consumer economy or at least the overt advertising that feeds us and constantly tells us to "buy buy buy." All of this is done with not a trace of a heavy hand, in a multi-voiced work that was a delight to both discover, read, and bring into English.

I can let out a few things about the translation, that it is literal much of the way but seeks many English equivalents. For example the title translates into something giving the sense of "Look What You Have Done To Me," but without such a strong "you" or "me." So we (I say "we" because Vincent was a great help in arriving at the final translation; also at help at certain times were others in the seminar, specifically Jean Jacques Poucel, Cole Swensen, Frederic Forte, Marie Borel, Sarah Riggs, Habib Tengour, and Pierre Joris) arrived at Look! What I Look Like Now! that has a kind of insistency, but lacks a causal agent, and that lack seems correct for this poem. One of the highlights of the translation was discovering that what I thought was a request for a grandmother to dance was actually a reference to a traditional and very well-known (in France) French song that has to do with asking grandmother to dance. The important thing to translate was not the literal but some sort of equivalent song that English speakers would recognize, and we settled on "The Band Played On" (while reading the translation I tend to sing that lyric). This was one of the points, in considering various songs, that our translation group broke into various songs. There were other such moments during our five days together.

I suppose I learned that translating with a group to help (but the author & translator retaining responsibility) is possibly the very best way to translate; certainly it was with this very particular and marvelous group. I also learned that translating well may be a matter of carrying over the emotion or the tone or mood correctly, far more than carrying over the literal sense, although I know this may differ from work to work. Sound patterns, so important to both Vincent and to me, often can not be duplicated from language to language, but different sound patterns may occur and work quite well as a kind of equivalent. I learned that most phrases take longer to write in French than in English (but this is not always the case), and that, at least in our experience, it was far easier in English to have nouns without articles, or verbs without subjects; such maneuvers are simply not as strange in English as they are in French, though they can occur in both languages. I learned that developing a relationship with a work when its author is working with you is one of the great experiences a reader/writer can have.

(All images are from the translation atelier sponsored by TAMAAS. In order, the photographs depict: Vincent & I at the final reading, Marie & Ben outside the window of our conference room, Cole at the reading, Frederic & Jean Jacques at the reading, Vincent & Jean Jacques working quite seriously, Sarah entering the room in a blur, Pierre at the reading, Cynthia waiting in a chair at the corner during the final day reading Jean Jacques's book on Jaques Roubaud.)