finding the shift
Cold Spring in Winter, Valerie Rouzeau, translated by Susan Wicks.
(129pp, NP, Arc VISIBLE POETS 26)
Maurice Careme, translated by Christopher Pilling,
(148pp, NP, Arc VISIBLE POETS 25)
Word for Word, Selected Translations from German Poets,
by Ruth and Matthew Mead, (171pp, pb £11.95, Anvil)
music and pleasure and meaning of the language are all, as an aspiration,
one, then I feel an example has fallen into my ears with Cold Spring
Winter. I have given up trying to make sense of the notion of VISIBLE
POETS, but what a treat it would be to hear Valerie Rouzeau read some of these
in French followed by Susan Wicks in English.
French is as close as I come to recognising at least some sense and flow in
another language. This doesn't mean I can make a close reading of what the
translator has done, only to delight in it. An example:
Ce n'est past
quand nous cessons de
meme toi que ne dis plus rien
Ce ne'st pas tous
les trains parties les
tout blancs sur les quais.
qui les fait valser.
and so on. In English:
when we stop talking nor even
saying anything any more your
all the trains that have left the
whiteness of the hankies on the
makes them dance a waltz.
Valerie Rouzeau, born 1967, and Susan Wicks have met and engaged in translating
each other's poems, and the latter's albeit brief introduction here is
valuable in setting the scene and in drawing the reader into process and
pleasure, not omitting difficulty. Stephen Romer, whose translation of two
of Rouzeau's poems in his anthology, 'Twentieth-Century French Poems' (1988),
first brought Rouzeau to Susan Wicks's attention, adds (he, too, knows the
poet personally) helpful background.
The poems are listed separately, about a hundred of them, with token (as they
seem) subject-titles ('I bring flowers', 'Blue denim working dress', 'Tell
me, daddy dear',...); these are not in fact titles but openings, and my sense
is of a single poem, sections printed sometimes one, sometimes two to a page,
with no flow-over from page to page. This was Rouzeau's first book, Pas
Revoir, and is
described as 'a sequence' - tantalizingly suspended between a collection and
A poem is not like any other kind of thing, this is what seems so well
demonstrated here, not that the author would have set out to demonstrate it.
No-one talks like this, no-one writes letters like this, prose fiction
occasionally comes near it - and is then called 'poetic'. If there is a
subject it is papa/Father/daddy, so that even if not explicit in every poem, fragment,
connective tissue, it seems implied (here a whole poem/section):
becomes of your heart under the
hard hands turning gold with the
heart is underneath your hands and
you completely underneath the flowers.
allowing for the subjective in any response to poetry, I wonder whose ears
wouldn't find the shift to Maurice Careme, in this translation by Christopher
Pilling, cloying. Of a much earlier generation, Belgian, born 1899, died
1978, his poems look more traditional in French and in translation. Rhyme is
a headache for translators and it is evident here that to find English
equivalents for something strictly controlled in the original is far from
Clearly decisions have been made here, as both the translator's and Martin
Sorrell's introductions discuss, and it may be they are on to a nuance and
mood that I am unable easily to trace back. But I wonder if
He'd ask the
devil for info,
does really carry properly
Il posait des
questions au diable,
which in line three (Le diable etant le plus aimable) the translator rhymes as 'The
Devil was never a no-no.'
I just don't like this; but then does this mean if I could read and hear the
original fluently, I wouldn't like that either?
Working through the book, such moments grated on me, and perhaps - or not -
the original's mode is being missed. I have to trust not. There is a
pervasive conversational - or a 'listen to me talking' - voice, but if the
unvoice-like contrived rhyme jars, then the voice is lost. It seems a simple
matter to make 'two thousand year' in the singular (for deux mille ans) to rhyme with 'here', but
doesn't this subvert the voice? Who in English (or equivalently in French)
would say, 'It's been a good two thousand year'?
Meads' book reprints from their translations from German, published since the
1960s, and there is a delicacy and a deliberateness developed over those
years that brings Artman, BĢchler, Bienek, Bobrowski, Borchers, Fuchs,
Geissler, Holzer, Oberlin, Reinig, Sabais and Sachs back into print in their
The introduction begins, 'My wife and I became translators by chance if not
by accident. In 1962 we were sitting quite comfortably in Bad Godesberg when
a friend,...., brought us...' an edition of Bobrowski. The back cover tells us
only that 'Matthew Mead lived in Germany from 1962 until his death in 2009.'
Ruth Mead (German in origin) seems hidden somewhere.
After the two Arc books with their original texts for comparison, this one
with no German has that 'take it or leave it' feel to it, and I say this
because happy to 'take it'. Significant poets are present and not only as
individuals; an era is marked here. There is solemnity; wonderful that
Valerie Rouzeau sprang into new life in the later years of the century; there
was a lot of holding-on, then a new freedom.
David Hart 2010