Ears finding the shift


Cold Spring in Winter
, Valerie Rouzeau, translated by Susan Wicks.
(129pp, NP, Arc VISIBLE POETS 26)
Defying Fate
, 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)


If the 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 in 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 poems 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
     parler ni meme toi que ne dis plus rien
     ton silence.
          Ce ne'st pas tous les trains parties les
     mounchoirs tout blancs sur les quais.
          Plutot ce qui les fait valser.

and so on. In English:

          It isn't when we stop talking nor even
     your not saying anything any more your
    silence.
          It isn't all the trains that have left the
     brilliant whiteness of the hankies on the
     station platform.
          It's what 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 single poem. 
 

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):

          What becomes of your heart under the
     sweet peas.
           Your hard hands turning gold with the
     seasons change.
           Your heart is underneath your hands and
     you completely underneath the flowers.


Even 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 easy.
   
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'?

The 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 versions.
   
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