Comparison and Provenance in Translation
In the winter of 2013 I sat in a cafe in Pleneuf-Val-Andre with a French phrase book and a Larousse dictionary and began translating L'ondee (Rain-Shower) into English. What struck me was that translation had something magical about it. French words from L'ondee appearing in English on a blank white page. Words, phrases and then lines appearing, content and narrative revealed, detail, place...a garden at night, deserted, raining or having just rained, a strange mood, the narrator expecting to meet someone there or wishing he was meeting someone there. In three hours I had the first draft of my first translated poem. When I took my morning's work home to my girlfriend - Anita Marsh, one of the co-translators of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet, 2016) - she saw linguistic and grammatical anomalies in Rain-Shower when she cross-referenced with the French original in Miracles, (Miracles, Gallimard, 1924). Bi-lingual in written and spoken French she agreed to provide me with a crib, the litterals, of the 8 long poems in Miracles so I could work on the English versions. Three of the subsequent poems appeared in Acumen, Agenda, Orbis and one A Travers Les Etes in the Spring 2014 edition of The French Literary Review.
These earlier versions are different to the later versions that appear in Alain-Fournier:Poems. By 2014 I had met the poet and writer Anthony Howell. He discovered six more poems of Fournier's that had been published in Livre de Poche editions in 2006 and 2011, and he became a third translator using Anita Marsh's original translations and notes. And we, Anita and Anthony and me, became a collaborative translation team. I think a collaborative approach to translation democratises the ego. In earlier versions my voice, my inly workings, and some of my default positions as a poet in English, held sway. Because I had been so immersed in the project, it's meandering provenance, and given that Anita had died in October 2013, I felt allied only with a successful conclusion, publication and Anita's and Fournier's names interlinked in posterity. I felt I knew Fournier. I was always saying: 'I know Alain-Fournier'. But how much of this understanding was hearing my own voice in place of Fournier's? Perhaps in translation there is a necessary projective identification, a merging of the selves of poet and translator at some deep intuitive level? The work looking in different directions at the same time, the original work and the translated work speaking in two languages simultaneously, the linguistic fault lines the range of interpretive space that is opened up when words, phases, clauses and signifiers journey from one country to another.
A translator should never add or subtract from the basic signifiers in the original text, the essential content and narrative, but there are options for choices of determiner or logical constant or adverb and sometimes there are basic but important word choices in the translation process, and this word choice is paramount, because the choice of one word over another can affect the tone and mood and the meaning in the original. Ponderous or heavy, bent over or leaning over, for example. In the line 'et soudain d'apporter la fraicheur de vos mains' Anita translated as 'and suddenly (in the same instant, that moment) bringing (to bring) the freshness (purity or coolness or chilliness) of your hands' (Anita's brackets). Anita added further comments about this repeated word fraicheur as evoking the coolness of the evening and even frigidity. In the final version in Alain-Fournier:Poems we have 'and suddenly you have brought/the freshness of your hands', but how different the interpretation if the woman's hands were 'pure' or 'chilly'. I feel word choice means that translation is always at a point of variance. Throughout Anita's crib she offered word options for me.
There are other significant differences between the Carcanet version of From Summer to Summer and A Journey through Summer that appeared in The French Literary Review (FLR). Depending on how you count the stanzas in Miracles (is a two line couplet separated from the main stanza but somehow relating to it in narrative terms a new stanza?) there are 15 stanzas. In the FLR version there are nine stanzas comprising 62 lines, in the Carcanet version there are 13 stanzas comprising 89 lines. Satnza 4 of A Journey through Summer condenses stanzas 3-6 in From Summer to Summer. The final stanza of the FLR version incorporates two stanzas in the Carcanet version, but even accounting for this it is apparent that the FLR poem is shorter, more concise. The repetitive tropes Fournier uses in the French are eschewed in favour of a rudimentary approach to narrarive and meaning. I think I fell under the spell of representing Fournier's poem in the fewest English words, and also maybe feeling that the English version could be slightly different to the French in terms of the impact on the page, a perspective on the original which would account for a modern reader who might not need the decorative aspects of la belle epoque. The Carcanet version has more fidelity to poetic detail and nunace line by line. One could argue that the FLR version is a stepping stone to the later version, the bare bones of the poem that the Carcanet version adds flesh to.
The Carcanet version is fuller and truer, has more faith in Alain-Fournier, but I think the main thrust of obsessive longing and love is there in the FLR poem. Many of the subsequent differences are to do with the rhythm of refrains in one and sparse diction in the other. Other significant differences are to do with lines, in the FLR I retain the French 'a fete du saint sacrament', while in the Carcanet version we have the English 'festooned as if for a Saint's Day', with phases: 'a novel of old' (FLR)/ a novel of 'some noble age' (Carcanet), 'salon of sweet nothings' (FLR)/' ritual of sweet nothings (Carcanet) and especially word choice. What follows is the different effect of word choices running throughout A Journey through Summer/From Summer to Summer, respectively:
I await you/awaited so
I dream of love/lost in visions of love
Summers of the world/summers of the earth
The turreted house/the turtle dove house
Follow you always/dog your steps
In choosing one word over another one could argue that there is no such thing as a literal translation. Then there are there factors to consider such as meaning. I think there is a focus on meaning and narrative in the FLR version whereas there is (in some of the poems) an emphasis in the translaton of poetic music (even at meaning's expense) as Anthony Howell elaborates on with regard to his explanatory note on Sur la nacelle in Alain-Fournier:Poems.
There are many schools of translating poetry. Janos Csokits feels it impossible to recreate 'a poem in another language' and that one must take into account 'the artistic temperament and personality of the poets involved'.* I feel this true of the Alain-Fournier translations where there were three translators collaborating with Fournier. The Carcanet version of A Travers Les Etes is representative of a qualitative approach evident in the other thirteen poems in the translation. They may not always be (for stylistic and artistic purposes) identical to the originals as Anthony Howell points out, but they are faithful to Alain-Founier's poetry, his poetic vision, and his body of work. A translation doesn't necessarily have to begin, but once it has, and for better or for worse, it has to end somewhere.
This article first appeared in the Spring issue of The French Literary Review, 2017
* Translating Poetry, edited by Daniel Weissbort (Macmillan), 1989