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Paths to Speech.

Translating with Yves Bonnefoy.

By HOYT ROGERS.

DURING THE WEEK after Yves Bonnefoy’s death, I experienced the same kind of shock and disarray we all go through when one of our parents leaves us bereft, no matter how natural and expected that ending may be. Paralyzed in my hotel room near the Collège de France, where he had taught for so many years, I had ample time to sift through my memories of him—and especially, our long communion through the process of translation. I was haunted by something he said to me once: “Translating together is the highest form of friendship.” And in a subsequent conversation, he added: “Translation is another name for trust.” Casually tossed off, remarks like those made each meeting with him unique; he had that rare gift of offering guidance without insistence, much less domination.

YVES BONNEFOY:
A Memorial Tribute.

ESSAYS & TRANSLATIONS By Hoyt Rogers: Introductory Note | Sonnets of Music and Memory | Paths to Speech | Three Poems from Together Still.
By Anthony Rudolf:
Devotions | Two Visits to Paris.

In my essay “Yves Bonnefoy and the Art of Translation,” appended to The Curved Planks—my English version of Bonnefoy’s poetry collection, Les Planches courbes—I have discussed Bonnefoy’s writings on the subject, as well as my own approach to translating his verse. In both cases, I undertook to treat the topics at hand in a formal and concentrated way. But on the occasion of the publication of my bilingual anthology of Bonnefoy’s past two decades of poetry and prose, Second Simplicity, the author and I conducted a more free-ranging dialogue about translation, available online at Yale’s Republic of Letters site.

But here, in an equally informal manner, I would like to go into some detail about what happens behind the scenes, when we are translating a living poet.

Obviously, having direct communication with the author gives us a tremendous advantage—one that comes home to me now, all too poignantly—because a translator of Baudelaire, for example, cannot write a letter, make a phone call, or send an email to ask about an obscure allusion, an idiosyncratic coinage, or an offbeat twist of syntax in Les Fleurs du mal. If the contemporary poet we are translating has a good command of English, our advantage is even greater. We can discuss the fine points of both languages, and even pore over various solutions together, to see what best satisfies the criteria of both the source and target languages.

Over the years I have been privileged to work with several poets in this way: Heather Dohollau, André du Bouchet, and above all, Yves Bonnefoy. Although Dohollau grew up in Wales, by the time I translated some of her verse she had been writing in French for decades, and insisted on having someone else render her poetry into English. Du Bouchet studied English literature at Loomis, Amherst, and Harvard for almost eight years in the 1940s, yet he also adopted a laissez-faire attitude toward the translation of his verse into our language. Both these poets made limited comments about my versions, then quickly concluded that I would have to judge for myself.

Not so Yves Bonnefoy—fortunately for me, I hasten to add. At every step of the translation process, down to the minutiae of punctuation, he always took an active interest in each detail, almost as though he were writing a new book. This reflected an almost daily habit of conversion between the two languages, since he brilliantly translated all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and a dozen of his plays, as well as many poems by Yeats, Donne, and Keats. Bonnefoy’s principal translator into German, Friedhelm Kemp, once told me that while Bonnefoy kindly answered questions when asked, he never provided linguistic marginalia when his poetry was being rendered into German, and I assume the same applies to the other tongues the author did not master. But as any of his English-language translators can attest—and we are legion—Bonnefoy’s willingness to participate in the transposition of his work into our language was phenomenal, and we must all remain immensely grateful for the generous assistance he gave us over the decades. Translating with Bonnefoy, as we should rightly put it, was truly an apprenticeship, because it always became an extensive seminar on the subtlest possible nuances of both English and French. Since translation is by its very nature a series of minute decisions, sometimes the process can seem like splitting hairs; in other words, seen up close, it often betrays a comic side. Delightfully, Bonnefoy had a droll sense of humor which allowed us to be as frank with him as he was with us about the ever-looming pitfalls of mistranslation.

Below I would like to share with Fortnightly readers several of the emails I wrote to Bonnefoy while working on The Curved Planks—just a few out of hundreds, and yet they amply reflect the “splendeurs et misères,” the extraordinary pleasures and recurrent headaches, which we translators usually keep to ourselves. Not that there is anything secret about these comments. Over a decade ago, with my full agreement, Bonnefoy sent our entire correspondence to the Bibliothèque Municipale de Tours (Fonds Yves Bonnefoy), where anyone can freely consult our exchanges. The author wrote extensively about the theory and praxis of translation in his many published essays on the subject, and his lucid responses to my letters flesh out those reflections in sometimes surprising ways. Still, here I think it is only proper that I limit myself to my own remarks—somewhat altered, as they say, to fit the format of The Fortnightly Review.

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Message One

Dear Friend,

Many thanks for your comments on my revised translation of your poem, “Les Rainettes, le Soir,” which I have entitled “Tree-Frogs, at Evening.” As the opening poem of your collection, it is crucial to the rest of the book. Here are my replies to some of the points you raise.

Our quandaries begin all over again with the title itself. You still object to my translating the word “rainettes” by “tree-frogs,” the exact equivalent in English, because in your beautiful poem, the tiny creatures happen to be on the ground. But to our way of hearing the word, tree-frogs are not necessarily on trees, any more than butterflies are always on butter or hedgehogs always under hedges. The term denotes a small frog that emits a certain type of high-pitched, grainy bleep, a call very different from that of bigger frogs. That is all. Even though I hyphenate it in our text, the term is so common that it is often written as a single word.

Perhaps it seems strange to you only because it is unfamiliar, just as from my side of the linguistic fence, on hearing the word “rainettes” without seeing it spelled, I might misconstrue it as meaning “de petites reines.” More germane to the present point, I might imagine that “poisson-chat” suggests a cat as much as a fish. But when you as a French-speaker hear or read that word, you know unhesitatingly that the animal is in a river or pond, not prowling around on a roof or curling up by a fire. The same applies to our English word “catfish,” aquatic despite its whiskers—and so it goes for us with “tree-frog” as well. We do not imagine the frog as always clinging to a tree, though even then it would generally be at the base of the trunk; it could just as well be sitting on the grass, as in your poem. We can emphasize that, if you wish, by positioning these “rainettes” near the water more explicitly in the English text than in the French original. Would that be enough?

This discussion touches on our previous debates about the old cliché that English is more “concrete” than French. If I try to place myself in the shoes of a non-native reader of English, I can see that our language would appear to bristle with specificity. Yet much of what may seem like complex concreteness to foreigners does not register as such in our minds, on an everyday level. This is especially true of composite words like “tree-frog,” where the secondary component rarely evokes an individual meaning. Tiger-lilies do not growl, crab-apples do not crawl, the dogwood does not bark, and the pussy-willow does not scratch. Bull-frogs do not have hooves, and neither do bull-rushes. Sometimes both components have lost their punch. Cat-tails are rooted in the ground, cat’s-paws are light breezes on the sea, and a wind-rose is not a flower. To us, a greenhorn is neither green nor a horn, just an inexperienced person. In ordinary usage, no one would think of the two syllables as separate signifiers. Compound terms are fewer in French, and the Greek and Latin roots make most words more opaque (the Greco-Latin “silure,” I believe, is another name for “poisson-chat”). But there are many phrases used as single blocks of meaning; for example, only to an outsider, not to the average Frenchman, would “crème Chantilly” conjure the château.

The more Germanic the language, the more a composite vocabulary abounds. “Hochzeit” in German means wedding, and no one hears its two halves: it is not “high,” nor is it “time”—much less are we insisting that “it is high time they got married.” Of course, a writer could deliberately awaken all the dormant meanings in our English compounds, and speak of butterflies with buttery-yellow wings, tiger-lilies crouched on the riverbank, or more synaesthetically, the dogwood with its gravelly bark (where the adjective could refer to the textured bark of a tree or the half-snarling bark of a dog); but these would be conscious distortions of the usual semantic charge. So much of what seems oddly evocative in a foreign language is largely unheard by native speakers, and this is one of the fillips of learning a different tongue. To borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams, when we begin to see the world through that disconcerting prism, everything “startles us anew.”

Returning to the problem at hand, I am alarmed by the lengths to which you are willing to go, merely to avoid the innocuous word “tree-frog.” To that end, you have even proposed replacing “rainettes” with “grenouilles” in all future printings of your poem in French. But by robbing the word “rainettes” of its specificity, I believe you would diminish the vivid presence of your verse. I am not sure what purpose this would serve. In English, certainly, it would make the title and the text as a whole much more awkward. With the title you say you prefer, “Frogs, at Evening,” a farcical note might arise in some readers’ minds. As you know, since the late eighteenth century, “frog” has been a derogatory term for “Frenchman” in our language. The “hoarse frogs” you allude to might then be identified with the two people you portray as seated at a table somewhere in France. This would be an unfortunate way to introduce them to your readers, and a dubious prelude to your book—as I think you will agree.

I assume that since this matter still troubles you, despite my earlier reassurances, you must have consulted a number of other English-speakers about how the word “tree-frog” strikes them. But please be careful: if your sources have spent many years in France, hearing French most of the time, they may well have become “translingual,” so that their native tongue is almost as strange to them as it is to you. From being around these little animals exclusively in a French-speaking context, they may find “rainettes” normal, and “tree-frogs” abnormal. Professional linguists dutifully strive to sidestep contamination from other languages, but this is not true of the public at large.

Living much of the time in the Dominican Republic as I do, I find that I need to read English frequently, and spend several months each year in the States, if I hope to keep my target language up to par for interpreting and translating purposes. Otherwise my mother tongue would soon become tainted with Spanish, and normative English would start sounding odd to me, too. On the polyglot coastline where I reside, each edition of the local newspaper carries pages in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and English, and almost everyone has become “translingual” to some extent. When I was translating a French novel not long ago, I did consult my French friends here about certain terms, but I checked what they said with other friends who have remained in France. Then of course there is the whole question of “niveaux de langue,” and of being fully immersed in the contemporary literature of a language as well as its everyday parlance. All this to say that I have tried out “tree-frog” on fellow English-speakers in the States, and to them the word just means that nice little frog with a penetrating voice we usually see on the ground. In fact, I found one in a corner of my library just yesterday, piping away to its heart’s content; and yes, it was sitting on the floor—not in a tree at all.

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Message Two

Dear Friend,

In one of your emails a few days ago you objected once again that the French word “parole” could never be translated by the English word “speech.” But with all the profound and sincere respect I owe you, I believe you are being somewhat unfair to our modest near-equivalent. The unassuming dignity of the substantive “speech” derives from the verb “to speak.” “Say” or “tell” is “dire,” “talk” is “parler,” but I would submit that no verb in French quite reproduces our verb “speak” in its highest register. This is what we hear underlying the noun “speech” as well, when used in the manner that you employ “parole”: for us, “speech” can signify the act of speaking in earnest. For example, in her English version of an essay you wrote on Shakespeare, one of your other translators skillfully alternates “speech” and “utterance” to render “parole.” The result is very convincing—both elevated and natural, which is a difficult balance to strike.

I note that in the meantime you have sent me a further message, calling yourself a “victim of the French use” of the English word “speech,” as when a politician makes “un speech.” Yes, the Franglais neologism “le speech” means something very different in French from what “speech” means in English. Inevitably, as a French-speaker, whenever you see or hear the word “speech” in either language, that negative connotation of “un speech”—empty political palaver—unconsciously comes to mind. But in English, even in a political context, the word “speech” is neutral; it does not necessarily imply that the speech in question is stupid or hypocritical. In other words, in this case English “speech” equals French “discours”; as a matter of fact, the English term “speechifying” comes closer to the Franglais coinage “un speech.”

Returning to our translations, I would say that just because there is no exact, one-word synonym of “parole” in English does not mean we have to amputate your poetry each time the word appears. I am sure this has not happened in any other language into which your work has been transposed, so why should English be uniquely mistreated? By excising that crucial term arbitrarily, we would do a disservice both to your oeuvre and to English-speaking readers of your poetry.

Many of the paraphrases of “parole” I have put forward in my translations devolve from what the verb “to speak” suggests to us in English. There is an ascending register in English as we move from “talk,” to “tell,” to “speak.” In French, a child might rightly say of literary adults: “Ils parlent et ils parlent, c’est tout ce qu’ils savent faire!” In this context, that of idle chatter, we would translate “parler” as “talk,” never as “speak.” Conversely, we can only “tell” or “speak” the truth, we cannot “talk” it. Andra moi ennepe, Mousa…” “Tell me, Muse, of the man…” Lattimore translates. Nabokov, alluding to the same line in one of his titles, raises the verb a notch to Speak, Memory. If we switch to nouns, “talk” is more trivial, “speech” more meaningful. “Speech” takes on even more gravity when it is implicitly contrasted with “talk,” and then we instinctively perceive the semantic shift.

Admittedly, the word “speech” must seem very confusing to the foreign ear, because it signifies so many different things. I would compare its polyvalence to that of the French word “esprit.” You Francophones know immediately whether the term means “mind,” “spirit,” and/or “wit,” but to us this is often a mystery, and so we misinterpret the word as vague. Similarly, I can see why “speech” would sound deficient to you, especially since in your work you have invested the term “parole” with a momentous philosophical charge, so that our poor word “speech” seems thin when set beside it. But as I have observed to you before, though you never refer to this in your published remarks on “parole,” that term is also polyvalent. Most French-speakers do not lend it anywhere near the importance you do, in the course of everyday life. When a CEO or PDG “prend la parole” or a provincial mayor says “quelques paroles,” the weight you give the word in your writings falls by the wayside. Words do not exist in a vacuum, of course, and it is usually a distortion of their meaning to lift them out of context. Here again, perhaps the wish to “essentialize” too much leads us astray. It may be that if you had composed your works in English rather than French, “speech” would have taken on as profound a significance for you as “parole,” one you would also have elaborated over time.

The same might have happened with that other prickly term, “évidence,” which you have often discussed as being untranslatable: writing in English, you would probably have found other ways of transmitting what lies behind it. I would agree that the word “évidence” is even more elusive than “parole,” and we translators have often had to approximate it with such flimsy paraphrases as “simple reality,” “things as they are,” and the like. As with “parole,” in the English lexicon there is certainly no identical twin of “évidence,” particularly as you have come to employ the term in the long evolution of your poetics. Still, just possibly, there may be other avenues by which English-language writers have conveyed the core meanings of both those words. These “chemins qui ne mènent nulle part” may indeed be like Heidegger’s Holzwege, and lead us to that indeterminate crossroads we have always wanted to reach: the threshold of the unnameable. In fact, it is hardly conceivable that such a huge section of humanity as that which speaks English should never have experienced the import of either “parole” or “évidence.” And since so many poets have written in English, surely a few of them have expressed something akin to what those words signify to you.

Abandoning all theories, all preconceptions, we should simply pause… wait… and listen…

River of our substance

Flowing

With the rest. River of the substance

Of the earth’s curve, river of the substance

Of the sunrise, river of silt, of erosion, flowing

To no imaginable sea. But the mind rises

 

Into happiness, rising

 

Into what is there. I know of no other happiness

Nor have I ever witnessed it… Islands

To the north   [10]

 

In polar mist

In the rather shallow sea –

Nothing more

 

But the sense

Of where we are

Who are most northerly. The marvel of the wave

Even here is its noise seething

In the world; I thought that even if there were nothing

 

The possibility of being would exist;

I thought I had encountered

Permanence; thought leaped on us in that sea[20]

 

For in that sea we breathe the open

Miracle

Of place, and speak

 

If we would rescue

Love to the ice-lit

Upper World a substantial language

 

Of clarity, and of respect.

I would like to believe that we can find more than a glimmer of both “parole” and “évidence” in those lines by George Oppen. “Évidence” is embodied in English poetry without recourse to a single word, as I think these verses show. Often it is rendered the other way around, from the point of view of the one apprehending it, so that “évidence” is transmuted into “awareness” (as distinct from “consciousness”), a word for which there is no precise parallel in French. And to my way of thinking, the passage just quoted also transitions quite seamlessly from “évidence” to “parole,” which is invoked by the words “speak” (pronounced gravely, in high relief), “substantial language,” and finally “clarity, and respect.” Here “évidence” and “parole” are enacted, rather than merely said.

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Message Three

Dear Friend,

I am grateful for your suggested translations of many of your own verses into English; your command of our language is superlative, as one would naturally expect from the translator of Shakespeare and Yeats into French. Few authors could achieve what you have done; in fact, most linguists would not even attempt to translate literary prose, much less poetry, into a language not their own.

In the versions you have sent me, it is interesting to observe that you often change something specific in your original French into something generic in English. In particular, you seem to downplay the visual implications of your words, even though your poetry is rife with haunting images. In your essays, you marshal abstract concepts magisterially, but your acute intellect does not predominate in your verse. When I call it to mind, I see before me the stony ravines of Southern France, the dark ferryman pulling his oar, the swirling snows of New England, or an orchard heavy with blossoms that rain to the ground. It has occurred to me that the distrust of images for their own sake you sometimes profess in your writings may be a lingering reaction against the Surrealist influences of your youth.

At the same time, no one can doubt that like Oppen’s, yours is supremely a poetry of ideas, sustained by a unique and unmistakable music. And as you know, auditory features are harder to cast into new verse than images, because the aural shapes of words are less easily transferred from one language to another than the pictures they create. For that reason, Racine is virtually impossible to render in another tongue: there is so little to “latch onto” but the exquisite ostinato of the Alexandrines themselves.

Speaking of music, I have the impression that we never fully hear the tonal subtleties of each other’s languages. Probably I want to imagine stronger accents in French than really exist for you as a native speaker, whereas I note in your English versions that you soft-pedal the metrical beats, as though our language were as mildly accentuated as yours. Most of the time, when you find me slightly altering the semantics in a verse, I am in quest of a prosodic fit—not just ignorant of the faint modulation in meaning. As you know, stresses are all-important in English poetry. I would say they are more paramount than imagery or even content. You have probably read some of the ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry that was held together by a marked four-stress rhythm, with two stresses in each distich of the line, and further reinforced by alliteration. Iambic pentameter and other modern meters are more complex, yet underlying them is that old incantatory beat. When I was in college, Robert Fitzgerald, in his legendary seminar on versification, had us begin by composing lines in the archaic Anglo-Saxon pattern. Then he gradually let us “work our way up” toward more recent prosody, ending in free verse. It was a very good exercise, one which grounded us forever in the rhythmic origins of our poetry.

Please excuse these humble caveats about imagery and meter. Your English versions of your own lines are absolutely invaluable as indications of where you would like for us to go, and I cannot thank you enough for them. But I am relieved you agree with me that we must not end up with poetic diction less vivid than in the French. On the contrary, some might argue that a translation should be more, not less striking than the original: it has to make up for the greater vigor of its model, which is fully rooted in its own linguistic soil. In a sense, a translation should exaggerate somewhat by way of compensation. That is your own practice, I believe, when you transpose Shakespeare or Yeats from English to French.

This should not mean an overemphasis on images; as we have noted before, English is not always more “concrete” than French. I agree with your latest remarks about abstraction in Shakespeare and the Metaphysicals. Sometimes their complex metaphors only seem down to earth, when in reality they serve a purely ideational end (for example, the mixed metaphor in Hamlet’s monologue, “take arms against a sea of troubles,” makes no literal sense at all). As to sonnet 129, “Th’expense of Spirit,” it consists almost wholly of concepts, with hardly any reference to physical detail. Its driving rhythm is what appeals to the modern ear; without that feature, I doubt it would be anthologized. As Helen Vendler has pointed out, there are many such poems in the sequence which current readers pass over as “dull,” simply because they contain few if any images. But for Elizabethans, these same sonnets would have been among the most exciting, because they thrive on ingenious “semantic metaphors”—punning quibbles, morphological trills, or even patterns of letters on the page. The couplet is often a final variation, which redevelops a key word or phrase.

Of course, I do not mean to suggest that images are antithetical to ideas—quite the opposite. Optimally, the two go hand in hand; and when either images or ideas overwhelm the poem, it can easily self-destruct. We should bear in mind that the poetry of ideas is not confined to past centuries of English verse. Our contemporary poetry is not all just “I went to the sink and turned on the faucet” (as I believe you whimsically characterized it once), but can also sound a metaphysical note—this time with a lower-case m. In the passage I quoted to you last week, Oppen employs very few concrete images. The poem unfolds by bearing down on the full meaning of each successive word, with an earnestness so bare and direct that visual cues would only distract us.

All the same, I do not think poetry ever constitutes a system of thought in any logical sense. Poets may express ideas in verse, but (at least within the confines of the poem itself) they are not “thinkers” in the same sense as philosophers (“language philosophers” or otherwise). To borrow a couple of categories from Vygotsky, the “internal language” of a poem does not always match its “external language”; frequently, they run counter to each other. The poet may set out to mold some central notion into verse, but then the other parameters take on a dynamism of their own, which may subvert the purported theme or nullify it entirely. It seems to me that this often happens with the music of verse as well: a poem may evoke death—as in Dickinson, again and again—with such vibrancy that it brims over with life. And that, of course, would be the higher meaning of the poem: the way the content, the imagery, the word-play, and the prosody create an organic force as contradictory, as structured (and at the same time unstructured) as existence itself.

In my last conversation with him, our mutual friend André du Bouchet maintained that every literary work is totally translatable into every language, and that there is no such thing as a unique “génie de la langue.” While I would not go that far, I do believe that nothing is wholly untranslatable: we just have to work at finding the right hook or crook. In every translation, some things are lost but others are found, because the target language has its own riches to offer. Etymologically, the Greek equivalent of “translation” is “metaphor”: both words signify transference, the displacement of meaning from one context to another. The translated poem can best be understood as an extended metaphor that shifts the terms of the original into a different linguistic field. If poetry is essentially the art of metaphor—of word to word, image to image, sound to sound—then translation participates in its primal creative act. By summoning the poem into another language, the translation bids it to inhabit another vitality, another culture, another world. From writer to page, page to reader, spoken word to hearer, former times to present, language to language, we are always passing from translation to translation, and to another translation yet again. At all the ports of call, some passengers embark and others disembark: that is why our voyage through translation never ends.


Yves Bonnefoy. Before his death in July of 2016, Yves Bonnefoy had published eleven major collections of verse, several books of tales, and numerous studies of literature and art. He is recognized as the greatest French poet of the last fifty years, and his work has been translated into scores of languages. In addition, he himself was a celebrated translator of Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, and Leopardi. He received the European Prize for Poetry (2006) and the Kafka Prize (2007), among many other honors.  His latest anthology in English, Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011 was published by the Yale University Press in 2012. Yves Bonnefoy: Poems will be published by Carcanet Press in 2017, to be followed in 2018 by Yves Bonnefoy: Critical Essays.

Hoyt Rogers is the author of a book of verse, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review and has published dozens of translations, including the Selected Poems of Borges and three books by Yves Bonnefoy: The Curved Planks, Second Simplicity, and The Digamma. With Paul Auster, he published Openwork, an André du Bouchet reader, at the Yale University Press in 2014. His translations of Bonnefoy’s Rome 1630 and Together Still, the author’s final poetry collection, are forthcoming from Seagull Books. He lives in the Dominican Republic and Italy.

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