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The Bonnefoy dossier: Three new translations by Hoyt Rogers.

Translations by Hoyt Rogers.



TRANSLATE? THE YOUNG translator dives in.  Those are the fitting words, since he will remain forever young and this page below him is only water—enclosed water.  Suns deck the gentle swell of the surface with tiny sparkles, almost lighthearted; but the abyss we sense underneath is green, the darkest possible green, turning quickly to black.

He dove in—and around him all of a sudden, a vague and feeble radiance, where he perceives in different places what seem to be lives.  What is this one in front of him, “what is Hecuba to him?”  He swims in that direction, and takes a look:  a sphere, shaken by vibrations, with a dim luminescence inside.  Is it a large, outmoded light bulb, playing out its fate over a table loaded with books?  A student sits there, in fact, with his forehead on his notebooks, his arms around his head.  He seems to be asleep.  The windows of his room are shut tight, but the water outside strikes their panes with a vengeance.  What a silence…

Move on, with a limber stroke of the arms—leave this medusa behind.

And that other one, glowing somewhat less?  Why, it’s the same young man!  He struggles and shouts, trying to break free from the two grim thugs who will soon overpower him—that much is clear.  But where do they want to drag him?  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we must assume.

And so, at varying removes, these existences, these fires.  Can we consider them organic—jellyfish, as I was saying, or octopi?  Motionless, while just a gaze here or there filters from one of their eyelids.  Or perhaps they are beautiful clouds, halting in this sky below with incredible colors, neither of morning nor of dusk?  Perhaps they are only words, only thought?  Nothing but a pile of images, bereft of all meaning, though neither memory nor will can make them fade?  Knots of smoke that spiral in the water, much bluer now than green—vaults that the swimmer no longer sees once he deftly glides beneath them, still searching.

My child, where are you?  Don’t hide!

Yes, translation is difficult.  Who knows—do we have the right to imagine?

And the translator keeps diving, diving further ahead, further down, diving even lower.  The lives in the abyss become scarcer and scarcer, less and less luminous; he can’t tell if they are endowed with consciousness or not.  Polonius runs by, whimpering and out of breath.  This is too much for a fat man—he’s going to collapse over there, where it seems we’re on a beach of black sand, facing a dawn drenched in mist.

Descend, yes, in starts and stops.  Straining his eyes to question the immensity of night.  For example, what should he do with that word, in this sentence?  The sentence has a rhythm; I thought it was English, and maybe it is.  But that word—no, it isn’t English.  It doesn’t belong to any known language, not in this world.  It shines in silence, like a stone.

Descend.  From now on, years must pass by before we spot one of those beings, if that’s the right word for them.

The translator grasps that he will never reach the ground of his dreams.  He admits he will never find bright sand under his feet, and stand up straight with his eyes full of light.  How lovely it would have been, all the same—how comforting, how beneficial—to touch the great wreck with his hands…  There it lies, shattered.  Of the enormous masts, nothing is left standing.  Trunks full of books have burst open; but are pages still scattered around them?  No, not even that.  And yet a sentence painted on the prow might be visible.  We could make it emerge from the night, using the flashlight we’ve saved for this grand moment.  We could dream of translating it into some other language besides this parlance from elsewhere, from nowhere, deep inside each one of us.




CUT AND RUN!  That way, yes!  Where the laundry is drying.

So many colors!  This red shirt, those blue shirts.  Whites in every shade of white.  That washcloth left on the grass.

They laugh.  They play at being colors, at putting them on.  At throwing the ball of color back and forth.  Catching it in mid-flight or pouncing on each other till they wrest away whole handfuls of red, of blue—breathing hard with their mouths held close.

And now this evening wind that makes all the laundry sway!

A sheet swings loose.  Will it fly away?  No, it falls back with a resounding clack.  Slip between two other big sheets that flap, still wet.  Get lost in their whiteness, where shadows move.  They’re heading toward the sunset over there.  It’s well worth painting.

And as it happens a painter is there, behind his easel.  A golden beard.   Because of the wind, he holds on to his straw boater with one hand.  With the other—is it the left?—he tries to paint.

This is the laundry variant.


And what if it’s over here?

A gate, to be sure.  They push it open and they’re outside.  Entirely outside, the great outdoors—flat, unknown, with animals far off, that seem to think of something else.

And there, in front of them, a child—still another one—perched high on a wall before the sky.  He laughs.  He tosses sweaters to them, jeans; a torn dress, old and black.

Put those on, he tells them.  They do it.  They look at each other, and burst out laughing too.

And now, climb up!

There are stairs, in fact, and they climb.  Soon they reach a terrace.

And on that terrace there is whole new wall, with the child on top again, very upset.  What does he do?  Guess.  He throws some photos down, in bundles that come undone.  How sad, to see these pictures ruined…  White, black, an entire life.

That one, for example.  Pick it up!

Why, it’s grandfather!

A little boy in a sailor suit:  the hoop he’s been entrusted with, for the duration of the pose, has made him quite solemn.

The photograph variant.



NISIDA, A ROCK, a clamor of rough seas
And storms that crash against the dreams
Of those who sleep here with feet bound,
Eyes staring at childhood’s remains.

To dive into that sound, to swim
To another world, with Nausicaa
Playing trustfully along the shore…
Yes, you must love to dream:  it is a key

When all the rest that unlock the self are lost—
Those doors a luckless birth has turned to iron.
Dreams arise when beauty attempts to be

And to search for beauty is to love:  it is truth
That will take you in its arms, even here
Where to desire is a little like being free.

Nisida, un rocher, un bruit de mer
À heurter, par gros temps, contre les rêves
De ceux qui dorment là, pieds entravés,
Yeux grand ouverts sur leur reste d’enfance.

Et plonger dans ce bruit, et y nager
Jusqu’à un autre monde. Nausicaa
Confiante et enjouée, sur le rivage…
Aimez rêver! C’est une clef, quand manquent

Toutes les autres clefs des portes de soi,<
Celles que naître mal a faites de fer.
Car rêver, c’est beauté qui cherche à être

Et beauté c’est aimer,  c’est vérité
Qui vous prendra dans ses bras, même ici
Où désirer, c’est un peu être libre.

Translator’s Note:

Nisida is a prison for juvenile offenders on an island off the coast of Italy, not far from Naples. When he sent me this poem in June 2012, Yves Bonnefoy wrote the following about his visit there: “The text appeared in a prison leaflet. An attempt is made to engage these young people, who are still minors, in cultural activities. The poems they write, and which they read aloud to me that day, seemed more like poetry to me than many writings published under that name in France.” —HR

Dossier: Yves Bonnefoy. Commentary and translations by Anthony Rudolf, Alan Wall, Hoyt Rogers, Beverley Bie Brahic. Index.

Hoyt Rogers is the author of a poetry collection, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His translations of Jorge Luis Borges appeared in the Viking-Penguin edition. His translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s The Curved Planks was published in 2006 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and his anthology of the poet’s late work, Second Simplicity, in 2012 (Yale University Press). At the end of 2013, his translation of Bonnefoy’s The Digamma will be published by Seagull Books. In 2014, Yale will publish his anthology of poems and journal entries by André du Bouchet, prepared in collaboration with Paul Auster. He divides his time between the Dominican Republic and Italy.

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