Wednesday, October 03, 2018


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Viale Trastevere, October 3, 2018—

A RECENT EXCHANGE on Facebook began with this question:

What is it about this moment that makes so many people post poetry — and most of it translations — today on Facebook? Is this present need for poetry something good on its own terms — good people making eloquent assemblies of words — or a marker of catastrophe, present or impending, vox clamantis and all that? And is translation a hopeful sign of an impulse to reach across boundaries or a symptom of the ultimate hopelessness of that project?

Followers of this blog will have noticed an elegiac mood lately: it has been deepened by a week in Rome, eternal Rome, where the timeless grace of the pines look down on the mindlessly futile activities of humanity.

What had prompted that query was my posting a translation of Stéphane Mallarmé:

  Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

   Virginal, vivacious, beautiful new day !
Will it rip us apart with its drunk wing beating
This hard forgotten lake, haunted beneath its ice
By a transparent glacier, frozen flights not flown !

A swan of former times recalls that it was he,
Magnificent but hopeless, who had given up
Because he had not sung of the place where he’d lived
When sterile winter shone around with lassitude.

His feathered graceful neck shakes with white agony
Inflicted on the bird by the space he denies —
But not the soil’s horror, taking his plumage.

His pure display assigns an empty phantom here,
Immobilized within a cold dream of disdain,
Clothing, in his useless exile, the Swan.

It is, of course, the famous sonnet Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui, famous for its resistance to both interpretation and translation. There's a good account of this resistance in a fairly recent post by Elisabeth Cook, who mentions the confusing imagery and meaning, wordplay, rhyme scheme, sound clusters, and grammatical precision of the original, all presenting major challenges to a translator.

And to any reader. My French is barely there; certainly not up to reading Mallarmé. But for sixty years I have wanted to understand this poem — not comprehend it, just begin to come to grips with it. It was only yesterday that I got down to work. Spending a couple of weeks with a foreign language put me in the mood, no doubt, though Mallarmés cygne, that swan that sounds like signe, sign or symbol, resists Italian almost as much as English.

And today, reflecting on all this, and on what brought the assignment to mind in the first place, I begin to comprehend a fair amount of meaning behind it all. (It's another example of what Jean Coqt discusses in the line quoted in my previous post here: Mon esprit est partout. Au fur et à mesure que je vieillis, il va encore plus loin, jusqu'à ce qu'il me quitte complètement. (My mind is everywhere. As I grow older, it goes even farther, until it will leave me entirely.)

I made this translation — I make it, I should say, as it seems to get touched up every time I look at it — in order to explore the poem, not in order to write another; I am no poet. In doing it, of course, I ran up against Elisabeth Cook's challenges. I think I've respected the grammar, allowing for the different attitude French has to past and present tenses. I haven't consciously placed phonemes for musical effect, but certain clusters have emerged on their own, as they will.

I rejected rhyme from the start. Very rarely does the attempt at rhyme fail to distort translation, and literal rhyme, respecting the original scheme, is even worse.

Critics agree on seeing this poem as "about," among other things, the writer's confrontation with the blank page, which itself a metaphor for one's confrontation with non-existence. The new day — today in the original — is Life; the frozen lake is non-existence. The swan's white plumage is the blank page; buried (the soil's horror!) and denied it is revealed as futile.

Many years ago someone asked me what I'd like to accomplish before dying. I was quite young and answered with rash (though wistful) self-confidence: I'd like to have figured things out. Perhaps this modest reading of Mallarmé is another — futile — step in that process.

In any case, Daniel, as to the final question in your post, yes, of course, translation, or at least this attempt at translation, is both an impulse to reach across boundaries and a symptom of the ultimate hopelessness.

As to your opening question: this moment — speaking as an American — is perhaps fatally depressing. Our country is lapsing into dictatorship and it seems to me nothing short of literal revolution will stop the descent. The original concept of enlightened federal democracy cannot work in so big, populous, and varied a society; certainly not without an enlightened, educated, and motivated electorate. The present page of American history is scribbled over to the point of illegibility, and we need a drunk wing's brushing — or a grove of pines — to wipe it clean.

Postscript: I have just read — or re-read; I forget (alas!) whether I read it when it appeared, two years ago — Alex Ross's marvelous New Yorker piece on Mallarmé. It's well worth reading.

1 comment:

Charles Shere said...

Mallarmé, again, this morning. Alex Ross: “ ‘Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne’: that line has a music beyond its meaning, its six-syllable phrases singing out in turn. (The first “e” is its own syllable, according to classical rules.)”

I translate the line as “His pure display assigns an empty phantom here” : but note : “son pur” is more wordplay : it means “pure sound”!