Poetry Today: Translating Swiss Poetry in Looren

Article excerpt

Oeuvres by Nicolas Bouvier. Gallimard, 1420 pp., 29.50 [euro].

Correspondance des routes croisees by Nicolas Bouvier and Thierry Vernet. Editions Zoe. 1660 pages, 39 [euro].

La Voie nomade: oeuvres completes 1952-2007 by Anne Perrier. Editions L'Escampette, 223 pp., 23 [euro].

Terre battue / Lunaires by Jose-Flore Tappy. Editions Empreintes, 151 pp., 9 [euro].

La Poesie en Suisse Romande depuis Blaise Cendrars by Marion Graf and Jose-Flore Tappy (editors). Seghers, 310 pp., 20 [euro].

Die Lyrik der Romandie: Eine Zweispraehige Anthologie by Philippe Jaccottet (editor), German translations by Elisabeth Edl and Wolfgang Matz. Nagel & Kimche (Carl Hanser Verlag), 265 pp., 21.50 [euro].

Quatre poetes (Pierre Chapuis, Pierre-Alain Tache, Pierre Voelin, Frederic Wandelere) by Florian Rodari (editor). L'Age d'Homme, 224 pp., 9 [euro].

The "exquisite" S14 suburban train from Zurich--as the Swiss writer C. A. Cingria (1883-1954) might have said--glides like a dream through shiny metallic industrial areas, then bypasses woody hills east of Lake Zurich, making several stops before reaching the terminus, Hinwil. In the meantime dozens of high-school students, chatting away in their incomprehensible German dialect, have gotten off, their book-filled backpacks sometimes bumping against the automatic doors. Unsurprisingly in this land of masterly clocks, not only does the train arrive exactly on time in Hinwil, but at this quiet end-station you hop right into the hourly bus No. 875, which forthwith climbs steep winding streets, once again reaches sparkling green pastures (it has just rained), and finally lets you off in Wernetshausen, a village with a clean, well-lighted grocery shop. From there, after asking directions of a tall bespectacled man (who turns out to be Holger Fock, the German translator of contemporary French novels), you follow a gravel path running alongside and just above a country road. Your two-wheeled suitcase bumps along behind you as you approach a peaceful herd of gray cows. These specific Swiss gray cows, incidentally, are called "brown" in German (and in English, too, as you will learn). This is your first translation exercise. In the distance rises a grandiose array of snow-covered Alpine peaks, including, toward the right, three especially towering ones: the Jungfrau, the Monch, and the Eiger. Another mountain, the Pilatus, seems equally high, but it is much closer. Fifteen minutes later you reach a small sign on a post: Looren.

The Looren Ubersetzerhaus (or College de traducteurs) is a large, ecologically designed farmhouse--the former owners, the publisher Albert Zust and his family, pioneered organic farming in Switzerland over fifty years ago--that has now been refurbished as an international work and meeting place for translators. The Pro Helvetia Foundation has invited seven of us to compare our toil over the poetry and poetic prose of Philippe Jaccottet (b. 1925) and over the poetry and travel writing of Nicolas Bouvier (1929-1998). I'm in the Jaccottet trio, which comprises his Spanish and Portuguese translators, Rafael-Jose Diaz and Cristina Isabel de Melo, while Bouvier's Czech, Iranian, Slovak, and Peruvian translators form a quartet. Actually, we are one friendly French-conversing group who share meals, dictionaries from the well-stocked library and, for a few of us, demanovka, a potent bittersweet Slovak herbal liqueur that Zuzana Malinovska has brought along as a gift. We discuss our respective problems all together in a morning and then in an afternoon collective workshop led by Jaccottet's German co-translator, Elisabeth Edl, and by the SwissFrench critic and translator, Marion Graf.

What do translators talk about when they talk about translation? Semi-colons? Yes. Future anterior verb tenses? Yes. The polysemous French noun "usage" in the title of Bouvier's travel writing classic, L'Usage du monde (1963), rendered in English as The Way of the World? …