Poetry Today: Translating Swiss Poetry in Looren

By Taylor, John | The Antioch Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Poetry Today: Translating Swiss Poetry in Looren

Taylor, John, The Antioch Review

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? Yes. The semantic resonance of Jaccottet's recurrent verb "derober," not to mention the unexpected difficulties caused by a word like "espace"? Yes.

Translators thus also talk about implicit philosophical world-views, the passing of Time as an inner experience, and about fine shades, not just of meaning, but also of sentiment. And diction? Of course. A high point is reached when we analyze Bouvier's poem "Hotel," included in his one poetry volume, Le Dehors et le Dedans (The Outside and The Inside, 1982), which Yamily Yunis is transforming into Peruvian Spanish. At the end, Bouvier depicts a group of Japanese schoolboys rolling some clove cigarettes, "the most pungent in the world." Then everything quiets down, the boys stand in line, before an immense clamor breaks out and the boys must salute the flag. Bouvier concludes: "megot colle a la levre on s'en fout." With their clove cigarette butts stuck to their lips, do the boys (and the poet) sense that they "couldn't cate less"? "couldn't give a damn"? "couldn't give a fuck"? The expression is common in French, though schoolchildren learn--and immediately forget--that they should say something considered to be less vulgar: "On s'en fiche..."

Some of Jaccottet's early- and mid-career writing has appeared in English, but a book-length version of Bouvier's vivid, good-natured poetry has never been issued. This is a pity, for the travel writer has a sharp eye for detail, much sharper in fact than most French-language poets; and he cheerfully emphasizes the redeeming side of unpleasant experiences. The same poem begins:

    Bits of dirty soap
   scattered nearly everywhere
   And half of a dry turd
   on the toilet seat
   And this morning on the clean sheets
   tiny blood stains from the bedbugs
   but the mattress was good
   and I slept like a king even so... 

Have we all slept like kings in similar circumstances? Perhaps not. Translators of poetry therefore also talk about the necessity of communing with their foreign poet's experience, of entering into his sensibility through his words. If the poet is dead, words are all we have, though these may extend beyond a given poem to other books, a journal, or correspondence. The letters that Bouvier exchanged (up to 1964) with his lifelong friend, the artist Thierry Vernet (who accompanied the writer on his now-famous trip across the Middle East and notably the Iran of Nahid Tabatabai, who is indeed using her knowledge of her homeland to render L'Usage du monde into Farsi), have just been published as Correspondance des routes croisees (Correspondence of Crossed Paths). Hana Zahradnickova, who has already translated L'Usage du monde into Czech, is delighted to open this meticulously annotated volume that will become an essential source for future translators of Bouvier's plucky, deftly styled travelogue into other languages. Which is not to forget that the letters are themselves candid, touching, delightful, and wise, revealing an exceptionally deep friendship.

In comparison to the human-oriented Bouvier, Jaccottet scrutinizes nature, questions our relationship to it, and at once marvels at and skeptically examines what sometimes seems to hover, like a lute, just beyond appearances. His poetic prose is often inspired by strolls in the countryside or hikes in the mountains of the comparatively arid Southern Alps of France, specifically in the Drome, where be lives. Here around Looren the meadows are lush, wet, and verdant, smelling of cow paddies and mud puddles. These rural and climatic differences are inessential to my purposes. Moreover, the foehn from the night before has chased away the chilliness of late autumn. It's warm in the glaring late-morning sunlight. I keep my wool sweater on, but leave my coat behind in the Translation House and hike, during a two-hour break, along a path that gently rises through cow pastures still glistening with dew. In the distance the Alpine range metamorphoses as I progress, previously unnoticed peaks, cascades, shadowy valleys, and combes--a terra favored by the poet and sometimes difficult to render in English--suddenly vying for my attention while what had mattered most to my eyes has faded. Translating Jaccottet's long, artfully punctuated, finely nuanced sentences is also like this.

November is no season for peonies (his prose text about which we have been discussing), nor for the "groundsel, hogweed, chicory" evoked in regard to a situation obliging him to ponder the link between flowers and the death of a friend, and between this same death and the false hopes sometimes tendered by poetic language: mere words as they often are, however beautiful to the ear and aimed at conjuring up Keatsian "things of beauty." And instead of "meadowlarks singing shrilly up and around the summit of the Lance," as he phrases it in "Ascending the Steps," all I see are two milan royaux (red kites) circling high above a field empty to my eyes but not to theirs. But farther on, as I near a stand of leafless beech, I spot a yellowing larch. It is like a tall dim lamp among beige-spotted grayish trunks. In "The Cherry Tree," one of Jaccottet's most important poetic prose pieces, he explains:

I sometimes think that the main reason why I continue to write is, or above all should be, to gather the more or less luminous and convincing fragments of a joy that--so it would be tempting to believe--exploded long ago inside us like an inner star, scattering its dust all around.... This time it was a cherry tree, not a blossoming cherry tree, which always speaks clearly to us, but rather a fruit-laden one that I glimpsed one June evening on the far side of a vast wheat field.

A translator can stop at the edge of such a wood, gaze at the larch, try to open himself up to inner experiences that parallel those that he has found described so memorably by a foreign poet. Yet all the while he must keep in mind, as Jaccottet himself teaches, that such elation can conceal self-illusion: that what seems substantial insight might ultimately be "nothing but moods; ever less coherent changing moods; nothing but bits, scraps of life, apparent thoughts, fragments rescued from a debacle or worsening it."

Like Bouvier the poet (if not the travel writer), other important Swiss Francophone poets have remained unknown abroad, and sometimes little known even in neighboring France. Two anthologies and one volume devoted to four such poets right this situation. An excellent place to start is La Poesie en Suisse Romande, which begins with Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), who has, albeit, often been rendered into English and who traveled so much that we tend to forget he was Swiss. This comprehensive, excellently postfaced, gathering subsequently showcases representative samplings of thirty-three more poets and includes, among many other gems, two superb poetic prose pieces by Gustave Roud (1897-1976). The volume ends with a permutational long-poem by Valere Novarina (b. 1947). Conceived for the theater, this declamatory piece is entitled (with a nod to Wittgenstein), "Whereof One Cannot Speak Is What Must be Said":

    The inside is not inside you.
   The outside is not inside the outside.
   You are outside of the inside.
   The inside is not inside the inside.
   The other is outside of the other
   Nothing is inside oneself
   You are inside the inside
   Nothing is outside of the outside ... 

This poem has 111 lines, by the way.

Cendrars was instrumental in introducing colloquial speech into French poetry (with his "Prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jeanne de France," dating back to 1913, as the outstanding example); and Novarina remains one of the boldest contemporary experimenters with language. Between these two poles, what stands out among several other poets comprised in La Poesie en Suisse Romande and the other two anthologies is much less linguistic experimentation than a finely tuned sensitivity to the impalpable, to mysteries apparently lying beyond the reach of words.

A case in point is Anne Perrier (b. 1922). Jaccottet's own selection of her verse (published in his French-German anthology of seventeen Swiss French-language poets, Die Lyrik der Romandie) introduces a poet who blends themes of love, childhood, nature, and spiritual intimation in short, unpunctuated, deceptively simple poems. Rarely has a French-language writer sought out such verbal transparency for subject matter that is avoided or even summarily dismissed by other modern poets because of its potential sentimentality. Yet if Perrier's sincerity is delicate, it is also firm. The few transitions between lines, often no more than eight in number, give the impression of mingled light-colored strands that nonetheless suggest wholeness, a decipherable pattern:

    In the water of your face
   I am the wild watercress
   Don't ask me to blossom
   I don't know how roses
   Manage to ripen
   I am so green deep down
   In water slowly covering me 

This is from one of her first collections, Le Petit Pre (The Little Meadow, 1960). Her collected verse, gathered in La Voie nomade (The Nomadic Way, 2008), reveals the remarkable unity of her quest, not only thematically but also formally. Here is a poem from 1994:

    Soon the last bird will come
   To tap at my windowpane
   How will I hear it without ears
   How will I see it without sight
   For earthy shapes
   Though I will know it's there
   For me alone tapping at the eternal
   Crystal of the day 

More intensely haunted than Perrier yet equally on the lookout for hope-fostering glimmers is Jose-Flore Tappy (b. 1954). She has arrived by train from Lausanne to read her poems as well as talk about Jaccottet, of whose writing she is a leading scholar. Her stark skeletal poetry often formulates a psychological avowal that implicitly widens into a more general ontological perspective. What has stemmed from an urgent inner necessity transcends a specific self. At the end of the reading, we each spontaneously translate one of her poems. I choose the first poem of Torre battue (Beaten Earth, 1995):

    Between yesterday
   and tomorrow I walk
   on a wobbly plank
   raised by the light
   Down below
   the void the dread
   of the deep
   a fractured world
   where memory shimmers
   a skylight
   in the black today 

That last line--"dans le noir aujourd'hui"--is more difficult than it looks. I first interpret it too freely (and falsely) as "in darkness today." Then I try other solutions: "in black today," "in dark today," "in today's blackness (or darkness)," etc. But the fact of the matter is that a skylight ("lucarne') is a window in a roof, which Tappy equates to "today," which she in turn qualifies as "black." In other words, a skylight in the black roof (that is today). At least for the time being, let me maintain my literal translation .... Or perhaps a paraphrase: "a skylight opening / in the roof of black today"? ... As Paul Valery remarked of a poem, a translation is never finished, only abandoned.

It is "impossible to inhabit the virgin language, to be the dazzled confessor of the visible." This additional impossibility involves another kind of translation whose unattainable ideal poet-translators can perhaps intuit more precisely than monolingual writers, however focused they may be on such enigmas. The phrase is found in "Sur la mort breve" ("On Brief Death'). a short-prose sequence by Pierre Voelin (b. 1949), another poet whose work found its way into my hands in Looren. This poet of alluring, cryptic verse also wanders near woods and fields, as in this poem selected by Jaccottet for his anthology:

    Below the bark and the thin leaf of the birch
   you take shelter, silence and I take shelter
   And you are equal to the Silesian Angel's rose
   beautiful you are, beautiful in being without whys
   Even the shadows today are favorable
   The wheat will surge forth and place the summer on
     its stems
   for you who doubt and walk panting
   toward your beginning. 

Along with Pierre Chappuis (b. 1930), Pierre-Alain Tache (1940), and Frederic Wandelere (b. 1949), Voelin is featured in the anthology Quatre poetes, which offers generous selections from the work of these four poets who deserve attention abroad. Although by no means forming a group, they share affinities, notably skepticism about the justification of writing, a predilection for elliptical or fragmentary forms, a desire to peer through the appearances of the natural world, and an openness to ontological or metaphysical riddles. What strikes me with these and a few other Swiss poets mentioned in this article is their honesty, their absence of irony. Is this because of their experience of mountains? Alpine hikers know that what appears to be coming closer--a summit, a waterfall, a combe situated just a little higher up, a bend in the trail--can actually long remain far away. Or ever far away. This sensation of mirage, illusion, suspension, and "being suspended" must be taken seriously. It can also be the deepest source. Or as Wandelere puts it in the different context of "So Near yet Moving Away":

    Whether I leave my room,
   the hill and the woods
   embracing me. or remain
   at my window or not,
   aside from this nothing changes
   Index cards, tickets, the pomp
   of learning suspended
   for a moment, this hesitation
   turning into poem. 

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