In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
Sound Is a Place
The other day I took part in a virtual panel on poetry translation. Right at the end, someone in the audience asked about the importance of rhythm: was it a priority for us as translators? Yes, we said, and waxed poetic for a bit.
After the conversation was over, though, I found myself thinking of other things I wish I’d said—and a couple others I wished I’d asked in return. For example:
Did the speaker mean rhythm as in cadence, measure, meter? Or did they also mean sound?
Were they actually asking if it’s possible to “recreate” the rhythm (or texture, or soundscape) of the original poem?
When we ask about what it means to “recreate” something in translation, are we falling into the trap of expecting a one-to-one correspondence between this image and that one, x wordplay and y?
As a translator, I’m interested in avoiding this trap. Subverting it. Finding forms of freedom beyond it. But now I stop myself again, wondering what my interlocutor might hear in my insistence. Traps, subversion, freedom—it all balloons into abstraction right away. “Translation isn’t an algebraic equation”: fine. “It’s all about finding ways to bring the text to life in the target language”: gotcha. But that doesn’t mean you just make stuff up!
What does it mean—and how to describe it? I’d like to dig deeper. To find ways of talking about sound in poetry, in translating poetry, that treat it as something more than a set of trappings to be fastened on or dispensed with.
Enter Conor Bracken, poet and translator from French. As soon as we started corresponding about his recent work, I felt my antennae prick up: he told me that he’s been grappling with sound in surreal poetry, and “wanting to place a focus on it as another plane on which important arguments are being made.”
Yes! I thought. Arguments!
Conor translates the work of Moroccan Berber poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (often referred to as Khaïr), a member of the Souffles generation: a group of 1960s Moroccan Francophone writers whose work pursued a surrealist postcolonial project. Their variant of surrealism, in Conor’s words, “isn’t just about expanding or demonstrating the wild possibilities of the imagination, but demonstrating, to some degree, the endless psychic violences and cruelties of colonialism and other practices based on the othering/delegitimization of non-European peoples.” And one of the ways they did so was through sound: refreshing, charging with texture, and disarticulating the French language to express postcolonial subjectivity.
As Conor writes in Waxwing, Khaïr’s poems are “athletic, double-jointed, full of sonic leaps, double-entendres, extended metaphors folded into cascading syntactical expansions which heap onto the French language more weight than it is intended to bear. His work, as he said himself, is ‘a linguistic guerrilla war.’” Sound as argument.
In translation, then, Conor has found himself pursuing similar strategies: “amping up the sonic texture wherever possible, sometimes to the ‘detriment’ of the terminological accuracy of some lines.”
I asked for an example, and he showed me one from the poem “Barbarian,” “a rapid series of boasts and identifications that assert the speaker’s power and closeness to the land,” a frequent theme for this poet. (“Barbarian,” by the way, is a pejorative term from which the noun “Berber,” a nomadic ethnic group and a substantial cultural and linguistic majority of Morocco, derives.) Take the first line in this passage:
je crache mon cœur
mon nom de figuier blanc du regard des moustiques
à l’envers du dire des étamines
comme tes chairs scandées en injures
mauvaise arganier de barbarie
I spit my heart out
and my name the fig tree whitened by mosquitos’ sight
the inverse of saying stamens
like your flesh chanted out by wounds
o shoddy argan tree of barbarism
Je crache mon coeur literally means “I spit my heart out/up,” which is roughly the translation Conor settled on. But, he adds, “this choice doesn’t highlight the deft, rich play we see in the original, where the repeated c’s in crache and coeur imitate, in a way, the act of spitting (as do the zh and ch in je and crache, giving us the click and spittle of it together), while the r moves from the beginning of crache to the end of coeur, suggesting a kind of motion, a kind of expulsion as well. This line I think is indicative of the sonic potential in the French language that, to my ear, we don’t often see, since, at least in the US, we tend to associate French with mellifluity and seduction and lofty thought, but here we see its sonic possibilities being used to mimic bodily ejection.”
Fascinatingly, Conor didn’t opt for the same effect in his translation—at least not here. Why not? “Well, because the connotations of other translations of spit, which might have preserved the same acoustic resonance, would have muddied the meaning in unhelpful ways. Hawk might bring in the majesty of a soaring raptor, and hack would bring in an ax, and hock the idea of pawning—all valences that shift the suggestions away from the body of the speaker, which I did not want to do.”
In short, and in this instance, he sacrificed some sonic firepower for clarity. But a poem is not a static thing, a potpourri of flourishes, a checklist. It is, if it moves or excites or discomfits you, a gathering of forces. A nervous system. A stimulus somewhere can cause a reaction somewhere else.
Recognizing, then, that he’d had to forfeit something with “I spit my heart out,” Conor turned to another place in the poem to compensate: “to keep the sonic pitch high in ways that get us to think of the earthy, visceral qualities of language.” It comes at the end:
être mais être et de vos sangs
ronger la mousson indicatrice
o to be and to be of your bloods
to gnaw at that snitch the monsoon
The last line, ronger la mousson indicatrice, can translate as “‘to gnaw/gnawing/to eat into the monsoon that is a gauge/informs on people.’ I was intrigued by the idea of a monsoon as a gauge (especially with all our climate anxiety) but chose snitch to pick up on the t’s in at and that, and to mimic that sense of release/calm by ending on the wide o’s of monsoon that the original has with its emphasis on sibilance by ending on indicatrice. Snitch was a bit of a bolder choice, because of its vernacular edge, but I felt validated to do so since I couldn’t get the spittle-flecked hacking of je crache above.”
Conor’s interlocking examples shed light on the practice of translation as a holistic, kinetic set of choices. And on sound—the textures, rhythms, and lexical material of both languages, and how poet and translator use them to immerse the reader in a particular atmosphere—as a place where those choices are made.
When people ask (and they do ask) whether it’s possible to translate poetry at all, I think maybe they’re asking whether it’s possible to make every individual part of a poem visible—traceable—in another language. That’s not how I see translation. But it’s also not how I like to see poetry at all. Translating a poem urges you to think, certainly, about each line or image in itself—while always thinking, too, about what it contributes to the experience of reading the poem as a whole. And about how to improvise with the substance of your language to keep that relationship, in all its wholeness, alive. And what is poetry—ever—but an act of ardent attention to the relationships among words and what they do together?
Conor Bracken is the author of Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), winner of the fifth annual Frost Place Chapbook Competition, and the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019). His debut collection of poems, The Enemy of My Enemy is Me, is forthcoming from Diode Editions in 2021. Recent work appears (or will soon) in 32 Poems, jubilat, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Sixth Finch, among others. He lives in Ohio.