Category: Translation

David Garyan’s Visual Poem «Italianarsi» Translated into Italian by Emilia (@the.misfit.polyglot)

David Garyan’s Poem «Italianarsi» Translated into Italian by Emilia (@the.misfit.polyglot)

March 23rd, 2023

 

Thank you so much to Emilia (@the.misfit.polyglot) for translating!

 

Original English Text

Italianarsi

Walk slow.
Talk fast.

Drive fast.
Live slow.

With great people.
With bad bureaucracy.

Be true—
honesty is key.
Make good impressions—
bella figura must agree.

You’re late?
We’re flexible.
Cappuccinos after lunch?
You must not be Italian!

You make mistakes?
We forgive them.
Chicken on pasta?
Beyond redemption.

Be relaxed. Be informal …
… titles, status, and age
are vital.

On buses,
the young give
their seats to the old.
In life, they leave
Italy to find jobs.

Italians are masters of romance.
Birth rates are declining.

Italians are all about family.
Europe’s lowest marriage rate is in Italy.

Be kind—say permesso
when you must pass.
Be passive—form queues
however you want.

Improvise and innovate.
But don’t change tradition.

Don’t leave the house
with wet hair—
colpo d’aria,
but smoking …
… even near your kids,
is okay.

We’re open
and curious about you.
Best not bring foreign food
to our dinners.

Drink in moderation.
Don’t share your pizza.

Never break spaghetti,
even if no one’s looking.
If you see no cars,
cross on red,
and don’t stop
at stop signs—
some laws are meant
to be broken.

Italians are gentle,
Italians are kind—
Italians have the harshest
prisons in Europe (41-bis).

Drivers
have no time
letting people cross.
People
have much time
staring at strangers.

Homes are very clean,
locals well-dressed—
you’ll often see both
on neglected streets.

There’s campanilismo—
pride for one’s town—
yet dialects are dying …
… it’s discouraged to speak them.

If you come to Italy,
you’ll love it right away,
but, in the end,
love is always hard.

About David Garyan

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Cole Swensen, Poet, Translator, Professor, interviewed by David Garyan


Cole Swensen

November 1st, 2022

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Cole Swensen, Poet, Translator, and Professor

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Cole Swensen’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Let’s approach your work in the most sensible way—the process of translation. Borges’s idea of the translation becoming an original, or Ken Liu’s idea—very much connected to George Steiner—that all acts are miracles of translation both come to mind. You’ve done a great deal in bringing French writers into English. How has this informed your own creative vision?

CS: First, I’m struck by your thought that the most sensible way to enter a writer’s work is through the work that she does with others—Thank you! I like that very much—and in part because it begins us with the notion of fluidity—of one person’s work flowing into another’s, eroding the notion of writing as individual, and emphasizing that writing is always to some degree a communal project. Thinking more specifically, translating others’ poetry has given me access to forms and tones that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. It was through translating that I began to see, many years ago, the possibility of the book rather than the individual poem as the basic poetic unit. And I know that I’ve also picked up rhythms from French that are different from Egnlish rhythms; the French approach to the prose poem is a bit different as well, perhaps more matter-of-fact, and I think I’ve absorbed that as well.

DG: How do you choose what to translate? Do the writers’ personalities draw you to their words, or is it the unique way in which they use language?

CS: I’m drawn to translation as a conversation, a conversation around poetics. All the people I’ve translated were living at the time—and most still are—and in all cases, I’ve talked the translation over with them in detail, which always leads beyond the specific work to its larger contexts and to the principles of thought, creativity, imagination, etc. that direct the work. Those conversations are extremely rewarding, and they inform the way I read other works—in both English and French—as well. I think of translation as a form of reading, the most intense and engaged form possible. I almost always meet the work before the writer, and it’s when I find myself wanting to write the line I’m reading—it’s not a feeling of “Ah, I wish I’d written that!” but rather of “I would love to write that!” I think it’s not sufficiently emphasized that translation is not just decoding and recoding; it’s also, and above all, writing.

DG: How much liberty should a translator be allowed—in other words, if you see the opportunity to improve something, do you follow that path, or is it better to remain ever-faithful to the original?

CS: What constitutes an improvement is extremely subjective. What I might consider an improvement, the writer might consider ghastly. But beyond that, translation for me has nothing to do with judging the text, of thinking whether it’s “good” or whether it could be “better”; it’s about engaging with it, and the deepest engagement is not necessarily the one that sticks to it the most literally, but the one that most deeply grasps its specific terms and aims and recreates them as much as possible. I’m committed to presenting the work as the writer would have written it had he, she, or they been writing originally in English.

DG: You travel often to Europe. What would you say are the most notable differences between how poetry is appreciated and promoted in North America, compared to France, or Germany, for example?

CS: I can’t say for Germany—in fact, I can really only say for France—and it seems to me that it’s oddly similar. And I say oddly, because there are so many cultural differences between France and the US, but poetry is, in a sense, its own culture separate from the one it’s surrounded by (like all airports, taken together, form their own country). This is perhaps particularly true of France and the US because there has been such a long history of poetic friendship and exchange. There have been several books, a couple quite recently, that detail these exchanges. Especially during the 20th and 21st centuries, the two poetries have importantly informed each other. In the late 20th century, there was Emmanuel Hocquard’s important project “Bureau sur l’Atlantique,” which engaged with experimental poetics from the Objectivists through the Language Poets, paralleled by Juiliette Valery’s series of publications, Format Américain, and later, beginning in the 2000’s, a bi-national group, Double Change, has been fundamental in a series of readings, conferences, and publications that bring North American work to French attention. In the other direction, Rosmarie & Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press published many French poets over its 60 years, and other presses have also focused on contemporary French work.

But often influences are less obvious. A good example might be the important influence that France and French poetry had on Ashbery. If we then think, in turn, of how important Ashbery’s influence has been on American poetry from the late 20th century on—so many American poets who wouldn’t think of themselves as influenced by anything French have been through Ashbery—and through many others of his generation and those immediately following. And earlier, think how many of the modernists spent serious time in France and with French work. The same is true regarding the influence of some American writers on French poets—so there’s a lot of entwined shaping that many poets are not necessarily aware of. As for the contemporary moment, in both countries, poetry is equally marginalized and largely published by small presses devoted to the form for the love of it.

DG: Over the years, you’ve emphasized the importance walking has had on your creativity. In the philosophical tradition, Nietzsche was perhaps the most fervent adherent to physical movement, at least in relation to creativity: “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement—in which the muscles do not also revel.” And yet, the poet must eventually sit down to write. What were some particularly memorable walks for you, and did they lead to the best poems you wrote?

CS: That quotation, particularly the “in which the muscles do not also revel” is so key—that thinking and writing must also have a kinetic aspect. Though I don’t think it has to be as thorough as, say, walking. You cannot write without the hand’s being active—whether you’re writing by hand or on a keyboard—the hand or hands are dancing, and I’ve always been struck by how many writers enjoy not only letting their imaginations go, but also enjoy the physical act of writing. I began a fairly recent book, On Walking On, with the question of why, for as long as such things have been recorded, so many writers are also inveterate walkers, and it’s interesting to me that the ensuing book didn’t end up persuing the question; it instead wallowed in the experiences of such writers as presented through their writing. Clearly, so many writers have thrived on the complete fusion of the two activities—perhaps it’s because the mind works so differently when the body is active.

DG: European towns—for the most part—are built very differently from cities in the US. Even in big urban areas, everything seems to be in closer proximity, meant to be explored on foot, while North American metropoles are vast, spread out, and this especially in the West. Coming from California, having lived on the East Coast, and experienced Europe, do you feel that any given setting changes your writing, or do you find that the length of your sentences, for example, stays mostly constant?

CS: I like that idea! That a more extensive space might extend the line, but I don’t find that to be true. That said, I do think setting affects my work. Because of Covid, I spent most of 2020 and 2021 in California, just north of San Francisco. And whether there’s any connection or not, I don’t know, but my writing changed completely—much more subject based and based on immediate surroundings. I’m currently on a sabbatical in France, and that focus on the immediate has continued.

DG: In the introduction to your most recent book, Art in Time, you talk about the need to engage “the landscape genre in a fluid way,” in a way that “puts the landscape back into motion,” in order to find alternatives to some of the presumptions and practices of landscape art common to Euro-centric contexts.” Indeed, you’ve also said elsewhere that landscapes are never silent, though they often appear that way to us. What’s the best way to reorient the perception of our own surroundings? Can poetry help us do this, and, if so, what are some of your favorite poems in this respect?

CS: Yes I do think that poetry can reorient our perceptions and perspective, and often does so through the “startle.” Which is not an epiphany—that supposed sudden quasi-spiritual realization that is often closer to emotional manipulation—I’m thinking instead of those startling moments triggered by unusual uses of language; they’re often just about shifting perspective, suddenly de-habituating the scene. Shklovsky used the term “ostranenie”—defamiliarization, and though it’s a heavily-theorized term that been around for a long time, I think it’s a valuable concept and an even more valuable device that allows language to operate constructively on our modes of perception.

Regarding landscape, I’m interested in recognizing a continuity, an inclusivity, that involves everything in sight including the viewer because I think it changes structures of responsibility. Clearly, we as a species, need to take a dramatically different kind of responsibility, which I don’t think we can do as long as we see ourselves as separate from nature and perpetuate distinctions such observer/observed.

DG: With David St. John, you edited a fascinating anthology of poetry, American Hybrid, with the aim of closing the gap between traditional and experimental poetry. Thirteen years after its publication, do you feel that the margin has been closed, or has it perhaps widened unexpectedly?

CS: What interested me at that point, and still does, is a shift from a perception of American poetry as on a linear continuum from the traditional to the experimental—of course that linearity wasn’t “true,” but it was often talked of in that way. It seemed to me that from the 1990s on, there has been an profusion of different tendencies that increasingly cannot be mapped in relation to each other. It’s an exploded field, expanding outward in all directions, full of tendencies that resist comparison—and I think that that’s an extremely promising mode of development; may it continue.

DG: Would you say that those working in the “experimental” genre have perhaps—and in this case, rather unfairly—born a burden that isn’t necessarily only theirs to bear? In other words, many formalists and lyricists, for example, are also trying to do new things with language—tackling taboo subjects, for example, or pushing the boundaries of metaphor, all the while remaining dedicated to their artistic fields; these experiments, however, are sadly not considered “experiments,” but rather interpreted as the “creative impulse,” which, in my view, cheapens the effort of crossing new aesthetic frontiers. Can we really say, hence, there’s an actual difference between creative uses of language and linguistic experimentation?

CS: I’m going to start with the end of the question—yes, I think there is a difference, but I think that the differing cultural values assigned to various practices are inaccurate and unproductive. All language uses have their value—and that value is always determined by the reader/hearer; it’s not inherent in the language use itself. I happen to be very interested in unprecedented uses of language, in broken language and its relationship to the limits of the sayable, and, ultimately, I’m probably more interested in the unsayable than the sayable, and certainly in the volatile boundary between them because I think that’s where the potential for the “startle” mentioned above lies, where our capacity to use language to expand what we can think and feel is based. But many people would not agree and would, instead, find that same potential elsewhere—in tackling taboo subjects, for instance. And I don’t mean to dissolve into a mush of relativism, but to discourage an endless tendency that we all seem to have to judge—to assign definitive value—which is actually simply lazy; we do it just so that we can say “Good, that’s settled. I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Which is an error; we do have to keep on thinking about it, whatever it is; we can never allow anything to settle, or, rather, nothing ever does settle, and if we view it as such, we’re fooling ourselves. This is related to the view of landscape as always fluid that you mentioned above. That reality of the concrete world follows through to every aspect of living.

DG: You teach writing and literature at Brown’s reputable Literary Arts program. There have been rabbit-hole debates about the benefits of teaching writing. Without getting into that, what are things writing programs can do and what are their limitations? In addition, it would be interesting to hear how teaching informs your own creative process.

CS: Writing programs, above all, can give people two or three years to focus almost exclusively on writing and among a variety of resources—courses, libraries, other writers. MFAs allow them to completely immerse themselves in aesthetic questions and their relations to politics, culture, and society. And that, for most people, is a transformative process. No matter what they do afterward, they’ll do it with a different perspective. Regarding limitations—they are based on presumptions. If people think a writing program will, for instance, make them better writers, they’ll likely be disappointed, but if instead, they simply presume that it’s going to change them, and remain open about the directions such change might take, they’ll probably get more out of it. It’s hard for me to say how teaching informs my own writing practice as I have no basis for comparison—I’ve been teaching since I was 20 years old, so it’s inseparable from my writing.

 

About Cole Swensen

Cole Swensen is the author of 19 books of poetry, most recently Art in Time (Nightboat Books, 2021) and a book of faux-logical nano-essays, And And And (Free Poetry Press, 2022). A former Guggenheim Fellow, she has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the SF State Poetry Center Book Award, the National Poetry Series, and the PEN USA Award in Literary Translation and has been a finalist for the National Book Award. Co-editor of the Norton anthology American Hybrid and founding editor of La Presse, she also translates literature and art criticism from French. A native of the SF Bay Area, she divides her time between there, France, and Providence RI, where she teaches at Brown University.

Beatriz Hausner, Former President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, interviewed by David Garyan


Beatriz Hausner

Beatriz Hausner, Former President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, interviewed by David Garyan

July 15th, 2021

 

Beatriz Hausner’s most recent collection of poems, Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
Read Beatriz Hausner’s «Enter the Racoon,» a prose poem published by Interlitq
Read Beatriz Hausner’s translation of four César Moro poems, published by Interlitq

 

DG: You’re both a poet and a translator of poetry—thus, I’m interested to know: Which art came first for you and how does one influence the other? It seems natural to assume that being a poet is an indispensable part of becoming a translator of verse, and, yet, many people who often produce good translations of novels, biographies, and other texts are neither novelists, biographers, and, in some rare cases, not even writers. Along with the first question, how is the translation of poetry different than that of prose and how have your own poetic sensibilities shaped that process?

BH: For me, initially, translation came first from interpreting between Spanish and English. It is a role familiar to most immigrant children. In my case, when my family immigrated to Canada from Chile, only my mother, Susana Wald, spoke English, and did so perfectly. Ludwig Zeller, my step-dad, found it difficult to learn English, partly, I sense, because he continued throughout his exile to be a Spanish language poet. There really was no part of his existence outside of Spanish. As a result, I often assumed the role of interpreter between spoken English and Spanish.

During those early years in Canada I became an interlocutor to Ludwig, so that parallel to my university studies in literature, I acquired a deep literary education at home. Ludwig was, like many of the authors I translated, and who serve as my models, incredibly broad-minded: there was nothing, it seems to me, that did not interest him in art and in literary expression. His knowledge of the Classics, Romanticism, the 20th Century Avantgarde, Latin American literature and art, was astonishing. I read everything he recommended and listened to him telling me about it.

Of course, the principal context was that of international surrealism. Our home was an important locus of surrealist artistic activity, with my parents organizing exhibitions and publications (through their press Oasis Publications) for and of their surrealist friends throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, a time of fervent activity in the movement. In fact, my first translations of Latin American surrealists were published through my parents’ press, Oasis Publications. So too was my early poetry.

I can safely say that my own bilingualism developed during those important formative years, when I became both a translator and a poet. I have no doubt that translation has provided me with the best poetic education possible.

Having translated both poetry and prose, I can say that the process differs according to the author of the original and, in the case of prose, the length of the work. I loved translating the early fiction of Alvaro Mutis (The Mansion, Victoria BC: Ekstasis Editions, 2005). He was a great stylist and the themes and moods he explored matched my sensibility. I felt the same about translating his poetry. I’ve translated the essays of Aldo Pellegrini, and some of Eugenio Granell’s fiction, but my focus in translation has been primarily poetry. The intensity and concentration of the diction, the way levels of meaning come through analogies and combinations of sounds, the use of images, these are all characteristic of the surrealist poets I’ve had the great fortune of translating.

 

DG: It’s been my experience that people to whom a certain literary legacy belongs are more inclined to believe in the untranslatability of their own national poets and writers, mainly to attach greater mystique and importance to them; at the same time, those looking in from the outside (foreigners eager to consume the riches of another culture) tend to believe exactly the opposite—that translation is not only just as effective but can also improve the original. On one hand, we have scholars like Mohammad-Reza Shafiei Kadkani, an Iranian writer, who wrote the essay “On Poetic Untranslatability,” in which he argues that translation is mostly about transferring culture, not linguistics. In other words, according to him, it’s not possible to really translate Hafiz into European languages because of the cultural differences that exist between where the work comes from and where it tries to “go.” On the other extreme, in a 1998 review article praising Robert Daglish’s translation of Quiet Flows the Don, the authors, Barry P. Scherr and Richard Sheldon, argue that readers looking to discover Sholokhov’s “original intentions” would actually fare better by reading the novel in translation, rather than in the original Russian, further stating that “in terms of textological issues, Daglish’s translation is arguably superior to any of the available Russian-language editions of the complete novel.” Where do you fall on this spectrum? Do you side more with Kadkani, or Scherr and Sheldon?

BH: I loathe all notions of nationality, or ownership of a literature. Rather, my sense is that translatability has to do with language and the patterns that give form to literary expression as it develops and changes through time and place in each language. Rhyme, formal constraints, devices such as meter for rendering musicality would certainly present different challenges when translating the sonnets of Francisco de Quevedo, than, say the poetry of César Vallejo. In both instances the cultural context absolutely informs the poetics, requiring that the translator of either Quevedo, or Vallejo have a broad understanding of both the cultural and literary contexts of the original and also that of the target language.

It’s interesting what you say about Daglish’s translation of Sholokhov’s novel. Dare I say that perhaps Scherr and Sheldon’s perception, that Sholokhov reads better in translation, is pure and simple a function of Daglish being a very good writer in his own right? I do think that translators are authors of their translations, so that their talent may determine the transcendence of their translations in the long run. In some cases, a translator’s work can have a profound effect on the trajectory of an entire literature.

A case I’ve written about in the past is that of Augusto D’Halmar’s translations of Oscar de Lubisz Milosz. Related by parentage to Czelaw Milocz (he was his uncle) Lubisz Milosz was of Lithuanian origin and is known as a French poet and mystic. His poetry extends the French Symbolist tradition. D’Halmar, a Chilean fiction writer was one of his many followers, and while living in Spain, made it his mission to visit Milosz in Fontainebleau. D’Halmar’s translations of Milosz’s Selected Poetry is extraordinary, no doubt because of his talent for staying within the inner spirit of the original, while assuming creative freedom to render the whole into Spanish in a way that made it almost a classic of Chilean poetry. D’Halmar’s translation was adopted as a kind of guide by two generations of Chilean poets: echoes of his poetry, direct borrowings from D’Halmar’s translation are evident in the poetry of Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, both of whom would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

 

DG: For many poets and writers, the inspiration to create seems to come out of nowhere; while some have romantic notions of “waiting” for the right moment, others seem to believe in consistency and routine—almost an exercise-like regiment designed for the brain when it encounters the desk. In either case, the spark comes sooner or later. Translation is a different thing, however; in other words, before inspiration even causes you to think of the perfect phrase or expression in the target language, you must first choose the person to translate. How does this happen for you? Is it a romantic experience of “waiting” to fall in love with an author or do you actively and methodically seek out the genius?

BH: Writing for me functions as a response to an inner force that drives creation. Over time I’ve come to accept that the best writing happens when, after a period of accumulation of sensations, material experiences, reading and studying, talking with others, something is triggered and the writing flows. Or not. In the past, when I was doing more translating, often of works commissioned by children’s publishers, I was working towards a deadline, in which case I could not wait for inspiration to take over. Until very recently, I’ve had to do my writing and translating on the side, while complying with the exigencies of a full-time day job as a public librarian. I worked in the evenings, or very early in the mornings. Mornings are definitely better. Regardless, the more time I have to delve into the universe that informs the writing I’m doing, the better. The process is the same where translation is concerned: I feel a need to immerse myself in the inner and outer contexts of the work I am translating.

For many years I put translation aside and devoted myself to my own writing. Part of the reason was a complete failure at finding publishers for the kind of work I enjoy translating. No presses in Canada were interested in publishing my translations of the Latin American surrealists. If they were, they simply could not find the resources to publish such work. I tried with U.S. publishers also, in vain. I believe this is part and parcel of the resistance, even rejection of surrealism, especially after the Second World War. Thankfully, this situation seems to be changing.

 

DG: Do you think all talented poets—if they master a second language—can become good translators, or is there some other magic ingredient? We’ve already talked about culture; in addition, knowing how to navigate the environment inside which your language is situated can be incredibly useful, but what, if anything, in your opinion, does an excellent translator with poetic sensibilities have that gifted poets alone do not? 

BH: Yes, I think all talented poets, who master a second language, can become good translators. The “magic ingredient” is a willingness on their part to surrender to the voice[s] of the author of the original. Also, they need to have a sufficient generosity of spirit to spend the time and energy that translating someone else’s work requires. This is time which cannot be spent on one’s own writing, after all.

My sense is that a gifted translator must possess the same confidence as an author of “original” works. In other words, a gifted translator must be willing to embrace the spirit of the original and act as a creative conduit for the original’s inner reality, while always making sure to remain loyal to the original. It’s a terribly difficult balance, which must be achieved.

 

DG: We’ve talked about untranslatability and it seems that a focus on aesthetics might be a good compliment to this discussion. What I’ve noticed is that the poetry world has unfortunately managed to divide itself along two lines: Experimental poets, often so difficult that they’re only read by other poets or academics, and those who espouse clarity above all (the lyricists as scholars know them); the argument is always that the former is ruining poetry with their pretentiousness while the latter is simply too easy—prime for Instagram feeds, in other words. Again, we have two extremes, and, once more, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. As a Surrealist poet fond of Rimbaud and Vallejo (not easy poets, by any stretch), for example, how do you align yourself with regard to this issue?

BH: Like Benjamin Péret said “Je ne mange pas de ce pain là.” The stupidity of dividing poets into two camps is beyond comprehension. I reject all limitations. In fact, poetry is the opposite of limitation. Poetry equals freedom; poetry is a vehicle for the transformation of the world. Perpetuating this divide (“experimental” versus “lyrical” poets) is a convenient way of dividing the meager resources that exist for the publishing and promotion of poetry. In other words, the divide is a political construct; it has nothing to do with poetry.

 

DG: People often ask what it means to be a poet: Is it a condition or a profession? The idealist wants to see it as the former, while the MFA chair, for example, prefers it to be the case of the latter. How do you see the issue? Are people born with the poetry “gene” or can anyone pick up the pen and choose this thing as a career—and to make it even more complicated, what about translation? In either case, language is never something we’re born with—it’s always something we “learn,” and yet, the translator, if he or she is to become one, must either learn, unlike the poet, at least more than one tongue, or have the good fortune to be born into a multilingual society for us to answer this question. How do you see it?

BH: I am of the opinion that artists, whatever their creative medium, should be able to live from their art. Insofar as being a professional is defined as making a living from what one practices, then every poet and every translator should be a “professional!” Being reduced to making a living at something other than one’s artistic calling is society’s way of oppressing the imagination.

 

DG: What advice would you give young poets or translators who are just starting to develop their skills?

BH: I would advise young poets starting out to learn the classics in the language they write in, at the very least. I would advise that they become educated in literature, that they read literature in translation, so that their world is broadened from an early time. I would advise that they experience the world intensely, that they listen to music, that they try as many ways of writing as they can. I would advise that they organize readings and events with others and for others, so that they get to form communities of writers. To translators I would say start off by translating the most important, the BEST writers of the original literature.

 

DG: What are you currently working on and how do you prefer to work? Do you focus on both your own poetry and translation at the same time, or do you tend to focus on them separately?

BH: Last winter I finished two poetry books I had been working on for several years. Otherwise I tend to work on several projects concurrently, with a natural cross-pollination seeming to characterize this stage of the process. Over time distinct manuscripts appear. That is not the case with translation, which requires a kind of concentration and focus that eschews a freewheeling mind.  I’m currently finishing the translation of a Selected Poems of César Moro.

 

About Beatriz Hausner

Beatriz Hausner has published several poetry collections, including The Wardrobe Mistress, Sew Him Up, Enter the Raccoon, and most recently, Beloved Revolutionary SweetheartSelected poems and chapbooks of hers have been published internationally and translated into several languages. Hausner is a respected historian and translator of Latin American Surrealism, with recent essays published in The International Encyclopedia of Surrealism in 2019. Her translations of César Moro, the poets of Mandrágora, as well as essays and fiction by legends like Aldo Pellegrini and Eugenio Granell have exerted an important influence on her work. Hausner’s history of advocacy in Canadian literary culture is also well known: she has worked as a literary programmer in Toronto, her hometown, and was Chair of the Public Lending Right Commission. She is currently President of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, a position she held twice before.

Translations and Essays by John Taylor

Translations and Essays by John Taylor


John Taylor’s translations of José-Flore Tappy’s «Errer Mortelle» («Wandering Mortal»)

 

 

from Wandering Mortal

 

Tightened into dark clusters

the low bushes

brood over all the sorrow

of the grieving man

 

watching the animals fleeing afar

on the tilted earth

and pushed by the wind

leaving us paltry

destitute

 

at my feet

the dusty silence

and the crumbled day

 

 

 

Errer mortelle (extrait)

 

Resserrés en grappes sombres

les buissons bas

couvent toute la peine

de l’homme en deuil

 

regardant fuir au loin les bêtes

sur la terre inclinée

poussées par le vent

nous laissant pauvres

dénués

 

à mes pieds

le silence en poussière

et le jour éboulé


About José-Flore Tappy: José-Flore Tappy was born in Lausanne in 1954. She is the author of five volumes of poetry: Errer mortelle (Payot, 1983), Pierre à feu (Empreintes, 1987), Terre battue (Empreintes, 1995), Lunaires (La Dogana, 2001), and Hangars (Empreintes, 2006). She has won two prestigious Swiss literary awards: the Ramuz Prize for Errer mortelle and the Schiller Prize for Hangars as well as her entire poetic oeuvre. She works as an editor and scholar at the Centre de Recherches sur les Lettres Romandes at the University of Lausanne. In John Taylor’s translations, her poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, the International Literary Quarterly, Carte Blanche, Asymptote, and Trans Lit Magazine, and are forthcoming in Thrush, Rowboat, and The Bitter Oleander.



from Wandering Mortal

 

The wounded light

bathes its forehead

at the far end of the grass

 

perhaps the sheep

earth lamps placed in the half-shadows

keep watch with lowered voices

over this silent unction

 

from the pyre of the world

rises

a beckoning smoke

 

Errer mortelle (extrait)

 

La lumière meurtrie

baigne son front

au fond de l’herbe

 

les moutons peut-être

lampes de terre posées dans la pénombre

veillent à voix basse

cette onction silencieuse

 

sur le bûcher du monde

s’élève

la fumée d’un appel



from Wandering Mortal

 

The oil of the grapevines lights up my path

amid the dust of the tamarisks

before the day’s

too brief wick

held between the twilight’s mauve fingers

goes out

 

peace grazes at my feet

like a forgotten goat
Errer mortelle (extrait)

 

L’huile des vignes éclaire mon chemin

dans la poussière des tamaris

avant que ne s’éteigne

trop brève

la mèche du jour

entre les doigts mauves du crépuscule

 

la paix broute à mes pieds

comme une chèvre oubliée



From Wandering Mortal

 

The sun on its knees

ever nearer the thyme bushes

 

on the path

to leave my goods behind

and walk away empty-handed

into the shadowy alcoves

 

the roots lead deep into the earth

the wanderer’s prayer

 

 

 

Errer mortelle (extrait)

 

Le soleil à genoux

toujours plus près des thymms

 

sur le sentier

laisser mes biens

et m’éloigner mains vides

dans les alcôves de l’ombre

 

les racines conduisent loin sous la terre

la prière de l’errant



From Wandering Mortal

 

Cross the blazing threshold

and beneath the cool vaults

where time is drying

hung in the hearth

 

at plant-height

go into

the lowest room

where the shadows

keep silent watch

a woman is listening

to fruit falling

afar

 

muzzled

as noon nears

the earth shuts itself away

below the sleeping grapevines

 

 

Errer mortelle (extrait)

 

Passez le seuil en feu

et pénétrez

sous la fraîcheur des voûtes

où sèche le temps

pendu dans l’âtre

 

à la hauteur des plantes

dans la pièce la plus basse

où veille

en guet taciturne

l’ombre

une femme écoute

la chute lointaine

des fruits

 

muselée

à l’approche de midi

la terre se cloître

sous le sommeil des vignes



Louis Calaferte’s Le Sang violet de l’améthyste

An Essay by John Taylor

 

When a friend who has never read Louis Calaferte (1928-1994) stands before a bookcase housing over a hundred volumes by this French writer, poet, playwright, and diarist, he or she inevitably asks: where to begin? It is easy to suggest Calaferte’s moving first book, Requiem des innocents (1952), his erotic novel Septentrion (1963), or his short narratives depicting female sexuality, La Mécanique des femmes (1992); and, as complements, perhaps his memoir of the Second World War in Lyon, C’est la Guerre (1993), or the exposition of his Christian anarchist philosophy, L’Homme vivant (1994). Depending on the friend, some of Calaferte’s plays, collected in six volumes at the Éditions Hesse, might be more suitable. Or his poetry, but Calaferte’s prolificacy can be intimidating in this genre as well: the Éditions Tarabuste alone has issued over thirty titles.

As for myself, whenever I have taken on this informal advisory role, I have recommended Le Sang violet de l’améthyste ever since it appeared posthumously at Gallimard in 1998. First of all, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst enables one to break the critical habit of returning to the same handful of books; and notably the first one, Requiem des innocents, little matter how engaging and timely this memoir of growing up in an impoverished quarter of Lyon remains. Too often, critics (and well-meaning enthusiasts) mechanically cite this title, retell the story of the encouragement that Calaferte received from the writer Joseph Kessel, and then almost forget what has been written ever since then and awaits them on their desks. The same applies to Septentrion, the graphic eroticism and bold anarchistic underpinnings of which caused it to be legally restricted—in one of the rare cases of censorship in postwar France—to a “not for commercial sale” status for twenty-one years (1963-1984). The long-banned book thus has its own diversionary story to tell, and it should be told, but it can also divert attention away from what is essential: the contents of the book and its exceptional style. Of course, the two novels fully deserve their critical reputations, and especially Septentrion, which deepened Calaferte’s approach and marked a new departure for him. But this is not my topic here.

The near-exclusive emphasis that is placed on them overlooks the glaring bibliographical fact that Calaferte, as far as prose is concerned, soon became essentially an author of short prose. Early books like Satori (1968) and Rosa Mystica (1968) already reveal the propensity to brevity and narrative fragmentation that informs nearly all his subsequent writing. Instead of expanding or amplifying, as a novelist or even a short story writer must do, Calaferte increasingly strives for formal compression, aphoristic acuteness, vivacity, tightness in a syntax that sometimes becomes less linked to that of colloquial speech, as well as—in apparent contrast—multifarious characters, narrative viewpoints, emotions, ideas, scenes, settings, and styles. Similarly, his poems are not only often short but also diversified in form, tonality, and contents. After the first decade of his literary career (during which he also publishes the novel Partage des vivants in 1953), his prose enters into broad generic categories like “poetic prose” or simply “short prose.” (By the way, this latter novel, long out of print, has recently been reissued by the Éditions Tarabuste; and its narrative structure, sometimes built out of scenes not always connected to each other by smooth transitions, reveals that the author’s sensibility was already oriented towards short prose.) He abandons the novel and ignores more traditional forms of the short story, two rare counterexamples of which constitute his book Campagnes (1979), which in turn is called a récit (narrative), in the singular. Indeed, he often produces books to which no conventional labels—novel, short-story collection, and even the rather vague and thus useful term récit—can be applied. If one wishes to grasp the whole writer, one must incorporate much more into the picture; and this much more is multifaceted, ever-moving, and often consists of what one might call “brevities” linked to other “brevities.” These brevities are organized in such ways that the book, or the sequence of texts, delves, and from several angles, into its subject matter.

Hence the special significance of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst. The book displays the gamut of Calaferte’s styles and themes, as well as several facets of his literary sensibility. There are poems (in various forms), short prose narratives (also in various forms), “notes” rather like some of those that fill his sixteen published Carnets (Notebooks), aphorisms, single sharp images removed from any explanatory context, and quotations ranging from verse by Emily Dickinson (whom he translates for the occasion) to a description found in Jean-Baptiste La Curne de Sainte-Palaye’s Mémoire de l’ancienne Chevalerie considérée comme un établissement politique et militaire. The latter represents one of several similar discoveries made among the old editions that this very modern author also loved.

Calaferte juxtaposes erotic depictions with alchemical concepts, philosophical speculations, seemingly personal memories, a few observed or imagined childhood scenes and—most unexpectedly—laconic monologues spoken by Polyphemus, the Homeric Cyclops. The settings otherwise shift, though not uniquely, between two metaphorically antipodal cities, London and Venice, which respectively represent northern Europe—think of Septentrion once again—and southern Europe. The reader believes that the author is or has been in “ornate” Venice and “cottony” London, but this autobiographical effect may well be deceptive. Such is the case elsewhere, notably in the short prose texts that employ a narrative “I” in L’Incarnation (1987), Promenade dans un parc (1987), or Memento mori (1988).

And Time, too, is a central mystery in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst. Several historical periods are called up, and they thus extend—though in no linear order—from archaic Greece (with its resonant archetypal myths), through the Middle Ages, to the narrator’s present, which is our present. Yet taken as a whole, the texts also seem to form the “present” of dreaming or, even more convincingly, of insomnia: those moments, minutes, or hours that parade by with their chaotic (and chronologically non-linear) images, memories, stories, aspirations, and thoughts, before the final two sentences can be spoken or heard: “Fear nothing. Fall asleep.”

Other stylistic techniques or thematic ingredients that enter into The Violet Blood of the Amethyst have been used before by Calaferte, yet differently: for example, in the poetry collection Londonniennes (1985), the cruel narratives of Portrait de l’enfant (1969), the dialogues in Calaferte’s plays (and in some of his prose works, even going as far back as Requiem des innocents and Partage des vivants), not to mention the erotic vignettes of The Way It Works with Women (the English title of La Mécanique des femmes). In this sense, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is a sort of distillate; or a collection of distillates, depending on one’s appraisal of the unity, or disunity, of the book. Implicitly asserting its coherence, Calaferte himself specifies in his fifteenth notebook, Dimensions (2009), which covers the year 1993, that The Violet Blood of the Amethyst also constitutes a “landmark,” “marker,” or “indicator.” The writer refers (on December 23rd) to this book (and Les Fontaines silencieuses) as “book-bearings [livres repères] that are also poetic books [and] stand in a sort of zone parallel to the public.” He also emphasizes their “high sincerity,” which is a manner of stating their personal importance to him and the authenticity of his intent, though not, strictly speaking, any precise autobiographical inspiration. With respect to this latter critical question, time and again the reader must meditate on the first sentence of the book: “I call ‘world’ that which does not resemble me.”

Calaferte’s initial efforts to write The Violet Blood of the Amethyst go back to 1989, five years before his death. In the thirteenth notebook, Situation (2007), which covers the year 1991, he mentions (on September 23rd) that the first pages had been written two years beforehand and then laid aside; and he observes that they have a “dreamlike vein,” a remark hinting at the possibility that the sequence mirrors dreaming or insomnia. On the same day, he records his wife Guillemette’s insightful reaction to these pages: “a fantastical and kaleidoscopic vision of our wounded and furiously eroticized world”—a statement putting the accent on what is outside, exterior: the world. This constitutes one of the essential dichotomies of the book. However, Calaferte adds that, for the time being, only the “entrancing” or “spellbinding” nature of the project entices him. Four days later, he abandons the manuscript once again in order to concentrate on The Way It Works with Women. Ultimately, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst will be mostly written after that book and before C’est la guerre and at about the same time as the posthumously published volumes Maître Faust (2001) and Les Fontaines silencieuses (2005).

Calaferte would work swiftly and intensely once inspiration had grasped him. His Notebooks recount sometimes rather long fallow periods, followed by prolonged bursts of exceptional creative energy. Several times in his Notebooks he writes of the importance, for a writer, of patience, of knowing how to “wait.” The composition of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is no exception. As his fourteenth notebook, Direction (2008), reveals, he was pondering the project again by February 26th (1992). A little less than three weeks later, on March 15th, he recommences work on its “fine mosaic.” Typically, by March 19th, he has already produced fifty pages; and by March 29th he sees the end: “Begun on March 15th, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is finished today. I need to put it in order, which is a fastidious task. I would like this odd book to have the perfection of jewelry work.”

“Finished” thus means that the creative inspiration has run its course. There is still much work to be done which, presumably, engages the analytical intellect more than it does the other mental, emotional, and artistic qualities that have fuelled the composition of the individual pieces. This goal of ordering the texts seems to have been attained by June 26th, as a remark about the “mise au net” of the book and Maître Faust suggests. Two months later finds him continuing to translate poems by Emily Dickinson, the main tutelary figure of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, which also reproduces lines by Martial, Propertius, William Blake, and others. In his labors to bring Dickinson into French, Calaferte chooses fifty-five poems from her work because of their “at once mystical and esoteric resonance.” He hopes to “penetrate the magic, religious, and esoteric meaning of [Dickinson’s] fascinatingly complex oeuvre.” This same challenge faces the reader of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst.

Calaferte’s own phrases—“fine mosaic,” “jewelry work”— define this challenge on the structural level. To what extent is the book intricately arranged? Is it a mosaic, an artistic form that demands more attentive ordering and precise craftsmanship than a collage, let alone a simple collection of texts? A mosaic forms a pattern. Is there a “pattern” visible in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst? Back in 1991, when the author rereads the pages drafted in 1989, he notes (in Situation) that the initial construction of the book is “completely arbitrary” and that this “alarms” him.

At the minimum, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is a commonplace book. Historically, the genre goes back at least as far as the thirteenth-century Italian zibaldone. Such hodgepodges collect sayings, maxims, topics, arguments, opinions, truisms, sundry quotations, and even drawings. They gather a writer’s findings, what has influenced him (or what he wishes will influence him), what has amused him, what seems instructive, and thus reflect as much the whims and intentions of his mind as his practical writing routines (and, possibly, his search for inspiration). The English word “commonplace” translates the Latin locus communis (“widely applicable argument or thesis”), which in turn renders the Greek koinos topos. The playwright Ben Jonson’s Timber: Or Discoveries (1640), for instance, is a commonplace book that includes experimental drafts, mini-essays, maxims, reflections, and examples of other genres. And so is, more or less, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, compiled by the Italian poet and thinker (1798-1837) between 1817 and 1832. (Calaferte never saw the first full French translation of this book, which appeared in 2003.) Quoted on two occasions in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, Leopardi put together an enormous journal particularly focused on philosophical ideas. But the Italian poet’s Zibaldone is no truly representative example of the genre in that a commonplace book might comprise introspective jottings, but it is essentially open to the world in that it gathers what the writer comes across, not what he himself produces in terms of personal writings. This is not the case for Leopardi’s masterwork. And there is a sense of usefulness to a commonplace book: it can be consulted by the author or by others. The Violet Blood of the Amethyst fits this definition, but there is much more to it.

An examination of the original manuscript confirms this. Calaferte wrote the first drafts of the short texts in a big notebook that also includes the daily jottings of his journal (which would become the volume Direction) and parts of a second book, Maître Faust. The texts in this original manuscript were typed up, then cut up and rearranged. The order in which they appear in the notebook differs greatly from that of the original French edition of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst. In addition, the manuscript reveals that the author originally intended to call the texts “La Fontaine silencieuse.” In other words, Calaferte inverted the titles of the two books.

The second epigraph gives the crucial hint as to why Calaferte rearranged the texts. “Unum in uno circulo sive vase” means “one thing in one circle or vessel.” Already, a quest for unity is announced. Calaferte found the quotation in a footnote (about the hermetic Tractatus aureus) in Carl Gustav Jung’s Psychologie et alchimie (French translation, 1970). The same Latin phrase is repeated in Jung’s Dreams, to which Jung adds another footnote that provides the original context of the phrase: “The circumambulation has its parallel in the [. . .] ‘circulation of spirits of circular distillation, that is, the outside to the inside, the inside to the outside, likewise the lower and the upper; and when they meet together in one circle, you could no longer recognize what was outside or inside, or lower or upper; but all would be one thing in one circle or vessel [my italics]. For this vessel is the true philosophical Pelican, and there is no other to be sought for in all the world.’”

This circularity, or unity, is difficult, if not impossible, to find because the world is full of disparities, conflicts, contradictions, oppositions. Calaferte hints that he has structured the texts of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst around this dilemma, not only by means of his second epigraph, but also when he refers almost offhandedly (and in parentheses) to “Apuleius’s contradictory cross. Alterutrae.” The key term “alterutrae” means “alternates,” but it is used by Apuleius (in his logical treatise, Peri Hermeneias) in the sense of “contraries,” “opposites,” “contradictions.” Apuleius was also fascinated by oppositions and potential unity. Similarly, although Heraclitus is not mentioned in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, Calaferte elsewhere cites the pre-Socratic philosopher’s related ideas; for example, the fragment: “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord comes the fairest harmony.” This is one of the deepest movements, or leitmotivs, in Calaferte’s entire oeuvre.

When reading The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, it is stimulating to keep in mind such “contraries” and, even more so, alchemists’ searches to efface or dissolve the dichotomies of “inside” / “outside” and “lower” / “upper.” On the one hand, the book displays or reveals what is “outside,” in the “world,” as is suggested by the aforementioned first line: “I call ‘world’ that which does not resemble me.” But equally forcible is the impression that the book brings out what is “inside” a mind, be this mind the creative author’s or—less autobiographically—a particular narrative “mind” that expresses not only some of its idiosyncrasies but also and especially representative elements of what Jung called “the collective unconscious”; that is, a mind employing a narrative “I” that would encompass more, as it were, than its strictly autobiographical circumscription; more than its “contents” based on personal experiences (of sundry mental and physical varieties); a mind that would be as much a receptacle as a fountainhead.

This narrative “I” in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is compounded by the presence of other “I’s.” Sometimes even Polyphemus sounds like the poet: “I am the visionary of what remains unaccomplished.” For this declaration expresses the thematic thrust of the book and resembles, in fact, the aforementioned characteristic movement or leitmotif in Calaferte’s oeuvre: the elaboration of what is heading for some kind of “accomplishment” or ending; and this movement in fact seems to end with the previously mentioned solemn, soothing injunction: “Fear nothing. Fall asleep.” An accomplishment that marks an ending or, rather — if one takes the author’s hints — signifies that the alchemical circle has been formed once again, that the cycle has been renewed, that “accomplishment” implies continuity. Furthermore, Polyphemus tries to perceive who or what is stalking him, who or what will kill him. Does the Cyclops thus represent the author, who was writing this book as the signs of his fatal illness were becoming ever more pressing? This matters little. Polyphemus represents the fundamental condition of any human being: that of facing finitude, death.

The Violet Blood of the Amethyst is likewise permeated by the notion of a “return,” a desire associated with Ulysses, who is Polyphemus’s protagonist. The oft-evoked “sea” (mer)—with its tantalizing French homophone mère (mother) that is especially audible because of the conspicuous lack of definite and indefinite articles—is linked to this wish for a “return” and therefore to Ulysses the wanderer. Return implies circularity, once again, and recalls the archaic and mythological image of a snake biting its tail—the ouroboros, which is mentioned early on in The Violet Blood of the Amethyst and which is also the title of the bold “chant” written by Calaferte in an invented language in 1964, excerpted by Maurice Nadeau for Les Lettres Nouvelles in 1965, and reissued by the Éditions Tarabuste in 1995. This archaic image seems to materialize when the final sentence—about the narrator’s falling off to sleep—rejoins the first sentence that announces the separation of the world and the narrative “I” (or the ego tout court) and thus acknowledges almost an awakening or a birth. The Violet Blood of the Amethyst likewise records halts and detours made during a journey—the journey of writing, of life (in its physical and spiritual aspects), an itinerary such as experienced Ulysses with all his multifaceted symbolism—aimed at gaining insight into an eternal cycle which promises to turn disparities and contraries back into sameness, oneness. Ulysses will be obliged to blind — essentially, to kill — Polyphemus. In The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, Polyphemus and Ulysses are essentially one and the same figure.

Similarly, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst—like other books by Calaferte—sets off what is “lower” against what is “upper,” and points to or relates attempts to reconcile the two levels. Roughly stated, this vertical dichotomy involves a physical, natural, and/or sexual level and a mental and/or spiritual level. This spiritual or metaphysical level is nearly always present in Calaferte’s writing, in one way or another. Here it is announced from the onset, in the first epigraph: “All then, in a word, who have spoken of divine things, both Barbarians and Greeks, have veiled the first principles of things, and delivered the truth in enigmas, and symbols, and allegories, and metaphors, and such like tropes.” His use of The Song of Songs is also emblematic in this respect. Some passages state the dichotomy directly:

 

Weight of the earth. Incommensurable mass. Heavily laden with desire.

Bodies are offered in their vulnerable opacity.

Come—so that I may relieve you—so that together we may relieve ourselves.

So that, through contradiction, we learn how to elevate ourselves.

So that before returning to our mud, we rise through the levels of ether.

 

Analyses such as the preceding take Calaferte at his word in regard to epigraphs and key phrases found in the texts themselves. But are these exegeses going too far? Calaferte doubted that it was possible to analyze poetry. In Choses dites (1997), in regard to Verlaine’s famous line “les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne” (literally, “the prolonged sobbing of autumn violins”), he maintains: “That is what poetry is. It is nothing else. . . You receive it. Without explanation.” The title Le Sang violet de l’améthyste is “poetic” in this direct, immediate sense, not least in its surreal, oxymoronic, and mystical qualities; perhaps it essentially represented for Calaferte little more than a poetic trouvaille. The author’s thoughts about the title are delineated nowhere in the Notebooks. This being said, the title itself expresses an extraordinarily rich dichotomy, even several dichotomies. The “violet blood” is contained in, flows through, the solid rock of the “amethyst,” a gem which is fashioned from a fixed internal geometry and which, in Greek mythology and history, is symbolically associated with meditation, mental clarity, and peace of mind. The etymology of the word (Greek a-methystos “not drunk, not intoxicating”) could not be clearer; the gem was thought to ward off both literal and metaphorical inebriation. “Blood” has its own spectrum of contrasting symbols, ranging from bodily passion and the blood of Christ to life. And one must never neglect the importance of this key-word—Life—for the author of L’Homme vivant. In brief, the title forthwith suggests a struggle between Apollonian and Dionysian elements (to borrow Goethe’s and Nietzsche’s vocabulary), between an ideal serenity and life in its surging, inebriating, chaotic physicality. In Choses dites, this concrete poem expresses one side of the equation:

 

VIVRE

IVRE

à mourir

 

The amethyst represents the other side. And this is why the title, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst, sums up Calaferte’s entire oeuvre. Taken as a whole, Calaferte’s oeuvre reveals a multifaceted literary sensibility, one aspect of which is pursuing truth not merely through poetry (and playful poetry), but also through logic, the precise alignment of words: syntax. This intellectual and stylistic intention is especially present in his aphoristic writings, in countless analytical passages of his Notebooks, as well as in some passages of The Violet Blood of the Amethyst.

The symbolic balance of the French title is thus crucial and argues for the decision to render it literally. The translation problem revolves around the color “violet.” Generally speaking, when a French speaker perceives the color “violet,” an English speaker perceives the same color as “purple.” The adjective “pourpre” exists in French, even as “violet” exists in English, but when we say “purple,” the French speaker will see and say “pourpre” if and only if there is a pronounced reddish hue to the purple; otherwise, it will be “violet” in French. Moreover, descriptions of the gem “amethyst” in geology manuals give the color of the quartz as “violet” if the manual is French and most often as “purple” if the manual is English, even if (in English) a specific “amethyst violet” hue of purple exists and is described as being, once again, a reddish purple. Specifically, to cite Websters, amethyst violet is “a variable color averaging a moderate purple that is redder and duller than heliotrope or manganese violet, bluer and duller than cobalt violet, and darker and slightly stronger than average lilac.” A variable color, indeed!

Yet the arguments for rendering “violet” as “violet,” and not as the somewhat more natural “purple,” ultimately win out. The English “purple” as well as the thereby different French “pourpre” both connote imperial or regal rank, power, and wealth. Such considerations do not enter into Calaferte’s symbolic matrix whatsoever, even negatively when he pays tribute to the impoverished poets Luíz Vas de Camoens, Thomas Chatteron, and James Thomson. Calaferte describes the blood of the amethyst as being neither “pourpre,” nor “rouge,” nor “bleu” (which has still other connotations), but rather as “violet,” which, as a “French” color, strikes a balance between blue and red. Less heavily laden with symbolism, violet is associated with Christian mystical unions of various kinds, with amorous fusion, as well as with submission—a theme present in some scenes—and melancholy. Qualifying blood with this adjective fashions a thought-provoking subtlety, a symbolic intricacy. Moreover, the word “violet” and its derivative “violine” appear only once each in the actual texts, yet “violent” recurs several times. A coincidence? It is hard to believe so when one reads Calaferte’s remarks in his Notebooks about creating a “fine mosaic” and crafting “jewelry.” Furthermore, Calaferte perhaps had a particular affinity with the letter “v,” or attributed a special symbolic significance to it, as the countless fricative “v-sounds” in the invented language of his poem Ouroboros suggest. “Blood” appears often and variously. “Amethyst” shows up not even once, as if the gem were the form, the internal crystalline geometry, through which the texts—the violet and sometimes violent blood—were flowing, giving life to the form, to the book, constructing it. Unum in uno circulo sive vase. . . Ultimately, the alchemical phrase says all. The Violet Blood of the Amethyst seeks wholeness and gives it a form.

Translating Calaferte is no easy matter. Besides the difficulties of rendering a few quotations originally penned in older French and of finding equivalents for the French translations that the author uses for some Latin verse and that also sometimes possess archaic diction, his style itself exhibits idiosyncrasies. Most striking of all is the near-systematic suppression of articles at the beginning of many sentences and invocations, most conspicuously for the key word mer. This absence of definite and indefinite articles can suggest jotting down notes (as in a commonplace book), but beyond this stylistic habit, and because of it, physical matter surges forth in all its immediacy, substantiality and timelessness. I have nearly always mirrored Calaferte’s French in such cases and have attempted to remain as close as possible to the word order, all the more so in that logic—the conflict of contraries and their potential resolution—and thus syntactic logic are at stake in the book. Although he is an author inclined to realistic, even clinical precision, Calaferte also introduces various philosophical abstractions that call for careful scrutiny before finding English equivalents. Writing about Dickinson and implicitly about his project to translate her, Calaferte underscores in Direction, on September 23, 1992, the necessity of “bringing out her intelligence, her knowledge, the depth and gravity of her thinking, her singular temperament, her mysticism, her anguish before death.” Communicating that necessity, while translating this emblematic book, has been my goal.

 

John Taylor

 

This essay is a slightly abridged version of the text introducing Taylor’s translation, The Violet Blood of the Amethyst (forthcoming from Chelsea Editions in New York).

 

See also:

 

“From Darkness to Light (Louis Calaferte),” Paths to Contemporary French Literature, volume 1, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2004, pp. 152-160.

 

“Belief, Magic, Miracle”: Louis Calaferte as Poet,” Paths to Contemporary French Literature, volume 2, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2007, pp. 185-198.



Long Prose and Short Prose: Florence Delay and her Ashtrays

An Essay by John Taylor

 

The novelist Florence Delay has long been a friend of short prose forms. As an essayist, she has written in sprightly and illuminating ways about them, notably in Petites formes en prose après Edison (Short Prose Forms after Edison, 1987) and in the title essay of La Séduction brève (Brief Seduction, 1997). Indeed, the first sentence of the latter establishes a memorable touchstone for distinguishing brevity from more ample narrative development: “A short kiss is livelier and more troubling than a long kiss, which is an end in itself, and this is why the short story—a short form—seduces, in contrast to the novel, which is so long you have to keep going back to it, lingering over it, and which speaks of love.” This is not to forget the even more dangerous parallels that Delay subsequently draws, in the same essay, between bullfighting and writing, especially when the writing is performed agilely and elegantly in short forms that face up to substantial, intimidating subject matter:

 

A calm bull that feels at home in the bullring, that stands steady on its hooves and counts on its own force in order to resist is, from all viewpoints, the best one to work on. If it is interesting that the object of the undertaking should be unusual, unknown, powerful, brave, and steady on its hooves, the qualities required for getting the better of the bull are of an aesthetic order: intelligence, grace, elegance, suppleness, deftness, agility, rapidity, exactitude—all qualities linked to Time.

 

What role, in fact, does time play in Delay’s oeuvre? In various ways, which range from her explorations of certain historical periods and, more recently, her own family history, to her “imitations” of much older literary texts and the astute temporal or chronological superstructures of her narratives, the author of La Fin des temps ordinaires (The End of Ordinary Times, 1996) has long placed recollected time, imagined time, or experienced time in the forefront of her literary concerns and stylistic practices.

Her recent book, Mes cendriers (My Ashtrays, 2010), offers a prime example. Given such a topic, how could it be otherwise? In our day and age, smoking is the human activity par excellence that is immediately equated to mortality, to finitude. Passing in review her collection of ashtrays, Delay scrutinizes this equation with lucidity, irony, and self-irony. The social traits so typical of smokers (and anti-smokers) are evoked in thoughtful, humorous, occasionally melancholy, even touchingly nostalgic ways. But her literary vision entails much more than personal recollection or wry social observation. Her ashtrays have philosophical import in that they signify time as it is diversely incarnated in an object associated with a pleasure—or an ambiguous pleasure—and the death that might ensue from the pleasure. Time is most often evoked in its everyday sense, in its biological implications, as the chronology of lifetimes, yet it is equally present, in Mes cendriers, as something absolute, as the eternal backdrop against which an individual spends his or her life. Perfectly suited to such themes and to short-prose evocation, Delay’s ashtrays offer “images” of time and, in turn, can be pondered as if they were aphorisms, indeed like those elucidated in Petites formes en prose après Edison. Delay’s aphoristic ashtrays each have an acute “point” or agudeza, to cite the Spanish literary concept that she elucidates in her essays. A point that can run us through! And when not pondering the ashtray as a “point,” we look at it as a round, flat surface. We intently watch what Delay, an inveterate aficionada, leads into the arena of the ashtray. . .

Strictly speaking, Delay has written few short texts. Yet her oeuvre has evolved in such a way that each new book increasingly involves short prose or, at least, telltale features of short prose. An example published two decades before Mes cendriers is “Troisième journée,” penned for L’Hexaméron (The Hexameron, 1990), a book co-written with Michel Chaillou, Michel Deguy, Natacha Michel, Denis Roche, and Jacques Roubaud. This independent chapter depicting the “third day” of the project functions as a short prose text. Note that the chapter already evokes ashes. She cites a few phrases from the first notebook of the third chapter of Georges Bernanos’s novel Monsieur Ouine (“. . .ugly and sad, sad and ugly, cold like a heap of ash”) and thereafter pursues her own narrative:

 

“Dust at last!” cried the Creator leaning over my shoulder. “At last meaningful dust!” reflected the Creator par excellence. “Now this is good. This is what is perfect in its very imperfection. Perfect imperfection,” he ended up exclaiming admiringly. “Incomparably human! Here, at last, are a few specks not competing at all with Me who gives birth to flowers and fruit in a single delivery.” He took me into his arms at last. “Oh my beloved little person,” he sighed, while groping for lips I no longer possessed, “why exhaust yourself like this, seeking out other fathers when you have m’m’Me?” “Why persevere,” he admirably added, “why persevere in this manly trade instead of being what I thought it good to make of you: a woman. Mine?”

He traced a small ashen cross, his autograph, on my forehead. . .

 

A more enlightening case for the study of Delay’s evolution towards short prose is provided by the forty-three short chapters of her novel Catalina (1994). Delay weaves together disparate kinds of subject matter in this “investigation” (as the subtitle “enquête” indicates), which centers on the challenge of drafting a life of Catalina de Erauso, of comprehending how Thomas De Quincey, José Maria de Heredia, and other authors became interested in the “Spanish military nun,” and of pondering how she herself might approach this woman who lived the life of a man in the seventeenth century. Constantly linking autobiographical experiences to historical research about Catalina de Erauso, the book is a “novel” in that it has one overarching story to tell: not Catalina de Erauso’s, but rather its own; that is, how the author herself resolved to write the biography, how she sought a justifiable vantage point, how she ventured up multifarious paths of erudition and literary experimentation, how everyday life affected her quest, and thus how she put together the book—not the planned biography—that we are holding in our hands. The tour de force is that Catalina is also a sequence of intrepidly connected short prose texts. Even if the short chapters are not entirely self-contained, because of oblique transitions linking them to previous chapters and thus spinning the “long” overarching novelistic story—the story of the book—, the chapters reveal an authorial sensitivity to short prose forms or, sometimes more precisely, to the paragraph as the fundamental unit of composition.

A dual literary sensibility is at work in Catalina and Mes cendriers. One could also say a dual narrative aim. A propensity to narrate succinctly but open-endedly—to employ fragmentary short prose forms (in Catalina) or paragraphs (in Mes cendriers)—co-exists with an intention to tie together, through witty transitions, the open-ended, heterogeneous short-prose units and create a single, suspenseful, delightful, extensive storyline. Delay narrates in discrete, discontinuous bursts of energy—which is her short-prose sensibility—and connects everything up into a storyline that is ultimately continuous, even if it continuously swerves because of scholarly, astonishing and, sometimes, very coq-à-l’âne transitions that jump from one subject to another—and this quest of an ultimate continuity is her long-prose sensibility.

Continuity and discontinuity are mathematical, but also physical, biological, even metaphysical concepts. Never underscoring anything too heavily—and this is the grace of her writing—Delay often points to these horizons.

Let me linger now over Mes cendriers. Delay herself points to her attraction to short prose when she writes: “What burns out then flares up again is fascinating. Nature lives at this moving pace, as does prose when it is composed in paragraphs.” Thirty pages later, she pens a single sentence on an otherwise blank page: “I go to the next page to create a draft of air.” How to reconcile the flames and the wind? Paragraphs constantly flare up and go out in the long draft of invigorating wind. Such is the spectacle of Delay’s prose in this book. The overarching continuous narrative—an individual facing time—co-exists with the aforementioned “philosophical images” offered by the ashtrays and their “point” or Spanish agudeza. This dichotomy functions marvelously from the beginning to the end of Mes cendriers and underlies the emotional and intellectual richness of this description of a sequence of ashtrays. A sequence? Another dichotomy or, rather, paradox lies in the very construction of the book. Delay notably declares in capital letters: “MY ASHTRAYS EXIST TOGETHER AND NOT ONE AFTER ANOTHER.” Here she takes sides with unity, or oneness, but I would suggest that, even as the Trinity can be believed despite its logical contradictions, the dichotomy—the  duality—maintained by Delay’s prose also exists and convinces: the texts come one after another and at the same time they do not, because they also exist together, all at once. The duality is one and the oneness is dual.

This paradox derives not from magic, but rather from astute rhetorical effects. Some hints can be found in Petites formes en prose après Edison, wherein Delay quotes the perspicacious Quintilian: “Brevity does not exclude ornamentation, otherwise art would no longer exist.” Which induces her to ask two questions: “Are unblunted repartees, images unprompted by time, and flashes of wit or light, ornaments or do they actually constitute artistic brevity? Could the ornamentation of the Ancients be what constitutes the Moderns? Which incites me to postulate a hypothesis in parallel to this question of form (or structure) and of substance (or contents): The vivacity of a prose style is not the predominant factor determining whether a prose form will be long or short. There is slow short prose and fast long prose. There is, of course, also fast short prose and slow long prose. As to Delay, she tends to be quick. Her earlier novels that are somewhat less based on short-prose units—on “paragraphs”—than Catalina or Mes cendriers and that employ a somewhat more continuous, amplified, narration, also display a lively prose style.

The liveliness of Delay’s prose results from her original use of transitions, and her dual literary sensibility depends on them. Once again, Quintilian is a welcome counselor because of his insights into similes and comparisons, a rudimentary rhetorical element that also engages Delay in Petites formes en prose après Edison. “In a simile,” she observes, “the ornament, or flower, derives from the most remote possible relation between the compared terms.” To which the Roman critic adds gaily: “The farther one seeks the simile, the more it brings originality and provokes surprise.” Delay’s comparisons—her transitions—surprise exactly like this: she seeks afar and what she brings back can startle. In Mes cendriers, note the playful transitions, on page 116, between the “Cité grise” (as her father, the psychiatrist and writer Jean Delay, would call the Salpêtrière Hospital when he was an intern there), and a

 

. . .gray sky, gray weather, northerly breeze, ash gray, gray hair, gray thoughts, it takes years not to dread them any more ! And then the white gently drives the black towards the exit. Grayish grisaille, gray monochrome, Goya gray, pearl gray, gray eyes, blue gray (see in this respect Mr. Goodman’s paradox), pale “gris” rosé, giddy griserie, the pleasure of being giddy gris and tipsy, between reason and tipsiness, grisette, light cloth that first was gray and then all the other colors.

 

 

The subsequent paragraph is also introduced by a transition based on the color “gray.” But now the emotion changes and startles in a sobering way because ageing is evoked: “Mom never had gray hair.” As Delay passes from ashtray to ashtray, it is as if the itinerary followed its own laws, taking note of signposts indicating a change in emotion, and veering or detouring accordingly. This is to say: the narrative itinerary—the “long” overarching story—consists as much of emotions as of facts and events.

These subtle changes in emotion exist in all of Delay’s narratives, especially her most recent ones. The emotional changes participate in the construction of the overarching story as much as does such and such an event appearing as a transition between two short prose texts; that is, between two paragraphs. Indeed, an emotion can pass the relay baton to the next emotion even as—to recall the above example—the near-giddiness (represented by “tipsiness, grisette, and light cloth”) is transformed into the graver, more sober emotion associated with the sudden memory of her mother’s gray hair and thus of ageing: her mother’s and, implicitly, her own.

But what is the new narrative element introduced by Mes cendriers? With respect to Catalina, to the equally autobiographical Dit Nerval (Nerval’s Tale, 1999), and to Trois désobéissances (Three Kinds of Disobedience, 2004)—to cite a fictional novel that has some of the same narrative and stylistic features: a sequence of short prose texts linked up by an overarching narrative —, Mes cendriers has a new element that is related not to the narrative structure or the autobiographical background, but rather to the subject matter: the ashtrays. Ashtrays are things, not events or acts. Ashtrays might cause events to happen or provoke memories, yet they are ultimately inert, immobile objects that call for description. As Delay contemplates a broken terracotta ashtray, she exclaims: “Ah describing!” Often she focuses very precisely:

 

The so-called “Imperial” ashtray has a racing-green lion head on its edge. If you turn it upside down, you find a small floral design (a pinch of blue and some pink flowerets), followed by the words “Hotel China, made in India,” whose letters are iced-yoghurt in color or, more precisely, the color of a lassi into which bhang has been mixed. The greenish lassi, the baby colors, the ambiguity of China joined to India, all of this on the bottom side, which refutes the noble appearance. . .

 

When faced with Delay’s ashtrays, should one cite Francis Ponge’s quest of things-in-themselves? Pondering the enigma—or, rather, the absolute non-enigma—of things was a key motivation for several French poets of the two generations preceding Delay’s. As far as Mes cendriers is concerned, the pursuit of things-in-themselves—the description of ashtrays for their own sake—must be evoked, but this critical path cannot be followed all the way to the end. It would be much too comforting to read the book as a “leçon de choses,” as a sequence of short-prose exercises in description. Much more is at stake: notably a human life as it faces up to its past, to the present moment (what it means to be alive), and thus to the question of death: the ashtrays are memento mori. I purposely broke off the above quotation; it continues: “. . .China joined to India, all of this on the bottom side, which refutes the noble appearance, provokes a horrible nausea in me. And if the ‘Imperial,’ on the top side, transports me to Delhi, on the bottom side it takes me back to the Pradeep Hotel in Benares, where I was so sick and met the Smoking Woman.” (The Smoking Woman is Dhumâvatî, the Tantric goddess, and Delay will accordingly delineate her attributes.)

In other words, the precise description of the ashtray unfolds into a personal memory. Somewhat like the famous philosophical paradox according to which the sound of a tree falling in a forest does not exist if no one is present to hear the sound, the ashtray cannot be without its extension to or relation with him or her who uses it: the subject. Delay plays now and then with the problematic philosophical relation of things and subjects, but no qualms deriving from it paralyze her writing. Even Nelson Goodman’s paradox, which questions our relationship to colors and the validity of our powers of induction, cannot prevent her from believing that literature can be a tool of knowledge. She ultimately takes “things” as they come to her, as they are because of the human beings that use them—human beings who more than once inspire her to chuckle or to knit her brows. Moreover, the book opens with the question: “Qui suis-je?,” “Who am I?”—an assertion of the subject as the starting point. Note, however, that the author will revolve around this question with self-restraint and even sometimes with a playful spirit. Once again, the overarching narrative offers emotional variety.

For Delay, ashtrays are objects that should be described, but more important is this va-et-vient, this moving back and forth, between ashtrays and her own memories, emotions, and reflections. “The more I look at my ashtrays, the more they look at me,” she avows. Elsewhere, she declares: “My ashtrays represent what belongs to me the most.” This specific idea sparks a memory of her Bayonne grandfather. She evokes the ashtray that he, a non-smoker, would place on his desk for visitors, but almost as soon she draws an analogy between the shape of the ashtray and the family grave: “. . . a gray-marble receptacle whose shape, a rectangle, and the kind of stone sum up the grave that he has prepared for us in the Talouchet cemetery.” What most belongs to the author is her ashtrays, even as, arguably, what we most firmly possess, what most deeply defines us is our relationship to death—when it is not our relationship to pleasure, to beauty, to language, and to other human beings. Mes cendriers constantly points to these horizons, though not necessarily in pessimistic ways. As she puts it elsewhere in a different context, Delay does not have a tragic temperament. She quotes and believes Claude Royet-Journaud when he says: “Objets contain infinity.”

Let me conclude with this notion of “tragic.” In her examination of Nerval’s poetry and, especially, of her father Jean Delay’s literary inspiration, Delay, in Dit Nerval, raises the question of the sources of the desire to write: whether this desire must necessarily stem from despair or psychic turmoil. As to the “necessarily,” Delay thinks not; and her own inspiration seems to take root outside of the darker realms of the psyche. But although Catalina and Dit Nerval already examine the desire to write and reveal aspects of the author’s personality, Mes cendriers is her most personal and moving book to date; and, without really appearing to be so, the book in which she takes the greatest number of risks. To cite Michel Leiris’s remark, which Delay herself cites in her essay “La seduction brève,” she definitely introduces “if merely the shadow of a bull’s horn” into the short-prose texts filling out Mes cendriers. And this shadow blends nobly with the luminosity—here tinged with soft gray— that characterizes her entire oeuvre.

 

 

John Taylor

 

John Taylor has written three other essays on Florence Delay’s work:

 

“The Profundity of Cheerfulness (Florence Delay),” Paths to Contemporary French Literature, volume 1, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2004.

 

“The Art of Convivance (Florence Delay),” Paths to Contemporary French Literature, volume 2, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2007.

 

“A French Stage Costume for the Matter of Britain: Florence Delay and Jacques Roubaud’s Graal Théâtre,” Into the Heart of European Poetry, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2008.



About John Taylor:

John Taylor received a 2011 NEA grant for his project to translate Georges Perros’s Papiers collés and a second grant, from the Sonia Raiziss Charitable Foundation, to translate Louis Calaferte’s Le Sang violet de l’améthyste. He has recently translated books by Philippe Jaccottet (And, Nonetheless, Chelsea), Pierre-Albert Jourdan (The Straw Sandals, Chelsea), and Jacques Dupin (Of Flies and Monkeys, Bitter Oleander Press). Taylor’s most recent collection of personal writings is The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos), and he has a new book, If Night is Falling, forthcoming with the Bitter Oleander Press in April, 2012. He is also the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction), as well as Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction).

Interlitq is delighted to publish the translations into English of three fables by Jean de La Fontaine by Christopher Betts

Three Fables by La Fontaine, translated by Christopher Betts

 

Christopher Betts writes:

Jean de La Fontaine, 1621-95, is among the greatest of French poets, and the best loved. The Fables, about 240 in all, were published throughout his writing career, from 1668 to 1693, and are famed for the inventiveness, wit and grace with which they narrate simple tales, usually of ancient folk origin, but also taken from contemporary life. Although French children have learned and enjoyed the simpler among them for many generations, most are not for children; they are too subtle and thoughtful for that. The tone and manner shift constantly, sometimes within a single line, and although the effects he produces are always on a small scale the implications are often far-reaching. The sample below is from a selection to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013. The first, implying a view of the prudent ant contrary to the usual admiration of her stance, has a message about the treatment of mere entertainers – read: poets – by the wealthy who might provide patronage. The second, taken originally (as is the first) from Aesop, treats a motif often known in English as King Log and King Stork, with implications about democratic responsibilities. The third, from the second collection published in 1678, goes to the Panchatantra for its story. The weasel bases her case, disingenuously, on the idea that the rabbit-hole was vacant, therefore deserted and available. Like many others, this fable displays La Fontaine’s unsentimental view of victims.

 

 

I, i: The Grasshopper and the Ant

 

      A grasshopper had sung her song

          all summer long,

      and when the winter winds arrived

      for lack of food was much deprived.

      No fly or grub, however small:

      there wasn’t anything at all

         for grasshoppers to eat.

      So off to neighbour ant she went,

      to plead starvation and entreat

a little corn. Could some, she asked, be lent,

      enough perhaps to see her through

      until the spring? She said: “I’ll pay,

on insect’s honour, debt and interest too

      before next August quarter-day.”

Among the failings that the ant might mend

the least was that she didn’t like to lend.

      She asked the borrower: “And what

were you engaged in, when the months were hot?”

      “So please you, ma’am, by night and day

      I sang, to all who passed my way.”

“You sang? Well, well,» the ant her neighbour said,

«I’m glad of that. Now you can dance instead.»

          

 

 

III, iv: The Frogs who Wanted a King

 

The frogs, who had a democratic state,

grew tired of it; their clamours rose so high

that Jupiter decided to create

      a monarchy for them to try.

The king who fell among them from the sky

      was most sedate, but in his fall

      made such a splash that, one and all,

      this breed of creatures who reside

      in bog and marsh, a silly breed,

      and very timid, ran to hide:

      they hid in rushes, beds of reed,

in muddy pools, or anywhere they could.

They stayed for hours, afraid to go too near:

they thought it was some giant lying there.

      In fact it was a block of wood.

The first to venture out was greatly scared,

it looked so solemn; but, still trembling, dared

approach his king. Another did the same;

a third; and then in multitudes they came.

They grew familiar, and then much bolder;

they even climbed upon their monarch’s shoulder.

      A kindly sire, he never stirred,

      and didn’t say a single word.

Soon Jove was plagued by protests, as before:

«We want our king,» they said, «to do much more.»

The lord of high Olympus sent a crane,

      who pecked them, killed them, pecked again,

and ate them as he wanted at his leisure;

      which made the frogs once more complain.

Said Jove: «And is it following your pleasure

      that I, the king of gods, must reign?

      Why did you change, in any case,

      the government you had in place?

You asked me for a king: the one I sent

was nice and quiet, which should have made you glad.

With this one you had better be content;

      the next one might be twice as bad.»

 

 

VII, xv: The Cat, the Weasel, and the Little Rabbit

 

Young Master Rabbit’s palace was one day

seized by Dame Weasel, who is full of guile.

She moved her household gods the easy way,

the owner being absent for a while.

That morning, he was where the wild thyme grew,

paying his court to dawn amid the dew.

Young Johnny grazed and trotted round,

did all his errands, went to graze some more,

then back to his abode beneath the ground.

Dame Weasel poked her nose outside the door.

«Ye gods hospitable, what’s this about?»

      exclaimed the rabbit now expelled

      from land his ancestors had held.

«Dame Weasel, you’re not wanted here; get out:

just quickly take your things and go.

If not, the rats nearby will want to know.»

      The lady with the pointed nose

replied that rights of ownership arose

from present occupation; furthermore,

this hole was surely not a cause for war:

         it was so small

that he himself, to enter, had to crawl.

«Were it a king’s estate, I do not see,»

she said, «that there is any law at all

      which says the owner has to be

some John, the son or grandson of some Paul,

      but never James, nor Charles, nor me.»

John Rabbit argued, to support his cause,

from custom and tradition. «By their laws

I am the lord and master of this place,»

he answered her; «by them it was passed on

through generations of the rabbit race,

to Peter, Simon, and to me, young John.

Are laws of occupation any stronger?»

      «Enough of this,» the weasel said;

      «no need to squabble any longer:

we’ll go to Mogogriff the cat instead.»

This cat was one affecting saintly ways,

a canting cat, smooth-tongued, benign of gaze,

      with fine thick fur, and sleek and fat;

no judge more skilled in law had ever sat.

Young John agreed that he should hear their case.

      They went togther to appear

before his furry worship, face to face.

He said: «Come closer, little friends, just here;

      I’m deaf; it is old age, no doubt.»

The two approached; they saw no cause to fear.

No sooner were they both within his reach

than Mogogriff the hypocrite stretched out

his two front paws, and catching one with each

the arbitrator settled their dispute

by eating both the parties to the suit.

 

This brings to mind the outcome that awaits

when little kings appeal to mighty states.

 

 

 

I, i: La Cigale et la fourmi

 

          La Cigale, ayant chanté

                   Tout l’été,

          Se trouva fort dépourvue

          Quand la bise fut venue.

          Pas un seul petit morceau

          De mouche ou de vermisseau.

          Elle alla crier famine

          Chez la fourmi sa voisine,

          La priant de lui prêter

          Quelque grain pour subsister

          Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.

          Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,

          Avant l’août, foi d’animal,

          Intérêt et principal.

          La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse;

          C’est là son moindre défaut.

          – Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud?

          Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.

          – Nuit et jour à tout venant

          Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.

          – Vous chantiez? j’en suis fort aise.

          Eh bien! dansez maintenant.

 

 

III, iv: Les Grenouilles qui demandent un Roi

 

         Les grenouilles, se lassant

         De l’état démocratique,

         Par leurs clameurs firent tant

Que Jupin les soumit au pouvoir monarchique.

Il leur tomba du ciel un roi tout pacifique.

Ce roi fit toutefois un tel bruit en tombant

         Que la gent marécageuse,

         Gent fort sotte et fort peureuse,

         S’alla cacher sous les eaux,

         Dans les joncs, dans les roseaux,

         Dans les trous du marécage,

Sans oser de longtemps regarder au visage

Celui qu’ils croyaient être un géant nouveau.

         Or c’était un soliveau,

De qui la gravité fit peur à la première

         Qui de le voir s’aventurant

         Osa bien quitter sa tanière.

         Elle approcha, mais en tremblant.

Une autre la suivit, une autre en fit autant,

         Il en vint une fourmilière;

Et leur troupe à la fin se rendit familière

         Jusqu’à sauter sur l’épaule du roi.

Le bon sire le souffre, et se tient toujours coi.

Jupin en a bientôt la cervelle rompue.

«Donnez-nous, dit ce peuple, un roi qui se remue.»

Le monarque des dieux leur envoie une grue,

         Qui les croque, qui les tue,

         Qui les gobe à son plaisir.

         Et grenouilles de se plaindre;

Et Jupin de leur dire: «Eh quoi! votre désir

         A ses lois croit-il nous astreindre?

         Vous avez dû premièrement

         Garder votre gouvernement;

Mais, ne l’ayant pas fait, il vous devait suffire

Que votre premier roi fût débonnaire et doux.

         De celui-ci contentez-vous,

         De peur d’en rencontrer un pire.»

 

 

VII, xv: Le Chat, la Belette, et le petit Lapin

 

         Du palais d’un jeune lapin

         Dame belette un beau matin

         S’empara: c’est une rusée.

Le maître étant absent, ce lui fut chose aisée.

Elle porta chez lui ses penates un jour

Qu’il était allé faire à l’aurore sa cour

         Parmi le thym et la rosée.

Après qu’il eut brouté, trotté, fait tous ses tours,

Janot Lapin retourne aux souterrains séjours.

La belette avait mis le nez à la fenêtre.

«Oh dieux hospitaliers, que vois-je ici paraître?

Dit l’animal chassé du paternel logis.

         O là! Madame la belette,

         Que l’on déloge sans trompette,

Ou je vais avertir tous les rats du pays.»

La dame au nez pointu répondit que la terre

         Etait au premier occupant:

         C’était un beau sujet de guerre

Qu’un logis où lui-même il n’entrait qu’en rampant.

         «Et quand ce serait un royaume,

Je voudrais bien savoir, dit-elle, quelle loi

         En a pour toujours fait l’octroi

A Jean, fils ou neveu de Pierre ou de Guillaume,

         Plutôt qu’à Paul, plutôt qu’à moi.»

Jean Lapin allégua la coutume et l’usage.

«Ce sont, dit-il, leurs lois qui m’ont de ce logis

Rendu maître et seigneur, et qui, de père en fils,

L’ont de Pierre à Simon, puis à moi Jean, transmis.

Le premier occupant, est-ce une loi plus sage?»

         – Or bien, sans crier davantage,

Rapportons-nous, dit-elle, à Raminagrobis.»

C’était un chat vivant comme un dévot ermite,

         Un chat faisant la chattemite,

Un saint homme de chat, bien fourré, gros et gras,

         Arbitre expert sur tous les cas.

         Jean Lapin pour juge l’agrée.

         Les voilà tous deux arrivés

         Devant Sa Majesté fourrée.

Grippeminaud leur dit: «Mes enfants, approchez,

Approchez; je suis sourd: les ans en sont la cause.»

L’un et l’autre approcha, ne craignant nulle chose.

Aussitôt qu’à portée il vit les contestants,

         Grippeminaud le bon apôtre,

Jetant des deux côtés la griffe en même temps,

Mit les plaideurs d’accord en croquant l’un et l’autre.

Ceci ressemble fort aux débats qu’ont parfois

Les petits souverains se rapportants aux rois.

 

About Jean de La Fontaine:

The French writer Jean de La Fontaine was born in Château-Thierry on July 8, 1621. Up until his tenth year of school, he stayed in the place of his birth, and he finished his schooling in Paris in 1636. Five years later, La Fontaine began to study theology with the Order of the Oratorians, but he left the order after his novitiate in 1643.

From 1645 to 1647 he studied law and in 1647 married a 14-year-old in Château-Thierry. At this point he moved to Paris for good and had contacts to literary circles.

In 1654, Jean de La Fontaine’s first work appeared, «L’Eunuque», an unwritten play by Publius Terentius Afer (around 190–159/158). He wrote his first original work, the small epic «Adonis», in 1658 and dedicated it to the French Minister of Finance Nicolas Fouquet (1615–80).

In 1662, Fouquet fell into disgrace with King Louis XIV (1638–1715) and was imprisoned. La Fontaine fled to Limoges, and there he completed his verse stories that were published in 1665 and 1666 as «Comtes et nouvelles en vers». In 1664, the first two fairy tales «Joconde» and «Le Cocu battu et content» were published.

From 1664 to 1672, the writer found himself in Paris, and was housed by his new patron Marguerite de Lorrain (1615-72), the widow of Gaston d’Orlean (1608–60), in the Palais du Luxembourg. Here Jean de La Fontaine wrote his main work, the fables.

These appeared in 1668 as «Fables choisies, mises en vers par M. de La Fontaine» in two volumes. Beginning in 1672, he was a long-term guest of the banker’s widow Marguerite de la Sablière (1640–93). The writer had difficulties with increasing censorship: a newly-published selection of the Comtes et nouvelles was banned. In the years 1667 and 69, volumes four and five of the Fables choisies appeared. In 1683, La Fontaine was appointed to the Académie Française.

In addition, the Comédie Française staged the play «Le Rendez-Vous», which was only performed four times and is no longer extant. In 1692, he published a revised complete edition of the «Comtes». In the same year, he became very ill and turned from now on to religion.

Jean de La Fontaine died in Paris in the year 1695.

 

 About Christopher Betts:

Christopher Betts spent most of his working life in the French Department of the University of Warwick, England, from where he published books and articles concerning seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French texts. In retirement since 1997 he has found that he prefers translation, which he had previously embarked on with Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes. The Oxford University Press published in 2007 his translation of the complete fairy tales of Charles Perrault. He also gardens, enjoys the society of the small Cotswold town where he lives, and tries to understand his family.