Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence, RAG, and the forthcoming Think Tank. She is also the author of Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry. She teaches at the University of Colorado–Boulder and lives in Denver where she codirects Counterpath. Jennifer Pap, associate professor of French at the University of Denver, centers her research around French poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Pierre Reverdy, Francis Ponge, René Char, and Dominique Fourcade. She has published articles on these poets in Modern Language Review, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies (formerly Sites), Dalhousie French Studies, Word & Image, and other journals. She is preparing a book that situates the interart dialogue of these poets in the context of historical crisis. Their translations of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Mirabeau Bridge” and “Lul De Faltenin” appear in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your decision to jointly translate Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Le Pont Mirabeau,” and “Lul de Faltenin”? What was the hardest part about the translation process?
We decided to translate all of Alcools in 2010. We were in a reading group together, reading poets like Vallejo, Barbara Guest, and Zukofsky, and we wanted another way to engage with poetry in an ongoing practice. We also found ourselves dissatisfied with the available translations, not because they were not good, but because there wasn’t enough variety. Only one full translation of Alcools is currently in print. It seemed there was room for more.
The process has been very pleasurable, but of course there are challenges. There is a one-line poem in Alcools, “Chantre” (Singer):
Et l’unique cordeau des trompettes marines
Aside from the way the title offers alternate meanings right from the start (cantor, bard, minstrel, singer), the poem magically combines a description of a clumsy looking (and sounding) medieval one-stringed instrument with a series of water puns. At some point while we were working on this poem, Julie wrote an email to Jennifer: “How in the world could we get the ‘sea trumpet’ the ‘horn of water’ and the single stringed instrument all into one ENGLISH poem!? We must revisit this!”
Donald Revell went with “And only one in the world chord ocean horns,” ditching the idea of a stringed instrument and emphasizing instead the horn. We, instead, enjoyed the idea of a “singular line,” equating the coredeau / cor d’eau to a line of poetry, especially a one-lined poem. Revell’s line is great and we envied it. But we took this as an opportunity to explore another side of the poem. We ended up with the following:
And the sole sounding cord of the tromba marina
We often hear people speak of the difficulty of translation, groping to find the right word, regretting that some feeling about one language can’t be captured by the other. Instead of that frustration about the impossibility of equivalencies, we tended to feel excitement and interest about the diverse choices (in English) that present themselves as vibrant renditions of the original French text.
“Mirabeau Bridge,” one of the terrific Apollinaire translations you’ve contributed to KR, has also been elegantly translated into English elsewhere, by Richard Wilbur and others. Did you consult other English versions prior to or during your own translating process? Do you feel that your translation is in conversation with other English iterations of the poem, or only in conversation with the original French?
We always began by reading the French, and then created a literal translation into English (as best as possible). From there, we’d generate the English language poem, looking up terms and words, discussing possible interpretations, consulting the scholarship and biography, until we had something we felt good about. At that point, we’d read every English language translation we could get our hands on, considering other translators’ choices. Sometimes we took ideas from others. In the event of the book’s publication, we will have an extensive notes section in which we credit all those translators we learned so much from.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
We learned something about collaboration—this is a great way to read and be together as people. The poems mean more when we read them together than they can mean to us alone. We’re unusual translators, perhaps, because we don’t really argue, except sometimes about clothes and child rearing. We bring different skills and histories to the work—and so learn from one another.
Research grounds our translations when the poems include such oddities as the forty martyrs of Sebaste, the Zaporoghian Cossacks, snow like argyraspids (soldiers named for their silver shields), the word “morfil” (the edge of a newly-sharpened sword), Ghibelene blood, café waiters in loincloths, a glimpse of democracy’s “veiled” sorrow, Saint Jacob the Cut-Up, and an old Flemish dance called the maclotte. The very boldness of these combinations made Georges Duhamel refer to Alcools as “the junkshop creation of a foreigner” in a xenophobic 1912 review, but Apollinaire’s myths and histories, street scenes, and found exotica (for example), are what we love.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
We are in the process of translating Leslie Kaplan’s Excess—The Factory. Kaplan was born in Brooklyn, but raised and educated in France. Beginning in January 1968, she worked for two years in a series of factories, but stumbled over the problem of how to write about such an experience. Feeling an ethical summons to write about an alienating and often hidden place in society, Kaplan wrote L’excès-l’usine, rendering into poetry what is political life—the position of the workers in this factory and their isolation from the value of what they are producing.
Commune Editions has just published a pdf and chapbook of the first two “circles” (or sections) of the book. It’s available for download here: http://communeeditions.com/2014/06/08/excess-the-factory/
We are going to Paris in October to meet with Leslie to go over the whole translation in detail and to interview her.