As someone specifically interested in the translation of poetry, of the free verse variety, I will come down squarely on the side of occasional long shots, slippages into the non-mimetic. A desire for mimesis or a close-as-possible parroting turns out to be relatively boring, both to prepare and to read, whereas some sort of slip away from the original seems peculiarly fruitful: Each of these essays deals with a different sort of history and slippage from the mimetic into a poetic address closer to a salmon maneuver, or surprise. [1]

. . .

In the greeting [of poetic address], inner shape and personal voice are crucial. They must, both of them, leave room for an openness and question: the latter so crucial to Yves Bonnefoy’s notion of translation, and both interdependent with the “room” that plays a major role in the book by William Gass, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. The poems of Rainer Maria Rilke have held out a fertile ground for some of the most talented translators, and this ground or room (Raum) Gass conceives as “the space made by Being’s breathing” (37), an Innerweltraum (literally, an inner world space). In this breathing space of the poet’s moving inside or “inwarding” (145), as Gass calls it, many different interpretations can find their own room. Discussing the translator’s task, Gass states his belief in one kind of mimesis, that of “delicate adjudications,” equivalences, adjustments in the poem (89). 

An initial reflection back at the parrot: in a rendering of poetic repetition, whether rhymed or material. García Lorca’s brief ode to the self deals with just that theme, indicated by the title: “Narciso.” Here Narcissus staring at himself is first captured in a cloud of fragrance; he marvels at its emission by the other in himself, and finally reflects that fragrance in his own rhyming sorrow and in the pond of reflection. The original Spanish fits this reflective form and function, perfectly self-enclosed:


Tu olor
. . .
Mi dolor
Y mi dolor mismo

While the English, however fragrant, cannot ever capture such self-reflection as the “olor/dolor” rhyme, William Jay Smith’s translation has captured both the heady whiff of the claustrophobic universe and the self-reflective fantasy, doomed to repetition and glorying in it:

Your fragrance
. . .
My sorrow
And my sorrow’s self. (55-57)

The repeated s sounds—Narciso, sorrow, sorrow’s self—compensate for the loss of the other rhyme, while the poem is balanced between other and same, yours and mine, myself and my self’s self. The minimal reflection in the last line makes up for the rest, so that the self stares again at its emotion.

García Lorca’s is a poem of address, as are many of the simplest and grandest poems of the French language. In them, the notions of layering can be crucial: one element of the poem may refer back to the past or on to the future, even as the person addressed is given that past and future, not just the present. For example, in Baudelaire’s “Semper eadem,” the original has included in its first line a reference to another time outside the present:

D’où vous vient, disiez-vous,  cette tristesse étrange, 
Montant  comme la mer sur le roc noir et nu? (45)

This element both of past referral and personal recounting—“disiez-vous,” “you used to say”—in no way extraneous to the poem, has been eliminated in a recent English translation:

You’re like some rock the sea is swallowing—
What is it that brings on these moods of yours? (223)

A pity. For the shape of the translation to somewhat approximate, without servile imitation, that of the original, such complications of time and person might well be included.

. . .

The question of address is the kind that the inner shape of the poem as translated has to make room for. (I am saying inner, because the outer shape may vary: take Yves Bonnefoy’s renderings of English poetry, that of Shakespeare and Keats and Yeats – there are considerably more lines in the French than the English, even as the interior shape corresponds.) It is where the personal comes in. In my own case, it was my work on the poetry of the Provençal poet René Char that proved the most problematic. For in the split between the poet and his or her own text, that is, in my case, between Char as poet and as interpreter of his own texts, there were already two people for me to converse with. One of the basic problems was his desire for literalism, for the poem to be kept “face to the wave.” Whatever that expression might have meant in its original, I translated it as a sort of word-for-wordness. So, for example, I felt summoned to use words I actually found too heavy, such as “bivouac” for the French bivouaquer, in his poem “L’Allégresse” (“Gladness”).

Les nuages sont dans les rivières, les torrents parcourent le ciel. Sans saisie les journées montent en graine, meurent en herbe. Le temps de la famine et celui de la moisson, l’un sous l’autre dans l’air haillonneux, ont effacé leur différence. Ils filent ensemble, ils bivaquent!

I continued to hear or to feel a lightness hovering around that text and wanted more than anything not to weigh it down. After a certain amount of argument with the poet, I managed “encamp”—but it was a struggle. Perhaps in each poem you love certain moments and they are the ones you most want to get right: in this poem I loved the words “sans saisie,” about the days unplucked, and so used “unpicked,” for the harvest that was not gathered.

Clouds are in the rivers, torrents course through the sky. Unpicked, the days run to seed, perish in the green. The time of famine and the time of harvest, one beneath the other in the tattered air, have wiped out their difference. They slip by together, they encamp! (Selected Poems 106-7)

Char’s radically complex love poem “Le Visage nuptial” or “The Nuptial Countenance”—of a voluptuousness rare in French poetry of the early twentieth century—occasioned much discussion with the poet. It opens on a willed leave taking:

A présent disparais, mon escorte, debout dans la distance;
La douceur du nombre vient de se détruire.

Now let my escort disappear, standing in the distance;
Numbers have just lost their sweetness. (Selected Poems 28-9)

The majestic slow beginning I had originally made even slower: “standing far off into the distance.” But that was too distant. 

      . . .
Tôt soustrait au flux des lésions inventives
(La pioche de l’aigle lance haut le sang évasé)
. . .
O voûte d’effusion sur la couronne de son ventre,
Murmure de dot noire!                                 
. . .
Le soir a fermé sa plaie de corsaire où voyagaient les fusées vagues
     parmi la peur soutenue des chiens.
Au passé les micas du deuil sur ton visage.
. . .
Prends, ma Pensée, la fleur de ma main pénétrable,
Sens s’éveiller l’obscure plantation.

Soon subtracted from the flux of contriving lesions
(the eagle’s pickaxe flings high the flaring blood)
O vaulted effusion upon the crown of her belly,
murmurings of dark dowry!
. . .
Evening has closed its corsair’s gash where the rockets soared  
aimlessly amid a dogged fear.
Past now the micas of mourning on your face. 
. . .
Take, oh my Thought, the flower of my penetrable hand,
Feel the dark planting waken. (Selected Poems 30-31)

Whew. I had delighted in finding the sharpness of “flings/flaring” for the eagle’s pickaxe and worried a bit about the “dogged fear,” whether I was losing the reality in the metaphor: “Fine,” said Char, “I can still hear them barking.” (On my motorbike I used to go work with him, I had indeed been afraid of the dogs on the road near his house: that reality stuck.)

But the crucial question was to come: Did I know whose face it was? Know for whom he had written the poem, Char asked me? No, I said—and I cannot now remember whether or not I did.  It was Greta Knutson, the wife of Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist. Char stormed out into the kitchen, returned, placed his hand on my knee, and we continued our work. Now it happens that the beloved was blonde, so what were the “murmure de dot noire” and later the “obscure plantation” doing there? “Poetic license,” said the poet. Indeed. The feeling and sound of a strange nobility sensed in this erotic epic was hard to capture, as it led to the final statement: “This is…this [is],” in that certainty that called on the religious ritual of the bread and wine: “This is Christ’s body. . . .”

Voici le sable mort, voici le corps sauvé:
La Femme respire; l’Homme se tient debout.

This is the sand dead, this the body saved:
Woman breathes, Man stands upright. (Selected Poems 32-33)

The “debout” recalls the first line: “debout dans la distance,” only now it is ultimate presence. How it used to bother me that the man stood upright after the sexual encounter, while she simply breathed. But no longer. For that’s just what they did in this highly voluptuous love poem, whose address is interior, not turned toward the reader. Or the translator.

As for questions of address, they give rise to the thorny issue of gender. To whom and of whom is the poet speaking? A question not always easily resolved. One of the most challenging cases in my own experience turned around my own excessive psychological projection into one of Char’s poems. To be sure, any woman translator involved in the translations of a great male poet, could have made this error, in judgment and in poetry. It reflects a lack of imagination on my part, and a frankness on the part of the poet that might be instructive for others.

One of Char’s love poems, “Allégeance,” or “Allegiance,” concerns the loss of a beloved one moving out into the world beyond, even as the lover keeps watch. The French begins:

Dans les rues de la ville il y a mon amour. Peu importe où il va dans le temps divisé. Il n’est plus mon amour, chacun peut lui parler. Il ne se souvient plus; qui au juste l’aima?……     

And ends, reaching far past the beginning question not by an answer but by a simple extension:

Dans les rues de la ville il y a mon amour. Peu importe où il va dans le temps divisé. Il n’est plus mon amour, chacun peut lui parler, il  ne se souvient plus; qui au juste l’aima et l’éclaire de loin pour qu’il ne tombe pas?

Looking too hastily at the words of the lover: “mon amour . . . il,” I first assumed that the object of “my love” was masculine, as the French seemed to be. I had forgotten entirely that since René Char was writing the poem, that was very far from the case. He was simply using the Elizabethan sense of “my love” as he pointed out subsequently, and so the absent one was of course a woman. I had already undertaken my translation before consulting the poet and had written:

In the streets of the town goes my love. Small matter where he goes in divided time. He is no longer my love, anyone may speak with him. He remembers no longer, who exactly loved him?

Subsequently I had, in fact, published the translation using a compromise measure, both impersonalizing the love and ruining the translation:

In the streets of the town goes my love. Small matter where it moves in divided time. . . (Poems of René Char 94-95)

Then, righting matters, I retranslated it in 1992 for a new publication, giving finally what the poet had intended:

In the streets of the town goes my love. Small matter where she moves in divided time. She is no longer my love, anyone may speak with her. She remembers no longer: who exactly loved her, and lights her from afar, lest she should fall? (Selected Poems 64-5)

Now in retranslating, twice, and republishing the poem, I finally came to feel that I had lost some of my closeness to it. It was not speaking with my voice. The translator is not, naturally, to be included in the picture, and yet I had so identified with the whole situation that I was there. I believe in personal criticism, but that is one thing, and the personal translation I had unknowingly indulged in was another matter entirely. The lesson I learned was quite simply one of imagination, not one of imitation. I had merged voices and vectored them in the wrong direction.


Baudelaire, Charles.  Les Fleurs du Mal, tr. Richard Howard. Boston: Godine, 1983.

Char, René. Selected Poems, ed. Mary Ann Caws and Tina Jolas. New York: New Directions, 1992.

Poems of René Char, tr. and ed. Mary Ann Caws and Jonathan Griffin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Lorca, Federico García. The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca. New York: New Directions, 1955.


[1] In Provence I encountered a rather violent cure for vertigo that I understood as a “manoeuvre saumon,” which requires the patient’s head and body to be tilted, turned and swung,  to readjust the little hairs in the ears. Only it turned out to be something invented by Dr. Sémont. Clearly, the ear makes mistakes. This would be the opposite of parroting, the mimetic. I am on the other side, thus the celebration of surprise.