For the longest time it didn’t occur to me that I had an accent in my mother tongue, American English. People from other geographies had accents. I came from Greenwich Village, and the English that I spoke was so natural to my ear that I didn’t question it.
Nor, years later, did I seriously question the role one’s native accent might play in the act of translating until I gave a reading one day with a sister-translator from North Carolina. As Mary Ann Caws and I read aloud our individual translations from René Char’s Furor and Mystery, a volume we’d coedited, I focused for the first time on how certain verses, certain words I might have rendered differently from her sounded when she read them with her North Carolinian diction. In my abrupt Manhattan speech, for instance, I had internally translated the title of one of Char’s poems as “The Nuptial Face.” Mary Ann, though, had chosen “The Nuptial Countenance,” and this more formal choice sounded right when she pronounced it.
If it was illuminating to become aware of her voice, which made me listen more closely to my own, imagine how astonishing it was to hear René Char’s when I met him in 1972. I’d been reading him on the page for a decade, hearing his poems in a hybrid of my voice and the voice of my undergraduate French Poetry professor, who came from Indiana. Imagine suddenly being in the presence of the Poet himself, the Speaker of his poems, and discovering that he had a Méridional accent: he spoke southern French! For years, I’d striven to speak his language like a Parisian, as we were taught to do in the US. And here was René Char, one of the greatest living poets in France, who didn’t speak Parisian French at all. His was a deep voice, dense with Provençal, as if it had been simmered over a slow flame in olive oil, garlic, herbes de Provence. It was astonishing to hear him pronounce the silent “s” in les gens (people), so that it rhymed with la chance (luck), that central and radiant term in his vocabulary and his vision of the world, where poetry, like love, is “une extrême chance compacte” (supreme compressed luck). It was amazing, unsettling even, to hear him perform his own work on the recording he gave me of Lettera amorosa, “read from my very own gullet,” as he put it.
But does the ghost of his actual voice, remembered at this distance, enter into how I hear his poems today?
Perhaps faintly. But only that, for his poetry has, as he wrote, stolen his death from him. The voice of his poems has superseded his own—and it is their voice I strive to carry over into my translations.
Our accent and our diction are tools all writers bring to the work table. They comprise the music of our speech and color the way we hear language. And whether consciously or not, we line them up beside the pencils and the pencil sharpeners, the laptop and the dictionaries.
And alongside them are temperament and taste.
Mary Ann once told me that Char’s poems about birds didn’t really interest her. We had been discussing the fig tree in his front yard, which froze one winter and did not produce figs the following spring, distressing the orioles who flew there to eat them. So the poet bought dried figs, soaked them in milk and tied them to the branches, which worked just fine. Then, of course, he wrote a poem about it. And even though she’d wept when Char told her the story, Mary Ann recalled, she did not gravitate to his poems about nature and its inhabitants.
Although the fig tree story didn’t make me weep—it made me laugh—I find Char’s poems about birds, bees, and trout among his most moving. Like the following passage from Leaves of Hypnos, his wartime Resistance journal, which catalogs the creatures of the meadow, each a character in its own right:
The population of the meadows enchants me. Its frail beauty, bereft of venom. I never tire of reciting it to myself. The field-vole, the mole, somber children lost in the chimera of the grass, the blind-worm, son of glass, the cricket, conformist as they come, the grasshopper who flaps and counts its linen, the butterfly who play-acts drunkenness and irritates the flowers with its silent hiccups, the ants made wiser by the vast verdant expanse, and just above it, the meteoric swallows . . .
Meadow, you are the day’s container.
This Feuillet, or leaf, comes as a relief—a simple flash of beauty—midway through Hypnos, which is sometimes so heavy with pain and rage and ugliness that it is difficult to read. And to translate. Then, Char’s language seems to solidify, to take on the opacity and elusiveness of what he is confronting, further thickened by his own emotion and by the intense effort to articulate the unspeakable.
It is tempting for the translator, especially with a poet as difficult at times as Char, to simplify what is complicated. You find yourself facing an enigma, you work to untangle its meanings, and if you think you’ve begun to understand it, you feel pulled toward translating your interpretation, rather than the mystifying, usually elliptical text itself.
To paraphrase Char: I try to fight such tendencies.
But even in the most transparent passages, you may encounter the untranslatable. In the meadow-creature passage, there is a word I never carried over into English to my satisfaction. The poem ends Prairie, vous êtes le boîtier du jour and I finally settled on “Meadow, you are the day’s container.” But it bothers me, because boîtier means a container or box (une boîte) with lots of little compartments. I picture the type-drawer in which the different letters in handset type are kept. Or a “boîtier de montre” a watch-case: when you open the watch, all its tiny parts fit into one another like a jigsaw, held as one mechanism within the case. In the same way, the meadow holds all the creatures of daylight, who counterbalance with their fragility and their lack of venom the poisonous forces of the Hitlerian night.
Meadow, you are the watch-case of the day? I don’t think so.
Be that as it may, I’m touched by the moving parts of the meadow and the forest and the mountain Char so vividly evokes. But I am slower to understand and respond to his magisterial, visionary, abstract, philosophical poems, to which my sister-translator is drawn.
How lucky that as translators our tools include differing tastes and temperaments. But what about the poet—what does he bring with him to the studio?
The poet brings the worktable itself, and lined up on Char’s table—alongside a deep moral commitment to the living, which we sense in every line he writes—is the sheer beauty of his language: surprising, elliptical, compressed to a density that seems sometimes to give off light.
The first time I met him, Char talked about Art as this radium that we bring up from within us, despite our malediction, despite our shadows.
Radium: a rare, brilliant-white, luminescent, highly radioactive, metallic element . . . which emits rays that penetrate opaque matter.
A Charian substance, indeed.
As a very young woman who believed it possible to understand the world, I pushed the poet to explain what certain verses that I found “hermetic” meant. That was my word—in fact, it was everyone’s: Char was widely spoken of as a “hermetic” poet—and he took exception to it. How could he, he said to me, palpably injured, how could he—a grandson of Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Scève—be called hermetic?
On another occasion, in a letter responding to my somewhat irritated use of the same term, he wrote: “There are no hermetic verses, you’re wrong, there is simply a shutter in front of our windowpane that we haven’t yet pushed aside.”
How charming to provide an image for an explanation. And how accurate, even if essentially unhelpful on an intellectual level. But perhaps that wasn’t the level that interested Char.
He once told me a story from his Surrealist days: There was a jumping bean, and that imbecile Caillois said, We have to open it to see what’s inside. But Breton said, No! Breton was right, for once. Whether the worm inside is eating or changing place or trying to get out, what’s interesting about that? What is interesting is that the bean jumps.
Char advised me not to take poems apart, but to enter into them: Listen to the verses that are mysterious to you as you would listen in a cathedral to Josquin des Prez or Monteverdi, music distant from us but full of hunting horns.
My mother had aphasia at the very end of her life and sometimes sounded as if she were a Surrealist poet, as mysterious as René Char. She was a writer, and she never lost her syntax. It was her words she lost—or found. Her most Surrealist utterance:
She has gone to an extent
To spread her trestle.
I don’t know what this text means, but I could translate it if I had the right dictionary. And although I haven’t translated much of Char’s poetry from his early “Surrealist” period, the opacity of my mother’s lament recalls a poem I have translated by his friend and colleague Paul Éluard:
Masha was beaming
The hour trembling at the root of tangled time
A fine feathered bird livelier than a speck of dust
Drags a headless corpse across a mirror
Spheres of sun soften its wings
And the wind of flight maddens the light
The best was discovered far from here.
I couldn’t say what this poem means, but I can hear its hunting horns. And I can identify in its six verses a lexicon of Surrealist—and specifically Éluardian—substantives: a decapitated corpse (“exquisite corpses” were big with the Surrealists); a mirror; a bird, dust, madness; and flight, which recurs throughout Éluard’s Capital of Pain, the volume in which this text appears. I can also pick out the scattered alexandrines, assonances, rhymes, and the image that suggests Icarus. I’m dazzled by the shimmer of light driven crazy by flight and by the way the hour trembles in a tangle of time. And in the last verse I can hear an echo of Baudelaire’s “Anywhere Out of This World.” But I cannot offer an interpretation of the poem.
And although I don’t like to admit this, I stumbled, translating its title, in which the French idiom “rire aux anges” appears. The word-for-word translation is to laugh or smile at the angels. And because the phrase “Masha Smiled at the Angels” sounded no odder to my ear than the rest of the poem, it didn’t even occur to me to check.
Happily, I learned the title’s idiomatic meaning before we went to press and changed the galleys to read “Masha Was Beaming.” Not without regret, I have to say, since I felt that something—a touch of whimsy? of humor?—might have been lost by being correct.
I needn’t have worried. Recently, I went looking for this poem in the edition of Capital of Pain that Mary Ann Caws, Patricia Terry, and I translated. In the Table of Contents, which I hadn’t read since correcting it, the English title now read: “Marsha was beaming.”
How did this happen?!
I thought about it. Our publisher is located in Boston, a city whose characteristic accent I can recognize, having lived there for many years. I can only speculate that some proofreader, somewhere along the line, didn’t catch the invasive “r” in Masha. After all, in Boston Marsha is pronounced “Masha.”
I hope that Éluard, if he’s reading this, is smiling at the angels.
But my initial mistranslation of his title highlights a potential pitfall in translating Surrealism. Or any hermetic text, for that matter. So many Surrealist images make no rational sense—that’s the whole point—that you risk sliding past them. Whereas Char’s enigmas demand our scrutiny, seeming always to encapsulate an authorial meaning if only we can decipher it, Éluard’s dreamy images invite us to suspend the analytical mind. And we shouldn’t forget that Éluard, like many Surrealists—and like the Dadaists before them—loved to play.
Yet for all their playfulness, Dada and Surrealism arose out of the cataclysm of the First World War. They sprouted from the ruins that it left behind—ruins on which the Second World War was built. And it is to that wreckage that René Char gives voice. In fact, much of his poetry takes its very form from the rubble, the fragmentation of the world around him: “The profusion of fragments tears me apart,” he wrote. “And the torture is endured standing.”
Whether Char was ever truly a Surrealist (he denied it), to my mind what makes his poems difficult is not the shock of juxtapositions or images originating in dreams or the unconscious, those prized sources of imagery for Surrealism. When he is not utterly pellucid, what makes this poet mysterious is the compression of his language, coupled with his explicit ambivalence about how much a poem should reveal. As he once wrote: “Poem, you are a wayside altar of darkness on my too freely offered face.”
For me, the quintessential experience of reading René Char is to be suspended in a luminous series of fragments or prose poems, only to be confronted, quite suddenly, with an enigma that clearly means . . . but what?
If mystery and fury are central to Char’s poetry, so too is “that instant when beauty, having kept us waiting for so long, abruptly rises out of common things, cuts across our radiant field of vision, binds together all that can be bound, lights all that must be set alight in our sheaf of shadows.” This illuminative flash of beauty clearly resembles the Surrealists’ marvelous in everyday life. But it is more than that, for in Char’s universe Beauty itself is a moral force on the side of the good, the living. Which is why he ends Leaves of Hypnos, his wartime journal, as he does.
Written between 1943 and 1944, while the poet was actively engaged in the French Resistance to the Nazi Occupation, the text consists of 237 elliptical Heraclitean fragments—some not even a complete sentence, others a full page, some transparent, others dense and complicated. As he tells us in his preface, all were composed “under stress, in anger, fear, emulation, disgust, guile, furtive meditation, the illusion of a future, friendship, love.” And the last numbered shard in this remarkable document reads, “In our shadows, there is not one space alone for Beauty. The whole space is for Beauty.”
And so as the dark years of brutality and servitude and death under the German Occupation come to an end, Char evokes freedom as it slowly returns to his devastated world “along this white line . . . [a] swan on the wound.” This image of la Liberté gliding silent, lovely, and imperturbable as a swan over the wound the earth has become strikes me as purely beautiful, as astonishing in its unlikely juxtaposition of “swan” and “wound” as the most exquisite corpse. Of course the French for swan, “cygne,” is a homonym for “signe,” or sign. Which is to say that language returns to the poet in the same instant that his freedom does. And that is lost in translation. But what isn’t lost in translation, even missing Char’s double entendre, is the beauty of the image and its emotional weight. An emotional weight that we encounter in so many of his poems, even the most hermetic, which—like my mother’s anguished “Skillet! Skillet!”—cannot be understood under what Breton called “the reign of logic.” Not with the mind, but with the heart.
Even in Occupied France, in the darkness of the Nazi nightmare, beauty can suddenly rise out of common things to free the poet for an instant. We find this in a particularly luminous fragment at the center of Leaves of Hypnos that, in its juxtaposition with helpless rage and grief, embodies beauty as a moral force in Char’s broken world.
This text follows an extended description of the murder of a comrade, witnessed by Char and his men. (According to filmmaker Jérôme Prieur, the poet did not actually see the murder, which was reported to him afterward, but he wrote it as first-person testimony, thereby intensifying its horror and its moral implications.) In the poet’s telling, the Germans are about to shoot the young poet-maquisard Roger Bernard, entirely unaware that a group of Maquis commanded by Char is hidden nearby, in sufficient number and with sufficient weapons to stop them. But if these Maquis intervened, the Germans would retaliate by destroying the village that had been sheltering the Resistance fighters. The latter have no choice but to stand by and watch their brother’s execution.
Four brief lines after evoking Bernard’s brutal death, Char places the following passage:
The counterterror is this valley little by little brimmed with mist, it is the fleeting buzz of the leaves like a swarm of torpid Roman candles, it is this heaviness dispersed, this muffled movement of animals and insects etching a thousand marks into the tender bark of the night, this grain of alfalfa in the dimple of a face caressed, this fire on the moon which will never catch fire, it is a minuscule day-after whose intentions are unknown to us, it is the brightly-colored bust that bowed, smiling, the shadow of a brief companion crouching a few feet away who’s worried that the leather of his belt will give . . . Of what importance then the hour and the place the devil has fixed for our rendezvous!
The sensuous simplicity of the poet’s language bespeaks his passion for the natural and human world, gives form to his vision, and yields the whole space to Beauty. It lifts him in the instant when he writes—and lifts us in the instant when we read—out of terror, suffering, and death. If we define art as radium and beauty as a moral force, then writing beauty, and perhaps even translating beauty, is an act of counterterror in this murderous world of ours.