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Thursday, September 19, 2013

‘A conch in which the exiled sea is heard to moan’: Mallarmé and Irish Poetry (with a sidewards glance at Scotland)

(Text of a paper I gave at the Contemporary Poetry Conference in Manchester the other day.)

Few European poetries have been better represented in translation by Irish poets than French. From the heady days of the 1890s and Yeats’s meeting with Mallarmé, to Beckett, Coffey and Devlin’s translations of Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Mallarmé in the 1930s (including in Devlin’s case, a translation into Irish), to the Francophile excursions of John Montague, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon, and most recently Justin Quinn, modern Irish poetry has provided an invigorating renewal of the Franco-Hiberno auld alliance. In this paper I will be confining myself to one French poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, as a test case for how Irish poets approach translation today. The mage-like Mallarmé is, in any case, a test case for just about any theory of literature – ‘the man’, as Brian Coffey called him, ‘who went further than any other in exploring the nature of poetry, and attempting to say what it is and how to make it.’ As George Steiner writes of Rimbaud and Mallarmé in After Babel: ‘With them Western literature and speech-consciousness enter a new phase. The poet no longer has or aspires to native tenure in the house of words. The languages waiting for him as an individual born into history, into society, into the expressive conventions of his particular culture and milieu, are no longer a natural skin.’

The prospect of not inhabiting language as a natural skin has a long pedigree in Irish writing, as expressed in Montague’s ‘A Grafted Tongue’: ‘To grow /a second tongue, as /harsh a humiliation /as twice to be born.’ The specifically Irish debate over the naturalness of one tradition versus another is not my focus here, however, but the ways in which any translation works to blur the line between what is native and what is foreign. ‘Translators want to stay at home’, Vahni Capildeo has written, somewhat counterfactually. Yet consider some of the current orthodoxies of poetry in translation. Ours is an age of versions rather than translations, in English at least. Often, a poet without expert knowledge of the target language will produce poems ‘after’ Dante or Mandelstam, sometimes with updated cultural references, and which the Anglophone poet then publishes under his or her name. In the marketing of these books, it is often the versioner’s name that carries the project: his third book, The Eyes, features Don Paterson’s name on the spine, with a smaller acknowledgement, ‘after Machado’, under Paterson’s name on the front cover. Where styles of translation are concerned, the belief in the availability of the foreign in English extends to formal aspects of the original – rhyme for instance – despite the different conditions under which these occur from one language to another. In the afterword to his translations of Mallarmé’s Poems in Verse, Peter Manson takes a stand for the contrary impulse, rejecting the false equivalences and expectations of rhymed translations:

These translations were done in the conviction that a translation of Mallarmé should at least be allowed to sound like interesting modern poetry, and that the strict (or even the very lax) use of rhyme and regular metre is one of the surest ways of forbidding that from happening.

Metrically, translators tend to assume equivalences between French forms such as the alexandrine and the English iambic pentameter, despite English prosody being accentual-syllabic and French not; these, too, Manson rejects.

Manson’s fastidious approach places him in the tradition of ‘deviant translation’ that Dónal Moriarty has diagnosed in the case of another devotee of Mallarmé, the aforementioned Brian Coffey. In his monograph on that poet, Moriarty compares Coffey’s translations to those of Derek Mahon, whose rendering of French poets such as Nerval and Rimbaud are elegant, witty and rich in rhyme. Mahon’s translations aim, above all else, for readability, whereas Coffey’s take a perverse delight in their awkwardness. Coffey pays close attention to etymology, and will deliberately flaunt faux amis lookalikes between English and French such as ‘flames’ for flammes in a Rimbaud translation, flammes in this case meaning ‘banners’. Moriarty comments:

Such is the nature of Coffey’s method of translation that the reader is continually made aware that English is constructed out of foreign materials. A stimulated awareness of the diachronic dimension of language enriches the meaning of the line but, more significantly, it is another way of inscribing foreignness into the translation.

The most celebrated instance of this approach in modern poetry is perhaps Nabokov’s 1964 translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Abjuring the liberties and readability of the Anglo-friendly version, it preached fidelity above all else and was widely attacked as an eccentric curiosity. The readable versus the awkward, surface versus depth, inscribe an opposition of smooth versus rough. Pound’s early translations shocked readers with their slangy register, but also had frequent recourse to archaisms, as in his translations from the Anglo-Saxon and Cavalcanti (a poet that Manson has translated ‘after Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky’). Whether erring on the side of the slangy or the archaic, what the translation refuses is the transparency of a naturalized text, readable as though an English original.

To return to Mallarmé, the addition of Ciaran Carson’s name to the mix at this point gives us an opportunity to put the results of Moriarty’s ‘deviant translation’ to the test of comparison. Mallarmé’s is a poetry haunted by silence, nothingness and death, and if there is any truly shared ground between the verso and recto pages in a translation of this poet it is most likely to be found in the white space between the blocks of text, a temptation encouraged by Mallarmé’s envisioning of the book as a tombeau, or tomb for the writer’s soul. Carson’s Mallarmé’s is among the most joco-serious of his English incarnations, however. The Alexandrine Plan is plainly the work of someone immersed in French tradition but happy to perform an accommodation between translationese and the English sonnet, which is to say both the sonnet in general and the ballad-tinged sonnets which Carson had been writing in such abundance in the late 1990s. Here in Carson’s translation are the first eight lines of ‘Le tombeau d’Edgar Poe’:

Having undergone His final metamorphosis,
The poet with his sword unscabbarded commands
His generation to arise, who did not understand
Till now that Death had always been His major thesis.

And when the angel came to purify their lexis,
These earnest scribblers of the hydra-headed band
Proclaimed, in words of many complicated strands,
Solution of a laudanum necropolis.

‘There is no more dismal – or, frankly, stupid – way of reading a translation than to pick on single words’, Michael Hofmann has written; so let me begin to picking on single words. In French the dead poet is transformed into himself (‘Tel qu’en Lui-même l’étérnité le change’) whereas in English he undergoes his ‘final metamorphosis’ – not strictly the same thing. Another departure occurs in lines five and six, famously paraphrased in ‘Little Gidding’, where it appears that the angel has come to purify the lexis of the ‘earnest scribblers’ (not in the original) rather than the tribe; the English text upholds a separation between the ‘scribblers’ and their tribe absent from the French. The disorientation may be down to the effects of laudanum, which appears in line eight without any direct equivalent in the French, though opiates, we might remember, are everywhere in Carson’s books of this period. Now compare Brian Coffey’s translation of these lines, from his 1990 Poems of Mallarmé:

Such as to Himself at last eternity changes him
the Poet arouses with a naked blade
his century terrified not to have known
their death triumphed in this alien voice

They like a foul uprising of hydra hearing once the angel
giving a purer sense to the words of the tribe
announced shouting his spell as drunk
in the flood without honour of some black swill

The transformation ‘to Himself’, the tribe reunited with its words (minus ‘scribblers’), the non-specific black swill (Mallarmé’s noir mélange – laudanum is reddish-brown) – all are present and correct. Yet local questions of accuracy aside, there is a larger sense of foreignness in the Coffey’s idiom here. Why ‘to’ rather than ‘into Himself’? The placing of ‘hearing once the angel’ makes it difficult to establish if ‘They’ or the hydra are doing the hearing, while before line eight comes to its rescue ‘announced shouting his spell as drunk’ sounds like a more than usually unidiomatic Coffeyism. Depending on one’s scansion, line five contains up to nine stressed syllables, while line seven has only four. Is this Mallarmé meets Ogden Nash, we might begin to wonder.

As Moriarty ruefully acknowledges, ‘Coffey’s translations do not soar, nor do they sing’, but the uncommitted reader may need more than quirky etymological witticisms to make up for this fact. I would now seem to have reached a familiar impasse, with Carson offering readability but semantic compromise and Coffey a stricter fidelity, but at the expense of any compelling verse music. I’m reluctant to leave matters there, however, so luckily for me I can appeal to another Coffey text in which this opposition achieves a rather different resolution. I mean his translation of Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard as Dice Thrown Will Never Abolish Chance, published in 1965 and never reprinted (the volume is also, I might add, a small masterpiece of book design by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press.) Mallarmé’s poem is one of the foundational moments of modernism, akin to Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra or Malevich’s White on White. In it, the line of verse walks the plank into the nothingness that is perhaps Mallarmé’s truest element. Henceforth, the page is to be ‘prise pour unité comme l’est autre part le Vers ou ligne parfaite’: the page becomes a unit of composition unto itself, promoted to the status already enjoyed by the stanza or the line. Such is the typographical challenge represented by Mallarmé’s poem that the first fully accurate text was published as recently as 2004. Briefly, the poem is a meditation on chance and necessity. The poem chooses one of its infinite possible manifestations, but no matter how convinced it is of its rightness (and freedom is the consciousness of necessity, Engels said), the element of chance can never be abolished.

To return to the question of ‘deviant’ English versus translationese, Dice Thrown shows no let-up in Coffey’s weakness for archaism. What is new is the element of mobility brought to his language by the orchestration of the text, and the ‘path of sounds suspended in giddy heights, linking unfathomable abysses of silence’, as the over-excited young Beckett wrote of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It may seem peculiar to speak of movement, given that at its heart the poem insists that ‘NOTHING [...] /WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE /BUT PLACE’, but this is the paradoxical movement in stillness we find in Beckett’s Still or the shimmering soundscapes of Ligeti’s Atmosphères, where static cloud-like chords hang in the air, but under the surface all is teeming (or, Beckett word, formicating) with motion. Here is the passage in question from Coffey’s translation. I have no idea how best to signal its spacings and silences as I read this passage, or the difference between the words in capitals and those not. I will signal one more deliberate faux ami though: Coffey’s ‘vague’ the original vague, meaning ‘wave’: ‘NOTHING /of the memorable crisis /or might have /the event come about of itself in view of every result nul /human / WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE /an everyday uplifting pours out absence /BUT PLACE commonplace plashing below of waves as for dispering the empty act /abruptly which otherwise /by its lie /had founded /perdition /in these reaches /of the vague /in which all the real dissolves.’

Mallarmé’s ambitions for poetry as a synthesis of all the arts resembles Wagner’s for his Gesamtkunstwerk, but where Wagnerian opera is overblown and epic Un Coup de Dés is ethereal and evanescent. Un Coup de Dés is Finnegans Wake rewritten as a batsqueak in outer space. To the question what the poem is actually about, despite my earlier inelegant précis, there is no real answer beyond (cliché of avant-garde clichés) the process of writing itself: agreeing with Wallace Stevens, this text is very much the cry of its occasion, part of the res itself and not about it. Or, rather, this is a poem about the ‘ghost of a geste’ (another archaism there), since the poem ‘does not record any performed “act”’. Moriarty is quick to correct a rival translator who translates Mallarmé’s ‘fiançailles’ as ‘nuptials’ (Coffey has ‘betrothals’), the consummation having yet to take place.

Where the applications of Mallarmé’s poem are concerned, for Irish poets, the consummation most certainly has yet to take place. The tired taxonomies of Irish ‘antiquarians and others’ are not something I propose to exhume here, but where questions of prosody and visual layout are concerned, I think it is safe to generalize that Irish poetry has proved extremely resistant to relaxing its grip on the safety-rail of the left-hand margin. The axes of formal versus free verse and tradition versus experiment criss-cross treacherously: Mallarmé is of the avant-garde even while writing sonnets, whereas in Irish poetry today to write a sonnet is, often, to signal allegiances incompatible with the faintest itch to hit the ‘tab’ key before beginning the line. While Un Coup De Dés should not be confused with concrete poetry, that genre too has fared equally badly at dislodging the hegemony of the left-justified lyric. Derek Mahon has dabbled in concrete poetry down the years, but in poems he has uniformly chosen not to collect and reprint. In his translations of Philippe Jaccottet, he has complained of the unreadable French poetry, ‘poésie illisible’, that would displace the lyric disciplines of the Swiss writer, suggesting any Mahonesque interest in Mallarmé would stop short of Un Coup de Dés. The fault-line between Mahon’s modernist temperament and his cleaving to lyric forms above all else has been one of the most influential arguments with oneself in Irish writing ever since Mahon’s début in 1968. The prose poem too, beloved of the nineteenth-century French tradition, might be added to the mix here as peculiarly antipathetic to the Irish tradition. Why is this?

The answer to that question is too large for a single conference paper, but I do have a suggestion for ending the stand-off between the Carson and Coffey approaches to translation studied earlier, or at least watering it down a little by way of some Peter Manson again. While Manson has produced a (comparatively) ‘straight’ translation of Mallarmé’s Salut as part of The Poems in Verse, a version in his 2008 collection Between Cup and Lip demonstrates a novel approach to linguistic incompatibility. There is proverbially many a slip between cup and lip, and Manson introduces some slippage in his own voice in between the translated French text, which he places in capital letters. The capitalized text can be read separately or across the interpolated text, giving (as in Un Coup de Dés) two different narratives:

NOTHING, MENISCUS, VIRGINity grown back into, traVERSE
SO SLOWLY knocked, with the candle, UPSIDE DOWN: this one A TROOP
OF SIRENS ON THE CEILING could not awaken DROWNS in blood liquor.

The French text bleeds through the surface of the English like a pentimento, and can be absorbed either on its own terms or as part of the interlocking grids the text establishes. The visual similarities between Un Coup de Dés and hypertext have often been remarked on, and perhaps the innovation of the Manson example just quoted is to reimport this device into the superficially more conventional fabric of a rhyming quatrain. I have used several musical comparisons already, but perhaps what Manson is doing here is best understood in terms of the aleatory experiments of post-Webern composers such as Lutosławski and Xenakis, in which structure and freeplay – here, the translated and the original material – are allowed to intermix. Alea jacta est: ‘All Thought utters Dice Thrown.’

Writing to Hans Naumann in 1954, Samuel Beckett (whose translation of a Mallarmé prose poem has finally been restored to the canon in his Collected Poems) punningly insisted on ‘le besoin d'être mal armé’, his artistic need to be ill-equipped. More than a century since his death, the overwhelming audacity of Mallarmé’s work continues to wrongfoot all attempts to accommodate his poetry in English. This is both scandalous and all to the good, since nothing like the point of over-repletion with translations of Mallarmé has yet been reached. Much work remains to be done, whether in the style of Coffey, Carson, or Manson. While the absent ‘ptyx’ of the sonnet ‘en –yx’ may continue to elude us (and just what the hell is a ptyx, by the way), the ghostly shell of himself that is Mallarmé in English provides like few other poets, for anyone picking him up to listen, a ‘conch in which the exiled sea is heard to moan’.

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