Thursday, 13 August 2015

BCLT Summer School:
Translating Poetry 4: Lawn / Pirotte

Toilet graffiti (source)

I left the translation blogs at the point where I had looked at two of the poems that the translators from the various languages were looking to translate. That leaves three. The questions in these three were more conventional in the sense that the three languages - French, Italian and Spanish - are not so culturally removed from us as Japanese and, in its own way though to a lesser degree, Bengali.

That doesn't mean there were no interesting problems. Translation is full of them. Lesley Lawn was looking at two poems by J-C Pirotte. Here is one of them from the collection La Boîte à musique (2004)

le mot poésie dans les latrines
de la vieille école primaire
était efface le matin
par la maitresse enturbanné
ensuite venait vers midi
le pauvre pion de Francis Jammes
déballer sur le bois du siège
le saucisson et les tartines
de son repas très aviné
or par le trou de la serrure
apparaissait un autre monde
òu la main de l’homme à la craie
 dessinait le profil d’un ange
 et sur la paroi maculée
 écrivait le mot poésie
It is a poem about finding the word poetry written on the walls of a school toilet, the word being scrubbed out by a schoolmistress, then the word being written back on by either the writer as a schoolboy or by someone else. It is about the persistence of poetry in any circumstance.

The most obvious problem was what to do with Francis Jammes. Was it the poet? A school named after the poet? A poet particularly important to the writer? Hard to know. Leave out the name altogether, gloss it, substitute another well known name, insert the word 'school'? And then there was that lunch, the saucisson et les tartines très aviné. The aviné doesn't sound too much like a schoolboy's lunch, assuming pion meant prefect and a prefect was a student, as in England, not a junior member of staff. Beyond that was the schoolmistress who was enturbanné. What kind of turban was intended, if it was literally a turban, not a kind of pedagogic hat, and what was its significance?

These might relatively small or incidental details. (Are there merely incidental details in a poem?) The dynamic of the poem, we might argue, depends on the central event, in which case the order of lines would seem important. In the French the word poésie is in the same line as the word latrines. The two are in close proximity. Should the translator register that proximity as a matter of sensibility. It's awkward conveying the same information in the same order in English. Although Jammes, the turban and that copious quantity of lunchtime wine were subjects of intense discussion it was the who-what-how-in what order that was thought to be most important.

Lesley eventually came up with this interim solution. 

in the toilets of the old primary school
the word
was rubbed out this morning

by the schoolmistress
then around midday
the unhappy prefect
unwrapped his lunch on the wooden bench
garlic sausage and bread
and a good deal of wine
so through the keyhole
another world appeared
whereby the hand of the man with the chalk
drew the outline of an angel
and on the smudged and grubby wall wrote
the word poetry

The turban has gone, Jammes has gone, but there is a nicely disapproving tone in and a good deal of wine. The word poetry and the toilets were not on the same line but were as close as Lesley could get them for now. Smudged and grubby was a possibly useful elaboration on maculée. The word poetry was now in a different typeface to draw attention to its status as graffiti. A good deal of the original poem's force and pathos remained. It had a touch of Jacques Prévert in its clarity and purity of perception. 

Read in English, the poem has a good deal of sharpness and pathos. It might be that the details lost in the French would be more of a distraction than a help to the English version. I think it was Valéry who suggested that a poem was never finished only abandoned. How much truer that is of a translation! There are possible version in which turbans, Jammes and a maculate (or bespattered wall) might take their place.

But we beg to claim that the English poem is a poem, which might be the main thing. The translation is performing a poetic act in its new language. It sings and dances. It doesn't pretend to be Astaire. But it might be Donald O'Connor.

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