Interview with Cynthia Hogue

Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Galais’s translation of Fortino Samano (Omnidawn Publishing), a collaboration between French poet Virginie Lalucq and philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, won the 2013 Academy of American Poets Landon Translation Prize. Hogue is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern in Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. Her eighth collection of poetry, Revenance, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in 2014. Hogue and Gallais (a professor of economics at Arizona State) will be doing a bi-lingual reading in Paris with Lalucq and Nancy in June 2014.

Claire McQueery: It was a real treat to attend a reading in November where I had the opportunity to hear you and Sylvain read together from Fortino Sámano in French and English. It seems particularly fitting that this translation, just as its original, is a work borne of collaboration. Could you describe your collaboration and the role you each played in the process of translation?

Cynthia Hogue: Thank you, Claire.  It was wonderful to hear your beautiful reading as well, and lovely to read together!  Our process was a little more pragmatic than collaborative, in the sense that my co-translator, my husband Sylvain Gallais, is an economist, not a poet, but obviously he’s a native French speaker, and also of the generation that was classically educated in French poetic tradition, so he has an incredible foundation in the genre (albeit not in experimental poetics!).  He did all of the trots, the literal translations from French.  At that point, I would begin to work with the rough translations and the original, trying to “feel” the poem emerging in English, in a translated version that I would then shape and polish.  That process took a long time, both to do the trots and the first completed versions in English, because it is quite a long and poetically dense book.  For much of the first three or four drafts, I’d say, we also had the opportunity to consult Virginie Lalucq (but never Jean-Luc Nancy), so our translation efforts began in collaboration with Lalucq herself as well (until her son, Sam, was born).

After each draft, Sylvain would go over it, make corrections, since I would often begin to veer away from the literal meaning in some of the word choices I made (begin to make it my poem rather than a translation, in other words).  He would pull me back, make alternative suggestions, brainstorm with me.  Once we’d conferred, I’d go back and work with the translations again.  We did this many times over three years, and toward the end, we went over everything together again, and then I revised a last time for publication.  By then, I knew the poem inside out.  The Icelandic translator Christopher Burawa spoke once about the point he reached, in his translations of the poetry of Jóhann Hjálmarsson, when it seemed to him that he had mind-melded with the poem, that he understood the original as deeply as if he had written it.  That description struck me, but I couldn’t imagine ever reaching that point.  And then, in the end, I did.

CM: That sense of being pulled in two directions—your impulse to make the poem your own and the sometimes conflicting demands of the translation—makes me think of an additional demand in this particular text. I was struck by how very difficult it must have been to translate not only an experimental poem, but also a close reading of that poem. Clearly there is much in the close reading of an original text that simply cannot be applied equally to its translation: attention to homophony, for instance (of which there is much more in French than in English), considerations of etymologies, that sort of thing. In approaching this challenge of accommodating the close reading, did you begin by translating the poem and then returning to re-work the elements that didn’t correspond to Nancy’s commentary, or did you work on the two sections (poem and commentary) simultaneously? Were there parts of the poem you would have translated differently were it not for the demands of the commentary?

CH: You describe the process very accurately!  I arrived at versions of the translations with which I was satisfied, in terms of how they were working as poetry in English, but then I would begin working with the Nancy section, and I would realize that I had not conveyed something about which he had commented in his section, that I had to revise everything.  His commentary was so precisely attentive to the lyric, prosodic qualities of Lalucq’s poems, the poetic valences of the prosody, that I would realize I’d be betraying the original if I didn’t go back and revise again, attending carefully to his explication of what Lalucq was up to.  It was very challenging, because there was also the cadence (if not meter in experimental poetry) that had to be conveyed.  To give just one example, very early on in the commentary Nancy writes (in our translation): “I notice that this [statement about the image in the poem] is said in an alexandrine: ‘The image tells us nothing about settling scores’ – right away, already, the cardinal meter of French poetry.  It is not by accident.  It is why the cut that follows says concisely ‘central.’”  The earlier translated version of the poem about which Nancy writes did not open with an alexandrine at all, and so, I had to go back and make sure that the line scanned correctly.  The line was more compressed in  earlier versions—what we call “economic”—but to be comprehensible in relation to Nancy’s explication of it, it absolutely had to adhere to the iambic hexameter of the classic French meter, the alexandrine.  There were many, many instances like this throughout the book, with Nancy’s commentary contemplating the prosody and very often playing with the meaning, for he is a poststructuralist philosopher trained by Jacques Derrida himself!  His section sent me back again and again, and taught me so much about Lalucq’s craft, the poem’s content working hand in hand with its form.

CM: Your translation often arrives at very elegant workarounds for those moments that simply have no direct correspondence in English. I think for instance of Nancy’s reading of the word “frost” (“gel”) in Lalucq’s poem. He discovers in that word an allusion to the frozen moment of the image and to the coldness of death, and then he continues to riff on the idea by saying “Fortino Sámano est refroidi,” an idiomatic expression that literally means Sámano has been “cooled down” but that translates to “killed”—we might say “bumped off.” You found a perfect solution to this colloquialism in the English idiom “iced”: “Fortino Sámano has been iced.” In fact, I think this expression may even work better in your translation than in the original because the word “ice” appears so frequently in Lalucq’s poem.

I’m wondering, though, if you could discuss some of the places where such a solution simply wasn’t available. Maybe, for instance, the passage where Lalucq writes “Tué / je vous tue / seul tutoiement possible,” punning on a verb that (because we don’t have the distinction between the formal and intimate second-person) doesn’t exist in English? How did you approach this obstacle or others like it? 

CH: Yes, the Scylla of “vous” and the Charybdis of “tu” for any translator of French!  We tried to find an analogous pun in English for a time, but there is simply no way to translate all the levels of Lalucq’s very witty puns, OR her thinking-through of the connotative differences between a formal and intimate form of second person address that has been lost in English.  Sylvain thought we should resurrect “Thou,” but I felt that would not have accomplished tonally anything even approximating the original.  We tried underlining or emphasizing “vous,” to indicate the difference in English (thus, You), but that was incoherent as a strategy.  For awhile, I added the Whitmanic “nigh” (as in “call you nigh”) to convey a sense of intimacy.  I liked that solution and kept it for a number of drafts.  Then we had the opportunity to consult Lalucq in person a last time in Paris, and that moment in her poem sequence was one of our questions. We asked which she preferred, an analogous pun (which would lose the meaning, but capture some of the wittiness) or a literal translation (which would lose the multivalenced punning, but convey the meaning adequately).  She said that whenever there was a question, she preferred that the meaning be translated literally, so that preference was our guide throughout all the ensuing revisions.  I shared our travails with my translation seminar this past semester, and it was interesting to see the effect on my students of a necessarily literal translation, because of course they could see how the poetry was lost! (Still, there was unexpected serendipity in the occurrence of consonance and slant rhyme.)

In contrast, Nancy did not have a poet’s relationship to his original, and was really very laissez-faire with us, so we felt free to explore more interpretive solutions to these inevitable moments of untranslatability.  Where his allusive, associative riffs and word-plays are performing as well as housing very complex poetic analysis—and where to convey the meaning it seems so essential to convey something of the mind’s thoughtful, responsive tracking of the poem—we tried to find parallels which closely detailed the ripple of lyric invention in philosophic language.   Just a brief illustration, which we discuss in our afterword, from an early passage in Nancy’s section that describes not the absent photographic image of Fortino Sámano, but Lalucq’s language, which replaces it:

 L’image absente, c’est le poème qui fait image en parlant : ainsi « léger liséré de sang » se voit en se lisant, en se disant, se voit littéralement allitéré dans un filet rouge soigneusement brodé. Virginie choisit l’orthographe avec deux accents aigus plutôt que « liseré » pour insister sur la minceur figée du filet carmin qui s’ensuivra.

English doesn’t use accents marks, and so it’s out of the question to translate “accents aigus” in any meaningful way for English readers.  Our parallel play does not in this instance translate the literal meaning, but it does convey the verbal attention Nancy gives to the text:

Absent the image, the poem will make an image in speaking: just as “light brim of blood” is seen when read, when said to oneself, seen literally alliterated in the carefully elaborated welling of red.  Virginie chooses wording that doubles blood’s plosive, insisting on the coagulating, carmine trickle to follow.

So, instead of two accents, we cast on two alliterating plosives (and happened upon the accidental homophony of read/red, which is not in the original).  It isn’t the same, but in arriving at this version, we tried to duplicate the effects of Nancy’s technical, textual attentiveness, the process as well as the product.

CM: Speaking of challenging passages, I’m particularly intrigued by a moment toward the end of the book where Nancy comments on Lalucq’s line about a buttercup field “que je / plastifie faute d’y croire” (which you’ve translated as “which I plastic-coat instead of believe in”). Nancy then reveals that there was a mistake, that Lalucq had meant to write “que je / plastique” not “plastifie,” but that she didn’t realize it until after Nancy had written his commentary. Could you explain how that slip was possible in French and how you dealt with it in translation?

CH: The slippage in French is more possible than in English, because the two words, vastly different in meaning, differ by only one letter in French—“plastiQue” and “plastiFie.”  The former means to explode, and the latter means to laminate.  To evoke the compression of that difference in the original is not really possibly in English, but when we happened upon the term “plastic explosives,” we saw a way to convey something of the essence.  In the original, thinking about “plastifie,” Nancy first writes about the plasticity of a word’s signification until meaning is assigned to it by usage.  When, upon reading his section, Lalucq realized her error, Nancy was delighted to incorporate a meditation on how errancy and slippage always accompany language’s usage.  Although Lalucq was rather embarrassed by her error (she asked us at one point to correct it), for Nancy, it was an occasion that perfectly illustrated how poetry itself eludes our attempts to contain it: “as if poetry weren’t a continual slippage,” the plasticity of the genre itself explodes any intention we bring to the work.

CM: I really love much of Nancy’s commentary on the poem—not just Lalucq’s poem, but poetry itself. He writes “I must understand that, in effect, the poem—and this is why it overflows—makes us speak more than it says” (127); the poem provokes a response. The poem is also always written in response to something, so there is a conversation. In this case, the conversation is one among the photograph, Lalucq’s poem, Nancy’s commentary, and of course the reader. How do you see translation entering into this conversation?

CH: Cole Swensen has remarked upon the appropriateness of a dialogue about the poem, which “overflowed” its generic confines into philosophical discourse, overflowing its linguistic confines as well, through the act of translation.  In fact, she uses that metaphor in her introduction to a special dossier feature on contemporary French poetry, published in Aufgabe (2011), to characterize the relationship of poetry to borders established by the genre of “poetry.”  I had forgotten that she had said that poetry itself in France is “overflowing its borders,” and that the active reciprocity of Franco-American translators allows “the French writing world to overflow and enter into an implicit discussion with American poetics.”  I think this use of the metaphor clarifies the transformative power that translation brings to Fortino Sámano, that it is in essence a supplement to the philosophical inquiry and read-over of the poem, which Nancy achieves in French.  Translation isn’t shifting the genre, but the very language and culture in which the work is received.

Like Lalucq’s poem itself, in Nancy’s reading of it, the translation also literally enacts more speech “than it says,” not least because of some of the solutions that a translator finds for the inevitable moments of untranslatability.  New significances coincidentally emerge, moreover, simply by virtue of the transference of meaning into English.  One example would be that moment in which we say in English “Fortino Sámano has been iced,” which you kindly characterize as working better in English than in the original.  That is precisely a moment, however, in which the poem “overflowed” its original borders into another language, making us translators, as Nancy might say,  produce more speech than the text says!

CM: I’m also interested by another claim Nancy makes in that same passage. He writes that “Language…deconstructs itself ‘floor/by/floor’ like the poem tumbling down its own scaffolding but then, at the same time, sharpening the flint that chips it (I want to say language) as much as shapes it” (127). I take this to mean that even as the language of the poem always deconstructs itself, the poem sharpens language as well. Is this how you read it? I’m wondering whether you think this notion about language could apply to the poem in translation as well? Can a French poem rendered in English “sharpen” our language for us?

CH: I think Nancy would agree with your brilliant insight!  I might have said that a French poem rendered in English changes our language for us, but your sense of it “sharpening” our language brings the process into, well, sharper relief.  You simply can’t say that the poem “changes” the chip that shapes it.  That doesn’t make much sense.  Sharpens, of course, acknowledges how ancient the art of poetry is, that its roots, its relationship to material medium, were forged in prehistoric times.

Translating this work has certainly sharpened any sense I had of how a poem’s language interacts with Language’s function!  A poem from any language translated into English freshens the language by estranging it from us, in the process remaking our relationship to English and how we use it—or, to honor Nancy’s vision of the poem deconstructing itself, how language uses us.  The act of translation must, by necessity, be a vigilant and hyper-aware process at every level of the poem (both in  the original and the target language), but the generic nature of the poem is that, as it eludes control, it sharpens the tool, which I take to mean our usage of language.  I agree that is a fascinating exchange in this dialogue between poetry and philosophy.

CM: You yourself are a poet. Has translating Fortino transformed your own poetry?

CH: Oh, yes!  That, of course, is the unexpected benefit of translating.  You are putting your creative skills in the service of bringing a work you respect, and then grow to adore (because you come to know it inside out, as I said earlier) into your own language, which, because you are a poet, you love.  As translators of most poetry, certainly experimental poetry, you are pretty much doing so because the work interests you, not because you expect anything in return.  Then, you discover the gift that gives rather than takes!  If you’re working with a living poet, as we were, you get to know her, you school yourself in her work and context in various ways, and slowly, bit by bit, you begin to realize that your world has been enlarged, that the language of the poem you’re translating has begun to shift your “voice,” to use that old shorthand.  I never tired of this poetic dialogue.  I found it fascinating, intellectually and poetically compelling, and translating it well compelling and challenging labor I loved doing.

Then to my surprise, I began to notice that a line from Fortino would come into one of my poems, not simply as an epigraph, but as an insight, also as a bit of language.  I was commissioned to write an ars poetica, for example, and as I was writing it, what pops in but Lalucq’s lines, “The poem/ is cerebral.  Its writing physical” (in our translation).   I began as well to experiment with more radical line breaks and typographic notations, as we find in Fortino and on which Nancy ruminates so beautifully: “The notation of syncopations, of cuts, of breath caught, of heaves.”  Now that the translation is out in the world, I’ve noticed that it isn’t overflowing quite as dramatically into my poems when I write, but in many ways, I think that is because I integrated the transformative process over the years into my writing and language.  I would definitely say that translation changed me and sharpened my language, so it has been interesting to start producing new work and see what that’s about.


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