On two translations of a few lines from Jaccottet

I’m very much enjoying The Yellow Buoy by the veteran New Zealand poet C. K. Stead. One little poem or section of a longer poem that leapt out at me was this from a translation of Jaccottet:

alive as running water
gone as quickly as
…….a quick glance
…….a cool kiss

That’s wonderfully alive with the movement of the reptile, of the water, of the poet’s mind. The lack of punctuation speeds everything up, makes you feel that the impression’s been caught and stabilised in all its transience and volatility. The idea of a cool kiss plays brilliantly against the menace of the viper.

It looks like a different poem in Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer’s translation, in their anthology Into the Deep Street:

Slow-worm brisk as a trickle of water,
vanishing quick as a wink,

Slow-worm with cool lips.

I have to say that that wouldn’t have made me sit up as Stead’s version does. The ending seems rhythmically inert, and “brisk” seems an oddly dead way of translating “vif” in this context.

If you look at the French, you can see that where Feldman and Romer have gone step by step, Stead has shaken everything up:

Orvet vif comme un filet d’eau,
plus vite dérobé qu’œillade,

orvet des lèvres fraîches.

Stead’s kiss extrapolates from both “lèvres fraîches” and “œillade” (in the sense of amorous glance) to bring out an idea that’s clearly there in the original. The way his whole poem is built round creating a sense of speed and elusiveness also recreates the nature of an oeillade in this sense (“regard furtif lancé pour marquer la tendresse ou la connivance amoureuse”).

In short, Stead has written a lovely little poem that in some ways shows how much better a radical approach to recreation can work than one which proceeds in a more pedestrian, point by point way. The abiding problem is that an “orvet” is not a viper but a slow-worm, so that at the same time as marvellously recreating the original in some ways, Stead has absolutely changed it in another. How much this matters I really don’t know. In theory, of course, all deviations from the original sense are betrayals of that original, but then all translation inevitably does involve deviation, not only because there’s no exact correspondence of meaning and association between words in different languages  but also because so much of poetic expression depends on the non-semantic qualities anyway. How much it matters in practice depends on the circumstances of the reader. I could say it doesn’t really matter to me if I have two beautiful, intimately related but different poems I can lay side by side, one in English and one in French. However, I still regret the slow-worm’s metamorphosis into a viper, if only because the English words come so much more alive for me than the French ones do. If I were a better reader of French perhaps I could simply enjoy Stead’s version as an inspired variation on Jaccottet’s poem, without feeling any hankering after a more faithful recreation.

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