Translations from the French and German by Alfred Corn


Alfred Corn

An Introduction to a Few Translations from Two Languages

I BEGAN TRANSLATING poetry in the early seventies as a poet in the (I suppose it was) apprentice phase. A common recommendation made in those years to beginners and to established poets was to expand their sense of poetry’s aims and scope by bringing poems from other traditions into English. I was able to comply because graduate study in French literature gave me a competency not only in French but also in Latin, Italian, and German. In later years I added Spanish and Greek to that list.

Naturally, the first poems I’d try to translate were in French. Since reading it in the Sixties, I had admired Valéry’s “La Dormeuse,” either because of its sound effects and suave rhythmic balance or because the situation described in the poem seemed stimulating: a poet gazes at his beloved while she sleeps. Valéry wasn’t alone in attributing a wide relevance to the subject. It had inspired an earlier poem of the same title by Pierre Louÿs, and I discovered a third by Jules Supervielle, the Uruguayan-French poet and novelist. Also, Jean Cocteau had written yet another. I determined to do versions of the Valéry poem, the Supervielle, and the Cocteau. (This last translation can be found in Mary Ann Caws’s The Yale Anthology of Twentieth Century Poetry.) Anyone stimulated by the question of why the “sleeping woman” theme was so prominent in French poetry a hundred years ago might begin y noting that twentieth-century art, because of Freudian theory, placed a very high value on the operation of the unconscious mind and that sleep is the readiest avenue to it. But of course the three poets each used a different angle of approach in their treatment, a difference that fascinated me.

I’ve done several translations of poems by Celan, one of them published in the collection Contradictions. Rilke’s are the only other German-language poems I’ve made, and I included some of these in earlier collections. If I chose to translate “Schneepart,” it’s partly because I saw a British version that didn’t seem quite good enough, at least, not to my American ears. Celan’s poems are almost all very short, which makes translating him easy in one way and hard in another. You don’t have many words to bring over, but those you do bear so much weight that translating them without dilution borders on the impossible. Admitting that the task is impossible, however, the translator forges ahead with it, partly out of a wish to understand a given poem better and partly out of sympathy with those readers who, without this intermediary, wouldn’t have any notion at all about the nature and content of the poem in question. For example, because I don’t know Russian, I’m grateful to those translators who have opened the door onto Mandelshtam’s, Akhmatova’s and Tsvetaeva’s “realms of gold,” modern equivalents to those that Keats mentions in his sonnet to Chapman’s Homer.

In the summer of 2002, I spent two weeks in Paris, where my friend Marilyn Hacker lives part of every year. Among the friends she introduced me to was Vénus Khoury-Gata, a Lebanese-born poet who lives in Paris permanently now and writes both novels and poetry in French. (Actually, we had met briefly before, at a French-language conference in Montreal in the late ’90s.) Marilyn has translated a volume of Khoury-Gata’s poetry — a selection, not a Complete Poems. Fascinated by what I’d read, I determined to tackle a few that Marilyn hadn’t done. In fact, by way of a thank-you note for a lunch Vénus invited me to, I sent off to her the two poems included here, which are from a sequence entitled Miroirs transis (Paralyzed mirrors) contained in her book Compassion des pierres (Compassion of stones).

There is always a difference between translation as performed by scholars and those realized by poets. It has become the custom now to title a poet’s translation “After Supervielle,” say, or “After Celan,” which allows us to sidestep copyright restrictions, true; but as well, witnesses to a general truth. Poet-translators take a freer approach than scholars do, altering the original poem in ways that make it read like a poem conceived in our language, by one of our contemporaries. It’s a delicate balance, involving an active imagination on behalf of the reader and a sharp awareness of current expectations concerning diction and form. I don’t say the changes that translators make are improvements, necessarily; but they do spare the translated poem from the horselaugh of dismissal. —Hudson, New York, March 21, 2008


Paul Valéry

Sleeping Woman

What smoldering secrets do youth and beauty keep,
Soul inhaling flowers through a silk mask?
From what light fare does native ardor ask
Fuel for the radiance of a woman’s sleep?

Sighs, dreams, silence; becalmed invincibly,
Peace more prevailed here than if she had wept,
Nor could swelling billows while she slept
Better protect so mild an enemy.

Sleeper, massed gold and shadowed indolence,
Tranquil abandon its own best defense,
Doe, forever couched near mounds of grapes,

If the sound is absent, summoned to Hades,
Your form, whose womb a fluid forearm drapes,
Is awake. Your form’s awake, and your lover sees.

(Translated from the French by Alfred Corn)


Jules Supervielle

Sleeping Woman

Since faces, when they close,
Have mute conversations,
Questions and negations,
Behind apparent repose;
And considering you are twin,
Forming a single view
With lovely use that you
Make both eyes times when
They softly fill with sand
In order to desert the land
Of heavy lids and tears;
And if they have their dawns,
Bright in these atmospheres,
See clouds or stare at stones,
Grasp a vine, or trees,
Tell me, who really sees?
Is it you with open eyes?
Or you, with lids shut tight?
You, who bask in our skies,
Or you plunged deep in night?

(Translated from the French by Alfred Corn)


Paul Celan


Snowland, treed, right to the last,
in an upward wind, before
the forever windowless

To skip flattened dreams
the corrugated ice;

quarry and stack them like wood
around the crampons
in the stream’s pothole.

(Translated from German by Alfred Corn)


Vénus Khoury-Ghata

(She flogs the trees…)

She flogs the trees so that she can see the shadow of a sun
trunks have been built up around her bed
as vertical as iron threads smelted in a furnace.

She shakes her body like a tablecloth to snap the silence out of it
her mouth filled with wood chips crammed
with sawdust curses the void between her hips
she writes a crimson letter to the storm blowing up in her blood
a gloomy letter to someone who took to the road without ever putting
the countryside in a
different order.

(Translated from the French by Alfred Corn)


Vénus Khoury-Ghata

(Words of compassion…)

Words of compassion pull away from houses in mourning when tears turn into ice
they go out from streetlamps and moths closing doors after them doors that have become                deaf
roots marching underground follow them as far as the dark gardens
feet under the ample skirts of young women strolling past are translucent
the rings gripping their fingers have become bark
these women spill disappointment into their pockets
their earrings clinking softly whenever they bend down to pick up a solacing message

(Translated from the French by Alfred Corn)