MEET UPS : May, July
PROJECT : to translate poems by Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, developing and expanding an existing sequence of “versions.”
PROGRESS REPORT APRIL
I’m making rather slow progress with Jaccottet – partly because I have been focusing on new material of my own (which was always the hope in “distracting” myself with translation) – but here are two recent translations that deal with the theme of time and light.
For the poet Pierre Delisle
This is how we lived, wearing our coat of leaves,
before it wore into holes and started falling apart.
Then the rain came, and fell without stopping,
scattering in the mud what little was left of the sun.
But no matter,
for soon all we’ll need is light.
Let’s keep the light at all costs. When our eyes no longer see, or see only phantoms, only shadows and memories, let sounds preserve its radiance in our hearing. And when our hearing fails, let our fingertips transmit it like a spark, like warmth. Let us believe, if we can, a being that’s invisible will fly from this body (this body we’d often like to ignore) as it grows ever colder, ever more fragile – that our familiar blackbirds and sparrows are merely its timid and restless reflections in this world.
And once the light of this world is folded away
who can stop us loving the invisible servant still
carefully attending to each fold of light?
Philippe Jaccottet was born in Switzerland in 1925 and has lived in France since 1953, publishing poetry, prose writings, notebooks and critical essays. He is also celebrated for his translations – in particular from German (Musil, Rilke, Mann and Hölderlin) but also of Homer, Plato, Ungaretti, Montale, Gongora and Mandelstam – and he has won a number of distinguished literary prizes.
Sadly, of course, I can’t claim to have “discovered” Jaccottet. He has already been fairly widely translated into English, by Derek Mahon and David Constantine among others, the most recent translation of his work, And, Nonetheless: Selected Poetry and Prose 1990-2009, appearing in 2011. But I have decided to pick up where I left off in 1995 after publishing sixteen versions of Jaccottet poems in Modern Poetry in Translation. These will be my versions of Jaccottet and with luck they may serve as a springboard for entirely new work – at a time when eighteen years of my life have finally been distilled into a second poetry collection and I’m casting around for new sources of inspiration.
As a translator of French, I’m often struck by how differently different nations think. The French can write pure abstraction which when translated – literally – into English will sound like so much hot air. Philippe Jaccottet’s poetry shares something of this abstraction, but it also seems to reflect a very real striving to move beyond the real empirical world of our senses and grasp the ungraspable, express the inexpressible. While my own poetry is firmly rooted in the physical – and in particular natural – world, I often feel that I am groping towards an understanding of what constitutes our real home, whether it’s located in the visible world, or actually somewhere else, somewhere just beyond what we can see and feel. I sense, whether rightly or wrongly, a similar preoccupation in Jaccottet’s work.
for Armin Lubin
The swifts turn in the upper air.
Higher still, stars are turning out of sight.
As day withdraws to the furthest reaches of the earth
the soft blackness burns with points of light.
We live in a world of movements
and distances, and the heart flies
from tree to bird, from bird to distant stars,
from star to love. And love grows. She turns and goes
about her work in the shuttered house, serving
her anxious masters, lamp in hand to light the dark.